Letters from afar.

About five years ago I was given a book titled ‘Letters of Note,’-  a collection of letters, memos and telegrams of the famous, the infamous and the not so famous collated by a man named Shaun Usher.  To date, it is probably one of my favourite presents ever.  It’s not a small book; A4 in size with a hardcover binding 367 pages and it travels the world with me, with page 103 covered in the smudges of my fingers and constantly bookmarked:

June 27, 1940

My Darling,

I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know.  One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me and told me that there is danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough and sarcastic and overbearing manner.

It seems your Private Secretaries have agreed to behave like school boys and ‘take what’s coming to them’ and then escape of your presence, shrugging their shoulders.

Higher up, if an idea is suggested (say, at a conference) you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming.  I was astonished and upset, because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with and under you, loving you.  I said this and I was told, ‘No doubt it’s the strain.’

My Darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner and you are not so kind as you used to be.

It is for you to give the Orders and if they are bungled, except for the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Speaker, you can sack anyone and everyone.

Therefore, with this terrific power, you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible, Olympic calm.  You used to quote- ‘On ne règne sur les âmes que par le calme’ I cannot bear that those who serve the Country and yourself should not love as well as admire and respect you.

Besides, you won’t get the best results by irascibility and rudeness.  They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality – (Rebellion in War time being out of the question!)

Please forgive your loving, devoted and watchful, Clemmie.

P.S I wrote this at Chequers last Sunday, tore it up, but here it is now.

There is a letter from a young Queen Elizabeth to President Eisenhower therewith a promised recipe for drop scones, and another from a girl named Amy to her favourite author Mr. Dahl containing a dream, to which he wrote a response promising it would form the content of another book (read, B.F.G) and many others throughout this extraordinary book.  But it is this one from Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, that always speaks to me 79 years after it was written.

My grandmother Posy, along with my dear Mum, always encouraged letter writing with the advice that one must never write anything down that they may one day regret.  In a world of social media and emails, it is all but too easy to quickly type a comment under a photo, or send an email which is not particularly kind.  There is no turning back from that, and some people could use the advice of Mrs Churchill- a particular president and his twitter account being top of the list.  In my humble opinion.

When I was living in Paris I documented that stage of my life through instagram and here in Tangier, I still do.  One night in Paris after a glass of wine with friends (probably more than ‘a glass’ but we’ll neaten it up and say ‘a glass’) a friend wrote to me from Australia, asking if I’d ever thought of writing a blog.  

With a newborn child, the nights are long and I never want your instagram posts to end, I want you to write more.’

Inspired by that thought, I swiftly pulled out my laptop and set up pinningmywords.com.  I’m Pin and I like writing words, that’ll work, I said to myself in the mirror- and there we had it, a daily blog where I wrote about the frustrations of language, my awkwardness in a city of thin people and all my daily observations- and there were many.  But this wasn’t the beginning of my love for writing – I always have enjoyed writing – with my first memoirs penned at the age of ten.  That would have been a riveting read.  

Writing makes me feel less lonely.  When I am sitting in a cafe my laptop provides a level of comfort and through my blog, I have felt connected to family and friends and now, as it grows, with complete strangers.  People write to me and share their thoughts, and that too provides a great level of comfort in a life where I am quite often alone.

In 2005 I embarked on a trip to India.  I’d been there two years before and was thrilled to return.  That was a time where Facebook had only just surfaced, and Twitter was what birds did.  I did have a hotmail account set up by my friend Charlotte (tech and savvy do not belong near my name) and it was through emails that I would communicate with my family from high up in the Himalaya.

Power cut today,’ I’d write, followed by ‘loo overflowed too.’  

‘I ordered a packet of matches on the telephone to the boys who live in the shed down below in the garden, they arrived ten minutes later with a queen size mattress.’

Dad would eagerly respond with news from home that was of great interest to me therewith football scores, not so much.  My grandmother Posy would send long emails full of love and good advice.  I once wrote to her with tears streaming down my face from an Internet cafe in Delhi as I prepared to leave India the next day, ‘I will so miss the sun setting over the mountains of the Himalaya, I don’t want to come home,’ I wrote.

You’re lucky you ever saw the sun set over the mountains of the Himalaya,’ she replied in an email the next morning.

I didn’t go home.  Rather, a visit to friends in London diverted me to Tuscany, which landed me in Istanbul in June, 2005.  The following months were spent with the formidable Josephine Powell – American by birth but in her life, a woman of many worlds.  I wrote about Josephine in a post aptly titled ‘Josephine’ (April 3, 2018) which you can find on pinningmywords.com

Not unlike Winston, Josephine could be an unpredictable character.  I was never sure who I’d find when I woke each morning as I traipsed up the stairs from my divine bedroom where each night, I’d sleep atop a chest of drawers on a goat hair rug enjoying views of an overgrown jungle garden.  Some days she was hilarious, others in quite the mood.  Throughout my time in Istanbul I collated and documented her incredible collection of photographs and artefacts.  Her collection was formed over many years during her travels from Kabul to Rome, solo bar her beloved Belgian sheepdog who accompanied her in her Land Rover.

Recently, I woke on a warm Tangier morning to an email from Dad, where he wrote:

Darling Pin, 

I was checking some of my old memory sticks and found ‘Pin’s Travels.’  You may be able to use a bit of that somewhere.  I hope the attached file works for you – do you remember when you sent these emails, the Turkish computer made all the i’s into y’s, and I corrected all that for you!

Much love, Dad.

As if he’d read my mind, I licked my lips with glee before opening the exact file I’d been searching for in preparation for this blog.  There within lay all the emails I’d sent home in 2005 from my time in the Himalaya followed by my months in Istanbul.  Two highlights are documented below:

Agra, May, 2005

Dear Mum and Dad,

My tuk tuk driver told me today that he didn’t want to asshole westerners as he understood very well the asshole of travel – just he wanted me to have the best day in Agra with no asshole from him.

I almost lost my breath between laughing and asking what he was going to do with my asshole.  After some time I realised he was saying that with him, I would have no hassle.

Much love, Pin 

Istanbul, July, 2005

Dear Mum and Dad,

I just spent almost an hour writing you the worlds longest email where my bottom went numb as I had sat on this chair writing and writing and then the screen started abusing me in Turkish – which I can’t understand!  

Oh, I don’t know if I have it in me to write it all again… basically, it’s been a busy week. Oh, can I be bothered?  The good person in my head says ‘yes Pin just do it’ and the bad one is yelling above all the music in this Internet cafe saying ‘give up’.  No.  I’ll try mark two of the account. 

I have spent the week changing the latches on doors and clearing tree cuttings from the garden below and making curtains for the kilim shelves and fixing the hose that Josephine uses to spray both stray kittens and Yakob, a young intern who comes to help from the University of Istanbul – also known as Big Foot. When I am not being a carpenter and gardener, I am sifting through publications relevant to Josephine’s collection and footnoting in preparation for a book to be published next year.

I have learnt so much about kilims and am becoming familiar with all the regions of Anatolia she collected from – it is so satisfying and I am fascinated.  Yakob leaves next Monday which has put Josephine’s knickers in a twist as she can’t stand him, but can’t use the scanner without him. He is going to take me through all of those things so that I will be able to fill in during his absence. 

We have also got quite a project in typing Josephine’s field notes – she is going to do them with me at some stage which will be so interesting and I can’t wait to start. 

Josephine is a nightmare and dream combined and I just love her. We went and hid in the attic yesterday with the portable phone and went through so many old boxes.  She had been to see the physio that morning and could hardly walk, so on the way down she passed wind and yelled that the doctor had killed her. Then the phone rang, then her cigarette went out, then I nearly put my foot through the water tank and then we went for tea after she had thrown the contents of the attic at Yakob’s head and told him to be rid of it. 

He is a bit hopeless, and spends all day looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. Yesterday, she found a pair of sandals in my bathroom and yelled ‘Big Foot come and get these, you’re the only person who could possibly wear them with your big feet,’ he staggered in saying ‘thank you Miss Powell’. I think he would have thrown them into a bin on the way home. 

We had a really great day in my apartment on Sunday which is also the gallery/studio for all the kilims and artefacts and anything that doesn’t fit upstairs in her house.  I was laughing at her, telling her that I wanted to stick all the promotional posters up around the room from her previous exhibitions – dancing around the room and sticking them up knowing how much she hates it.  ‘Shut up, stop it’ she kept saying with her head in her hands laughing.  

I was feeling somewhat weak and exhausted this afternoon after clearing her garden of all the trees – I really needed some chocolate.  Just as I was heading out the door to the shop I heard, ‘Australia – stop’ and she came at me with a box of chocolates that was a meter long and bigger than her whole body.  We sat on the steps mumbling and making ourselves completely ill.  

I went for dinner with Fi, Andy and Sandy de Crespigny on Monday night which was so great. They were in town on their way to the south of Turkey and then on to Croatia and Prague. I just loved catching up with them again.  On Saturday I went to Aya Sofia, the beautiful mosque that we can see from Josephine’s balcony.  It’s incredible, and I had given you a long description in the email that left me but I loved it, and stayed until dusk before walking home over the Gulata bridge past the fishermen, then through Taxim square and down the cobblestone streets to Josh’s house (the boy who chops down the garden can’t say Josephine hence calls her Josh which I find so very funny). 

Anyway, I am so sorry that this email is rushed and rather disappointing to say the least. Probably riddled with spelling errors and bad grammar but I had gone to such trouble with the last one and am very angry with the computer.  It is almost midnight and I think I might go and get a Turkish Delight and curl up in bed.  I will write a proper account soon – Josh is off to the physio again in the morning so I might get a minute to write a longer email.

Lots of love to you all,

Pin xx

There are thousands more emails like these, and I have spent the better part of the past couple of days laughing at the way I wrote to my parents at a time where I had no other way of reaching them, save for an expensive reverse charge phone call, a letter or an email.  My travels to India and Turkey marked a time where I began to use writing as a comfort – it was a way to escape the chill of the Himalayan air, and everything was a new experience and one that I couldn’t wait to document.  In India, I explored both language and culture in a way that I hadn’t before.  I was 22 when I first visited India, and 24 when I ended up working with Josephine in Istanbul, then aged 85.  With Josephine I wrote madly, inspired by her travels and it was also a way in which I could go out, sit in a cafe and have a moments peace.

I documented every minute of those early travels in long emails to Dad who would correct my spelling and grammar before distributing my letters to friends, family, neighbours, golfing friends and anyone who expressed even the remotest interest.

He would have had a field day on my last post titled ‘The Fast and the Feast,’ (sorry subscribers, you got the unedited version) where I remarked that we must cease the day, when really I wanted to use the word ‘seize.’  I wasn’t trying to say that we should stop this day, rather, that we mustn’t put too much emphasis on tomorrow.  As soon as I’d pressed ‘publish’ I realised my error.  I’ve always had a problem with words – I’m constantly having ‘revolutions’ and rarely ‘revelations’ and I dream of one day sailing across the Specific Ocean.

Josephine urged me to visit Morocco, explaining that it would fill me with the same dreamy and exotic satisfaction that I’d so enjoyed in my travels through India and Turkey.  Thirteen years after I lived with her in Istanbul, her urge became a reality.  I came here and I stayed.  For now. 

Last week in my blog I wrote about a beautiful email that I’d received from a friend I met at Monday book club in Paris, before I left for Tangier.  She wrote about the cast of characters that she’d observed I’d collected in Tangier, which she has come to know through my writing as well as the way she sees my life through photos on Instagram.  This email prompted me to think about the immediacy of today and the way in which we can feign happiness, and rarely project sadness, through a world driven by social media.

I replied to her original email, hoping that she wouldn’t mind if I used her words as an opening for my blog, which I did.  Her response was so fitting for the theme of this piece:

August, 2019

Of course, I have no problem with your use of the email.  I wrote it on impulse as I am reading Byron’s letters. It strikes me that the art of letter writing is endangered. Much of what we know regarding Churchill, Byron, Gertrude Bell is due to the letters they wrote. 

In any case, I have started writing letters. I find letters much more thoughtful and enjoyable. I have begun a long exchange of letters with a friend in California. We hadn’t communicated in forty years. One day, I found a letter written to me in late 1970. In any case, he has led an fascinating life and his intellectual depth is something I relish. That said, we write letters and emails, exchanges of ideas. No phone, no text, no social media. There is no desire to meet. This is a unique experience and thoroughly enjoyable. It has prompted me to focus more on letter writing…

Whilst my life is perhaps more Bridget Jones than Gertrude Bell, I will always be inspired by those who’ve written about their explorations and experiences well before me, and I would be lost without their documentations and letters.  As my friend wrote, the art of letter writing is endangered and most of what we know from a (in my opinion) much more exciting pre instagram past, is purely through the written word.

A dear friend of my family, and someone who has been something of a fairy godmother and mentor to me throughout my life, Jennifer, arrived in Tangier last week.  I’d just begun writing this piece, and out of her suitcase she presented a yellow envelope full of letters that my ‘actual’ much loved godmother had given her to pass on to me.  I’d written all of the letters as a child, with the following being my favourite:

1990

Dear Sally,

Thank you very much for the bag with the tap running. I really love it.  

Another thank you for the writing paper, it is very nice of you.  I got this paper for my birthday and I love it just as much as I love yours.  I have been riding my horse a lot and hope to do a bit of riding with some friends.  I played gold off Saturday and got 100 which is pretty good for a learner.  

Heaps of love from Pin xx

I remember so clearly how terrified I was of riding when I was a child.  I was constantly being thrown off a little brute from one side of a paddock to another, and furious that my three sisters were all naturals in the saddle, just like Mum.  I’d pull on the reins and say horrific things to the horse when no one was listening.

As for golf, I seriously loathed Saturday lessons with a woman called Mrs Morrison at a little country golf course not far from home, and the only reason I went to the lessons was because Mum made me and there was always a chocolate biscuit at the end.  I’d drag the golf club around 9 holes, with the score that I was so proud of, 100, rather telling I’d say.  

But through my letters I presented a cheery happy little person who so loved riding her pony and was thrilled to be averaging 11 shots per hole at golf.  The ‘bag with the tap running’ has left me guessing, as has the fact that I didn’t write to thank my godmother on the paper I so convincingly told her that I adored.

These days, we can filter everything and present our lives in a way that we believe people wish to see it, and rarely share our struggles and failures.  But through letters (apart from those written by me as an 11 year old child, probably with Mum over my shoulder saying ‘be newsy and positive’) more importantly than ever, we need to document a time and a place in our lives that will inevitably shape and inspire future generations.

Today at lunch I spoke to my host about our shared appreciation of  letters and diaries.  I could immerse myself in them for hours.  We all could.  Just as you so generously do with this blog, and for that I am very grateful.  A documentation of musings and moods and maybe just a little bit filtered.  

From Clemmie Churchill’s written concerns to her husband, to Josephine Powells incredible field notes, to a little girl in Australia writing to thank her godmother, and all of our travel diaries and daily documentation’s.  It’s so important to write it all down – not in a short, online burst –  but in the present moment as it actually is.

Otherwise, we are all but passive in a life so precious.

From Tangier, with love. 

Pictured:  Jenny and Jono at Lunch, Tangier 2019.

4 thoughts on “Letters from afar.

  1. Absolutely loved this post. What an amazing woman Clementine was. How many people would be so
    brutally honest in such a tender, kind way. Your life sounds very interesting and thoughtful. Your
    remarks about social media are so insightful…if everything is always happy and beautiful I think it
    just makes people think they can’t share anything that’s not chipper and wonderful. Which can make
    all of us feel depressed. Please keep writing.

    Like

  2. The human condition is not just pretty pictures. It is also sadness and loneliness , but these give us dimension and teach us to relish the beauty and know it can be fleeting. Gertrude Bell’s life held great sadness and extraordinary adventure. Winston for all his bluster and greatness was also gentle … still he suffered his “black dog” moods. Pictures may reflect the beauty of a rose, but we know there are thorns. We are each Escher drawing ourselves…where does one end and the other start. Pictures show the image…words tell the story. As the line from one of my favorite poems goes “the woods are lovely dark and deep and I’ve miles to go before I sleep…”. Your words invite us into the “woods” you explore, and for a moment… we see, what you see. It is a distant invitation to play among the trees and through it we visit across time and space. We sometime think an image, event, moment to be mundane, but the very act of being alive is exquisite. Continue to document it, to hold it close because life is an adventure that continues to surprise.

    Like

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