Following on from rereading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia I’ve moved on to reading Under the Sun and anthology of his letters and correspondence.

As Chatwin was not given to voluminous letters, in fact he seems to have preferred short scribbled notes on postcards, this makes the book an ideal one to read in small gobbets over lunchtime to make a break away from my desk.

Almost unconciously, a picture emerges of his world, which was rooted in class and privilege, in a way one hopes might not be the case today but probably is. While his parents were not rich, they were well connected and through these connections effected the introductions that enabled Chatwin’s ever so slightly gilded life.

This is not to decry his obvious talents, and his correspondence certainly contains a lot of interesting and amusing material. I’m only partway through and I’ll leave a full review until I’ve finished the book.

One thing however has struck me – we can only have this book because people kept his letters and his postcards, in part because the postcards were themselves intrinsically interesting. In other words much of his correspondence has survived by happenstance.

That wouldn’t be possible today – or at least not in the same way. A twenty-teens reincarnation of Chatwin would undoubedly use email, might well have a facebook page to communicate with his immediate circle, and perhaps a blog and flickr account.

Now we know that what happens to your content after you die is a moot point. However sooner or later it will go, but there might well be a mechanism to archive it. People worry about this and because they worry about this there will sooner or later be and answer.

There’s only one problem with this – people don’t keep the same email account for ever, and perhaps don’t keep the same services forever. And services disappear – for example there once was blogging service called Journalspace – it disappeared a few years ago, and while there was another similar service of the same name it’s not the same thing. My content only survives because I had the presence of mind to archive a copy on my Dropbox account.

Basically, services die. And when they die, content is lost.

The same is true of email. In my time I’ve had email provided by:

  • four employers – only one of which is still valid
  • Compuserve
  • Freeserve
  • Rocketmail
  • The Irish Times
  • Yahoo
  • Hotmail
  • Gmail

as well as a two or three ISP’s and a couple of specialist hosting services. During that time I’ve kept the same email address because I’ve used an email forwarding service and used fetchmail and various other email aggregators to consolidate my email.

I’m also probably pretty unusual in this aspect. However I don’t have anything like a full archive, as inevitably I’ve deleted stuff that no longer seems relevant.

Some of my professional email to mailing lists is preserved but most of it is not. I’ve probably got the last five or six years of my private email correspondence, plus a few random archived emails.

Some of my email possibly lives on in other people’s archives, but anyone foolish enough to try and trace my correspondence would come to a dead end.

Now, you might argue that I’m no Bruce Chatwin, and I’d certainly agree with you about that, but Bruce Chatwin was once only a bit-player in the social comedy of life, but we have some of his letters and postcards from then, just as we have the letters and notes of other people. And in the main they’ve survived because people see some intrinsic value, be it an interesting picture, a pretty stamp or a witty comment – for years I used to keep a big pinboard in the kitchen with interesting postcards and things stuck to it – a sort of correspondence installation.

Technology has changed the world and in the process has made things more ephemeral and as a consequence the nature of literary scholarship will be changed forever

Written with StackEdit.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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1 Response to Correspondence

  1. Pingback: Under the Sun – the letters of Bruce Chatwin | stuff 'n other stuff

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