On letters and leeches


    Have you ever paused at the end of an email, wondering how to sign off?

    As The Spinoffs Madeleine Chapman writes, “while email openers have been well established – Hi, Kia ora, Mōrena – please for the love of god never open an email with just the recipient’s name – the email signoff is still the wild west.”

    There are too many choices, most of them odd.

    ‘Yours &c’ is so old that nobody knows what it means. ‘Yours truly’, ‘Yours sincerely’ and ‘Yours faithfully’ seem suspiciously over-egged. ‘Stay safe’ is too dramatic, and ‘many thanks’ too casual.

    Chapman loves receiving emails with an ‘x’ sign-off from strangers – but can’t bring herself to reciprocate with to people she doesn’t know.

    She prefers ‘mauri ora’, which, as she says, is “strong, snappy and literally life affirming”.

    I default to a respectful ‘ngā mihi’ – or, more controversially, ‘cheers’, which I insist on seeing as friendly and purposeful.

    One of the most famous signoffs in New Zealand history is Thames Coromandel District Mayor Len Salt’s response to a sovereign citizen conspiracy theorist: “Go f… yourself, kind regards, Len”.

    Chapman is usually no fan of ‘kind regards’, but heartily approves of it in Len’s case. “Kind regards may seem neutral but with so many alternatives, it is now the coldhearted choice. It’s the ‘I’m not mad, just disappointed’ of email signoffs.”

    Victorians liked to end formal letters by giving the letter’s point another boost, in case the reader had fallen asleep. For example: ‘Yours in great distress of mind’, ‘Yours in sackcloth and ashes’ or ‘Yours in heartfelt gratitude and relief.’ These are better than another favourite of the era, the grovelling “I am, Sir or Madam, your obedient servant”.

    These flourishes crop up in my treasured book of ‘Great Letters’ to The Times of London (100 years worth) a collection of scathing, testy, snobby, furious, sad, bonkers, funny letters about Things Which Once Seemed Important to Times readers (admittedly, an eccentric subset of the global population).

    They have, on the whole, dated badly.

    One letter rebukes ‘the too quickly elevated classes’; another touts the health benefits of eating (real) grass. There are a large number of letters about porridge. Times readers of the past worried more about porridge than housing, climate change or the environment.

    Sample quote: “Each breakfaster, while remaining seated, should raise a fully charged spoonful of golden syrup as high as possible above his or her plate, and try to ensure that the descending globule of syrup penetrates the exact center of the porridge. This can be surprisingly difficult.”

    Both world wars produced poignant letters, and then there was this one from a WWI parasitic worm expert. 

    “Sir, Our country has been for many months suffering from a serious shortage of leeches. As long ago as last November there were only a few dozen left in London, and they were second-hand. Whilst [the enemy] persist in fighting over some of the best leech-areas in Europe, possibly unwittingly, this shortage will continue. Last week… I have succeeded in landing a fine consignment of a leech which is used for bloodletting in India. I believe, from seeing them a day or two ago, they are willing and even anxious to do their duty.”

    Another voice from the sepulcher of time (1958) argued that train seats should be reserved for men only.

    “Which is more important, that workers should be able to read their newspapers and keep abreast of world affairs and arrive fresh for their business, or that the seats should be filled with women travelling to London to have their hair permed?”

    Another writer warned of the female ‘menace’ threatening male-only clubs. “They are too tired to light their own cigarette, too weak to open doors, and too fragile to stand up if there is a man to offer his chair.”

    Letters like these are now museum exhibits, their authors swamped by a wave of social change, inspired,  in part, by public commentary – like letters to the editor.

    “Once upon a time, the idea of women voting let alone occupying seats in Parliament,” wrote Chlöe Swarbrick in the NZ Herald this month, “the idea of civil rights, the right for me to marry who I love, were impossible to fathom. These changes didn’t happen by accident. They were values and causes fought for and won.”

    Her column fluently attacked the 2024 budget for frittering public money away in uselessly tiny tax cuts.

    The same point was made, magnificently, one day later in Gulf News’ letter page.

    “Hi Nicola [Willis], I just wanted to personally thank you for the [$14.7 billion of tax cuts] in your budget. I’m a beneficiary currently receiving $462 a week in superannuation. I’m looking forward to getting another $2 every week. After much thought I’ve decided that I will put aside one dollar for a rainy day; i.e. the projected rise in the price of electricity. The other dollar will buy me one weekly banana. I plan to cut it into seven, and will think of you every day, when I eat it.”

    Letters to the editor show it is possible to change the course of history – one letter to the editor at a time. • Jenny Nicholls

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