In September 1999, after a two-year stint as a resident writer in the former cottage of the controversial Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, I moved for a winter into Glasgow and got connected to the internet for the first time. People had been extolling to me increasingly the benefits of what they called ‘e-mail’. It seems strange to think now, but with a sensibility used to a culture of letters, usually delivered by a postman, I had a little difficulty grasping the concept of — well, post which zoomed in by computer. Nearly twenty years later, of course, email (now unhyphenated) is a part of everyday life — an invaluable tool, but also a strangely disembodied form of communication. My first impression of it, back in 1999, was of an odd barrenness. Using it was like sitting down expecting a meal and being served, instead, a plate of polystyrene chips.
Brought up in a caravan without a telephone, my family and I, outwith an emergency, could only be contacted by post. The only ways in an emergency were a visit (ominously) from the police, or a telegram. At the age of seventeen I moved to a little caravan of my own. The arrival of the post became a significant part of the day. I sometimes say jokily, though there is truth in it, that I only began my poetry journal The Dark Horse to make sure I always received mail.
And receive it I did. They arrived: big envelopes, small envelopes, manila, white, occasionally other colours, variously stamped, sometimes with exotic (to me) frankings: Boston (Robert Frost’s North of Boston!), New York, California, Orkney, France, Australia. Sometimes they arrived with printed address labels; more commonly they were in the sender’s handwritten script. These were official ‘submissions’ to my journal. But running alongside those were the correspondences: regular letter exchanges, most often with other poets though sometimes not. So there was my correspondence with the old crofter on Papa Westray: spidery, blotchy, biro’d script full of his regret at being unmarried, the envelopes and paper smudged with mud and redolent of storms, gale-blown wading birds, big Atlantic spaces and the obduracy of cattle. Or the one with the older Finnish lady, once part of the picture agency which sold my nature photographs, who became a personal friend, though we never met. Her son contacted me after her death. He had read my letters to her and suspected from their tone that I probably knew his mother better than any of her children did. Might he have copies of her letters to me? I sent them, of course, with my blessing.
In the late nineties, with the advent of email, one sensed a shift in the culture, at least if I take myself as an example. Before that, the letter – handwritten or typed, but at any rate a physical object – was an essential means of communication. Increasingly since, and now almost entirely, email has taken over that role. The significance of the personal letter sent by traditional post has altered accordingly. Once a necessity, now it is gestural — for the special occasion when email seems both too formal or, paradoxically, not formal enough. The letter indicates seriousness and care. The commonplace missive of thirty years ago now seems a statement.
There are other differences. Email is instant and can be endlessly replicated, forwarded, sent by mistake to the wrong recipient and couched, such is its ease of use, intemperately. You always have a copy of what you have written. A record of an entire correspondence happens automatically by default. So called ‘snail-mail’ by contrast, seems more considered; it has to be contemplated and deliberated. Attention to detail is implicit in the choice of paper, envelope, stamp. Though in these days of effortless smartphone photography a letter can be easily enough replicated and – ha! – emailed or texted elsewhere, or uploaded to social media, it still feels private and personal, intended wholly for the recipient. If the sender doesn’t keep a copy, its content is also unique. This aura of the private nature of personal letters also tends to allow the writer – certainly me – a freer space for expression.
Moreover, especially if the letter has not been word-processed but typed (old style, on a typewriter) or handwritten, it arrives in all its glorious imperfections – scrawled-out words, second thoughts, scribbled additions in the margin – slightly shambolically, like an old poet in a duffle coat coming in out of a day of windy weathers. We may send love emails, but it’s not surprising that they don’t carry the same weight as love letters. Something of the character of the sender is imparted with the physical object. The best letters are as personal and individual as their writer in all their rumpled or neatly turned-out singularity.
Email, in terms of correspondence, can be almost instant; traditional letters by post, never. Given an immediate reply by the recipient, their fastest turnaround within Britain assuming that Royal Mail First Class prove, indeed, royal, is three days. To the eastern seaboard of the United States, by air, the fastest turnaround is eleven days. Accordingly, such correspondences take on their own character. It is one typified by a much gentler timescale than that of email, which increasingly comes with the expectation of a rapid response.
The uniqueness of the letter, if one hasn’t taken copies – and it can be part of the interest of it not to – can throw up some anomalies. Not long ago, I phoned up an old poet with whom I’d had a lengthy correspondence in my relative youth to ask if I could have my letters back.
‘No, you can’t, I’m afraid.’
‘Because I’ve sold them.’
‘You’ve sold them?!’ My first thought was: I’m annoyed. My second was:
‘How much did you get for them?’
‘I’m not telling you.’
Were those letters emails, I’d only have to search for them in my email program. Instead, to read what I was thinking over thirty-five years ago I’d have to visit a major reference library in another country. The idea that such things might generate income was first hinted at when I met the writer George Mackay Brown in his home village of Stromness, Orkney, in July 1985. Hearing that I, too, wrote poems, he said: ‘Never throw anything away, Gerry. Keep it all in a box under the bed so when the buyer of manuscripts comes round you can sell them to him.’ A poet of wholly individual style, George knew that his own drafts and, by extension, his letters were valuable. After the sale of my letters to the reference library, I once suggested to a friend of mine needing money, to spend a cheap winter in Iberia, that he try selling a bunch of my letters written to him over many years. As far as I know, he did.
The physicality of an actual letter can make it as stark as a slap in the face, or as pleasurable as a good meal with a beloved friend. For whatever reason, old-style correspondence, like writing drafts by hand, seems very much a poet thing. I still maintain correspondences with several other poets, two of them long-lasting and with writers in their early thirties. I know the effect a carefully worded letter of praise can have at a crucial point in a young writer’s life. Fourteen years ago, one May, I returned home from a week away, teaching youngsters in the Scottish Highlands, to the usual pile of mail. One envelope contained, handwritten in fountain pen in black ink, a two-page letter of praise, practically a poem in itself, from an address in Glanmore, County Wicklow. It was responding to a long poem produced as a limited edition pamphlet I’d written in collaboration with children in an Ayrshire primary school. I cherish this letter like the talisman it is. The sender was Seamus Heaney.
But that it was written at all, or the poem that prompted it, was due to yet another letter sent to me almost ten years earlier. I was then in my mid-twenties, at that age when my life could have taken various paths. Returning to my hilltop caravan on January 3, 1986, I found the postman had wrapped a small manila envelope around the handle of the caravan’s door and secured it with an elastic band to stop the January gales from kiting it over the fields. Inside, dated ‘Hogmanay 1985’, was a single small handwritten page from George Mackay Brown praising two poems I’d sent him. As part of it he wrote: ‘Make full use of [your] talent – as it says in the scripture parable – and you’ll enrich literature and yourself.’ That brief encouragement, matter-of-fact, genuine, and sent at just that time, prompted my decision to start putting poetry solidly at the centre of my life. ‘A Letter is a joy of Earth—’, wrote Emily Dickinson, who had reason to know; and a thing of power.