After I had turned 16 years, I went on an Ancient Greek summer school for two weeks in Bryanston School, Blandford, Dorset. This was an adventure for someone from the North of England and a first glimpse of a small portion of society that not only would I see a few years later at university, but one that would be playing a visible role at the time of writing.
Pretentious ambitions, to put it frankly, filled my mind when I was there. And one of these included letter writing. Around this age, I started to become aware that a world of words, ideas, opinions, existed and for me at that time, the ability to write all of this down, send it with real pennies, and receive a response delivered in the same way, always with some variation, was a revelation. Just like standing at payphones, waiting for your girlfriend to call you back in another country, because it doesn’t cost to use a landline. A romantic ideal in that early 21st century.
There were around 100 people, if memory serves, who ate, lived and learnt together. (It was incidentally one of my first experiences of communal living.) I became friends with a boy from Oundle School (founded in 1556, whereas my own state, free grammar of Clitheroe Royal was founded in 1554, but who’s counting?) and after spending two weeks chatting about cup-bearers and nymphs, we shared addresses and struck up a correspondence.
I remember, in my last two years of high school, saving the letter to open in the library, read at my leisure and then compose a response between lessons. I would have to look over those letters again, which are currently stored in the place of my family penates, to remember what we discussed, but I recall now the experience as liberating and eye-opening. At the Greek Summer School, I had physically seen a world far from different from my own; in the private correspondence with my pen-pal, I could imagine, create and revel in it.
With various friends over the years, I have exchanged letters. One sent a series of riddles to me, which included soaking off the stamp to reveal a clue. Another insisted over a lengthy correspondence that I pay him back for the cocktails he bought me. Yet another would be cut short by a tragic end.
Then come the kisses. Love letters. Is there a word that conjures up more romance? It has been a heady mixture: Merteuil, Byron, Catullus, inter alii. I have written page upon page, declaring undying love, announcing troubled waters, planning exciting holidays and future trysts, opening up a side of myself that existed only within the intimate space of an A5 piece of paper. And yet, these letters have flown, like speaking promises to the swift, cold wind.
And where am I now? I have no correspondents, no incoming mail I rush to the letterbox to collect, no perfumed paper sealed with a kiss; only a string of tax bills, poorly bank statements and offers to buy an apartment that’s not mine to sell.
No more are those letters that keep me writing for hours, pouring out my heart and mind to the chosen addressee. And I feel much the emptier for it. Because John Donne was right.
Luckily for me in 2k19, there are Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. I get to keep varied, punctual, brief contact with friends over the world. We can share hasty pictures and electronic memories with each other to commemorate something vitally important. With Paris Lit Up, I can help organise weekly events, writing workshops and worldwide tours in a way whose efficiency seems to scoff at snail-mail. (Incidentally, it’s more my colleagues who keep a better maintenance of this communication).