Let me tell you about the best thing anyone’s ever written to me in a letter. To do so, I must briefly take you back to a long summer in the mid-Nineties, when life was all pagers, Oasis and Laser Quest.
I was a teenager facing an empty week. So I decided to try to write the worst joke I could. The joke, which I laboured over, and which was very laboured, was this:
Hercule Poirot: “Hmm. Zere is something fishy about zis case.”
Captain Haddock: “That’s because I am a fish!”
As you can see, this joke is broken on many levels. Hercule Poirot, the great Belgian detective, would not be hanging out with Captain Haddock, a cartoon sailor from the Tintin series, though they are both Belgian so they might at least have friends in common. Plus, Captain Haddock might in this scenario claim to be a fish but why would he? He is not a fish.
For all these reasons – and the fact it isn’t funny – I rightly believed this to be a bad joke. But then what? Well, I would see whether anyone wanted it.
So I bought envelopes and stamps, and I sent this joke out far and wide. I sent it to radio stations. I sent it to greetings card makers. I sent it to people off the telly.
And I sent it to my heroes.
Every few days over the next few weeks I might get a reply that would make my day. Hallmark Cards got back to me, having read this Poirot/Tintin mash-up and presumably discussed it at length in meetings. I’d been worried that the respective licensing issues between the estates of Agatha Christie and Hergé might be prohibitively expensive and difficult to work out, but this didn’t seem to faze Hallmark. Instead they told me they were “very impressed” by the standard of my work, but it did not fit the direction of the company at that time.
Richard Whiteley was the host of Countdown in those days. An affable, genial presence on afternoon television and a man who, several years later, I would inexplicably play a game of darts against. But back then we were strangers. And he was not happy.
Because when I sent the joke to public figures, I had included not only a stamped addressed envelope for ease of reply but a binding contractual stipulation.
I wrote, in block capitals:
PLEASE DO NOT STEAL MY JOKE OR I WILL FIND OUT AND REPORT YOU.
Who I was implying I would report them to I’m not sure. Though Twitter has since filled the gap, in the mid-Nineties there were no joke police. It is unlikely Richard Whiteley would have faced trial, much less served a sentence, but he took issue with my demands.
“Your joke is lousy,” he replied. “How could you possibly think I would steal it? You need more practice. After all, it took me 14 years to get where I am! Keep trying – if you have any more free jokes.” He finished witheringly: “PS. I have used my own envelope.”
It was quite a rebuke from Mr Whiteley. He was so disgusted with me he couldn’t even bring himself to use my envelope. But like I said, I also sent this joke to my heroes. Such as the legendary Ronnie Barker. I knew that since he’d retired from comedy, he’d been running an antiques shop in west Oxfordshire.
I imagined him in thick glasses, struggling with the cash register, slowly morphing into Albert Arkwright from Open All Hours. So I found the address. I sent the joke. And you can imagine my delight when a letter arrived on my mat postmarked Oxford and in the envelope I’d generously provided.
And then… I left home. Went to university. Started working in London. I would think of his reply sometimes, I could remember the thick ink, the handwriting, but though I looked for it more times than I can recall, I could never find it. It never showed up when I moved house or rifled through old boxes. It was a lost yawn of nostalgia; one of those moments from near-childhood, near-adulthood that disappeared as empty weeks in long summers became something to yearn for.
My letter from Ronnie Barker about the world’s worst joke was gone forever.
Until this week. When I rifled through some old boxes. And found familiar handwriting. My own. On an envelope with a stamp postmarked Oxford.
My heart leapt.
“Dear Danny,” I read, and there was that inky blue handwriting on personalised stationery. “Thank you for your letter, but I retired eight years ago (you must have missed it in the press), so now have no connection with showbusiness whatsoever. I’m not in the market for new material, my apologies.”
But here’s the best bit. The bit I thought I’d never see again. The Ronnie bit.
“I will certainly (and this is a promise) never use your joke – not even in private conversation. Yours sincerely, Ronnie Barker.”
And that, my friends, is the very best thing anyone’s ever written to me in a letter.
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