On the back of an envelope…

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A lot neater than my handwriting ever was

When I was about fifteen – living in Somerset – I discovered penfriends. I can’t remember much about any of them and the long distance relationship was generally very short-lived. They were all girls of course and were a very international bunch – Florida and Oregon in the USA, one from Japan, another from Belgrade in what was then Yugoslavia, and a couple in England including Fiona who lived near Manchester.

Though I eventually spent a large chunk of my adult life in Manchester at that point I had never been there. I knew about the Hollies and Coronation Street and the Manchester Guardian (our English teacher used to sing its praises as the only civilised newspaper) but that was about all. While my recollection of my correspondence with Fiona is as hazy as with the others I do remember one thing about her letters. They always had SAG written on the back of the envelope.

Eventually I asked her what it meant and she explained it meant Saint Anthony Guide. Not being a Catholic I wasn’t much wiser and don’t remember asking for further explanation. I probably stopped writing to her soon after that, along with all the others. The fickleness of youth…

Recently I heard someone bemoaning the decline in letter writing as it would mean the death of the back of the envelope acronym – SWALK being the most well-known and probably the least likely to give offence when written out in full, though I suppose BOLTOP (better on lips than on paper) is OK. Many of those which date from the 1930s have much in common with the sexting messages on mobile phones. You can find a list including some of the bawdier ones on this website. Anyway that reference to initials with a message brought SAG back to me.

Saint Anthony is – as you all know – the saint you should call on to help you locate something you’ve lost. I have no statistical information about his overall success record in that area. His later association with making sure letters don’t get lost in the post dates from the early eighteenth century,

The story goes that a woman from Oviedo in Spain whose merchant husband was away in Peru had written him several letters and received no answer. It’s not recorded how long she allowed this state of affairs to continue. Eventually she took herself to her local church and put a letter in the hands of the statue of St Anthony asking him to deliver it to her husband. When she came back a couple of hours later she found that the statue was holding a reply, along with several gold pieces.

With miracles you have two choices: either believe them or you don’t. Anyway that’s enough about Saint Tony. Just as a postscript I should say that when a few years later I arrived in Manchester as a student I did find Fiona’s address and wrote to her. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Whether I wrote SAG on the back I don’t recall but she did write back eventually. The reply was friendly and said that she’d love to meet me, and she was sure her husband would too. I doubt that I had the good manners to reply. Anyway, that meeting never did happen.

I’ll let Alan Bennett have the last word on initialised endearments – which were much used in telegrams because of their cost saving brevity – providing they could meet the approval of the authorities.