There come days when you just have to shrug your shoulders and accept that you’re having a crisis of confidence.
Today was one such day. Another happened a few weeks ago when that poor troubled nurse killed herself and the media blamed the two Australian hoaxers who had pretended (rather badly) to be The Queen and Prince Charles when they rang the London hospital where the nurse had been working on the switchboard. Not that I believed for one moment that anybody would have killed themselves because they’d been hoaxed. As I’ve always said: there was something else going on and a system that had failed. However, I did (and do) understand the anger and when the spotlight was on the business of hoaxing, I definitely found myself thinking about everything I’d ever done.
And the thing is: I don’t consider myself a hoaxer and I've never considered what I do to be hoax. Yet, even as I say that, I know it’s not an easy distinction to make. This is the first time I've even tried to put into words what I've been doing for these past few years.
My letters are sometimes called ‘spoof’ but that’s actually a lazy description, an easy way to sell them. I’m not even a fan of hoax letters and even the best, by Henry Root and Ted L. Nancy, probably never did enough (in my view) to reveal their true nature. Root was all about a certain sharp but pompous tone and Nancy too often plays a simpleton, with very bad English making his targets sympathetic towards him. And that’s the thing with spoof letters: they are genuinely too easy to write because they tend towards the bland and the simplistic. I won’t deny that I’ve written the occasional 'spoof' on rare occasions. I've had my weak moments when I was so desperate for a reply but my blandest letters have always been to people in positions where they wouldn't reply is they sensed that there was any kind of foolishness afoot. The dullest letter I ever wrote was to General Noriega. He sent me a postcard and I don’t feel too guilty about it.
Every one of my typical letters takes many hours to write and rewrite. They're like small short stories, 700-1000 words long, which are really invitations: broad, often bawdy invitations to play the fool with somebody willing to take the hits. The ultimate target of my letters is always Stan Madeley; his pretensions, ambitions, and his many failures which are generally indistinguishable from my own. I’m not embarrassed to send my best attempts at poetry, my cartoons, and even copies of my book to people even though it will invite ridicule. In fact, I embrace ridicule! The question of fake or real isn't even a question. I pretty much shout 'Of course it's fake' in every letter I write. My primary goal in any letter is to make the recipient laugh. I remember listening to the great Clive James about about there always being a moral purpose in art and the moral purpose of my art, if it’s even an art, is in the laughter which I hope brightens a bad day. Of course, there is always a chance that the recipient of the letter will think: ‘this is a spoof and I’m not playing’. There’s also an ever worse likelihood that the person takes my words seriously and plays along inadvertently. In the latter instances, I feel terrible because, as I say, I lack the hoaxing gene and I always want to make the person aware of the nature of my letters.
The somewhat more complicated truth is that I’m seeking a partner for a dance. I put a face bold and proud in the bottom corner of the letter in the hope they see it for what it is. I want it to be obvious from the very first word that I’m playing it for laughs and I want them to laugh along and respond in kind. And, in that respect, I’ve been very lucky that so many people have done just that. They had the humour and wits to understand the game. In fact, one of the harshest (and, I'd say, unfair) criticisms I’ve had is that there must have been some amount of complicity between me and the recipients of my letters; that they’ve already agreed to return with a silly reply. Well there never has been except for that big ‘wink’ implicit in the letters.
Yet on bad days, I’m still haunted by the words ‘spoof’ and ‘hoax’. It’s something quite different to anything I do. The hoax is the meaning that’s concealed from the reader but apparent to an elite audience who are ‘in the know’. It’s like the prank phone call: ‘okay, listeners, this is what we’re going to do so laugh along as our target makes a fool of himself.’ I really don’t see the point in that. I don’t see the point in humiliating the weak and vulnerable. My motives are very different. It’s about a sense of our shared humanity, all people laughing together and of proving that we can laugh together.
I worked very hard over Christmas sending off about 25 letters, written and rewritten until I could get them more compact or funnier. In many I included original hand-drawn cartoons (they might be worth nothing but they are the product of my imagination, my hand, my labour) and some had copies of my book, inscribed to the recipient. One, to a very public figure for whom I’d been lucky enough to find an excellent address (office addresses mean PAs who filter everything), had a good letter, a book, a A4 comic strip which took me about two days to finish, as well as a hand drawn Christmas card.
As of today: Twenty five letters out and one reply in return.
Friends tell me that it’s still early but I do wonder what happened to all that hard work. Was it discarded because people were too bored, busy, indifferent, or thought themselves too important to play my game? I think I’d rather have any of those just so long as they didn’t simply think it was a ‘hoax’.