The lost art of handwriting a letter

Thursday 20th October

One of the few things I learnt at school was the art of good handwriting, an art that is rapidly disappearing if not actually gone already. And sadly now there is hardly any means of using it. Who bothers to handwrite anything, except maybe a grocery list, or the scores at Bridge; even when somebody gives you their phone number, the easiest way to store it is in your very own mobile phone.  I have even seen people using the camera on their phone to take a snapshot of a restaurant menu, or the name of a builder on the side of a van, something I would never have thought of, but undeniably clever too.

I cannot actually remember the last handwritten letter I received; I don’t count note-lets thanking me for a birthday present or inviting me to a summer barbeque, these usually try to get the message across using the fewest possible words, as if the act of actually picking up a pen and writing were just too much for them.  It is all the fault of modern technology, which of course, even I have embraced.  But there is the world of difference between an e-mail, a text, or even a typed as opposed to a handwritten letter.

In an e-mail, one almost always answers within a couple of minutes of receiving one, so your answer is almost, but not quite spontaneous, there is always a minute or two for re-reading and reflection, correction and spell-check before clicking send. And then you gasp, as you realise your foolishness, and quickly open sent items to check your possible faux-pas, and breathe such a sigh of relief as you realise they probably won’t even notice. Texting is even more thoughtless; spontaneity overtaking common sense every time in the rapidity of your little tapping fingers; grammar, punctuation, spelling and syntax all sacrificed in the name of speed.

A typed letter, especially nowadays as it is invariably composed in Word, can be thought about, amended, corrected and rewritten several times. This means that it is often exactly what you intend the recipient to read, which is, I can assure you, not at all the same thing as that which you intended or wanted to say.

But the hand-written letter must be thought about in a different way altogether.  Because, as there is no way of correcting it, rearranging words, consulting the thesaurus or just crossing out you have to be careful, thinking out a sentence at a time, but having a pretty good idea of your paragraphs and the eventual length of the letter at the same time. You must write slowly and carefully, but not so slowly as to give the impression that you are trying to write too neatly, you must be legible and fluent and readable and yet appear to have just picked up the pen and written.  And most of all you have to be sincere, or be sure your faltering hand will betray you. With all the others sincerity, despite the moniker Yours Sincerely, is often the last thing you are.

October days – October nights

Wednesday 19th October 

Haven’t we just had a wonderful October?  After that amazing burst of hot hot weather at the end of September, which spilled over into early October, the sun has hardly stopped shining at all.  This morning I accidentally woke up really early, I mean really early, before five o’clock for some reason, and despite the ungodly hour, and maybe because it is still pitch black when I usually wake at six, I got up and sleepily showered and was ready for my breakfast before I fully realised I was over an hour early.  On a complete whim I set out at a quarter to seven, and took a bus down to Westminster and decided to walk along the Embankment.  It was amazing, the sun was just lifting above the South Bank complex and blazing through the London Eye, and the air was so clear that the sun seemed to fill the entire southern sky.  It was a dazzling brightness I cannot remember in England before, and it was reflecting off the Thames itself, so that you really had to shield your eyes to look in that direction at all.  And the sun was a fiery yellow disc of pure light that was far too bright to do anything other than squint at, and even that low on the horizon you could still feel the warmth radiating out across the almost unimaginable ninety three million miles of vast emptiness towards me.  I felt as if I were the only person the sun was sending out a message of hope to, the few walkers at that hour were head bowed, oblivious of my pleasure and scurrying on their way to work.  I went right up to the balustrade and just stood there with my eyes closed and arms open wide, saying good morning and hello to the sunshine.  Back through St. James’s, along Birdcage Walk, across Hyde Park corner and right into Hyde Park and I ended up in Kensington Gardens itself, spirits lifted and ready for the world.  Apart from a couple of roads to cross and Hyde Park Corner subways to negotiate I had walked on grass for several miles in this largely concrete city.

 

So splendid October days, but so cold evenings, with little or no cloud cover, and by six thirty it is getting darker by the minute, and all you want to do is to draw the drapes, switch on all the table lamps and put the heating up a touch, curl up with a good book, and puddy-tat on your lap, and wait for the little casserole you have prepared for yourself to finish in the oven. And it is amazingly silent, I cannot even hear the background hum and swish of car-tyres on the road, just nothingness, acres of blank nothingness; for a moment I am tempted to switch on Radio 3, or the television, but no, instead I swim in and relish this silence, here where it should never be, in the heart of London.  Eventually one or two noises begin to infiltrate, a door slamming in another building or that muted sound of a car radio, probably on full blast inside the car, but so muffled by steel and air and glass and curtains that though I can recognise it as music there is no way you can tell the tune or even what genre it might be.  Now is the time I should be writing the next wretched book, which was started a few months ago in the glow of having Catherines Story accepted for publishing, but which has begun to die a death by my negligence. I know I should really go over and breathe some life into it again, but for now I remain seated, enjoying this October night to the full.

Tired all the time

Tuesday 18th October 

Just lately I seem to be tired all the time; even after a relatively good nights’ sleep, one when you don’t actually remember anything, no turbulent dreams, no nocturnal wanderings, no visits to the loo disturbing your sleep pattern; even then I wake up tired. And it take such a long time to shake it off, neither a good blistering hot shower or the sharp tang of freshly cut grapefruit can spark me into action, lethargy settles like a cloak around my shoulders.  I go to the laptop and log in and read the few desultory e-mails, even the adverts for concerts at the Wigmore Hall I know I will never attend, or the newsletter from John Lewis.  I close down the internet and open up Word, and go into my writings folder, and even here I cannot begin to get the adrenalin going; quite a few days since I have written anything new, the famous second book as unwritten as it has ever been, the blog which you are reading now begging to be completed; why can I not think up anything new and interesting, why do I constantly rehash stuff about my mother or Grandma, why am I doomed to keep recycling the same ideas. I exit the documents, close the folder, come out of Word and switch off.

Maybe a walk will do me good, so despite the drizzle I go out and brave the elements, but I feel fagged out before I get to the end of the road, I persevere and look at the boring shop windows; nothing interests me, I do not want to buy anything at all; so I turn into the little park at the end of my high street, not even mothers pushing prams are out today and even the squirrels seem to have given up for the day.  I return and try to read the newspaper, but they are still raking over the sad mess of Dr. Liam Fox and that little debacle, and I really do not care anymore about where the money came from or who knew what or who turned a blind eye to what was going on.  The man was a fool, a conceited pompous fool at that, I mean did he think he could just get away with it forever, did he not realise that in our society the higher you fly the more careful you have to be? Who on earth would want to be famous nowadays with the constant scrutiny of the voracious press just waiting and begging for you to slip up. There was a phrase which Adrian, (yes, him again) used to sing in his badly off-key voice – ‘To live outside the Law, you must be Honest’, it was probably by Bob Dylan or that Cohen fellow he used to play all the time, both equally tuneless and depressing – but the phrase is remarkably true in a way.

Anyway, I cannot be bothered to even read the paper, and there is nothing on the radio, and I refuse to sink to the level of day-time television, so I go back to the laptop, open it and re-read every word I have written since Catherines Story, including all almost eighty blog entries, and although I can acknowledge that some are not so bad, I have read them all so many times now that I am tired of them. I really need a change of routine because I am tired of my tedious life, and I am tired all the time.

The tube is just so crowded

Monday 17th October 

For years now I have been a consummate tube traveller, confident and happy to nip all over the capital on what is the fastest means of transport available.  The few times I have, maybe late at night, foolishly gotten into a black cab I have been horrified as the meter spins round faster than a weather vane in a force ten gale.  Occasionally friends have insisted that they drive me home from a dinner party, and I sit there tediously counting the minutes as we are held at traffic lights or get lost in one way streets, smiling all the while and thanking them profusely when they deposit me at my door, more often than not half an hour later than I would have arrived had I stood my ground and used the tube.

I admit that it has become increasing expensive of late, but you do have to admire the Oyster card system, tapping in and out is so speedy,(except when you get stuck behind some idiot whose card does not work but who obstinately keeps tapping it again and again). And the policy of closing entire lines on some weekends for so-called improvement works is irritating to say the least, but the most annoying aspect of tube travel is that it has obviously become a victim of its’ own success; it is just too crowded.

Not so long ago you could do as the posters said, and by avoiding the rush hour, at least ensure a seat for part of your journey, but whether through nobody being able to afford to take a holiday, or a sudden influx of people from the suburbs, or just the ever-growing and uncountable population of London, the tube is overcrowded at all hours of the day.  I have never known it so busy, even when I used to, for a while, in the mid-seventies travel on the ‘Misery’ (Northern) Line, and politeness seems to have simply gone out of the window too.  I always understood that the etiquette was to wait until people had disembarked before trying to board yourself; but now it is just a mad free-for-all, everyone pushing for themselves and England, and devil take the hindmost.  And as for anyone under the age of forty having the grace to give up a seat for an older person, forget it; the egalitarianism of the young knows no bounds.  But the worst, the very worst are the backpackers; these selfish people, who appear to have their entire possessions slumped between their shoulder-blades and therefore take up the space of at least two people, seem to be totally oblivious of the obstruction they are causing as you try to squeeze past them, or are knocked over as they turn round to talk to their identically burdened friend, or keep rocking back and forth in front of you (on the rare occasion you are lucky enough to have a seat) making their backpack straps swing wildly about make it impossible for you to read a small paperback let alone a broadsheet. Have they no spatial awareness or have they simply packed all their troubles as well as any commonsense in their old kit-bags, though you will not find me smile, smile, smiling at their antics.

Whisper the Words

Sunday 16th October 

I really do not intend to bore you, especially with reams of poetry; actually I haven’t written that much, especially of late, but I did write this a year or so ago, and although it attempts to deal with falling in love, at the time I was in no way falling in love I can assure you – that hasn’t happened since I was in my twenties.  But maybe I was just carrying around the idea of the poem for years without it forming itself into words at all, I often revisit earlier writings anyway, and attempt to redefine them.  I find that the simple act of copying them down onto a fresh piece of paper will often result in a slight juxtaposition, an exchange of a key word, giving a more apposite meaning, and edge it didn’t have before. But I also realise that one has to stop somewhere, or nothing would ever be considered finished, a dilemma for the perfectionist artist I am sure, but I am not that precious about my jottings and so I present this little bit of nonsense for your delectation.

Whisper the words    Don’t say them out loud  Whisper you love me  If you aren’t too proud         Your breath is like honey  That drips on my heart  And sweetens and lightens  The dark dingy part

Whsper you love me  Don’t shout it out loud   Put your lips to my ear   I’ll imagine the sound        In the quiet of the night  When all souls are asleep  I’ll wake to observe you  The memory to keep

And before you awake  I’ll kiss every inch  And take all your fears  Never more will you flinch         This night is so silent  This room is so still  I’ll whisper the words  I promise I will

If you whisper the words   Say them soft to the moon  Watch as they hover  They’ll come back so soon          And I’ll whisper them too  We won’t make a sound   We’ll whisper the love   We’ve suddenly found

And there you have it.  So, please forgive my silly indulgence, just this once.  It will be prose tomorrow I promise.

Mobile phones, a blessing and a curse

Saturday 15th October 

For many years I resisted owning a mobile phone; Edward had one, and I tended to use our house phone. But when he had gone I decided to become one of the almost ubiquitous masses, and get myself my very own mobile phone.  I remember the argument in the shop when I insisted that all I wanted was to make and receive calls, and the slimy little salesman, who looked as if he had only just stopped wearing short trousers, kept trying to sell me phones with e-mail and internet access and free downloads and all sort of Apps, even including one that would show me the constellations above my head whichever way I pointed the phone. “Who cares”, I felt like screaming, “All I want is to make and receive calls.” In the end I won, and rather shamefacedly, looking guiltily around, he pulled a tiny handset out of a display and muttered that I would be wanting one of these then, almost as if I were asking him to sell me pornography under the counter.  Admittedly the thing does take photos and I have texted occasionally, but all I really need is to be able to let people know I am on my way, or that a train is delayed, which can be a blessing when, through no fault of one’s own, you are late for an appointment.  Another clever thing is that when I forgot a password on a website, (I mean how on earth are you expected to remember them all, when you are specifically advised not to use the same password everywhere, and some require a minimum of 8 digits, some of which must be numbers) and they asked me to confirm my mobile phone number, almost the second after I had pressed enter, my mobile buzzed and I had the password as a text message, I was really impressed, very helpful indeed. Oh, and my dentist texts me the day before and the morning of my appointment to remind me, though I suspect that this is automated too.

But another part of me really hates them; you cannot take a bus journey now without a chorus of inanity as, almost in unison, all and sundry are shouting (why can they not just speak quietly) “I’m on the bus,” into their mobiles, or young girls talking constantly to their friends; ”and then he said…and I said…..yeah, that’s right….I know…..and then he said” I mean, who needs it, and is any of it remotely necessary; most of the time they will be meeting the person they are talking to the minute they get off the bus anyway – but it ruins the journey for me, thank-you, having to listen to it all. I do not need to know all the intimate details of your life, so kindly keep them to yourself!

And even having a meal with a friend is ruined by their mobile ringing, and rather than close it, or switch it off before the meal as I do, they actually take the call, and act as if you aren’t even there; you could be taking your clothes off in front of them for all the notice they take of you, and what do you do; carry on eating while they are talking to someone else completely or sit and wait while both our dinners get cold. I have even seen a whole table of twenty-somethings, all playing with their phones, or texting or looking at photos or reading e-mails while waiting for the next course to arrive, all sublimely in different universes but sitting at the same table.  I always thought that meals were meant to bring people together, but somehow I have obviously been mistaken all these years.

And on the rare occasion that I leave the thing at home, despite a moments panic when I discover what I have done, I sink back into the luxury of not being contactable at all – ah bliss!!!

If you want to give God a laugh, tell him your plans

Friday 14th October 

I heard that phrase on Radio 2 the other day, I cannot remember who was singing, I wasn’t really listening, so apologies to whoever for using your clever phrase.  I don’t usually listen to Radio 2, but I was bored with 3 and 4 and gave 2 a whirl for a change.  Not that wonderful, a little bit too pop and twee for my liking, but that phrase just leapt out at me.  “If you want to give God a laugh, tell him your plans”  Now, as you know, I am not a believer at all really; far too rational to suspend common sense enough to believe all that miracle and life after death stuff.  I remember a long conversation I had with a vicar called Diarmid, a friend of Edwards’, and incidentally a son of a vicar too; (I wonder if that had anything to do with his choice of vocation) the point of Diarmid’s argument was that it was exactly that suspension of rationality, the leap of faith, that was required in order for the word of God to begin to make sense.   Hmmm!!! The same feeling I get whenever I watch a Magician; I can admire the sleight of hand, and am sometimes amazed at the cleverness and I cannot always work out how it was done, but I am even more amazed that so many people actually believe it is some sort of Magic.

Just as I am amazed at peoples’ gullibility with the supernatural, ghosts, mind-readers, horoscopes and such like; can they not see that it is all nonsense.  But just like religion, powerful nonsense I am afraid,  but not afraid of, I hasten to add.  And I think that fear is the key to all this belief stuff, the fear that we may actually be alone amidst all of this turmoil that is called life, and so the comfort of Religion is just that, “Don’t worry my child, you are not alone.”  Well, I think that sadly we are all alone; except that we have each other and the most wonderful thing (God’s gift – if you will) is that we can communicate; our ideas, our hopes and our fears.  And it is surely by communication that the world will get better, and possibly begin to grow up and give Religion the scrutiny it deserves.

There was a song which Adrian used to play, I wish I had paid more attention but I really cannot remember who it was by, an American I am sure.  The premise of the song was that God was laughing to himself and reflected that he loved humans so much because ‘they run around in the desert and worship me all day long’, when God couldn’t give a toss about the little toys he had created. What a nice way to tie up all the believers and non-believers in one go. Yes, God did create the world, and all we find in it, but then he got bored with it all and wandered off somewhere else in the Cosmos, and left us to sort out the mess.

So, I remind you “if you want to give God a laugh, tell him your plans”.  Try it and see, and after you have prayed, cup an ear to the sky and if you are really lucky you can hear God’s little chuckle. But it might be a seagull.

A walk through Green Park

Thursday 13th October 

I walked through Green Park yesterday – actually I carried on and went all the way back through St. James’ Park too, and ended up just to the South of Buckingham Palace, nearly where I started from.

It reminded me so much of the times I used to walk there, oh it must be forty years ago now, in nineteen seventy-one I suppose. I had lost my job at that small engineering firm in Putney; you know how it is, last in – first out, no redundancy pay back then either, just a quiet thank-you and a handwritten reference that I don’t think I have ever used. I searched the jobs vacant columns in the Evening News, desperately looking for something in the West End, the heart of the metropolis, and I was lucky; I found a job in a small but very posh hotel in St. James’ itself. After a few days I discovered St. James’ Park, and would deliberately get there about fifteen minutes before nine, and would slowly wander through the park; it has a lovely lake, much smaller than the Serpentine in Hyde Park and teeming with life, ducks and geese and moorhens all seem to have made their home there, and the lake itself is full of fish, probably because there is no fishing allowed, and the whole of the lake is fenced off the birds and fish all feel safe, despite the fact that they are surrounded by busy commuters and tourists all day long. It has changed quite a bit since then, it seems more colourful, or is it that we have a tendency to remember in black and white, or shades of grey, because I seem to remember London was all shades of grey when I was younger. Perhaps I was still comparing it all to the vibrancy of Cyprus, where colours leapt out at you, the blue of the Mediterranean is still quite amazing every time you see it, especially compared to the grey-green of the English Channel or the muddy browny-grey sludge of the North Sea, as it washes in over banks of sand and mud, or the Thames, always a broody black under-swell and sometimes quite devoid of any recognisable colour at all.  And the buildings in London used to seem so drab too, and recently so many of them have had a facelift, with rows of pretty white Georgian town houses quite common all over the place where all I could remember were the wretched grey of London brick terraces; gentrification indeed.

I really enjoyed Green Park, with its’ clumps of trees and wide walkways, and little undulations hiding and then revealing the vista ahead, the arch at Hyde Park Corner and the statue of Boadicea peeping in and out of view. Squirrels were scampering and a few leaves falling in the gentle breeze, the sun trying to make itself felt under a blanket of pale grey and white clouds. It was quite warm too, not at all autumnal, except that the days drawing in so sharply at about half past six reminded me that it wasn’t late summer at all.

Sometimes I just get on a bus in London, and sitting on the top deck, search out avidly for a park I haven’t visited; but actually the four central parks are wonderful; Regents Park with its’ air of formality, Hyde Park stretching into Kensington Gardens, and of course St. James’ and Green Park itself.

Life does not have to end in failure

Wednesday 12th October 

Now that does seem a dismal subject doesn’t it?  But I do not mean it to be.  We should not regard the end of life as a failure at all, except in the obvious sense – of it being the result of a failure to continue living. I once met an Indian gentleman, and gentleman was exactly the word to describe him.  He was helping us out part-time in one of the hotel accounts offices I was working in.  He taught me more about life in the few short conversations I had with him than all the self-help manuals ever written. Mr. Meehra his name was, I never discovered his first name, and it was so long ago he must be long dead by now.  Basically he was saying that you have to live your life like an epic poem, riding the highs and lows, experiencing the gut wrenching pain of disappointment and exhilarating in the happiness you find; it is only by enjoying the extremes to the full that you can appreciate anything at all. And he had a few words to say about those two imposters, success and failure, how they were both illusory and incredibly transient.  So, we should enjoy what we might term as success, for example, when people congratulate me on the publication of the book, but realise that this success will not last, usually only until they turn around to speak to someone else I suspect.  We should also not be downhearted by what others consider as failure, as this too is only momentary, and should rather be judged by one’s own sense of accomplishment or satisfaction rather than the approval, or lack of it, of others.

There comes a time in all our lives when we look back and try to asses things, weigh our achievements in the balance, so to speak.  Often this coincides with retirement, as so many of us consider our working lives to be the area of most success or failure, but I retired many years ago, but feel as if I never have, as now I have my second (or first all along really) career as a writer to sustain me. And though I hardly dare ask my publishers how the book is selling (if at all), I know that I should not be seduced or down-heartened by this really silly measure of success.  The success was completing the task I had set myself; to write, what I consider to be, a reasonably good story, to try to get to the heart of the thoughts and feelings of my heroine, who co-incidentally shares the same name as me. If I had failed, and not written what I considered as good, you and no-one else would be reading either the book or this blog now. It is always flattering when people say they have enjoyed it, but that was never the point of writing it.

And now, whatever happens to the book, however high it flies, or low it sinks, I will not consider it a failure. For me my life, far from over I hope, is now at last, becoming a success.  Strange, when I had what so many envied, a nice home, a house abroad, a good income, that for so long I had thought of myself as a bit of a failure.

Seven Deadly Sins – Sloth

Tuesday 11th October 

Isn’t Sloth a wonderful word, not only is it almost onomatopoeic, (especially when spoken slowly) but it has a wonderful old-world and of course biblical feel to it.  And it has rather fallen out of common usage, I mean, who uses the word at all today?  But it expresses more than just idleness or laziness, slothfulness is in a whole other dimension.  And even that last word slothfulness is simply overwrought and unnecessary. Just plain old sloth will do, and says it all. It is that hopeless state of inactivity and pathetic uselessness that is not just the result of a moments’ depression, but is a state of being, almost a lifestyle choice.

It is the first song in Seven Deadly sins by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, and the sin (encapsulated by their lazy ne’er do well family) which the twin sisters Anna escape from in their journey across America.  If you ask most people what they would consider to be the seven worst sins I doubt very much if sloth, or even idleness, would feature in their answer. I wonder how many people would actually understand the concept of sins; crimes, character failings or errors of judgement they would be happy to embrace, but the concept of a sin is a bit harder to pin down in these irreligious days. It is far more about how you judge yourself than how you are judged by others; a sort of inner reckoning, or even a matter of conscience.

But let us get back to sloth itself, the reason it is a deadly sin is that it is so debilitating and such a waste of an individual’s potential.  It brings to mind the couch-potato who is unemployed and sits and wastes his life watching dvds or cartoons all day.  But I believe it describes far more of us than that, those who settle for the easy option every time, who never push themselves, who have no idea of their own potential let alone attempt to achieve it.  I know that we cannot all be successful, but it is not about material success so much as a feeling that you have actually done something with your life. We live in a society where people just expect to have everything laid on for them; spoilt as children, where whatever they want is given to them  they rarely have to struggle, everything comes to them without really trying and they settle down to a life of easy contentment.  Theirs is also a form of sloth, of just going along with it all, never questioning the world, or their part in it.  And now with the internet available to almost everyone there really is no excuse. There is a whole world out there to discover, whatever age you are. Personally, I feel I still have lots to achieve, some days I feel I have only just started.

So to all of you out there who are tempted to settle for a life of easy choices, don’t become a slave to sloth, get off your bottoms, and try something different, learn a foreign language or  maybe try an open university course, or become a part-time volunteer, or even try writing a book. If I could do it, so could anyone.