The letters page. It’s the heart of every print publication in the land, the place where readers come to applaud occasionally yet more often deride or correct. As the editor of our weekly Correspondence page, a happy Monday job, I take a deep breath before opening the email folder that contains the most recent missives. Among the spam and the promises of friendship in exchange for bank details are brutal takedowns, ferocious counterarguments, earnest expressions of upset – often culminating in a generalised cry of despair: “What is the New Statesman coming to?”
Still, the letters keep coming. Some of you even seem to like the magazine. Some of you, I suspect, enjoy nothing better than fulminating at its contents. Happiness writes white, goes the cliché, and so people don’t often express their joy at reading Alice Oswald on spiderwebs, but prefer to go to battle with David Blanchflower on austerity. Still, we are lucky here at the NS. Our readers write as well as they read – and so, choosing the letters, having to edit them so we can fit more in, is often an agonised process.
It was ever thus. A scan through the archive shows letters from John Maynard Keynes and F R Leavis, Leonard Woolf and Rebecca West. On 24 October 1936, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and H G Wells (among others) signed a joint letter about a memorial for a friend. On 24 May 1958, Orson Welles wrote a long lament in response to the criticisms of his film Touch of Evil by “Mr Whitebait”. In the same batch, J B Priestley defended the meetings of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and “two schoolgirls”, who chose to remain anonymous, took on the vexed question of “sex in public schools”. What a haul! The letters page then, as now, was a place for debates to rage at a stately pace. (We recently hosted an exemplary slow joust between Richard J Evans and A N Wilson on the subject of Hitler, in case you missed it.)
Still, a letters page seems old-fashioned, doesn’t it, in this age of instant communication, of below-the-line comments and Twitterstorms? Who writes letters any more? The ones we print are mostly emails – though there are some inky-fingered handwriters among you, and believe me, I hold you close to my heart.
Also prominent in my affections are those who write again and again and again. Take Keith Flett, who tells me he started writing letters to make historical points, but also to introduce “some slightly less serious things about beards and beer and cricket and things”. Flett believes the letter holds its own: so many internet commenters belong to the “mad and the sad” and Twitter is better for jokes.
The letter, he says, is still the best way for a substantial thought to reach an audience, and has the virtue – “I’m sure you’ll agree with me here” – of having been selected by an editor. Keith, I agree. And long may you all keep writing.