I sort through the tin of letters, looking for the apology from the man who went on the win the Nobel prize for literature. These letters are old as no one writes letters nowadays, least of all me.
Then I spot the envelope, with its round franking mark: “SALISBURY WILTS, 7.15PM 14 NOV 1974.” The pale blue stamp cost the writer four-and-a-half pence. My name and address are written in thin black ink.
The letter inside the envelope is headed “105 Great Russell St, WC1” and it begins “You are absolutely right…”
Aged 18, I had written a snooty letter to The Sunday Times. This was in response to an article by the novelist VS Naipaul about Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent, which was on the A-level syllabus.
There was a mistake in the article, an error that escapes me now. It was a confusion of some sort over characters in the novel.
I am trying to read the letter two days after the death of the man who wrote it. The article in The Sunday Times must have been reprinted from elsewhere, because Naipaul writes: “I have already admitted the error – unforgivable, I think – in the American magazine which printed the article.”
Naipaul continues: “It is of course pointless now to explain why the error occurred…”
The handwriting is a little difficult to read, so Naipaul’s explanation of how he made the mistake is lost to me.
It is possible to make out what Naipaul is saying at the end of the letter, but perhaps retrospective vanity has sharpened my eyesight. “The paper was read to an assembly of Conrad scholars at Canterbury – not one pointed out the error then. If they had been as sharp as yourself, the error might have been corrected before it went into print.”
The Secret Agent, which was televised by the BBC not long ago, was Conrad’s delayed response to the accidental death in 1894 of Martial Bourdin, who was fatally injured while carrying a bomb across Greenwich Park. This incident became known as the Greenwich Mystery.
Sir VS Naipaul died at home in London last Saturday, after reading a poem by Lord Tennyson with the incoming editor of the Daily Mail, Geordie Greig. The two had been friends for 20 years, and Greig told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend on Sunday that he rushed to be with the writer after a call from his wife, Lady Nadira.
Ten years or so after receiving that letter from Naipaul, I was working on the South East London Mercury where – as reported earlier – Geordie Greig turned up as a trainee, arriving in Deptford via Eton and Oxford.
Naipaul came from less elevated circumstances. He was born in Trinidad and, according to the introduction to his obit in the Guardian, “won both acclaim and disdain for his caustic portrayals, in novels and non-fiction, of the legacy of colonialism”.
The novel that made his name was A House For Mr Biswas, the funny and malicious story of a man who claws himself out of poverty, fighting members of his own family at every turn. I loved that book and have read others, although they are misty now, whereas Mr Biswas still resonates.
Reviewing A House for Mr Biswas for the Observer in 1961, Colin MacInnes hailed a writer whose voice “even when scornful or ironical, can be as tender, just, kind, delicate, filled with unassuming pity”.
It is time to seek out those novels again. Time, too, to return the letter from VS Naipaul to the old tin full of letters from university friends, two now dead, and notes from girls I no longer remember. Although there is one from Heather, and she does stir a glimmer.
Putting the apology back in the tin makes me feel sad for a lost voice, and sad too for all the letters I no longer write or receive.
There was something to be said for a letter.