Many years ago I was asked what I find to write about, how anyone can possible put so many words down on paper or have so much in their mind that it makes a letter worthwhile. I must admit, I was disappointed by the question, not so much because it was asked, but more because the person asking hadn’t taken the time to think through what they were saying: it is a question which could have been answered without being voiced, as there is such a wealth of possible answers, each according to the person posing the question, or those who take the time to think it through. That said, how many people do physically sit down and think something through, weigh up all the options and come to a conclusion? How many people simply go straight in, with a gut feeling or whatever, and without bothering to consider either the consequences or, in the case of this question, the reasoning behind and possibilities for writing? Or, to put it another way, how many people go through life with their eyes shut so that they have nothing to write about, nothing to talk about, no experiences whatsoever? I would hope that the answer to this last is a clear and loud ‘no one’, but, at times, I’m not so sure.
… you see, when I write you, I write everything, and mostly the things that trouble me […] and don’t stop to think whether it would be better to write this or that, but just keep on writing what is on my mind…
This is how Maimie Pinzer describes her need to write in a letter to Fanny Quincy Howe on 22 April 1911, and it is a description many would be able to accept in my view. There are those who tend towards journals and diaries for their innermost thoughts, and those who prefer the written word to be shared, mostly in confidence, with another. I say that last part because, as you know, many letters written in the past were shared amongst an entire family, even forwarded on to other members of a family group living elsewhere so that they might also enjoy news from distant parts. Letters written by family members, by friends and acquaintances, enjoyed a very high position in social life. This is not necessarily my viewpoint, although having read her letters I can well understand it. For me letter writing is a chance to discuss as well as to impart, to learn as much as to enjoy the opinions and experiences of other people.
But what do we, as letter writers, find to talk about? What is there in this small world, in our communities, in our social circle that could possible interest anyone who is not a party to the whole? Funnily enough, I suspect the answer is in the question: it is the same when we come, many years after their deaths, to read the letters and journals of famous people –or people who could be considered well-known enough to have their most intimate thoughts published for general perusal and appraisal – it is the inclusion in this world which, otherwise, would not be available to us. It is the breaking out of our own boundaries and entering into a different lifestyle which fascinates, and which also causes those who write to write; perhaps similar to a writer of fictional works taking his readers into another world, into a Harry Potter or hobgoblins and elves world otherwise beyond their imagination. It is like those writers who charted the course of their Grand Tour through Europe, and published it for people who, for whatever reason, were unable to undertake such a journey themselves.
Who marvels at a goiter in the Alps
Juvenal wrote, and immediately has people wondering, firstly, what a goiter is and then, once they find out, what it has to do with a mountain range and why anyone would wish to mention it, and their general health, in a travel report. At least, those who cannot understand what someone else finds to write about wonder, the rest of us know that there is a meaning behind the words, a passing on of information, a life story, if you will, being recounted for those who cannot witness it in person.
What do people find to talk about when sitting together in a street café enjoying coffee and cake on a sunny afternoon? (I’m going to leave out my usual comments on social media and the fact that many would be more consumed by their cell phones than by social conversation, and assume that we have civilised people sitting here, ones who know the value of real life and company.) They talk about whatever it is that interests them at that moment; about their experiences since the last meeting; about life in general; about that which is unfolding right before their eyes. Conversation.
I suppose some might claim that the Art of Conversation has died a death as much as the Art of Letter Writing has, although I dispute the latter vehemently! But I don’t believe that social conversation has died, no matter what advances in technology there may be, because I see it every single day as I wander through my own home town, or when I travel. And these people, conversing about God and the World – as the Germans say – don’t stop to wonder what there is to talk about, they just do it, and build up a dialogue, a tête-à-tête as the most natural social thing in the world. So it is with letter writing, although I would claim there is much more to write than there is to talk about: we are writing to those who cannot see or experience what we encounter, what we go through in our daily lives, except through our words, and the power of description must be brought in to play as a result. And that is what there is to write about.
I can endure no longer to remain
Upon a doorstep in the rain
and so it should be with all of us: we should get out there, where possible, and live life to the full so that, when we have leisure, others with fewer chances may enjoy our experiences through the form of communication and conversation we have chosen.
Today we have the joy of suffering downpours of rain. You will understand that, since this is predominantly a farming community, rain is seen as a blessing rather than something to be lamented or even cursed. Behind me, in my small writing room, the light has faded, the dark clouds have obscured the afternoon sun, and the first large drops of clear, pure water are banging against the windowsill. The threat of rain is constantly there, we have had little else in recent weeks, with the weather alternating between fiery sunshine and tremendous thunderstorms. I daresay there are those who will complain, in a few weeks time, that there has been no summer for them to enjoy – we have the school vacation here, which began last week – as they tuck into the food grown with this precious fluid. The heat we have been experiencing is dampened, for a while, and the air is fresh once more, but the dust will return as the moisture dries, just as surely as the ice cream shops will remain open until the end of September. Just yesterday I had the pleasure of two scoops of vanilla ice with a portion of freshly baked apple cake, sitting at a street café in town – with my book, of course – and occasionally watching the people wandering about nearby.
The café is right across from where one of our three banks used to be; people are amazed, when they come here, that such a small town has three major banks, four churches, four supermarkets and three high schools, but a police station which closes at night. The bank building used to be a half-timber affair, occupied since the founding of the bank in the late nineteenth century. Then it became a brick and mortar construction, modern for its times, put up in the Seventies and considerably larger than its predecessor. Now, rather than a building, there is a large space remaining, from the bank building and its neighbour which, and not before time, suffered the same fate and has been demolished over the last few weeks. It seems as if more sunlight falls across the chairs and tables in front of the café now, as if the removal of these two buildings has added something, but it is only an impression. The main street runs east to west here, so the sun has always graced this side morning, noon and night. But there is something else there, a feeling that the street is less cramped, and the view down one of the side streets, towards the greenery of various Gardens; is most certainly an improvement.
A large sign, when the demolition began, read that the bank was rebuilding its property for me – something that banks and other businesses here are very keen on: anything to do with rebuilding, renovation and so on, where their customers money is being used for the improvements, is always being done for them – which is an ego booster in some ways. I use the online version of the banking system, so there really was no need to go to all this trouble just for me. This is the point in a real life situation where I would tilt my head to one side and smile like a Cheshire cat to indicate humour, but for the fact that I know anyone I write to, talk to or, hopefully, am involved with is intelligent enough to realise when I am being humorous, ironic, sarcastic or just plain old me.
Did I mention the last building this bank rebuilt recently? I can’t remember, so forgive me if I bore through repetition. There was a bank in the neighbouring town of Eystrup, a white concrete adorned with red metal struts sort of monstrosity. With the building of a bridge over the railway lines, it moved from being in a highly accessible area of the town, to what could be considered the outskirts. A supermarket right across the road, for much the same reasons, closed its doors, and the management of the bank decided that they should do much the same but, at the same time, they didn’t want to offend the people of the town, nor lose their business. There have been cases of branch closures where the banks have been forced to leave automatic teller machines operating in the otherwise empty building – making them exceedingly difficult to sell – or risk losing a large number of highly inconvenienced customers. So the bank management bought up an old video shop with a nice bit of land attached, right on the main street through the town – as opposed to the main shopping street leading to the bridge – and claimed they had moved, considering their customers interests first, to a new position to save costs, as the old building was too big.
The resulting building is not going to be accepted in any hall of fame for architecture, for assimilation within the community or for taste. It looks like a grey concrete block that someone has dropped, a Lego stone cast aside by a child. It does not fit with any of the other buildings in the town, and certainly not with those in its immediate vicinity. Upon the day of its official opening, the town mayor said he hoped that people would come to like it eventually, which is tantamount to telling the bank managers responsible that they’ve built something unlovable. Prince Charles, many years ago, called an extension to one of the national galleries in London a carbuncle; I wonder which adjective he would have used for this construction. On reflection, no, because it would not have been anything suitable for pure ears and tender mind. The architects have not yet erected a billboard with their plans for this space, in the middle of the town, so there is still time to hope for something adorning and imposing, rather than daunting and abhorrent. I shall remain with the online banking side of things, and be grateful, no matter what is erected there, that I seldom have call to enter the hallowed halls.
Thinking about it, there have been many changes in this town since I arrived here, slightly over twenty years ago now. I wonder what it would be like to go back and visit all those places I have lived in during the last more than half a century, and compare them with my memories. Will I still be able to find my way about town? Will I even recognise what is there now compared to what was there then? I know that my birth city has changed a great deal over the last fifty years, but I suspect not so much that I wouldn’t be able to find those places I spent time as a child. Buckingham Palace, St. James’ Park, Westminster Abbey are all still there, and, of course, the museums in South Kensington; favourite place to visit during bad weather, just a short trip on the Tube.
One of the Mann children – offspring of Thomas Mann, the head of the so-called ‘amazing family’ – wrote his memoirs at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two (I cannot recall whether it was Klaus or Golo Mann at the moment, my memory fades with age), which strikes me as being early in life. Perhaps that is what we, the letter writers of this world, find to write about, as he did: life. No matter how you look at it, life is all around us and gives us very good material for spinning stories, for making conversation.
And even so, once they have got over the fact that I can write letters as if holding a conversation, some say that I write too much which, I agree, is a fair comment. I do not talk as much, am more on the outskirts of conversations, so writing makes up for that, I suppose. And I must add, bearing in mind the circumstances, that I enjoy both reading and writing letters, but certainly would not insist that every single word I write requires an immediate answer: I am also patient, otherwise I would have chosen a different, faster, means of communication.