The wonderful, vanishing world of the handwritten letter

The people in your postbag as a newspaper columnist could not be more different from those who comment online

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

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.

A handful of my correspondents were famous: I was once thrilled to receive a letter from Geoffrey Boycott (it was very rude) and entered into a long and enjoyable exchange with the thriller writer Freddie Forsyth, who holds no-nonsense political opinions. There were more than a few genuine eccentrics amongst my letter-writers, and widely varying views were expressed, often strongly.

But all shared a fundamental decency, and a moral centre the loss of which, in contemporary politics and business, they greatly lamented. A man who had qualified as a chartered accountant in the 1960s wrote, ‘At that time, everybody was obliged to act in Good Faith, with the exception of Lloyds of London which was obliged to act with the Utmost Good Faith.’

The expenses scandal, the phone-hacking scandal, a whole series of banking scandals all inspired stacks of letters. I don’t think MPs ever fully understood the indignation inspired by the expenses scandal, nor the shocked incomprehension when they protested that they had done nothing wrong.

Along with outrage was bewilderment. One man wrote, ‘For the past few years, I’ve been thinking that the country I was brought up in had been an illusion.’ He felt special horror at the series of assaults on the British justice system that began under Tony Blair and continues to this day. He said that his father (‘a man of rudimentary education’) enlisted two months before war was declared on Germany because he was appalled to hear that people were being imprisoned without trial: ‘Of course much worse was going on that we didn’t know about, but it was this simple fact that assured him he was fighting on the right side.’

Another correspondent remarked that, ‘Until recently Chiefs of Staff were military heads of the Services. Now every twerp of a minister seems to have an equally twerpish Chief of Staff. What staffs are they chief of? The typing pool?’

A piece I wrote opposing a state funeral for Lady Thatcher inspired a number of letters, not one in favour. Many of them deplored her divisiveness, the laying waste of industry and communities, the encouragement of individualism and greed. Perhaps the most eloquent of these correspondents wrote, ‘It is very depressing that the Cameron government should be prepared to imperil the conventional political neutrality of the Crown in this way. Furthermore, as you say, what about Attlee? There is a grainy old black-and-white film of a party political broadcast made by Attlee in (I think) 1951. He is asked why members of the middle class should vote Labour. He simply answers “because it is the right thing to do”. I am not a socialist, but that nobility of spirit brought tears to my eyes.’

I can’t help comparing these handwritten letters to the comments that readers now place at the bottom of online articles. Raucous, angry and semi-literate, the prevailing tone of a great deal of the online conversation is essentially barbarous.

By contrast, a common thread ran through so many of the letters I received: a lament for the loss of the ideals of public service, duty, modesty, and that ‘grudging altruism’ Orwell identified as British decency. If the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these admirable people absorb even a small portion of their character and wit, the future might be brighter than we think.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Peter Oborne is an associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • davidofkent

    ‘ He simply answers “because it is the right thing to do”. I am not a socialist, but that nobility of spirit brought tears to my eyes.’

    Whenever Gordon Brown went on one of his wealth-destroying tax, spending or welfare binges, he always told us that ‘it was the right thing to do’. I’m afraid that expression simply fills me with disgust now.

    • Sue Smith

      Yes, it’s an unctuous sort of expression which means “you need to give YOUR money to other people, and it is their right”. Pass me the bucket when you’ve finished with it!!!!!!!!!!

      • Frederick Robinson

        It is a phrase I associate more with the present Prime Minister, his Chancellor, and his party than with almost anyone else.

    • UKSteve

      “We’re all in it together.”

    • Damaris Tighe

      That was my first reaction (although I thought more of Cameron than Brown). An example of a noble sentiment utterly destroyed by our evasive political class, both left & right.

  • Chris

    There’s a lot to be said for even a minimal barrier to entry raising standards of behaviour and conduct (“No trainers. No baseball caps. No hoodies.” springs to mind). I suppose the thought and effort one had to invest in a hand-written letter was a self-selecting example of the same.

    However, the argument that modern internet conversations are “Raucous, angry and semi-literate, the prevailing tone […] essentially barbarous.” smacks of what self-righteous lefties nowadays call ‘tone policing’: “I won’t listen to what you say simply because I don’t like the way you phrased it.” Prissy, schoolmarmish and prone to vapours over nuance seems to me the very antithesis of the gentlemen Mr Oborne eulogises above.

    Sometimes a blunt – and occasionally Anglo-Saxon – response is the right one.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      When complaining to customer services or seeking compensation, Aways write a letter. Always.

    • Frederick Robinson

      ‘Chris’ – you exemplify admirably the faults you decry.

  • Lord of the Manor of Tyburn

    When my lawyers put their fountain pens to thick letter head all laughter usually stops in an instant.

  • Frederick Robinson

    An excellent, wide-ranging, if slightly self-indulgently elegaic article by the increasingly admirable Mr Oborne. Though to compare a hand-written letter with blog Comments is like comparing a (potentially) formal speech with a live conversation or discussion. I am reminded of hearing Mr Oborne in group-discussion/debate on Radio 4. Sparky, mutually-rude and -interrupting, occasionally bad-tempered and frustrating to participants and listener(s) alike.

  • UKSteve

    “I can’t help comparing these handwritten letters to the comments that
    readers now place at the bottom of online articles. Raucous, angry and
    semi-literate, the prevailing tone of a great deal of the online
    conversation is essentially barbarous.”

    Absolutely. And it comes from both Left and Right, but the level of ignorance – generally – is staggering.

    • tartan pimpernel

      It’s the bad grammar that I find most irritating. He’s right about the semi-literate.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Well I for one am sticking up for the raucous, the angry, the semi-literate and the barbarous. Simply because they lack the advantage of basic schooling does not disqualify them from the human race.

    To paraphrase The Grumpy Old Bookman reviewing Prof. John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses:

    “You see how the thinking goes? I am not one of the masses. I am someone special. I am an intellectual – one of the elite. Therefore my emotional responses, obviously, are far more sensitive and subtle than those of my cleaning lady.”

    Quite often comments below the line are more interesting, informative, knowledgeable and funny than the article above.

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  • RedMiner

    No doubt Peter Oborne regrets people like me clogging up his inbox with our barbarous commentary, all rain swept open terraces and keg bitter; no Latin to speak of, no Greek to mention.

    Such is the democracy of the internet that we great unwashed suddenly found the range of our stink extending beyond the local slag heaps and across county boundaries as far as Little Piddling and other well trimmed vistas beloved of Oborne’s type of idiosyncratic leg spin.

    Still, I ask him again, in all sincerity, why does his Tory Party inflict such inhumanity on the poorest and most vulnerable of our number? Why does it hate the poor so?

    Nothing could benefit Britain and the English speaking peoples more than the summary extinction of this barbarous party, currently reintroducing hunger to its backstreets on the orders of that one man toxic event, Iain Duncan Smith, much admired by Oborne in his ignorance of poverty.

    What is online commentary in the shadow of such iniquity?

  • Hegelman

    One of the most moving pieces I have ever seen in British journalism.

    Hats off, Peter !

    • MacGuffin

      It was RUBBISH!!!!

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  • RedMiner

    Just to add, I do think you have a point in regard to the tone of online comments, a situation worsened by the current vogue for low rank celebrities hired for the sole task of making increasingly despicable comments and generating outrage.

    The problem with your correspondence being limited to ‘mostly Conservative’ and cultured gentlemen well briefed in eccentricity and tobacco is that you’re likely to end up with an opinion on, say, poverty, informed either by like-minded people or the highly distorted media. I say this in your defence, for I can’t think of any other reason why Peter Oborne, a man I have respected for many years as a decent and intelligent journalist, can have any truck with that wretched man, Iain Duncan Smith.

    Only ignorance to the hunger and despair can explain the indulgence for, at best, misguided and disastrous policies, and at worst, deliberate malicious impoverishment. I would never have believed I would live to see a coroner effectively returning a verdict of starvation in the decent country that I grew up in.

    And I can provide links if you doubt the veracity of such seemingly extreme claims

  • Des Demona

    Have you seen the price of a first class stamp! It would be cheaper getting a bus and delivering a letter yourself.

    • sally190

      Cheaper to catch a bus ? You must be over sixty.

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  • Jonathan van kuijk

    I want to agree but as an online commenter who does not write letters I fear I cannot do so without hypocrisy.

  • TexasThicket

    “The old order changeth yielding place to new” and the new order has created an entirely now segment to the economy. Billions of every currency go into the electronic devices, fees to operate those devices and worldwide payrolls.

    Eloquent prose has given away to brief paragraphs and often a scalding 140 character on Twitter. Handwriting ran the gamut from illegible to beautiful swirls and curls that may have been beautiful and often barely legible. Now it’s touch screens and autocorrect or autocomplete giving “voice” to people who would never be heard otherwise.

    How else would one from a rural and isolated place in the Big Thicket of East Texas even know of Peter Osborne or the Spectator, much less comment on his article?