The past is a foreign country

I used to wonder about the saying, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently, there.”

But after my father died and we discovered that he had kept every scrap of correspondence he had ever received from anyone, my sister became interested in reading the letters exchanged between my parents, and has talked of writing their story. Perhaps part of her motivation stems from the realisation that we have had surprisingly few real-life opportunities to get to know our parents well.

Mercifully, perhaps, by then I had written my memoir, and so was not drawn into the drama of this idea. Curiously, I felt a reserve, though I have never yet opined directly that I think the past deserves to be left well alone. My own past, well, I can revisit that as often as I wish, and though I rarely do so, I might, if that was with a view to finding something positive in it, or to reframe an old belief in the light of a new understanding. I may have thought that a certain time in my life was rubbish. So, if I could revisit and see things differently, how might that alter how I see the rest of my life?

But the lives of other people? I would be very wary indeed of sharing, or even reading, obviously private letters written and passed between two other people.

It’s not my possible sense of alienation talking, just an awareness that, having spent so little “family” time with my parents, I would probably misread their letters. If they were reserved with me, and if they didn’t talk about stuff, maybe there is good reason for that. I can’t help thinking that the idea of “letting it all out into the open” is rather a false hope, since all words are prone to being misunderstood: It’s only my words and experiences that I can have any hope of adequately explaining.

It is tempting to think that letters give us “unique access” to the minds of others. And indeed, letters as a medium of expression are uniquely personal and poignant. Recently I was helping my sister to slim down her huge archive of past correspondence, and found that I simply couldn’t. What to keep, what to let go, was not my decision, precisely because what is precious to one person is not so much, to another. And letters can give tracking to the whole of a life, in a way that other forms of communication simply do not.

Thanks for listening.

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