Over half-term, I read a book called Written in History, by one of my wife’s 1,001 cousins, a writer called Simon Sebag-Montefiore. The book contains 100 letters from history which seem both particularly fascinating to him and also to have had particular impact on world affairs. And they are indeed fascinating. In it, you can read the letter that Hitler sent to Mussolini to reveal his motives the night before he invaded Soviet Russia; the letter from Richard the Lionheart to Saladin to negotiate the partitioning of the Holy Land during the Crusades; the letter from Pliny to Tacitus, describing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD; a love letter from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn; or more recently, the letter from President Trump to Kim Jong Un cancelling their planned Singapore Summit in characteristically forceful terms. The letters range from the deeply private and highly personal, to the grand, public and diplomatic. There are, however, and perhaps understandably, very few from the post telephone or certainly post email era – i.e. your own generation – and it got me wondering if there were any future left for letters. What would be the point in writing a letter these days, popping it in the post and seeing it arrive a couple of days after any email could have done? We have come a long way, it seems, since the time when some letter writers wrote for literary, philosophical and historical purposes. Seneca, the great Roman Stoic statesman, politician, philosopher and writer, wrote a series of letters to his friend Lucilius which he clearly aimed for publication, rather than just a private communication between him and his friend; and thank goodness he did – they give us a marvellous insight into his world and the world around him at the time. Take this excerpt from one of his letters, in which he tells of his visit to the home of the great Roman commander of the past, Scipio Africanus:
“Here I am, staying at the country house which once belonged to Scipio of Africa himself. I am writing after paying my respects to his departed spirit as well as to an altar which I rather think may be the actual tomb of that great soldier… I have seen the house, which is built of squared stone blocks; the walls surrounding the park; and the towers built out on both sides of the house for purposes of defence; the well, concealed among the greenery and outbuildings, with sufficient water to provide for the needs of a whole army; and the tiny little bath, situated after the old fashioned custom in an unlit corner, our ancestors believing that the only place where one could properly have a hot bath was in the dark. It was this which started in my mind reflections that occasioned me a good deal of enjoyment as I compared Scipio’s way of life to our own. In this corner the famous “Terror of Carthage”, to whom Rome owes it that she has only once in her history been captured, used to wash his body weary from work on the farm! For he kept himself fit through toil cultivating his fields by his own labour, as was the regular way in the old days. And this was the ceiling, dingy in the extreme, under which he stood; and this the equally undistinguished paving that carried his weight. Who is there who could bear to have a bath in such surroundings nowadays? We think ourselves poorly off, living like paupers, if the walls are not ablaze with large and costly circular mirrors, if our Alexandrian marbles are not decorated with panels of Numidian marble, if the whole of their surface has not been given a decorative overlay of elaborate patterns having all the variety of fresco murals, unless the ceiling cannot be seen for glass, unless the pools into which we lower our bodies with all the strength drained out of them by lengthy periods in the sweating room are edged with Thasian marble, unless the water pours from silver taps.” Even the bath houses of former slaves, he goes on to explain, are more ornate than Scipio’s.
He writes this to his friend, and there is a moral purpose to his letter – we should live frugally, no matter how esteemed a public figure we are, no matter what riches we could draw upon. We should not be distracted by grandeur in our quest to lead a life of excellence. By publishing this letter more widely, he also tells us a story about what it was like to live in those times – and to some it may feel rather fraudulent to publish a supposedly private letter to a friend. But despite its wider publication, the choice of letter writing as a medium ensures that the reader feels drawn into an intimate relationship between Seneca and Lucilius – it is one of teacher and pupil, mutual respect, an opportunity to learn from one another, and of long-term, mature friendship. It is, in all honesty, a privilege to be allowed into their private world. To be ‘allowed in’ to an email merely involves a click in the cc box. It is far too easy. And even if you choose for that email to be for the eyes of one person only, then there is no guarantee of that either – anything you write on email can be subsequently retrieved; nothing you write on a computer is private. Twitter, of course, takes it a step further and makes that lack of privacy explicit – put something out there and be prepared for judgment. However, letter writing is different, and this is where I hope it still has a place in the world of today. It is explicitly between me and you. Private. Something that is uniquely ours. And it is, and remains, far more powerful for it. You will know this yourself, if you have ever received a handwritten letter or enveloped postcard, dropping on the doormat, addressed solely to you. There is an excitement to it, and an intimacy which simply cannot be replaced by a computer. If you want to share it, you can, but you don’t have to.
There is also a craft to letter writing – a personal note is great (it says ‘I am thinking of you’) but a well-crafted letter is simply a joy. It takes much longer to write than an email, because every word counts; what you write betrays your feelings in a way that no email can – and for that, the power to the recipient is magnified. We will never, of course, go back to letter writing as the main or sole means of written communication – we have quicker ways to communicate – but I hope you will consider it when you want to convey that personal touch just a little more intimately. Today I have three letters to write: one to a young OB who has lost his way; another to an old OB who is lonely; and a third to a parent who has lost their child, an old friend of mine, to cancer. I hope that the muse of letter writing gives me the strength and the wisdom to make a positive difference to them, by touching their lives in some small but personal way.