Shiny Shelf

The Timewaster Letters

By Eddie Robson on 21 October 2004

A glance at the front cover, back cover and first two pages of ‘The Timewaster Letters’ reveals that I am comfortably the least famous person ever to praise this book. Which takes the pressure off me somewhat, I feel.

You may have seen Robin Cooper’s letters before: they’ve been regularly published in Jack magazine. You may even have received one. In reality he is Robert Popper, one half of the team behind BBC2’s ‘Look Around You’, and here he is with another concept you wish you’d thought of first: sending absurd requests and surreal comments to a variety of associations and companies.

A letter sent to the Mike Ring of the British Egg Association might serve as an example (or egg-sample). ‘Dear Mr Mike Ring: My Spirit Guide, Mr Krisp (a yellow ant), is convinced that Hollywood actor Tom Selleck is honorary chairman of the British Egg Association. I scoffed at the suggestion, but Mr Krisp is adam-ant.’ The letter is cc’d to Mr Krisp.

As a former customer services operative myself, I can verify that these letters are by no means outlandish: also, when replying to such letters it is unwise to judge whether somebody is just stringing you along by pretending to be mad. Sometimes they really are that mad, and can be quite vindictive if you suggest they’re just pretending.

The range of responses in this book is therefore interesting: some people are sweetly, painfully helpful, some clearly catch on to Popper’s real intentions, some clearly find the letters entertaining and encourage more. Some are remarkably assertive (‘I am afraid that your idea holds no interest whatsoever for us and I would be grateful if you could cease to correspond with me’).

But it’s the style of the ‘Cooper’ letters that provides the most entertainment: his unnecessary elaborations (in parentheses), his excessive use of CAPITALISATION and exclamation marks!!!!! There are also frequent non sequiturs (‘My wife and I have been in Bruges for the past few weeks due to my emphysema’) typing errors (‘I have an entire range of scarecrows made entirely from beef’) and inappropriate opening gambits (‘The other day, my youngest daughter, Lisa, looked up to me and said, “Daddy, does television really rot the soul?”‘).

But I won’t quote too much because they’re funnier in context, laid out on the page as proper business letters should be. Much as ‘The Day Today’ made it difficult to take news programmes seriously and ‘TV Go Home’ made everyday TV listings seem absurd, Cooper’s mangling of the conventions of letter-writing affects any attempts to read or write ordinary letters afterwards. The very act of doing so becomes associated with insanity.

‘The Timewaster Letters’ is an apt title. I wasted an entire afternoon reading this yesterday, when I should have been working. Not that I regret it in the slightest, for surely here is 2004’s equivalent of last year’s ‘Idler Book of Crap Towns’: the book which everybody will receive for Christmas, which only takes about a hour to read from cover to cover and is consistently hilarious throughout. It’s also the best example of such a book I’ve seen in many a year.

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By Eddie Robson

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