These are my pinboards at the Astley Ainsley Hospital, covered with the wonderful cards and messages you sent. Being in hospital is a difficult business. For me, the dissociating effect of being a patient in an institution was compounded by the fact that I was inhabiting a body which did not seem to be mine at all. But when I was feeling low; when I returned to the ward from a tough physio session or became frustrated with fatigue, there displayed in front of me, were all these messages of support, beautiful cards, and words of encouragement. Hospitals are colourless, featureless places – but my corner of the ward was brightened up with pictures of yarn and textiles, owls and sheep, landscapes and gardens. Your words and images were not just cheering, but have genuinely helped me through the most difficult time in my life thus far.
During the very early phase of my recovery, the care of family and friends was at least as important to me as the medical care that I received. Mel kept turning up with craft supplies, and when I described the particular difficulties that I was experiencing with my hand, devised impromptu tools to help me. She patiently used her hands to demonstrate what I needed to be doing with mine. I attribute my improvements in dexterity, and the fact that I was able to learn to knit and plait again to her.
From further afield, Felix and Liz and Meiko and Harriet reminded me of their friendship with tokens that were both meaningful and heartening. Felix sent me many amazing things, but perhaps the most moving was a cd containing audio recordings of our walks in 2009. I lay in bed unable to move my left side, dreaming of walking, and listening to the sounds of the actual walks I had shared with a friend. It was a deeply emotional experience. Felix wrote a letter to accompany her recordings:
“I have found our walk at Dymchurch. There is a lot of wind & it isn’t a ‘pristine’ recording, but it has the sea & it makes me remember the slightly desolate quality of that beach. It was for me a very happy afternoon. . . I loved sharing quiet with you & walking so peacefully by the sea — you taking your photos & me obsessing on my sounds & the crunchy sand that eventually inspired these socks.”
I am particularly fond of correspondence. Handling and reading eighteenth-century manuscripts is one of the great pleasures of my academic work. Apart from when I am out on the hills with Tom, I am probably at my happiest in an archive among the private and the public worlds that are brought to life in eighteenth-century letters. I love – in a way that is almost certainly fetishistic- the thing-ness of correspondence: the particular way that particular women wrote their letters, the paper they chose, the way they folded up their words into neat self-closing envelopes, the wax seals, the signs of postage or delivery by hand. I also love the stuff that letters contained: seeds and shells sent from one woman to another half-way across the world; a clipping from a magazine; a hand drawn pattern for a collar or embroidered bloom. It is no coincidence to me that my long standing interests in textiles and materiality assumed the level of obsessions after I began spending time with the manuscript collections of the women of eighteenth-century Philadelphia.
I have read many sets of eighteenth-century correspondence between friends who never met. It has always intrigued me how powerful these connections were; how they were established and maintained often over many decades across distances of many thousands of miles. But eighteenth-century friends were brought together in a manner that is really not all that different from the contemporary blogosphere: through shared tastes or interests; through the exchange of skills or information; through debate; through simply speaking to one another. I often find myself thinking about the similarities of eighteenth century paper and contemporary digital networks, but this is perhaps a topic for another time. In any case, the particular way I feel about the materiality of eighteenth century letters made your correspondence especially important and meaningful to me.
Each lunchtime, after a hard morning’s physiotherapy, Morag would turn up at my bedside with an armful of envelopes. Opening your letters and cards, reading and absorbing their contents, and then arranging them around my pinboards, was the singular pleasure and highlight of my hospital day. I was of course sustained by the comments and messages you were leaving here, but there is something particularly satisfying about looking at a stamp or postmark, seeing an address written in someone else’s hand, opening an envelope, and then enjoying a distant friend’s personal choice of words or images. While he lay in bed, Proust famously enjoyed reading the names of stations in the train timetable, and I can understand the particular pleasure of the imaginary journeys he must have taken, the hypnotic effect of the names of unknown towns. A card from Madeleine came with a clear, well-stamped postmark from “White River Junction,” which I found incredibly pleasing. I loved the individually evocative qualities of postcards from Stockholm or Brussels, Zeeland or Albuquerque. You wrote to me about your experiences of the places that you knew I loved (the island of Harris; the English Lakes) or about the spaces and landscapes that were dear to you. You told me of walks you had taken and enjoyed, accompanying your words with pictures of the mountains and trails that your feet and bodies moved along.
Many of you sent me images of plants, vegetables and flowers, or pictures of your own gardens. I loved to read your stories of growth and renewal in landscapes that often seemed impossibly exotic. From Australia, Lydia wrote a marvelous letter about a garden reclaimed from the surrounding desert, with tales of the kangaroos and pigs that were it’s (sometimes unwelcome) night-time visitors.
Through your letters and cards, you shared your own interests and obsessions, your identities and characters. When a small envelope turned up from Suzanne, it carried the sender’s personality – her particularly graphic materiality – with it. Everything about that package felt precious to me: a personally stamped postmark (a winged Pegasus) on the outside of the envelope;her neat and distinctive artist’s handwriting; a carefully wrapped and thoughtfully selected group of postcards from her own collection; two tiny hand folded paper cranes in patterned paper; and a hand-made paper-cut card that took my breath away.
This was a package fashioned entirely from paper — Suzanne’s envelope contained little of actual material value, but it’s hand-made and deeply personal materiality made its contents of inestimable worth to me. Given that so many of you are talented craftspeople, it was inevitable that some of you would send me hand-made things.
Some of these things – like Mary-Jo’s wolf in sheep’s clothing – just about killed me and the sheer number of handmade things arranged about my bedside became a talking point among my medical team and the staff on the ward. Despite the fact that I asked you not to send me stuff, I also received chocolates, delicious biscuits, packets of tea (hurrah!), fabric in bolts and fat quarters, amazing skeins of yarn, vintage buttons, tiny plaits, owls of many shapes and sizes, books, magazines, newspaper clippings, necklaces, brooches, and bracelets, handknitted shawls and socks. Under Patricia’s supervision, the nuns of Kersal Hill convent in Salford knitted me an entire nativity scene, complete with donkey, shepherds, wise men, and a tiny Jesus in a knitted crib. Ella sent me Scottish and Northumbrian gansey patterns; Jeanette posted a wee porcupine from New Mexico; Stacy provided me with the trashy crime novels which she knows I like to read. These things were so damned heartening – so full of love and hope – that it was hard for me to feel too low about my own grim situation. You were all thinking of me, all believing that I would be well again. You were bothered enough to put pen to paper, to make or send me things that meant something to you; to share with me your own experiences of sickness and of loss; telling me how you had got through your own difficult times. I drew, and still draw, tremendous strength from all of this.
Though my correspondence is longer pinned to a hospital wall, I still want to look at it and enjoy it. I also want to be reminded of how important it was and is to me, and to express my collective thanks to all of you. To this end, I have begun a virtual archive of my post-stroke correspondence, to which I shall upload an image of everything you have sent me (with the exception, of course, of the things that I have eaten). The archive currently contains 92 entries, and I have barely begun uploading. You can search for things by keyword (for example, entering ‘octodog’ into the search form will yield a magazine clipping from Kate K that had me hooting with laughter for quite some time); explore the different classifications of objects by clicking on the words in the category cloud; search for items by the name of the sender or maker; or simply browse through the entire archive in turn by clicking on each image as it appears. I have also written a brief introduction to, and explanation of, the archive which you can read here. I hope you enjoy looking at these things just as I enjoyed receiving them. I also hope that the archive, gathered together as a whole, goes some way towards conveying the tremendous power and encouragement I have drawn from your collective friendship over the past few weeks. Thankyou.