Quote of The Week

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well-informed just to be undecided about them.”

Laurence J. Peter



My parents read a London newspaper called the Daily Mirror. This was an embarrassment, because the Mirror was a tabloid and not a quality paper. It was full of bathing beauties, murder stories and sports reports, and featured huge, shouting headlines. As a snobbish teenager I refused to read it, except for one columnist who went under the nom de plume “Cassandra.” His real name, I believe, was William Neil Connor.

Cassandra was an attack columnist. He said all the things that should not be said, and told all the truths that nobody wanted to hear. But he was always on the side of truth and justice, and I took him as a kind of role model. Later in life when I started writing newspaper columns myself the ghost of Cassandra was always in the back of my mind.

Somewhere along the way, but too late, I looked up the name Cassandra. My sketchy classical education had failed to teach me that she was a Trojan princess who was punished by the god Apollo for refusing his advances. He put an unusual curse on the poor woman. She was doomed to become a prophetess whose prophecies would always be true but would never be believed.

So it seems that I myself had been doomed without knowing it. My early fascination with that column in the Daily Mirror must have warped my brain, and I have spent half a century churning out prophecies that are always true but never believed. I can’t decide whether this is funny or tragic.

The Comic Sage of Remsenburg

If you are less than a certain age you may not be familiar with the comic genius of P.G.Wodehouse, pronounced Woodhouse. His novels and stories were the consolation of my teenage years, when schoolwork and examinations seemed to fill the whole horizon. For light relief there were always the books of P.G.Wodehouse.

He was the creator, among many other things, of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, in which an idiotic young man about town is saved from numerous disasters by his suave valet Jeeves. They were splendidly incarnated by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in the Masterpiece Theatre series which ran for four seasons in the early 1990s. The running joke in these books, which is as old as Shakespeare, is that the servant is smarter than the master, and not just smarter but also more of a gentleman. The plots are chaotic and complicated, but most of them concern the eternal struggle by Bertie Wooster to avoid marrying a succession of ghastly women, notably the appalling Madeline Bassett.

Here’s a passage from Jeeves and the Ties That Bind that summarizes Bertie’s perpetual dilemma.

“Madeline Bassett, daughter of Sir Watkyn Bassett of Totleigh Towers, Gloucestershire, had long been under the impression that I was hopelessly in love with her and had given me to understand that if she ever had the occasion to return her betrothed, Gussie Fink-Nottle, to store, she would marry me. Which wouldn’t have fit with my plans at all, she, though physically in the pin-up class, being as mushy a character as ever broke biscuit, convinced that the stars are God’s daisy chain and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born. The last thing, as you can well imagine, one would want about the home.”

Nobody else wrote (or writes) like that.

P.G.Wodehouse, or “Plum” as he is affectionately known by his fans, created a fictional world in which a giant pig called the Empress of Blandings, a passion for newts, or the correct arrangement of a white tie were infinitely more important than death or taxes, or even school examinations. It wasn’t a fantasy world on the lines of Harry Potter, but a wildly exaggerated version of a real world that had existed once upon a time, when Wodehouse was young – a world of idle young gentlemen and flighty women, suave servants and eccentric aunts. As a teenager, I badly wanted to enter that world. In particular, I wanted to be an idle young gentleman with a valet.

I was lucky to grow up with Wodehouse. Some critics say that he was the finest English comic writer since Shakespeare. He had splendid timing, just the right amount of erudition, and a marvelous way with words. He was also enormously prolific, producing a hundred and twenty-six books with titles like The Brinkmanship of Galahad Threepwood and A Pelican at Blandings Castle, plus over fifty plays and musical comedies, and hundreds of short stories. He was still busily writing in the year of his death at the age of ninety-four.

Although his stories and settings are so quintessentially English, P.G. made his reputation and his fortune in the United States. He came here in 1946 and lived in New York and Hollywood until 1955, when he and his wife Ethel settled in Remsenburg, Long Island, on a twelve acre estate by the sea. There he lived happily for the last twenty years of his life, surrounded by dogs and cats and still spinning his wonderful stories. He was belatedly knighted and became Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in 1975.

P.G.Wodehouse is worth remembering above all for his humor, which he never lost even when interned in Germany in the Second World War. Wodehouse’s subject was the human comedy, the endlessly entertaining contrast between what we pretend to be and what we are. He helped me to get life in perspective, to see the joke, which isn’t easy when you’re a teenager. The sad and pedestrian books now sold as “Young Adult” novels, full of family and school problems and facile solutions, are a poor substitute for the inspired satire of a writer like P.G. Wodehouse.

I think the evidence for P.G.s quality is that he still has fan clubs all over the world, the biggest in India, Russia and Japan, and of course in England. Millions and millions of people must have laughed out loud at his wonderful comic inventions. Come back Plum, we really need you.

Knowing a Book by its Cover

Writers must sometimes venture into activities for which we have few or no qualifications. Public speaking and salesmanship are two good examples. This past week I have been trying and failing to think intelligently about cover design. A visit to any bookstore will confirm that some book designers have tremendous flair, and others should never be allowed near a graphics program. It seems that I one of the latter type. My visual ideas are rubbish, and my grasp of typography and graphic design is about on a par with my grasp of quantum theory.

Book design is overrated, in my opinion. Books should be about words. Nobody buys a book for its cover, unless we include trashy paperbacks sold in airport bookstores. The French once had the right idea about jacket design. Most serious books in France used to be (and many still are) wrapped in the absolutely plain, graphics-free paper covers that I remember from my student days: title, author, publisher, and nothing else. They looked serious, and they were serious. If you wanted to know what was inside you had to read the book.

Americans have never gone for this simple and cheap solution. Book covers are advertisements, and must be created with the same care as the text – or perhaps more. Professional book designers are employed to do this, although most of us have strong ideas about our own books that the designers are paid to ignore.

A few weeks ago I had to come up with a cover design for my latest book, Dark Matters. This consists of eleven long critical essays calculated to solve all the world’s problems. Bright colors and clever illustrations seemed inappropriate, so I decided on the ultra-simple French style: title, subtitle and author’s name on a blank, almost black background.

I like the way it looks. Time will tell whether this stark design will carry Dark Matters all the way to the New York Times bestseller list. I’m not holding my breath.

Good News

Nobody can deny that we need some good news. Whether we will get any is another matter. My mother didn’t believe in good news. She heard nothing but bad news from the time she was born in 1909. Oddly enough there was chaos and war in the Middle East just after she was born, and the place has continued in much the same state to this very day. Then there was the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and then the Cold War when for more than forty years we were all expecting to be bombed into dust by those wicked communists. Oddly enough, they never got around to it. My guess is that the Soviets never had WMDs in the first place, just big painted models that they paraded through Red Square on May Day.

The odd dull moments were livened up with Korea, Vietnam, Granada, and famines and civil wars all over the place. More recently we’ve had the 9/11 terrorist attack, the war in Afghanistan, and Iraq wars I and II. When human ingenuity fails, nature can always be relied upon to deliver, a tsunami or a hurricane.

When did you last hear some good news? It’s a silly question. News doesn’t work lie that.
My time as a newspaper journalist is long past, but I do remember that only bad news sells. We dreaded a slow bad news day. As the most junior person on the reporting staff I was responsible for covering any small gaps that appeared in the news pages, due to the fact that nothing bad had happened. So I routinely wrote little items of imaginary news to fill the spaces. Usually these were traffic accidents or vague disturbances in which no one was arrested. I learned very quickly what was wanted, and it wasn’t a heartwarming story of a little girl finding her lost bunny. It had to be something exciting, alarming, or depressing. Just watch the Fox TV channel. You don’t have to have a PhD in media studies to figure out their game: bad news, fear, mysteries, and ideally all three at once. It’s simple-minded, but it works.

Most of us prefer bad news. Study your family when the TV news is on. Watch when their eyes are fixed on the screen, and when they drift away. Over the decades dozens of people have launched “Good News” newspapers and TV shows, but they all sank without a trace, and quickly. Someone once gave me a link to a web page called Happy News.com. It had stories of survivors, pets rescued, sports victories, health breakthroughs, and so on. It was all good stuff, but even HappyNews.com had an unhappy news button, in case you couldn’t stand it anymore.

Good news just doesn’t grab us. Consider these imaginary headlines: “President Embraces Health Care for All;” “Afghanistan Endorse Democratic Constitution: All Rebel Groups Disarm”; “Massive Federal Effort to Abolish Income Inequality.” If The New York Times had to survive on headlines like that it would be dead in a week.

Here’s an interesting paradox. In the mass media good news is almost always personal (the rescue, the recovery, the survival). Bad news is almost always social (refugees, economic problems, war). If research showed this to be true, it would be a triumphant vindication of American individualism. No matter how bad things get out there, each of us personally is doing just fine. I’ll leave you to spot the logical flaw in this argument, if there is one. The bottom line is that in order to have a small amount of good news worth reporting, you first have to have a very large amount of bad news. Every cloud has a silver lining.

The Intellectual and the Clown

September 18th, is the birth anniversary of that prodigious poet, essayist, lexicographer, critic, philosopher and wit, Dr. Samuel Johnson. He was born on this date in 1709, and dominated the English literary scene for more than half a century. Among many other things Dr. Johnson gave us his famous dictionary, and a whole arsenal of quips and quotations that have passed into the language. Many of them are still carry a sting today.

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of a civilization.”

“No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous.”

“Nobody but a blockhead every wrote except for money.”

“The Triumph of hope over experience.” (On second marriages).

But the real reason I want to mention Dr. Johnson’s anniversary is to raise the question: where are the Dr. Johnson’s of today? More specifically, where are the towering intellectuals who also had wit and humor, and could speak to us all in everyday language?

Wit and wisdom, it seems, have been separated into different social compartments. Wit and humor belong to the entertainment industry, while intelligence and thoughtfulness are claimed by the academic industry. (Politics, of course, exists in a separate realm, without either humor or intelligence).

The sharp division between “funny” and “serious” writers is a false dichotomy, and a sad one. Ideas and arguments are much easier to absorb if they come with a touch of humor, and humor is much funnier if it contains a spark of intelligence instead of relying on pratfalls and dumb family jokes.

Writers need to communicate difficult, unwelcome ideas as well as light and amusing ones. My two great heroes from the past age are Mark Twain and H.L.Mencken, both of whom combined the qualities of the intellectual and the clown. These were writers who changed the minds of their many readers by making them laugh, or at least smile grimly in recognition. I would love to be like them, of course, but I’m afraid I come up a bit short on the intellectual front. I know a few real intellectuals, and they are formidable.

But today’s intellectuals generally prefer to avoid the seductive techniques of irony, satire, and parody. They fear they will be dismissed as “not serious.” They seem to care less about the other danger – that they will be not read at all.

Part of the Union

Labor Day is a confusing holiday. It’s supposed to mark the end of summer, but it doesn’t – certainly not on the east coast where September is often the nicest month. Summer officially ends on September 21, which is about right. Labor Day is also supposed to celebrate the trade union movement and the dignity of labor. But it doesn’t do that either. In 1994, the traditional Labor Day march in New York was cancelled due to lack of interest. It has been revived as a shadow of its former self, but it’s clear that labor unions are not very popular with Americans.

So I never know what to do with myself on this spare Monday, when the library and the banks are closed and everyone else on Long Island seems to go to the beach, and nobody seems to remember the Trade Union movement. As a foreigner I have been told that it is correct to eat hot dogs. If I do this I feel queasy all afternoon, not so much because of indigestion as because of the inward contemplation of what those hot dogs probably contained.

So usually I file some papers, pay some bills, cut the grass, and sat down with a glass of wine to contemplate Labor Day.
Who needs trade unions these days? Writers do, and we need them badly. Nobody is more isolated than a writer. We deal with editors, agents, and publishers one-on-one. Did you ever see the cartoon Bambi Meets Godzilla? You get the idea.

Most workers with a strong union can make their power felt. They are very strong in France, where strikes are a way of life as any traveler knows. “The Union makes is strong” was the old slogan, and it did, and it does, if you are lucky enough to have one.

Creative workers have a problem here. Actors in plays and musicals have some leverage, because they can cancel productions by going on strike. But independent visual artists and writers have no leverage at all. If all the writers in the world went on strike today, nobody would pay the slightest attention.

But there are unions for writers, and they do a great job in representing our interests to the corporations that buy our work. These “unions” work more by moral persuasion than by threat, and that’s good. Every working writer should join such an organization. The union makes us strong – or at least stronger than we would be without it.

Here are three possibilities. In the interests of full disclosure I should say that I am a long-time member of the first.

The American Society of Journalists and Authors (mainly for non-fiction writers): The National Writers’ Union: The Writers’ Guild

Join the union!

Politics and the English Language

It is usually a waste of time to suggest that: “Everybody should see this” or “Everybody should read that,” because “Everybody” pays absolutely no attention. But I’ll make an exception in this case. In a political season, everybody should read or re-read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” It doesn’t take long, perhaps ten minutes to absorb the whole thing, and it works like a kind of linguistic flu shot. Next time a toxic cloud of political rhetoric comes your way you will find to your surprise and relief that you are completely immune.

Orwell’s essay is more than half a century old, but it is as on target now as it was then. His subject is political language which, in his words, “Is designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He attacks the clichés that political candidates have always loved, and still do: our children’s future, the healing process, to reach out, time for change, vision, diversity, this great state, this great nation – and of course the ever popular at this point in time and going forward – all ways to keep talking while saying nothing. Such clichés are a sure sign that the speaker is not thinking, and doesn’t expect his audience to think either.

Then there are what Orwell calls “Verbal false limbs” – empty phrases whose only purpose is to avoid direct and unambiguous verbs and nouns: to render inoperative; to militate against; to have the effect of – instead of simple words like stop, prevent, cause. And pretentious words for simple things: expedite and clandestine instead of speed up and secret, ameliorate and liquidate instead of improve and kill.

Above all political language is full of code words and phrases that are essentially meaningless: family values, natural resources, human rights, the melting pot, the American dream, fair trade, global leadership, national security and so on. These all sound splendid, but they are impossible to define. We are all in favor of human rights, for example. But what does it mean? Nobody can agree.

To be fair it’s not easy being a politician in an age of total exposure. Candidates must talk continuously, unhesitatingly, and with apparent authority, for months at a time. Any sign of a pause for thought will be penalized by the electorate and the media as a sign of indecision: no thoughts are allowed, let alone second thoughts. At the same time candidates must keep talking without ever saying anything clear or definite that will be held against them later. They are additionally handicapped if, as sometimes happens, they have a small and repetitive vocabulary.

Politicians must depend very heavily on their speechwriters, who have made this kind of non-communicating language into an art form. We have seen how the TV pundits and comedians are reduced to silence when their writers go on strike. A strike of political speechwriters would be interesting. Perhaps we would hear the candidates’ real voices at last, or silence, which would be even more revealing. Or perhaps the striking comedy writers might be persuaded to cross the political picket line and bring their satirical skills to the campaign trail. Then at least we would get some entertainment out of this perpetual election.

Since we can’t make much sense of what candidates say, it all comes down to how they look, and how we feel about them. This may be a good way to choose a piece of fish or a new hat, but it’s an insane way to choose a political leader. We need to know how they think, and what they would say if they could only find the words.

Too Many Books

We were staying in a village close to the English town of Rye, which is famous for its sellers of used and antique books. Half a dozen such establishments are scattered along the picturesque high street. One rainy day I decided to hit every used bookstore in town.

I started at the east end, the forbidding Land Gate, constructed in 1369 as part of the town’s defenses against the wicked French invaders. The defenses failed. Nowadays the French come pouring through the Channel Tunnel, and the streets of Rye are full of French tourists. Napoleon would have been delighted. Right beside this ancient monument was the Land Gate Book Shop, its door firmly closed but its window displaying an eclectic selection of Audubon prints, nineteenth century romantic poetry, and modern thrillers.

Just up the hill was ‘The Book Worm,’ where I could have picked up a rare first edition of Trilby by Daphne du Maurier, or a leather bound set of the complete works of Edward Bulwer Lytton – a great but almost forgotten Victorian writer – at a knock-down price. I was almost seduced by a long out-of-print biography of the French composer César Franck. But self-control is built into an expedition like this. The modern economy-class air traveler can’t afford to accumulate books. They’re just too heavy.

Books are solid things. They don’t grow old. It’s the subject matter that ages. Today’s ephemeral celebrity biography or instant Iraq war analysis will be outdated and forgotten before Labor Day. Used book stores preserve the good stuff – books that really tell us something about human nature, life and love – universal books. In these stores the literary connoisseur can discover half-forgotten authors, biographers and poets – whose works are no less good to read for being in faded bindings without colored pictures – and they cost next to nothing.

There are so many tens of thousands, even millions of important and wonderful old books that I should have read, but I haven’t read yet, and that I never will read. And it’s not only books by forgotten writers that make me feel guilty; it’s the sight of shelves and shelves of books by very famous authors whose works are almost never read outside university literature departments, and sometimes not even there. Who has read all the works of Dickens for example, or Twain, or Poe? Who has read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, or Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – two of the best adventure tales ever written? They sit on the shelves, waiting for readers who never come.

My tour took me into the dusty recesses of half a dozen old bookstores, including one called ‘Chapter and Verse’ that had a Latin motto engraved on its glass door: Cave Librum Unum Habentem – which I render in my schoolboy Latin as “Beware of a house with only one book.” I leafed through a well-worn 1802 edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in three volumes, but decided that it’s message was too contemporary for my taste. The first volume alone contains enough material on the collapse of democracy, Caesarism nd the illusions of empire to keep us thinking for quite a while. After a couple of hundred pages we might realize that we’ve been there, done that – and we don’t want to do it again.
It’s daunting to learn from the trade magazine Publishers Weekly that 140,000 new titles were published last year alone. So even if we ever catch up with the good books of the past, we will never in a dozen lifetimes catch up with the good books of the present.

It was the great Dr. Samuel Johnson who remarked that “Of the making of many books there is no end,” and I was struck by the thought – a horribly subversive and even wicked thought for a writer – that there are indeed enough books already. We could spend the next hundred years reading our way through the used bookshops of the world, or even just the bookshops of Rye, and never exhaust this literary treasure house. To save the drowning readers of the world I’m almost tempted to suggest a ten year moratorium on all new books; or most new books; or at least other people’s new books.

I Have Issues

The English language is constantly changing, but not necessarily improving. In theory every new word or usage enriches the language in some way. How could we communicate today without verbs like “to Google” or “to outsource,” or adjectives like “supersize”? But, all too often, new terms simply push out the old without raising the quality of our English at all.

The fad for political correctness in the late twentieth century turned a lot of our language into mush. Old people vanished and reappeared as “senior citizens,” stupid kids metamorphosed into the “educationally challenged,” drug addicts mysteriously turned into “substance abusers,” and so on. You’ve heard this all before, but it really matters because language matters. If we talk like phonies we will inevitably begin to think like phonies. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell, nailing the problem with his usual precision. Euphemistic, misleading, evasive, and just plain silly language now comes at us from every part of the political spectrum, and from business too. When we had to buy some curtains for our house I was amazed to discover that simple curtains were no longer available. We had to purchase “window treatments,” although they looked exactly like curtains to me.

The weasel word that’s aggravating me at the moment is “issues.” Whenever somebody is being difficult, or unreliable, or neurotic, their behavior is excused with the phrase: “Oh, he (or she) has a lot of issues.” This slippery term can also be used self-referentially, as in: “I have issues with that,” or even diagnostically, as in: “He can’t move ahead until he deals with his issues.”

Now “issue” in old English meant a number of things: the act of coming out, or an exit, or the label for a child in relation to its parents, or the act of publishing or distributing something, or a position taken in a legal case or a political dispute. I imagine that it is this last meaning that has been seized upon and made into nonsense by people who talk about “having issues.”

Issues are big problems or conflicts. Israel and Palestine have issues, President Trump and Nancy Pelosi have issues. Most of us don’t have issues worthy of the name; we have complaints. I have numerous complaints, as listeners to this commentary know all too well: about computers, international politics, plastic bags, household chores, and squirrels on my bird feeders, among many other things. But none of them qualifies as an “issue.”

Nobody likes to admit: “I’m a miserable, negative sort of person who is never satisfied.” But it sounds rather grand to say: “I have issues.” When I floated this topic in conversation I was earnestly told that “issues” are much more significant than mere complaints. “Issues” are the psychic scars left by a lifetime of pain and struggle – divorce, illness, death, failure and all the predictable traumas of modern life. Some people seem to nurture and treasure their unhappy experiences forever. Like the old Bourbon kings of France, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. So, they have issues.

In the course of writing this I inevitably examined my own character. I have been accused of having curmudgeonly tendencies, so perhaps I too have unresolved issues in my life. This would be rather fun, because I could join in the whining chorus about “issues” and feel that I am, once again, on the cutting edge of the English language.

I don’t buy it. Let’s call things by their proper names. We all have complaints, pet peeves, discontents, irritations, disappointments, resentments, bad memories, gripes, grievances, grouches, grudges, and grumbles. We all enjoy being petulant, peevish, whining curmudgeonly, and querulous from time to time. The English language is rich enough to express every good or bad thing that ever happened to anybody. We don’t need “issues.”

Dear Reader

Am I the only person who has problems these days with writing letters, and especially with beginnings and endings? The rules used to be extremely clear: you started a letter with a salutation: “Dear Mr. Jones,” “Dear John,” “My Dear John,” or “Dearest Emily, don’t let John see this letter,” according to the degree of intimacy, and signed off with “Sincerely” or “Very truly yours,” or “With love.” That’s how I’ve been writing letters all my life, allowing for some small transatlantic variations, and I feel comfortable with it.

However, as you know, these old-fashioned rules have completely evaporated. The freewheeling world of electronic communications doesn’t seem to need any such formalities. Everybody, up to and including the President, sends e-mails, tweets and text messages with no salutations or closings at all, and no names. I suppose the recipients can figure out who sent them, but it seems rather abrupt, not to say impersonal.

I haven’t learned the new style yet. One of my correspondents complained “You write an e-mail as if it was a letter.” Well, as far as I’m concerned, it is. But it’s true that the traditional forms do now seem a bit archaic. Consider the salutation “Dear” as in “Dear Mr. Jones.” It is oddly intimate, and the longer you think about it the stranger it seems. How can you address your accountant, for example, as “Dear” without seeming to make a veiled complaint about his fees. Just how dear to your heart are most of your correspondents? When it comes from a business it’s even stranger. Corporations often address me as if I was both a friend and a complete abstraction: “Dear Valued Client” (if I was so dear and so valued you’d think they could remember my name), or “Dear Frequent Flyer” as if I was a migrating bird. On the other hand informal salutations like “Hi” or Hello” seem too juvenile to use in writing to another adult.

Closing a letter or e-mail is even more difficult than opening it. Instead of the familiar phrases of formal correspondence we have a chaos of slipshod and meaningless exit lines: “Regards,” “Best wishes,” and sometimes simply “Best” (which leaves the recipient wondering, best what? I sometimes receive “Warm wishes,” presumably from Florida, “Cheers” and, most desperate of all “Have a nice Day.” As the late Peter Ustinov once said, when so addressed: “Thank you, but I have other plans.”

Lovers, if they write letters at all, are limited only by their imaginations and vocabularies. But the rest of us no longer know how to close a communication gracefully. It’s all too easy to strike a false note.

Foreign cultures are doubly treacherous. The British write “Love” to just about everybody of the opposite sex, and Americans may misunderstand this. An innocent greeting in French: “I would like to send you a kiss” may, colloquially, mean very much more.

I suppose that no letter writer in our busy times can be bothered with the subtle gradations between “Truly yours” and “Very truly yours.” Still less do we want to go back a century or more to the days when letters were typically signed: “I am, Sir, Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant,” even if there were any humble and obedient servants left to write them.

When I looked on the web, to see what instant up to date guidance is available to letter writers, I found that almost everything was geared to business letters and job applications. The few sites dedicated to personal letters were, I’m sorry to say, selling software containing ready-made letters and e-mails for all occasions. All you have to do is add the name. These are the modern descendants of those old-fashioned books of letter writing etiquette, that (for example) advised young unmarried ladies how they might properly correspond with young unmarried men, and vice versa. Those books don’t appear on the bestseller lists any more.

But sometimes I feel nostalgic for the stylish letters of the past. The charm of a good personal letter is that, like a dance, it combines intimacy with formality. It shows care and respect for the person on the receiving end. Totally informal communication is like yelling at someone across a street. It’s just tacky. Yours, most sincerely, David Bouchier.