One of the hardest things to come to terms with is when someone simply disappears without a word of explanation, and it makes little difference if this person is someone we personally know, or merely someone we have met in a virtual sense but never personally. Every relationship we build up brings a certain intimacy, a closeness with it, and we often believe that there is not only mutual trust, but a feeling of belonging together, of being part of a team, even a close-knit family in some cases. This breach of trust, by simply vanishing, can be almost heartbreaking. Of course, there are some who will claim that the loss of a friend we only know through their written words cannot be equated with the loss of a direct family member, a child or parent, and they would be quite right. The loss we feel, the wondering whether all is well or whether something bad has happened to them, to their health, their personal circumstances, is a different one to that we feel when confronted with the death of a loved one or, worse still, their apparent desertion.
Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing,
as Shakespeare wrote, lamenting the loss of love or, perhaps, the knowledge that love is not forever, as Helen Vendler writes in her excellent work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets:
Because no gift of love can entail guaranteed permanence, the withdrawal of a beloved’s affection is something everyone has feared or felt.
Letter writing is like love, only on a smaller scale: if you do not invest time and energy, it will fail, it will flounder on the rocks of disinterest and the object of your affection will turn elsewhere for satisfaction, for fulfilment. And there are some, sadly, who feel unable to invest the time in either, although we are only concerned with the ancient and venerable art of penmanship and not the vicissitudes of the heart.
I’d like to put the blame fairly and squarely on the shoulders of modern technology, but that would be unfair. Smart phones, electronic mail and text messages do, indeed, have to take some of the blame, but so does society itself: we are living too fast. Although our life expectancy has increased, we are trying to do too much, too quickly. Everything has become a race against time, and we lack the enjoyment of the individual, of the experienced as we try to rush on to the next thing which has to be done. Letter writing is an art which requires time and dedication, which should be used as a means to communicate what we have seen, what we feel, who we are. It cannot be rushed, and it should most certainly not be deserted simply because we feel there are not enough hours in the day. There is always time to sit, to relax, and to read or write. There should also be enough time in our lives to see and to experience, or what is the point of living in such a beautiful creation? What is the point of our lives if we do not live them to the full?
You mention postcards, and I think this is an excellent way of introducing people not only to the pleasures of communication, but also to the advantages of getting out of their houses and apartments, out of their small and closed in communities, and seeing something of the world, even if it is no further than the next major city. I long played with the idea of joining one of these online postcard exchange sites, and even tried one, but there was no real satisfaction. I sent a postcard to five or six people, and received five or six in return, but always from other people. There was no continuity, no feeling that I had made a contact, that my postcard, whether it was a beautiful scene or had a message on it or whatever, had done more than increase the number of postcards in another person’s collection. There was contact, but no interaction, no exchange of ideas. And, to be honest, I got the feeling some people were sending out the first postcard they could lay their hands on, with no thought to the person who might be receiving it, just to fill a quota, just to be able to say they had sent something and increase the number of cards they received.
But it was more than that, more than just the one-sided action of sending a card and receiving a reply from elsewhere. It was the lack of communication itself. A postcard only has so much space available to write a message; admittedly considerably more than the earliest cards where messages in some countries were strictly forbidden. There were times when I wanted to write about the places I had seen and my experiences travelling, the people I had met, the weather, the price of a pot of tea and a slice of cheesecake in the local street cafés. Fine, you may well be inclined to retort, there is Instagram for that sort of thing: snap a photograph of your coffee and cake, post it to the web site and make a comment for all to enjoy. You’ve communicated, you could say, you’ve passed your experiences on to countless other people around the world. That is what social media is for, and it does an excellent job. Or, better, it can do when people use it properly and, above all, have other Instagram users who follow their entries.
Yes, I agree, that is what the sites are there for, and that is what they do, and they are useless for anything else. Facebook, as a prime example, insists that we confirm our friends, those who apply to be our Friends on the site, must be people we know unless we’re a public figure and our friends are fans or followers. What is the point, I ask myself, of having all your friends and family follow you on Facebook, when you can talk to them, be with them? Why give up the intimacy of personal conversation in favour of an Internet web site? Wonderful when you are on holiday or in some foreign country and your family and friends cannot be with you, but every single day? Neil Postman wrote:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Of course, he is referring to books and the levels of literacy when it comes to reading, but we might also turn his words towards letter writing and make the same judgement: the world is a poorer place when all we have is the instant gratification of Facebook, Twitter &Co., and lose the ability to write our thoughts and experiences down on paper, to communicate in more than one hundred and forty characters, one with another. George Orwell’s 1984 is back in the news again today, and I daresay it will not be too long before Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World joins it on the best seller lists, but there are political reasons for the resurgence of interest which don’t necessarily fit within the theme of my letter today.
Can you imagine how poor the world would be but for letter writing? If the people of the past, in all their grades and stations, had not communicated with one another through the written word, and those letters had not come down to us today, many of those things which we take for granted simply would not exist. I doubt that we would be able to call our world civilised but for the advent of the written word, for the contact and communication it brought those in positions of power, and especially those of a more intellectual bent. Were it not for letter writing, we would probably not have the wonderful Passions of the Soul from René Descartes, which only came about through the continued, deep and meaningful correspondence he had with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia over the nature of happiness, the passions and ethics. And, of course, far closer to home and our own times, I would not be writing to someone from China, or to people from other countries right across the world.
On the other hand, I would also not be running the risk that I do not gain a reply to one or more of my letters, or that someone, somewhere will up sticks and simply stop replying altogether without saying why, without wishing a goodbye. I wouldn’t be walking to the local post office every single day, no matter what the weather, to check my post box and see if a letter has arrived, and I most certainly wouldn’t be spending money on writing paper, envelopes and stamps. I daresay I could fill my leisure time with some other form of activity, possibly something which other people might term more worthwhile, but I would still feel a loss, as you have done with the loss of your friendship. I would feel a loss at not being able to communicate with a wide variety of interesting people around the world, those who have potentially the same interests as I do, or interests which I have never addressed before, and which will prove to be an enrichment to my life. And there is always the possibility that I will, with my few interests, enrich someone else’s life, or bring them to the discovery of an aspect of life, society, the world, which they had not appreciated before. This is what makes it all so worthwhile.
I live in a small town in northern Germany, and have done so for slightly more than twenty years. The town drew my attention because of its long and inglorious history, having been founded by a scoundrel who was not adverse to cheating anyone and everyone, no matter who they were, to gain an extra penny in his pocket. By many standards this area has only recently been settled; there are certificates and writings which go back to about 850 CE, and it is possible that settlers were also here a few hundred years earlier, living in the wilds and farming as best they could. However, much of the area was surrounded by marshlands, so scraping a living here cannot have been the easiest. The main settlement began in the mid-thirteenth century, when the scoundrel who deigned to elevate himself to the rank of a Count built his first house on a hill surrounded on the one side by marsh, and on the other by a river. The area became known after him, and bears his name to this day, although the main branches of the family died out in the sixteenth century, And the land was divided amongst a wide range of other aristocrats who had either been cheated over time, or had accepted land titles in lieu of payment for debts incurred.
It was, for me, a major life style change. I was born in London, England and had experienced mainly major cities for much of my life. My travels had, admittedly, taken me across half the world and shown me many aspects of life which differed from that of a metropolis, but living for a period longer than six months or so in one place was unusual. Social life in a small German town is completely different to that which one would expect to find in a capital city such as London. There are considerably fewer opportunities to partake of any form of cultural nightlife, unless you happen to be interested in joining a shooting club. The highlight of the town is an excellent cinema, but there is no theatre or concert hall, few restaurants and most certainly a lack of opportunities to advance oneself educationally or intellectually. The local library is within the primary school complex, opens twice a week for two hours, and is closed throughout the school holidays. During the summer months that means no service whatsoever for eight weeks. Fortunately I have a habit of buying my books, having been inculcated at an early age with a belief in possession of such valuables, and with the values of worth in that, since it is my money I am spending, I tend to only buy those titles which I would want to keep. It makes moving house difficult, but I have no intention of doing that again! I hope that I have unpacked my books and my few other possessions for the last time, and can finally settle down to the real pleasures in life: reading; writing; travelling.
What do I, an older man, have to offer a younger woman that others cannot offer equally if not better? Probably nothing apart from: the experience of years; an open-mindedness brought about through a willingness to learn; the pleasures of reading and writing – for both of us; the knowledge that a lover of the written word, of communication, is not going to simply disappear without a word overnight. And, perhaps best of all, the knowledge that each letter is going to ramble from one subject to another at random and, hopefully, never be boring.