I have been intrigued by the idea of the public letter writer for about forty years. In my twenties I was lucky enough to spend a fortnight in Ghana. That was wonderful in a number of ways. My enduring memories include the slave fort at Cape Coast, and a funeral at Elmina where the dancers were wearing costumes based on eighteenth-century grenadiers, floppy tasseled caps and all.
I can’t remember where it was I saw the letter writers. It wasn’t a big or impressive market. Some of the traders -mostly women – were just sitting on the bare ground with their meagre stock spread in front of them waiting for customers to come.
At the edge of market there were a couple of folding tables. Behind each was a folding chair. You cannot have an office without at least a table and a chair.
Each of the tables was protected by a tall umbrella from the sun. The umbrellas were secured in the ground. They must have had a spike at the end of the handle.
In the centre of each of the tables was an old Underwood or a Remington. I was still using my father’s old Remington at the time. I loved it.
Around the typewriters was the rest of the stock in trade. A packet of envelopes, a sheaf of paper, a pile of printed official forms.
The proprietors of the businesses were standing a little to one side. Business must have been a little slack.
They weren’t laughing or joking. These were serious men. I have the impression that one was wearing a traditional Ghanaian shirt with trumpet sleeves, and perhaps a skullcap, and that at least one of them was looking scholarly in glasses.
Public letter writers exist to write what their clients would have written if they could have written it themselves. I thought it was wonderful.
I hadn’t really settled down to anything when I left college. The fantasy of being a writer was still too strong. I was in and out of short-lived, unsatisfactory jobs.
If I had thought there was a market for public letter writers in England, I would have wanted to be one.
I have heard of public letter writers in other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The narrator of Naguib Mahfouz’ Children of the Alley is a letter writer. He is the first person in the Alley to have made a living from writing. Nobody understands him.
Public letter writers must have been fairly widespread in the Third World at one time. When there is a modern government which does its business on paper, a population which is largely illiterate and unemployed school leavers public letter writers are going to exist.
I would imagine they were an urban phenomenon. There can’t have been enough business in the villages for full-time specialists in letter writing.
Nowadays the public letter writers are being made redundant by computers. I feel sad.
Many years later I had the opportunity to work as a community mental health advocate. My sister says I was paid to make trouble, and did it.
I used to do correspondence for vulnerable people, and fill in forms for people who were paralysed by their anxiety about the bureaucracy. I was instructed. I was supposed to do what the clients wanted, and not what I thought was good for them. I often used to see the resemblance between what I was doing and what a public letter writer did.
The young woman whose story eventually prompted me to write In the Night the Men Come approached me about a housing matter. On one occasion I made an appointment for her to approve a draft of a letter before I sent it.
We met in a community centre on an estate that I had occasional use of. It was much more convenient for her.
We sat round the corner of the big meeting table. I watched her read the letter with full attention.
When she put it down she said, ‘That is what I would have written if I could have done it myself.’
I felt completely validated.
She knows about In the Night the Men Come. All she said was ‘Wow’. She hasn’t kept in touch. I wasn’t able to offer her a copy.
I don’t think it’s what she would have written at all. I have been very careful to make sure she can’t be identified. I have changed almost everything. Anything else would have been presumptuous.
I still do public writing. My flatmate is the chair of the local community association. When she needs a flyer or a press release she cajoles me. She is very proud of her literary lodger.
I wonder about the novels.
I don’t think I write the stories that readers would have written themselves. But maybe I can write stories that my readers need to have told?