This can only be the letters page of the local newspaper. The growls of provincial townspeople over the centuries are at the center of a new book by Wolverhampton-born author Nigel Cawthorne.
The book, titled I Don’t Believe It – Terrific Outrage from Middle England, is the result of hours Cawthorne spent perusing old newspapers at the British Library, and having lots of laughs along the way.
Many letters from the 19th and early 20th centuries look a lot like some form of pre-social cyber-troll. This is particularly true of a letter, duly signed “GAS”, where the author seems to take a disagreement with a corresponding colleague a little too personally:
“My offer to accompany him (minus a respirator) to a mustard gas chamber still stands,” the correspondent wrote, a little threateningly.
There is no “Disgusted with Tunbridge Wells”, which was the title of one of Cawthorne’s previous books. And there is, in fact, no letter from his hometown newspaper, the Express & Star, which relatively late adopted the Letters from Readers page. But there appears to be a disproportionate amount of anger from the seaside town of Whitstable in Kent.
One of them, who signed his letter “A Damaged Blackout Walker”, called for action on the low trees.
Writing to the Whitstable Times and Tankerton Press at the start of the ban regulations in November 1939, the reader observed: “A number of people have trees in their front gardens that overlook the sidewalk and are often so low that they come in contact with heads, hats and umbrellas. In the current “black-out” conditions, this is particularly troublesome. The local council should help. “
Another letter to the Whitstable Times, dated February 1879, describes rather improper behavior at the end of the evening service in a chapel.
“The Reverend Mr. Blandford was confined to the chapel until 10 a.m., abusively chanting and threatening, and Mr. Sands was threatened by the clenched fists of three different people in his attempt to escape,” he said. observed the writer.
“The meeting was not broken up until the key to the chapel was reluctantly given to the Herne Bay gang who had previously rendered service.”
Cawthorne, who has written more than 200 books including biographies of Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Keir Starmer, says letters to the editor represent a surprisingly entertaining window into everyday concerns.
“They are much more alive than the history books because a real person tells you what bothers them and why in their daily life,” he says.
Cawthorne says the letters also demonstrate a degree of wit and nuance that is sorely lacking in social media exchanges.
“Sometimes these letters are really very moving, sometimes very funny for us,” he says.
“Before the internet turned complaints into a channel of sarcasm, trolls and vicious yelling, Britain had the subtle skill of cursing even an art.”
A particularly odd letter to the Whitstable Times, dated August 1884, praised Tankerton Beach, saying it only needed some sort of device to carry bathers into the sea: “I don’t found one thing that Tankerton was missing, and that is still a few bathing machines that can be thrown into the sea when the tide goes out, so bathers don’t have to walk a distance of thirty and fifty yards before reaching the water. “
It appears that at least one reader of the Maidstone Telegraph was very concerned about an “intolerable nuisance” on the waterfront.
“I am referring to the gathering on the Sabbath of a number of the lower guardrails near the barracks pier, playing ‘pitch and toss’ and insulting every respectable woman who walks by,” writes “JS”, in November 1863.
Cawthorne says the letters are generally ironic, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t real anger behind some of them.
“Things are generally handled lightly – indeed, with an appropriate British recklessness,” he says.
“But sometimes there’s a stiff upper lip and a lower lip quivering with barely suppressed rage.”
Another Whitstable Times reader, under the pseudonym “Disturbed,” wrote in January 1889 asking: “What steps should be taken to prevent the intolerable nuisance caused by boys and girls ringing the doorsteps of shopkeepers?” on Sunday ? , adding that his own bell had rung no less than 16 times.
“Where are the police? ” he added.
Writing to the same newspaper in April 1890, a reader using the pseudonym “Anti-Agitator” expressed concern about trade union activism coming from abroad:
“Sir – We have had an invasion of foreign agitators, the object of which seems to be to sow discontent among the workers at Whitstable.
“The invaders, augmented by a crowd (not representative of the workers), marched through the streets last Friday with considerable noise, to establish a union.”
Cawthorne says venting anger is a basic human need, but the art of newspaper lettering is also a uniquely British phenomenon born out of centuries of free speech.
“The UK is exceptional in that opinions can always be expressed liberally,” he says.
“It has almost become an inalienable right to babble, taunt and rant about anything and everything.
“The principle found early expression in Magna Carta, arguably the first letter to the editor.
“From there the right has grown dramatically and successfully and transformed into a democracy, spreading around the world. It is not a bad result.
I Don’t Believe It – Terrific Outrage from Middle England, by Nigel Cawthorne, is published by Gibson Square for £ 9.99.