Please join me in wishing the happiest of birthdays to the following letter. It’s rude, it’s puerile, and I send it to you with love. The Letters of Note newsletter is free to read, but you can support it by becoming a paying subscriber, for which you will receive additional ‘members-only’ emails. Or you could donate. Thanks.
At the height of World War II on April 6th 1943, at which point he was British Ambassador to Moscow, the famously eccentric Sir Archibald Clark Kerr wrote a letter1 to Foreign Office minister Lord Reginald Pembroke. This now classic piece of correspondence, which was prompted by a Turkish diplomat with the most unfortunate of names, is indeed hilarious; it also offers proof, if it were needed, that name-based punnery and mild xenophobia did a roaring trade long before the internet was fired up.
The Foreign Office
6th April 1943
My Dear Reggie,
In these dark days man tends to look for little shafts of light that spill from Heaven. My days are probably darker than yours, and I need, my God I do, all the light I can get. But I am a decent fellow, and I do not want to be mean and selfish about what little brightness is shed upon me from time to time. So I propose to share with you a tiny flash that has illuminated my sombre life and tell you that God has given me a new Turkish colleague whose card tells me that he is called Mustapha Kunt.
We all feel like that, Reggie, now and then, especially when Spring is upon us, but few of us would care to put it on our cards. It takes a Turk to do that.
Sir Archibald Clerk Kerr,
Whenever I surface this letter, be it in public or private, someone rolls their eyes and demands proof of its authenticity, and each time, to our collective frustration, I am armed with no such thing. What I do know, however, is that Sir Archibald Clerk Kerr existed and, according to reports, his character was entirely in keeping with the tone of this letter. Lord Reginald Pembroke was also a person. As for Mr. Kunt, in 2011 I was contacted by someone who claimed that his father worked with Kerr and was aware of Kunt long before this letter began to circulate (as far as I can tell, this letter was first mentioned publicly in 1978, in The Spectator). Similarly, a letter was written to The Spectator in 1999 by a Douglas Stuart (not the same person who contacted me), which read as follows:
May I add one thing to the point raised by P.B. in ‘Your problems solved’ (17 April)? For 40 years I have possessed and still possess the card left at the British Embassy, Moscow, by M. Mustapha Kunt. It gives his name and underneath the inscription, ‘Secretaire de l’Ambassade de Turquie’. This card was given to me by my late colleague and friend, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, Thomas Barman, who was at the British embassy in Moscow during Sir Archibald’s tenure as ambassador. Tom told me the story that goes with the card when we were at the 1959 Geneva Conference of Foreign Ministers. On my return to Vienna where I was then the BBC’s correspondent, my wife put M. Kunt’s card in our scrapbook with a simple paper covering on which she wrote, ‘For Adults Only’. This was intended to warn off our children. It didn’t.
This could of course be a lie (DAMN YOU DOUGLAS). As could the email I received in 2011 (DAMN YOU TOO). Maybe the card possessed by Douglas Stuart was merely a prop in a prank which has persisted for decades. I can’t be sure. The upshot of it all, however, is that this letter, regardless of its actual birth, is of note and I adore it from either angle. Which is why it can be found in the first Letters of Note book, a shiny new edition of which is being published in October 2021. Thanks for reading right to the end of this footnote.