(in which, the Letter Writers, Mona and Charlie are introduced and some preliminary thoughts are offered to readers about the hurdles that need to be overcome when browsing through old letters)
In 1975, forty odd years ago, a feisty Kiwi matriarch and a retired Scottish banker began a correspondence that lasted twelve years. Their names were Mona and Charlie. Both in their seventies, they would never meet face to face nor speak by phone. Their connection, and the ensuing friendship, was conducted entirely by mail, using writing as their medium. They were pen pals and what they shared was simply talk about their ancestors, the Gairdners, whose roots went back to 17th century Scotland.
This is the text of that conversation.
Some will ask whether these letters merit transcription? There are no hints of scandal or infamy, tragedy or comedy. A few nuggets might interest an historian. Both are excellent writers, but they provide no literary gems waiting to be unearthed. It is sometimes frustrating to follow the threads that link the correspondence. They begin with the search for the identity of a portrait inscribed on a signet ring. What follows are sketchy reminiscences about pioneer life in New Zealand; ending with commentaries on the modern world from the elders’ viewpoint. It is annoying that after Letter #10, Charlie’s side of the correspondence has gone astray, but there are still twenty-five letters from Mona ahead for the reader.
Charlie Tennant, the banker, spent his retirement years (1963- 1991) writing books and articles about Scottish history; and before his death, he asked his son to take over his small literary estate. A literary estate, to the modern ear, expresses something high-sounding. However to a banker, legacies, whatever their substance, be they capital, chattels, or documents, were part of his endowment and weren’t thrown away. Papers, the older the better, were treated with respect. This legacy consisted of five file-folders, a few hand logs from sailing trips and a number of drafts of his published articles. Was there anything worth keeping?
Charlie’s son, the recipient, asked this question for two decades until happening upon the New Zealand correspondence. His thoughts turned to letter writing, its place and time, and how this media, outside their immediate community, had always been Charlie and Mona’s principal means of contact with their wider world. Yet, in a lifetime of 90 years, of the hundreds of letters that Charlie had addressed or received, the New Zealand correspondence was the only set that he had saved in full. Perhaps he hoped, after all the books and articles he had published, that others would discover this correspondence, read it and enjoy it for its interest and reflections on family.
As will be seen, these reflections are mostly those of Mona Kent, whose described above as a feisty matriarch. But once the correspondence is returned to New Zealand, perhaps more of Charlie’s stories will surface and be added to Gairdner lore.
Transcription, like writing, is a solitary task and can’t be undertaken without giving some thought to the shape of the final product. And inevitably, as the copier transcribed the letters, he found himself stepping aside from the task, responding to the subject matter and giving thought to how others might read these letters. The following were the preliminary reactions.
First, there was confusion. In the early letters between Charlie and Mona, as is the case in any verbal communication between strangers, each struggles to express their knowledge and genealogical interest to the other. There was no intermediary to edit their exchange. Initially, confusion abounds as to what names and about what time period they are speaking; they talk past each other and they either forget or repeat themselves. While one of them knew a great deal about New Zealand history, the other knew only about Scotland. As a reader, it requires patience to stay with these early conversations.
Next, there was a growing awareness of the lapse in time between the period when these letters were written and today. This was a discourse conducted forty years ago between two people who are no longer alive. Today’s reader plays no part in the original but is instead listening into this recorded conversation with today’s understanding of the events discussed. By way of example, the horrors of the Kampuchean genocide of the 1980’s, addressed by Mona, have thankfully ended and, if remembered, today’s knowledge and distance in time provides us with a completely different perspective on those events. As Mona once reflected on the Kampuchean atrocities, our own reflections shaped by our knowledge of the ending, will be very different. Awareness of the time lapse becomes such that one becomes almost as curious about the background of the correspondents, Charlie and Mona, as one does about their subject matter.
Then, turning to the subject matter itself, how could any reader understand the content of the letters without access to some sort of ancestral tree and some introduction to the letter writers? Before long, this project, which began as a transcription of original letters, started to be extended into charts, an introduction, some footnotes and commentary about style and other miscellany. The transcriber, without knowing it, appeared to be providing bookends to the central set of letters and inevitably injecting some background to these discussions. These bookends are subjective and hold no authority, but it is hoped that they will help with digesting this remarkably readable and entertaining chatter.
In summary, this project, at its roots, is about recycling the correspondence of Mona and Charlie and those that read it can determine, each in their own way, whether the duo’s investigations and memories reach into the 21st century. In one of Mona’s later letters, she makes reference to Charlie’s chase of the Gairdners around the globe – enjoy the chase.