I'm well known in the blogosphere and beyond for being freakishly obsessive about spelling and punctuation. I have, to my eternal shame, even upset people by going on about it. I didn't mean to be evil,but the discovery that my comments were not just taken as playful banter was a bit of a wake up call to me.
There are some times, though, when it is absolutely essential to get every detail right. Another of my obsessions is that if you are writing a letter of condolence, it absolutely must be done by hand. There's something about that gesture of taking the time to produce something personally that shows respect.
Today we discover that Gordon Brown made some errors when writing such a letter to the family of Guardsman Jamie Janes, who was recently killed in Afghanistan. I have nothing but sympathy for everyone involved in this. I expect that the person who gave the information to the PM will be feeling horrendously bad about it. The PM will, I think, see this as a personal failure rather than a PR blunder. He knows what it's like to lose a child and he also knows how he and Sarah were sustained in their loss by the good wishes and sympathy and letters from people all over the country. I expect that he wanted to give the same sort of comfort to Guardsman Janes' mother and will feel awful that such an avoidable mistake was made.
I can't imagine anything worse than losing a child and Mrs Janes will be going through the most tumultuous set of emotions, from shock to anger to despair and everything in between, which will manifest themselves in all sorts of ways. To have seen her son's name written incorrectly will have been like the emotional equivalent of pouring pure lemon juice on a cut.
This, I think, is one of those occasions when you need to just empathise with everybody rather than try to use a mistake for political point scoring. I expect in future these details will be triple and quadruple checked. There can be no excuses, but at the same time, we're all human and we've all put our foot in it and hurt someone unintentionally at some point in our lives.
It's good that Gordon Brown tried to make amends by phoning Mrs Janes to apologise. I hope that that conversation helped her.
I do think it's important that the PM gets personally involved in contacting the bereaved families of soldiers who have died serving the country. As head of the Government, it's the absolute least he can do. I can imagine that phoning wouldn't really be appropriate because when you're dealing with loss, the intensity of the emotions tend to come in unpredictable and intense waves and it may well be too intrusive for the PM just to cold call grieving relatives. A hand-written letter is a good way for him to show his empathy and his respect for the fallen serviceman. He shouldn't be put off writing them because for many, in years to come, the fact that their child or spouse or sibling or parent was honoured in such a way by the PM will be a source of comfort and pride.
UPDATE: I was going to do a quick update to this to talk about my growing unease about the Sun's role in all of this given that they have now posted a recording of the conversation between Gordon Brown and Mrs Janes. I don't feel comfortable about listening to it because it is ultimately a private conversation during which some private and deeply personal sentiments were expressed. However, I doubt I could do better than this excellent piece from Sara which expresses my feelings pretty much exactly.
UPDATE 2: The extent of the Sun's muck up is shown nowhere more graphically than in in this post by Mr Eugenides. It is not like the Cute Greek Baby to stand up for Gordon Brown. I don't think there's a swear word that's ever been invented that he has not used to describe our PM as you'll see if you peruse the rest of his blog.
UPDATE 3: I was explaining all of this to my 10 year old tonight and her immediate reaction was that Gordon Brown was trying to help. "He's not evil. He never meant to upset the lady."