Steve Braunias goes in search of the most prolific writers of letters to the Herald.
Among my favourite writers in New Zealand are prolific authors who are at once household names and complete nobodies. They live in Auckland but would never be asked to speak at the Auckland Writer's festival, despite their literary fame. They bring joy to countless readers, also equal parts rage. They write with skill and wit, express many, many, many opinions, and sometimes present snippets of their lives as a kind of a memoir in progress. I set out to meet and talk to five of these authors and the experience was unsettling; it made me wonder about my own writing life, and question its integrity.
They write letters to the Herald. They write a lot of letters to the Herald. The double-page spread of letters in the morning paper is one of my most cherished reading enjoyments but to be perfectly frank I never read the letters on the left-hand page. They are the long, considered, thoughtful letters about issues of topical interest, and they bore me to sobs. But the letters on the right-hand side, grouped under the excellent sub-title "Short & sweet", are as small and perfectly formed as a haiku, and this is where I head to with great anticipation Monday to Friday. Saturday's paper gives them a different sub-title, "A quick word", and these, too, are filled with polished, satisfying little gems.
I used to write news for a radio station in Palmerston North. Every story could be no longer than three sentences. I loved the brevity and precision; the stories were as flat as the Manawatū Plains that lay outside the studio windows. Three sentences is as epic as it gets in "Short & sweet" and "A quick word". Many get by on a single sentence. Brevity, precision … There is a beauty and a poetry to many of these missives, at the very least a well-honed craft. I suspect the letters page editor, a seasoned newspaperman who has a fastidious dress sense, adds extra honing.
The purpose of letters to the editor is to comment on current events but all writing reveals as much about the author as the subject, and the letters page exists as a portrait of its more prolific contributors. The portraits are true to life. I spoke with Jock MacVicar of Hauraki, a former Mercedes-Benz salesman who writes letters every day, sometimes more than once, and he was as robust, conservative and intolerant as his letters suggest. I met with Mary Hearn of Meadowbank, an American emigre from Wall Street who writes two or three letters a month, and she was as open and deeply concerned as her letters make clear.
All the letter writers I interviewed knew each other by name; they operate as a kind of freelance community, and there was a genuine mutual fondness. "Good old Reg," said Mary Hearn, of Reg Dempster. "I love the way he thinks. He's extremely clear in his own mind about how the world needs to work." I sat with twice-weekly letter writer and former archaeology tutor Pamela Russell (her master's thesis was on women in the Ice Age) at Press House cafe in the Westfield Newmarket mall, and she said, "Oh, yes, Reg! He doesn't take a lot of nonsense. And Bruce Tubb has usually got something sensible to say." Reg of Albany and Bruce of Belmont; other names who frequently show up are Gary Hollis of Mellons Bay, Barbara Callaghan of Kohimarama, Coralie van Camp of Remuera … The letters page in the Herald is very much a forum of the North Shore, and the gentle suburbs out east.
But two regular contributors live out West, near my house in Te Atatū. I walked around to visit Jim Carlyle and Peter Culpan. Jim was about to go into surgery. I imagined him talking his head off while under anaesthetic. He was wildly expressive. The first thing he said was that he was a direct descendant of the great writer HG Wells, whom he described as "the most prolific author in the history of the world". Jim might have made HG proud: he writes a letter every day, and said, "God knows I must have written over a thousand."
He pastes them into exercise books, which also record his household expenses. Next to a note detailing that a pair of 1.4kt diamond earrings cost $1650, and "Biopsy, $5890" were letters on synthetic cannabis, Prince Harry, and one in praise of something I wrote in the Herald.
He could recite some of his "Short & sweet" letters from memory. I could hear in his voice the relish he took at crafting this bon mots: "It's clear as crystal there is only one way to close the poverty gap. Grant and Jacinda, feel the fear of the 2023 election and tax the rich anyway." That letter was published in November 2020. He quoted it verbatim. He had such a restless, active mind; I began to be afraid he was the sort of fellow who would talk candidly about sex, and he proceeded to do exactly that. Suffice to say he met his second wife, Jessie, when she put his numb feet in hot water at a Chinese medical centre on Dominion Rd. Her pink tracksuit hung on a coathanger fixed to an outdoor trellis in the late-autumn sunshine.
He talked about his son. He said, "He died in Africa at 28. Yeah. He was co-pilot in south Sudan. And it was late on a Thursday afternoon. The sixth day of the fifth month of year two thousand and four at 3:21 in the afternoon. I think the Lord plays jokes sometimes. The sixth of the fifth of the fourth at three-twenty-one and BANG, they crashed on take-off and he was killed. I couldn't sleep for 50 days and 50 nights. 50 days and 50 nights."
But he had lost another child, too. I mentioned as an aside that I had met his daughter Rose at the Dunedin Writers Festival last month. He replied, "Yeah? Is that right. Well I'm sorry to tell you Steve she hasn't spoken to me since 1996." Neither had he spoken to her. Wildly expressive in public, nothing to say in private.
All of the letter writers were retired. They described it as a hobby, a venting, something to do that was possibly of some use to others. It was also a passion, a need, a desire to make their voices heard. As someone who has written for newspapers and magazines for – oh dear – 41 years, I couldn't actually relate to any of those reasons for wanting to write. Also, none of them were in it for the money. I write to earn a living. They had something else going for them: a purity.
"It fills out my day," said Gary Hollis, 80, of Mellons Bay. But it was more serious-minded than that. He writes letters every day of the week; when I asked him about the common subject or theme, he said, "I suppose improving the lot of everybody." Some people enter journalism with noble ideals like that and the best maintain them but the notion has never entered my head. Gary's crusades include the income gap ("I like knocking the rich"), the need for New Zealand to catch up with Scandinavia ("They're miles ahead of us in education, in infrastructure, in health, basically because the rich are having to pay more of their income"), and the need to introduce tidal power ("They won't publish those letters. It's been squashed. Vested interests going on there").
Gary plays jazz and classical piano. His heroes in the field are Oscar Peterson ("mind-blowing") and Jacques Loussier. Again, like Jim Carlyle, he was committed to expressing himself, and never mind the critics: "My wife hates them," he said of his letters. "She won't even read them. She's very right-wing and she's been successful in business and you can't argue with that."
He was wary of being silenced by the Herald's letters editor. "I might be wrong but I have a feeling he does it by committee. He's got a group of people around him, and they go through all the letters and decide which ones are worthy of being published. Is that correct? Does he have a committee?"
"No," I said.
"Oh," he said.
Jock MacVicar, too, writes every day. He said he was the voice for the silent majority, which we hear so much about and from. I phoned him up and he was very good-natured with a ready laugh. He said, "There's always something! Like this morning I had a letter about the kerfuffle over the IT hacking [at Waikato Hospital]. I thought, 'Hang on a minute, surely they haven't forgot how to use a pen and paper'." It wasn't his finest or most thought-out hour. But many of his short, pointed letters actually make a good point and sometimes have a popular following, like his recent complaint about loud music played at rugby stadiums.
His letters are reliably right-wing ("I used to be Labour but I've gone very conservative because the Commos seem to have taken over the Labour Party") and reliably indignant about most things Māori. "My daughter is in horror," he said laughing, "especially anything to do with racial stuff. But what constitutes racism? Anything you say that's contrary to what they want you to think, you become a racist. It's not. It's another opinion."
Just as I was ready to dismiss him as just another cranky 73-year-old whitey with fixed and predictable ideas, he mentioned he was in favour of a Capital Gains Tax. "It's not an equitable system. People are running it as a business, and every other business you've got to pay tax on … It's a fairness thing."
"Jock," I said, "you're sounding like a Commo."
"It is slightly liberal-leaning," he conceded and sounded worried.
"Oh, good old Jock," said Pamela Russell, the ex-archaeologist whom I met in Newmarket.
"He riles people up but he's okay." She shared his conservative politics. Like all the "Short & sweet" correspondents, her writing was based on the principle that less is more. "I make them short. I make them succinct." I liked the short and succinct way she put that. I like her letters, too. "A lot are having a go at some of the silly ideas of the younger generation."
She'll often draw on her own life, including her childhood in rural Wales. She scorns parents who want to throw a safety net around their children, and remains especially fond of a letter she wrote which described a game she used to play as "deliciously scary". It involved holding on for dear life while boys pushed a swing as hard as they could. "And it was delicious. We wanted to be terrified. It was very risky. One of my friends actually fell off and ended up a year in hospital … "
Earlier that day I sat in Mary Hearn's large home in Meadowbank. She was a real livewire, very talkative, in her 60s, with a strong American accent although she emigrated here with her husband in 1981. "I worked in Wall Street before deregulation. It was like the Wild West and I mean the Wild West. It was fun. People used to walk around with ziplocked baggies full of cocaine and I'm talking the good stuff." Her parents died when she was young. "It means you become an individual. I knew at 16 what I wanted to be. I wanted to be in banking. And there was an understanding that if I wanted it, I needed to go after it myself."
Wall St, making your own luck – it was the stuff of every capitalist running-dog who preaches free trade and damn the poor, but in fact Mary had departed her Republican upbringing and gone peak liberal. She said, "I'm one of those lefties, I guess." Her tirades against Trump these past few years have been coruscating. It hasn't made her very popular with her folks back in the US. "They don't like my opinions and I don't give a damn for theirs." America, she worried, was like her family: "We are so divided. I look at my country now and I sometimes feel if we're ever going to be who we used to be, is that ever going to be possible?"
All of the letter writers interviewed for this story were also letter readers. Mary always turns first to the letters pages of her morning paper, then starts again at the front page.
"It allows me to understand what other people are thinking." And that's a great virtue of the letters section: it's an open forum, a democracy of free speech, presented to a wide audience. Social media bangs its various drums inside a bubble. Letters to the Herald are vox pop, a kind of talkback compressed into short, sweet epigrams.
It's the skill that I find attractive. I visited Peter Culpan, who lives on a pretty part of the seashore in Te Atatū, and spent a happy hour discussing his letters. He was ex-air force. We sat in his letter-writing room with a picture on the wall of a charcoal drawing he made of a Devon flying over the Canterbury coast. He wore slippers and a cardigan. "Economy of words," he said. "That's the best way to get your message across." I liked his philosophy and I liked the attention he paid to his craft; many of his letters are one-liner zingers, and we looked at a range of them in a file on his computer, and laughed together at their humour and wisdom. I recognised the same motive that made me want to write and to keep writing: the search for a good sentence. The prolific authors of letters to the Herald get there all the time.