Tinkety Tonk Old Fruit& Down with the Nazis! SOCIAL HISTORY

Article excerpt

Byline: MARCUS BERKMANN

TO THE LETTER

by Simon Garfield (Canongate [pounds sterling]16.99 [pounds sterling]14.99)

FIFTEEN years ago, I wrote in an allegedly humorous sports column that most Manchester United supporters didn't actually have any geographic or familial connection with the club, but just supported them because they won all the time.

Within a week, I had received 300 letters from furious Man United supporters. About a third of them, for some reason, came from Portsmouth. And the two who agreed with me were also the only ones sent from Manchester.

But no matter. It's the 300-ness of this postbag that now takes my breath away. These days, many of us would consider ourselves fortunate if we got half a dozen proper letters in a year.

Because much as we might wish otherwise, texting and emails have pretty much done for letter writing. A means of communication that flourished for 2,000 years has all but vanished in less than a generation.

For as long as there has been writing, there have been letters: business letters, love letters, good news, bad news, news of state, of family, of friends.

But as Simon Garfield is quick to point out, very few of these letters have been written with posterity in mind. It's their very ephemerality, even triviality, that makes them so valuable, as they give us a clear and genuine glimpse into times long gone.

For example, the only eyewitness account we have to the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 is a letter Pliny the Younger wrote to Tacitus 20 years later.

'You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognise them by their voices.' Pliny was some miles away, which is how he survived, but it's an amazingly powerful piece of prose nonetheless. And yet he finishes the letter by saying: 'Of course these details are not important enough for history,' little knowing that they are the only history we have, 'preserving in words what the volcano preserved beneath ash', as Garfield puts it.

After Rome fell, no surviving letters were written for nearly 1,000 years that weren't about religion. …