1 December 2019

The letter of the lore

Letter of the lore
Picture of David Ahern

David Ahern

Current editor of The Majellan, David has spent more than 40 years as an editor/journalist

Speaking at the Newcastle Writers Festival in 2018, writer, actor, director and pilgrim, Ailsa Piper, said, “The really elevated conversation is the letter.” Ailsa should know – in 2017 she and her unlikely but dear friend, Monsignor Tony Doherty, had published The Attachment, a compelling record of email conversation over several years and a number of significant life events.

Technically, emails are not letters – they have no handwriting, or stamps, or carefully chosen stationery. They lack the weight of a letter, and a hopeful dash to the computer is not the same as a hopeful dash to the letterbox! However, email has a redeeming ‘to and fro-ness’. How often have the letter writers among you struggled to remember what you actually said about ‘X’, or whether you even mentioned it in your last letter? Email solves the dilemma.

I love to write and to receive ‘real letters’. One doesn’t work without the other. Even when email’s available, I write letters, choose cards, even use the beautiful image from a card I’ve been sent as an impromptu postcard.       

When she married, my mother moved almost four hundred miles from her family. While there was a phone at home, long distance calls were reserved for very good or very bad news, not for long rambling chats. Regular communication was by letter, on plain ruled pages – to and fro regularly. As more of the family moved away, my grandmother had more letters to write – always at night, when other jobs had been done.

When I stayed with Nanna as a little girl, I loved to wait for Joe the postman on his pushbike. I must have made an impression on Joe because he gave me a doll whom I named Joanne in his honour. Like me, Joanne’s past her best but I still cherish her.

Despite the lack of technology, characters in novels by authors such as Jane Austen are constantly writing and receiving notes. Sometimes an invitation is issued and the reply received on the same day!

Of course, Facebook is more efficient but somewhat charmless.

One of my recent ‘bringing order to my life’ tasks was sorting boxes of correspondence. They went back decades – truly! It was not a chore at all; in fact, other more important tasks were shelved as I immersed myself in the past. The point of the exercise was to declutter, and that happened, but more importantly, I was reminded of long lost friends, special birthdays and other occasions that warranted a card or better still, a long and rambling letter.

It led to a resolve to write to family members and close friends more regularly.

One of the tasks of libraries is to collect and preserve the papers of those who have made a significant contribution to society. This has usually included correspondence, personal and professional. For example, the National Library of Australia holds the thousands of letters sent to Lindy Chamberlain after the death of her infant daughter Azaria. From those letters, playwright Alana Valentine wrote Letters to Lindy, exploring the response of a nation to a tragic scenario.

German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.” While emails capture thoughts and ideas, they lack the authenticity of handwritten or even typed letters. Emails are untouched by human hands! It’s quite possible though that the time when an individual’s correspondence will be entirely digital – and something precious will have been lost.

Think of the significance of your grandparents’ love letters, letters written home by soldiers on battlefields, travellers’ tales and letters of sympathy.

Traditionally, the second reading at Sunday Mass was called the epistle, because it was an actual letter. Most of the epistles were written by Paul, that most indefatigable of travellers, and others were scribed by James, Peter, John and Jude. I remember when I first realised that, for example, “The Letter to the Corinthians” was an actual letter written by Paul, delivered to the people of Corinth and carefully preserved for our edification, millennia later.

If you have saved significant letters, spend some time rereading them – you won’t regret it. And better still, write to a friend or family member and make their day!           

Gotta go, I hear the postperson!  


One unexpected consequence of my correspondence-sorting exercise was unearthing cards and letters from a former colleague with whom there had been a sad falling out. She had long moved away, but was contactable. I emailed (I didn’t have a postal address) and expressed my regret at what had happened, owned my responsibility and wished her well.

I was reminded of an experience Caroline Jones shares in An Authentic Life: Finding Meaning and Spirituality in Everyday Life (ABC Books1998). “[As part of a personal development course] We had to recall unresolved situations in our lives, and imagine focusing on them with love rather than bitterness….After…imaginary exercises in our small group sessions, we were invited to try it out in the real world by revisiting an unhappy situation and making our peace with it by asking forgiveness.”   

For Caroline and for me, all ended well.

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