In the era of texts and emails, there's something charmingly old-fashioned about someone actually bothering to sit down and write a letter. When I was a child, all our letters were from members of the family and they always began with an inquiry after the recipient's health before continuing, on lined paper, with mundane news about aunts, cousins and pets. That was a more innocent age, and the chef Gordon Ramsay certainly didn't bother with such niceties when he decided to mark his 44th birthday by writing a letter to his mother-in-law.
Being both modern and a celebrity, he didn't keep it private, either. The missive, with its ominous opening – "This has to be one of the most painful letters I've ever had to write" – appeared in the Evening Standard, inviting hundreds of thousands of readers to take sides in a family quarrel that's already threatening to assume epic proportions. It isn't quite Oedipus Rex – Ramsay hasn't committed incest or murder, despite being angry and hurt – but his decision last month to sack his father-in-law, Chris Hutcheson, has divided his wife's family and ignited strong passions.
Tana Ramsay has been "in floods of tears" after reading an earlier letter from her mother, Greta, which reportedly asked her to stay away from her family. Hutcheson recently gave an emotional newspaper interview in which he described his sacking as a "public hanging"; he also claimed that his son-in-law had become a "monster", turned his daughter against him and had been "warped" by the celebrity lifestyle. No holding back there, then, and it's not easy to imagine the two sides of the warring family bonding over this year's Christmas dinner. More turkey, Chris? After you, Gordon.
I can understand why Ramsay feels provoked, but it's not obvious how responding so publicly could do anything but further inflame the situation. Open letters are a curious phenomenon, using what's usually thought of as a highly personal form of communication to enlist supporters, and they always entail an element of performance; the author very obviously has a wider audience in mind than the ostensible recipient. I don't think Princess Diana ever wrote an open letter to her husband but her Panorama interview had a similar purpose, managing to sound sincere and staged at one and the same time.
In his own letter, Ramsay sounds genuinely upset on his wife's behalf but he also gets in some vicious digs, even revealing that he employed a private detective to investigate his father-in-law's "complex" life. If his intention was to mend fences, it's hard to see how he could expect that outcome after describing Hutcheson as a "dictator" and recalling the looks of "relief and joy" on the faces of staff when he announced his father-in-law's departure as chief executive of Gordon Ramsay Holdings.
Kitchen Nightmares, the title of the TV series Ramsay presents, doesn't even come close to the poisonous atmosphere currently enveloping the two families. Ramsay is famously volatile and so is the industry he works in; celebrity chefs are known for their tantrums. But this latest public row is symptomatic of an unwelcome aspect of modern life, which is the unduly high status afforded to raw emotion.
Young men get into fist fights, overreacting to minor or imagined slights because they've never learned to control their tempers; popular culture makes stars out of people who don't bother to hide hurt, envy or pleasure in the misfortune of others. The message from "reality" TV shows, celebrity magazines and the internet is that if you feel something, you shouldn't be afraid to show it; it's not as if Big Brother ever went out of its way to recruit shy, reflective contestants who were reluctant to talk about who they fancied or detested.
Ramsay is far from being the only celebrity to find himself engaged in a public family feud, although the more usual scenario involves separating or divorcing couples. An extraordinary number of professional footballers have found themselves involved in public slanging matches with angry exes, and barely a week passes without an update on Cheryl Cole's love life following her divorce from Ashley. A tearful recent appearance on Piers Morgan's TV show suggests that she doesn't find the interest overly intrusive, confirming that Cole is the nearest popular culture has come to finding a replacement for Princess Diana.
In the 1990s, the Princess's critics were dismissed as snobs or emotionally repressed, but there's no doubt that she accelerated the process of blurring the boundary between public and private life. These days it has begun to seem normal to expose intensely personal matters to total strangers, to the point where I sometimes feel my privacy is being invaded by the emotional porousness of Cheryl Cole, Katie Price, her ex-husband Peter Andre, and half a dozen other celebrities. If they're feeling pain, apparently I have to feel it as well, even though I don't know any of them; God knows how I'm supposed to react when someone I genuinely care about is in trouble.
What few of these touchy-feely celebs stop to consider is that while public outbursts offer temporary balm to wounded feelings, the long-term consequences may be disastrous. I don't know whether Tana Ramsay saw her husband's letter before it appeared in a newspaper, but it's hard to believe that it's brought reconciliation with her parents any closer. Family life isn't easy at the best of times and airing grievances publicly, even in response to someone else's ill-judged behaviour, is the nuclear option – and almost as hard to back down from.
Ramsay and his in-laws aren't fighting over a kingdom, like characters in a Greek tragedy, but perhaps a multimillion-pound business is the modern equivalent. And we should never forget that there's a very good reason why so many fictional tragedies revolve around families; the idea that people who are related by blood always get on with each other is a damaging myth.
I've got several friends who only manage to survive by living on a different continent from most of their relatives, although I don't suppose that's a tempting option for Tana Ramsay or her parents. As for Gordon, maybe it's time to return to what he does best: when the heat is on, this is one chef who really should stay in the kitchen.