Letters on a train

Letters on a train

I was trapped on a train yesterday that was much delayed, because of major points failures affecting hundreds of trains in central England. There was a small wedding party sitting close to me, friends of the groom-to-be, men who did not previously know each other but had met to travel to the wedding together. They talked about many things in loud voices, so it was impossible not to hear – NOT overhear! – what they talked about. There were three things discussed that are of relevance to how we think about letters, which I relate in a way that protects identifying the men concerned by removing such detail. So the wedding, for instance, was not exactly a wedding but was something celebratory, and the niece below was not exactly a niece but was a young child.

Comment 1

Man 1: My niece sent her first letter by email yesterday. Man 2: Oh, she’s only four isn’t she, what did she write? Man 1: She pressed a key, the letter A, and then ‘Send’; and she then said she would send another letter today.

We use the same term, ‘letter’, for a number of things and this example concerns its use to describe the fundaments of writing. What ‘a letter’ is in the epistolary sense is something that is learned and culturally-embedded, and not surprisingly the four year old here is at that pivotal point of learning to make such distinctions. And interestingly, in spite of ‘death of the letter’ arguments, she is indeed learning to make these distinctions!

Comment 2

Man 3: When we were at Uni, the lads living in our house used to write letters complaining about glass and wood or insects in crisps, chocolates and other things and we’d get back an apology and boxes of stuff which we’d gorge on.

Faux letters, letters which look like and bear all the hallmarks of ‘a letter’ but which are actually without the basis of being ‘real’, can come in many shapes and sizes. This example concerns a mild form of extortion! It involves an ‘unreal’ letter designed and written to elicit something more than a letter in response, in this case the kinds of things that produce spots in young men!

Comment 3

Man 4: When she finished with me she did it by letter, I mean, a letter! I was gutted and thought I’d never be happy again, I just cried all the time, waaaaa [crying noise], couldn’t stop myself. I’d be playing football, and cry just like that, it burst out of me. The referee said what’s the matter, what’s the matter, and I said, it’s over between me and X, I just can’t help it, waaaaa, I can’t stop it. The other fellas were really worried, cos it was just waaaaa.

Last letters also come in many shapes and sizes. This example concerns a so-called ‘Dear John’ letter. The implication of the comment made here is that letter-writing is an illegitimate and especially hurtful way of terminating a relationship, presumptively with both parties being in the same place and so able to meet face-to-face. Many such letters, of course, were and are not written in such circumstances, but instead where the people concerned are separated in space and time and so a letter (or a present-day proxy such as email) has to suffice for such purposes, rather than this being an instrumental  choice just to avoid an awkward situation. It was also interesting that none of this group of men in their 30s seemed to find public weeping about such a matter either surprising or ‘unmanly’, with a number of them relating similar things.

Last updated: 9 April 2016


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