Dear Juliet: Interview with Martin Hopley, the First Official British Secretary of Juliet
Interviewer: Lily Frost
Interviewee: Martin Hopley
Date: Tuesday 16th June
Interviewer: So to start with, how did you hear about the Juliet Club and writing to Juliet in the first place?
Interviewee: Genuinely I don’t remember, because I’ve had eighteen brain operations and radiotherapy, there’s a lot I don’t remember about my own past. Every time a memory from my childhood comes back to me I just try and hold on to it as tightly as possible because they’re so rare, so precious.
One day, I had a thought come up that: ’if you write to Juliet, Juliet will write back to you’. I just thought that was magical. I searched on the internet about writing to Juliet and that's when I found out about the Hollywood film Letters to Juliet and I found an American Radio Story about people who write for Juliet in Verona so I looked at that and I decided - well I wasn't convinced at first, so I thought okay I’ll give it a try and see what happens. When I was writing the letter I suddenly realised that I was pouring my heart and soul into this piece of paper. I was saying things that I would never tell anybody, so embarrassing! I realised that I was taking it really seriously. After I finished the letter I thought, this is a masterpiece [laughs]. Then when I actually posted it and took it to the letterbox and let go of it, I felt physically sick because all my heart, all my secrets and my pain and emotions were on - I think - three pieces of paper that had been cast out into the big wide world for anybody to see. It’s a huge leap of faith to write to Juliet. Then the waiting started, then after a couple of weeks I forgot about it—
Interviewer: Were you writing for something specific or writing down your thoughts or anything like that?
Interviewee: Ah, in my case I was writing to Juliet asking for a bit of hope because I am completely useless with women, to say the least. I have had one relationship that ended badly because it was my fault. The first time I actually fell in love was with a woman who could never be mine and I just wanted—I told Juliet that because my brain tumour is part of the Pineal gland which is the part of the brain that controls emotions, I didn’t believe I could ever fall in love. That’s why my first relationship broke down, I realised that my tumour was having an effect on my emotions. Therefore, if my tumour was making me feel infatuated or giving me false emotions, how could I ever believe I could fall in love?
I think it was for about nine or ten I literally believed I couldn’t fall in love. That’s how I lived. Then — I’m not going to go into detail—
Interviewer: Oh no, of course not—
Interviewee: —but there was a friend in Japan who told me that her boyfriend made a silly joke about her which offended her and she was really hurt. I just got into a huge rage for some reason, I couldn’t understand why he would do such a thing. Then I realised that something else had been going on for the past five years that I’d known this girl…I had secretly been in love with her and I didn't admit it to myself but at that moment I realised that all this anger and rage…it was because I was in love with her, so I had to do something.
Well basically one thing led to another and I told her how I felt as a direct challenge to her boyfriend and she said “thank you, it feels amazing and I needed to hear someone cared”. It was just the right person at the right time and obviously she couldn’t accept my feelings, but that made me realise that I could actually fall in love.
So, even though I have minor brain damage, short term memory problems, hearing problems, vision problems and coordination problems, even against all medical odds not only am I alive but I can still fall in love. So I said to Juliet, I have had one miracle. Can you please bring me another one and six months after posting my letter, I got a single letter back which literally changed my life.
Interviewer: Wow, that's incredible! So six months later Juliet sent a letter back and gave you that hope, I suppose?
Interviewee: Yeah, yeah, she— if you can imagine how Juliet from Romeo and Juliet speaks normally it's just full of love and compassion, just very very special sentences. One sentence that I will always remember is, “Martin you are meant to be alive”. Nobody had ever said it that way, because I survived death through—it's very very difficult to say but I managed to survive a terminal brain tumour as a child. Unfortunately, in the 90s, if you’re a child and diagnosed with a brain tumour, your chances are not good. Back in the nineties, that’s basically a terminal sentence. Yeah, the phrases and words that she said to me in that letter just changed my life.
So, I started following The Juliet Club on Facebook and I was sending them bourbon biscuits packets to just say thank you. That is something that I really have to say, the Juliet Club— the people at The Juliet Club love English biscuits.
Interviewer: [laughs] Brilliant. That’s the most British thing I think I’ve ever heard. You were so thankful, you sent them biscuits, that’s brilliant—
Interviewee: — oh yeah yeah bourbon biscuits and jammy dodgers—
Interviewer: — ah you can't beat a jammy dodger [laughs]. So they must have been very appreciative of that, so did you then start speaking with them on a more regular basis?
Interviewee: Ah yes yes, I was sending all kinds of messages and interacting with some other people on The Juliet Club’s Facebook page and I also got to talk to the manager of The Juliet Club, Giovanna Tamassia — she’s a really really nice lady — her father actually founded what we now know as The Juliet Club back in the 1970’s with some literary scholars and friends… and just wanted to keep the tradition going. It’s been going on since the 1930’s when people would just start randomly leaving letters of heartbreak on Juliet’s tomb. So the custodian of Juliet’s tomb decided to write back so he signed the letters as Juliet’s secretary.
Interviewer: Yes, I read up on this, it was the groundsman of her tomb, wow…So you started speaking with The Juliet Club more frequently, did you mention that you wanted to get involved or did that happen more naturally?
Interviewee: I spoke with Giovanna and Eleanor Macchi — she's a more experienced secretary. I asked them to find my letter , because they have an archive where they keep all the letters since the 1970’s and they saw my letter…was quite embarrassing. I can’t remember when it was, I think it was 2016 they contacted me and said, we’ve got some letters who are going through something similar to what I've been through, specifically where they had been touched by death or serious illness. So they asked me whether I wouldn’t mind helping out in giving some advice and I jumped at the chance. Things from there just sort of snowballed.
In 2017, the Chilean National Newspaper contacted me to speak as England’s first ever Secretary of Juliet and I had to confirm this with Giovanna and she said yes we’d like you to be an official Secretary of Juliet, so—
Interviewer: — wow—
Interviewee:— so that's where it kicked off from.
Interviewer: So when you first started replying to these letters that they thought would be appropriate for you, how many were you answering at that time?
Interviewee: Uh, about the same as I am now, it’s about seven a week, so one a day they keep me going at. Sometimes they send more, sometimes they send less, it just depends.
Interviewer: Wow, so you’ve become the first ever official secretary of Juliet, is that a position you still hold, is it still only just you from England?
Interviewee: I think there are others but not official ones. If you try and find the Japanese Secretary of Juliet or the French Secretary of Juliet, it would be difficult because they’re all quite well shy and they don’t like to put themselves out there but I’m British so I can’t do much right…I shout from the rooftops about it—-
Interviewer: [laughs] Yeah of course. So you're doing the seven letters a week, are you finding that you're drawing from your own experiences and able to help people because of them…or are you finding it quite difficult to resonate with people…what are your experiences with actually writing as Juliet?
Interviewee: Well…when I first started writing for Juliet I had no experience whatsoever, I was just drawing from my own experiences. Back in the early days, I remember seeing a letter somebody had lost their husband or their wife for whatever reason and they just wanted to find a reason to carry on with their own lives. As I’ve been touched by death, I can understand why people would feel like that. I can also know that no matter how dark things get, there is always light as long as you open up your eyes. So I was able to draw from my own past experiences.
When I first visited The Juliet Club in Verona in 2017 I picked up a letter in their office and I read it and it basically said “Dear Juliet, I am in love with a married woman”. All I was thinking was alarm bells [laughs]. So, Juliet would never joke, she would never mock—
Interviewer: No of course—
Interviewee:— so that was definitely not a letter for me to do. But now, I’ve got some more experience and understanding about these situations. I have replied to such people and told them “this person has already chosen their path in life, your path is obviously not the same as theirs. If you truly love them, you want them to be happy, even if that happiness is not with you”. So you just encourage them to find their own direction.
Interviewer: I suppose that line that you said to me earlier, that you received from Juliet, “you’re meant to be alive” is something you can massively draw upon when writing to people you have you know been brushed with death and loss and you're able to resonate with that which is great because I suppose by having you as a secretary they have that experience with others may not have—
Interviewee: —yes, yes.
Interviewer: I wonder if the Juliet Club then, does everyone have their own roles, you know one person takes love and loss or is it everyone takes a bunch, how does that work?
Interviewee: Uh I don't know, I just take whatever stuff gets set to me by email and try to answer them.
Interviewer: Oh ok—
Interviewee: But if I can’t answer a certain subject, for example there’s a lot of children writing to Juliet because they've got issues with their sexuality and their community or even their parents have issues with people who are LGBTQ+, they don’t know what to do.
For me, I don’t have experience in that, I don’t have experience in that situation because I’ve got a wonderful family, and they've stuck with me through thick and thin. So uh…I can’t understand why parents would be nasty to their children. So in those situations or letters that I can’t answer I will turn it back to The Juliet Club and say, sorry this isn't something I can help with. Another secretary probably does know what it’s like to be betrayed or to have issues with their sexuality, so if I can’t help the letter will be passed around our network of I think forty-five volunteers. Or, if it's really really difficult for example if it’s in a language we don’t understand then we have an extended network from outside of The Juliet Club which we can ask for help.
Interviewer: That’s great, like a massive network of you, it's brilliant—
Interviewee: It’s like a network of compassion—
Interviewer: Yes.. I like that…So in terms of the letters you guys receive, are there any guidelines on what you should or shouldn't write or is it just very much we trust you as a volunteer because they've obviously gotten to know you, that they can trust whatever your advice is?
Interviewee: I was never given any guidelines or instructions but every letter that I reply to gets sent back to Verona, where it is then checked over by Giovanna. I think only once has a letter of mine ever been rejected by Giovanna. Anyone can be a secretary of Juliet, if they go to Verona. I believe the only person who didn’t quite qualify was extremely religious, and they said to the person to seek out God and find salvation. Juliet is not religious, she has no issues with sex gender, race anything like that. What Juliet sees is the letter and that is what you work with.
Interviewer: So Juliet doesn't have any kind of biases, that makes sense…So what kind of advice would you give someone who has never written to Juliet before, who is going to in the future maybe?
Interviewee: I’ve always had this theory that bad people can’t write to Juliet because if you lie..to Juliet you're basically lying to yourself.
Interviewee: When I wrote to Juliet, at first it felt like a test to me but it very quickly became something very very personal. If somebody else wanted to write to Juliet, for whatever reason even if its just to say that you've found everything you've ever wanted or like me they used it to find some hope, I’d say give her as much as possible, give her all the details, that way she’ll has all the information which she can draw upon and then give you the best possible answer. If you just write to Juliet something like, “I just so badly want a boyfriend, what do I do?”, that’s not giving her enough to work with.
Interviewer: [laughs] yes that’s not much detail—
Interviewee: The more detail you can give, the more she can help you, but that’s the biggest hurdle because you have to open up your heart. And especially in today's world, that’s not easy at all. And when you open up your heart…uh you’re exposed to the big bad world and you only have to turn on the TV to see how bad it is out there. Your only salvation is to have faith that Juliet is going to treat you like a decent human being and I can pretty much guarantee that she will.
Interviewer: So, I mean that’s absolutely wonderful advice. I’ve never considered writing to the big bad world but I definitely think that after listening to everything I've listened to and after speaking to you I would definitely consider it…If you were someone who wanted to go to Verona, let’s say and come and be an honorary Secretary of Juliet, as you said you could, what advice would you give to writers?
Interviewee: You can get in touch with The Juliet Club, they've got some, not so much packages but some advice about getting to Verona and joining up. Obviously due to COVID-19 they are currently closed, they have been for however many months. If you want to go to Verona, The Juliet Club can give you advice on going there. where to stay…There is no official program. You pretty much turn up to Verona, enjoy yourself and whilst you're there go to The Juliet Club to answer letters.
Interviewer: So in terms of, so obviously Juliet to me, I studied English at University so I love Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare as a whole. Do you think that for you Juliet kind of represents more than just this kind of epitome of love and romance, it's deeper than that?
Interviewee: Oh yes, absolutely. To me Juliet is the perfect human being because she will never judge someone, she will never put someone down, she will never be negative to somebody. Juliet is the perfect human being… but I am by no means perfect at all. However when I am writing for Juliet’ I summon up that tiny fraction within myself that is perfect..and there are forty-five secretaries of Juliet, plus all the hundreds of volunteers that pass through in the year. And it's that culmination of people bringing all of these fractions of perfection together that make up what we believe to be Juliet. It is probably something like 1/500th of me is perfect. That 1/500th is Juliet. That's what I always go back to when I'm writing for Juliet. That tiny fraction is within all of us—
Interviewer: Yeah…So everyone has the potential to be a Juliet, with the tiny fraction inside them?
Interviewee: Yes. If we all eek out that tiny fraction of love and compassion, we will find it.
Interviewer: Yeah I agree, well I think I’ve asked all the questions that I have, is there anything that you’d want people to know, especially perhaps students that will be reading this? Is there anything you'd like to share?
Interviewee: Well..uh. We’re living in a terrible world right now. I’m 41 years old and I’ve never seen the world like this ever in my life and it’s really really depressing. The future looks bleak but there is hope out there. I go back to, no matter how dark things become, there is always light if you remember to open your eyes. One of the phrases that I learn from the Juliet Club which I use quite a lot is that “Love like hope will always exist as long as we believe in it”. This is something that resonates with me because when I was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, I had no hope and all I did was say no, and just by saying no and rejecting my fate gave me a tiny fraction of hope. Whether it was by luck, chance or miracle, I’ve been able to make this fraction work. Twenty five years later I’m still alive. That's the difference between success and failure, if you say that you can’ do something, you're right. End of story. If you say you can do something, no matter how remote the chance, you have that chance.
With Juliet, and all the letters I have seen and answered, love is not too different if you believe you will find love, you will. You just have to find the person who is walking the same path as you.
Interviewer: Yeah. Do you think that through being apart of The Juliet Club you have found a common thread of humanity as such? All these letters are you seeing a similar struggle amongst all people?
Interviewee: Yes it’s absolutely true. People often ask me, with the constant tide of pain you are receiving through these letters, does it ever get tiring? And, no it doesn’t, because answering letters for Juliet…being Juliet…makes me feel more human quite frankly. You’re seeing that other people have similar problems to yourself so you can help them. But also it taught me how good it is to be compassionate, to be loving to other people. Even if being a typical male I'm not particularly loving to random people in the streets, you know I don’t go round hugging everybody I meet, but everywhere I go I’m always smiling. Speaking from a medical point of view, smiling actually activates endorphins and makes you physically better and emotionally it lifts you up. Juliet has made me feel more human, even though there’s no proof that Juliet ever existed because the whole world, or at least a large portion of the world believes in Juliet, that spirit does exist as far as I’m concerned.
As long as there is human suffering, sadly there will always be a need for Juliet, which is why I believe the letters will never stop so The Juliet Club will always exist in one form or another.
Interviewer: Yeah actually one of the questions I was going to ask you was, do you think that the epistolary tradition in all of this is eventually going to stop because of the technological advances that we’ve had but the fact that you are doing email is proof in the pudding, I suppose because people are reaching out even if they don't want to write a handwritten letter.
Interviewee: Yeah yeah I think that's like with the difference between an email and a letter is a generational thing.
Interviewee: I remember when I was twelve years old, I was writing letters to my childhood girlfriend - didn’t really go anywhere - but it was just one of those things, the excitement you get from a handwritten letter coming from your door, I really can’t even explain it. To me that is very different to an email, but again that might be a generational thing. Your generation might feel the same way about receiving an email from a loved one or someone really special.
But even with the change in technology people will always try to look for human connection. I have answered so many letters where people have been in internet relationships. There have been some people who have gone very far down the line in a relationship but who have never met face to face. You’ve got to ask is that the sort of relationship you want? Some people I guess are happy with that. Most people want to be able to touch somebody's hand, to kiss somebody, to show their physical affection in that manner. The internet is a blessing because it can bring the world together but it's also a curse because there is no physical connection. So things will change but at the end of the day we’re still human, we still need to be able to hold each other’s hand, in my opinion.
Interviewer: No I completely agree with you, I think if I was ever to consider writing a letter to Juliet or if I ever received a letter now I think a handwritten letter wouldn't just be the words but the effort someone has taken in putting pen to paper which is whats powerful—
Interviewee: I should also say though there are many communities who don’t have reliable postal service or who are not able to physically write a letter. I am speaking specifically about cases such as Pakistan or India where in some places they had to use the internet to write to Juliet. So in those circumstances you can't get around that. However if you have the opportunity, I would highly recommend sitting down for an hour or two and using pen and paper to write out your feelings.
Interviewer: I’ve absolutely loved speaking to you today, sometimes compassion is often lost in this society, but this story gives me a lot of hope.
Interviewee: The courage it takes to open your heart up to a complete stranger. You’re putting your faith in humanity, and thankfully with Juliet your faith is well placed.