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11:53am on Sunday, 25th March, 2007:

Never-Written Fan Letters


Celebrities receive fan letters all the time, but who sends them? Not me — I've never sent a fan letter in my life. That isn't to say I haven't considered writing them, though. Indeed, there were two people I had in the back of my mind that I felt I really should write to sometime, but I never got around to it before they died. I don't supposed I ever would have, because I wouldn't have known what to say. Nevertheless, they were people I admired enough to wish I had written to them in a "you don't know me but..." kind of way. In each case, I was saddened when I heard of their death primarily because of the loss, but also because it meant that my intended connection could never be made (even if "intended" were as far as it was ever going to get) .

One of these people received so many fan letters that one from me wouldn't have made any difference: Charles M. Schulz. I was a fan of Peanuts from my mid-teens; I wasn't entirely sure why, at the time, except that I loved the gentle humour, and the seemingly effortless artwork was very accessible. There was more, though, which I didn't realise until much later when I was reading a biography of Schulz. Basically, Schulz created not just a cartoon strip, but an entire world — one based almost wholly on characterisation, rather than geography. It was this aspect of his work that gave Peanuts an appeal I never found elsewhere in cartoons — a richness of interactions so implicit and detailed that new humorous situations arose almost unstoppably from it. If there were ever a world where "emergent" meant anything, Schulz's Peanuts universe was it. I just wish I'd got around to telling him.

Schulz was almost universally liked, as his basic goodness was apparent to all. The other person I wished I'd written to was not in this category, and may come as a surprise to those who remember him: Bob Monkhouse. He was criticised throughout his life for his apparent insincerity, his slickness and (later) his game show host career, but I suspect the fundamental reason most people sniped at him was because he was very, very clever. He made his start as a joke-writer, and continued writing jokes throughout his life; some of his lines are the best I've ever read — they're not just funny, they say something, too. "Growing old is compulsory; growing up is optional.". It must have really hurt him that people thought he was insincere — he was one of the most genuine people on TV. A magazine once wrote fake begging letters to (I think) 200 or so UK celebrities, in which they told a fabricated sob story and asked for money; their aim was to expose the superficiality of celebrity "charity work". Only two people replied, and only one of those actually sent money: Bob Monkhouse. He said in a later interview that he suspected it was a scam, but if there was a chance it wasn't, well, if you can help then you have to, don't you? The reason I wanted to write to him was to say it's OK, there are people out here who can see through the veneer of sneering public opinion, who do recognise the sheer quality of his work, and who also feel for his predicament. It was only when he died, and people re-appraised his career, that there was a growing feeling of collective guilt that, you know, maybe he'd been misjudged, and maybe the constant anti-Bob snide remarks were unjustified and hurtful. I don't know if Bob Monkhouse himself understood the degree of esteem and affection in which he was held, but I wish I'd got around to telling him. Still, it's too late for that now: in his own words, "If you don't go to other people's funerals, they won't go to yours.".

Referenced by Leaving Presents.

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Copyright © 2007 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).