Poison pens, Hitch on Hoover and so-so novels


Poison pens, Hitch on Hoover and so-so novels

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH discovers excellent writing, making the contrast with its opposite even more grievous.


FEW things are harder to deal with than letters by anonymous poison pen writers. The idea is to insult the recipent and make him feel bad or unnerved. It is easy to grasp the situation but much harder to handle it if you're on the receiving end.

When I was publisher, one of our editors received a scathingly critical anonymous letter by fax. It was possible to send faxes sent in ways that disguised the identity of the sender. The editor was extremely upset by the snide remarks in the fax. Because comments were also made about the work situation, we immediately knew the sender was known to us, but from the language used we were also able to draw inferences that eliminated certain staff members as suspects.

Sniffing out the guilty person, however, would be an expensive and cumbersome process, jeopardising major publishing projects. What we could do was reduce the possible senders to a two-person list based on what the fax said. We decided on a strategy that could best be described as “studied indifference". In front of the two “candidates", no evidence of our consternation was given, especially no indication that such a negative fax had been received. After a few weeks of this, we were pretty much courted by one of the people on our list and were able to formally begin putting distance between the company and him and his lover, our colleague.

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Emily Cockayne's Penning Poison made me think of that fax. Her book deals with the period from 1760 to 1939 in Britain. She is a historian and her book is an enormous pleasure to read despite her academic approach. In these times where the truth, lies, slander and vilification are illegitimate children of the same father, it is strangely uplifting to find that centuries ago Alex Jones and Infowars already had ancestors among ministers, pious mothers, nobility and bitter-mouthed plebs. Not to mention blackmailers.

Then there are people who have sent death threats to celebrities, as well as sexually obsessed people who have used anonymous letters to convey their unseemly lust to other men's wives. One obviously wonders about the logistics involved in sending and delivering the letters, and Cockayne's book is a treasure trove of information.

Her descriptions of how the sniffing out of transmitters has changed over the centuries are likewise particularly interesting. Wrongdoers often tried to explain in court that they were hypnotised or temporarily lost their reason. But most judges and magistrates were not fooled — William Burke, who in 1913 sent an improper letter to the writer Evelyn Underhill, was declared insane.

Cockayne also deals with the so-called Littlehampton Libels, in which the language used in smear letters was studied intensively. The film Wicked Little Letters, out next month, is based on it. Obviously, this is about personal feuds, as was the case I referred to at the start. But in the 18th century it was often about greater political enmities.

Someone like  Burke was a stalker, and in the Littlehampton Libels whole families were at each other's throats. In 1772, one Junius anonymously castigated the English government. Rigorous scientific analyses have revealed that Junius was the pseudonym of Sir Philip Thomas — based, among other things, on the way in which the writing of his letter “d" corresponded to Junius's. This was in the days when people's handwriting was calligraphically pure.

Penning Poison is a fabulous read but alas, it's about a time before computers, Facebook and the bots on Twitter/X. In a funny way, it amuses — humanity was once quite innocent in spirit. No more.

Penning Poison by Emily Cockayne was published by Oxford University Press and cost $19.25 at Amazon.

Gossip's glory usually lies in one's inability to verify the facts. You hear something that is completely OTT but because you can't get it confirmed, you have to resign yourself to the possibility that the speculation might be factually correct.

That's why it's such a delight to read Christopher Hitchens's review of Anthony Summers' Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (1993) in A Hitch In Time, which was considered by many listicles to be one of the best books of 2023. Summers unmasked Hoover but Hitchens delivers one of the funniest “hatchet jobs" I've read. His point is that Hoover was a ravenous old drag queen but no one was ever willing to reveal that fact. They were overly afraid of Hoover's wrath and revenge.

The review is one of the highlights in A Hitch in Time, James Walcott's collection of reviews and essays that appeared in the London Review of Books and have not previously been anthologised. One of the most delightful is Hitchens's essay on Bill Clinton, in which we learn that the former US president surely didn't inhale weed — there were plenty of marijuana cookies and brownies around that made smoking redundant. Well then, we'll probably have to believe Clinton's defence about the mistress as well.

A Hitch in Time by Christopher Hitchens was published by Atlantic Books and costs R357 at Exclusive Books.

In its depth, this novel is superficial. If you want to read it to be tickled, there will be certain joys awaiting you. Until now, Blakley-Cartwright has focused on young adult fiction. Here, she aims at adult readers with the story of Sadie and Alice who have been friends since childhood and in their early twenties struggle to live out their sexual whims.

Sadie is the daughter of Celine, a professor of lesbian feminism in San Francisco, and in response to her mother's unconventionality she has a very conventional attitude about sex. She struggles to do the deed with her geeky boyfriend at 23. Alice and Celine, on the other hand, fall in love and are at a loss. Due to the predictability of the story, one is rarely surprised; what afforded me a lot of pleasure, though, is the manner in which Sadie became prissy and prudish, a shrinking violet. Probably not unlike the modern phenomenon of the naughty sons of reverends.

Alice Sadie Celine by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R574 at Exclusive Books.

I bought this book because I read an interview with the author in which she said a novel is good based on the quality of the writing. Measured by that metric, I have bad news. It's not a good book. It has a nice story about a woman who inherits a house, argues with her sister, deals with raging midlife hormones and keeps her old childhood lover at bay. And finds herself, if you understand what I mean. But good writing it is not, let's be honest. One of those books that warrants little more than a quick browse.

Welcome Home, Stranger by Kate Christensen was published by HarperCollins and costs R621 at Exclusive Books.


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