Near Window 5

Night Mail

I’m a letter writer. I write letters when I’m angry, or sad, or overjoyed, to the person who is the source of this emotion. I never send them. I wrote a letter about Rodin’s the Kiss to a boy I’d kissed some time ago, but I lost it when my computer caught a virus, and I regret never sending it. Not because the feeling should have been shared (though according to Near Window 3 they maybe should have been) but because it was a really really good bit of writing.

Anyway – On Twitter I’ve made a new friend, and in a quite delightfully 2008 way I’ve actually never met them. I feel like I’m on Tumblr, and I’m tagging everything #softgrunge and reblogging In-n-out burger pics and writing (really fucking awful) poetry.

It’s been decided (by us) that we’re going to be correspondents. Tbh I don’t have any literary letter writers in mind when I imagine these correspondences, but there’s something very french about it, and being in France that seems very fitting. So I googled “famous letter writers” and what turned up was a list of Very French women. I’m going to write letters and give myself a pen name like Celeste Du Ciel or Marianne La Beurre or something like that that is cool and classic but also really stupid.

As always I’ve been reading some Auden, because I love him, and some Betjeman because my mum loves him. Obviously there’s some Larkin smattered there, because I’ve been going on about Larkin since 2010 and I don’t think I’ll stop, but mostly it’s been Auden, today.

It’s funny the conversation of correspondence came up now, when I was reading “Night Mail” today. It’s an old favourite, and if you’ve not read it I’d suggest doing so. They made a film Night Mail too, in 1936, in a relative boom of documentary film making. It follows the post from London to Aberdeen on the Postal Express train over an evening. Opening like a Hitchcock feature, and giving me shades of A Brief Encounter. It even stops at Bletchley (the next town on in that film). The RP voices dating it absolutely, and following 1/2 a million letters through control rooms and station towers and men in big breeches pulling tall levers and accompanied by a score and the familiar click-clatter of steam trains and tracks. The heavy roar of a train passing, the high cry of its whistle.

Men are at work on the tracks, jumping back, soot etched and pipe sharing, tobacco in the breast pocket of work shirts, grins splintering conversations like coughs. Hush – silence – roar – shouts – gone. Steam in the trains wake like an after image, a ghost train, a sun flare on the retinas.

Then we flow through gliding Englishness, fields turned watery slipping past like a dream, the sky glimpsed through telegraph wires, windows glinting, clouds shifting, and a newspaper dropped into dry grass, picked up by a man whose name goes unspoken and who walks back to his farm. A slow pace of life I Reese t’es at speed by communication running a country long. Two countries long.

It’s a lovely piece of cinema. It catches a period of life where the pace had accelerated, but not quite taken flight. watt and Wrights film documents hundreds of thousands of letters being sorted, by men in small quarters churning them into sacks and lobbing them off the train to the relavent postmen.

Our letters will ride no trains and traverse no physical geography. They will hurtle at speed through wires and space, scraps of code restructuring one language for another and deconstructing meaning to re-upload it seamlessly and instantaneously with the other. Instant letters. Perhaps we should not read them until they arrive some time later, so as to give the impression of the real thing. Maybe when we’re all dead in the future, some alien species will find one of our hard drives and try to learn about humans from our letters in the way we try to learn about ancient homosapiens and Neanderthals from cave drawings and buried rubbish in the form of archaeology.

At the end of the film Night Mail, the narrator reads Auden’s “Night Mail” to accompany the trains last stretch of journey, amping the metre to match the trains pacing. Footage of tracks spliced with billowing steam, looming cities, approaching cranes, white bob rabbit tales fleeing, dawn breaking through a square of sky and final the trains slow slide into arrival.

What better romantic connection than trains and letters? Both connecting people over distance like arterial links between brain and heart.

Auden’s last lines are lovely:

They continue their dreams,

But shall wake soon and hope for letters,

And none will hear the postman’s knock

Without a quickening of the heart,

For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

I hope I always write letters even if I never send them. I hope when I die someone reads them and imagines a romantic life full of tortured and impassioned thoughts never shared. Ha, no, not really. I hope someone reads them and thinks they’re lovely. Here’s to writing letters, and receiving them, and to riding on trains after we’ve all come out of quarantine ✌️

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