An Essay In Pencil
The second thing that your letter awoke in me was a memory of when I was much younger, still going to school, and had just been pulled up by the school principal for something he considered to be wrong, but most other people would simply have shrugged off. I think it had something to do with standards, but in such a pathetic way, I almost laughed at him once I found out what the problem was. It seems that one of the teachers had complained about some of my school work: not that it wasn’t up to standard, handed in too late or anything similar, but that I had written an essay in pencil. My handwriting was neat and tidy, the pages were not damaged or dirty, the essay was on the right subject, long enough and could have achieved the highest grade, but it was written in pencil. In our day and age, the principal told me, in the Seventies, we no longer write essays in pencil. I think he could tell that I was silently laughing at him, and I think this disturbed him more than anything else. He’d been given a complaint and, rather than being sensible, adult about it and asking why I was writing in pencil, he decided to castigate me and, possibly, make an example of my failings.
Of course, it didn’t come to that because I think that small bit of intelligence still residing somewhere in the back of his tired brain exerted itself at the right moment and told him he was being a fool, but it was an interesting experience for me. It taught me that the content is often not of as much importance to some people, as the appearance of the work. Judging, as we say today, a book by its cover. Had I then possessed the information and knowledge I possess now, gathered over many decades, I might have answered this poor man with a simple story concerning some of the finest writers of the western world, people like Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickenson. I would have told him about their travels and the manner in which they worked, not always in a comfortable studio or office as many of us can today, but at a normal table, in hotels and boarding houses, standing at a pult. And they wrote in pencil.
They wrote in pencil because the first typewriters didn’t make a strong appearance until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and certainly weren’t immediately accepted at the time – new-fangled gadgets which were interesting, but would never become popular. They wrote in pencil because ink pens consisted of a nib, a nib holder, a bottle of ink and a container of fine sand to dry the ink. Rather a cumbersome package to be carrying around with your wherever you happen to be, whatever you happen to be doing, whenever you might need to make notes or jot down an idea which suddenly comes to you in the horse carriage speeding – a very bumpy ride – along an unsurfaced road during as bad storm in the middle of the night. Fountain pens, as we know them, weren’t around and the ballpoint pen, well, Lázsló József Biró wasn’t born until 1899 and the first attempt to make such a writing instrument, by John Jacob Loud of Weymouth, Massachusetts back in 1888, wasn’t much of a success commercially, and certainly not as a letter writing instrument. A pencil, however, could be carried in a waistcoat pocket, pulled out and used at a moment’s notice regardless of where the writer happened to be or what weather he or she was experiencing. Once this person was settled down in a decent hotel for the night, or back home in their own environment, then a pen and ink might be used and a fair copy – decent, for the public or a publisher – made of whatever it was they had been working on. I have a large number of the earliest German postcards here, and many are written in pencil right through into the nineteen-twenties, simply because it was easier, a pencil could be transported anywhere, it did not leak and had practically no additional welfare or upkeep costs. And, far more important, it produced the content people wished to read.
Which, basically, is to say that I am not someone who demands the best hand writing in letters, nor that they are all written with a Mont Blanc fountain pen or on parchment. I wouldn’t be able to fulfil these demands myself, so why require them of other people? I write letters for the pleasure it brings, and for the replies that I receive, with the news contained, the ideas, the inspiration and experiences of other lives outside my own, and no one needs a fountain pen for that.
I am not too sure I would ever claim that I collect books in the manner that some do, as a librarian or antiquarian. I have about six thousand titles, but covering many different genres. As a teenager I once described myself as a collector, standing in a second-hand bookshop in north London, I had a copy of George MacDonald’s Lilith in my hands and was challenged by a bookseller – slightly older than myself – who seemed to want to know what I was doing in his store. I told him I was looking at the book and that I collected books which, at the time, was true. He posed one more question – how many books had by MacDonald – and then told me that I wasn’t a collector. The fact that the other book I had was the first edition of At The Back Of The North Wind made little difference, since he didn’t ask. The fact that my family – my father and myself – had many thousands of collectable first edition books also made no difference. I was not a collector because I only had one other book by MacDonald, and that was his little world satisfied. And a lesson for me too: never claim to be something concrete; always hedge around the idea a little and be humble.
That said, I could be called a collector of antique photography since my collection of these marvellous examples of the earliest commercial portraits – and many other forms of non-commercial photography too – has slowly grown to about twenty thousand items, all of which demand room and care and have, along with my books, caused me to move from one apartment to another over the many years I have lived here until finally, I hope, I have a house large enough to cope with whatever it is that interests at any given moment in time. As with most things, the collecting of photographs came about by accident: I discovered when I first came to live in this town, that next to no one had any idea or interest in its history. I did some research and came across many historical items u for sale, including postcards, which I began to buy up. Back then, nearly twenty years ago, these things were cheap: eBay, when it began, was flea market web site and not the money-grabbing commercial centre it is today. I could buy antique postcards, the first picture postcards ever printed, for a few cents. Today, those that I have, should I wish to buy them again, sell for forty or fifty dollars each and have moved out of my financial range. Antique commercial photography, though, has not been discovered by the profit-makers, and certainly not by those who are selling complete albums of photographs which, otherwise, would normally have been thrown out with the trash. No one interests themselves for their family history, and so the picture of great-grandfather, great-grandmother and all the others who no longer have a known name, are cast out as if worthless.
Small drops of water hollow out a stone.
I’m not sure whether anyone would really be crazy waiting for a next letter to arrive, although this has been written to me several times. And also the fact that my letters to some, whether they have replied or not, have been shared with other people who I do not know, who I have not written to has slowly seeped through to me. I must immediately say that I have no problems with my letters being shared, with other people writing to me, with my small circle of people to write to, correspond with, exchange ideas and experiences, grows. Lucretius wrote of the strength of water against the solidity of a stone, wearing it down over time, and in some ways this is what letter writing is all about: we begin with one letter and hope for a reply; reply to the one letter we receive and share more and, depending on the circumstances, gain a larger audience than we’d initially planned on.
This, though, is like the use of a pencil: in Victorian times a letter was written to a family member, to a friend or acquaintance, to a well-known figure in the world of the Arts and it was fully appreciated, even expected, that this letter would be read out loud, that it would be shared with others, and even copied and forwarded to more people outside of the writer’s immediate circle. Letters were the social media, the network of the Victorian era, before we had telephones and means of mass communication and the anonymity of the internet. We are gradually working in a full communications circle : we begin with the letter that is shared, go on to the privacy of our telephone calls and, finally, return to the openness of social media and social networks where anyone and everyone can see what is written, said, how life is lived or, at the very least, portrayed. In theory we are returning to content, to the desire to produce what many other people will be interested in reading, but only in theory. In reality we have entered a phase where popularity is judged by the number of followers an account has, because of a person’s name, and a follow-back is demanded rather than hoped for. We have entered a phase where everything is, theoretically, open and above-board again, but where what is written, what is published has been honed down, has been carefully crafted to present the best impression, and not necessarily the thoughts and experiences of the writer. Or, it has to be said, the publicist writing on behalf of a celebrity who, being a celebrity, simply has no time or interest in communicating with fans. We see the fancy writing and believe this is the way it should be, as we see a letter written in pencil and grade it downwards, forgetting that the content is what is important above all else.
But the drops of water keep on dripping down, hitting the same position time after time, and gradually wear through whatever is impeding their journey to the other side, to the light or whatever, to the person who can see and understand the depth rather than criticising the shallow surface without any further exploration.
And so I know that some of my letters have been read out, passed from one hand to another and shared, and I have even had one or two people write to me with their own thoughts and impressions, based on a letter I wrote to someone else. And this brings new ideas and inspiration for the future. And it is a wonderful feeling, as strange as it may seem, to receive a letter from someone who insisted upon electronic correspondence, otherwise he would not be writing for long, who says that he has changed his mind and now waits impatiently for mail call and the pleasures of the written word. Not just, I hasten to add, from me, since I am sure this particular man is in contact with other people and, I hope, with his family.
No one gets to know another person through one letter, through one meeting or conversation. There is so much to each individual, so many experiences in their past, so many plans, ideas, desires which remain hidden from view that it is sometimes impossible to really know a person you’ve been together with for many years. No two people see the same thing: a couple can stand side by side on the beach and watch the sun slowly sinking down beyond the horizon, and not see the same as their partner. Life is a long series of getting to know, of experiencing, of learning but, at the end, there is still so much we do not know, that we have not experienced we could almost go on forever. The beauty of life, you might say, is that the experiences, if we look for them, the friendships, the knowledge we could gain if we bother ourselves, are inexhaustible. Questions are fine, but very limiting: a question concentrates on one area, one aspect, and cannot bring out all the surrounding facts and pieces of information because the person answering, having time to consider, will be careful rather than honest. Not dishonest in a bad way, in most cases, but not completely open; although I don’t want to put this down as being a bad thing since we all like to protect some part of ourselves, our thoughts, our lives in some way or another. It’s just that getting to know someone is more than six minutes at the dating table, or a few drinks and twenty questions for the blind date with the rose on his lapel, the orchid on her shoulder. We sift and we seek amongst all the words which are written or spoken over a long period of time, and sometimes come up with an image halfway accurate, sometimes are left with a surprise in store which takes our breath away. Like reading that book: begin with the first page not knowing what is on the second, the third, the fourth.
The beauty of letter writing, and I would love to be able to share it with you, is the content and not the shallow appearance of how it has been written, not even the language that has been used, which could be full of errors and all the normal pitfalls of exploring something strange and unknown. It is a medium where you can begin with one subject and, without breaking rhythm, wander through several different, almost unconnected, subjects without anyone finding it unusual. It is a discussion medium where those other people involved cannot interrupt you, where you can air your opinion in full, where you can worm through all your ideas until you have a finished presentation. And it is also a wonderful medium just to explore without the need to leave the comfort of your own front room, and interact with strangers without any danger. Shall we see where the journey takes us?