Two hundred years ago, the penny stamp changed the world forever.
The postal service used to be a hodge-podge of local services each with their own extortionate tariffs. The postman came, and if you didn’t cough up a day’s wages, you wouldn’t have your letter. Then, suddenly, that all changed with the invention of affordable pre-paid delivery. As postal networks became sophisticated and joined up, the world shrunk dramatically.
Delight and distrust – in the following story I imagine the feelings this new device must have awoken, from the point of view of a quarantined Victorian.
Two months now since this sickness struck our city and cut me off from all unwished-for intimacy. Two months were enough to see me, who have railed daily against the incivility of my neighbours, thinking of them with unprecedented fondness. Passer-by, won’t you step on my best shoes? Don’t mind about an apology. Stranger’s child, please do sneeze into my coat-tails!
It took an Act of God to show me that my love for this city is nothing without a dose of claustrophobia. Not the lonely, stagnant, scornful claustrophobia of these cold walls: I mean the claustrophobia of the crowd, infuriating, vitalising, soul-sating.
Most surprisingly of all, I find myself overcome with gratitude for the bold, blind modernity of our time. I, who have emptied dining rooms with shrill warnings of the juggernaut’s path of modern communication systems – I am now blessing the skies for these confounded new conceptions.
For yesterday, I received a penny-stamped letter in the mail.
Never have I been so glad to see our queen’s handsome, mannish cheeks! Never have I greeted the courier with such goodwill! Never more shall I choose between wisdom and dinner! – I perused my letter over a plate of soup.
Of course, I knew exactly who had sent it before I had even opened it, just by looking at the address. It is unforgettable and profound to see how a beloved friend or kinsman reshapes one’s name between their fingers, with their unique contrivance of scratches, loops, and blots. When I read my name from the pen of another, I feel I am looking into an oracular mirror.
The letter’s actual contents I am at a loss to relate, though it sits on my mantelpiece. In truth, the matter of the missive is by-the-by compared to the very fact of its existence. Had I opened up a Satanist treatise written by a convent-bound aunt, I would not have been less overjoyed. How delightful, in these comfortless, unneighbourly times, to infer the precise weight of another’s hand from the thickness and lightness of a line, to feel in each smudge a carefree caress!
My solitude has been great – greatness and solitude have always made a fertile pairing! – and this time has borne fruit in my verses. Now I must take the harvest as is, because to-morrow I will buy the postman out of stamps and do each one the Lord’s justice. If good verses are left on the vine for the sake of this newly awoken social life, then so be it.
I suspect we will never know true solitude any more, not like the hermits of old, perhaps never attain their greatness. Unless I now burn my letterbox and habitually set a street-mongrel on the postman, I shall always be a citizen of this terrifying, new, walnut-size world, where my verses could reach Korea or the Capes at the snap of a finger – winds permitting.
The postal system is the social media platform that I’d like to reach you with during this time, while live music isn’t possible.
If you’d like to receive ravenmail every month, bearing a poem, a photograph and a letter, sign up at the following link: getnext.to/rookling
Photo by Jim Kroft.