I was intrigued by the idea, which you propose, of having a penfriend from every single country in the world and wondered how anyone would be able to achieve this. You know, of course, that there are either one hundred and ninety-five or ninety-six countries recognised at present – the difference being between whether Taiwan is counted as an independent country, or falls within the One China policy – so anyone attempting to achieve this laudable target could find it much more than just a simple challenge; it could almost be termed a life-long plan. You do have, though, a not inconsiderable advantage over many other people, and certainly over me, and that is your youth: time is most decidedly on your side, and clearly the willpower to succeed is there too, or you would never have publicised your intention.
I am inclined to think of Marcus Tullius Cicero, who you will undoubtedly have heard of, and who was also a letter writer of some note. Many of his letters were gathered and published after his murder by Octavian and Mark Antony, and approximately eight hundred were rediscovered by a group of fourteenth century humanists, although it is fair to say he could never have achieved what you hope to be able to do, as much of the world in the century before Christ can hardly be termed educated, let alone literate. At least four hundred and thirty-five of these letters were written to a large group of friends, numbering some ninety people in all. By far the greatest number of his letters, a further four hundred and twenty-six that we know of, were written over a twenty-four year period – from about 68 BCE through to 44 BCE – to his closest friend, Atticus. You will note that Cicero was thirty-eight when he began this correspondence, so you still have a few years good on him.
What is even more remarkable about Cicero’s time, although letter writing among the educated Romans was a normal and accepted part of civilised life, is that there was no postal system. Cicero, Atticus, Brutus, Julius Caesar and all the others couldn’t quickly run down to the post office and get a stamp, or slip their letters into a post box on the next street corner, they had to be delivered by hand, and sometimes over many miles or to foreign lands and through enemy territory or even war zones. A letter could be travelling through the vast reaches of the Roman Empire for weeks, if not months, before it reached its destination. Today we are amazed at letters which suddenly turn up after being written during the second world war and then lost in the back offices of some post office in the wilds of beyond; two thousand years ago such delays were normal, and the slower, easier lifestyle of the letter writer is a great, almost unimaginable contrast to the hectic world we live in today. Letters would be consigned to slaves, to trusted servants, to soldiers undertaking expeditionary work or assigned to the furthest reaches of empire. Sometimes, in time of war, they would be copied and sent out over several different routes, in the hope that at least one copy would get through, encrypted against the spying eyes of others.
We, inhabitants of the modern world have it easy: the ability to write letters to one another regardless of which country we happen to be in; to send them by the slowest means and know it will still only be about a week before they arrive; to know that our words will not be intercepted – or rarely – and turned against us, making us or the intended recipient an enemy of the state, a traitor or spy. We do, of course, have it even easier than that if we so wish: the ability to write a letter on a machine, click a button and have it delivered around the world, or to many destinations, within a matter of seconds. But, to be honest, where is the fun in that? Where is the excitement surrounding the arrival of a letter from some far off land against the mundane duty, almost, of checking e-mails? I venture to suggest, as a lover of the written word, there is no comparison.
There is another slight problem when it comes to building up a good selection of worthy and worthwhile penfriends from around the globe, and it is more of a societal change than anything: fewer people write real letters. That is, not as many people sit down and devote a small amount of their time to penning a personal letter; we all know and fall in line with the need to write official letters now and then, but the intimacy of a letter from one private person to another, regardless of the level of this intimacy, seems to have fallen out of fashion. So much so that many of the shops and stores where we, the dedicated, used to be able to buy our wares are now succumbing to a much worse form of fashion; they are selling paper and envelopes designed for the invitation industry, the ‘thank you for my birthday present’ families and precious little else. I can go into any stationery store now and be confronted with a small wall of coloured papers and envelopes barely suited to letter writing, but ideal for gift certificates and coupons, birthday party invitations and the like. Today I attempted to buy new envelopes for real letter writing, and almost failed in the attempt.
My first port of call was the local stationery store. There was a time when we had two in town, but one decided to go all formal and cut out the cheaper end of the market, and closed within a few months through lack of trade. There is competition from the supermarkets, who tend to stock the cheaper products, but not the selection. None of my local discount stores had what I was looking for, and I hadn’t expect them to either. So, off to the stationery store, and a small lesson in the way things are changing. They now have the wall of coloured papers with matching envelopes. They have a good selection of brown and white envelopes in various sizes, mainly with windows where the address appears and clearly designed for businesses. Air mail envelopes such as the one this letter has been sent in? The first question, since they hold no stock, was how many I wanted. If a shop is going to order specially for me, and they were prepared to, then it has to be worth their while. Clearly not that many people need airmail envelopes in our town, or they’d have them readily available, so, a special order.
I write a lot of letters, especially overseas, so an order for a boxful is no problem, be it five hundred or a thousand. The owner of the store disappeared into her office, and the search began. Three different wholesalers where this store has an account, and none of them offered what I am seeking. At home once more, having checked the markets to make absolutely sure that they hadn’t changed their stock and succumbed to an inclination to supply me with what I want and need, I explored the Internet too. I have a wholesale account with a supplier of office goods. They, however, do not supply airmail envelopes as it is not a commodity usual found in offices, which makes sense, but is still frustrating. I was forced to take my search to Amazon and purchase a thousand envelopes through them, much to my dismay. There was a time when I was all in favour of this massive online store, but my mind has been changed through a number of different events, which I shall not bother you with here. I prefer buying locally, whenever possible. Luckily I have enough still to carry on for a week or so, but this was another reminder that our beloved hobby is threatened from all sides.
Another thought which came to mind, as I was preparing to write to you, was the question of how you’d be able to cope with a sudden influx of mail from around the world. Admittedly, I am sure you won’t be receiving mail from every single recognised country, that would be too much to ask. There are some lands where letter writing simply doesn’t exist in the private sphere, and others where it is rapidly being replaced by modern technology, by the smart phone and instant gratification through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Not that I have anything against these social media services, they have their uses, but I’d hate to see them kill off one of the best means of communication, one of the most gratifying hobbies and pastimes known to intelligent humans; the other one, as I am sure you appreciate, is reading books. When I first began taking letter writing seriously, beyond these thank you letters for Christmas and birthday presents I was forced to write, and leaving out completely the letters we were expected to write as exercises in school, finding penfriends was something of a fashion, amongst younger teenagers at least. Many of the music magazines designed for the twelve to seventeen age group featured one or two pages of advertisements from young people trying to connect with others of similar interests. I suspect that the equivalent today would be dating sites, but that is a completely different story – and rather sad too – and has nothing to do with real communication. It was one of these publications which gave me my first insight into writing.
Although, looking back, I’m not sure whether it was as much of an insight as a shock. Someone put my name into an advert in one of these teeny music magazines, more as a joke than anything else, and I actually received replies. Here, I should add, I was well outside the age group of those who read this magazine, and I suspected nothing. The delivery, then, of over four hundred letters within a two week period came as something of a surprise to me, to put it mildly. All of them were from the United Kingdom unsurprisingly, but can you imagine what it would be like if you had this level of success, this high reply rate, from all 195 or 196 countries around the world? Or, to be a little less extreme, but one or two letters from those countries where letter writing is still seen as an enjoyable leisure activity? Perhaps you already have. Perhaps you are well on your way to an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the young woman who has the most penfriends from the most countries in the world, which would be something because, as far as I can see, there is no such world record at the moment.
If you’re thinking, after ploughing your way through this letter, of challenging Cicero for the number of letters written in a twenty-five year period – or in a lifetime if you wish – he doesn’t hold the record. The chances are he wrote and sent considerably more than the nine hundred or thousand letters we know today, many would have been lost through the passage of time. I don’t know who does hold the record, but I can tell you that a certain Horace Walpole has had his correspondence collected in a work of forty-eight volumes, by Yale University Press. Admittedly there are three or four volumes of index and a lot of notes and cross references, but the collation and publication work began in 1937 and was completed in 1983, so it is fair to assume that there are quite a few letters included. A target worth aiming for?
One of the wonderful things Horace Walpole said or wrote, and which has almost become a proverb for those with a broad range of interests:
The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and in a thousand things well.
Dedication, he is saying, but not to the detriment of everything else in life. After all, if we concentrate so completely on one aspect of our world, as some people do with their smart phones, how are we going to see anything to write about? Where are all our experiences going to come from, unless we steal the lives of other people and replace our own with their second hand memories and tales? What can we, as letter writers, write about, when we see nothing around us?
I first came across Horace Walpole quite by chance in the Linen Hall Library in the middle of Belfast, having always had a certain thing for both libraries and bookstores. I find it hard to simply walk by a window display of books without stopping to look, without seriously considering going inside, o matter what else I had planned, and browsing to my heart’s content. The only problem with this attitude is that I tend to come out of the store again after an hour or two, and generally with a bag of new literature, or biographies, or history which I shouldn’t really have bought, but could not resist. There are, I am often told, two other things in life I should be concentrating on before I add to my library: one is the purchase of food, so that I have the strength to carry my new books and read them; the other is shelving. The books all have to go somewhere one day, table and floor surfaces are limited, even in my house. It was, though, an interesting experience, sitting in the wood-panelled confines of the library, with a view across a busy square, reading words which had been written by a British statesman two hundred years earlier, and finding that much of what he wrote, despite the different circumstances, could still be relevant today: little in the political world seems to have changed.
I have probably taken up more than enough of your time now, what with my rambling here and there when a shorter letter would have undoubtedly been sufficient. I probably don’t come within the area of wished for correspondents you are searching for, being considerably older, but at least you now have a letter from Germany to add to your list of countries, if you didn’t have one before, and only need to concentrate on one hundred and ninety-four more. Or one hundred and ninety-five, if you count Taiwan.