Twenty-six Power Tools

The twenty-six letters of our alphabet are the writer’s basic tool and what a powerful versatile resource they are! Every book, document or piece of advertising that circulates in society is based on them. As a result they have a profound effect on our lives. This was brought home to me when I visited the British Library to see the WW1 exhibit – Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour. As I looked at the posters and hand written letters, the power of those twenty-six letters hit me emotionally. Inevitably it was the section on grief that I found most moving, particularly the letter from the young soldier written immediately before he went into action. Soldiers were encouraged to write these letters so that in the event of their death, families had a lasting memento of a fallen loved one. The letter on display, in beautiful neat handwriting, was full of love and longing for his family. One can only guess at their suffering when they received it, together with the news that he would never return.

If you haven’t read it you should get hold of My Dear, I wanted to tell you by Louisa Young. I attended a book signing for this novel and heard the author say that one of her inspirations had been the postcards given to soldiers to fill in to send to families after admission to field hospitals during WW1. The pre-printed postcards started ‘My dear _____ ‘ with a space left blank for the recipient’s name. There is an example on the back cover of the book. Looking at this example with its gaps for the soldier to describe his wounds as slight/serious (the relevant word to be crossed out) again brought home to me the power of those twenty-six letters.

I then visited the permanent exhibition in the Sir John Ritblat gallery. Here I saw the Magna Carta together with the notebooks of authors who have featured large in my personal pantheon. Writers such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Laurie Lee. Moving moments for me. But the display that impacted most were the handwritten lyrics for the Beatles songs. Here were bits of paper covered in twenty-six letters turned into words and combinations of words that had echoed through my teenage years, expressing longings and hopes I identified with then. I found myself pondering which had the most effect on history – the Magna Carta (admittedly written in Latin but out of which our current alphabet evolved) or Beatles song lyrics? Then there is the Bible and the conflicts and crises it has created throughout history, while at the same time bringing peace and strength to many who follow its teachings.

I found it impossible to come to conclusions. The book, poem or document that affects your life will be unique to you because you are unique. The power and effect of those twenty-six letters will be unique to each of us in turn. Now there’s versatility and flexibility for you!

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