What I’ve learnt from editing a newspaper letters page – The Spectator

Letters to a daily newspaper have a curious power to gain an impetus of their own. ‘I owned a Triumph Herald many decades ago,’ wrote Robert Brown of Crosby to the Telegraph in January. ‘She was my first love. On cold winter nights I would keep her warm with an old mackintosh thrown over her engine under the bonnet. Perhaps it was this that protected her from a thief one night. She was driven off our drive on to the road but steadfastly refused to go any further.’
It soon became clear that we’d hit a seam of experience in recent history, when lives and loves were expressed through small British cars of doubtful reliability. ‘While I was driving my Herald in the 1970s,’ wrote Karen Mullan of Hove, ‘the passenger door flew open on a bend, and my handbag and dog fell out. Happily both were retrieved without injury.’
Too much give in the Herald chassis often meant that the doors opened unexpectedly. ‘I found some old bed iron in my father’s workshop,’ wrote Henry Harvey from Dittisham, Devon, ‘and our local blacksmith kindly welded it for me. No unsuspecting girlfriend was ever ejected afterwards.’
‘In the 1960s I owned a Triumph Herald convertible,’ wrote Kenneth Vickers of Blackpool. ‘It was my first car and my pride and joy. When I last took it to the garage for its MOT, the testing mechanic said that, if I chose to leave it with him, he could dispose of it. I went home on the bus in tears.’
Just because readers were keen to recount tales of Triumphs and disasters did not mean they neglected high politics. I have been letters editor of the Daily Telegraph since 2005 and am moving on to other tasks at the paper. The government takes notice of what Telegraph readers write. Or, if it doesn’t, it’s doing even worse than readers suspect. For a generation, an underlying simmer of anger at politicians has been discernible in letters to the editor, turning into a rolling boil at times such as the mad spring days of 2019 leading up to Theresa May’s resignation, when parliament tried to take business into its own hands, as a sort of Committee of Public Safety with Oliver Letwin its unlikely Danton.
The letters had boiled over entirely ten years earlier over the revelation of the MPs’ expenses scandal. Day after day, the paper received 1,200, 1,500, even 1,800 letters from readers. The normal daily base rate at the Telegraph is 600. Every one is read. So if it takes a minute to read each, that’s ten hours’ work. We share it out among the small team on the letters desk.
It adds up: thousands of letters a week, hundreds of thousands a year, a few million in the years I’ve been at it. It’s like shaking hands with the readers.
Some people write every day. We have a rule of thumb for no one to appear more than once a month. There isn’t much green ink, because only a few dozen write by hand. In the 1990s a postal strike meant difficult days for my predecessor; now it wouldn’t make a dent. We did mend the office fax machine because dear old Frederick Forsyth liked to write in by fax. It also proved useful in confirming the authenticity of letters from the double agent Oleg Gordievsky; you could see that it was his typewriting.
Now reaction is instant. Instead of receiving a letter the day after a defeat or a death and publishing it on the third day, readers can email and see their letters online at a minute past midnight.
The nature of letters is different from quasi-anonymous comments posted below articles online, too often resembling a sort of 2 a.m. delirium, like drunks overheard in a provincial bus station. A letters page is enjoyable to read because the writers are identifiable and put in an effort, and their contributions are curated. As the letter on the opposite page here from Vida Saunders indicates, newspapers and magazines become part of people’s lives.
Though letters on important issues of the day go at the top, the most important decision is which to put in the bottom right-hand corner, where funny letters go or those spotting an unnoticed trend. One day in 2015 we put this letter there: ‘I was interested to read about the teddy bear that accompanied a Battle of Britain pilot as I too have a little bear, with my maiden name tape sewn on it, which I gave to my fiancé to take with him on his operations over Germany during the second world war.
‘He was a Mosquito nightfighter pilot and flew 50 ops accompanied by my bear, and together they won the DFC.
‘We were married for 50 years but now, sadly, I just have the bear.
‘Jean Mellows, Dorking, Surrey.’
It was a perfect short letter: factual, poignant, reticent. It had a huge response on social media. We later published an interview with the author and published the little bear’s photo, with the DFC.
The letters page, whether in The Spectator or the Daily Telegraph, brings people together precisely because it is not generally about them, but about subjects in which they find a common interest. It’s a forum and, like a real forum, people walk about sociably, talking with one another.
Heaven knows there’s been enough to discuss, with Brexit, Covid, war and taxes. But last year came a surprise crop of quotations from school reports, many of which would not be countenanced today, some making the best of things, others indifferent or cruel. But they were memorable and I was grateful to pass them on.
‘Nigel is the best of the non-swimmers’; ‘Penny’s country dancing has improved greatly this term’; ‘Wendy is a nice girl who means well’; ‘I cannot understand what makes his parents keep him on at school’; ‘A dull boy who perks up at the prospect of food’; ‘Bowen is extremely fluent. Unfortunately not in French’; ‘Barber is the kind of child who gets paint inside his overalls’; ‘She uses too much solder’; ‘It doesn’t look like Iain will be getting a new bike for Christmas.’
Christopher Howse writes for the Daily Telegraph

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