Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Letters to the World: Jessica Mitford, Gertrude Bell and Blogging

Letters, even edited letters, tell so much about a person. Thinking in anticipatory pleasure about reading Jessica Mitford’s letters, I’m reminded of discovering Gertrude Bell’s correspondence. Babylon plays a big role in my last book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, so I went prowling through the stacks at various libraries to see what I could find relating to its excavation. Some of the most interesting commentary came in accounts of Mesopotamia at the turn of the 20th century by Gertrude Bell, that intrepid traveller and the woman who drew the lines on the map creating Iraq. Then I stumbled on her letters, edited by her step mother and published in 1927 shortly after her death. Such a window on the complicated world of a woman who could not go out in London un-chaperoned but who travelled by horse and camel all over the Middle East and beyond! Several biographies have been written about her in the last few years, but none does her justice the way her own letters do.

We are unlikely to get future collections of letters showing such wide-ranging interests and well considered observations. When people travel today they send home e-mails or they call. Who takes the time to write a careful account of an incident when the gist of it can immediately be relayed thousands of kilometers away? Family dramas occur in real time, and rare are the letters sent to explain a position in a family fight.

Probably the nearest thing to the kind of conversations people used to have by letter is what happens in some blogs. Opinions are expressed, observations elaborated upon, ideas tried out in cyberspace. The big difference is that one writes not for a specific person, but for some ideal friend who is interested in what one is thinking, and who—most importantly—will let one have his or her say without interruption.

Try doing that by cell phone

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