Friday, 1 October 2010

Stop Me if I've Told You This Before

One thing Britain manages so much better than Australia is letters to the editor. The supply of people prepared not only to put pen to paper but also to find an envelope and stamp and to pop down to the postbox appears to be far greater here than in our fair commonwealth. I suspect in daily life the majority of individuals who do this would be regarded as first class club bores (as we shall see, letterwriters love quoting their fathers, so I shall follow their lead and mention my father's story about someone in his club, unable to stand another moment of some bore's monologue, exclaiming, "That's right, tell me more, more, more about your boring bloody self." )

The letters that get printed all share a tone of swotty eagerness - me sir, please sir, choose me, oh sir. Generally, their subject matter falls into one of three categories.

In the first of these we find the namedroppers and show offs. The authors of these messages jostle forward like aspirants at the Antiques Roadshow, pathetically keen to display their hard-won snippets of arcane knowledge or their third-hand brushes with fame:

Sir - The mention of Sir Edward Elgar's interest in football (report, September 27) reminds me of a story told by my father.
A friend of his had been at Cheltenham Town Hall where Elgar was attending a rehearsal for a performance of his cello concerto. During a break, my father's friend went to the lavatory and found himself standing next to the composer.
He expected Elgar to make some profound comment on the idyllic music. But other things were on the great man's mind: "Do you know who won the 3.30 at Ascot?" he asked.
Roger Porteous, Owselbury, Hampshire.

Sir - G Barnes says that Mozart was not German but Austrian (letter, Sept 27), but was he? Salzburg only became part of Austria after the Napoleonic Wars, two decades after Mozart's death. In his day, it was an independent, German-speaking, Prince-bishopric. He may have moved to Vienna but then so did Beethoven, who is not considered Austrian, and, for that matter, Metternich, who is.
In Mitteleuropa, even now, German is as much a cultural and linguistic, as a national, descriptor. In these contexts, most Austrians are Germans.
Peter Urben, Kenilworth, Wales 

Sir - About 100 years ago, when dress code really was important (Letters, September 25), David Lloyd George was due as a guest of honour at The Savoy Hotel and was greeted by my father, who was maitre d'hotel.
The look on my father's face must have said it all, for Lloyd George, despite being dressed in a smart morning frock coat, apologised for his lack of evening dress.
The crisis was averted when he was seated at a table with a screen hiding him on three sides. I've often wondered if more recent prime ministers would have succumbed to such treatment.
Charles Mutty, Poringland, Norfolk

Sir - Sir Peter Westmacott, the British Ambassador to France, shows good taste in serving cremant rather than champagne (report, September 27). The latter is mainly wasted by racing drivers.
Cremant de Saumur is drunk by the elite regiments of the French cavalry, which are based in that splendid town. However, I would advise Sir Peter not to stock too much. It is undrinkable after five years.
Simon Waters, Guiting Power, Gloucestershire

Sir, I could not disagree more with Belinda Price (letter, Sept 28). I would be highly affronted if my half pint were to be served in a bowl-shaped glass. Real ale should be drunk from a pint (or half-pint) glass, or, better still, from a traditional glass tankard with a handle. Bowl glasses or goblets are for Belgian beers and lagers.
Kay Bagon, Radlett, Herts

In the second category are those who, unable to get anyone they actually know to laugh at their feeble jokes, decide they might have more success if they hurl them before the readers of the country's daily newspapers:

Sir - A young woman wishing to alight from the train asked me if the next station was "like Sevenoaks".
I was pleased to be able to inform her that it was in fact Sevenoaks itself.
Teddy Shorter
Tonbridge Kent

Finally, there are the pettyminded malcontents, who appear to spend their lives in a perpetual state of outrage:

Sir - If Ed Milliband cannot find the time to marry the mother of his children (report September 27), how is he going to find the time to be Leader of the Opposition, let alone the prime minister?
Caroline Barr, Wenlock, Shropshire

Sir, In my local supermarket recently I noticed that the raspberries were grown in Fife and were labeled “Scottish raspberries”, while the blackberries were grown in Kent and were labeled “British blackberries”.
Why is Kent considered to be British rather than English? I am fed up with being called British, as I consider myself to be English. Can you imagine a rugby game at Murrayfield with Union flags waved by Scottish supporters?
Maggie Osborne, Thakeham, West Sussex

A few years ago in the Sydney Morning Herald a heated exchange developed after a gentleman called Eddie Raggett took it upon himself to criticise the nation's capital ("That's right, Eddie Raggett" one unhinged Canberra resident responded, "you go ahead and bag Canberra. We all know it's the best place in the world to live [this claim never fails to bring a smile to my lips - not that I don't like Canberra, but steady on, old boy], and the fewer people that come here, the more there is for us"), but generally speaking there is very little to amuse in the letters column of newspapers at home. The desperate desire for recognition, the petty minded snobbery, the hopeless attempts at comedy displayed in the equivalent sections of British publications are all things we can aspire to, while acknowledging that in reality we can never hope to rival them at all.


  1. Oh I love these. More please!

  2. The letters pages of regional newspapers always used to make me smile. Less so these days as the emphasis tends to be on "leave your comments on our website," which tends to be a less fertile ground for fun.

  3. Nurse, I shall do my best
    Kevin, comments on websites seem to get vicious quite quickly; I prefer the innocent pomposity of the letterwriters any day.

  4. I think the petty minded malcontents win out downunder... For HEAVEN's sake, I find myself often muttering, except that these days I barely look at the paper. A couple of hours of Radio National in the am is good enough for me.

  5. Whispering - I find you have to pick your couple of hours with Radio National pretty carefully - it often acts as a soporific on me (the National Interest is it, after the current affairs prog in the morning, does not live up to its name, at least to my ears. And somehow I'm always driving home from my mother's when Awaye is on - extremely worthy, I know, but not riveting)

  6. Radio National does have quite a good current affairs programme in the early evening.

  7. Mark - oh yes, Australia Talks with Paul BarCLAY, required listening, I forgot

  8. LOL zmkc, it does vary. I'm usually half attending - doing my yoga, pottering away on my laptop, and listening out for things of interest.