Letters…

I have been thinking in recent times about communication, how we, as human beings, share complex ideas and emotions. Billions of words pass through the ether that is cyberspace from one to another of us every hour of every day. However, one in four of us at least have not received a handwritten communication, a letter, in other words, for over ten years. Which is really quite sad. Young men used to read Keats then shamelessly plagiarise his love letters as their own before sending them to fortunate, trembling, winsome young lasses.

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From Ernest Hemingway – a love letter to Marlene Dietrich.

Modern methods, although accurate, are mechanical, antiseptic, lacking any personal warmth. A neat emailed typescript is cold and rectangular, like a military order, friendly little emojis appended notwithstanding. “The battalion will advance” has so much more pitiless gravitas when it appears on a screen in formal Times New Roman than ever it could as a sweeping curlicue from a Montblanc on cream notepaper. Dropping a handwritten letter into a postbox carries weight. The physical heft of a letter gives the communication psychological ballast that email and texts don’t have. Digital communication is ethereal, almost ephemeral, throwaway and disposable, almost regardless of content and consequently lends itself to impulse and flippancy. No better proof is needed that a glance at the endless stream of tweets put out by the president of the United States. The moment they are released into cyberspace, the more scattered and insignificant they become. A letter, on the other hand, is tangible evidence that someone has put some thought into their writing. They’ve outlined, perhaps redacted and there have been several stages to the missive’s creation. To make sure the letter was received they did more than flick their finger over the ‘send’ button, the author had to take the time to get hold of an envelope, preferably matching, fold the paper with care and procure a stamp. They then had to check that the address was written correctly to ensure its safe arrival, put the lead on the dog and walk to the postbox. In short, a physical letter shows that someone took the time to give a damn. And that’s hard for the recipient to ignore.

Perhaps it’s a function of age, but I have found myself in recent times reaching out to people I knew years ago but with whom, as the axis of the years rolls forwards, I simply lost touch, as great ships do who slip their moorings and glide majestically away from each other, disappearing into a forgotten mist of antiquity as the Universe expands. Or, like travellers in airports who end up thousands of miles apart after sitting next to one another in Starbucks.

It took me a while, but I found him. We exchanged emails, the Bishop and I, a few times, crackling with awkwardness as if the ink had been too long dry on our former friendship. I heard his voice in my mind, vast, deep, always with a hint of challenge yet encouraging, as it had always been. Finally, I called him up. The sound of that familiar, changeless tone, with a huge, unfettered belly laugh, brought dew to my eyes and the years rolled up like a scroll. He was an Army officer, with a gift for leadership, that years later I knew I needed so much and how much I had learned from him yet never found the courage to tell him.

Perhaps I may even write to him. Not an email or blog post but a real letter, written with a fountain pen in strong, manly black ink.

“Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls/For thus, friends absent speak.”

(John Donne, letter to a friend)

Working Together

It’s been quite the week. A quiet man wearing a blue waistcoat  has steered the English football team to its best World Cup placement for decades, the London mayor has demonstrated pusillanimity of the first water by allowing an inflatable blimp depicting the President of the United States wearing a nappy (or, if you prefer, diaper) to float over the capital during his state visit and the British Cabinet go for an away day at Chequers in a flurry of speculation over who might have to walk home.

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Any blimp will do… (The Times of London)

The world is laughing at us – at least the Europeans are – since we seem unwilling, or, indeed, unable to come to any kind of workable consensus on how to leave our erstwhile bedfellows without making too much of a stink and without it costing the national debt of a small Caribbean island. While the British diplomatic head is buried in its hands, the rest are laughing behind their hands, since our Foreign Secretary has a particularly colourful turn of phrase from time to time. Describing the May Brexit option as being like ‘polishing a turd’ is an expression he might possibly have kept to himself. The Brexit strategy preferred seems to fall into the ‘cake and eat it’ camp which, mixing our food metaphors, is pie in the sky.  Jacob Rees Mogg, of course, takes a tougher stance. For example, he asserts that the UK does not want a hard border with Ireland, nor does Dublin. Brussels does. Article 24 of GATT, Rees Mogg points out, does not require hard borders of any kind between countries with contiguous frontiers that are in a free trade area and a customs union. Furthermore, he argues that there’ll be no money for the EU if there is to be no free trade. He is quite prepared to have a no-deal, in which case, Boris’ nicely polished turd will hit the political fan with some force. It might also hand the keys to No 10 to a bearded pensioner from Islington.

Leaving the competence of a football team and the incompetence of the British Cabinet behind, the real, can-do, nitty-gritty story this week has been the saga of the trapped children in an underground cave in Thailand. If ever was needed sound advice, high competence and flawless execution, it is here, not in Downing Street or on a Russian football pitch. One man has already lost his life and there may be others, such is the extreme risk involved. The fictional account of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher lost in an underground labyrinth in Mark Twain’s eponymous novel has a heroism about it that the Thai children must emulate as the waters recede enough to attempt an extraction from Tham Luang cave. The waters are murky and dangerous, and locals have described it as a ‘desperate ordeal’. Experts from all over the world have gathered to plan and execute a massively difficult operation deep underground. The team includes thirteen international divers and five Thai navy Seals – selected as being the best of the best to work with them. Reporters on-site describe even volunteer cooks who have turned up to feed battalions of helpers.

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A relative prays in the rain at the cave entrance. (Guardian Media)

My prayers go with them, along with countless thousands of others. If they pull this off, it will be a miracle.

Working together makes a football team, a Cabinet, or a team of international experts greater than the sum of their respective parts. Working together gets the impossible done, whether it is winning the match, agreeing to leave Europe with our dignity intact or rescuing trapped children.