Sunday, December 16, 2007


Your Case is Hopeless

One of my favorite things to come across in the 19th century magazines -- and something you never see today -- are the mysteriously one sided "Editor's Chair" or "responses to readers" sections, which give answers to individual readers without ever telling you what the questions were. Others simply respond en masse to unsolicited manuscripts by listing names under a headers along the lines of Interesting But We Cannot Use It, or for the less fortunate, Not to Be Encouraged.

Yesterday's Telegraph review notes that someone has actually compiled the late Victorian-era responses from the long-extinct British magazine Boy's Own Paper.

Your Case is Hopeless confines itself to the letters pages and articles of advice in first 21 years of the weekly magazine. In selecting material for this engaging and entertaining book, which reveals the interests and worries of late-Victorian lads, Karl Sabbagh has trawled through some 20,000 letters - or rather responses to letters. Since the actual letters are rarely quoted, the editorial replies can be baffling.

A multiple-question letter triggered the helpful (to the correspondent) answers of 'Yes. No. Perhaps. Try boiled oil.' 'The shots were fired by the balloonist' raises more questions than it answers. More worrying is the reply: 'If you commit a murder, you will certainly be hanged'...

'We have no views on Danish butter,' is an untypical reply, since the editor was not usually short of opinions.... 'Your case is hopeless' was the response to the grammatically challenged lad who enquired whether (or rather, 'weather') it is a poet or his printer who puts punctuation into poems. The editor suggests that the boy could always ask Alfred Tennyson, but, better still: 'Stick to prose.' As for the would-be artist who proudly sent in his sketches, 'You cannot draw.' .... To a lad asking how he can add a human skull to his collection (what else is in the collection, he doesn't reveal) the answer is: 'Why not use your own?' 'We cannot help you with the nose machine,' the editor tells a nasally challenged reader. 'We do not use one ourselves.'.....To another, 'It is a bad time of year for buying alligators.'

I simply must have this book...

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