Thursday, July 26, 2012

In Which I Ramble

I love to read collections of letters. They round out biographies, filling in details of the author's character. The letters of John Lennon, Hemingway, five volumes of Virginia Woolf—bring them on.

Many, many years ago my son bought volume 1 of the letters of C.S. Lewis and said he wouldn't get round to reading it for a while, so I could borrow it. I find the letters interesting, but not gripping, so the book sits by my bed and I dip into it occasionally when Ruth Rendell, David Baldacci, Daniel Silva and their ilk run out. The book is over a thousand pages long with biographical notes and a meticulous index—and there are two more books to follow. This volume is called Family Letters and spans the years 1905 to 1931. How are these letters preserved? Who keeps all these epistles? I suppose if I knew my correspondents were to become great writers or politicians—or even serial killers—I might hang on to all this paper, but I regret to tell those people who have written to me over the years, I just couldn't contribute to the collected works of your letters. In these letters Lewis writes mainly to his father and to a friend called Arthur Greeves and while his letters cover his education at public school and with a tutor, we don't hear of cricket matches and midnight feasts, but of Boswell, Paradise Lost and Tristan and Isolde. After his time at a public school, Lewis went to live with a tutor to prepare himself for the Oxford entrance exams.

Unlike me, Lewis got into Oxford, and though I don't cart around old letters, I have preserved a bunch of exam papers. They crossed the Atlantic with me, a reminder of a fifty four year old dream. Mind you, unlike Lewis, I did not prepare very exhaustively. I read the Daily Telegraph and had a good breakfast. That was it. This is one of several papers with which I was confronted. One question on the back of this page had the temerity to ask me to point out a weakness in the American Constitution. I wasn't too upset about not getting in: not many students from state schools ever did, though that year my great rival did get into Oxford to read History at St. Annes.

But I digress—a habit which probably didn't endear me to whoever read my entrance exams. The whole point of this post was to quote the beginning of a letter from Lewis to his father:

My dear Papy,
We have all been plunged into misery here for the last week because no one can remember the context or the author of a quotation that we all know as well as our own names. It started by Mrs. K. seeing it in the "In Memoriam" part of the paper and asking casually what it was from: since then we have ransacked our memories and books of reference in vain. You will laugh at us with scorn when I tell you it is the familiar,
E'en as he trod that day to God
So walked he from his birth,
In simpleness and gentleness
And honour and clean mirth.
But I am dashed if I can remember where it comes from. . .Try and enlighten us.

Five seconds with Google, and the answer is Kipling, Barrack Room Ballads. We've come a long way.

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