A Letter To...

Entry by: Paul McDermott

1st May 2015
“Take a letter, Miss Jones.”
For me at least, this cliché-ed line will forever be associated with ancient black-and-white Ealing comedies on rainy Sunday afternoons when there were but two TV channels and the only alternative entertainment was Two-Way Family Favourites on BBC (probably played on a radio powered by a glass demijohn filled with battery acid).
As a literal-minded child I sometimes asked myself which letter of the alphabet Miss Jones was expected to take, and who (or whom) she was expected to take it to – or why the local postie couldn't take it in his bulging sack. Curiously enough, the fact that the weekday was without question the Sabbath never bothered me. We were being entertained (whether by radio or television) on a Sunday, so the actors, radio presenters, producers and news readers must have had special dispensation from either God or their Parish Priest to work on this special Day of Rest … mustn't they? Those were truly the days of innocence when a seven-year-old could still 'suspend disbelief' without hesitating and imitate the Queen of Hearts who told Alice that she could quite easily “believe six impossible things before breakfast”.
Personally, I enjoy writing letters. Even as a child watching such films I could never understand why the Boss/manager/bank director in the above scene would wish to deny himself the pleasure of sitting and writing the letter himself. Why should the (invariably mousy, bespectacled, skeleton-thin) secretary have all the fun? Or (perish the thought!) could it be that The Boss was in reality a stereotypical, ignorant boor, incapable of formulating a grammatical letter (carefully calligraphed and containing impeccable spelling) without the intervention of his overworked and underpaid office slave?
Writing a letter can be a cathartic exercise, especially if one is truly incensed about an event which has been highlighted in the news media, locally or nationally. Even if your “Disgusted of Romford” diatribe is not included in the local newspaper's “Letters to the Editor” column, the fact that you have written it (and the certain knowledge that someone along the chain of command has actually read it) is guaranteed to ease your troubled mind. There is also the indescribable fillip of satisfaction which follows when your missive is accepted and published, and the comments (complimentary or otherwise) of friends and family who see the printed word and are prompted to discuss it further.
I can allow myself to specify “when [ …] accepted” because I have a bulging scrapbook containing letters I have written which have been published in a variety of newspapers: very few of my attempts have fallen on deaf ears over the years!
Conventions have changed with the passing of time. This is inevitable, of course. Every language is in a constant state of Newtonian flux: evolve, or die is as true for living languages as it once was for the doomed dinosaur. We are no longer hidebound by a rigid formality which insists we observe rules such as “Dear Sir … Yours Sincerely” BUT “Dear Miss Jones … Your Faithfully” but there are a range of subtle stylistic skills which can make your letter more memorable, a genuine pleasure for the recipient to read.
Greetings and Closures are an obvious example. These (possibly more than any other aspect of letter writing) have taken a horrendous beating from the advent of electronic mailing, and in particular the anathæma which conceals its ugly visage behind the term “txtspk” [textspeak]

Y zit OK 2 msg ur m8 Uzin txtspk …

… when you could be using one of the richest, most eloquent languages in the civilized world to tell them what a wonderful person they are, and why you feel yourself honoured beyond all possible measure to acknowledge them as a dear and valued friend?
In recent years the Post Office has clearly been encouraging people to use e-mail rather than traditional surface mail. How else can you explain the frequent (upward) “adjustments” in postal charges, which far outstrip any connection with the rate of Inflation? As a direct consequence, people have become indolent, slothful and careless in the Use of English, an examination which was once part of the National Curriculum and taken by everyone who stayed on in school for Sixth Form and sat GCE “A” Level exams. Now we have a situation in which many of our Universities have found it necessary to include Remedial Reading 'crash courses' for their first year intake students. O tempora! O mores! Or for the benefit of the linguistically challenged, this Latin phrase may be (loosely) translated as “What dreadful times we live in!"