“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
(Blaise Pascal The Provincial Letters 1657)
Responding to yesterday’s blog, in which I commented on the demise of the letter as a means of communication, Tim Loreman from Canada reminisced about the pre-internet era, when he and his then girlfriend (who has since become his wife), being apart from each other on different continents exchanged letters, written on a daily basis, knowing that they might take weeks to be delivered. I was particularly touched by his romantic recollection that “somehow that process of physically writing, waiting, and receiving letters had an appeal all of its own”.
There is still something special about receiving a letter from a friend, and whilst I recognise and value the immediacy of electronic communication, the physical entity of a letter appears to add more weight to correspondence and greater permanence to the words expressed on the paper. I have a file of letters here in my study from my good friend Satish in India, and occasionally return to this small archive in order to reflect on some of the ideas exchanged. There is a reassurance in having this physical permanent record, and whilst I appreciate that it is possible to create files and store e-mails on the computer, this seems like a far more ephemeral and impersonal process.
After reading Tim’s comments I spent a little time browsing the bookshelves around my study, and found myself immersed in the pages of various tomes containing examples of collected letters, that inform us about the lives and experiences of individuals, who are probably best known through their various achievements or published works. I turned first to the collected letters of the poet Dylan Thomas which I purchased in Bristol where I was a student of English literature in the 1970’s. I remember at the time thinking that there is some fine prose in many of these letters, which is largely overlooked by the majority of readers of Thomas, who know him mainly through his poetry and short stories. But if we take an example from a letter written to the novelist Lawrence Durrell in Greece, we can appreciate that his love of words resonated through much of what he wrote, even when it was not intended for publication.
“I think England is the very place for a fluent and fiery writer. The highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark. I like the grey country. A bucket of Greek sun would drown in one colour the crowds of colours I like trying to mix for myself out of a grey flat mud. If I went to the sun I’d just sit in the sun; that would be very pleasant but I’m not doing it, and the only necessary things that I do are the things I am doing.” Dylan Thomas 1938
The letters of others show both their humanity and their humility, as in the touching correspondence between Albert Einstein and a girl who expressed her frustration with difficulties learning mathematics in school in 1943:-
“…Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.
Professor Albert Einstein.”
Jawarhalal Nehru, writing to his ten year old daughter Indira, later herself to become Prime Minister of India, offered sage words of reassurance and advice against adopting stereotyped images of the world or the people who she would inevitably meet during her formative years.
“England is only a little island and India, though a big country, is only a small part of the earth’s surface. If we want to know something about the story of this world of ours we must think of all the countries and all the peoples that have inhabited it, and not merely of one little country where we may have been born.”
Whilst these letters demonstrate a reassuringly ordinary side to those who may often be seen as extraordinary people, other letters have a telling poignancy that can bring us up short and give us cause for deeper reflection. One such communication, of which I have thought on several occasions during this year of remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, is that written by the poet Wilfred Owen to his mother in 1918.
So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away. And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than the less, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells.
I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround us here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines…”
The sad reality surrounding this letter is that within a week or so of its despatch to his mother, Wilfred Owen was killed in action, exactly one week before the end of hostilities in November 1918.
Had copies of these letters, and so many more beside them not been retained, how much less would we know about their authors and those with whom they corresponded? These short despatches tell us much about the experiences and the emotions that helped to shape the works that they created. The writers of letters can certainly be described as the historian’s friend, and I am sure that there is much that we can learn from the documents they have left behind.
It would be foolish to suggest that we can reverse the tide of the “throw away” communication systems that have come to characterise the digital age, but I do hope that the insights to be gained from the correspondence between individuals may be recognised, and that from time to time we may still be encouraged to write a letter or two in the future.