Letters meant and sent

FAR be it from me to speak with immodest enthusiasm about the letters I write. People seem pleased enough to receive them, and even if encomiums are few, I'm happy to leave their literary, informational, or other value to the judgment, expressed or unexpressed, of the recipients. But the letters I don't write are another matter. They are -- well -- brilliant. They are also witty, wise, charming, erudite, courageous, and convincing. They may be packed with information no one has heard of before, and with extraordinarily perceptive comment. Some of them are screamingly funny.

People stop me in the street and remark on my latest letter to the Times. ``Just what I thought myself,'' they say, ``only better expressed than I could have done.'' ``I laughed till the tears ran down my face,'' is another frequent observation. ``I never realized that until I read your letter,'' someone says. ``You hit them hard, but it had to be said,'' from another.

At least, these would undoubtedly be the comments if I actually got around to writing the letters and, having written them, sent them off. The trouble is that my best, my astonishingly brilliant and outstanding epistles tend to end, as they begin, in my imagination.

A situation arises -- in Parliament, in public life, in remotest Africa or deepest London -- and I begin to turn over in my mind the immortal phrases that would go into an appropriate and telling communication. Sometimes I try them out on a friend or colleague. ``Did you hear about X?'' I say. ``It's an appalling situation. I'm thinking of writing to the prime minister and pointing out ...''

``Why don't you!'' they say encouragingly. But I don't. I put it off. I keep forgetting to find the address. Something else crops up that demands a letter to the telephone company, or the press, or the Pope, which again I almost compose but (to the world's undoubted loss) never send.

Some of my best unsent letters have been to journals reviewing my books. ``Dear Editor,'' I once nearly wrote. ``Now that Professor Bloggs has written his review of my work, he may like to read the book.'' How's that, now! No, well, I've done better. The trouble is that I've always felt it rather infra dig to complain about a bad review, and superfluous and immodest to write about a favorable one, although I've been tempted in the latter case (all too rare) to compliment (anonymously) the reviewer on his or her acumen, a Daniel come to judgment.

A newspaper editor friend once received a letter from a member of the public objecting strongly to a critical review of a play that had appeared in the paper. The letter spoke in glowing terms about the leading actor, whom the critic had panned. My friend sent a young reporter out to the address at the top of the letter, only to find that the address was that of the leading actor, while the name was fictitious. The editor then enclosed the letter in one he wrote to the actor, saying that he might like to know that someone was using his address. That was the last he heard.

There are some letters that are better not sent. We've probably all written them, and alas sometimes have sent them. A good secretary would save us from ourselves, but not many of us have a good secretary.

It is recorded that when the 17th Earl of Derby was British Ambassador to Paris at the end of World War I, and Lord Curzon, whom he heartily disliked, was Foreign Secretary, Derby took exception to a dispatch from the minister. He drafted a letter:

``Dear Curzon,

``I always knew that you were a rogue; now I know you are also a liar.''

One of Derby's diplomatic staff persuaded the great man to recast the letter, and it ended up:

``Dear George,

``You and I have been good friends far too long to be upset by a minor problem like ...''

One hopes the diplomat was rewarded with his own ambassadorship in due course.

There are, of course, letters that ought to be written and sent. Our literature would be the poorer without some of the great letter writers: St. Paul, for a start; or Lord Chesterfield, Bernard Shaw, James Thurber, and many others.

For lesser mortals the kinds of letters worth writing are the ones worth receiving. Letters between friends have their own special purpose. Others may be soft answers turning away wrath; or a Lutherish ``Here I stand'' may be necessary. We owe it to ourselves and to our neighbors to complain about a service paid for but not received, or a matter of public nuisance or danger. A letter may adjust a wrong situation or redress a wrong impression.

On the whole, having made my share of blunders, I've come to the conclusion that the honest letter that shows affection or appreciation, gives encouragement or recognition, is worth writing, whether or not you get an answer.

I received one such the other day from an old friend half a world away, whom I hadn't seen in years. He'll never know what it meant to me. I'm exceedingly glad he did not include it among his letters not sent.

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