And Patrick, we really mean it insincerely

There is an intolerable level of what appears to be well-meaning insincerity abroad these days.

I can sniff it out with ease because I am blessed with a first name which is hardly ever used. I was christened ''Patrick James'' but have always been called ''Jim'' or, among those who know me best, ''Knucklehead''.

When I was pulled over recently for exceeding the speed limit, the young constable invited me to join him in the front seat of the police car. That had me worried for a moment, but I soon realised that the force must have been on a charm offensive that week, as he cheerfully asked for my licence and then inquired, ''How's your day been so far, Patrick?''

I looked around, expecting to find someone in the back seat, but, no, he was talking to me! Taken in by the official details on my licence, he had foolishly tried to introduce a spirit of all-mates-together during the ordeal of being pulled over for committing a crime.

I explained to the constable that ''Patrick'' was not the appropriate term to use and suggested ''Sir'' instead. At once the forced smile disappeared from the long face of the law and he wrote out a ticket for an extraordinarily high fine, given that I was only a few kilometres an hour over the limit.

My latest adventures as ''Patrick'' cropped up because we recently shifted house (or, more correctly, the house stayed put and we shifted). I was advised to go to New Zealand Post which, for a very large fee, offered to redirect mail to the new address. What they didn't tell me was that they would sell that information to anyone who wanted it for a $200 set-up fee and then 65 cents for each new address supplied.

What followed was a flood of annoying junk mail. Reader's Digest sent something which looked like a gift-wrapped copy of the Magna Carta which promised a chance of vast riches if I subscribed to their magazine. It's one I never read and I often wonder if anyone other than the poor devils trapped in doctors' waiting rooms ever looks at it. Judging by the junk mail, the whole Reader's Digest organisation appears to be run simply as a highly sophisticated raffle. Time magazine wrote warning me that a very important letter was coming to me.

A few days later it arrived and promised a video camera if I subscribed. Having no use for Time or a video camera, I was able to biff that one away. A hardware firm, making much of its local ownership, sent a note, probably from its Panmure headquarters (a suspicion confirmed when they gave their address as ''Portsmouth Road''), telling ''Patrick'' that door keys are always in short supply when you move to a new house and enclosing a key blank which they would cut to fit ''all for free''.

But the greatest nonsense of all was a letter from Parliament Buildings, or specifically, from one of the inmates. And it's not even election year!

Normally, the contents of a letter from an MP to a constituent should remain strictly private, bound by the seal of the confessional. But in this case I'm prepared to cast aside such restrictions, as the letter in question was simply a form letter and the fact that it was addressed to ''Dear Patrick'' disqualifies it from being any kind of personal communication.

The MP welcomed ''Patrick'' to the electorate and extolled the virtues of Dunedin ''as a fantastic place to learn, raise a family and enjoy so many outdoor pursuits''. That I have lived in Dunedin, on and off, for 45 years appeared not to be known by my new-found political friend.

The member invited me to ''sign up as a friend on Facebook'', indicating absolutely that he knew nothing about me!That the letter ended with a wish to ''meet up'' with me soon confirmed that the member, after even a relatively short time in Parliament, was already happily distorting the English language.

As there are only two male MPs in Dunedin, I feel obliged to reveal that the letter came from list MP Michael Woodhouse, who was no doubt trying to be helpful and who, when I once met him in my disguise as ''Jim'', seemed a pleasant enough chap. His offer to ''let Parliament know your views'' I will keep in mind.

However, these letters and their lack of genuine sincerity pale into the shadows compared to one from 1917 I was shown recently. It was a letter of condolence from the Governor-General, Lord Liverpool, to a Central Otago mother whose favourite son had been killed by the Turks in Palestine.

The expression of sympathy was in the form of an early version of cyclostyled letter with the signature of the Governor-General's secretary rubber-stamped at the bottom.

In other words, the vice-regal grandee and his underling (an officer in a Guards regiment, but 19,000km from the trenches) probably never even saw the letter ''they'' were sending. The whole thing could have been done by ''a girl in the office''.

Not much comfort to a grieving mother, but at least they got the soldier's name right.

- Jim Sullivan is a Dunedin writer and broadcaster.

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