Skip to content

Evidence of a life – building a virtual monument

October 6, 2017

For me, letter-writing died some time around 1993. That was when I started using email in earnest. I’d had a computer for the previous eight years, but it served as a repository of data rather than a means of communication.

Nowadays, I wonder how many people up to the age of fifty actually send letters to anyone, apart from job applications, tax returns and – in the case of the young – thank-you letters to elderly relatives that they’re shamed into writing by nagging parents. In fact, forget about jobs and tax – most people deal with these chores online.

Postcards from exotic locations, yes. But mainly for Granny. The really hot stuff – the parties, the champagne and the daring pursuits that cause the elders to fibrillate with anxiety – appear on Instagram and Facebook, which, conveniently, Granny doesn’t know much about.

A little personal project recently competed reminds me how much I miss letters.

Too many people in my age group have died recently. David Bowie, Alan Rickman and a host of others – and just now, Tom Petty. Therefore I’ve decided it’s time to prepare for death. Not that I’m planning to go any time soon, but I dare say all those talented people who departed in their sixties didn’t either.

Death doesn’t require a monument. Not everyone can say “si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (if you seek his monument, look around you), as Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St Paul’s Cathedral proclaims. Most of us pass on with little ceremony and not much to show for our lives, forgotten within a few years by all but a small group of friends and family.

So in the absence of a physical monument – a Playboy Mansion, a Monticello or a Goldeneye – the evidence of my life will have to be virtual.

My generation is perhaps the last to have corresponded regularly by letter. If I was famous, I might leave my “papers” to some public institution such as the Bodleian Library in Oxford, so that scholars could admire my wit and wisdom for centuries to come.

Now that everything is electronic, that will no longer happen. If you wrote in your will that “I bequeath my emails to the British Library”, your executors would rupture themselves laughing. And anyway, if you were really famous and your emails were even vaguely interesting, the Russians would already have hacked them and sent them over to Wikileaks.

But old letters written on real paper – thick creamy sheets or wafer-thin airmails – lie hidden in trunks. Ready to be discovered, or not, by relatives who are clearing up your stuff after your funeral. If you’re lucky, or not, the person doing the clearing might be fond enough of you to hang onto stuff that has no intrinsic value, but adds to the patchwork of evidence as to who you really were.

On the other hand, if they’re only after the jewellery or the antique furniture, or if they fancy a second-hand set of golf clubs, they might be tempted to throw the rest of your crap into the rubbish dump.

I have plenty of mementos of my parents. War medals, diaries, hundreds of photos that I’ve lovingly digitised, a few press cuttings about significant events such as my uncle’s death in World War 2. The diaries, written sporadically by my father, are almost indecipherable, but shed some light on the person. But there are precious few personal letters, and virtually none written or received by any of my grandparents.

So I know a reasonable amount about my mum and dad, including stuff I wasn’t supposed to know when they were alive. About the earlier generations I know virtually nothing beyond the bare details of births and deaths that my parents passed on, and what I can trawl from official sources – census records, the War Graves Commission and so forth. Not much in the way of monuments.

There is one exception. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I have my grandfather’s diary of his experiences in the First World War. As a result, his character comes alive – a rare shaft of light in an otherwise muddy jumble of anecdote and bureaucratic records.

As for my parents, I interviewed them on video for five hours in an attempt to fill as many gaps as I could.

My children have shown little inclination to do the same exercise with me, perhaps because they think I’m immortal, young fools. So if I want to be remembered, it’s up to me to build my own monument, whether it’s interesting to others or not.

Which is where the letters come in.

What I don’t have is ones that I wrote. They remain with the recipients, and have probably been thrown out ages ago. I do remember writing long letters, which will be no surprise to readers of this blog. In my first year in Saudi Arabia I wrote to all and sundry about the wonders of that country, the bizarre, the hilarious and the unexpected. And when people dear to me went off to other places, I would also write at length about the nonsense that was going on at home.

I must have been striking the right tone, because people would write back. It’s those letters that I religiously collected over the years. And it’s those letters, disinterred during a garage purge a couple of weeks ago, that I decided to digitise.

Most of them I hadn’t read for twenty-five years. They were written to a student making new friends, falling in and out of love, casting away the legacy of school and home life. They were written to a penniless struggler in his twenties, living in a succession of houses where the windows froze on the inside in winter. And they were written to an expatriate whose fortunes were transformed amid the oil fields of the Middle East, who became a husband and a father, an actor, a traveller and eventually a businessman.

None of those recipients are me today, and yet all of them are. Reading them again after all these years has shown me more clearly than before what sort of person my correspondents thought I was.

They also shine a light on the world my generation lived in.

No email, PCs, IPhones, WhatsApp. Often no land lines:

I’m feeling a bit concerned about not hearing from you, especially after hearing that things had not been so good where you are. I hope all is well with you and that you have received my recent letters.

A phone conversation with a close friend thousands of miles away was eye-wateringly expensive, beyond the pocket of many young people – therefore a major event:

It was great talking to you on the phone – the line was pretty good considering, but it must have cost you a fortune.

Direct flights to faraway places? Not if you were from a forces family, as one friend was. And when you get to your parents’ house, no aircon:

My flight to Hong Kong was horrible – 19 hours including stops in Aden and Delhi. It’s bloody hot here – it’s midnight, and I’m lying under a fan in 80 degrees.

The annual student ritual of house hunting, by snailmail:

I’m wondering if you’ve found a new house to rent for this year – if so, do you have a spare bedroom?

CDs, streaming, ITunes? Nope, just the humble cassette:

Hello again, my father has put on a cassette of folk songs – and my mother is singing away. They’re enjoying it so I mustn’t complain.

Writing letters was an effort. Receiving one from home was an event to look forward to. Would you say the same about an email?

What a little shit you must think me. There you are in the desert and all you want is the occasional letter, and I can’t even be bothered to do that. There is no excuse, you’ve always made time for me and I should at least have done the same for you.

With your best friends, a chance to amuse, to create and share stuff:

He cheated at cards
He cheated at life
He cheated his friends and he cheated his wife
He lied to us all till he ran out of breath
Then he threw in his hand when he could not cheat death
(My latest effort after 4 pints)

And much, much more. Words of love, hurt, thanks, reproach, praise, disappointment. References to people I don’t remember. Letters from people I don’t remember. Reminders of opportunities taken and lost. Words that bring back the person I once was, and people who once were.

These letters have become part of my modest little monument. It includes photos, videos, various writings (including the 750 pieces I’ve written in this blog). Most of it is open to anyone who’s interested. The letters, however, are rather like the repository for the naughty bits from Pompeii: restricted access.

Perhaps I will also provide some commentary about the writers of these letters, or at least those whom I remember. Not because I’m planning to write an autobiography, though that might be fun. But who would read it? And who would be interested?

You don’t have to be rich, famous or especially talented to create your own monument. But if you’re not, nobody will do it for you. It doesn’t have to be grandiose or full of bombastic self-justification. It can be more like a burial mound, hiding its treasures within.

I have no better reason for building mine than my own satisfaction, and the possibility that those who remember me when I’m gone will have more than a few photos, a few artefacts and a pile of crap to be thrown on the dump. I’m not vain enough to assume that the stuff I’ve gathered in electronic form is going to be interesting to my kids or their kids. But it’ll be there if they want it.

I don’t believe in living in the past. There’s plenty left to see, feel, do and enjoy. But the past  – especially our own – is not another country where they do things differently. It’s with us, it’s part of us, it informs us and it helps us make sense of the present.

And as I think of all the people – famous or not – who have gone this year while having so much more to give, I appreciate the present all the more. The future will take care of itself.

Like St Paul’s Cathedral, my monument is not a static thing. I shall keep building it until I can build no more. Hopefully that won’t be for a long time.

This post is dedicated to Paul Brett Sommers, a dear friend and letter-writer who passed away two years ago, aged 66, about whom I wrote this when he died. An example of his ramblings is below:

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: