Airmail letters to home
There's something wonderful about airmail letters. The image to the left shows the outside of some of the airmail letters I sent home from Europe and Africa between 1991 and 1992. When you hear that in the UK alone, there were 400 million less letters sent through the Royal Mail in 2010 compared to 2009 that you can quickly see how email has taken over as the main form of written communication in the UK, at least.
And yet, looking over those letters I sent home, they invoke a lot of nostalgia because of their sheer physical presence. They are battered from their journey from Morocco, Algeria, Spain, Ghana, Zimbabwe or France, usually by way of stains and greasy finger marks.
They have the stamps from the country, such as the King of Morocco, or Arabic lettering from Algeria, or the black star and national airline of Ghana on them. All have red and blue edging to distinguish them as airmail too. Airmail letters are light and flimsy but they have character. They have travelled as hard as you have to get back to the recipient. They are exciting to open and, as so well illustrated, they keep well, unlike their digital equivalent.
I do like email. It's efficient and cheap. And yet, at the risk of sounding like an old fart, airmail is more romantic than email. It is special because someone has taken the effort not only to write the letter but also to find the airmail and take it to the post office. It brings back a little bit of the spirit of the country you sent it from and people have waited patiently to receive it. And that is the essence of airmail for me. Airmail is slow in our fast paced world. It captures something intangible which an email can never deliver which is the time you have lived through and experienced to be able to sit down and share your journey.
Do they still print airmail letters or 'blueys', as we called them in the Army?
I have just set up a new blog on this site onto which I am publishing my travel diaries from August '91 to July '92 in their raw state. My intention is to use these as the basis for the book of them which I am aiming to have published by the end of this year.
I will publish a daily post covering, at least, one day of the journey. I encourage feedback on the posts. Let me know your thoughts about them and how I can improve them. Let me know what you would like to hear more or less about. Anything!
You can read the first post here: http://www.twoforafrica.co.uk/2/post/2011/05/andover-portsmouth.html
There's one thing that I'm learning about writing a book. It's challenging to fit it into a normal working day. Nevertheless, it's deeply rewarding by way of the memories it returns and the reminders about just how liberating adventure travel is for the soul.
When I get a chance, I've started reading Mark Beaumont's book, 'The Man who cycled the World', about his world record setting race around the globe on a bicycle. Much of what he writes about in starting off his adventure had similarities to our cycling adventure, in terms lots of planning, injuries and fatigue. It's a good read.
But, the point is that to write a book requires discipline. You need to write consistently to make sure writing the book does not take longer than the journey.
To get my travel diary written up means I have to use every spare moment that I can in between working and doing family stuff. I use a Samsung netbook to write it up. Becuase it is small and it boots up quickly, I can use almost anywhere.
This morning, for instance, I opened it up on the 6.19 train (lovely commuter train) to get typing. All was fine until Huntingdon (yuck - commuterland) and someone sat next to me. I could no longer type with two hands with elbowing my neighbour in the back (he had his back to me while reading the Daily Mail or Metro).
I had to resort one handed typing until I arrived at Kings Cross. Nevertheless, I managed to get Day 26 and half of Day 27 written.
I need to pick up the pace of writing up my travel journal. I'm on Day 26 of the diary and still in Spain. It's interesting reading my reactions to what we saw and heard. Some it rings true today, whether that's the local people's reactions to Moroccan immigrants or their attitudes to us.
Dan, my brother, and I wrote diaries in small notebooks on most days of our journey up to the point when we were in the Central African Republic. After that, my record of the journey is held in letters that I sent to Penny, my then girlfriend and now wife.
Typing up the entries for each day is bringing back to life what we experienced and felt. I'm enjoying it. However, I realise that making it into something which people want to read is going to take a lot more effort. Some of the language and grammar I used in the diaries reminds me that I was often writing the diary after a long day in the saddle while in a tent and using a paraffin lamp for light.
On 16th August 1991, my brother, Dan, and I set off on the first leg of a long distance cycle journey which was to take us from Hampshire in the UK to Cape Town. We cycled 17,000 kms in a year through some parts of Africa which closed to outsiders after we left them. We cycled through the Sahara, through tropical rain forests, savannah and cities. We wrote diaries and letters but never published them.
This website is the start of the process of publishing my diaries and memories of that adventure which had a major impact on our lives.
Will Hawkins lives in Lincolnshire with his family and is now a magazine editor and occasional adventure cyclist.
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