Edward Collier, Trompe L’oeil Painting, circa 1699, oil on panel.

Letters to the Editor

My grandfather on my mother’s side, Paul Donnelly, was an inveterate writer of insistent letters to the editor.

Granddad had opinions, complaints, and ideas to share: about how his local and national governments might do their jobs better; about how the newspapers he read were letting them off the hook. Here he is writing from Richmond, Surrey to the Catholic Herald of Great Britain in early 1944, the year before my mother was born, warning against an Education Bill that he thought would give “100 per cent. State control” over British schools, thus threatening their individuality (very much a religious question for Paul). After my mother and her twin brother were born, he tired of watching mothers struggle with heavy prams (that’s ‘strollers’ to the Yanks) built for two babies or more (our family’s fit three), and mounted a successful campaign to install ramps in Richmond’s curbs.

Paul was sometimes too opinionated. When he, my grandmother Joan, and their six children moved to Perth, Western Australia in 1947, he brought his letter-writing habit with him. The click-clack of his two index fingers pecking at his typewriter was a regular sound of my mother’s childhood. When he retired from his job as Western Australia’s Fuel Technologist, he picked up the pace, sounding off on education, public safety, morals, and religion. He wrote so many letters to Perth’s newspaper, the West Australian, that the editors made a ‘one letter per writer per week’ rule. Naturally, Paul began writing under pseudonyms, until his style and familiar talking points gave him away. (Sometimes he would even send pseudonymous letters responding to Paul Donnelly’s letters, ginning up a debate!) “Mr. Donnelly, we know it’s you,” the editors told him. My father once met a man who kept a scrapbook of Paul’s letters to the editor, he enjoyed them so much.

My earliest memories of him are us playing together in his garden; but they’re also of him closing the door to the study he’d retreat to daily, to compose his broadsides, now on a wordprocessor. Granddad passed away in 2002. One of my cherished possessions is a draft of one of his last letters to the West Australian: an unreasonably well-written and impassioned plea that the government go light on the fireworks display that year, because its chemical ashes would fall on children, and families would breath in the smoke.

We’ve been thinking a lot at The Appendix about the kind of dialogue we’d like to create, and we’d like to start there, with an old-fashioned care, urgent concern, and curation more measured and earnest than most of the Internet: Letters to the Editor.

So here’s your assignment for the weekend: Get deeply worked up by some larger historical issue, and then write something eminently reasonable about it to us at [email protected] before Wednesday, Dec. 12. Or don’t get mad. Get inspired. What should historians, be working on in the future? How can we tell stories better? What is exciting about history in the decade to come? What sort of histories do you want to see in art and fiction? What sort of stories should The Appendix seek out?

And if we get enough responses, we’ll take the letters that are the most interesting or contentious and run them up in the front of our first issue.

To re-cap:
Letters to the Editor: we want ‘em.
Deadline: Wednesday, Dec. 12.
Result: We all come out swinging with one hand, and pointing the way with the other.

Thanks, Granddad.