Sunday, October 17, 2010

When the workers of the world unite

The second collection of readers' letters sent to but unpublished by the Daily Telegraph (UK) has just been published under the title, I Could Go On by Iain Hollingshead (Aurum Press, UK). The paper receives 700 letters a day and publishes 20, so there are gems to be found among the rejects.

Some are delightfully eccentric in a Colonel Blimp kind of way and most complain of something (but wittily). The letters reflect the readers' average age, which is something over 50, perhaps well over.

In English custom and practice, you can be as rude as you like as long as you are witty enough with it. I recall a good friend in graduate school at Oxford who was incensed by the way his wife's boss had treated her. When my friend next met the man at a party, he went up to him and started the conversation with the observation, "I hear you are the rudest man in Oxford." The man replied to my friend with admirable brevity: "I was."

One Daily Telegraph correspondence of the past year brought to mind the tradition of English schoolmasters in my day who were expert in using disparaging wit as a mechanism of classroom control and socialization. I recall comments like, "When I want your opinion, Jones, I'll send you a telegram," or to a boy staring in silence at a Latin passage he had been asked to translate for the class, "No mistakes so far."

The comments that schoolmasters were expected to write on end-of-term reports (report cards) offered a particular opportunity for sarcasm which, I suppose, concerns about self-esteem, strengths-based feedback, and fear of litigation have now rendered obsolete.

Three exquisite gems I read with nostalgic pleasure: “When the workers of the world unite it would be presumptuous of Dewhurst to include himself among their number”; “Unlike the poor, Graham is seldom with us”; and my personal favorite, “The improvement in his handwriting has revealed his inability to spell”.

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