I HAD something in The Guardian yesterday; sadly, it was only a reader’s letter. My attempts as a freelance to penetrate the curls of barbed wire surrounding that newspaper’s editorial department remain otherwise unsuccessful.
Whatever possessed me to write a letter to a newspaper? As a former letters editor, you’d think I would know better.
As it happens, that was the second letter I have written to a newspaper, and probably the last. I’ll tell you about the first in a moment, as there is a tale attached.
In the Guardian magazine, a highlight of my week, there is a humorous item called Modern Tribes, by Catherine Bennett; well, I say humorous but it doesn’t always make me laugh. Last week’s modern stereotype was the Airbnb host, and Bennett’s pen was scathing as she summoned up a scuzzy host on the make.
I fired off a quick email pointing out that when I read the item I had just finished cleaning the house for the third time in a week, in readiness for a guest. And there it was in the magazine, slightly edited, but that’s letters editors for you. A sort of revenge perhaps for all the words I used to hack out of other people’s letters.
That job was dumped on me when a colleague, who had himself been lumbered with the task, grew weary of it. I wasn’t pleased but ended up enjoying the task. It has to be said that letters pages sometimes attract the more eccentric readers, and there were a few of those. One of them is still at it and managed to slip a homophobic rant into my old letters page recently. The editor later apologised.
Of all the letter writers of York, the greatest was Margaret Lawson, now long gone, but properly witty, and with a sharp nib to her pen. Such characters make a letters page, although sometimes they do rather take over. And other letter writers complain about their rivals appearing too often. What a bunch letter writers are. Some are cantankerous, some mean-minded; others are generous and amusing; and some bore the tiles off your roof with their one-track obsessions.
But I quite liked them all in the end, although editing letters isn’t as much fun as writing something yourself.
Somewhere in this house, and I couldn’t say where, there is a tin containing assorted letters, maybe a love letter or two. In that tin there is also a letter to me from the novelist VS Naipaul, whose finest work was A House For Mr Biswas, a novel I should read again one day.
We studied Joseph Conrad’s A Secret Agent for A-level and one day Naipaul wrote an article in a newspaper, the Sunday Times I think, about Conrad in which he made a basic error. Snotty young sixth-former that I was, I wrote a letter to the newspaper.
The Times didn’t publish that letter, but they did forward it to Naipaul, who kindly wrote to say that I was quite right. He also said the article was based on an academic paper he’d read to a group of Conrad scholars – and none of them had noticed the error.
I can’t even remember what the mistake was now, but it fired me up. Naipaul was courteous in his reply, although in older age he is said to have become crankier and prone to feuds.
Two letters to the editor are enough for a lifetime, I think. Although when I was out running this morning, I saw that the thoughtless morons among us had scattered an awful lot of litter on a pleasant road leading to the ring-road. Really some people. Dear Sir….