29 October 2001
When I was fourteen my English teacher, Mr Robinson, informed the class that he had received a letter from a boy in Ghana - let's call him Kwame, for that is his fucking name - who was looking for a penpal. Mr Robinson asked us if anyone was willing to volunteer for the task. I, like the wannabe overachiever that I am, duly raised my hand and bought a pack of airmail fold-up notelets in readiness for my first missive.
Thus far letter-writing had been an act of supreme formality: letters home from school to my doting parents concealing nightly fear of buggery - 'today in cookery we made sausage rolls'; the fortnightly due to the French correspondent - 'Merci de ta lettre...le singe est sur mon visage... à bientôt'; thank you notes for much sought after Christmas presents - 'I have always wanted a Foil Art engraving set'. Consequently my introduction to Kwame contained much customary emptiness, which I modified on the basis of his (surely?) inferior intellect and evidently poor command of the English language:
My name is Victor. I am 14. My English teacher got your letter. I told him that I would like to write to you.
What is your favourite subject at school? Mine are Latin and French. I also like playing badminton. Do you like sport?
I live on the South Coast of England in a place called Brighton. It is often very sunny here and I like to go and sit on the beach. What is it like where you live?
It takes about two weeks for a letter to get from Brighton to Ghana. So, go figure - four weeks later I received a an enticing-looking envelope, bordered by red, white and blue flashes and stamped with exotic baked scenes. My pal from Africa had wielded his pen. The handwriting was scratchy: it struck me as a cross between that of my left- handed grandmother minus spectacles and that of Guy Fawkes post-rack torture. This, I thought at the time, was unsurprising given the presumably pitiful state of the Ghanaian school system. The letter read as follows:
My favourite lesson is Mathematics. I want to be an accountant. Please send me a calculator.
Like hell. Aren't there organisations like Oxfam for that kind of thing? But recently I have seen the true quality of Kwame's request, have identified the genius lurking behind the language of the innocent. Kwame may well be an accountant now; he may well have been hindered in his wish by my refusal to reply to his request. Conversely, he may also be a man with a fuck load of calculators.
On this basis I am determined to follow his example. I have so far gathered a database of English departments in 'top people's schools' throughout the British Isles. Two days ago I sent them all a letter:
Dear Sir Professor,
My name is Victor. I am from Ghana. I am looking for penpal. Please someone would write me?
Having received a swift reply - 'My favourite subject is Geography. I like wrestling. Do you like wrestling?' - I wait for just under four weeks (I'm writing from Ghana). I then despatch the following:
Thank you very much for your letter. My favourite lesson is Mathematics. I want to be an accountant. Please send me a calculator.
Thank you very much,
PS Can you send please to address here below?
It might just work.
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