With a forked pem

With a forked pen

To describe someone as ‘speaking with a forked tongue‘ is to suggest duplicity, that one thing is being said, and at the same time something which contradicts or is the reverse of this is being indicated alongside it. At least in English-speaking and -writing arenas, there are conventions governing how people use letters and letter-writing that can be mindfully used to display this idea of forked writing. One such convention is that there are times and places and circumstances when only a formal letter will do, as it indicates a named recipient, provides a signature which acts as a guarantee of provenance and authorship, and places its message on the written record for other eyes to see and to read. Also such letters are often performative, they do the thing that they describe within their content. ‘I resign’ is an example. In such contexts, these letters have both a named recipient and also an unnamed wider set of addressees who are, for example, the general public, or a particular group of people within an organisation. And what they provide is a statement very much for the public record, while the realities might be very different or even contradict what is put on the record. This mismatch isn’t the point, strictly speaking, which is instead that the formalities can be observed but in a forked way which also at the same time enables the writers to say or to imply what they informally think.

An interesting example of how such matters can work out in practice and the part that can be played by a forked pen has occurred in public life in Britain recently. It concerns a formal letter of resignation and involves an exchange of letters between the prime minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, and the person he had appointed as an ethics advisor, Lord Geidt. And both of these letters were immediately released into the public domain, as well as being sent to the named addressee.

Lord Geidt formally resigned his ethics position in his letter to Johnson, spelling out in some detail the reasons. He said he contemplated resigning over one issue, connected with the failure of the prime minister to address the fact that he was found to have broken rules, connected with the Covid lockdown period, for ministerial good ethical conduct, or at the least had not explained why, given the established facts of his conduct, he thinks he had not broken such rules. Geidt didn’t resign then, but more recently he writes that he had been put in an invidious position regarding another matter, concerned with a trade deal, which actually led to his resignation. Mr Johnson then immediately issued his own formal letter in response, and this is notable for its obfuscations and also its failure to address the key points made in the letter it is ostensibly responding to. But it also makes the points that Geidt had earlier said he would not resign, and that the trade deal was of a kind accepted widely in other countries. Geidt’s letter does the formal thing of resigning, but it also does other things as well. Johnson’s letter is equally forked, pointing out contradictions and mixing faint praise with implied blame.

Although Geidt’s letter doesn’t actually write ‘you lied‘, it implies this; and although Johnson’s letter doesn’t actually write this, it implies that Geidt is not telling the whole truth, and his own rule-breaking is irrelevant and will be ignored. A formal correspondence, but strongly attacking public reputation, and on both sides. The exchange of letters can be accessed here

Last updated: 24 June 2022