Penpal to the rich and famous

Holly Williams chats to Duncan McNair about his inquisitive alter-ego, R.M. Morello

Have you ever wondered what Tony Blair’s favourite wild flower is, how John Prescott would feel about having a bull terrier named after him, or what to do when your pet goat gets diarrhoea at the sight of Dale Winton? Well, neither had I, but in the manner of all good novelty books, The Morello Letters gives you answers to questions you never knew you wanted to ask.

Asking the questions is R.M. Morello, an Italian immigrant somewhat confused by the idiosyncracies of England. This highly entertaining book comprises his letters to the great, the good and the silly institutions of Britain (from the Post Office to the Old English Goat society), and their responses. Morello is the alter-ego of Duncan McNair, who explains that he began sending out these spoof letters ten years ago, using the responses as a way to cheer people up. The bemused or knowingly humorous replies proved so popular that he began to think “maybe there’s a future in this”. Despite never intending to get them published, the book has proved a massive hit, climbing the Amazon best seller list, and gaining enthusiastic endorsements from the likes of Jon Snow, who – as the cover proudly claims – considers them the funniest spoof letters he has ever read.

The comedy is gentle, and McNair stresses that the intention was never to catch people out. One of the joys of the book is identifying the “tipping point, the one mention too many of gerbils” that gives the game away. While many of the respondents clearly ‘got it’, and appear to relish writing suitably silly replies (“while Sir Cliff would be delighted to have his privacy invaded by a group of warbling nudists, he regrets that, due to the undesirable side-effects of his acute llama allergy, he is unable to offer hospitality to your group”), others offer embarrassingly polite replies. Due to health and safety, Selfridges ‘would not be able to accommodate access for your goat, Enoch.’

Much of the absurdity of the letters comes from liberal references to Morello’s menagerie of ridiculous pets. Many of the appeals to the famous are requesting permission for new arrivals to be named after them, and the idea of a backyard in Ealing being full of rodents named after the Marquis of Bath, the Archbishop of York and Oliver Letwin is rather enjoyable. Although permission may be conditional – Oliver Letwin was keen that J.Prescott, the bull terrier, be kept away from Oliver the gerbil’s cage.

Sadly, the Morello pets are as imaginary as the man himself. McNair explains that despite coming from a big animal-loving family, and coveting a sloth or two, all he has is an elderly cat, who wouldn’t be able to cope with any new arrivals. The neighbours too might have something to say about llamas looking over the hedge.

When approached for copyright, the various correspondents almost all embraced the gentle humour of the venture, and some things that managed to get published seem astonishing (for example, Blair’s cringeworthy “list of favorite things” reveales his penchant for bluebells, fruit’n’fibre, and – urgh – Simply Red). The only refusal came, surprisingly, from a man who “has made a career of indiscretion: Boris Johnson.” Despite privately agreeing to be the namesake for a guinea pig who resembled him, it seems that he found this too embarrassing to be printed.

The Morello Letters follows in the footsteps of other prank letter-writers, and you’d be forgiven for feeling the world doesn’t need any more. If, however, you’ve never come across any, you won’t find a better collection. Ideal dip-in reading, it would make the perfect addition to any toilet. The obvious market is Christmas – it would be an ideal stocking-filler, or gift for that awkward relative.

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