The 27th Letter

27th letter THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE Ian Fleming was fascinated by the appearance of things, whether it was the cut of a suit or a type face. In 1947, while helping his friend Robert Harling at the typographical magazine Alphabet & Image, he conceived the idea of a competition for the best interpretation of a twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet. Entries had to have a distinct purpose and would be judged by him alone. The winner was to receive a book token to the value of five guineas, which at the time was a decent sum. Though a multitude of entries was received, the world paid little attention and the alphabet remained stubbornly at twenty-six. Seventy years later The Book Collector, in the person of Ian’s nephews James and Fergus Fleming, has decided to resurrect the competition. Sanskrit has forty-six different letters. Is now the moment for English to have twenty-seven? Is immortality lying in wait for some clever designer?

Unfortunately Fleming was unable to judge his competition – he was pursuing his future wife in Jamaica at the time. Our judges this time round are Phil Cleaver, designer of The Book Collector and Professor in the Creative Industries at Middlesex University, James Fergusson, Editor of The Book Collector, Fergus Fleming, writer and co-publisher at Queen Anne Press, and Lilian Lindblom-Smith, Head of Graphic Design at Middlesex University. They will present a short-list to the artist Sir Peter Blake, who will make the final decision.


Phil Cleaver imagePhil Cleaver
Lilian Lindblom imageLilian Lindblom
Fergus Fleming imageFergus Fleming
Jamie Fergusson imageJamie Fergusson

The original competition, judged in Fleming’s absence by Robert Harling himself, was won jointly by Messrs Cecil Keeling of Pinner, Middlesex and John Tarr of the Monotype Corporation. Their submissions included letters for ‘-sion’, ‘th’ and ‘st’. The runner-up was an artist, Mr L.R. Clynick, with a ‘sh’.

Peter Fleming, Ian's elder brother, was writing a column under the name ‘Strix’ in The Spectator at this time. His choice was ‘er’, as in ‘I have no – er – hesitation in saying…’ He saw it as a long, thin, horizontal letter, ‘drooping slightly at the end; and I’m not sure that I wouldn’t give it an umlaut to make it more decorative.’ His problem was where to fit it into the alphabet. Z was obviously proud of its position and ‘it would sound silly if you used the new letter in stock phrases like “He knows his job from A to ER.” When I was learning the alphabet I remember finding the H I J K L stretch particularly tricky going, negotiable only with the help of ER; and if nobody minds I think it had better go in between K and L, for sentimental reasons.’

That was in 1947. Given how the use of the vernacular has exploded since, abetted by the fast-moving world of social media, the field has to be wide open to innovation. Who’s to say that the new letter won’t become part of the English alphabet?

Our competition will follow Fleming’s rules: the letter must conform to the alphabet as known in English-writing countries and must represent a particular sound or combination of sounds. Entry is free. No professional qualification is needed in order to enter. All that is necessary is that the entrant must be over sixteen years of age and have an idea as to how written English could be improved.

The winner will receive £250 and a trophy designed by Professor Cleaver. The Book Collector is donating £500 to the reading and literacy charity Give A Book.

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