It was a funny response in a way, though Hoggart had also stuck a hot knife in the sensitive spot where I felt hurt as an unpublished writer. At the time I wondered why anybody could respond to something so innocuous with such miserly contempt. Yet I suppose in the long term, Hoggart was right. He clearly knew the market. The world didn’t need another book of spoof letters or, at least, the world didn’t want mine. Yet with even greater hindsight, I wonder if he’d known about his illness when I’d written to him. It makes me feel slightly ashamed that I’d thought as I’d done. It’s easy to forget the real lives behind all the public facades. My letter might have arrived at a bad time. Feeling this shame, I voiced this thought today. I suppose I might feel more miserly had a friend not replied that I shouldn’t feel bad because all I’d ever done was try to make him laugh as he’d often made me laugh. That might be true.
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Yet it’s strange that I think back on that letter today. In Chester on Saturday, I’d spent five minutes walking around The Works after we were done at the hospital. We were wasting time until our train home and I was feeling so justified in my finding a specialist for my sister via Doctoralia that I was in the mood to treat myself. My eyes opened a little wider as I spotted a small pile of books on the shelf. They marked the last publication of the great Ronald Searle. Les Très Riches Heures de Mrs Mole is a series of illustrations that Searle drew for his wife as she underwent prolonged medical treatment. It’s a poignant but ultimately sad little book and I couldn’t bring myself to buy it, despite my loving all of Ronald Searle’s work. I’d written to Searle back in 2010 and I had got a reply, much to the disgust of my friend Stu who never had much success getting replies when he wrote to great illustrators. As I thumbed through the Mrs Mole book, I thought of Searle’s postcard, sitting in my fat file of replies. He’d generously taken time to write a response in his distinctive spidery scrawl, despite his wife’s battle with illness, yet his reply was perhaps tinged with a certain weariness when he wrote: ‘The best of luck in the world of illustration but from long experience I can say it’s a good thing you have your chisel-throwing to fall back on!’
Only a fool would disregard the advice when the greatest illustrator/cartoonist in the world tells you to give up but I’ve always been a fool and I continue to scrawl my cartoons that remain unpublished and, I think it’s fair to say, unwanted. In a way, I suppose in both cases, my letters had arrived in much feted lives but troubled by real concerns. It makes me wonder if the world every really needs spoof letters, tricksters, and men of shallow delights. I begin to wonder how much I might have intruded in a way that really was unwelcome and a just little bit wrong.
I don’t know… I do know that I miss Searle enormously and I’ll miss that swine Hoggart too. He brought some rare humour into British politics. And if he clearly thought my book a rat of an idea, I like to think that he had honour of being the first to tell me so.