It is said that the hardest part of writing a letter to someone you do not know – or, better, who you do not know yet but wish to convince it is worthwhile getting to know – is the opening sentence. You are faced with this blank sheet of paper and all the best ideas in the world, which usually come to me when I am either just about to drift off to sleep, or am driving in my car, all these ideas disappear as soon as you pick up your pen, as soon as your fingers hover over the keyboard. There is, suddenly, a blankness there which refuses to be beaten, a resounding emptiness of ideas, a lack of the right words which, when finally strung together, appear to make either no sense, nor be worth the paper they are consigned to. The wastepaper basket, carefully placed across the room, becomes a suitable and constant target for your aim, as page after page is begun, scrutinised, discarded.
It is said. What an excellent way to begin a letter: an assumption with no source other than hearsay; a way out, perhaps, when ideas do not appear; an excuse with no substance. The words do not come, I have found, when the writing of a letter is considered, or felt to be, an obligation; when you know that you have to do it, for whatever reason, but your heart isn’t really up to the task. There are so many other things which could be done to fill the time, so many exciting things to see and do, but this letter to Grandma, to Aunt Sally, to the old woman across the road who has hundreds of cats and smells funny – wasn’t it always so, in January, right after all the presents had been opened, thought about, discarded as unsuitable? – which must be written by way of thanks, and for which there are no words. And now? As an adult?
Now, as an adult, with so much experience of life, it is just as hard to find the right beginning, not because there is so little now, but because there is so much. More than this, though, as a letter writer there is a need not only to write, but also to receive a reply, to have your work validated – if not positively graded like a school child – by someone putting their own pen to paper, dedicating their time to you. And there is the need to construct a letter in such a manner that our pride, our erudition, our intelligence, our social standing are all presented, and we do not lose face – to take the old Eastern idea – by producing something unworthy, or by having something worthy rejected. What can an adult write about which would be of interest to another adult living across the other side of the world?
The answer, of course, is within that simple sentence: the other side of the world. We live and work in different countries with traditions and customs which, when we know anything about the world at all, may seem strange to one another; with practices, language, surroundings that are unknown. Every single thing that we do each day, even when we believe our day to be a mere repetition of the last, and practice for the repetition of tomorrow, is individual and has something new. What we see each day, in our own world, is something no one else gets to see, ever. Everything we see, everything we do is interpreted by ourselves, by our inner thoughts, by what we have learned through life, what we anticipate, what we hope for, what we fear. No two people are the same. If only we could put those words, thoughts and experiences onto paper and share them, invite comment, enliven the life of someone else, across the world, and, perhaps, step into their shoes too. But letter writing, we are told – again, without a clear source – is a thing of the past; long since abandoned to history books as an oddity which lasted many centuries, but which has now been utterly destroyed by the advent of social media, by instant messages and video chat applications on intelligent telephones. But, as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is widely reported to have said over his own health, in a quotation which has often been changed to something it was not:
The report of my death was an exaggeration.
And so it is with letter writing: oft written off as a thing of the past, but always there, in the background sometimes, but alive, healthy and, like Twain, full of humour, sprite and the joys of life itself.
As I write this, my back to the windows in my library, I am listening to the rolling thunder of an approaching storm. The temperature has dropped a few degrees over the last half an hour or so, and the light is fading fast: I will soon have to put on my room lights in order to see, in order to continue writing. My immediate thought, as I wrote this last line, was of those who composed letters in the past. I am currently reading an interesting biographical work on the life and letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle, a Victorian letter writer who had the distinction, for those who need such things, of being married to the renowned author of historical works Thomas Carlyle. I phrase it this way because I believe in Jane for her own worth, and not for the sake of a person she married and who happens to have a name better known than her own. I often shake my head at those – both physically and as a written term (smh) – who mention women only in the context of what their husband does, is, or claims to be. I have an image of her sitting at her small writing table, alone in the sitting room as her husband would have been hidden away in his office, writing books on Cromwell or the French Revolution, her only light from a candle or two. London – this was in the eighteen forties – was a city of smoke and smog; unhealthy in the extreme even for those who, like the Carlyle’s, lived in Chelsea, what we now consider to be an aristocratic or upper class area on the banks of the river Thames. When the candle gutted, the writing day was at an end: candles were expensive, and the family frugal, as Thomas Carlyle had not yet made a name for himself as an author, not yet begun to command high royalty rates from his publishers.
But such dedication to the writing of letters: for Jane Carlyle one of the only means of staying in touch with people – even her husband when they were separated for whatever reason, and exchanged letters every day – especially those members of her own family who had remained in Scotland or who were travelling the world for one reason or another. Almost everything was hand written, from letters right through to the largest most comprehensive of books in their initial manuscript stage. The new-fangled typewriting machine only began to raise its head as a possibility in the eighteen seventies: Fanny Kemble, a bestselling author early in that century, mentions receiving one as a gift while compiling her memoirs in a letter dated 1 October 1875. She describes it as a blessing, but something akin to a piano, from the manner in which the keys were operated. Friends of hers refused to use such modern instruments, and wrote their works by hand, standing, from beginning to end, through all the corrections and galley proofs until final publication. And Alexander von Humboldt, in the final years of his long life, was receiving and trying to reply to about five thousand letters a year. Most of us, I think, would be overwhelmed if we had two or three personal missives a week!
This is our second set of major thunderstorms in about three days. The last one was so serious, in the amount of water which fell from the skies, that I thought a pipe had burst in my house – in fact it was merely the sound of water streaming down over a half-open window in another room, but streaming down so thick you could have parted it like a curtain to look out the other side. But, so far, it seems to be passing me by, perhaps ten or fifteen miles to the south, and my overgrown garden could this time be spared the deluge. I pity my neighbours more than anything, especially at such times: they have just spent two week scraping out their open-air swimming pool, and now it has been flooded by rainwater several days in succession, so that the water where they wish to swim, when the sun makes its welcome return, is tending towards a dull green once more. For me it makes no real difference: when the natural light streaming over my shoulders fades I shall switch on a fake light and be able to work, to read and write, without hindrance. That is, unless the wind sucks my leaned-open window shut with such a sudden bang even my cat jumps, as just happened!
Cat and I have a twice daily discussion on who should be allowed to sit where which, as you can imagine, I tend to win. It begins in the morning, when I have finished my ablutions and housework and am ready to settle down to write – my work, if you will – and cat decides that this, and nowhere else, is the best place to sleep. It takes about ten minutes before cat is convinced that I am not going to be defeated, and he settles himself down into a corner of the couch for the day. Then, in the evening, we have the same one-sided discussion: I wish to settle myself into the corner and read a book, where cat now believes is his domain. It is good natured, for the most part, as we both know, firstly, that I will gain the upper-hand and, secondly, that cat will get his revenge some other time. This is usually at about four in the morning, when cat decides that it is a good time to go out, meet up with friends, fight with enemies and explore the surrounding gardens, and ignores the fact that I have a strong desire to sleep.
So, we’ve got to the ‘staying in touch’ part of letter writing, even if we were looking back nearly two centuries and times have changed. Chelsea is now gentrified; the house in Cheyne Walk is now a museum; the works of Thomas Carlyle have generally been forgotten to all but a few, and those of Jane Welsh Carlyle, who was never published in her own lifetime, are enjoying much deserved attention. But how can a letter to someone you do not know, who is in a situation you cannot necessarily comprehend – at least, not from personal experience – be justified let alone written? What can two people who do not know one another, who have nothing in common but their age (I was born in 1960) possibly have to converse about?
Letter writing is as much a physical exercise – the writing part – as it is a mental one. For me, as a dedicated letter writer, the mental exercise, the challenge of writing a unique letter to someone is what it is all about, initially. It is the challenge, for the recipient, of reading a missive from a complete stranger, which appears to begin in the middle of a conversation, without real introduction or foreplay, as if this were the most normal thing in the world. Well, to me it is, but not necessarily to you. Let me explain it this way: we are both of an age where we have a great deal behind us, in one way or another. We are in the middle of our life stories, many years along the path we follow towards whatever is there, or not. Can anyone relate their entire life so that their counterpart is completely up to date? Can we even remember all the things which have influenced us, which were interesting at the time, which someone said to us in passing, or which we thought on the spur of the moment? Just as we cannot turn back the hands of time, so we cannot expect to capture the essence of ourselves in such a manner that another can understand us, can feel what we feel or have felt, can be, essentially, what we are. But we can take this far from finished product and share it; we can take ourselves and join with a second person – or more – from this moment onwards; we can recall as the need arises, regale, enlighten, laugh and shed tears together, but only for the present and the future. We can exchange words and reach some form of mutual understanding, a form of friendship perhaps. But it begins in the midst of our lives and not right at the beginning, as if we were twins. So I write my letters as if they are a continuation of what has gone on before – which they are for me – and in order to avoid duplication, even among several different friends who will probably never come together or converse, because that is what is normal for me.
Some form of introduction is, of course, necessary; even if it does appear at the very end of this letter when your patience has probably been almost exhausted. I am an Englishman, settled in a small town in Germany, and I spend my time reading and writing. I have my own small library of about six thousand books – mainly history and philosophy – and a collection of photographs which is also my pride and joy, but which would probably be the bane of a lifetime to whoever inherits when the time comes. Somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand individual photographs taken prior to about 1926. I write letters for pleasure, and often about what I have experienced in person, or what I am currently reading. Whenever possible I travel, join in with debates and discussions, explore and learn. I fight for the best place to sit with my cat twice a day, and visit the post office just as often. And, once I’ve started, even if the subject seems to be a no-hoper, I ramble through my letters with whichever thoughts come to mind at the time as if holding a conversation which, as I am sure you’ll agree, letter writing effectively is. A one-sided conversation to be sure, but always hopeful of a reply so that, over a longer period of time – time taken to think, to observe and to learn, which social media does not allow – friendships can be built, opinions exchanged, fulfilment achieved. The mind, when allowed to wander at will and without constraint, knows no bounds, no walls, no confinement.