Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Lost Art Form Redivivus

Few objects have the transportable power of a book whose title is A Treasury of the World’s Greatest Letters.

Published in 1941, this book, which I rescued from my college library’s “discard” bin, examines the personal correspondences of exceptional people in history, everyone from Mozart to Chekhov to Otto von Bismarck.

Though I only open it occasionally, each time I do, the diligence and grace with which the authors wrote always precipitates a feeling of lament in me. Is such a craft even compatible with our modern world, I wonder?

All right, I don’t lament too long.

At any rate, listed below is an excerpt from one of these letters. Though almost every letter in this book is penned by one of history’s boldface names, the last one is written by a much lesser known man.

His name was Stanley Lupino, a British actor and director living in his native London, and he was serving as an Air Raid warden during the Battle of Britain. In between the sirens and blackouts, he wrote a letter to his wife and daughter in America about the courage and ingenuity of the British people during that epic battle in 1940, when the Luftwaffe bombing campaigns were as expected and constant as the gloomy weather.

They don’t laugh at wardens anymore. They bless us and look upon us as their greatest friends in need. Children run to us when they see the familiar black tin hat with the ‘W’ on it in white. Conductors won’t take fares from us and shops hardly want to take payment when we walk in. We are policemen, nurses, firefighters, watchers for danger, aids in sickness, and [givers of] comfort and confidence to all and sundry….

During the night I visit the sleeping people in [air-raid] shelters. I never speak, only stand and inspect them, but they all say they feel my presence even in darkness….They know the familiar sound of my walk and the soft read of my heavy gum boots. I never wake them…. If one wants to talk they whisper. One girl, a typist in the City, was awake in a shelter for 60 [people], but had 140 in it, huddled in heaps on the floor. She looked up and whispered, ‘Hold my hand, sir, just for a minute.’ I said, ‘Of course.’ After a while she pressed it to her face, and said, ‘I feel better now. I haven’t seen my husband for three months and I’m going to have a baby. I just wanted to feel a man’s hand against my face….’

This is only a few of the things that happen, choky, heart hurting things that make you have to brace up and bite your lip. It’s not the bombs, or the guns, that upset you; it’s the lovableness of the people. Their hearts and souls laid bare—and when laid bare, it’s so sweet to see.

Hope you enjoyed it.