I envy you. You might think that this is a very strange way to begin a letter to anyone, and especially to a person the writer does not even know, but it sums up my feelings in a far better manner than a longer sentence could ever manage, although I am, of course, the only person who understands the full meaning of this simple, short sentence. So, to expand on the thought slightly: I envy you, at the start of your letter writing, from the point of view of a person who is at the end – almost – of his. I am profoundly jealous of all the pleasures, adventures, experiences which lie ahead of you; all the people you will meet through letter writing, and all the countries you have a chance to visit through their words, and through the images those words create in your mind, in your imagination. I am moved to think you, too, could experience the wonders of connection and communication, of discovery that I have done over many years, and the feeling of great anticipation every time there is a new delivery of mail, when you recognise the writing on an envelope, or when you do not, and still have the pleasures of a potential new friend before you.
Everyone has their own style of writing, the things which interest and inspire them to take up the pen, to sit for an hour or so in front of a blank piece of paper and inscribe it with their thoughts, their ideas, their own story. We develop further as the years pass, finding out what interests us as much as what is likely to strike a chord with other people, learning to shape our words according to who we are addressing, where they come from, what they already know about where we live. We remember, as each new letter begins, that what might seem normal and everyday to us, no matter where we live, is going to be interesting and unusual to a person who lives in a foreign country, even in a different State, for the simple reason that each event is something we have experienced, and they have not. Other people, even those standing right next to us at any given moment, are going to see something in a slightly different manner to the way we experience it: ask three people what they saw on the street at exactly the same time, and you will gain three different answers. A philosopher few but the most dedicated would have heard of, William Ernest Hocking, wrote:
I have sometimes sat looking at a comrade, speculating on this mysterious isolation of self from self. Why are we so made that I gaze and see of thee only thy Wall, and never Thee? This Wall of thee is but a movable part of the Wall of my world; and I also am a Wall to thee: we look out at one another from behind masks.
What he has written there means something different to me to that which you might understand, and we are both probably thinking something completely different to what he had in mind when he put pen to paper and this quotation was published in a book back in 1912. It sums up, though, quite effectively what we try to break through when writing or letters, when reading the letters of other people: we are keen to get inside their mind and see what it is they have experienced, what it is that interests them, and whether we can also share their experiences and interests, at least for a while. The complicated language that he uses, as a Methodist, is also something which, were we using these words in a letter of our own, would send out several different meanings. Is Hocking writing as himself, addressing his wife Agnes, a friend or acquaintance or, perhaps, God?
For us simple beings, letter writing is all that we need, and the many possible interpretations of the words of a philosopher do not need to bother us too much unless, of course, we use those words as quotations within a letter to someone else. And here, I must admit, is a wonderful trait that I use myself: allowing thoughts and ideas to be represented by the words of an author, a politician, a philosopher, someone from the darkest reaches of history. Letter writing has the ability, if we follow it as far as we can go, of introducing us to other worlds not only where people live, but those created by their imagination. Letter writers of old – to which I include myself – quoted from poems, from texts, from their specific accepted religious books, but to illustrate a point and, I suspect, also to show how well educated and well-read they were. The use of someone else’s words – fair use, and not plagiarism – brings us into contact with ideas, through literature, through reading published works, we might also not have had before. They also, and I can promise you this as I have experienced it myself, enhance the letter writing experience, bringing strange and new ideas into what can be discussed, even if we just fly off the handle and complain about how much rubbish someone else has written, and that it makes no sense. A good writer of letters, for me, is also someone who is a good reader of books.
We, today, are very lucky indeed. We have good access to books, and to writing materials, something which was not always a given for ordinary folk. There was a time when education was not quite so widely accepted, so that people of your age could read or write, and in some societies it was quite normal for a child to be working by the time they were eight or nine years old. Only about one hundred and fifty years ago, in Europe, it was normal for a child to enter school at a young age, and then go through four different levels, with people being cast out along the way according to their ability, or their rank and status in society. The first level was the basics of education – as laid out by ancient philosophers who wrote long and complicated books about education – then came the second level for those who were not going straight out to work in the fields or factories, and then, at about thirteen years old, maybe fifteen, university. Can you imagine, today, going to college now, at your age? After that came the Grand Tour, usually at about seventeen, for one to three years, across all the classical sites of learning in Europe, and then back to the family to begin a working life, if they needed to work at all. And how did they keep in touch with their family and friends all this time?
No internet, Facebook or WhatsApp available, just a sheet of paper, a pen and ink, and, if they were lucky, a post coach which could carry their letter, with many others, from one staging post to the next until, perhaps three months or longer later, it arrived at the desired address. You will see that I have included a small example of a letter, although it is not a personal one, but an official letter with an invoice to be paid which, I hope, you opened very carefully.
This little letter was written and sent from Reichthal in Germany on the 11 of May 1835, even though it has a date inside from the next day. If you fold it back together you can see exactly how it worked, as the letter is its own envelope. The longer folded section slips inside the shorter folded section and then has a seal – you can see the impression left from a wax seal which has crumbled over time – to keep it closed. A broken seal meant someone else could have read the letter: they didn’t have simple gummed envelopes which could unobtrusively be opened by someone with a steaming kettle of water back then! And this letter was written back in the days before postage stamps, before official post offices and airmail and everything we take for granted today. It would have been transported by a special messenger – the first postal workers – direct to the person it is addressed to, regardless of the time of day or night, on foot, by a rider, or with a carriage and horses. And a few years earlier there would have been no postal courier at all, but a messenger whose sole job in life was to transport missives from his master, or to the next carriage stop where, on what became known as a post chaise, the letters moved in a series of hops and bounds onward. No Wells Fargo rider charging across the barren wastes of the Wild West here, but still the occasional highwayman, or woman, hoping to make a profit by robbing the stage coach along some dark, deserted highway.
Clearly this invoice made it through to whoever was due to pay it, and has been kept as a reminder of that debt to this day. But just look at the handwriting, which could be from a quill or, if very modern, a dip pen. The language is, of course, very different, even to the German spoken today, and the letters shaped in a form we no longer see in use. But it has been written quickly, the lines are not straight, the letters are not even, it has been dashed off in a moment or two. Perhaps just in time to catch the last post? We shall never know, but we can speculate, as writers, and tell our own story to whoever we are writing to. They cannot see what we see, they do not feel that paper between their fingers , can only rely on the words we use to illuminate them, to fire up their imagination.
Letter writing, that wonderful means of communication, is not just paper and envelopes, pen and ink. Sometimes we enjoy sending off a quick postcard, where we have seen something of interest, been a tourist for the day and have not turned to our cell phones to send the latest snapshots to Instagram or wherever in the hopes of a few more Likes. Even today, despite this instant communication and many social media networks, the postcard has a place in our lives. Back then, as these few examples were sent, it had a far greater meaning.
The first, as a prime example – and I hope you’ve kept the cards in the order I sent them! – is a very personal one. It was produced in Braunschweig from a photograph probably taken on the same day, by Wilhelm Klopp, who would have had these five lucky people in his studio wearing their Sunday best. It’s hard to get over those hats, isn’t it? And the woman in the centre with her glasses, held on by gripping her nose – which gave them their name, a French one, of Pince-nez and means exactly what it says: pinch nose – very popular for a while and, I understand, perhaps making a comeback today, although I cannot comprehend why; they are very uncomfortable. But clearly these five had a wonderful day out in the small city during the week of 22 August 1910, and have written all about it to their friend Fraulein Steinhaus in a village near to Bremen. She, I hope, would have been able to read the scrawl which is her friend Liesbeth’s hand writing.
We don’t know what they saw or did on that day, but perhaps they travelled further and saw some of the sights in other postcards I have included for you. Perhaps, one day, they climbed up to the castle on that steep hill, using steps cut into the side of the mountain and worn down by hundreds of feet over hundreds of years. Perhaps, halfway to the top, they saw a bench in the distance, and thought of a short rest – but would you sit on that bench, right underneath a rock which looks as if it could slip down at any moment? I think I’d enjoy the view, but remain standing, and at a safe distance.
After the bench, and a good view from the top of the mountain, we are back down in the market square, and can buy our postcards at this small kiosk, and the local paper, which, according to the wording on the side, is also a post office or, at the very least, has postal facilities. I am playing with time, of course, since the postcards range from the start of the century through to nearly sixty years later, and some of them are from the former East Germany, behind the iron curtain of the Cold War which, I suspect, would be something covered in history lessons at school. And if the next card doesn’t wake up a few ideas, certainly amongst older people, then I would be surprised. It certainly does for me, and not just because of the age of this postcard, which is a lithograph and one of the first forms of illustrated postcard produced in Europe. Photographic cards came around the turn of the century, and these lithographic printed cards, often with falsified impressions of a town or area according to the imagination of the artist, began to appear in about 1890. This small example, showing two quite accurate views of the town of Colditz, was posted on 28 December 1901.
The castle in Colditz is renowned in modern history because it was used by the German authorities, during the Second World War, as an internment camp, a prison, for American, British, French, Polish and Belgian soldiers who had a reputation for constantly escaping from other prison camps. Situated near to the Polish border in eastern Germany, it was considered an impossible task to escape, which many different prisoners – mainly officers – quickly proved wrong through many ingenious means, including tunnels and dressing up as civilian workers in the castle, or even women. After the war it was used as a hospital, as an administrative building for the area, and then, one day after reunification – which happened in October 1989 and brought East and West Germany back into its present unified form – it was offered for sale for one Deutschmark. That’s like offering the White House to anyone who wants to have it for a dollar. It is now a museum, a music school and a youth hostel.
My final postcard for you is one which is from a city with very strong connections to the United States, as it was within the zone of West Germany covered by American soldiers – the occupying forces after the war dividing the country into several administrative zones, which is how East Germany was formed, as this was the Soviet zone – and where many former, or still, Americans live and work. Not everyone went back home after their military service, something which I can well understand, as I did the same. I remained here in Germany after leaving the British army, many years ago. I have been here many times and love the city, which is a very old one and has many half-timber houses similar to those in the black and white photographs. Who knows, perhaps one day you will be able to stand up on those castle walls, and look across the city, across the river, at a most impressive view.
Not everyone can do that, though, and that is why letter writing is one of the most wonderful hobbies that a person can have. I am sure that all those social media networks can give as much if you just want to see images of a place, but a written letter from someone who is, or was, there in person has a special touch which cannot be achieved on a computer or phone screen: it is personal. You know that whoever wrote your letter wrote it just for you, had you in mind when they penned those words, and is now letting you see their experiences through their eyes. Apart from that, who wouldn’t rather have a beautiful letter in their hands rather than a few pixels on a screen shared with an unknown number of other people?
Although, many years ago, a private letter was never really private. I don‘t mean that every single letter was opened and read by someone else – although the Royal Post, as such, was always open to inspection during times of civil unrest, resulting in quite a few people being caught out and sent on their way to the big paradise in the sky before their time – but for many they were the only means of sharing news, and that news was shared with family and friends. Letters written home, having taken three months to arrive, were read out, even when those present were not members of the immediate family, perhaps. Some letters were then forwarded to other family members in different parts of the country, or given on to friends who might be interested in the news. In the nineteenth century there was an English historian whose wife – Jane Welsh Carlyle – has fascinated me for years. She was one of many, many women of talent forced, through convention and social expectations, to give up her hopes and plans and become a wife and housewife, and she was an avid letter writer. There are tales in her memoirs of her receiving a letter from one relative and then forwarding it from her house in Chelsea, London, to the rest of the family in Scotland. Another tale has her receiving a letter and then passing it on to the novelist Charles Dickens for him to read. A century and more ago this would have been considered quite normal, then it became unusual and now, with all the social networks we have, it has become normal again. History and social mores going around in a massive, slow-turning, circle.
What was also normal, and which we would find hard to believe today, is that not only did the well-to-do people who could afford the time and expense of writing letters set special times to one side to do so, but many also kept a hand written correspondence book: a personal copy of the letters they had sent out. The very rich could afford to dictate their not-so-personal letters without any problems, but the middle class, the artists and intellectuals who wrote letters – and especially their wives who wished to maintain contact with family and friends from before their marriage – would have done all this by hand. Now, imagine doing that today, where we all believe that there are too many things to do for the number of hours in a day anyway, and you, with one of your letters, writing it twice. Admittedly, the second time is much quicker because you’re not thinking, merely copying, but even so. I’d be afraid of finding all the mistakes I made and feeling that I had to write the letter again. At least, in my younger days I would have. Today I write like this so that those who receive my letters can also read them, as my hand writing has become something similar to that you’ve seen on a few of the postcards: you’d need hours to decipher it, with a magnifying glass.
I said at the beginning of this letter that I envy you and the wonderful future as a letter writer that you have before you, where I can only look back on the past and my memories. Perhaps that isn’t quite true, since I clearly still write letters, since I clearly still have a great deal of pleasure in doing so, and plenty of people to write to, to read letters from. And I cannot say that the pleasure of receiving correspondence has diminished in any form whatsoever, nor the joyful anticipation each time I approach my letter box: will there be something for me there today? All of these things I wish for you too, at the start of your future so that, when you reach the age I have managed to struggle through to, you may have as many wonderful memories and experiences to recall as I have, and the physical evidence of real letters you can stretch out your hand to, and relive at leisure. I am well outside the age group of those you wish to write to, and that is fine. I am not writing for a reply, merely to hope that you will enjoy what is to come.
And, finally, a small suggestion, although I am sure you will find your own way without anyone else’s help or interference: a notebook. We cannot sit down and write a letter, gather our thoughts and put them down on paper, whenever we wish. Sometimes there are other things which are more important, or the opportunity doesn’t arise merely because we have no paper, no suitable writing surface, are sitting on a bicycle or about to fall asleep. I have never regretted having a small notebook with me, of jotting down a thought, a sight, an experience which I can come back to later and relate to someone else. Perhaps you’d like to try it too, see how the idea works for you, if at all.