A couple of days ago, I was leafing through some old letters. Well, actually, they weren’t that old – correspondence from earlier this year. But because I only had half of the conversation and couldn’t see my own replies, I had the sense that they must somehow belong to the past, to another lifetime, even if the contents felt alive.
Letter-writing is an art that most of us love and idealise (the ritual, the sense of care, the event of receiving an envelope) but few of us (I suspect) find the time for any more. I used to write to a number of friends, finding an intimacy in letters that I couldn’t achieve in most of my emails. Like many people, I had pen pals across the world as a teenager (well, one in Australia, one in Cumbria).
Even though I seldom write letters these days, I often thing of the poem as something vaguely epistolary – missives to others, postcards to the self, ‘Dear World’ letters…. Emily Berry’s ‘Dear Boy’ uses the notion of letter-writing to dramatic and original effect, making the reader feel like an eavesdropper. ‘Other People’s Stories’ conveys the sense that a loved one must always have been in your imaginative life in some way, even before you met them. It begins ‘where was I when you were shovelling chickens / down conveyor belts in Castlemahon?’ and subtly puns on the theme of writing itself:
…..I didn’t know you then.
If I was somewhere, I was nowhere of note, in this
city that might stomach anything; already rooted fast
where I’d come up, the callus on my middle finger
toughening, where I pressed the pen too hard.
When I knew I wanted to write about the life and death of Derbyshire climber Alison Hargreaves (evoked so beautifully in the Ed Douglas and David Rose biography ‘Regions of the Heart’), I was worried about my right to do so. I never met her, never knew her. I’m an amateur climber doing routes in the Peak District, not an acclaimed mountaineer. Why should I try and speak about her remarkable achievements? And yet I was drawn to her story, felt haunted every time I climbed in the places she’d been and identified with her sense of drive (a feeling I related to as a writer as much as a climber). I ended up writing a sequence of poems in the second person, addressing Alison. And at some point, I realised I was writing letters to her. One of these pieces, ‘Dear Alison’ has been turned into a film for UK Climbing which you can watch here.
Thanks to Dark Sky Media and UKC for giving me the chance to write (and climb) on camera!