THE MOORE THINGS CHANGE: Pick up a pen
AS I PENNED congratulations to my friend Harold Codrington last week, I reflected on how the practice of letter-writing has all but disappeared. Its place has been taken, for the most part, by email, texting, tweeting and so on.
The handwritten word lives longer and, until now, used to be cherished a lot more than the spoken or the texted, tweeted or emailed word.
In these days of instant everything, as we are swept along the information superhighway, there is still great joy in sitting down and writing a short note. The joy is compounded when the postman pulls up with a reply. Letters can cheer and console, persuade or dissuade, chastise or compliment; make you laugh or cry.
No one understood the power of a short handwritten note as well as the famous French philosopher Blaise Pascal. He once wrote to a friend, apologetically: “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lacked the time to make it shorter.”
Author Michael Maxtone-Graham attests: “After an argument, for instance, anger and pride may have such a hold on the combatants that speaking to each other is literally impossible. A letter, on the other hand, often has an uncanny ability to leap insurmountable walls with a single bound. Resentment, misplaced pride, hurt feelings crumble before the appeal of a reasoned and sincere letter.”
My favourite note-writers were the late Oliver Jackman and John Wickham.
When he was Barbados’ Ambassador at Washington DC and I was Editor of this newspaper in 1980, Oliver wrote: “Dear Mr Moore: I have for some time been meaning to congratulate you on the very thoughtful and clearly written comments on a variety of subjects with which you constantly delight readers in the Sunday Sun. I don’t know whether I prefer the cogency of your arguments or the directness and clarity of your expression. In any event, I envy you both.”
On another occasion, he inquired whether I had a certain jazz record. I hadn’t. This note followed a few days later: “Dear Carl: These lips are sealed. No one shall ever learn about the sad lacuna in your collection – no Kevin Eubanks’ ‘Opening Night’. Let us hope that this flaw does not go to the very foundations of the institution.”
Talking about brief notes, I was in London in April 1968 when Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in the United States. I had planned to fly to New York to spend a week with my aunt in Harlem, before returning home.
Television news of the upheaval in several communities in the United States scared me so I cabled this note to my aunt wondering if I should still visit: “Scared stiff. Should I still come?”
Early the following morning her reply arrived at the Westbury Hotel: “Come.” She signed: “Your aunt.”
In her book The Art Of The Handwritten Note, Margaret Shepherd writes: “You can still use the telephone or the Web for the daily chores of staying in touch, but for the words that matter, it’s courteous, classy, caring and civilized to pick up a pen.”
Saying thank you is what prompts most people to write notes. Expressing gratitude is not an obligation; it is one of the most intense pleasures.
And don’t talk of the importance of letters in the love department! Former British prime minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945) sent several love notes to his mistress whom he affectionately addressed as “My Pussy”.
Napoleon is said to have been one of the most prolific letter-writers. One wonders how he found time to fight wars and still write over 40 000 letters, many addressed to Josephine.
Over 900 years ago, the beautiful young Heloise described this strength to her lover Abelard: “What cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they have in them all that force which expresses the transport of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions.”