Whenever I begin these lines to you I am transported in my mind’s eye to the dining room (or Refectory, as it was called) of the junior seminary where I was a student for four years. Sat with others at long dining tables, breaking the fast after an early Mass, the Prefect of Discipline (a priest who was also our Bursar) would enter the spacious room bearing a bundle of post. The whole environment of the now derelict Upholland College was Tom Brown School Days-esque. We dined beneath walls bedecked with images of Bishops and former Rectors, some of which bore the odd tear and stain caused when food stuff had been hurled in their direction by frolicking and dissatisfied diners! As we were fed a five-out-of-seven nightly diet of ‘something’ alongside chips and beans perhaps some sympathy can be given to the provocation behind these moments of protest. With the neon signage of 57 on the Heinz factory in Wigan visible from some rooms in the college, we really did think that pipes linked the production line to a tap in our kitchen. In the year when Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore was chosen as the operetta to be delivered to parental and public audiences, the distinguished guardians of the ‘Ref’ became the basis of student folklore. One of the operetta scenes takes place in the gallery of Ruddigore Castle where the portraits of long-dead Murgatroyd ancestors come to life. This ghoulish imagery soon became the seed sown into the naive and gullible soil of the imaginations of college newcomers about the goings on in the Refectory during the hours of darkness!
Returning to breakfast times of forty years ago; when our ‘Postie’ had sorted his precious load into the various year groupings he would move from table to table flicking deliveries in the wide direction of those sat around. It was always a good start to the day if there was a letter from home, and for the decade of my studies, rarely a week passed without such a delivery. I quickly learned that not all were as fortunate as myself. The boarding-school environment, with students aged from eleven to nineteen, gave the younger members of our near two-hundred-strong community an introduction to the art and craft of letter-writing. This came through their hour of study time on a Sunday (yes, I did say Sunday!) when they were encouraged to put pen to paper and correspond with their families. As older students, we had to find other times to write home. If caught writing letters during ‘Prep’ time, the letter that we were discovered composing was taken from us and ripped up in front of classmates. Psychological humiliation! The letters I received, and also wrote, away from formal times of study, gave me an insight into the significance of the written word.
Over recent weeks it has been good to receive responses to the lines I post out with the Newsletter, offering me an insight into how life is unfolding around and before you, together with your exploits during Lockdown. These have been most welcome, and I thank those who have responded in this way. My most loyal and faithful correspondent whilst at college, both in Lancashire and subsequently in Dublin, was my mother, who wrote every week on behalf of herself, Dad and Bracken, who was our inherited four-legged canine companion for a decade. The envelopes bearing her distinctive hand contained several sides of news, happenings at home, in Otley, and in our local parish community. The letters were usually written on our yellow Formica kitchen table (once spoken of during a homily) and always, as Mum signed-off, an all-important up-date on exactly what Bracken was doing at that moment of time; usually asleep in her bed or sometimes anxiously awaiting the arrival of my Dad from work, whose approach she seemed to have an extra sense for detecting! At times Mum wrote over a couple of days, denoted by a new date, or a written reason for her distraction.
These letters forged a lifeline between the very organized, disciplined, routined and rather peculiar life I was leading as a teenager and the wonderful familiarity of the people and community who were integral to my formation, colouring, crafting and shaping. The African proverb which says It takes a village [community] to raise a child is certainly my understanding of my own childhood. Letters from Dad were rare and usually denoted one of two things: either I was out of favour with Mum, or it was a smoke screen, protecting me from something that parents who knew their son better than anyone else thought may be either emotionally upsetting across the distance that separated us, or would be a distraction from all-important studies. One of the few times I recall finding an envelope bearing my name and address, printed, which is Dad’s style of hand, was when Mum broke her ankle and was in hospital … more time on her hands, yes, but initially devoid of pen and paper, and our kitchen table!
Some years ago I came across a collection of entertaining, inspiring and quirky letters published under the title of Letters of Note by Shaun Usher. It is an eclectic grouping of the written word, with letters from the likes of Gandhi and Iggy Pop, Charles Darwin and Charles Schulz, and even a recipe for scones from the Queen to a US President! The publication was an easy gift idea for a few friends, even those who are self-confessed non-readers, providing something to dip into every now and again. However, despite reading it from front to back, I couldn’t find anything to match the weekly scripts that came my way so loyally and faithfully from Mum.
There are other popularized letter-based pieces of literature including Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road and Ladies of Letters by Carole Hayman and Lou Wakefield. Personally speaking, letter-writing and card-sending continue to remain an intrinsic part of life. It is something that has taken on new significance and meaning during our present times, and with a little creativity and ingenuity can be made into a very fun experience for the sender, and a humorous one for the recipient. Having clipped images from magazines, entered something randomly into the computer search engine followed by the word “image”, printed it out (I’m not sure of the legality of this!) and then added a quirky comment, given the finished product a quick run through the laminator, Bob’s your uncle! Hilarity is created for numerous folk not least the Postie. I’ve also discovered it helps to remember to put a stamp on the finished product!
Sometimes it is easy to forget that a significant part of our Sacred Scriptures comprise of letters. The most famous biblical correspondent is St. Paul who wrote to early Christian communities at Colossae, Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, Rome and Thessalonika. In addition to these he wrote pastoral messages to his prodigies Sts. Timothy and Titus, which one can sense must have been incredibly affirming and encouraging to the recipients. These also reveal an almost surprisingly affectionate and tender side of the writer’s personality, as does his letter to Philemon. In this he implores the recipient not only to welcome its reconciliatory content, but also the Postie, Onesimus, who is the addressee’s runaway slave, whom Paul calls on Philomen to accept as a reconciled brother in the Faith. In writing to Timothy, whom he calls my son (1 Tim. 1:18), Paul adds a very human housekeeping note, asking him to bring the cloak I left at Troas, in Carpos’ house and also the scrolls, especially the parchments (2 Tim. 4:13). In his composition of letters, St. Paul was not alone. Other Second Testament figures who kept scribes and Posties busy included Sts. James, John, Jude and Peter, whose words were also inspired by the Holy Spirit. Whilst it may be the words of St. Paul that most know best, in the brief twenty-five verses which form the Letter of St. Jude is found the timeless exhortation: dearly beloved, build your life on the foundation of your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit. Remain firm in the love of God (Jude 20 & 21). Returning to St. Paul’s correspondence to Philemon, he offers a synopsis of what should be at the heart of any communiqué with family or friends: love, joy and encouragement: Your love, dear brother, has brought me great joy and much encouragement! You have cheered the hearts of all God’s people. (Phil. 7)
Letters from Pastmen of the seminary I attended in Dublin appeared in Annuals sent, for over a century, across the English speaking world, which was the missionary brief of the college from its formation in 1842. Whilst many printed letters came from far-flung parts of the world, it wasn’t uncommon for a correspondent to cite an address in either the diocese of Leeds or neighbouring Salford, these being the largest depositories for the clergy produced by All Hallows. These letters had a two-fold importance: news and recruitment! Written in an era prior to pastoral placements, the newly ordained priest’s first encounter with the place to which he had blindly committed himself and vowed to minister for life came when he stepped off a ship (and often a subsequent train) carrying him to the address sent to him by his bishop on ordination: a mitred image whom he’d probably not even met. Most letters published were cheery, newsy and spoke of warm welcomes. Some stories remained unpublished but not forgotten. One such involved a priest of our own diocese who, after crossing the Irish Sea and journeying from Liverpool to Leeds, never having set foot outside of Ireland in his twenty-five years of life, arrived at the address of the Presbytery to which he’d been appointed. Having knocked, the door was eventually opened, and he proceeded to explain who he was. The response from the housekeeper was to slam the door closed in his face screaming, “No one told me we were getting another curate!” Clearly not a story to be used during a recruitment drive.
Long after the ending of Lent, I continue to be loyal to the discipline I set myself at its beginning, devoting an hour each day to historical research. Primarily my interest is in the Catholic men of the area who were killed in the Great War. A notable feature in the local press of those far off days was the occasional publication of letters written by local lads. These, like the letters in the seminary Annuals, were used as propaganda. They offered an insight into the life of an individual soldier and the activity of his regiment, although place names were removed at a stroke of the censor’s pen. Subtly they were used to advance national issues such as recruitment. In 1915 towards the end of one such informative letter an unnamed local Northumberland Fusilier, expressed the hope that the war would be won without having to resort to conscription. Those who are of eligible age and fit should come forward and do their bit, and so help bring about an earlier end to this terrible struggle. More than a century on, we’ve heard Prince Charles, this week, encouraging people to form a Pick for Britain land army, seeking Pickers who are Stickers, for the benefit of the nation. At an emotive level during World War One the absence of a name at the end of a soldier’s letter gave hope to families across the area who recognized the regimental name that the correspondent was “Our so and so …”
One letter that appeared in the local press in March 1916 came not from the Front, but a Prisoner of War camp at Giessen, Germany. The author wrote: In reply to your kind and welcome letter of January 1st, I am pleased to tell you I have received your splendid parcel of clothing. I have previously received clothing from you. I was not really in need of the last parcel but I have given the shirts to two of my comrades who are not so fortunate in having friends to send them such necessaries. I have also received from the fund 20 shillings. I really did not know who sent it to me until I received your letter, so thank for me the ladies and other members of the Forget-Me-Not Fund for their kindness. It reveals incredible kindnesses or Mitzvahs, to use a word I mentioned last week. Charity and compassion motivated those collecting funds and practical items to be sent to POWs and soldiers serving at the Front. And, incredibly, in the midst of it, the author, from within his own confines, sees and responds to the needs of men around him, by sharing his own good fortune. Poignantly he calls those, whom he almost definitely would not have known, friends. He defines a friend by their actions of kindness towards him.
The letter was written by Joseph Duddy, of the Cheshire Regiment, who prior to the war had lived in the Spen Valley, and who worked as a plate-layer at Low Moor Station. His war lasted all of nine days, being captured at Mons and thereafter being held as a POW. Despite a lengthy time of incarceration, over three years, it was not long enough for him to return home, as in early-December 1917, at thirty-four, he died of consumption. Eighteen months later, in May 1919, when his sister received his personal possessions they comprised a single collection of articles – letters!
This week I’ve written cards offering birthday greetings, congratulating friends on their wedding anniversary, a couple of notes of sympathy to grieving families, a word of encouragement to a priest-friend in Zagreb following a recent earthquake there, a couple of sentences of appreciation on compliment slips to accompany payment for jobs done, and yes, I’ve also had the scissors in my hands, cutting and pasting, laminating and posting a couple of humourous messages, and others sent to those alone at this time, whom I hope will appreciate just being thought about and remembered in their isolation. We’re a people blessed with the ability to communicate so well! Lockdown need not mean locked-in. John Shedd once wrote: A ship in harbour is safe – but that is not what ships are built for. There is a word in all of us … let us dare to write it.
When St. Paul signed-off his First Letter to the Thessalonians, he said: Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances (1Thes.5:16-18), it seems a fitting end to my words this week.
Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,
P.S. (Vital for all letter-writers!) Whilst praising the writers of letters I must not neglect those who deliver them. Presently our Posties are doing a fantastic job, with many of us being grateful for their doorstep services. This praise matches the great respect they have long been held in by our family coming from the fact that in 1917, during her stay in America, my maternal great-grandmother, received a letter simply addressed to: Mrs. Alice Normanton, Chicago. The population of the city at the time was only about two and a half million!