I heard this phrase whilst listening to Feedback on BBC Radio 4, and I’m not sure I’ve heard it before. On the programme it was used, not that unkindly, to refer to irate complainants who write into the BBC to express their dissatisfaction with some aspect of programming or management. A bit of digging finds this definition: a collective term for people who write abusive or threatening letters to people in the public eye, from the idea that only the eccentric would write in green ink! In 1998, the newly appointed Readers’ Editor of the Guardian, Ian Mayes, wrote: ‘Even before I began I had numerous warnings from colleagues to ‘beware of the green-ink brigade’, conjuring the spectre of obsessive correspondents who would write at great length and persistently, typically covering their copious sheets in longhand scrawled in green ink’. ‘The ‘green ink brigade’ is apparently used in news rooms as a euphemism which saves one from talking about the lunatic fringe, and the use of a green ink pen is also said to be the implement of choice of conspiracy theorists and cranks.
An early example comes from a 1985 article, again from the Guardian, in which Ian Aitkin describes the uproar over a House of Commons debate on fluoridation, and says ‘Our elected legislature was taken over lock, stock and barrel by the green ink brigade’, and he goes on to explain the expression as the more-or-less affectionate description given by journalists and politicians to the people who write them eccentric letters, often in block capitals and frequently underlined in multicoloured inks. For some reason I have never heard satisfactorily explained, the most obsessive of these correspondents seem to prefer green’. Reading all this, and not myself having ever seen a letter written in green ink, I wonder whether the prevalence of a green ink brigade is a little exaggerated.
Long before green ink became associated with oddball behaviour, Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the former Royal Navy officer who established the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), commonly known as MI6, and became its first head in 1909, signed all his correspondence with his final initial, C, in green ink. His successors continued with the tradition, and this includes the current incumbent Sir John Sawers. Sir George was apparently an eccentric man who revelled in the secrecy and glamour of espionage, so perhaps there is a connection with the green ink brigade.
Other notable persons who used green ink include the English author E M Forster, who wrote the first drafts of his novel A Passage to India (1924), in green ink. Frank Peck, the Chief Executive Office of the London Transport Passenger Board in 1933, admired the English textile designer William Morris. This led him to adopt Morris’s favourite colour of green as his own, using green ink for the majority of his correspondence. Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda, who died in 1972, always wrote in green ink, because green is the colour of hope. In Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), the hero Jim Dixon receives a letter written on a sheet of paper ‘hastily torn from a pad, bearing a few ill-written lines in green ink’. The colour of ink seems intended to suggest that the writer is of dubious character (the writer of the letter is later revealed to be a plagiarist). Finally the link between green ink and eccentricity is made a bit more explicit in Carl Sagan’s book The Cosmic Connection (1973). Sagan describes a letter he had received.
There came in the post an eighty-five-page handwritten letter, written in green ball-point ink, from a gentleman in a mental hospital in Ottawa. He had read a report in a local newspaper that I had thought it possible that life exists on other planets; he wished to reassure me that I was entirely correct in this supposition, as he knew from his own personal knowledge.
In bygone days when everything was recorded on actual paper, green ink was apparently used by auditors and its use by other staff was strictly forbidden. There must be an office junior somewhere who cocked a snoop at authority by writing a memo in green ink. My only encounter with green ink, though I do have a green ink Pilot V disposable fountain pen that I have yet to use, was when taking piano lessons at the age of nine or ten.
Once a week after school I went to my piano teacher’s house in Inglethorpe Street in Fulham, London. My teacher’s name was Kathleen Berkshire. By the end of the lesson she had written up in one of two exercise books, a report to my parents on how I was progressing, and in the other what I was to practice at home in the following week. I singularly failed to practice much more than thirty minutes a week, an hour at most, and I prefered to try my hand in playing pieces from music books taken out of the local library. As a result I was subject to many wraps across the knuckles from a wooden letter opener under the glare of a green bankers desk lamp, and a dismal report in the exercise book. What I have never forgotten however was that Mrs Berkshire would carefully write everything up in green ink. It’s a shame I never kept those exercise books.