That white ceramic inkpot sitting snugly in the corner of my desk. The agony of a crossed nib. The difficulty, being left-handed, of following the direction ‘light on the up stroke, heavy on the down stroke’. The blotting paper. The blue-black permanent stain on my finger. My first pen, an Osmiroid, and a bottle of Quink. I loved lifting the wee lever to refill the pen.
My best friend introduced me to Churlston Deckle. The paper looked as if it was something Moses would have practised his commandments on before he had them engraved. The man I married wrote to me every week – sometimes twice – for four years. That’s some correspondence, in a box under the bed.
Now I get a letter once in a blue moon. Emails and texts, yes – but a letter? In a distinctive hand, so you know who sent it before you open it? Those days are gone. It’s a shame. Something about the intimacy of the writer’s communion with the paper, the space between their thoughts and their pen, the scorings out, the drawings, is precious. A letter in your hand is as intimate as a kiss. It may be marvellous to type thoughts, see them appear like a printed page, but in our heads, as we compose, we are writing in longhand, with our own idiosyncratic script, formed by long dead primary-school teachers. Miss Merriman made me keep a ruler handy in case my writing sloped backwards. If it did, she slapped me on the hand with the same ruler. Hard.
It’s odd, in this interconnected world, to imagine sending a letter to ‘the Backside of the World’ and having to wait a year for a response. But if your son worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company you had no other choice. I’ve worked for years on a novel about Isobel Gunn, a doughty Orkney woman who dressed as a boy and worked on the Bay ‘as hard and well as any of the men’ – until she was discovered giving birth on her employer’s carpet. It’s a remarkable tale, one of many from the beginnings of Empire, when desp
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