Kirsty Gunn: How letters can say so much more than any email

Something physical occurs in the transaction between sender and receipt when the thing we read is handwritten
Something physical occurs in the transaction between sender and receipt when the thing we read is handwritten
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I received a lovely letter this week. It was from Mary Davidson in Edinburgh and, though it was a standard letter, sent to a number of us, it was scrawled all over with all kinds of interesting hand-written additions to the basic printed message, telling me about a package that I’d sent her and asking me if I knew the work of Leigh Hunt and his essay “the World of Books”, offering me, in a pen-to-paper way, the gift of communication that I shall certainly accept and extend.

The whole thing came about as a result of a charity – whose patron is the wonderful painter and writer John Byrne – that has a book sale of signed and first editions every year, all proceeds of which go off to helping assist, as the letter puts it, “some of the poorest people in the world”. I’ve been getting requests for books and sending them off to Mary for a while now. I’ve found out it’s one of those ongoing, quiet but gorgeously effective grass-roots cultural activities I’ve written about in this column before – the way small groups of committed individuals throughout Scotland serve our cultural and artistic life.

It is an annual social event that is also a book club that is also a book sale that is also an opportunity to put readers and writers in touch with each other in unexpected ways. I receive a request, send a book off, and St Andrew’s and George’s church hosts a day of talk about books and literary ideas and publishing, and raises money for Christian Aid, and there’s always a nice thank you for my donation arriving in the post – but usually, that’s that.

This time was different. That handwritten element, you see. As a result of which, I am now going to send off a handwritten note myself to Mary Davidson, saying that, no, I’ve not read Leigh Hunt – who she wrote about in black ink in the margins and at the bottom of the letter, following an asterisk by a part that said “the globe we inhabit is divisible into two worlds ... the common geographical world and the world of books” – but that, I intend to do so now.

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“Do you have Leigh Hunt’s essays, do you know that marvellous one?” as Mary wrote. The whole experience has been life affirming and interesting – and my point is this: It wouldn’t have been the same if the message had been an email arrived in the midst of all my other work emails in the middle of a busy day. It would have been a responsibility then, to respond. Now it is only a pleasure.

So what has happened in our contemporary world that we’ve lost touch with the intimacy of communication? Letters. Cards. Phonecalls. Visits. These used to be little points of stasis, calm, in the midst of lives fretted by demands and responsibilities. They were moments of arrival, those envelopes and packages, and usually of delight, breaking the tedium of a life being stuck with ourselves and ourselves alone. There was something to pick up, touch. Remember? An envelope to break open? The moment taken to consider, by the slant of the handwriting on the address, who might have written, or, by the look of the stamp or postage mark, where the letter might be from. Something physical occurs in the transaction between sender and receiver when the thing we read is handwritten. Something happens then. A reaction is there.

And one would sit down, remember that, too? To read or write a letter, often with a cup of coffee or tea to hand, to take time to read and re-read? Or make a point of going out to chose a card to write back on – which is what I am going to do in this case, find one with lots of books on it, and write to Mary on that. Or, extending this same kind of thinking, there was also, along with letter reading, time to find a morning to pick up the phone for a chat with someone we love, to pop over to a neighbour’s, meet a friend... What’s happening to all these forms of communication we used to value? These gestures? Moments of – to slightly alter the way Virginia Woolf put it – physical being?

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It seems, more and more, that everything now is about the very opposite of this kind of thoughtful, tactful, engagement with each other which has been replaced by emails and texts and all the rest of it. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram ... all that stuff that comes on and then slides off the screen. As though, one might say, we don’t really mean to be in communication with each other at all. People now email in business that they want to “reach out”. But really, underneath the phrase it seems no one wants to reach out at all. They just want to stay in their rooms and send emails, or call out to their voice recognition systems to send messages for them. “In a few years people will expect all technology to respond to voice,” says William Tunstall-Pedoe one of the software developers behind voice recognition technology such as Alexa who’s based in Cambridge. “They’ll be surprised if it doesn’t.”

It’s a concept that requires little in the way of being with each other, this. One that doesn’t even require us to think about the effect of ourselves upon others, let alone wonder if what we’re doing and saying to them is the right thing, or the kind thing, or helpful.

Yet the idea of tact, tactfulness, that’s at the heart of human interaction, that is drawn into the contract of communication ... its roots are in the word for touch. And we like to be “in touch” with each other, don’t we. Still? One of the critics and essayists who, as I write this piece, is making plans to pack his bags in Sussex and come to Hospitalfield in Arbroath to talk about essays – at a conference essay reader and teacher Gail Low and I have put together that is dedicated to thinking about how we communicate with each other – wrote a book about this exactly. What it is to be human, to be aware of the other humans around us, in life as well as in literature.

He is Gabriel Josipovici, also a novelist – his “The Cemetery in Barnes” has just come out and is a marvellous example of writing that asks us to put our ear close to it, to the the voices that sound in it, that we may feel the novel’s touch, as it were. His “Touch” was an earlier work but is felt throughout his books; tact resonates that way. “Oh yes, he gets at these things wonderfully,” Dan Gunn, the Paris-based Edinburgh editor and writer said to me, reflecting upon the way Gabriel’s work articulates those spaces that exist between ourselves and others, and how we value acknowledging that space, the crossing over it sometimes to be with another, or letting it sit there between us ... “he’s spot on.”