I am trying to remember which was better, which was worse, all those years ago: the anticipation of receiving a letter from someone new, or known, or the actual receiving of the letter as a physical entity. The emotions surrounding both were, of course, completely different, and it is hard to compare one to the other, but, even so, there was a delicious feeling of something strange, something unusual, something to be keenly awaited in both, right up until that moment when the letter was opened, and the words began to spill forth from across the country, across the world. Not that the very first letters I received provoked any form of anticipation, I was probably too young to appreciate the written form at that stage, and they tended to contain nothing more than birthday greetings, a Book Token at Christmas, a thank-you note for news sent. This, however, was before the discovery of real writing, when a note to someone else was considered an obligation, especially grandparents by way of gratitude for an inappropriate or unwanted but well-intentioned gift, and the idea of writing to a complete stranger, let alone one living in a foreign land, was far from anyone’s thoughts.
The anticipation came much later, as did the writing of real letters. We had the opportunity during the school term, which was also a form of obligation, to write home to our parent(s), but the idea of having what we had written during an English lesson checked and approved by a teacher was hardly an inducement to anything approaching a real and worthy type of letter writing. My anticipation was rather dampened by the fact that I knew my father would write his letter to me on a Friday, and I would receive it at mail call on the following Monday, it having been stacked with others, unattended and unloved, locked in the school office from the moment of delivery on the Saturday morning, over an entire weekend. Christmas and birthday letter anticipation was another matter entirely, as a letter meant a card, and in that card there could be a pound note folded up and waiting my eager, greedy, youthful paws. We’re casting our minds back to a time when a Pound Sterling had some meaning and value, and a five pound note was something only seen on very rare occasions. Worst case scenario was, I now recall, a folded ten shilling note by way of a gift, which would probably have been bandied about as often as a five euro note today: something folded and clearly money, but scarcely worth the cost of printing it, for all such a piece of currency could buy. Absolute worst case would be a small package containing sweets, which disappeared quicker than the eye could blink, and usually into the mouths of those who were suddenly a best friend, until the package contents were a mere memory of something sweet on the tip of a tongue.
Not vainly we waited and counted the hours,
The buds of our hope have all burst into flowers.
I wonder whether that same level of expectation, of eager anticipation, is still felt today among those who insist on using instant communication – various social networks sites and electronic mail – to converse, or whether, for them it pales over a very short period of time. I have never been able to understand the insistence on an immediate answer to a message, on always being available, night and day, for any inanity which might be sent, for Likes or Favourites, or to be sent on second- and third-hand along the digital stream of virtual consciousness to all others on a list of people we barely know in real life. This real feeling, though, came to me much later than in my schooldays, where the idea of writing to a stranger would never have entered my mind, and most certainly have caused many awkward questions from those who watched closely over our every move and action. And yet it was not my anticipation, not first hand, at least, but that gathered by another who, seeing what his attentions had caused, was faced with a veritable pile of letters awaiting his now not so eager special treatment. And I think of all those people spread across the world, who had taken time to write their thoughts to him, to try and grab a moment of his day and enter his mind with their words, anticipating a reply which never came.
This anticipation, the one which fails to materialise in anything of worth, is one all letter writers know only too well: has my letter even been seen by the person it was addressed to? Did it become lost in the post somewhere along the way? We don’t wish to delve any further, into the realms of being unworthy, uninteresting, unwanted.
Lone and weary life seemed, when
First these pictures of the pen
Grew upon my page.
And how much time and effort was put into those many pages, filled with hope and more, for them to just lie there, abandoned, upon a table in the middle of a bare communal room, waiting for the passing glance of someone else other than the addressee who, perhaps, would take one or the other up, glance within, pull out the carefully folded pages of words, and consider a reply. Or place the rejected missive back upon the pile, unloved and only partially seen, for the keen passing glance of another, later, if at all.
This was my first introduction to the art of writing letters to complete strangers, many in foreign lands, with their cultural differences, their traditions, their hopes and cares. Taking three or four letters from that abandoned pile, sitting down with pen and paper, sending out something of myself to those who had confided their thoughts to him. An interesting experience, to say the least, not just because of the act of writing to a stranger, but the unusual process of thinking not so much about myself, but about what could interest someone else. What would a person you have never met definitely want to read? What would excite their response to my letter, that had not managed to awaken the interests of anyone else who had glanced through their attempts?
What shall I say, dear friends, to whom I owe
The choicest blessings, dropping from the hands
Of trustful love and friendship, as you go
Forth on your journey to those older lands,
By saint and sage and bard and hero trod?
Many of us honestly believe that our lives are so uninteresting, so lacking in spectacle, in adventure, in celebrity status, that we have nothing worth recording, either in a letter to someone elsewhere, nor in a diary or journal of our own. We do not appreciate – and I most certainly count my younger self in this massive category – that what we see, read, eat, what we experience in our daily lives is completely different, in many aspects, to that which our hoped-for correspondent lives. We are the only people in the world, ever, who see the sights our eyes behold, hear the sounds our ears capture, consider and follow where our thoughts lead us. How can that not be something to write about? Assuming, of course, and there has to be a “But” to almost everything when it comes to the conditions, interests, allure of other people against our own, we are capable of framing all this experience in words which create images in the minds they are drawn into, that they do not wish to desert until all is revealed.
When we write a letter to a stranger, we are creating images in our own minds, ideas which we wish to transport across space and time, to another living being who does not have the same experiences, the same surroundings, the same emotions as we do. We are writers, fact or fiction, it makes no difference; creators of worlds for other people. We invent as much as we recall, enhance as much as we instruct. We try, with this simple instrument of pen and paper, to excite the interest in another person which, as any good author wishes, will have that person coming back for more – sending a reply, reading another title – and lauding their experience before their friends and family. There are good reasons why the Victorians in England spent so much time composing their letters, and kept their own copies in correspondence books: they knew the words written and sent, sometimes over many months and a very arduous route, to family and acquaintances would be read, and shared with others. It was not unusual for a letter to be passed on to someone the original writer had not intended to address, perhaps did not even know. The original social media network with sharing to all and sundry, in a slightly slower, more considered form.
Do you remember the first letter that you wrote, the first that you read? Better, since I am sure there have been many, do you remember the feeling when that first letter arrived, the feeling when you had finished your first missive out to someone else, and consigned a sealed envelope to the safe hands of the post office? Do you remember the waiting period before a reply to your first, your second, even your third letter came? For me it has been several decades since that experience, and yet: I feel it much the same even today. Full of anticipation, I walk to the front of my house, out towards the quiet street, look to right and left, then open the metal box under a spreading evergreen tree to glance, hopeful still, inside. I do not quite pace the floor until I know the post must have been delivered, but do clear my desk, ensure all other tasks have been completed, arrange my notes for a new letter to be composed and sent.
And when no letters await my keen attention?
So I must stay in Amesbury, and let you go your way,
And guess what colors greet your eyes, what shapes your steps delay;
What pictured forms of heathen lore, of god and goddess please you,.
What idol graven images you bend your wicked knees to.
Imagination is such a wonderful thing, if we allow it to take us over at just the right time.
Letter writing, as I am sure you know and have experienced, is a challenge on many different levels. There is the idea that we have to write something interesting, that we need to entrance, to captivate our reader(s) with words designed to pull them into our world and show them, as best we can, the wonders of an unknown environment, and unimagined life. It is a challenge to give something of yourself, your interests and character, without appearing to play upon your own ego and make yourself more than you really are; although we all do that and with good reason, as we wish to gain a reply, to continue the correspondence, to advance. Many simply write a long series of “I” and “Me” paragraphs, and concentrate on themselves rather than take in the entire world within their immediate vision, and all its possibilities, and communicate that to those who cannot experience it for themselves. It is still an “I” and a “Me”, but one of what we see, feel, consider, rather than anything else. It is still personal, but encompasses so much more than our small bodies – and massive egos – otherwise would. And this, if you have made it this far, is what I attempt to do with my writing.
There will be times of description, of things that I have seen and heard discussed, explained, questioned, along with occasional forays into the world of literature, art, photography history and, especially, philosophical thought, all of which are my interests. I will undoubtedly quote texts no one else has ever heard of, or have not been exposed to in such a manner – everything in this short letter coming from The Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier by Samuel T. Pickard, published in Cambridge (USA), 1894 – and sometimes jump back and forth, seemingly at random, from one subject to another which, finally, as the last words are written, come together to make some form of sense, some form of cohesive theme which has been followed, albeit by a very random and wandering route. And I will play with words, which is one of the great delight of letter writing, of any writing, and challenge whoever comes to read not to let their own thoughts wander off in myriad directions as ideas course through their mind, or relationships to personal memories are created by an idea, a sentence, a theme.
And, finally, I must say: I am almost at the end of my letter writing, where you are still almost at the beginning. I hope that this is not a problem, that it is not an obstacle which might prevent two completely different people being able to share thoughts and ideas, and enhance the lives of another through their words, through their vision of a world shared, but seen by other eyes. There is, for me, no more than letter writing, it is an end to itself and needs nothing further than that. Perhaps not quite the ultimate pleasure, but one which can, and will, be continued from a distance.
More favoured thou, with hair less gray,
Than mine, canst let thy fancy stray.
I rarely touch upon the subjects of specific religions and party politics, unless it is in a purely philosophical sense, and this has stood me in good stead over the years, but all else is open game, is in season, and challenging. And I think I can promise, if you take up the gauntlet, to challenge you in many ways, both with my chosen subjects and my use of language, with my references, my view of the world, my recalled experiences. But also a mind open to other experiences, to a younger vision, to new eyes and emotions: I write in the hope that your words will challenge me in return.
And so I cast my words out upon the cares of the world, upon the caprices of choice, taste, adventure, and will see, over the coming weeks, whether there will be future moments of anticipation when I approach my letter box, future challenges for my mind when a letter lies upon my desk, future words and ideas to share and beg thought.