Magazine article The Spectator

The Wonder of Handwritten Letters

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wonder of Handwritten Letters

Article excerpt

In praise of the old-fashioned letter-writer

Those who write letters and send them by post are a dying breed. I was fortunate to have served as a newspaper columnist and received a great many. Often eloquent, sometimes humorous, their breadth and depth of experience was wonderful.

With the exception of letters that were racist or completely mad, I tried to answer every one of them. If a reader took the trouble to write to me, it was the least I could do to send him or her a personal reply.

There was the occasional correspondent from London, but most lived in the country or in provincial towns or cities. Most were Conservatives and many were lifelong readers of the Daily Telegraph . They included vicars and solicitors, art collectors and surveyors, teachers, doctors, military men, a former staff superintendent in the House of Lords (very knowledgeable), office workers and small business owners, university lecturers and engineers (what an immensely rational breed, engineers: they offered clear and very simple solutions, often with bullet points, to knotty problems).

A manufacturer of rivets sent me a comic novel he'd written about working for the EU (and very amusing it was); another man sent me a book based on journal entries and letters between his grandparents, father and uncles, during the second world war: it was a beautiful, understated record of quiet courage, duty and service.

Cricket fans were well-represented, and a delightful bunch they are. A woman whose uncle had been at Eton with Test Match Special 's Brian Johnston had enjoyed his company at countless weekends with the family: 'As well as making us all laugh so much, he was incredibly kind.'

Another reader helped me solve the mystery of Abdul Kardar's whereabouts in the Oxford long vacation of 1947. He disclosed that the future Pakistan cricket captain played for Hawarden Cricket Club, enclosing a few photocopied pages of a history of the club (written by the reader's father).

Smokers and drinkers were also well-represented and any piece touching on either of these pastimes would inspire a batch of letters. A retired colonel, aged 91, told me that he 'was brought up to smoke and indeed trained to see it as a social attribute. Many things could have been more traumatic during our war if we had not been able to smoke.' He suggested that post-traumatic stress might be less common nowadays if smoking was still encouraged.

Another nonagenarian wrote from Zimbabwe to say that, by his reckoning, he had smoked some 950,000 cigarettes and had enjoyed each and every one of them immensely. (However, a lieutenant colonel compared me to 'a left-winger whingeing about his human rights' when I deplored the ban on smoking in pubs.)

Many of my correspondents were men and women who had lived for years in the outposts of empire: Palestine, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Zimbabwe. Their often extensive knowledge of these places was suffused with love and respect for the people and cultures they had known and experienced.

A vicar (whose daughter was producing Euripides' Trojan Women with Syrian refugees in Jordan) sent me a copy of an astute and knowledgeable letter he had written to William Hague after a sabbatical studying minorities in Assad's Syria. He'd received no reply. What a pity that special advisers and lobbyists have the ear of ministers, while such as he do not. …

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