Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Living in Greece

September 2012


I first started writing letters when I was seven years old, and that, dear reader, is a very long time ago. I had had to move away from my much loved grandfather, so from then on we exchanged letters until he died: I was 24 when that sad event occurred. I met the father of my children in the Mail Exchange, Melbourne, when I was among many students employed to cope with the Christmas rush: I can still tell you that Drik Drik belongs in SW 9 Country (Victoria.) I loved the whole business of looking at the envelopes coming from all over the world, bearing heraldic stamps; I loved the whole business of wondering about the people who had written them and about those who were about to receive them.

And letters were my lifeline when a six-month holiday got out of hand and I found myself a surprised immigrant living in a Peloponnesian village. (In a sense I was reliving the life of my pioneering ancestors, but my letters at least did not take a year to be acknowledged.) The local post office became a second home, and postal workers Gregory and Panayioti my good mates: they used to feel sorry for me on the days when I had no letters. But Lesley in Melbourne saw to it that those days were few. Letters have been very much on my mind of late, because some time ago, Lesley made me a present of all the letters I have written to her over a period of 30 years. And I’m now coming to the end of the business of editing the first five years of the complete correspondence, because as she kept my letters, so I kept hers. It’s been an interesting exercise, and a quite painful one at times. What has happened to those little boys? (Lesley had one, too.) Where have all those years gone? Where did we find the time to write in all the busy-ness, among all the demands of domesticity? Somehow we did. As do other people: letter-writers make time.

Nikos Kazantzakis (yes, he’s still looking over my shoulder) and his second wife, Eleni, wrote to each other frequently. They had to, for Nikos was an inveterate traveller, and Eleni, whose health was often not robust, could not always accompany him. Later Eleni based her biography of Nikos on the many letters he had written to her and to others. It is impossible to know what they would have made of emails, of course. And most of us are converts. But oh, I don’t know, there’s something about handwriting, paper, even the envelope. You can’t tie emails up in blue ribbon, can you?

I’ve just read about an Australian man who discovered his grandparents’ wartime correspondence bound up in twine, and stuffed in a biscuit tin that had been secreted in a kitchen dresser. After a year of marriage, the Second World War separated this couple for five years. They wrote to each other about love, the grandson said, but not necessarily their own. Their writing to each other was love.  (My italics, as they say.) That thought, its truth and beauty, wrings my heart.

Gloomy old Kafka poured scorn on letter-writing, did you know? Referred to it as ‘an intercourse with ghosts,’ he did, and went on about the ghost of the recipient and the ghost of the writer. This latter ghost, he maintained, develops between the lines of the letter one is writing and goes on to develop still more, obviously, if a series of letters is written. I wonder what he would have had to say about emails. And whether ghosts develop in cyberspace?

It goes without saying that I have never agreed with Kafka, and I don’t imagine Nikos and Eleni would have, either. I like to think that they would have preferred Jane Austen’s idea that letters are ‘thorough pictures of the heart.’ Letters are also one way of coping with those recurring burdens: distance, absence, loss, as was the case with the Australian’s grandparents. One never knows whether these burdens are temporary little bundles that can be laid aside, or whether they will become permanent. Separation, the saying of goodbye, is a kind of death or a rehearsal for it.

Once, when I visited Keats’s House in Hampstead, I pored over the letters in their glass and wooden cases, letters shrouded and protected from deterioration against the light.  Keats wrote to sweetheart Fanny so often, even though she lived next door for quite a time. I cannot breathe without you…I am to be separated from you as much as possible. How I shall be able to bear it…I cannot tell. They both had to bear the final separation far too soon, alas.

I have boxes and boxes of my parents’ letters. That separation has taken place, too. But Lesley and I are still writing, 32 years after we first started. Email, usually, but often snail mail as well: we can’t quite give it up.






Gillian Bouras


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Gillian Bouras 2018