You can't beat curling up with a good fax

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The Independent Online
IS THERE any greater pleasure than the rattle of the letter box heralding the arrival of a fan of hand-written letters? Yes, there is: the delicious postponement of their opening while you make a fresh cup of coffee, slit the envelopes (I am fanatical about paper-knives) and settle down to read what your friends have been doing.

If they are good letter-writers, their voices speak loud and clear from the page: which is why I try to answer letters by return, while the freshness of communication is still ringing in my ears.

People say letter-writing is a dying art. I don't believe it. Last Monday, for example, I wrote 12 letters, of which nine were personal. I don't claim that each was a thousand-word missive; in fact, I often use double-sided postcards precisely because they enable me to convey a message, some news, and a reply or a joke in a couple of hundred words. On Monday afternoon I wrote a further seven, in reply to readers arguing (or, less often, agreeing with) some point in a recent article. These letters are welcome evidence that my articles do not sally forth into some black hole, unread and unremarked upon.

The great leap forward in letter-writing has been brought about by the magic of the fax machine, an invention that I would rank high above television and, indeed, the telephone. The Victorians, with five postal deliveries a day, could send a letter at noon inviting a friend for tea that afternoon. The fax enables one to suggest that a friend turn on the radio as the current programme is worth hearing.

Their great disadvantage is that faxed messages seem to fade with distressing speed, which means they will fail to provide another of the pleasures of letters: that of coming across one squirrelled away in a book years later. Opening a verse anthology to check a quotation, I may find this: 'Dear Mummy im sory i cut yuor tomatos down in a tempr i wont do it agen', or this: 'Dere Mummy how are you? I am very well. It is nice at Grannys she givs us poradge for brekfast. Johnnie was norty but im being good', and similar laborious scrawls that summon my offspring back from complicated, self-absorbed childhoods more touchingly than any photograph.

I spent a few days in hospital this week and, knowing that all powers of concentration desert me the moment I'm in a nightgown with a thermometer poised nearby, I decided to re-read the Lyttelton-Hart-Davis Letters. These, I can now confidently proclaim, are the perfect hospital literature. They were written between Rupert Hart-Davis (father of our contributor Duff, who figures often - usually for his prowess at cricket or lawn-mowing) and his old housemaster at Eton, George Lyttelton, over a period of seven years from 1955 to 1962.

They had encountered one another again at a dinner party. George had complained mildly that he was bored and lonely in retirement, and no one ever wrote to him. Rupert commiserated, and, 'flushed with drink, I took up the challenge'. Starting the very next weekend, they exchanged weekly letters until George's death in 1962.

I cannot think of a greater gift or a kinder act from a busy man in the prime of his life and work. Yet the exchange is entirely between equals, rivals, even, as these two clever and cultured men compete to tell the best anecdotes and jokes - the funniest are often the most schoolboyish - cite the most obscure quotations, copy out the finest passages from books (and what readers they were, devouring a dozen a week each) and, in between, exchange diaries. At some point they seem to have realised that the letters would eventually be published and they allude, with faint smugness, to the wider public that will one day read them.

I have a similar correspondence under way, though it is conducted by fax, not by letter. It makes up in obscure puns and rollicking good humour for what it lacks in recondite quotations . . . though since my correspondent is a classics don, it is, come to think of it, pretty strong on classical allusion. But alas] it is transitory and will never be published to make a wider audience giggle - for already the faxes are greying into invisibility.

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