Pushing the envelope

PG Wodehouse claimed to drop letters in the street and rely on passers-by to post them. But could this really work today? Rhodri Marsden reports on a first-class experiment
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The Independent Online

The author PG Wodehouse, who died 30 years ago today, at the age of 93, left us not only with several dozen richly comic novels, but also three volumes of loosely autobiographical material which appear together in the collection Wodehouse On Wodehouse. Depending on how you like your history served up, these tomes can either be seen as a rather unreliable account of various periods of his life, or simply a succession of snappy anecdotes which never allow hard facts to obstruct a delightful narrative and a weighty punchline. One of the better-known tales, originally recounted in Bring On The Girls (1954), concerns his habit of avoiding a tiresome journey to the nearest postbox by tossing a stamped, addressed letter out of his front window, certain that a kind-hearted citizen passing below would ensure that it reached its destination. "Someone always picks it up," he wrote. "And it saves me going down four flights of stairs every time I want to mail a letter."

The author PG Wodehouse, who died 30 years ago today, at the age of 93, left us not only with several dozen richly comic novels, but also three volumes of loosely autobiographical material which appear together in the collection Wodehouse On Wodehouse. Depending on how you like your history served up, these tomes can either be seen as a rather unreliable account of various periods of his life, or simply a succession of snappy anecdotes which never allow hard facts to obstruct a delightful narrative and a weighty punchline. One of the better-known tales, originally recounted in Bring On The Girls (1954), concerns his habit of avoiding a tiresome journey to the nearest postbox by tossing a stamped, addressed letter out of his front window, certain that a kind-hearted citizen passing below would ensure that it reached its destination. "Someone always picks it up," he wrote. "And it saves me going down four flights of stairs every time I want to mail a letter."

Over the years, embellished versions of this story make one wonder whether postal collections were even necessary in those golden post-war years; a highly sceptical friend asked "Plum" to send him a letter by way of proof; it reputedly arrived within 20 minutes of being ejected from the top floor of his mansion block. Stephen Fry advises us in his book Paperweight that Wodehouse's belief in his little system was "never once, in decades, shown to be unfounded"; this is difficult to believe, but what are the chances of it working today? Is it possible, in the year 2005, with the media reminding us constantly of shifty people loitering with intent on our streets and the increasing untrustworthiness of our neighbours, that such a devil-may-care approach to sending mail could succeed?

While pondering the anecdote on her way to work in Central London and imagining someone chucking a bundle of envelopes out of a Gloucester Road office block window, the writer Deirdre Ruane decided to find out. "I had no idea whether it would work. I suppose I imagined that society has changed so much since Wodehouse's day that the majority of the letters would go astray. But I still wanted to give it a go." Ruane used her website to gauge interest in the scheme towards the end of last year, outlining her plans and posing the burning question: "Are people helpful and socially responsible, or lazy self-serving bastards?"

Ignoring the comment that Wodehouse himself must have been pretty lazy to avoid walking to his nearest postbox, she quickly collected addresses of willing participants around the world who promised to inform her as soon as her missives dropped through their door. Others volunteered to help run the experiment across the London area, although Ruane imposed an initial 50-letter limit - she was the one paying for the stamps, after all. Keen to stay true to the spirit of Wodehouse's gambit, she wrote full-page personalised letters ("something I'd not done for years"), and, aware that inquisitive people might tamper with the envelopes they discovered, also enclosed a slip of paper which read: "If you've opened this letter, and aren't the named recipient, then you've stumbled into an experiment into human nature. Please reseal and post it!"

To give the scheme its best chance of success, and anticipating immense sloth and lack of co-operation on the part of the oblivious public, the letters were originally to be placed within sight of postboxes. But Ruane quickly broadened the possible drop-locations to anywhere conspicuous: the steps of private houses, bus seats, churches, phone-boxes, park benches and pubs. Deliberately discarding a personal item in a public place is not without its problems, as one trusty assistant, Elise Harris, discovered. "It almost felt as if I was a spy. I found myself behaving oddly; I couldn't leave one in a phone box without pretending to make a call first, and I found myself having an adrenaline rush afterwards."

Ruane herself had particular difficulty trying to leave a letter on the Bakerloo line at St John's Wood; after making efforts to be discreet in placing the envelope on an adjacent seat, she got off the train to suddenly experience an unexpected avalanche of goodwill: a carriage full of people shouting "You forgot your letter!" She accepted the envelope rather ungraciously, slightly irritated that the project was being derailed by helpful commuters before it had even begun. Other people, however, were less benevolent. On the upper walkway of Liverpool Street station, Ruane watched three men spending a good 10 minutes examining a letter which was bound for Stratford, East London. It never arrived.

Nearly 50 per cent of the letters are still at large. Some impatient addressees voiced the opinion on Ruane's website that even if a member of the public had happened upon a letter meant for them, and posted it, safe delivery would still be far from guaranteed. One comment read: "Mail in my area is wildly unreliable. Full postal sacks were recently found sitting in the river - to no great surprise from anyone - and we barely notice the difference if a strike is on."

It's certainly true that Wodehouse never had to contend with a demoralised postal workforce when he was launching letters out of his home with gay abandon, and, if he were still using this method today, his supposed 100 per cent success rate would be likely to dip regardless of any decline in social responsibility.

According to the independent consumer body Postwatch, 14.4m posted items of mail go astray in the UK every year, and, in a recent survey of more than 2,000 people, it discovered that of those who received letters that weren't intended for them, only half made the effort to redeliver them - with 10 per cent just throwing them away. Confronted with these statistics, what hope for latter-day Wodehousians? A spokesperson for Royal Mail claims that more 99.9 per cent of post does get delivered correctly, and that their efforts are mainly hampered by incorrectly addressed mail, which is almost as common as mail that gets lost.

Recent successful deliveries that have been made against the odds include envelopes addressed to "The house with the big blue car, Birmingham Street, West Midlands", "Rob and Alice, just moved to Knaresborough", and one marked simply with the words "Lord Nelson" containing £1,000 in cash.

It would be a foolish person who entrusted a birthday card stuffed with banknotes to Ruane and her team, but from studying the data taken from her small statistical sample, she has come up with a few - she admits - sweeping generalisations about which parts of London contain the most helpful and trustworthy people. "Both the letters I left in churches got through, as you might expect. But the East End was hopeless, and north-western postcodes weren't much better."

A supposition that exotically addressed envelopes might prompt people to make more of an effort to forward them was borne out - up to a point. "A letter for Hawaii never arrived, but all three bound for Australia made it safely." One Australian attempted to reply using the same method, but it failed to end up on Ruane's doormat. "This proves that the Australian public have a 100-per-cent failure-rate," laughs Ruane.

Although she approached the project from a literary angle and for her own amusement, there is a strong psychological basis for the experiment. In 1963 the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted research into "lost letters", using envelopes addressed to his post-office box, and with either the name "Friends Of The Communist Party", "Friends Of The Nazi Party", or that of a person. Only 25 per cent of the letters addressed to extremist organisations were forwarded, but for personal letters the return rate was 70 per cent. So Ruane's experiment, despite its small size, would appear to indicate a declining willingness to help our butter-fingered fellow human beings, and this is backed up by some surprisingly similar results from a much bigger letter-dropping study undertaken in 2001 by Keith Hampton, a professor of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He set out to discard 5,000 letters across several countries to try to measure "helping behaviour". The average return rate overall was 55 per cent, with Celebration, Florida - a town built by the Walt Disney Company - coming out at the top of the heap, and Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa, bringing up the rear, demonstrating a clear link between income levels and altruistic behaviour. "Where there are greater social ills and lower income levels, there is less social trust - and social trust is strongly correlated with helping behaviour," explains Hampton. He also noted that 4 per cent of letters arrived having been opened, and 2 per cent featured some kind of note written on the envelope. Ruane's results correlated perfectly, with a single envelope bearing the scrawl: "Found this on a bence [sic] and thought I would post it - Nash." Not only did Nash want to help, he also wanted the recipient to know.

The British psychologist and broadcaster Dr Gary Wood is not surprised that people want to be seen to do good deeds. "The mental process that occurs is: what would I want someone else to do, if that letter was mine? People still like to do favours for others. For example, most people will let you into a supermarket checkout queue if you only have one item. Also, we're more enlightened these days as to the concept of karma - that what goes around, comes around." As to the question of whether people were simply "nicer" in the 1950s than they are today, Wood is unconvinced, citing the lack of positive stories in our multi-faceted media giving us an overly negative perception of the world. "The notion of the 'good old days' is more to do with a sense of community; today ours are much more fractured, but we're finding ways of building new ones."

Ruane remains similarly upbeat, continuing her project at www.postwodehouse.com, hoping to dispel any images of London streets awash with forlorn, soggy letters seeking their rightful home.

Norman Murphy from the Wodehouse Society is pleased that Wodehouse's words and actions are echoing down the years, but has to put the record straight about his postal habits: Plum, perhaps unsurprisingly, wasn't the protagonist in this particular story, after all. "It was actually a trick used by Fred Thompson, who was another lyric writer and playwright," he explains. "They were great friends, and Wodehouse deliberately passed off the story as one of his own, knowing that Thompson wouldn't mind." What-ho - rum cove!

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