Admittedly it’s thin, but there is definitely a silver lining to the pandemic: for the best part of a year we have all been granted a bulletproof excuse to turn down pretty much any invitation, and I, for one, am grateful. Before long, however, we will need to restart the excuse generator and begin declining things awkwardly again. For that reason I want to revisit a subject I’ve touched on before, and have gathered together a list of knock-backs pulled from the letters of others. Some are tactful and eloquent; others are entirely free of both. All are admirable.
Thank you for your invitation to host a fundraising dinner in the private room of a top London restaurant.
I would rather die.
Harold Pinter | Letter to Tom Stoppard, 2001
I am sorry, but I do not wish to accept the honorary degree you have offered me. I already have one degree, honestly earned, from Princeton. At the commencement when I received it, I remember watching the honorary degrees being conferred and feeling that an "honorary" degree was a debasement of the idea of a degree that confirms that certain work has been accomplished.
Richard Feynman | Letter to Robert Boheen, 1967 | The Letters of Richard P. Feynman
A dinner! How horrible! I am to be made the pretext for killing all those wretched animals! Thank you for nothing. Blood sacrifices are not in my line.
George Bernard Shaw | Letter to Archibald Henderson, 1930 | Selections from Bernard Shaw's Postbag
I can imagine myself blurbing a book in which Brian Aldiss, predictably, sneers at my work, because then I could preen myself on my magnanimity. But I cannot imagine myself blurbing a book, the first of the series, which not only contains no writing by women, but the tone of which is so self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club, or a locker room. That would not be magnanimity, but foolishness. Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.
Ursula Le Guin | Letter to John Radziewicz, 1987 | More Letters of Note
Thanks for your letter inviting me to join the committee of the Arts and Sciences for Eisenhower.
I must decline, for secret reasons.
E. B. White | Letter to J. Donald Adams, 1956 | Letters of E. B. White
I cannot be of any use to you and your students nowadays, alas, since, at 84, I resemble nothing so much as an iguana, hate travel, and have nothing to say. I might as well send a spent Roman candle in my stead.
Kurt Vonnegut | Letter to Professor Alice Fulton, 2007 | Kurt Vonnegut: Letters
I have declined to go to Mrs Fosters and to Miss Martineau – and now I decline to go to you. But – listen! Do not think that I throw your kindness away or that it fails of doing the good you desire. On the contrary – the feeling expressed in your letter – proved by your invitation goes right home where you would wish it to go and heals as you would wish it to heal.
Charlotte Brontë | Letter to Mrs Gaskell, 1851
Thank you for your letter of 10th January. I would be useless at this debate primarily because I have been dead for 24 years now. Apart from that, I hate scientists and I hate artists. In fact, I hate everybody including you, do tell them that is why I’m not at the debate.
Spike Milligan | Letter to Cameron Robson, 1990 | Spike Milligan: Man of Letters
Thank you for offering me this honour: I am very pleased. But for some time now I have been wondering, "But where is this British Empire?" Surely, there isn't one. And now I see that I am not the only one saying the same.
There is something ruritannical about honours given in the name of a non-existent Empire.
And there is another thing. When young I did my best to undo that bit of the British Empire I found myself in: that is, old Southern Rhodesia.
And surely there is something unlikeable about a person, when old, accepting honours from a institution she attacked when young?
And yet, how pleasant to be a dame! I would adore it. Dame of what?
Dame of Britain? Dame of the British Islands? Dame of the British Commonwealth? Dame of ....? Never mind.
Please forgive my churlishness. I am sorry, I really am.
Doris Lessing | Letter to the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary, Alex Allan, 1992
Your letter to me is based on the assumption that there exists some reason or need for you to interview or write about me. I do, as you rightly suppose, occasionally eat something and (as a result) go to the dentist but that is some way from agreeing to be shat on by a stranger.
Lucian Freud | Letter to Lynn Barber, 1993
After five years, you have again been kind enough to ask me to luncheon. The reason for this is that I have just published a successful book: the reason I have had a successful book is that I do not go out and waste my time and energy, but work hard, morning and afternoon. If I accept your kind invitation, I shall have to leave off earlier in the morning, and shall be too tired to work in the afternoon. Then my next book will not be such a success, and you will not ask me to luncheon; or, at best, less often. So that, under these circumstances, I am sure you will agree it is wiser for me not to accept your present kind invitation.
Edith Sitwell | Letter to Mrs. Almer, 1931 | Edith Sitwell: Avant garde poet, English genius
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