When was the last time you wrote a letter? Not a thank you or a birthday/christmas card, but a letter just for its own sake, to write to a friend you haven’t seen for a while for instance? Or to a pen pal, if such a thing still exists?
My friends and I used to write letters over the holidays, at the weekend, in-between classes when we hadn’t seen each other for a few minutes. They were full of pictures and cartoons, our secret code words, on our special writing paper, using our best pens usually in a myriad of colours. We would write subversive ‘Peter and Jane’ stories way before those spoof Ladybird books became popular and we also created our own alternative school newspapers in miniature. We would make envelopes out of adverts in glossy magazines and somehow they were always delivered. Or if they were to be hand delivered we would fold them in a particular way which would seal the letter in on itself (I’ve just tried and I can still remember how the original origami). Our letters would make us cry with laughter at times, at others they were a brilliant outlet for worries and anxieties. I’ve kept pretty much every letter I’ve ever been sent. I used to keep them in shoe boxes under my bed, now I keep them all in my old tuck box which my dad made for me, all jumbled up in no order. They tell the story of my youth and I keep them as much for social history (for when I’m famous – I know, totally narcissistic) as for my own nostalgia.
I recently wrote a letter (I could have telephoned but thought a letter more appropriate) and received a lovely letter in return. Apparently I’m in the minority. In a recent survey, 60% of UK adults have sent five or fewer pieces of handwritten correspondence over the past 10 years. Email and social media mean I no longer need a ‘good pen’ and endless amounts of Basildon Bond paper. I think it is a bigger shame for children, who lose the practicing of handwriting, the exploration of imagination, the slowing down and taking the time in creating something for someone else’s pleasure, the exciting expectation of the postman and the thud of letters on the doormat. For adults, perhaps the joy of letters from friends has been replaced by the joy of parcels from Amazon. For me though, emails just don’t have the same effect. They are fleeting, transient, disposable. I’m not advocating a return solely to telegrams and notes, emails are great for instant decisions, plans, and rapid communications. I doubt we could function without them now. But letters have a different purpose and elicit a more emotional response. You need patience (to write them and to wait for the postman), and they are physical. You can hold them, smell them (all paper smells differently) and it feels nice that someone, unbeknownst to you, has been thinking about you and cares enough to put pen to paper, find your address, get a stamp and nip to the post box.
Which is why I was so heartened to learn about the success of Blue Peter’s letter-writing revival (for its 60th birthday this week -October 16th). They have received 160,000 items of post this year despite not being on a mainstream channel, four times as many as they received seven years ago. The letters are a real and measurable sign of the show’s success, coupled with the anticipation of a much coveted Blue Peter badge. (Mine are so precious to me I keep them with my children’s birth certificates.)
What worries me though is the future. Previously many great novelists were also avid letter writers, such as George Orwell (A Life In Letters), Emily Dickinson (Selected Letters), P.G.Wodehouse (A Life In Letters) to name three off the top of my head. I don’t yet know of any great novelists who have offered up their emails to create a book. Perhaps it’s a matter of time. Perhaps it’s a genre set to die out. Either way, I think we should all be writing more letters in the traditional way. There’s plenty more inspiration out there to encourage us all to write more. There’s a brilliant blog Letters of Note with its delicious coffee table book of letters by everyone from Jack Kerouac, Elvis Presley, Francis Crick, Mick Jagger to Charles Dickens (I’m not sure how often it’s updated nowadays but there’s a lot of content for inspo.)
So drop your best friend, long forgotten Auntie or old housemate a letter and make their day. And if you really don’t have anyone to write to, you can always write to me.