Your Letters in the Sand

Your Letters in the Sand

This week’s choice is the lyrics of “’39” written by Brian May of Queen, in memory of my wife Nicola who would have been 60 tomorrow had life been kinder.

Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away?
Don’t you hear me calling you?
All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand
For my life
Still ahead
Pity me

Sir Brian May (1947—)

Poem 280. ‘39

In the year of ’39, assembled here the volunteers
In the days when lands were few
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn
The sweetest sight ever seen.

And the night followed day
And the story tellers say
That the score brave souls inside
For many a lonely day sailed across the milky seas
Ne’er looked back, never feared, never cried

Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away
Don’t you hear me calling you
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew.

In the year of ’39 came a ship in from the blue
The volunteers came home that day
And they bring good news of a world so newly born
Though their hearts so heavily weigh
For the Earth is old and grey, little darling, we’ll away
But my love, this cannot be
Oh, so many years have gone though I’m older but a year
Your mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to me

Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away?
Don’t you hear me calling you?
Write your letters in the sand for the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew

Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away?
Don’t you hear me calling you?
All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand
For my life
Still ahead
Pity me

This is one of the most unusual songs ever written and owes its existence to Brian May’s interest in astrophysics. The song charts the voyage of a ship of twenty volunteers in search of new lands to colonize, and what they found when they returned home. There is a twist in the tale which is introduced when we realise that the tale isn’t of a sea voyage but a trek across the stars (sorry, couldn’t resist it).

The first stanza shows us the volunteers boarding the ship and its departure “into the blue and sunny morn”. Since we’re told it was “the days when lands were few,” we immediately imagine that we’re being told about venturing across the seas in the age of exploration, though “the year of ‘39” doesn’t immediately suggest a specific voyage.

The second stanza shows us the “score brave souls” inside the ship and tells of their lengthy journey across the “milky seas” and their courage in the face of an indefinite task— they “Ne’er looked back, never feared, never cried”.

We move into the first chorus and here there’s the first intimation that the voyage is no ordinary seafaring adventure, because the narrator—who seems to be one of the explorers—describes their beloved as being “many years away” rather than “many miles away”. This is an odd turn of phrase: a separation in terms of years suggests travel in time rather than space, though the years might be a poetic way of suggesting a long distance, and communications with a distant exploratory vessel are often difficult, of course.

“Write your letters in the sand” seems like the explorer does not expect reliable communications—sand is notoriously impermanent but perhaps writing in large letters on a sandy beach is the only way of making a message legible beyond a certain distance. However, messages written on a beach are only legible from above, so perhaps it’s an aircraft the volunteers are piloting—or a spacecraft?

The explorer evidently intends to return and reunite with their beloved “the day I take your hand” but the next bit is confusing. “In the land that our grandchildren knew” suggests that the reunion will take place in the future, when the couple’s grandchildren are old. It’s a strange usage of tense: surely the explorer will return before any grandchildren are born?

The next stanza is the heart of the paradox—the ship returns “from the blue” with the volunteers inside after a year’s journey and a discovery of a new world to colonise instead of the “old and grey” Earth but their joy turns to sorrow and the explorer encounters his child rather than his spouse—“Your mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to me”. How can this be? Although the explorers are only a year older, those they left behind have grown disproportionately old as if “so many years have gone”.

The chorus repeats and we see now the meaning in the last line: the explorers have indeed returned to a “land that our grandchildren knew”—they have effectively travelled in time as far as those they left behind are concerned, and the song ends with a plaintive cry as the explorer mourns their loss “All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand” and anticipates a lifetime of regret ahead “For my life/Still ahead/Pity me.”

This story could be condemned as a fiction, except that the scenario it presents is a real thing, known as time dilation, and it’s a consequence of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Because the explorers’ ship is travelling at very high speed compared to the Earth, their timeframe effectively runs slower so that while only a year passes for them, those on Earth experience a longer period of time; the extent of this effect being dictated by the speed of the explorers’ ship relative to the Earth—the faster the ship, the greater the effect. In this case, the speed is enough that one year on the ship equates to perhaps a century passing on Earth—enough time for the explorer’s grandchildren to grow old. This effect has been measured on the International Space Station: after six months, an astronaut will have aged around 0.005 seconds less than they would have on Earth’s surface. The ISS is travelling at 17,200 miles per hour, which is pretty nippy but the explorers’ ship evidently goes a lot faster than that.

I like it because it’s unusual to have hard science in a song, I love the tune and because Queen were Nicola’s favourite band. This is part of commemorating her and celebrating her 60th birthday tomorrow, muted though those celebrations might be. I remember telling her about the story behind the song, and how she reacted to that, too, and now the words “For my life/Still ahead/Pity me” have a resonance I never expected them to have at the time.

Songs become hooked into people’s lives in a very wonderful way y’know.

Brian May, interviewed in “The Making of A Night at the Opera”


  • Read about the song at Wikipedia.
  • Read about time dilation at Wikipedia.
  • Watch Brian May perform the song on YouTube.
  • Watch Brian May talk about the genesis of the song in the documentary “The Making of a Night at the Opera” on YouTube.