Posts Tagged ‘letters’

Dear Lupin

April 3, 2013

Until reading this book, I had only ever heard of one person called Lupin. Remus Lupin is a character in Harry Potter – one of the creators of the Marauders’ Map and occasional teacher of Defence against the Dark Arts. For sure, he is a great Lupin.

Perhaps, like me, you are also ignorant of other Lupins. Worry not, for now is the time to learn about two more.

Firstly, Lupin is the son of Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody by Charles Grossmith, one of those books of which everyone has heard but few have actually read. Inspired by this literary example, Lupin is also the affectionate nickname Roger Mortimer used for his son, Charlie. Charlie explains the relevance, for Lupin was:

the disreputable son who was the source of much of Mr Pooter’s worries.

Dear LupinDear Lupin is a delightful little book, in which Roger Mortimer’s letters to his son are gathered together, with occasional interjections from Charlie for context or an illuminating anecdote. They begin in 1967, when Charlie is fifteen, causing havoc at Eton:

Your mother came back rather sad and depressed after seeing you yesterday. You may think it mildly amusing to be caught poaching in Windsor Great Park; I would consider it more hilarious if you were not living on the knife edge, so to speak.

They continue for twenty-five years, until Roger’s death in 1991. Over this time, Charlie has got into all sorts of scrapes, as his life has seen him go from Eton to a crammer and then for a spell in the Coldstream Guards, followed by a couple of breakdowns and various jobs ranging from driving articulated lorries to making backgammon boards, and from being an estate agent to manufacturing boxer shorts. The letters tread a hilarious and very touching line between stern reprimand and fond indulgence. The feeling can perhaps best be summarised in this one line:

I am very fond of you but you do drive me round the bend.

Poor old Roger Mortimer. Reading his letters you can feel him getting unbelievably stressed out by his complete lack of control and influence over his wayward son:

Even allowing for the fact that you cannot yet tie a bow tie, a sweat rag coiled round your neck is a somewhat unattractive form of evening dress … I don’t expect you to be a second Lord Chesterfield, but I rather wish that in appearance and conduct, you were slightly less typical of a transport café on the Great North Road.

Luckily, his exasperation makes for very entertaining reading.

I have discovered, scattered liberally amongst these pages, my new favourite expression:

to do a pineapple chunk.

This is posh rhyming slang (it certainly isn’t cockney) for to do a bunk, i.e. to have an affair. E.g.:

her ever-loving husband has just done a pineapple chunk with a saucy nurse.

It seems to me to be the perfect expression for it, evoking a canapé from a seedy seventies cocktail party, sickeningly illicitly sweet, and yet also making such a silly, whimsical rhyme. I would – of course – never do a pineapple chunk on my husband, but how I long to use this brilliant phrase!

I’ve written elsewhere of the pleasure to be found in reading other people’s letters. It’s like eavesdropping on a conversation, rich with nuggets of gossip, in-jokes and revealing lines. All these pleasures are here in spades, and by the time I’d finished, I felt like I’d got to know Roger Mortimer, and his family, dog and garden, rather well.

Dear Lupin captures a peculiarly English upper-class, father-son relationship: a funny mixture of grumblings and tellings off, with naughty stories and words of encouragement, peppered with helpful cheques and boozy lunches at a gentleman’s club.

You have to take a deep breath and decide not to get wound up by its unbelievable poshness and just give into enjoying this hilarious evocation of that world. Take this on servants, for instance:

I suppose we had some fairly weird servants, e.g. Kate Murphy who was pissed at a dinner party and fell face downwards in the soup; and a butler who had been wounded in the head in World War I and was apt to pursue Mrs Tanner, the cook, with a bread knife. To these could be added Brett who forged cheques: Ellis, who emptied the cellar and peed into the empty bottles and Horwood who thought he had droit de seigneur in respect of the footmen.

You could read this and be quite appalled, or you could get over yourself and roll about laughing. I did actually laugh out loud on many instances, much to my embarrassment (on the tube) and my husband’s irritation (at home … crikey, I only hope he wasn’t so irritated that he felt inspired to do a pineapple chunk).

The most touching thing about Dear Lupin is that Charlie Mortimer went through his chaotic nomadic up-to-no-good life keeping tight hold of nothing much except for these letters. Despite ignoring most of his father’s well-intentioned advice, he evidently valued it dearly. As, indeed, should we all.

So I shall leave you with a final nugget of wisdom, courtesy of Roger Mortimer when Charlie is about to go to Greece:

Try not to look like some filthy student who has renounced personal hygiene completely. The unwashed with long hair are looked upon with great hostility in certain European countries and it would be silly to be stopped at a frontier because you like wearing your hair like a 1923 typist.

Sage advice indeed.

Roger Mortimer

And So I Have Thought of You – The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald

November 26, 2012

I have been reading these letters for many months, a few at a time, at odd in-between moments – in the bath, waiting for the kettle to boil, or for the toast to be done. Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my literary heroines, and this chunky collection of letters has been a trusty companion, a reliable source for a quick fix of inspiration, a smile, and a sigh of relief that such a good writer existed.

I love the precision of Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing and often, when I’ve been angsting over how to begin an article or how to write something clearly, I’ve read one of her letters for inspiration, sitting down and trying to write the piece straight away afterwards, in the vain hope that some of her style might have seeped into my own. I could never hope to be half as good a writer, but certainly reading a letter has never failed to help.

The feeling I get when reading other people’s letters is the glee of an eavesdropper. All these nuggets of gossip and in-jokes and reassurances and wonderings and news. It is such an astonishing privilege to have this window into a personal, off-the-record side of a great writer. Even though it’s perfectly legitimate to read these published letters, it is hard not to feel those butterflies of naughtiness, of seeing something you oughtn’t, the exquisite fear of being caught.

There is so much in these letters, so many stories – some just hinted at, others sketched out, and others which develop over several years. Each holds its own distinct pleasure.

The hints are often gossip about other writers. There’s this to one of her editors, Stuart Profitt:

I realise now that you can’t get hold of Malcolm Bradbury, he seems to be made of some plastic or semi-fluid substance which gives way or changes in your hands.

Or this postscript to Stuart Profitt’s predecessor, Richard Ollard:

Poor S. Rushdie, or rich S. Rushdie, whichever you like, that was a publicity campaign that went dreadfully wrong. I don’t think he ought to go into hiding, though. My local Patel grocery on the corner tells me that it is not a dignified act.

She’s so clever in her insults! While I love these flashes of brilliant wit, they leave me longing to find out more about what she thinks on the subjects.

Then there are her sketches. Here is one of Fitzgerald’s finest, which appears in a letter to her daughter Maria, and could easily be lifted straight out of one of her novels. She describes a ‘surrealist tea-party’ in Rye, where the guests were:

a trendy cleric, his dull wife, a long-skirted daughter, going up to read English at Hertford, who evidently hadn’t wanted to come, and Henry James’s manservant (still living in Rye, but with a deaf-aid which had to be plugged into the skirting) who couldn’t really bear to sit down and have tea, but kept springing up and trying to wait on people, with the result that he tripped over the cable – and contributing in a loud, shrill voice remarks like ‘Mr Henry was a heavy man – nearly 16 stone – it was a job for him to push his bicycle uphill’ – in the middle of all the other conversation which he couldn’t hear.

It’s too perfect and had me in stitches over my burning toast!

Then there are the longer stories. The attempt to write L.P. Hartley’s biography, which in the end defeated her; the dire financial straits of her early married life, manifest in instances like being unable to afford to buy towels from John Lewis; her endless attempts to persuade her editor of the worthiness of a book she longed to write about the Poetry Bookshop; the struggle to be recognised as a writer. With respect to this latter strand, her correspondence with her editors at Duckworth, where she began her writing career, is eye-opening. She wrote this to Richard Garnett there:

It worried me terribly when you told me I was only an amateur writer and I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?

It’s too appalling to think of her editor calling her an amateur writer! Later she writes to Colin Haycraft, also at Duckworth, about her decision to move to a different publisher:

You did tell me, you know, that if I went on writing novels you didn’t want it blamed on you and that Anna thought I should do detective stories and also, by the way, that you had too many short novels with sad ending on your hands, and I thought, well, he’s getting rid of me, but in a very nice way. I don’t at all expect you to remember everything you say to 32 authors, but the trouble is we take all these remarks seriously and ourselves too seriously as well, I expect.

Luckily she moved to Harper Collins, where she found a much better editor in Richard Ollard and his successor Stuart Profitt. Reading their letters are a delight, as their warm literary friendship is conjured on the page:

Just to thank you for taking me to the party, I should never have had the resolution to go otherwise and indeed I noticed many people, obviously female novelists, standing about looking at a loss, and I was grateful not to have to do this.

Or here:

Meanwhile I feel that if Angela has gone and mice have got into the air-conditioning the Harper Collins palace must be almost untenable. But I’m so glad that Stuart’s Big Book after many worries is proving such an enormous success – what energy he’s got! If he gets this place in Herefordshire I suppose he will have to arrive up at week-ends and put together the roof and chimneys and then walk miles over Hay Bluff &c for exercise, but I expect that will be as nothing to him.

Her letters to Chris Carduff, her American editor, are also a treat. I especially love the fact that he calls his cat Charlotte Mew, after the poet associated with the Poetry Bookshop. It is to him that she drops this perfect line:

on the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.

Gosh these letters were such a pleasure to read! The only sad thing about them is the gaps – the missing years and people, thanks to faulty archiving or tragic incidents like the sinking of her houseboat. I see that Hermione Lee is writing a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald; she’s written a little about it here for the Guardian. I am literally on the edge of my seat with excitement for it – I’m sure that Hermione Lee will succeed in filling in some of these gaps, fleshing out those things that are only hinted at in these letters, shaping everything into a powerful narrative. Until then, I will happily read and reread her novels, and perhaps I might just start again on these witty, wry, wonderful letters.

The perils of sending a message

March 14, 2011

We live in an age in which everyone is sending messages to everyone else all the time. Telephone calls and text messages; Facebook and Twitter; emails and instant messages … there have never been so many different ways to communicate.

Before all this technology, the only alternative to saying something face-to-face was to write a letter. Penn a note, seal it up and then dispatch it with a messenger … maybe it only sounds really fun because it’s so old-fashioned. But, whethere it’s fun or not, it has definitely served as an excellent literary device.

Letters can hold absolutely vital information so, in novels, a great deal rests on keeping them out of the wrong hands and delivering them safely. Letter-related plots tend to go along the lines of: X writes a terribly important letter to Y, but Y doesn’t get it in time. Or Z sees Y reading it and that ruins everything. Or Z reads it instead of Y …

‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.’

It’s such a marvellous opening to Howards End. And there are several letters in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – the one which reveals to Henchard the secret of Elizabeth-Jane’s birth, and the incriminating stash of love letters between him and Lucetta. Of course, Bleak House sees Dickens using a stash of love letters too. Even Ian McEwan uses a, now infamous, letter at the start of Atonement.

Too many novels make use of letters for me to list them all here. But let’s not forget plays and, let’s certainly not forget Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet must make the most tragic use of this plot device. When Friar Laurence tells Juliet of his plan, for her to take a ‘distilling liquor’ that will make her assume a ‘borrowed likeness of shrunk death’, vital to its success is that ‘Shall Romeo by my letters know our drift’.

And Romeo expects these letters, asking his man Balthasar, ‘Hast thou no letters to me from the friar?’ But the messenger fails to deliver the letter to Romeo and Friar Lawrence laments:

‘The letter was not nice, but full of charge,

Of dear import, and the neglecting it

May do much danger.’

And we all know how it ends up. All because the message didn’t get to Romeo.

Nowadays, there are still plenty of opportunities for a message intended for someone to be read by someone else. How many of us have accidentally sent a text about someone to that person instead of to the friend to whom they meant to send it?!

But at least messages don’t go astray as they used. There’s no messenger running around delivering very important sealed letters and so there’s no opportunity for the messenger to get waylaid. Instead, someone makes a phonecall, or sends an email, or a text message. The message is instantly delivered. Yes, ok, there’s a very slim chance that the message might get lost somehow. The email could go into the Junk Mail folder, or the phone number’s wrong. But I don’t think it would really be believed in a novel.

But now we have so many different ways of communicating with each other, how do we pick which one to use? Why a facebook message rather than an email? Why a text message over an instant message?

If, for instance, you’ve had dinner at a friend’s house, how do you thank them the next day? Does a text message seem a bit flippant? Is a postcard a bit OTT? A phonecall would definitely be weird. Would an email be too formal? And, of course, what seems like the right choice for you, might well not seem right to them.

And, now we’re so used to instantaneous communication, when should the thank you be sent? A text the next morning? What if you forget until teatime? And if you send a postcard, that means there’s going to be a whole day’s wait – will the host spend that day thinking that you’re rude? Once, on the way home from a dinner, the host sent me a thank you text. Had I already left it too long?

Dating brings a whole new dimension to this quandary. In Jane Austen novels, Mr Darcy (or the equivalent) always turns up at the young lady’s house. Or he might send a letter confessing his love. When I was younger, if a boy liked you, he’d get your number and then phone you up to ask you out. This was pre-mobile phones, so the chances were, he’d speak to one of your parents, or big brothers, first. It must have been terrifying. Now, it comes down to no more than a text message. ‘Do U Want2C a film on Fri night? x’ (Although I think anyone who asked me out in text-speak got an automatic rejection.)

It seems that the age of the phone call has been superseded by the age of the text message and email. It’s odd, really, that we’ve moved away from this form of spoken communication back to written.

I wonder why we prefer expressing ourselves in writing. As anyone who’s ever sent a text message to someone they fancy knows, a hell of a lot of time can go into its composition … and into analysing any message from a potential date. Should I write ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’ or ‘Hello’, or none of them? Should I ask a question so they have to reply? What does he mean by two kisses at the end?

I’m slightly ashamed to admit to having spent an entire evening helping a friend compose a text message, only to then spend the whole following day waiting with her for a response.

And that’s another thing key to written communication instead of spoken. One has to wait for a response. The ‘conversation’ can be drawn out over a whole week. Especially when one takes into account the rules of playing hard to get, not replying within a day, teasing everything out in a noncommittal way. It would be so much easier to phone someone up and get it all sorted out then in a five minute call. So much easier, but so much less ambiguous … and so much less fun too.

Unless, that is, the feeling isn’t mutual. How long can one wait for a response to a text message or an email before accepting the rejection? Most of us tend to invent excuses rather than take it as a no. I don’t think it sent properly. I think he said he was on holiday this week. Maybe his phone got stolen. It must have gone into his junk mail.

Perhaps it is our literary heritage of written communication that comes into play here. We are very used to reading novels and plays about letters going astray, messages being intercepted, something preventing the sound completion of an act of communication. Rather than accepting the fact that we’ve been ignored or rejected, it’s much kinder to pretend that our message has gone astray. Even if the chances of that actually happening – when it’s a text message rather than a letter – are slim to none.

But, because we now send each other messages all the time, via so many different media, we are all much worse at responding to them. If someone gets one message a day, chances are, they’ll reply. If they get a hundred, chances are, they won’t. Yes your message was delivered, yes it was probably read, and yes it was ignored, or overlooked, because it wasn’t quite important enough.

Of course, if this is in the context of dating, then forget it – they’re not interested. But perhaps we need to be a bit more lenient to friends, colleagues and others who don’t reply when they ought. I’m sure we’re guilty of the same thing ourselves.

Or, failing that, maybe the answer is to go back to writing letters. At least for the important things in life. That way, if one doesn’t get a response, one can tell oneself that it really could have got lost in the post.