When we were pen pals: the lost art of letter writing

Where I live, the postmen have names. And Keith, our regular, likes a quick chat about the cricket before he moves on. The problem is he insists on lightening his load by leaving some of his bag’s contents behind.

Here is a typical selection: three bills, two catalogues (destined for immediate recycling), a magazine that I would like to read, but probably will not get round to, and a bank statement imploring me to consider the virtues of going paperless: “We outsource the printing to you, thus hastening Keith’s retirement, making you pay the costs, wasting your time and increasing our profits. Duh!”

But just occasionally there is something else – a hand-written envelope. Inside there may be an invitation, or a thank you, maybe a brief note out of the blue from an old-fashioned friend who does not do or does not like email. What a surprise! What a delight! What a rarity!

Few people would now be aware that in Edwardian times, the British Post Office was considered a wonder of the world, with several deliveries a day and letters whizzing to and fro like a rapid-fire email exchange. It was the Post Office’s excellent reputation that helped make nationalisation of other industries palatable.

By the time I was growing up, the glory had long departed. Sent away to prep school, I was forced to write letters home – with a fountain pen, I think – that were subject to censorship by a teacher just in case we strayed too far into the truth. My mother would write back, regularly, charmingly, not very informatively. My father wrote brilliant, witty letters about once every three years.

As time went by, I phoned more and, with relief, wrote home much less. Since I also belong to a post-love-letter generation, I did not even begin to understand the importance of letter-writing until my first month as a journalist on a small-town evening paper, when I was obliged to interview the local member of parliament, a fox-hunting Etonian who just happened to represent the Labour Party.

He immediately sent a note to the editor, praising the acute interrogative skills of this new recruit. I was called into the office, shown the note, whereupon I puffed up with pride. The editor smiled indulgently. “The cunning old rascal,” he said.

In the years since, I hope I have learned to see through the more absurd manifestations of flattery, especially from politicians. But that incident gave me a sense of the mighty power of the kindly note. Especially if it comes in ink, preferably written with a fountain pen, on a postcard or headed notepaper.

Even armed with that essential piece of knowledge, it is still a struggle to put it into practice. First, you have to remember to write the note at all. Then you have to take the trouble to find pen, paper, envelope and stamp. (I do not even possess a fountain pen and am no longer sure I would know how to use one.) By the time you have done all that, it is usually late on Friday, so the recipient will not even get it until Monday. How much easier just to whack it on an email, or even a text message.

Having decided that is has to be posted, does it really have to be done by hand? This is especially hard for a professional writer. You feel an obligation to get the wording right. But, with no sub-editors to act as a safety net, that can be a struggle. With no chance to correct spelling invisibly, or change a paragraph round, there is no alternative to starting again.

That may not be too much of a problem if you are thanking someone for lunch or sending a quick herogram to a colleague. But love letters are, of course, impossibly difficult, especially in the early stages (the only time they are likely to be written), when the swain may be ardent, but uncertain of his ground. And letters of condolence are inevitably tortured. One wants to say something meaningful and not just flannel about sympathy and sad loss. But if one sentiment is out of place, the whole thing is a disaster: “Above all, I will miss your husband’s sense of mischief. We all still talk about the office party when he...”

Convention suggests such letters really should be handwritten. Attempt one, and the bin quickly fills with torn-up paper. Send it and – since the bereaved are often too busy or indeed, bereft, to reply – you are left with a nagging sense of alarm that you have caused enormous offence. But though the risks are high, so is the reward.

Failed technologies vanish without trace: eight-track stereos, Betamax videos, those strange, early mobile phones that could only be used at designated sites. Technologies that are merely superseded, however, refuse to die. The world is full of vinyl fans. I have never understood why DVDs were meant to be better than VHS and have a hunch that cassette tapes may be the next big retro thing. I have not wholly given up on newspapers. And books, I am certain, will be with us forever. So will letters.

The rarer handwriting gets, the more it will be valued. Kind words do not go out of fashion. If sent in a manner that suggests genuine care and concern, the worth is all the greater. The future might just involve rather more ink on vellum than you might think.

Now, which end do I hold this fountain pen?

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