Friday, 24 August 2007


Around nineteen hundred years ago (90-125 AD) the clerks at a frontier post near the ends of the Earth, Vindolanda, two miles behind the Checkpoint Charlie lines of the border itself, took to emptying the contents of dusty old correspondence files into the nearby tip. As you do.

The clerks are long gone but the letters have survived: mostly ink of carbon and gum arabic on sheets of birch or alder.

So, for instance, here are fragments of a letter, Dad writing to his so far away son

I have sent you [...] pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals[...] greetings to [...]ndes, Elpis, Iu[...]. [...enus], Tetricus and all your messmates with whom I pray you live in the greatest good fortune

making lists of things and knowing the names of all his son's pals.

It's the handwriting that gets me.


Buonaparte kept his prisoner Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian rebel seized after the conclusion of a peace treaty, in a cell without firewood or much of anything else, in a fortress in the Jura Mountains. Toussaint died slowly, but died, of privation.

Letters between Toussaint and his wife, a house-prisoner elsewhere in France, were on Napoleon's orders filed carefully side by side in the Naval Archives in Paris, never to be delivered.

One can only wonder at the scale of his ambition and the fanatical meanness of his soul.

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