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Posts Tagged ‘letter’

It was Pablo Picasso who said: all children are artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. The fact that so many of don’t is a serious problem – it was me who said that last bit, not Pablo – and I don’t mean ‘serious’ economically or politically. I mean we risk making our souls sick. Another fine artist, the writer Kurt Vonnegut said of art, and I paraphrase slightly for artistic purposes: it’s not a way to make a living, more a way to make living bearable.

In 2006, he wrote to Xavier High School in New York by way of reply to pupils inviting him to come and speak at the school. He was one of many venerated authors so invited, and the only one to reply, which perhaps says much about the majority of venerated professional authors. Vonnegut declined to visit on account of his great age, but the Xavier Letter is now legendary, and encapsulates very well his philosophy regarding the true value of art – not as a means to make a living, nor to gain approval, or praise, or fame, but on a more fundamental, vital and deeply personal level, to experience what he called ‘becoming’.

Here it is, read aloud by another fine old artist, none other than Gandalf the Grey:

We can think of life in very complicated terms, I know I often do. Indeed we can make it as complicated as we like, or we can pare it down to more manageable proportions, perhaps even to something akin to a Zen Haiku, instead of Wordsworth’s Prelude, and that Haiku might say something like: we’re born, we fart around for a bit, and then we die, but inbetween we have a chance to grow some soul – I’m paraphrasing Vonnegut again, but he definitely said fart, though not in that letter to Xavier High School. And the best way to grow some soul is through the practice of art, any kind of art that takes your fancy.

But the problem with art is you cannot write an app to do it. And since the endgame of unbridled Capital is to complete the grand project of reducing the entire world to nothing more than the sum of its parts in pursuit of maximum profit, then art – and especially amateur art, which neither computes, nor ever pays the bills – is going to get itself rubbed out. It’ll be dropped from all the school curriculums as those fiendishly clever little chaps with their apps pare the money down until only Maths and English and Science survives the reckoning, these being the tick-in-a-box, sure-fire CV gold-star employability type subjects.

Then we’ll all spend our days between birth and death writing yet more little apps to hang off the iron brain of the human universe. And it’ll be a profitable place, that universe, at least for those who own the iron brain, but it will also be a place without much soul, a place where the farting will have become everything of value, and where none of us will be anything other than robots made of meat, and valued not a jot, and where life for anyone with a brain, and a longing for some kind of meaning – which is just about all of us – will become utterly unbearable.

So,… by all means value your Maths and your English, and your Sciences – I know I do – and make no mistake, their diligent pursuit makes for a decent pay-packet in return, even in these most straightened of times – but do art as well, and experience the mystery and the magical, intangible rewards of ‘becoming’.

Write that poem. Dance that dance. Sing that song. Don’t do it for money, or praise or fame.

Do it for yourself.

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portrait of the artists wife - La Thangue - 1859-1929I posted a letter today. Not much to comment on about that, you might think, except the whole experience of that letter has given me pause. I wrote it with a pen on plain A4 paper – four sheets, two for the letter, and a further sheet each for a poem. No, I wasn’t submitting work to a publisher – heaven forbid, and thank goodness those days are over! It was to a friend of a friend, an amateur poet, like me, but of an older generation for whom the idea of email, or blogging, or indeed any form of digital communication are alien concepts. She had written to me before Christmas, a personal hand-written letter, and I had felt awkward responding with impersonal print.

So, out came the Harvey Makin pen, (note shameless brand-dropping) I had thought it a somewhat redundant Christmas present to myself, since I rarely “write” anything with a pen at all these days. But suddenly, there I was, pen poised over a sheet of paper. (£16.99 from the local garden centre – the pen, not the paper). I don’t know who Harvey Makin is, and forgive me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like an “antique” brand targeted at the old fuddy-duddy traditional types, who frequent garden centres on wet winter Sundays, while hiding its usual ultra-modern Chinese manufacture. But the pen has a good weight, and makes a smooth mark. Yes, Harvey Makin, whoever he is, made the writing of that letter feel special. He added a sense,… of occasion.

I did cheat, however.

It seems I have forgotten how to write spontaneously. I sat a while staring at that first sheet of virgin paper, afraid to make a mark because, well,… a pen-mark is not deletable – there are no second chances, no back-tabbing. Short of a clean sheet, we have no choice but to plough on, once we have begun. So, I drafted it first on the computer before copying it all down by hand – rather a backwards way of working, but never mind.

The first thing I noticed was how inefficient the written word is, compared with print. What had been a few column inches of 12 point type on the computer screen expanded like crazy-foam to fill two sheets of A4 in no time at all. Perhaps the sheer physical volume of the hand-written word discouraged a verbosity in olden times to which we are more prone today. The other thing I noticed was how using a pen for anything more substantial than a shopping list makes your hand and arm stiffen painfully.

Stamps are quite expensive things now – 60p for first class. I’m not sure how much it costs to send an e-mail, but it must be fractions of a penny. Demand for hand-written letter deliveries is falling. We’re therefore losing economies of scale, so the price of stamps must go up still more, thus further hastening the decline of posted letters to the point where the post boxes are being decommissioned and all the postman brings me these days, apart from my online purchases, is machine franked junk.

That stamp added a seal of something to the envelope, conferring upon its contents a degree of worth they perhaps did not deserve. It also got me thinking about the slower snail-mail way we used to do things. It got me thinking too about that box of love letters in the attic.

My girlfriends wrote good letters, their handwriting always so much better than mine. And stamps, looking so quaint in their design, and the Queen so young, perhaps even moistened by a kiss – the stamps, not the Queen – still have the power to fire the imagination. I mean, that these women should have taken the trouble to sit with pen and paper, and aching hand, spontaneously expressing themselves, without back-tabbing or endless redrafting,.. and it’s not without significance – at least to me – that they thought of me, while they wrote! My last love letter is dated 1986, marking the end of an affair. It echoes fresh from long ago, and bitter-sweet memories rise anew from the flow of a woman’s hand, porting me back in time a quarter of a century. Ah,… the abiding magic of the written word!

Emails by contrast, I tend not to keep. They lack gravity, and personality.

It’s a pity – this decline in the hand written form – though inevitable, I suppose. But we have learned so much about the lives of others through their letters, ribbon bound and kept in shoe-boxes, preserved as each the encapsulation of a moment from that person’s life. Now the world is criss-crossed with invisible aether-channels into which we tap with our devices – devices to which we are enslaved, emailing, blogging and tweeting our sweet nothings – things of no import and to nobody in particular – and which can be so easily deleted to save precious cloud-space, or embarrassment. What shall we leave for future historians to ponder? Will our blogs, our emails, our tweets, still be around a hundred, two hundred years from now?

The letter sat upon my desk for a few days while I found the opportunity to take it to the post-box. And as the time passed, it assumed a more self-important air – those contents, sealed with gum, seeming to mature within, and the address so boldly displayed, a magical incantation that would speed my missive to its goal. I posted it this morning, outside the Post Office in town – pushed it, after a momentary pause, into the red pillar box with the official markings, gave it up into the care of the almighty postal system. It’s a system that’s been establishing lines of communication, and mapping out the bounds of civilisation, for centuries, but seems suddenly anachronistic. In a generation, it will be gone, this way of doing things.

I had not realised.

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