A hierarchy has been established, now that the printed word has become electronically portable. Fax is good, e-mail is bad, typewritten letter is better, hand-written best. Thoughts committed to the lap-top are immediately suspect, and not to be compared with thoughts committed to lined notebooks by the stub-ends of pencils larded with gobs of candle wax. As Clive James has said, the key is “resistance from the medium.”
Matthew Parris declared recently in The Times that once his readers began writing to him electronically, he would be excused from reading the letters because they would be too numerous, too easily written, for him to deal with. For Parris, resistance from the medium operates neatly: by imposing the need to gather writing materials, address an envelope, buy a stamp and go to the post-box, it separates those who have something to say from those who do not.
Perhaps by this measure he would rather listen at a cocktail party to a person with a speech impediment than one without. Forget that most of what is carried about in red vans consists of birthday cards, requests to renew subscriptions to magazines, returned credit card slips and the myriad forms of mailed advertising: the post, in the end, is what counts. Paper is palpable, the purchase of a stamp (not to mention the licking of it) an act of devotion.
This is nonsense. Mr Parris’s correspondents may be an exception, but the most persistent mailers of letters to the newspapers are nutters. The difficulty of addressing an envelope, far from weeding out those with nothing to say, actually encourages them.
I live in Moscow. The pieces I write appear in Australia. The Russian post is most unreliable. Yet every so often these barriers are overcome by a correspondent whose letter slips from my daily bunch of newspapers, the archetype of the battered but triumphant epistle of Parris’s model.
Even before I pick it up I know it will be a dud: a letter from a wharfie defending Stalin, perhaps, with many of the words written in capital letters and some of them underlined three times. Why, when all the evidence is to the contrary, does Parris believe that the drudgery of buying stamps and addressing envelopes is more likely to be undertaken by the intelligent?
The answer is snobbery, which is always directed at the new. A couple of years ago the…