Sunday, 26 June 2011

Fan Mail

Couple of weeks ago I received a rather badly written letter penned in a most disagreeable tone. It was from someone who had 'come across' one of my books on the origins of place names and the content, as far as I could tell, disagreed with every name I defined in their home town. It came as no surprise to find they were a member of the local history group and, again as expected, suggested I amend the 'errors' in line with the history society's publication.

I have not bothered to respond to this letter and will not be doing so. I am quite used to these local history society 'experts'. Firstly all historians will admit to being by nature a sceptical lot. Local historians are vehemently defensive of anything on their patch, which they will always consider to be a little special and different from elsewhere - and quite naturally so. However this does not make them always right (or indeed always wrong) but does make them very reluctant to listen to anyone outside of their immediate circle.

When I first started speaking at local history group meetings, the obvious audience for my books, I was somewhat taken aback by the attitude of the odd individual, who seemed intent on disagreeing with everything I said as I 'had no local knowledge' (ie. I wasn't born or living within spitting distance of either the parish church, village pub or, more importantly, their house).

Furthermore the way I conduct my talks on the origins of place names is very informal. An initial twenty minutes or so on the languages involved, the records consulted, the common elements, a few oddities and the odd anecdote is followed by a Q&A session. I do this to ensure the audience get the answers to the names they are thinking of, while it also serves to remind me of the research and writing of that specific county's book. With fifteen published and as many in various stages of production I cannot possibly be expected to recall every name off the top of my head. However this does mean I am putting my head in an invisible noose and there was always one individual waiting to trip me up - irrespective of whether the local definition was right or wrong! That was until I added a couple of lines as I threw it open to questions from the floor.

Today I drop in how I know when someone is asking a question simply in the hope of tripping me up - it happened in the past and I got wise and took lessons in reading body language. (No, of course I haven't!) Perhaps the smart alecs have simply not attended more recent events, however I tend to think the threat of being found out is sufficient to make them think twice.

I shall not be responding to this letter for it is not worth taking the time nor trouble to do so. The individual clearly did not pay attention to what was said in the book in the first place and there is no point in repeating it in a letter for them to ignore me a second time - especially when I know it will not change their opinion in the slightest. Much as I will never convince a single Salopian that their county town should be pronounced Shrow- and not Shrew- (see blog post of 22nd November 2009).


  1. I think maybe it's human nature to want to know better than the experts, particularly for insecure individuals. And then, sometimes the experts genuinely *do* get things wrong.. But there is a way of discussing perceived mistakes, and a letter of attack is not it!

  2. Thank you Jane. It's so nice when someone agrees with you!