Letter from London: Letters from Everywhere

Despite writing this letter each week, I still wonder why so few of us write real ones anymore. I was thinking of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, who corresponded frequently but met only once: ‘The present racial crisis in this country carries within it powerful destructive ingredients that may soon erupt into an uncontrollable explosion,’ warned Malcolm X to King one day. (Despite words to the contrary, King never did say he felt ‘Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice.’) King had already written from his Birmingham jail in Alabama a letter addressed to all clergymen which American academic Clayborne Carson described as the most important letter ever written. A letter in which King offered a detailed argument for protest — the type of course which killed both King and Malcolm X in the end.

Nor had I realised the first letter ever written was by a woman. This was set down by Persian Queen Atossa in about 500 BC. (Atossa sprang back to life in Gore Vidal’s 1981 novel Creation, which also just so happens to be a favourite book of Noam Chomsky. (‘Noam noted my own astonished discovery,’ penned Vidal, ‘that four separate literate societies, more or less at the same time, abandoned their ancient oral system of communication in favour of writing everything down.) In the Bible, entire books were based on letters. Peter’s was written to Christians under heavy pressure from Romans. Letter writing today feels as old as catching a train around Europe reading a well-leafed paperback.

Some couples have love letters as their foundation. Others have their love letters shredded. In many ways, they can be the most vulnerable constructs known to woman or man, even if Lawrence Durrell did once say a woman’s best letters were written to the man she was betraying. Through prurient dotage we even know contents of love letters such as Marilyn Monroe’s to Joe DiMaggio: ‘I know it’s lousy of me to be so late so often, and I promise to try a million times harder, I promise,’ she wrote. Or Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera: ‘I ask you for violence, in the nonsense, and you, you give me grace, your light and your warmth.’ Or Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor: ‘I cannot put you out, you will always be like some ineradicable, ineluctable, sulfur in my inadequate and vulnerable hands.’ And Georgia O’Keefe to Alfred Stieglitz: ‘Dearest — my body is simply crazy with wanting you — If you don’t come tomorrow — I don’t see how I can wait for you.’ Even John Adams said of his communications to Abigail Adams: ‘God help me if they ever see my letters.’ As for James Joyce to Nora Barnacle, readers will have to save me by finding their own way there. As Maria Popova wrote, ‘I have encountered few exemplars of the genre more piercing than those penned by James Joyce.’

Could it be that the best explanation for our lack of letters is our loss of the art of concentration in a world that has grown mute and dangerous. Often the only thing communicated these days is hostility — such as urgent super-drones designed by Ukrainians to wipe out AI-selected targets; Putin seizing upon AI not only for war but for stimulating economic growth; UN Secretary-General Guterres registering concern over Israeli use of AI against Hamas; specific British arms sales including AI continuing despite threats by Cameron to curtail them; Iran using an embassy abroad as a military base; recent Iranian-made drones used by SAF in Sudan: as we see, the true letter of the day is aggression. However, as sure as apples fall into beds of green grass if we wish them to, there will be Russians and Ukrainians, Palestinians and Israelis, Republicans and Democrats, expressing their forbidden love through high-risk love letters or long and delectable — deletable? — texts. You can put that in a letter and post it.

There are other great ones of course from Byron, Queen Victoria, Evelyn Waugh. One of Rosa Luxemburg’s to Leon ‘Leo’ Jogiches carries a good punch: ‘You silly jackass. What you lack is ‘class instinct’; from excessive radicalism you slipped straight into opportunism. That happens when one is radical simply out of a ‘sense of duty.’ And if it wasn’t for 11-year-old Grace Bedell writing to Lincoln that he might benefit from a beard because ‘all the ladies like whiskers,’ he may never have grown one. The equally whiskery Emile Zola had his famous open ‘J’accuse’ letter written in response to the Dreyfus affair. How about Albert Einstein writing to Roosevelt in 1939 about the work of Fermi and Szilard in which he warned of a potential ‘nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium’ and ‘extremely powerful bombs of a new type’? Apparently, Gandhi had already written two by this stage to Adolf Hitler, including one of them begging him to behave as the ‘one person in the world who can prevent a war.’

Could we not at least revive postcards, these neat little second cousins to letter writing? A texted ‘lol’ or ‘idk’ or ‘tbc’ makes a handwritten postcard seem epic. Legendary CC O’Hanlon reposted on social media last week someone’s old postcard with its line, ‘I think I left my copy of ‘Spiritual Unity’ in your house. Keep it safe for me please.’ This felt oddly reminiscent, as if a half-forgotten language had burst back into life. Mind you, CC O’Hanlon’s tweets are as good as any postcard: ‘Packing again, after more than four months of settlement,’ he wrote last week from Tangier: ‘Ahead, a few months of intense travel and voyaging as we find our way to somewhere/some way we can live (and — who knows? — thrive) long-term.’ Besides, the words and images we post on social media are postcards. I sent one out myself today of what felt like full-blown spring.

Finally, I did like Jane Austen’s letter to her sister Cassandra: ‘There was one gentleman,’ she wrote, ‘an officer of the Cheshire, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me, but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about.’ Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I just don’t appear to want honest-to-goodness letters quite enough to take much trouble in effecting them. Maybe I should be listening to more Neil Young again, especially now he is back on that Swedish audio streaming and media service: ‘One of these days, I’m gonna sit down and write a long letter,’ he famously sang. ‘To all the good friends I’ve known.’

Peter Bach lives in London.