One of the greatest things we have been given is that of the imagination: the ability to put ourselves into a different time or place, to turn left or right, to view and experience something which we cannot physically touch, but which comes alive within our minds through our own efforts. I often think that this is the only way a writer can create; being able to imagine a scene so vividly within their mind that they are capable of describing it on paper, of infiltrating their vision into the minds of their readers, our minds, and letting us see what we think they saw. Of course, what we see, as a third party experience, can never be exactly the same as what they saw before, or while, putting pen to paper, but is enhanced by our own experiences, as much as by our own desire and capabilities to imagine. So a small flower, caught between two paving stones in a desolate housing estate, without a single trace of green within sight, might be thought to imagine its life in a field, surrounded by wildlife, by the blossoms of nature, the call of the wild. It flourishes, despite being caught up within the wrong elements, and blesses its own meagre surroundings through its very presence.
Such an existence is only possible where there is the smallest trace of earth, the tiniest drop of water, the most basic ingredients or fundaments to spread tiny roots, to take a tenuous hold, and reach for the sunlight above. Such an existence is not based on worry, or fear of failure, but on the nature-given chance, even if for but a moment, to be. Alexandre Dumas, in The Count of Monte Cristo, wrote:
Life is a storm […] You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.
Admittedly, the storm cannot come if you do not take a chance, if you do not – in the case of Dumas suggests – bask in the sunlight first, but there is also no guarantee that this storm will appear, that it will raise its ugly head and destroy everything that we know and love and, if it does, what of it? We have taken our chance and, in the eye of the storm, are offered a new chance, with slightly worse conditions, but a new chance nonetheless. Not that every chance we are offered, every turn of the road through our lives, is that which we would wish for ourselves, nor that which we chose, but we cannot control everything as we might wish to do, and there are often outside influences, unseen actions, and especially the reactions and actions of other people, which change, which enhance or diminish that which we had desired.
For alarm and peril wait
Ever on the loftiest state
as the great poet William Cowper wrote, but also:
Oft we enhance our ills by discontent,
And give them bulk beyond what nature meant.
And that, for a small flower growing between the concrete slabs of a drab and deserted landscape, would be fatal since, using one of the other great talents we have been given, and which many forget in those first moments of realisation that things have changed drastically, is the ability to adapt or, as I was told many times as a youth faced with some insurmountable difficulty, the ability to make the most of a bad situation. Whether this bad situation has been forced upon us, or whether we have caused it ourselves can be left out of the equation as being irrelevant: the situation has arisen, and we are here, now, in that place to which it has taken us.
Not that we should ignore the past or pretend, as many people do, that the past ‘does not define’ them. Neither one is a good move, but the past has taken place and, hopefully we have learned from it. It is the present and, more importantly, the future which we should turn our gaze upon, and which we should greet as best we can. Which, as you will surely have thought for perhaps a split second, is easy enough for me to write, since I am here and you are there, but perhaps I am here because you are there, and perhaps this is the future we were both travelling toward. Or, at the very least, a small part of that future, as I have no doubt whatsoever, and I am sure you will agree, there are many facets to a person’s life which go beyond the correspondence, the relationship, with one other person. Between times we travel our own path, and perhaps this crossing is merely for a moment, or perhaps it is where two paths merge.
Letter writing is one of the few pleasures I allow myself in life – the others are reading and collecting photography – and I tend to write with a style most people find difficult to understand at first, but which they can, with patience and perseverance, come to terms with and enjoy. My letters are something like life: we are thrown into the middle of existence without so much as a by-your-leave, and expected, after a few short years of fairly mediocre guidance, to find our own way. Life did not start with our birth, it was always there, as far as man can think back and remember, and will probably be there long after we are gone. There is no comfortable start where everything is new and everyone is learning their way about this small planet; we have to catch up with those who have gone before us, those who are hurrying alongside us, and make the best of a bad deal. Sometimes we have to start by correcting the errors of those who went first, but mostly we are expected to live with the consequences of their actions, their decisions, their use of power. So I believe it quite justified that a letter such as this, arriving unexpectedly, should begin in the middle of a thought, and expand upon that thought without too much of a preamble, without the egocentric bother of long introductions. And this because, no matter what is written here, no matter what is written in the future, what we see and understand, as with the author of that special description, that other world, is not necessarily the same as what the writer thinks as they put pen to paper.
Oft lausche ich voll Grauen an der Tür
Und tret’ ich ein, deucht mich. Daß jemand floh,
Und ihre Augen sehn vorbei an mir
Verträumt, als sähen sie mich anderswo.
as Georg Trakl wrote: Often I listen, full of fear, at the door and then, entering, I feel as if someone has left, and her eyes look through me, dreaming, as if she sees me somewhere else.
With a letter, with a photograph, with the best description in the world, we still do not see the person before us; we see an ideal, a picture which creates thoughts in our minds, determined by our own experiences, desires, knowledge. The description from another of themselves is also tinted, if not tainted, by their desires, by their wish to be accepted, to be seen in a certain light which, often, is not one shared by their friends and acquaintances, but merely a dream within themselves of the perfect self. With a letter you can share your impressions of an event, your thoughts and opinions, challenge as much as inform. In Victorian times, letters were written in the knowledge, and with the hope, that they would be shared, that not just the addressed recipient would gain benefit from what was written, but also an extended family, right through to good friends and acquaintances. They were used by those many miles away, in foreign lands, or perhaps merely in another city and unable to travel easily, giving descriptions of life, of their experiences, of their discoveries. A form of diary, if you will, sent out for others to experience, for those who could not travel, who had to remain at home. Letter writing was a lifeline, for many the only connection with their former life.
And today? For many letter writing today is an anomaly, a relic, a fossil dwarfed and obliterated by modern technology. The days of immediacy are here, we are told, when everyone can contact everyone else at all times of the day or the night, and demand an immediate reply. A society where we can post our images, bolster our egos, and chat unreservedly with someone – without speaking a single word – sitting at the table across from us. We live in a society of one-off, throwaway communications, as much as one-way and useless products, and think that this is civilisation. Two hundred and fifty character public communications are the normal means today, although they can reach a very wide audience, there is little personal left over, little of real worth which might be regarded as conversation. And yet, who does not feel joy when they receive a personal letter through the post?
Even if I were to remain silent, you would easily know how much pleasure I had on reading your elegant letter […]
I pray that reading these letters won’t fatigue you, for once you have read them they should give you great pleasure in every sense. For it is a very pleasing thing to reflect on a friendship that has endured for a long time, especially one that has been as unusual in its reciprocity as that between you […]
I used to be sad that I brother and the others were absent. I really thought too much of the distance between places. But now a consolation by no means small softens this great sorrow. From the letters […]
These, all written by Cassandra Fedele at the end of the fifteenth century in Italy or Venice, so elegantly worded, as one must expect for a woman writing to men or to people in positions of power at the time, which you can perhaps judge from a reply she received from the eminent and illustrious poet Angelo Poliziano (real name Agnolo Ambrogini):
O maiden, glory of Italy, what homage could I prepare to pay you or say to you that you would dismiss as not worthy of the honor your letter brought me? It is amazing to think that such a letter came from a woman (but why do I use that word?): I should say instead: a girl and one not yet married.
Can you imagine such things, such elegance, working with Facebook or Twitter? They are crafted for inscription on paper, for dispatch by means other than electronic communication, for preservation as exemplary indications of the craft they represent. Which, of course, is not just letter writing, but the craft of thought, of being capable to put thoughts into words, something which a woman, never mind an unmarried girl, was otherwise deemed incapable of. These, though, are words blossoming within a different form of concrete jungle, one where privilege, possessions, power, were all natural things for the male, and subservience without question the only acceptable position of lesser-born females. Where the confinement was an ordinary part of the daily life of civilised society, and no razor wire and concrete was needed to dampen the soul, to subdue the intellect, to control and repress all free thoughts and inspiration, despite a lack of legal judgement. A thing, you might imagine, from the darkest periods of our historical past, until you notice that, even into the Sixties of the last century, women were required to gain the authority of their husband, father or brother just to open a bank account in their own name.
Letter writing, though, that one means of expression both personal and challenging, was open to all and, thankfully, remains so today. For most of us, it must be added, with a certain degree of security, as we know that our communications remain between the writer and the recipient, and are not used to enhance the saleability of data mined by faceless conglomerates hidden behind a social network promising something other than what they can offer. It also remains one of the challenges of our time: to be able to put our thoughts down into coherent words on paper and present them, as a conversation where no body language can be read, for another to judge, to consider, to weight-up before, hopefully, penning a reply. A very one-sided conversation, admittedly, but with the advantage that we can work our thoughts through from beginning to conclusion, and not fear interruption, no matter which topic we might decide to explore.
There is something else, though, about this small flower you mentioned, surviving within its concrete boundaries: it grows and matures. It is not just there for itself, but has the capability within itself to be the start of a line, of a continuation which, if allowed to expand unhindered, spreads through the judicial placing of wind or water-borne seeds, further afield, between other concrete slabs, along walkways and paths, on walls, chimneys and even rooftops, in the areas man has neglected or abandoned. The seed of thought, the roots of education, the growth of knowledge can appear behind razor wire just as easily as a seedling can find its place between the paving stones of a street. But only when the fear of potential failure is laid to one side, and the possibility, no matter how small, of success is fully grasped. There are some things which only exist on paper – one is the phenomenal wealth of most billionaires, a paper-worth which can disappear in a moment of political bad temper from on high – but are still just as real, as if we held them in our hands. They begin, though, with the first word written, and can only grow with the first reply, with the first exploratory step into a foreign territory offered from a distant world.