On this rainy Wednesday in Oxford I’m sitting in my office in Pembroke College, which is right on the corner of Pembroke Square and St Aldate’s, a noisy by interesting little spot. I was working on a grant application when one of the college maintenance crew stopped by, asking if he could access the street door to do a repair. We went in search of the little keys labelled ‘secret door’ and ‘other secret door’ which allow us to get through the fire door without breaking the glass tube encasing the door’s bolt.
My visitor’s mission? To investigate how the street door letter box flap has come open, and how to close it, for the avoidance of kebab ‘letters’ courtesy of legless late-night patrons of McCoy’s kebab van.
While investigating the letterbox I came across some notes that I’m pretty sure were never received by the intended recipient, the tutor who occupied this office many years before me, and with a gap of some time in between, when the office served as overflow storage for the Development Office. Three hand written notes on lined paper, written in blue biro, and clearly torn from a smallish spiral notebook. I’d date them to 2000 or after, as the writer informs his/her tutor that they came for their tutorial but the tutor was not in, and that they would email to rearrange.
I didn’t read the letters in full, I confess, but I couldn’t throw them away either. I considered dusting them off and handing them in to the porters, but then I thought of Daniel Starza Smith‘s new project ‘Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered’, which will digitize 2,600 undelivered letters preserved in a seventeenth-century postmaster’s trunk, including 600 which have never been opened. True, my little find is hardly on the same scale, and the contents are a bit mundane, but there is something poignant in the thought that if I leave these notes in the locked letterbox now, someone may find them in the future, perhaps when the thought of a handwritten note telling someone you’ve emailed them is sweetly arcane or amusing, or even–who knows–when email itself has been superseded, and both the letters and the reference to email sound quite thoroughly, utterly, otherly.