Dear Sir

E.S. Turner

  • The Henry Root Letters
    Weidenfeld, 156 pp, £4.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77762 9

What does it cost these days to buy a knighthood or a life peerage? Henry Root, who claims to have made a fortune out of wet fish, applied to the Conservative Board of Finance to find out. ‘I read recently,’ he wrote, ‘that a “drop” of as little as £25,000 to one of our leading politicians was enough to obtain a seat in the Lords for the donor. Has inflation bumped up the price? Let me know. I’m waiting with my cheque-book ready.’ In reply, he received a cordial and unoffended letter from a major-general, addressing him as ‘Dear Mr Root’, explaining, ‘I think I must make it absolutely clear that there is no question of buying Honours from the Conservative Party,’ and saying he was ‘most grateful’ for the support extended to the Party by Root.

Write a silly letter and you will get a civil answer. That is the lesson to be learned from a book which the publishers think (perhaps correctly) ‘will produce a warm glow in the hearts of ordinary folk everywhere’. If Henry Root has done nothing else, he has exposed the mealy-mouthed subservience to which a regard for public relations has reduced so many in authority. What has become of the dignity of office, never mind the insolence of office? Why do public figures take outrageous insults lying down? Must fools be suffered so gladly? What has happened to umbrage? Where is the bruising asperity with which editors used to address those who spoke out of turn? Must a Lord Chancellor meekly accept references to his ‘broad bottom’ on the Woolsack? Must the Queen take polite notice of a letter which says: ‘I am sorry to hear of the trouble you are having with Princess Anne. My Doreen (19) is off the rails too ...’? In short, is what is wrong with the nation today an inability to tell people like Henry Root to get knotted?

No picture of Root appears on the book jacket. Such a modesty in the immodest is not surprising, for it is quickly obvious that Root is no graduate of Billingsgate but a wag with a practised pen. And perhaps he is not such a foe of softies, sapphists, sodomites and liberals as he pretends.

Among the targets of his spoof letters (all correspondence is reproduced in facsimile) are Tory politicians, publicity-conscious senior policemen, fashionable lawyers and media figures. Root is not afraid to bait the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Parole Board. Characteristic of his idea of good clean fun is to write to an eminent firm of solicitors asking them to sue the head of British Leyland for a fancied affront. The firm declines his instructions but adds, interestingly, that before bringing such a case ‘we would have required very substantial sums on account.’ The same approach to another firm elicits a secretarial brush-off to the effect that ‘Mr Levine will be travelling significantly over the next several weeks.’ Root says he is sorry to hear about all this significant travelling and adds: ‘Nothing amiss, I hope?’

Having had a synopsis rejected by Jonathan Cape, Root feels he ought to make a bid for the firm. But which merchant banks, nowadays, are trustworthy? He writes to Hambro’s to tell them that his people have run the Bank through the computer and the printout shows ‘nothing to suggest you’re anything other than an honest and diligent enterprise ... Well done!’ A director of Hambro’s replies, making no comment on this certificate of cleanliness, but saying he doubts whether Cape is for sale; however, ‘if you want to discuss this matter further, please do not hesitate to contact me.’

Another victim of Root’s not wholly admirable art is the Greek Ambassador, who is irately informed that Mrs Root, while being treated in London for a back injury, suffered a lesbian advance from a Greek masseuse. The ramifying correspondence ends with an assurance to Root from the Foreign Office that the hands of strangers are as likely to be put up women’s skirts in Ibiza as anywhere else. With that out of the way, Root is free to apply to a model agency for girls to jump out of cakes at a regimental function and ‘go a bit’ with the guests. A threat to put the Provost-Marshal onto him worries him not at all.

To ensure a reply, Root often sends money with his letter, believing no doubt that a bank note weighs more heavily on the recipient’s conscience than a stamped envelope. ‘Here’s a pound. Bring back the rope,’ he writes to Mrs Thatcher, and her Private Office gratefully pays it into Party funds. ‘Here’s a pound – use it to enforce law and order’ he urges Sir David McNee, of New Scotland Yard, who politely returns it: but Mr Whitelaw, on receipt of a similar command, keeps the money for the Party. A fiver sent to the head of a grammar school to induce him to use improper influence on behalf of Root’s son is put into the school’s ‘fighting fund’, but a fiver dispatched to Magdalene College to ‘fix’ a place is returned smartly. Mr Justice Cantley, presented with £1 to comfort his retirement after the Thorpe trial, returns it by way of two policemen; and two more policemen call to admonish Root for sending £2 to the Criminal Record Office with a request that the names of certain public figures be run through the computer.

The Henry Root Letters is, of course, a deplorable work, an abuse of trust, an invasion of privacy, a corruption of good manners, a snook cocked at copyright and a disgrace to publishing: but it is often wickedly funny. It should be read by all who receive fan mail or are exposed to the views of the multitude.