Letters and Silence

“I see you sent my letters back
And my LP records, an’ they’re all scratched”

Sting was – and is – an accomplished songwriter, who can use elegant and obscure language when the mood takes him; but when he came to depict an acrimonious split in ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’ he decided to use brutally simple prose. Younger music fans, accustomed to  a world of instant messaging and free downloads, may be puzzled by the references to letter and LP record. Indeed, some people today may have never had occasion to write a letter or listen to a vinyl album. ‘What’s the point of writing a letter?’, they might ask; ‘Simply decide what you want to tell someone, and ring them up.’

But letter-writing has a long, noble history. Imparting or requesting information is merely a part of the dance of ideas that makes up good communication. Mozart wrote letters sprinkled with coarse, juvenile humour (much to the dismay of Margaret Thatcher when she saw the play ‘Amadeus’), much of the New Testament is made up of letters from Paul to various disciples, Stanley Spencer wrote frequently to his wife even after she had died, and Laura Riding considered letters as an important literary genre. The Literature departments at several UK Universities hold correspondence from Riding, whose letters involve long, ornate sentences. How would one explain to a non-English speaker that letters are made up of sentences, which are made up of words, which themselves are made up of letters?

The Victorians were keen on proper use of the written word, and many popular handbooks appeared offering guidance on how to compose letters. George Routledge’s ‘A new letter writer for the use of Ladies and Gentlemen with applications for situations etc etc’ ran to over forty editions and includes charming templates for use by young ladies wishing to accept or decline offers of marriage. Some of the suggested responses (polite and florid to contemporary ears) may have seemed incredibly brusque back then:

Letter LXX, From a Servant, refusing addresses.
          “John – I do not know what could have led you to believe that I had any partiality for you. Such is not the case. I wish you well, as I have no reason for wishing you otherwise, but I have no desire for any attentions from you of any kind. Yours,”

Poor John! The arrival of this missive probably plunged him into despair and embarrassment, and it is likely that he spent the evening in a gin-palace before jumping into the Thames.

Abraham Lincoln composed vile, sarcastic letters which appeared in local newspapers, mocking his political opponents. According to Dale Carnegie, one of these letters actually provoked James Shields to propose a duel, an encounter which (had it taken place) would have ended Lincoln’s life; and the experience so unnerved the great politician that he refrained afterwards from criticising people, even when it was deserved.

An e-mail message could be sent from anybody, and to anybody (and often this method is used, quite correctly, to request information from numerous individuals at once) but a letter has a personal element. Thoughts condense within the barrel of a pen before being discharged onto the fertile field of a blank page; in this respect, a letter is unique – a gift made out of time for you and no-one else – a piece of information but also a declaration of intent.

My enjoyment of e-mail was severely tested when, in July 2008, my beloved Toshiba laptop computer vanished from home.

Journal Entry, Sun 13 Jul ’08:
Unwanted ‘Cock Out’ Rally. Friday morning went to see Dr Clarke and showed him my new mole – nothing to worry about, said he.
Went to work to load bike up with dry tent and bed etc, and also for meeting avec George and Tenchy. Popped down to George’s office and he said ‘Oh, we decided there was no need for Dave to come in’.
Nice of him to let me know.
Rode off to rally, parked up near cars & put tent up. Then I found Donz and Moo had pitched further down field.
Donz got chatting to two blokes from Brighton (Richard and Richard), v funny and good company.
Bands – Strangers were as good as ever, their set now includes ‘Mr Blue Sky’. On Sat night we had a rather camp rock outfit called ‘Smokin Gun’.
Random recollections from weekend: Nettie got wrecked on Malibu and Absinthe & Red Bull cocktails. Donna got her hands on a cute young rally virgin, him and his dad joined us for coffee outside her big tent.
Andy asked me to send my CV to him and he would forward it to his HR dept.

Journal Entry, Tue 15 Jul ’08:
Got home from work to find some water pressure in hot tap! Wow!
Last night B- called round; he said the chavs downstairs were being very noisy until about 1 a.m. taking deliveries of some merchandise.
Laptop vanished? Ring B and Flat Agency and Police.

Journal Entry, Wed 16 Jul ’08:
Last night WPC Smith came round and took statement about burglary. This morning I e-mailed Flat Agency to ask them how many keys to my flat they had lost. This provoked an angry response, claiming that they’ve never lost any keys – the keys I provided them with were no good and didn’t fit the lock.
Their story doesn’t add up – I carefully avoided mentioning that I had actually been at home on Fri morn. They said the water was repaired ‘late last week’, delightfully vague, but when I told B he said he’d tried to wash hands several times Mon night and Tues morn & found hot tap totally empty.
Flat agency also claimed that the phone numbers I gave them weren’t working – so I sent them a copy of my earlier e-mail with home, mobile and work tel numbers all present and correct.

Journal Entry, 11 Dec ‘03
In Montgomery-Hyde’s edited version of ‘Teleny’ he mentions in the introduction that the book contains some lurid episodes which cannot be printed. However, as a treat he gives us a brisk resume of the offending scenes.
In Rieu’s translation of The Iliad, two of the Greek soldiers return to the camp with a pair of thoroughbred horses which have been captured, and they are greeted joyously with ‘much shaking of hands’.
Surely they would have embraced and kissed each other in the fashion of modern-day football players.

 

 

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