Ah, the erasing hand of time. As a small person at school, I remember being taught at some length, in obsessive detail and with cartloads of repetition, how to write a formal letter. My address top right, their address a little further down on the left, hop back to the right for the date, correct spacing for the Dear Mr Thingummy, the anguished question of whether to indent, the social death attendant upon allying a Yours sincerely with a Dear Sir. My perfect letter-construction may have knocked ‘em dead in the past, but now that job applications, complaints about the utter uselessness of whatever you have been foolish enough to purchase and even correspondence with your representative in Parliament are all done by email, Facebook or Twitter, I think the time has come to focus the rear-guard action on teaching the necessity for and advanced techniques of writing letters of thanks.
You and your angelic poppets have of course already trotted to the post-box with your Christmas thank-you letters. You know as well as I do that they should be hand-written up to and including the pencil-wielding capabilities of the author – wobbly X and gruesome sketch of parents will do, although less likely to impress your aunt if you are, say, twenty-three. They should convince as unique compositions and not all-purpose copies: and if your little treasures are thereby inducted into the world of forgery, cheating and bribing others to do their work for them, at least they are learning useful skills for the modern business world. The ideal (we did agree we’d talk about advanced techniques) thank-you letter manages a paragraph about something other than all the other presents received. The consolidating-the-place-in-the-will letter even remembers to ask after the health and well-being of the recipient and her family, dogs and memorable friends.
So, this week we need some role models. And, perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that Francis Scott Fitzgerald is your man (and may I take this opportunity to urge you to see Woody Allen’s sublime Midnight in Paris, (a) because it is perfect in every way imaginable and (b) because it includes the enchanting Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott F). He sent a letter of great clarity to his daughter Scottie, instructing her on what to write to the woman who had given her a coat, and what to write in a letter to him that he could then show the giver of the coat. No wonder we remember the man as a genius.
Letters between parents and their children can make bitter-sweet reading. In the last year, Darling Monster, Diana Cooper’s letters to her son John Julius (more from him in a moment), made for considerably more charming reading than Roger Mortimer’s Dear Lumpy, a sequel of sorts to Dear Lupin (and therein lay the difficulty, for me anyway: I felt that he was infinitely more critical of his daughter than of his son). Letters about the family can be purest treasure, as anyone who has The Paston Letters by their bed in case of midnight wakefulness (and who has not?) can confirm. Bright Star, the collection of love letters and poems by Keats, had for me the slight disadvantage of, well, being written by he who Byron rather unkindly (but you could love him for this alone) referred to as ‘little Johnnie Keats’. Reading someone else’s love-letters should be, by definition, a squirmingly embarrassing experience anyway, and re-reading your own (whether written or received by you) sadly nearly always falls into the same category (reader: if you look back at his/her letters, written to you many years ago now, and neither laugh out loud at the sentiment nor murmur, ‘Who was he/she?’, then yours is a love of the true and lasting sort).
Incidentally, even the most syrupy love letter from your past will have the stuffing knocked out of it if you are as unwise as to follow the advice of some websites and write a love letter to your child. You will understand that, as with all deeply disturbing material on the internet, having stumbled upon it I hastened on with eyes averted, so I cannot pass on the precise recommendations, but I think the authors are labouring under the deranged belief that a letter written by you, sealed in an envelope and kept for your little ones to open when they are adults will bring emotions to the fore. Well, you can’t argue with that. Just don’t be surprised when your adult children never visit you again.
Letters between friends are all the better for being less freighted with emotion. 84 Charing Cross Road is rightly a classic, if a jolly slight one, and Virginia Woolf was a correspondent to cherish: but one of the most enjoyable published exchanges is the collection of letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor. They are particularly splendid when you know that, asked to list her ten favourite books, Deborah Mitford unhesitatingly chose Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water, announcing that she had never read it because she knew she would miss it so once she had finished it (she also petered out at six books, which shows a pleasingly high qualifying bar).
Perhaps best of all are letters of complaint or rebuke. Sadly, this takes us back to letters from parents to children, of course, but the barkingly mad letters written to newspapers provide more straightforward entertainment. And, keeping the flickering flame of the Christmas season alive as we falter to the end of the year, let me recommend to you the shrewdly realistic Twelve Days of Christmas by John Julius Norwich (told you), gloriously illustrated by Quentin Blake (hurray!), in which our heroine writes her thank-you letters for the partridge, the pear tree, and all the assorted flocks, herds and swarms that follow. Good luck with your letter-writing.