Book reviews:To the Letter | Letters of Note

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WHEN will it come, asks Simon Garfield, that day when the last proper letter – not a bill or a computer-generated mailshot, but a thoughtful, thought-about message that is entirely personal to us – flops through our letterbox?

To The Letter: A Journey Through A Vanishing World

Simon Garfield

Canongate, £17.99

Letters Of Note

Ed Shaun Usher

Canongate/Unbound, £30

And who amongst us, bending down to pick up the latest crop of impersonal doormat bumf, hasn’t feared that the dreaded day has already dawned?

Most of us, surely, have letters that we treasure, stored away in a shoebox or imprinted on our minds, and it’s depressing to think of a world without such epistolatory distillations of love (and it usually is love, or at least kindness). Email can’t possibly compete.

Garfield has a keen eye for what makes a good letter – and at least in classical times it is the opposite of what was thought at the time. Pliny the Younger, for example, concluded his terrifying description of the destruction of Pompeii in 79AD by apologising that “of course these details are not important enough for history” – rather ironic, given that his letter is the only contemporary description of Vesuvius blowing its top to have survived.

Nor is it true that letters are invariably a sure guide to character: Jane Austen’s, Garfield notes, are “cool, dispassionate and occasionally rather heartless”, and lack the psychological insights and wit of her novels. Then again, as they were written with family news rather than publication in mind, perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything else. In any case, as Dr Johnson pointed out: “There is no transaction which offers stronger temptation to fallacy and sophistication than epistolatory intercourse.”

Garfield is a knowledgeable guide to his subject. He trots effortlessly through a somewhat predictable list of exemplars such as Mme de Sévigné and Lord Chesterfield, various guides to letter-writing, and then email etiquette, and gives a succinct overview of the development of Rowland Hill’s postal revolution. He’s been to letter auctions, interviewed people assembling archives of author’s correspondence, and joined in an intriguing project involving writing letters to strangers. He’s also quick to pick up on essential trivia, such as when Postman Pat switched to delivering parcels rather than letters, and gives us intriguing snippets, such as the Queen Mother’s sign-off on a wartime condolence letter to a friend: “Tinkerty tonk old fruit & down with the Nazis”.

Yet somehow his book fails to engage at any deeper level than a competently executed commission. I suspect that he realises this himself, which is why he threads it through with a detailed and personal wartime correspondence bequeathed to Mass Observation between a couple separated by war who can’t wait for peace to come in order to consummate their love. For all their talk of inflamed loins and longings that flow through the letters in 1943 and 1944, it is the direct, practical advice of the about-to-return soldier to his fiancée that makes one realise its force. “Don’t be excited outwardly,” he warns her. “Moderation is my advice. Watch the buses as you cross the street.”

Shaun Usher’s Letters Of Note, also published by Canongate, deals altogether more passionately with the same subject. Based on his website (which receives 1.5 million hits a week), the book contains over 100 letters in facsimile form along with their transcriptions, freeing him to indulge in the purely quirky or the compellingly fascinating.

So here is the Queen sending President Eisenhower her recipe for drop scones; Hitler’s nephew Patrick asking President Roosevelt for permission to serve with the US armed forces; Clemmie Churchill ordering her husband in 1940 to treat his underlings more kindly; John Steinbeck and Ronald Reagan advising their sons on love and marriage; and British ambassador to Moscow Sir Archibald Clark Kerr’s memo to the Foreign Office of 1943: “God has given me a new Turkish colleague whose card tells me he is called Mustapha Kunt. We all feel like that now and again when Spring is upon us, but few of us would care to put it on our cards. It takes a Turk to do that.”

Yet Usher’s collection ranges far wider than this. The anonymous tip-off about Guy Fawkes’s plans to blow up the Houses of Parliament is here, so too Leonardo da Vinci’s application to the Duke of Milan for a job as military engineer. After listing ten inventions that could turn the tide of war, he adds he’s be no slouch in peacetime either: “I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.”

Not all job applications lie, and not all epistolatory intercourse either. And as a guide to letters that deserve a wider readership, Usher’s compilation is hard to beat. n

Twitter: @scotsmandavid