Thursday, August 20, 2009

Writing to the future

One of the reasons that I value writing so highly is that it’s the only thing we leave behind us when we die that conveys, very directly, quite a lot about our personalities. I suppose that composers and architects and painters might also feel that their art reveals who they really are, but I don’t think it’s the same. Handel’s “Messiah” is all sorts of wonderful things but it doesn’t tell us what Handel liked for breakfast, how much he enjoyed going for a walk or how funny he was.

Of course we can lie with words; give a false impression of ourselves. But as I’ve discovered by meeting various bloggy people, a lot of our real selves comes through in our words.

A few months before my father died, which was two years ago, he gave me a letter written by his father to his mother, in what seems to have been the very early stages of their relationship. Though she lived in Edinburgh, my grandmother seems to have been visiting Glasgow when they met; my grandfather was living in Glasgow at that time though doesn't seem to know it well. I think he was brought up in Edinburgh too.

I never knew this paternal grandfather, who died five months before I was born. There only a few photos of him and these are mainly of a white-haired old chap in snaps of family groups. But Dad also gave me this photo of Grandpa S as a young man. How old is he? 25, maybe? Much the same age he was when he wrote the letter and much the same age as our son. He also looks a bit like our son, I think.

The letter was written in 1905, when Grandpa S was 25 and the future Granny S was 19 and a half. My mother says that he was a quiet man. He was some sort of engineer, I think – he worked for Scottish Motor Transport at some point – and he played the violin. Indeed he made a violin which we still have. I played it when I was a girl and then Daughter 1 did also. What else did he like? What were his thoughts, fears, ambitions? I don’t know. But here’s the letter.

24th September 1905
30 Dunchattan St

Dear Isa,

I was very sorry for not being able to see you last Wednesday evening as promised, but of course it could not be helped as I went away in the morning. I tried to see you on Tuesday evening on your way home, but I must have missed you somehow. I spent Saturday afternoon with my Uncle and Aunt in Cathcart, and in the evening one of my cousins took me along to Langside, which is not very far from Cathcart. We found Kildonnan Ter, after a few hours searching for it, and after a few dozen people had told me that there was no such place in Langside. Annie had not arrived home when we called, so we waited for her, and in the interval of waiting my cousin (Miss Grey) made the discovery that she had worked in the same workroom with Annie Mackendrick in Kirkcaldy, and I also think that Tom had worked in the same place too. You should have heard them after that as they brought up old mutual acquaintances, and asked each other if they remembered this one and the next one. Annie had arrived by this time, and after a bit of supper my cousin and I left with an invitation to come again. I was at church this forenoon, and I suppose will be there tonight again but it is not very nice going to a strange church yourself. I had intended asking Annie if she was free to go to church or for a walk today, but I could not get a chance to ask her, and I felt shy before all the rest. It is Glasgow holiday tomorrow, but of course I do not get it, Annie and Mr Boyd both have it. I hope you will have a nice holiday next week and that you will enjoy your visit to Glasgow. I do not know if your programme for the weekend is all made up, but if it is not, I shall be pleased to meet you any time during the weekend and although I cannot guarantee myself as a guide in Glasgow, still, I have no doubt we could find someplace to go to. I hope you are none the worse of your walk on Review night and that Mrs Thomson did not think you were too late. Hoping you are well, also Mrs Thomson and the bairns. I am Yours Very Sincerely

James S

Clearly he was quite shy and wasn’t at all sure that she would want to see him at the weekend. It then took them another four years to get married, perhaps because she was younger than he was. According to my mother, my Granny S was a fairly lively and determined person who came from quite a poor family and so she was able to escape poverty by marrying a man with a good job. She was a pretty lady (and I think he’s quite handsome). She must have kept the letter all her life so presumably she was very happy to receive it.

Though they married in 1909, their three children weren’t born till 1920, 1922 and 1925. I wonder what that story is?

When my father gave me the letter there was no such thing as Google Street View. But now there is, and it shows that Dunchattan Street, where Grandpa S wrote his letter, still exists but now consists of blocks of modern flats. There does in fact seem to be no Kildonnan Terrace, which possibly explains why he had such trouble finding it, but there is a Kildonan Drive. Kildonan Drive is a red sandstone tenement block, the sort found a lot in Glasgow – they’re rather nice. It fascinates me that I can find this out, sitting at my computer in Edinburgh.

You can see Kildonan itself, on the island of Arran, in my previous entry.

That’s all I have of Grandpa S; the only piece of his handwriting. A whole life lived and if you’ve been reading this, you know nearly as much about him as I do. He died when he was 70.

And this is one reason why I write. Why I blog. To leave something behind. If I ever get round to printing my blog and putting it in a folder, and if my children ever get round to procreating, this might be my way of communicating with future generations.

(Waves hand.)


  1. Anonymous2:58 am

    Forenoon is a most fabulous word. What a shame it is no longer used.

    He sounds like a caring and sensitive soul. I'm glad you have his letter.

  2. I recently remarked on another blog that I am writing my blog for my 80 year old self, when the details of my life with young children will have faded into a blur. But I suppose, like you, I could just as well be writing for my grandchildren! Your grandfather was just writing that letter for your grandmother, and I expect, pitching himself as he wanted her to see him, friendly, a bit shy, hard-working and devoted. Well, that's how he came across to me.

  3. A lovely touching post Isabelle. I love hearing & reading my grandparents stories. We have quite a few momentoes of our Great Grandparents, so we are lucky.

  4. Your thoughts on writing are very interesting. Perhaps more of our real selves comes out through our writing than through our conversations. There is certainly a difference, and the writings of my friends seemed to express more than the conversations - though both were very precious. Writing gives both distance and intimacy, as well as its won discipline and clarity.
    Apart from letters in the first ten years after my marriage - which tended to peter out as children arrived and they, and our jobs took up more and more time and energy - and emails when they became possible, and helped revive the practice and art of writing, I have written in times of emotional crisis. Now it is different, and has become a way of exploring and finding one's own thoughts in one's own voice.

  5. What a treasure Isabelle, and of course, I love the reference to "the bairns". I think it's so sad that, as a general rule, we don't write letters anymore. I love to read over old letters and family stories that my ancestors took the time to write down. Have you thought about having your blog made into a book (or by now, a series of books) by one of the companies that does such a thing?

  6. There is a journal my paternal grandfather kept during WWI, during which he was a signalman on the Italian front. I need to look at it.

    Your son does look a lot like his grandpa! I am almost the spitting image of my maternal great grandmother Sue Barnett, there is a photograph of her when she was 17, shortly before her marriage, and one of me at age 9, same facial expression, tilt of the head - everything.

  7. I was always told that the word "bairns" was used on the East coast and "weans" in the West. If so, that would confirm his Edinburgh origins. Lovely to have this sort of stuff. My husband had his granny record her memories onto tape about 20 years ago, so now not only do we have her recollections, but we have her actual voice, even though she passed away about 15 years ago. (I think I still like letters though)

  8. My blog is something I'm going to print out and read when I'm an old lady. I want a way to remember the little moments that would otherwise be forgotten.

    One of my biggest regrets in life is that my husband and I when we first got together had a long distance romance. There was no emails only lots of love letters. Shortly after we got engaged we had a HUGE fight and I ripped up every one of them! Now there's a lesson for never acting in haste.

    Have you ever looked at the booksmart website. I made a book for a friend this year using it and it was very impressed.

  9. I loved the letter and the language, and your passion for life stories, which matches my own.

    Although I'm not writing that much at the moment, I never cease to encourage others to think about writing at least some of their stories and explaining how it can be broken down into 'little stories' so that it's not such an overwhelming task.

    Perhaps one of the reasons people don't do this for their families is because it's often the grandchildren who are more interested than the children. I suppose grandparents' lives are a little more remote to them, hence more interesting, whereas the children have lived much of our lives with us.

    Thank you for printing your treasured letter, Isabelle.

  10. Waving too.
    Touching personal history.

  11. Oh, SHER!! How could you rip up your love letters?! It must have been one heck of an argument! The MOTH and I still have all the letters we wrote to each other, as well as all the cards we've exchanged in 30 years. I think I will have to destroy them one day, as we haven't got any kids to leave them with, and I don't fancy our intimate details being discovered and published on a blog some time in the distant future! Isabelle, I am not pointing a finger at you here - your grandfather's letter is charming and worth of reproduction. Whereas my letters to and from hubby are rather....risque shall we say?