Tag Archives: letters

14 October. Letters of Note: War

A Christmas Meeting

Have we not had enough of war? But it doesn’t stop and it doesn’t stop hurting. We are reviewing this book now to allow you to buy it before November begins. There are thirty mini chapters, hence you could choose to read one per day through the month.

Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note: War is a small collection of letters written during various conflicts from ancient times to 2016 and the Iraq war. There is heartbreak here, to know that many of the fighters, willing or reluctant, never returned to friends and family, or went home changed and traumatised by what they had seen and done. ‘Instead of a yellow streak, the men got a mean streak down their backs.’ (p24) ‘All the wounded were killed in a most horrible way … you will see all sorts of accounts in the papers and no end of lies.’ p102.

These letters bring home the reality in a different way to television news. There are always no end of lies, always men who get mean in order to survive but cannot live with themselves later; fighters who endure shell shock and post-traumatic stress.

There’s a special poignancy about the first Christmas of the Great War, when men from England and Germany came together between the front lines, in all friendship, ‘but of course it will start and tomorrow we shall be at it hard killing one another’. (p80)

Go and buy this little book, read and pay attention. The human beings, the animals, the environment devastated by war are depicted truthfully, for these letters were written not for publication but to friends and family, sons and daughters, mothers, wives and partners, friends on the same or opposite sides; officials to officials.

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

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12 October: Friendship in letters.

Let’s rejoice in true friendship. On this occasion, Boswell missed Johnson’s company and longed for a letter. Johnson excuses himself with great eloquence! But who would like a letter or email from me – or you?

I set a very high value upon your friendship, and count your kindness as one of the chief felicities of my life. Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness. No man is always in a disposition to write; nor has any man at all times something to say. ‘That distrust which intrudes so often on your mind is a mode of melancholy, which, if it be the business of a wise man to be happy, it is foolish to indulge; and if it be a duty to preserve our faculties entire for their proper use, it is criminal.

Suspicion is very often an useless pain. From that, and all other pains, I wish you free and safe; for I am,

dear Sir, Most affectionately yours,

SAM. JOHNSON.

(from “Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780” by James Boswell, George Birkbeck Norman Hill)

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21 August: come a few degrees Southwards

Anachronistic by more than 60 years! The penny post was not established until 1840.

It’s holiday season, and was so in August 1780. Johnson writes to invite a Scottish friend to come and enjoy the bright lights of London, but a little later perhaps, when winter is drawing in.

To DR. BEATTIE, AT ABERDEEN.

Sir,

More years than I have any delight to reckon, have past since you and I saw one another; of this, however, there is no reason for making any reprehensory complaint—Sic fata ferunt*. But methinks there might pass some small interchange of regard between us.

If you say, that I ought to have written, I now write; and I write to tell you, that I have much kindness for you and Mrs. Beattie; and that I wish your health better, and your life long. Try change of air, and come a few degrees Southwards: a softer climate may do you both good; winter is coming on; and London will be warmer, and gayer, and busier, and more fertile of amusement than Aberdeen.

More news I have not to tell you, and therefore you must be contented with hearing, what I know not whether you much wish to hear, that I am, Sir,

Your most humble servant,
SAM. JOHNSON.

August 21, 1780.

Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780 by James Boswell.

* That’s how the fates worked out.

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20 August: Gilbert White VII, Harvest Mice

Harvest mouse by Hendrik Osadnik

White depended upon correspondence with other gentlemen researchers to further his researches – and theirs. He contributed to the identification of the harvest mouse as a separate species. ‘Nondescript’ here means not having its description recorded in a scientific publication. Two inches is about 5 cm.

I have procured some of the mice mentioned in my former letters, a young one and a female with young, both of which I have preserved in brandy.  From the colour, shape, size, and manner of nesting, I make no doubt but that the species is nondescript.  They are much smaller, and more slender, than the mus domesticus medius of Ray, and have more of the squirrel or dormouse colour; their belly is white, a straight line along their sides divides the shades of their back and belly.  They never enter into houses; are carried into ricks and barns with the sheaves, abound in harvest; and build their nests amidst the straws of the corn above the ground, and sometimes in thistles.  They breed as many as eight at a litter, in a little round nest composed of the blades of grass or wheat.

One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat, perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket ball, with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged.  It was so compact and well filled, that it would roll across the table without being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind.  As this nest was perfectly full, how could the dam come at her litter respectively, so as to administer a teat to each?  Perhaps she opens different places for that purpose, adjusting them again when the business is over; but she could not possibly be contained herself in the ball with her young, which moreover would be daily increasing in bulk.  This wonderful procreant cradle, an elegant instance of the efforts of instinct, was found in a wheat-field suspended in the head of a thistle.

Letter xiii

As to the small mice, I have farther to remark, that though they hang their nests for breeding up amidst the straws of the standing corn, above the ground, yet I find that, in the winter, they burrow deep in the earth, and make warm beds of grass: but their grand rendezvous seems to be in corn-ricks, into which they are carried at harvest.  A neighbour housed an oat-rick lately, under the thatch of which were assembled nearly a hundred, most of which were taken, and some I saw.  I measured them, and found that, from nose to tail, they were just two inches and a quarter, and their tails just two inches long.  Two of them, in a scale, weighed down just one copper halfpenny, which is about the third of an ounce avoirdupois: so that I suppose they are the smallest quadrupeds in this island.  A full-grown Mus medius domesticus weighs, I find, one ounce lumping weight, which is more than six times as much as the mouse above; and measures from nose to rump four inches and a quarter, and the same in its tail. 

Zwergmaus (Micromys minutus), fotografiert 9/2005 von Hendrik Osadnik

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12 July: Doctor Johnson on friendship

Doctor Johnson said to Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.’

from “Life of Johnson, James Boswell.

It must be my guilty conscience that makes me choose letter boxes to illustrate this post. Not all my friends are on-line, so where is my pen?

19th Century boxes in Kent and Lancashire.

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6 February. Brownings XX: In a great light

francis stargazing

Elizabeth is still considering  the creative process in this post.

“One should study the mechanical part of the art, as nearly all that there is to be studied—for the more one sits and thinks over the creative process, the more it confirms itself as ‘inspiration,’ nothing more nor less. Or, at worst, you write down old inspirations, what you remember of them … but with that it begins.

‘Reflection’ is exactly what it names itself—a re-presentation, in scattered rays from every angle of incidence, of what first of all became present in a great light, a whole one. So tell me how these lights are born, if you can!

But I can tell anybody how to make melodious verses—let him do it therefore—it should be exacted of all writers.”

One way to learn to write melodious verses I borrowed from Christina Rossetti and her brothers. It worked for teenage pupils, even if it did not produce much high art: the pupils are given sheets with blank lines split into syllables, with the last word alone given, thus:

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ cloud

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ hills

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ crowd

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ daffodils.

I don’t think I ever used that verse though! My point is that the discipline that EBB advocates enables the creative process to get under way; not necessarily smoothly, but surely. And that applies in other areas of life as well.

 

(from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning)

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January 28, Review: Extreme Pilgrim

Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim: Reflections on Life, Love and the Soul

Does sitting in one place qualify as being a pilgrim? Perhaps it does if you are a Sussex vicar, and that sitting place is a grotto in the Egyptian desert, home to hermits, monks and nuns since the earliest days of the Church.

Peter Owen Jones borrowed the cave of Father Lazarus, forty-five minutes’ walk from the cell of Saint Anthony, first of the Desert Fathers, to ‘live a very strict life of prayer, eating only one full meal a day.’ (p. ix) And part of this life of prayer was the writing of letters to people who helped make him the man he is today.

These include our would-be master and prince of this world, Satan, who rules by fear. Owen Jones’s signing off with, ‘all my love, Peter’, suddenly makes sense if we remember that ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (1John4:19).

Many things seem to have made sense when seen from the perspective of the desert, though at times a sense beyond logical thought, a sense of wonder. What was it you went out to see? A memory of a hedge sparrow’s (or dunnock’s) nest, described in a letter to God.

As you know, for their nests they weave  grass and hair precisely into a small deep bowl, which they line with moss to the point where it shines. And there they were  four varnished blue eggs sitting in this deep smooth green … we were both in a state of wonder and whilst I was alone, I realised I wasn’t alone – you were there in that state of wonder, you were present.’  (p45)

To his adoptive father he writes, ‘It was only when your eldest granddaughter was about three years old that I realised that being a father was something separate: it is a love all of its own’ (p15)

What did you go out to see? A good deal of seeing, of realising, is recorded in this little book. Every chapter represents a challenge that Owen-Jones faced; a chance to realise how other people had influenced his life for better or worse, and to accept himself, his own mortality as well as the loss of family and friends.

My wife read Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim through and enjoyed it almost before I had brought it into the house. I know who I will pass it on to. She’ll have it in time for Lent, and so will you if you buy on line now.

WT

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13 December: You have to help me IV.

nightwarsaw

Winter meant it was dark at 5.00, but the letter to Mrs Turnstone Senior needed to catch the post. Would Abel like to help with that? Of course: warm coat, wellingtons, and we were ready to face the night.

There was a red light next to the box: the postman was there, waiting to empty it; Abel urged grandad to be quick, so quick we reached the box before the postman got out. He said he was waiting till the right time to open the door. So we waited.

Open the sack,find the right key, open the big door, then the little one at the bottom of the cage; scoop out the mail, shut the inner door, shake down the bag so no letters spill. And then:

This is where you have to help me! Can you push the big door really hard for me, so it goes bang? Put your hands there and mind your fingers, 1, 2, 3, bang! And the door locked itself.

That of course made Abel’s evening. ‘Thank-you’s all round, and something to tell Mummy.

postbox.clitheroe

We are privileged to help our Creator in many ways that engage our gifts and enthuse us. We may well go back home and share the joy we had in doing God’s work, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it’s our efforts that matter most in the big scheme of things, what we used to call God’s Plan.

But Abel did post the letter, and he did slam the door tight shut. We each have our vocation which is basically to tell people they are loved by God and by us, which latter may be easier to absorb. We can write a letter,  send an email, smile, sweep the damp leaves off the street, accompany grandad to the postbox … As the Father might well say, you have to help me!

It was a much bigger box than this, and Queen Elizabeth, not Victoria.

 

 

 

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15 September: Brownings XII: to be written to is the chief gladness

 

Elizabeth Barrett is writing to Robert Browning:
“But to be written to is the chief gladness of course; and with all you say of liking to have my letters (which I like to hear quite enough indeed) you cannot pretend to think that yours are not more to me, most to me! Ask my guardian-angel and hear what he says! Yours will look another way for shame of measuring joys with him! Because as I have said before, and as he says now, you are all to me, all the light, all the life; I am living for you now.
 And before I knew you, what was I and where? What was the world to me, do you think? and the meaning of life? And now, when you come and go, and write and do not write, all the hours are chequered accordingly in so many squares of white and black, as if for playing at fox and goose … only there is no fox, and I will not agree to be goose for one … that is you perhaps, for being ‘too easily’ satisfied. So my claim is that you are more to me than I can be to you.
A running joke between two people who are totally sure of each other, and will soon elope to Italy as man and wife despite Elizabeth’s father. But letters between friends – we have few excuses for not whizzing off the occasional email to arrive in Australia or Zambia almost before it’s left the keyboard. Of course they may never be collated into two volumes for public consumption; let our emails be private and let the recipient decide whether to keep them.
And letters from our Creator are there for us, via Paul, Peter, John, Jude; and really in all of the Bible. No need to get up from the computer and find a hard copy, two clicks and the Scripture is there at our fingertips in many languages.
We can answer God’s messages by going to Universalis for the daily prayer of the Church. We are spoilt children, though Elizabeth Barrett was receiving two or three posts per day in central London, compared to just one today.
Who are you going to write to today, this minute, to incite gladness? 
And let’s say thank you for human ingenuity and information technology. Which includes the pens and paper that RB and EBB enthused about occasionally!
(from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning) From Project Gutenberg
Angel – God’s messenger – from St Mary Magdalene, Davington, Kent.

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11 September: You have to help me III

postbox.clitheroe

A Victorian letter box in Sabden, Lancashire.

Last year I wrote about how Abel went with me to post a letter I had written, and he told me, ‘You have to help me.’ He meant I would have to lift him up to reach the slot in the letter box. 15 months on, he can manage that himself.

Today’s post was a party invitation to his uncle; ‘He can’t come without an invitation.’ I wrote out the letters of Uncle George’s name as he looked  on. Then he wrote out ‘G e o r g e’ without referring to my script.

It’s interesting to see how many unspoken helps are going on here, Abel helping me, for example, to remember good manners and invite George properly, then writing his uncle’s name for me in his colour of choice; I helping him to print the sheet, showing him where to write and talking him through each letter in turn.

A network of loving your neighbour (or your grandad or grandson) as yourself. Again, as last year, I’ll not spell out all the possible lessons that occur to me, but we are the Body of Christ, and we build up that body by exercising it. And occasionally reflecting on what we are doing.

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