Britons besiege 'Sir' with anger, humor, whimsy Letters to the editor remain an obsession

November 10, 1991|By Der Spiegel

When others in the early-morning crowd on the London subway are still trying to shake off their sleep, Keith Flett is already hard at work. Amid the grime and rubbish, the computer specialist works his way methodically through a pile of London dailies, looking for any story in which journalists have failed to put events "in their historical context."

Once he reaches his office -- at British Telecom near the Vauxhall Bridge -- the amateur historian formulates his letters to the editor. His subjects range from the trouble in Yugoslavia to the power struggles within Britain's Labor Party to the coup in the Soviet Union.

At the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, editors in the letters department have long grown accustomed to expecting a "daily Flett." He is tireless: In the past four years, he has sent off thousands of letters to the editor.

The British are not only the biggest newspaper readers in the world -- London has 11 daily and Sunday newspapers with circulations over 1 million -- they are also the "most diligent and original writers of letters to the editor on earth," says a London editor-in-chief, with quite un-British enthusiasm.

The serious London newspapers each receive about 400 letters a day.

"While the French are babbling away in their bistros, the British are writing to their newspapers," says Leon Pippel, who has been in charge of the letters department at the Times for the past 10 years.

The British write about classical themes such as the monarchy, fox hunts and immigration. But they have a particular liking for the bizarre: Is it more environmentally sound to have oneself be buried or cremated? Why do Jerusalem artichokes cause such flatulence? How could one weigh one's head?

The letters editor of the Guardian, Geanette Page, believes Britons hope their contributions will help "get things moving, both in large matters and small."

Philippe Daudy, a French specialist on Britain who wrote the book "Les Anglais," says that Britons seem to have formed "a very definite opinion" about "absolutely every subject."

And they want to do something about their opinions, too. Some of them go to Speakers' Corner at London's Hyde Park, where they stand on stepladders and broadcast their formulas for world improvement.

But the majority hope that their droll or brilliant letters will help them gain entrance to "an exclusive club," as Mr. Daudy put it: that of the writers of published letters to the editor.

The greatest prestige is attached to having one's letter appear in the Times, although the paper, since it was taken over by the Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, is no longer necessarily considered the top paper in London.

But the Times is the mother of all readers' forums. Britain's venerable newspaper began printing its readers' views in its first issue, in 1785.

Many letters to the Times -- they invariably begin with the obligatory "Sir" -- have become celebrated through the years.

Thus, in 1864 Queen Victoria used a letter to the Times to respond to charges that she was so despondent three years after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, that she was allowing state affairs to suffer.

The queen's handwritten vow to "fulfill the loyal expectations of my subjects" more faithfully in the future was signed only with the words "the Court." However, the head of her secret State Council, Lord Granville, was unhappy: Under no circumstances should a monarch write a letter to the editor.

In 1867, Charles Dickens wrote to complain about the "wild lurching" of the train between Leicester and Bedford. The famous novelist ("I am an experienced rail traveler," he wrote) asked the newspaper "to warn" railway clients about this stretch.

With their penchant for self-deprecating irony and absurd humor, British journalists provide skilled models for their readers. And like the professionals, says Matthew Hoffman, letters editor at the Independent, the readers also enjoy their "fun."

For example, Ian Graham-Orlebar, a parish priest, turned to the Times for help with an unusual problem. He had named his old riding horse Ministry. The reason: While he was out for a ride, parishioners who came by looking for him could be told, and quite honestly, that he was "exercising his Ministry." What, he asked the Times, should he call his new horse?

About 350 proposals poured in, including such names as "Liturgy" and "Mercy." Father Graham-Orlebar finally settled on "Sabbatical," allowing his assistant to tell people, of course, that he was "on Sabbatical."

In the Daily Telegraph, readers debate such hot topics as what to do about the spread from the Continent of that horrid habit known as "social kissing." Its unpleasant side effects could include the "crashing together of eyeglasses."

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