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John Walsh

John Walsh: 'If a politician lays a wreath at the Cenotaph, it's a mark of respect'

Tales of the City

The Prime Minister is so intensely disliked by certain elements of public and press right now, he cannot do anything right. He attends Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph looking solemn and dignified, black tie and poppy carefully in place, lays a wreath, steps back in thoughtful silence – and is abused in the papers next day for failing to bow his head. A "shocked" rent-a-crowd of easily offended protocol sticklers included a confused Dave-from-Lancashire who said, "It was an insult to the fallen." No, Dave. If a politician lays a wreath at the Cenotaph, it's not an insult; it's an expression of respect. And forgetting to adjust your head a certain way indicates you have personal feelings and aren't just going through the motions.

The PM sends a handwritten letter to a woman whose son was killed in Afghanistan; it contains a few misspellings ("condolencs" and "colleagus" and, unfortunately, the woman's name which he gives as "James" instead of "Janes") and he is upbraided on The Sun's front page as if he'd laughed in her face and told her to pull herself together. "I only got through the first four lines before I threw it across the room in disgust," Mrs Janes explained, before calling it "that disgraceful, hastily-scrawled insult of a letter". The Sun duly tut-tutted on her behalf, ignored the fact that it must have been a damned difficult letter for anyone to write to a bereaved stranger, and concluded: "He wrote the letter 'I' incorrectly 18 times – mostly by leaving the dots off but once by using two in 'securiity'."

What a story! Washed-up politician signals final descent into moral chaos by Leaving The Dots Off His Lower-Case 'I's. Is there anything he now does that won't land him in trouble somewhere? If Brown were to save a one-eyed puppy from drowning in a Trafalgar Square fountain, he would be accused of canopaedophilia, vote-grabbing, media manipulation and cynically privileging the partially-sighted over the blind. If the PM found a cure for cancer tomorrow, someone would complain that he was putting scores of oncologists and charity workers out of business.

The handwriting mini-scandal bears out the famous words of Cardinal Richelieu, "Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, and I will find something in them which will hang him" – although the Cardinal would not in his wildest dreams have imagined that a succession of undotted vowels would be the hanging offence. It also shows what has been lost by the abandonment of letter-writing.

Mr Brown may believe that the handwritten letter is a nice personal touch from premier to citizen, but it's become a minefield of psychological giveaways. Since none of us have seen each other's handwriting in 10 years (except perhaps on greetings cards,) a handwritten note now looks a chaotic, inky squiggle of diacritical marks. Looking at these unfamiliar works, we all become grapho-analysts. Mistakes that would have received a wiggly underscore on a computer screen suggest that Mr Brown was hurrying his way through the difficult letter. The increasingly wide spacing between words suggest a man painfully feeling his way towards saying what he means. His inability to write the letter 'O' without making it a 'U' (as in "cumfort," "hupe" and "cuntribution") indicates a whole bag of unconscious worms, eg, why does he stop short of making a perfect circle? Is it the orthographic trademark of someone who can't finish what he starts?

I've no doubt Mr Brown was upset by the death of Jamie James, and all other soldiers extinguished on his watch. But as he's discovered, sincere expressions of personal feeling will have holes picked in them as surely as they would if Mr Brown's defenceless body appeared through the letter-box. There is now, I'm afraid, no circumstance in which the old-fashioned letter, with its stops and starts, its crossings-out and doodles, its combination of heartfelt emotion and slightly inept expression, could survive the modern world of communication – where in future, letters of condolence from PMs to soldiers' wives will be written by committee, standardised, emotionally appropriate and utterly unexceptionable, all trace of human interconnection gone. What will arrive in the homes of soldiers' weeping mothers will be briskly informative and – since this is the really important thing – spell-checked and burnished to a perfect sheen, and won't upset anyone by spelling "securiity" with two 'I's.