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Showing posts with label marlborough college. Show all posts
Showing posts with label marlborough college. Show all posts

Saturday 30 March 2024

My Life in Letters Then and Emails Now


From the published volume of letters A Private Spy (2022) it’s clear that John le Carré was good at keeping up with his correspondence. In his case, it’s not obvious that he was writing for posterity; he often kept no copies. ( See the Review on this site 1 November 2022)/  He may have been following a habit established in many childhoods of the past where in addition to dutiful Thank You letters there might be absent parents to whom regular and often anxious letters would be addressed.

Le Carré, who was never less than very busy, often replied to complete strangers and not just by sending best wishes and the autograph which might be hoped for. But this was not eccentricity; there was a time when anyone could, for the price of a postage stamp, write to anyone - even a famous writer - and reasonably hope for some kind of reply. The Collected Letters of some authors are numbered in thousands - ten thousand and counting in the case of Henry James.


In 1963 John Dancy, the Master of Marlborough College, published The Public Schools and the Future. I read it and wrote to tell him that as far as this sixteen-year-old grammar school boy was concerned, they had no future. I got a nice reply inviting me and three or four school friends to stay at Marlborough for a week and, in exchange, accept a return visit to our school from some of his boys, accommodation to be provided in our homes. Talk to my own Headmaster and deal done. As a result, one unfortunate Marlborough boy had to pass a week without a bath, hot water, and with use only of an outside toilet.

This positive reinforcement to a letter-writing habit was not the first I had received. As a youthful stamp collector I wrote to The Postmaster, The Maldive Islands (perfectly adequate address) asking for information about that country but, of course, hoping for a reply franked with collectible local stamps. The Maldives were not then a tourist destination and mail was scarce. I got the stamps on the outside and inside the large envelope a locally-printed booklet giving me more information than the Britannica could supply. I still remember one detail: the Maldivian government had recently welcomed its newest and most youthful cabinet minister; he was sixteen.

Just turned seventeen, and thanks to a Your Holiday This Summer address provided in The Daily Mail, I travelled (train, boat, train) to the Swedish province of Dalarna for a post-A level summer job in the Hotel Siljansborg – now demolished – where Ingmar Bergman had sometimes retreated to write screenplays. I didn’t know that and didn’t make a connection to the wild strawberries I ate on walks by Lake Siljan. I was just curious that they were called smultron but regular strawberries jordgubbar.

With a track record of epistolary success I found it easy enough to take on the task, allotted to university club secretaries, of writing to prospective visiting speakers and passing on resolutions carried to those they were carried against. And so it has continued for most of my life.

In the examples given, I profiled myself in some minimal way: grammar school boy, stamp collector, club secretary.  The pitch I made to Miss Arpi for a job in her hotel did also include a brief To Whom It May Concern reference from my school, which I reckoned necessary. But, realistically, none of the letters’ recipients could have sought further credentials and would not have attempted it. Where might they look? Who’s Who? The telephone directory?  Readers had to take on trust that you were who you said you were and that you were writing for a reason. That had to be enough and, if satisfied, you replied. Fröken Arpi employed me because I wrote to her and asked for work. She didn’t even see a photograph.


A world like that no longer exists.

Some of the 1960s club secretary correspondence is now housed among the John Johnson collections of the Bodleian Library. But when in the 1970s I deposited the first batch of this and other hard copy material, unsorted in boxes and carrier bags, it never occurred to me that one day in 2023 I would sit at a computer screen and scroll through forty-seven open access pages which inventory the contents of twenty-one organised boxes.  I’m not even sure it’s an outcome I would have wanted; it seems rather indiscreet. I had imagined an archive gathering the dust of discretion and awaiting its chance discoverer.

To state the obvious, teenagers no longer pen letters; they write emails and so does almost everyone. And email recipients can easily check credentials before replying and many do:  Who are you (or, perhaps, Who do you think you are?). Are you on Facebook, X, LinkedIn,, ResearchGate, Tinder? Quite aside from the contents of an online Profile, those locations have their own status rankings as do obsessively informative university directories.

What do you look like? Do you have a dog? Are you transphobic? Do you have a doctorate? Are you on editorial boards? The answers to a myriad of possible questions are there on the internet and create the human algorithm which determines whether a reply is sent. The original email could be a literary masterpiece (grant that hypothesis …) but that is nothing compared to a shiny CV polished only yesterday.

In the search for credentials, email recipients may forget one thing. They often leave a trace and the email sender will be aware that you have read the CV and, indeed, very shortly after receiving the email to which you do (or don’t) reply. You can’t have been that busy. Seems like you were sitting at your desk anxiously waiting for the World to contact you, then disappointed to find that it is only a namesake of that famous person who has written.

Such eager profiling could be a sensible attempt to avoid wasting time on a time-waster. But in both literary and academic contexts it may just be an index of status anxiety. Those are contexts where too many people are chasing not enough (insecure, poorly paid) jobs. In that kind of world, you reply to an email from someone of higher status or who might help your career, but don’t reply to someone who clearly can’t, for whatever reason, and who can’t be quantified under “public engagement”. No one puts on their CV, “replied to eighty-seven unsolicited emails from the great unwashed”.

John le Carré found enough time to engage with the public as individuals, sometimes over a couple of handwritten pages. He also went on the open-to-all, non-virtual stage. I listened to him shortly before his death in a packed Royal Festival Hall where he spoke for an hour, standing erect; what he said had substance and style. And, in the end, what matters is substance and style, not the template-driven Profile, which like most people I now feel obliged to offer..