Kenneth Gregory’s 1983 collection of letters to The Times, The First Cuckoo, is a classic; then in the past few years we’ve had a steady supply of loo books, essentially compilations of unpublished readers’ letters to various publications to stuff into Christmas stockings. Now, the British Library habitue, Nigel Cawthorne, has mined the archives to find the best letters in the “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” vein. They all come from the same paper, the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser, from the beginning of the 20th century to the mid-Fifties, so we don’t get the pleasure of Tunbridge Wells residents harrumphing about contemporary issues, Sir Herbert Gussett-style, that we might expect.
Few of the letters will raise more than a thin smile through either scaborous wit or unintentional humour – though I liked the pompous Fifties southerner signing himself “disillusioned”, who enjoys the deference of three young trainspotters in the Midlands only to have a stone chucked at him by da yoof in Tunbridge Wells. The “outrage” level doesn’t approach retired-colonel puce either, following some initial sorties about the shortage of public conveniences and the number of dogs roaming off the leash – “a very bad moral influence on juveniles”.
What we do get are some intriguing glimpses of 50-plus years of social history – the evolution in writing style from ornate late Victorian to something recognisably modern in 20 years, the alien pre-First World War preoccupations with temperance and corporal punishment alongside wonderfully familiar complaints about omnibus services (1900s) and shops selling Christmas goods in October (1950s). An apparently good-hearted soul calling for homeowners to recompense a diligent gardener who went around sweeping the snow from his regular clients’ drives is signed passive-aggressively, “The One Who Paid”.
Then there are the sailors stationed in Portsmouth inundated by replies for a request for female “pen-pals”, whose shipmate writes in the following week to thank the editor “for bringing a little peace to this ship”; rather different from the disgruntled Home Guard member vexed at the “female relatives, friends and fancy bits ... strutting about in khaki ... When we joined we believed that here was a body free from the effeminate touch which is tainting the administration in the Army and Air Force”. The letter from a “dissenter” decrying the paper’s patriotic First World War editorial line – “SIR – You are a war crank – shall I say fiend … Anything in the nature of an honourable peace is far better than this horrible conflict, which is a disgrace to humanity” – brings a tear to the eye, as much for the generous editor’s note arguing for its anonymous inclusion as for its passionate content.
Cawthorne puts in some work to merit his name on the cover with the arch headlines he gives each letter. Readers will hopefully appreciate the labour of the letter writers – an art still very much alive, while so much else has changed, and which deserves recognition, and regular infusions of fresh blood, to save it from being the refuge of the merely “outraged”.