On letter-writing, or how will the future remember you?

Bygone days. Sitting down with a cuppa to read the news from home. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Bygone days. Sitting down with a cuppa to read the news from home. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

When was the last time you wrote a letter? A proper, personal (dare I even say, handwritten) letter — on paper?

I suspect the last time I did was in 2006; to my grandmother not long before she died.

I don’t even send all that many greeting cards anymore. Like letters they have been replaced with phone calls, Skype, emails and FaceBook messages.

For family historians, letters are invaluable. They are the “Sunday best” of information sources; the snapshots and snippets of past lives that reveal character as well as information. If public records provide a skeleton of our ancestors and clothe them in the uniform of their time, personal letters (and diaries) show us something of the colour and texture of a life. They are the ribbons and shawls that hint at personality and individuality.

Since literacy became widespread, letters have been a lifeline between family members and friends separated by distance. And with migration a feature of most nations’ histories, the number of people writing and receiving letters must have been huge. Within my family alone, I’ve found ancestors and relatives who left Scotland for every outpost of the British Empire, including my parents, who emigrated to New Zealand.

As a child I remember getting letters from my grandparents and aunts back in Scotland, and having to be chivied by my mother to reply. Well into my 20s I was still writing to my great uncle Tom, my paternal grandfather’s younger brother. I wonder now what he made of my letters — domestic details and tales of student life from someone he hadn’t seen since I was five. His letters to me always smelled of cigarettes; something I would normally hate, but actually made me feel close to him.

A rare photo of the Leslie side of the family. My dad holding my brother; me sitting on my great uncle Tom's knee.

Great Uncle Tom. A funny, wonderful man whom I utterly adored. Photo taken in Carshalton, Surrey, c. 1966. Leslie family archive.

In the last few years, my mother has given me a collection of family documents she has saved. Mainly photos, there are also a few letters, including two that survived an air crash (which I’ve written about in On Touching History), and the letter my grandmother wrote to tell Mum that my grandfather was dying. The telegram is postmarked two days later, and simply says:

DAD PASSED AWAY QUIETLY MONDAY 23RD 910PM  MUM

Over forty years later, I can’t hold these flimsy pieces of paper in my hands without crying.

Letters from home, a telegram and a note of condolences from my mother's employer on the death of her father. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Letters from home, a telegram and a note of condolences from my mother’s employer on the death of her father. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

In June 1917, The Big T’s great uncle Eric wrote a letter to his sister from an English hospital. He had been wounded on the first day of the Battle of Messines — the beginning of the terrible Passchendaele Offensive, and his letter describes the circumstances of his injury. The letter’s tone is light — partly to get past the censor, but probably also to protect his beloved sister from the terrible  realities of the war. Only once does the “mask” slip. He wrote:

... the only thing I am worrying about is that it will get better too soon. (1)

Eric Gray died on March 27, 1918 near Auchonvillers in the Somme Valley (written about in Death of a Soldier).

Aside from a few letters from the Big T and some greetings cards that I think are particularly funny, I’ve kept no physical, written correspondence with family and friends. And aside from the greeting cards, I don’t think I’ve received physical, written communications through the post in years.

The growth in cheap telecommunications has diminished the volume of written communication, and that which is not spoken is increasingly electronically composed and transmitted. As life is increasingly experienced — and expressed — electronically, those traces of us that once survived long sea voyages, aircraft crashes and years tucked away in shoe-boxes at the back of the wardrobe, are disappearing.

So what will family historians of the future make of us? How will the depth of love of a woman for her husband be known without the letter to a distant child telling of grave illness? What will a sister hold on to when her soldier brother does not come home? And beyond the content of letters, the richness of personality revealed in handwriting, grammar, spelling, even the paper used; these will not be available to historians in the future.

We’re told our digital footprint is permanent, and perhaps that is true. But does that mean we will be known by our Instagram-d dinner snaps and FaceBook selfies rather than the carefully thought-out and laboriously written words our ancestors shared. Scary thought!

This post was written for Ailsa’s Travel Theme at Where’s my Backpack. The theme was Letters.

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(1) The full letter can be found in We got dug in about five feed deep by dinnertime and then fritz started to shell ...

Pictures of youth

The boy-child, aged 8. Cambridge, England, 2006.

The boy-child, aged 8. Cambridge, England, 2006. Photo: Tony Gray

Years ago in a cafe, my young son and I were sitting near two women who were having a heated discussion. Eventually one leaned over to me and asked if I carried a photo of my son with me. As it happened, I did have a picture of him. The woman looked at her friend triumphantly and said “see, everyone does.”

Aside from the obvious problem of generalizing from a sample of one, my possession of an image on that day was a consequence of my son having just had an particularly flattering passport photo taken. In fact, I didn’t normally carry his picture — I had never thought to cut one up small enough to fit in my wallet.

But it got me thinking about the abundance of photos I DID possess of my son —  and how normal is seems for parents to turn the camera lens on their offspring.

Thomas Alexander Gray, one day old.

The big T with our boy-child; the morning after his birth. Photo: Su Leslie, 1998.

These days, with smart phones and social media, it’s only a matter of personal taste how quickly after (or during) birth, photos of our children can be spread around the globe. Seventeen years ago, when the boy-child came into the world, the Big T did have his camera at the birth, and we have several slightly out of focus shots of me in the delivery suite holding our newborn. But in those pre-digital, pre-FaceBook days, the photos were taken on film, and weren’t available for anyone to see until all 24 shots on the roll of film had been exposed and developed. As both sets of grandparents lived in other countries, it would have been at least a week or more until they saw images of their new grandchild.

A generation earlier, when the boy-child’s grandparents were becoming parents, the processes of capturing and sharing images of their children would have taken even longer. For a start, although both my father and father in law were keen photographers, neither were present at the births of their children. The earliest photos of me that I’m aware of were taken at my christening.

su in christening gown mod

Christening, November 1961. Photo: Ron Leslie, Leslie family archive.

Go back another generation, and camera ownership was less widespread. We are fortunate to have photos of both my parents as children.

Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden) and daughters at the beach, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. c 1941. Photo: Leslie Ramsay archive.

Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden) and daughters at the beach, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. c 1941. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

20140615-222011-80411435.jpg

Fragment of a photo: Ron and David Leslie. Beach on Fife coast, Scotland. c. 1934-36 Photo: Leslie family archive.

Although the Box Brownie (1) was first released in 1900 — revolutionizing photography by making it affordable to ordinary people  — amateur photos don’t appear before the 1920s in either the Big T’s or my family (2),  making our parents’ generation the first whose childhood was captured by enthusiastic family members, rather than professional photographers.

James and George Cruden (back row), with their niece and nephew; David and May Ramsay. Photo probably take in Dysart, Scotland, c. early 1930s. From Ramsay family archive.

Little rascals? James and George Cruden (back row), with their niece and nephew; David and May Ramsay. c. early 1930s. Milton of Balgonie, Fife, Scotland, . Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

By contrast, I have a collection of studio portraits of my grandmother Margaret Cruden, and her younger brother Stewart, as small children.

Stewart and Margaret Cruden, c. 1911. Studio portrait, probably Fife, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Stewart and Margaret Cruden, c. 1911. Studio portrait, probably Fife, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

I’m not sure why there are so many portraits of my grandmother. She and her brother Stewart were the eldest children of Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black. On my grandmother’s birth certificate, her father’s occupation is shown as coal miner, and it’s unlikely the family was particularly wealthy. However, my great grandparents (or possibly their parents) took the children to several different studios for sittings during their early childhood.

Margaret and Stewart Cruden, c. 1910. Studio portrait probably taken in Fife, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Margaret and Stewart Cruden, c. 1910. Studio portrait probably taken in Fife, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Stewart and Margaret Cruden, c. 1914. Studio portrait, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Stewart and Margaret Cruden, c. 1915. Studio portrait, R. Milliken, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Stewart Cameron Cruden, c. 1914. Studio portrait, Colin Campbell Studio, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Stewart Cameron Cruden, c. 1914-15. Studio portrait, Colin Campbell Studio, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

While I love these glimpses into the childhoods of my grandmother and great uncle, the last image saddens me, as all photographs of little boys dressed up as soldiers sadden me. The photo was taken probably during World War I, and I wonder if my great grandfather had already signed up. My great uncle has such a sad, slightly lost expression on his face.

This post was written for Ailsa’s weekly photo theme at Where’s my Backpack. You can see more here.

 

(1) ‘The Most Important Cardboard Box Ever.’ BBC Magazine 5 January 2015 http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30530268

(2) With the possible exception of the Dove family, of whom we have a few images thought to be c. 1913-16.