A gross failure of responsibility
A mixed mailbag for you today. A selection of letters I’ve recently been thinking about more than any others, beginning with a snippet from 40 years ago that brings to mind an old saying, very rarely used, about leopards and their spots, and ending with a long extract from an even longer love letter once written by conservationist1 Gerald Durrell to his future wife. Some people think it wears thin long before the final few sentences, but as a lover of both letters and lists, I think they’re wrong.
Let me know what you think. Or don’t. It’s your choice. And thanks for all the lovely messages and recent subscriptions. Much appreciated.
Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for the next half). I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.
Martin Hammond, Eton College Letter to Boris Johnson’s father 10th April 1982
Finish every day and be done with it. For manners and for wise living it is a vice to remember. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. To-morrow is a new day; you shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This day for all that is good and fair. It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Letter to his daughter, Ellen 8th April 1854
I now read that some Negroes my own age and younger say that we must now lie down in the streets, tie up traffic, do whatever we can—take to the hills with guns if necessary—and fight back. Fatuous people remark these days on our “bitterness.” Why, of course we are bitter. The entire situation suggests that the nation be reminded of the too little noted final lines of Langston Hughes’ mighty poem2:What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
Lorraine Hansberry Letter to the New York Times 23rd April 1964
You are right in assuming that I am indifferent to the pattern of things. I am. I have never liked stale phrases and bodyless courage. I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than clink upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.
Zora Neale Hurston Letter to Countee Cullen 5th March 1943
It has never been very easy for me to live, though I am always very happy—maybe because I want so much to be happy. I like so much to live and I hate the idea of dying one day. And then I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life, I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, and to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish... You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.
Simone de Beauvoir Letter to Nelson Algren 3rd July 1947
Now let me tell you something.
I have seen a thousand sunsets and sunrises, on land where it floods forest and mountains with honey coloured light, at sea where it rises and sets like a blood orange in a multicoloured nest of cloud, slipping in and out of the vast ocean. I have seen a thousand moons: harvest moons like gold coins, winter moons as white as ice chips, new moons like baby swans’ feathers.
I have seen seas as smooth as if painted, coloured like shot silk or blue as a kingfisher or transparent as glass or black and crumpled with foam, moving ponderously and murderously.
I have felt winds straight from the South Pole, bleak and wailing like a lost child; winds as tender and warm as a lover’s breath; winds that carried the astringent smell of salt and the death of seaweeds; winds that carried the moist rich smell of a forest floor, the smell of a million flowers. Fierce winds that churned and moved the sea like yeast, or winds that made the waters lap at the shore like a kitten.
I have known silence: the cold, earthy silence at the bottom of a newly dug well; the implacable stony silence of a deep cave; the hot, drugged midday silence when everything is hypnotised and stilled into silence by the eye of the sun; the silence when great music ends.
I have heard summer cicadas cry so that the sound seems stitched into your bones. I have heard tree frogs in an orchestration as complicated as Bach singing in a forest lit by a million emerald fireflies. I have heard the Keas calling over grey glaciers that groaned to themselves like old people as they inched their way to the sea. I have heard the hoarse street vendor cries of the mating Fur seals as they sang to their sleek golden wives, the crisp staccato admonishment of the Rattlesnake, the cobweb squeak of the Bat and the belling roar of the Red deer knee-deep in purple heather. I have heard Wolves baying at a winter’s moon, Red howlers making the forest vibrate with their roaring cries. I have heard the squeak, purr and grunt of a hundred multi-coloured reef fishes.
I have seen hummingbirds flashing like opals round a tree of scarlet blooms, humming like a top. I have seen flying fish, skittering like quicksilver across the blue waves, drawing silver lines on the surface with their tails. I have seen Spoonbills flying home to roost like a scarlet banner across the sky. I have seen Whales, black as tar, cushioned on a cornflower blue sea, creating a Versailles of fountain with their breath. I have watched butterflies emerge and sit, trembling, while the sun irons their wings smooth. I have watched Tigers, like flames, mating in the long grass. I have been dive-bombed by an angry Raven, black and glossy as the Devil’s hoof. I have lain in water warm as milk, soft as silk, while around me played a host of Dolphins. I have met a thousand animals and seen a thousand wonderful things.
All this I did without you. This was my loss.
All this I want to do with you. This will be my gain.
All this I would gladly have forgone for the sake of one minute of your company, for your laugh, your voice, your eyes, hair, lips, body, and above all for your sweet, ever-surprising mind which is an enchanting quarry in which it is my privilege to delve.
Gerald Durrell Letter to Lee McGeorge 31st July 1978
I could, with a smirk, point out that this newsletter is bookended by a Conservative and a Conservationist. But I won’t because I’m better than that.