letters page, and you'd think Britain
was a nation of clubbable pedants, retired colonels with a grudge against society, and Dave Spart types aggrieved at the media's continual marginalisation of Zoroastrism. Many correspondents seem to have had time on their hands between the end of Cross Wits and the start of Countdown. But how easy is it be to join their happy band, and foist your ill-digested opinions on a wider public?
I could have no better role model for this mission than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the only writer who could claim to have turned the letter to the press into anything approaching a literary form: he fired off hundreds of missives on subjects as diverse as baseball, gout, Sinn Fein, and the use of bicycles in trench warfare. He also used the correspondence columns of the British press to publicise his views on psychic phenomena. With his example in mind, I skipped down to the newsagent and bought a copy of every newspaper I could find.
An article in The Times was my first source of inspiration, a piece that considered whether Rupert Brooke's reputation would be altered by the discovery of some homoerotic correspondence. I was sceptical about this, and so wrote in to argue that the poet's party trick - running naked from the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, jumping into the Cam and emerging moments later with an erection - was surely much more outrageous than a few schoolboy fumblings. "There would certainly be a public scandal if Lord Archer (the great writer who currently occupies the Vicarage) was discovered skinny-dipping in a state of tumescence," I breezed, figuring smut and Conservatism might be a winning combination.
Feeling confident, I turned to the Daily Mail's story about Matthew Morris- Steward, a junior eco-warrior whom the paper claimed was being cynically groomed by a local Green group as the next Swampy. "When environmentalists use children in their PR stunts, it's as pernicious as stories you hear about the US military using dolphins to deliver bombs," I seethed, clearly on a bit of a roll. A flurry of activity followed: I sent a bon mot about William Hague to The Guardian, congratulated the Star on its comic strip about two topless models with psychic abilities and suggested to the Telegraph that the nation was suffering "Diana Fatigue Fatigue" - a feeling of boredom brought on by articles about how bored we are of articles about the death of the Princess of Wales. I remonstrated with The Mirror for not mentioning in an article about Sweeney Todd that the murderer was the creation of a forgotten Victorian hack writer called Thomas Peckett Prest - describing, in moving detail, how he died alone and penniless in a rented room.
The next few days were spent annoying the staff in WH Smith, trying to gauge my success without actually having to buy any of the papers. No single pithy observation seemed to have made it into print. So I was puzzled when, a fortnight later, I received a cheque for pounds 5 from Express Newspapers plc. This was rather mystifying: I had scoured the Express for a story about which I might conceivably have an opinion, and failed to find one. But having realised that Express Newspapers also holds the Star in its warm financial embrace, I later discovered that some of my sage remarks had been included in its edition of the Tuesday, 1 September. In case you don't read the Star, this is what you missed: "Dear Sir, I just wanted to congratulate you on your comic strip, The Barbi Twins. I am a firm believer in psychic phenomenon, and am sure that seeing pictures of large-breasted telepathic women will be an invaluable contribution to the cause. Perhaps your readers could write in and describe any usual effects that the Barbi Twins might be having on their minds." OK, so it's not quite the Cottingley Fairies, but this, I feel, is a correspondence that could run and runReuse content