Never write off a happy ending

25th April 1997 at 01:00
My trust in letter-writing has remained unbroken down the decades, despite the occasional hiccup where the power of the pen has rebounded. An ideal job would seem to be the one, found on the Indian subcontinent, of town letter-writer or amanuensis, taking up arms against the mighty on behalf of the oppressed - "the name's Bond, Basildon Bond".

Being brought up in a childhood of coal fires, it was an annual ritual to post Santa's letter before Christmas, but even the mid-February discovery of a scorched letter lying on a ledge in the chimney wasn't sufficient to dispel the trust in letter-writing.

Adulthood taught me that some targets are less successful: Cabinet ministers do not accept letters from members of the public, and banks are another group who tend to ignore letters. Instead, phone calls are made - timed for the instant that tea is on the table - and guaranteed to offer no record of communication when, the following month, the direct debit has not been cancelled for the second time.

The series of letters that nearly put paid to my epistolary career happened about 20 years ago when I wrote to the Ministry of Defence. I had been on holiday in Torridon, and found myself on the road to Kinlochewe being "buzzed" by a low-flying RAF fighter. The hired mini nearly went off the road, and back home I penned a polite note outlining my experience.

By return came a three-page letter stating that RAF planes never flew below 1,000 feet, and maintaining that low flying was necessary to keep the Red Foe at bay.

My sense of injustice inflamed (the plane had seemed to be on top of the car), I wrote back injudiciously mentioning Biggles. Eventually it was revealed that the planes were Tornados from the carrier Ark Royal and the captain himself wrote from some address like Honeypot Cottage, Leafy Lane, Plympton.

I walked home from school one day to find two men with trilbies and white raincoats on the doorstep. Inside they opened a file of my letters and spread out an Ordnance Survey map on the sitting-room carpet. They had travelled up from London that day as they were "curious" to see who was being so persistent in pursuing their pilot. I kept off the writing paper for a while.

One staffroom I know has kept itself sane for some years by writing as the "Caribou Club" to celebrities (who obviously imagine they are a loose grouping like the Loyal Order of the Buffaloes). Signed photos of Joanna Lumley and Pat Nevin jostle for position on the staffroom wall but pride of place is the letter from the Equerry of the Queen's Household thanking the club for its donation of Pounds 2.37 to Her Majesty after the fire at Windsor Castle.

The apex of this culture of spoof and counter-spoof was reached when a friend wrote to the then director of education pointing out that the anniversary of his 25 years' service to the region had been ignored but saying that he felt duty bound to alert the directorate to the imminent arrival of his 30 years' service, at which point he thought it might be in order for a small token of official esteem to be bestowed.

Nothing happened for a few months, but late one autumn afternoon a limousine arrived in the playground, and the director personally delivered a regional T-shirt and an equally cleverly constructed riposte to the original letter.

Employers with a sense of humour. Now there's an original idea.

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