Friday, 30 September 2011

Letters from Conrad

After my dad retired, he got into the habit of writing letters to his relations and friends, which he kept up for most of the 1990s and early 2000s. They were surreal, funny and occasionally brilliant. Some form an imaginary set of 'Practical Guides', while others chronicle a series of adventures with recurrent characters. By and large, they deal comically with his experiences as a 'senior citizen' coming up against an increasingly unfamiliar world. He satirizes modern pop psychology, New Age mumbo jumbo, corporate-speak and bureaucracy. He also caricatures himself as antagonistic, pedantic, insecure and meddlesome. They form a honest yet sly self-portrait.

People often suggested that he should have them published, either as a little collection of comic essays or as a regular column in some magazine or other. But for one reason or another, Dad was reluctant to do so. Perhaps it's just as well, as it's hard to imagine what sort of audience there would be for this sort of material. Not everyone 'got' Dad's humour. Many of the letters are politically incorrect, and his satirical portrayal of women is particularly barbed, but there is no malevolence or prejudice. Above all, Dad liked instigating arguments, so any provocative sentiments must be understood as part of a mischievous, Liverpudlian irony. It helps if you imagine them being read out in his lilting voice, which alternated between a clownish, mocking faux-grandeur, and an earthy bathetic drawl. Sadly, we no longer have his voice, but the letters remain.

Although Dad never published the letters, he was generous at distributing them, so I have no qualms about sharing them now. They are not in any way private. If you wanted to be added to his mailing list, you only had to ask. As each installment was completed, he would fill your name at the top of the letter and post you your very own copy. At the height of his output, Dad would send out a dozen copies of each letter at a time. Essentially, Dad was a blogger, though the word didn't exist back then. (He made a few attempts to get the hang of using the Internet, but it evolved faster than he could grasp its intricacies, and the overwhelming weight of rubbish it contains taxed his patience.)

With the idea of a blog in mind, I dug out a folder full of these letters from Dad's filing cabinet. In his inimitable handwriting, there were some scrawled attempts to number and organize the letters, on scraps of paper and Post-It notes. The dating of the letters is in most cases impossible to determine or rationalize, as he would put the current date on any letter he sent, regardless of whether he had written it years previously. My aim in transcribing them is to tidy up the lapses in spelling, grammar and syntax (faults he would leap on and hold jubilantly up to ridicule if he found them in anyone else's writing), but I will otherwise leave them exactly as he wrote them, including his occasionally eccentric layout and punctuation.

Some of the letters are duplicates or contain repeated material, and I will be asking those of his readers who were more careful in keeping these treasures safe them to supply me with copies of the many missing ones. When I've completed editing and posting the (approximately) fifty comic letters, I may add other bits of Conradiana. There are writings on economics and on philosophy, tongue-in-cheek letters to the Ealing Gazette and angry ripostes to the Guardian.

Accordingly, I'd like to invite you firstly to get a yourself a drink, and then to enjoy the inaugural post on a new website – – a curiously high-tech memorial to my dad. I have tried to keep it as simple as possible.

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