A very cross letter arrives from someone who wants to tell me I’m a ‘silly woman’. ‘You are a silly woman,’ says the letter. It is from a lady called Mrs Inglis who lives in Edinburgh but gives no more exact address or email so that I can reply.
If I could reply, I would write back and say: ‘Dear Mrs Inglis, Of course I’m a silly woman. That’s kind of the point.’ Mrs Inglis also sends me a copy of my own article. She sends it to me, in the post. She has cut it out of the magazine and put it in an envelope. This is not the first time such a thing has happened. When I was a political correspondent on the Telegraph I was inundated with people sending me my own articles on a daily basis.
I am never really sure why anyone thinks I might not have read what I’ve written. A cursory reflection on the writing process would surely lead one to the conclusion that it is more than likely a writer might be aware of the musings that have come out of their head.
But over the years I have been sent many copies of my own work, sometimes annotated, sometimes with biblical quotations on them, once with a detailed drawing of a part of the male anatomy at the top, with a picture of my face superimposed on it. They’re all in a cardboard box somewhere, in case I need to cheer myself up one day when I’m old.
Mrs Inglis thinks I might need to be made aware of an article I wrote about being size 8 in a supersized world, and not being able, therefore, to find knickers small enough to fit me.
Clipped to the copy of the article is an accompanying note, which begins by telling me I am a silly woman and also a disingenuous one for complaining about the lack of size 8 knickers in M&S when the real problem is the lack of size 16 knickers — a lack, coincidentally, that is afflicting her good self. It goes on: ‘Like many thin, childless women of a certain age, you secretly resent women — of normal size — who have children when you have none yourself.’
Mrs Inglis is quite right. I would rather be fat and have children. I’m not taking issue with that part of her argument, although I do suspect her sentence could be reversed, thus: ‘Like many overweight mothers of a certain age, I secretly resent thin, childless…’ The grass on the other side is always greener.
I also think there is a difficult issue here about what is normal. Mrs Inglis says she is normal at size 16. I say I am normal at size 8. Normal, shnormal. You eat potatoes, I eat potaaato. We could argue all day about that. It’s really not going to get us anywhere.
The thing that really upsets me is that Mrs Inglis obviously didn’t find what I wrote remotely funny. My attempt to parody myself as a scrawny neurotic in perpetual search of small pants didn’t tickle her pink at all. It just infuriated her and ruined her day. Oh dear. This is not good. I don’t mind offending people. But I do get disorientated when I fail to entertain.
When asked why he writes, Stephen King says: ‘Why do you assume that I have a choice?’ In explaining the writing process, he maintains that all human beings have filters on the floors of their minds in which the sludge of their thoughts becomes caught. The sludge, the stuff that won’t pass through, gets sifted and resifted.
Some of us seem destined to sift and re-sift the sludge many more times than is natural or convenient for us. The smallest things so bother us that there is no peace until we have fashioned them into a piece of prose and ejected them from our heads that way. I’m not proud of the fact that I would have written about my pants regardless of whether someone saw fit to publish an article about my pants. Writing is terribly uncommodious in this respect. There is not always a lot of dignity in it. Writers are really no more than blocked drains.
But here’s the silver lining. Every now and then, in the process of attempting to empty my sludge filter, amusement and merriment is thereby caused to others. I know this because I get kind letters from Spectator readers who tell me they have laughed like loons at my misfortunes.
I’m more grateful to them than they will ever know. Their capacity for humour means that someone who might ordinarily be a sad, lonely obsessive gets to give something mildly tangible back to society.
Just not to Mrs Inglis, obviously.