Once upon a time, I tried to resurrect the lost art of letter writing. I chose six people – friends and family – to be the recipients of a letter, hand-written on parchment-style paper specifically purchased for the project. Each letter, though replicating some of the content, also contained bespoke elements for each person.
The section that was included in all six letters bemoaned the fact that no-one – or at least, no-one I knew – wrote letters any more, not in the traditional sense of the one I was sending now and which they were holding in their hand. This letter, I explained, was my way of trying to push back against the tide of modern technology and the impersonal and transient modes of communication such as text messages, emails and other forms of social media interaction.
Each letter was sealed in an envelope, the name and address of the recipient written in capital letters on the front, and adorned with a first-class stamp in the top right-hand corner. I popped them in the post box at the end of my street, and then sat back and waited…
I was delighted when all six of them expressed their delight at having received the letter. They loved the surprise of it, agreed with the sentiments, and sympathised with my lament for the apparent loss of this personal and once much-treasured form of communicating with each other. My letter had brought back many fond memories of previous letters written or received, the thrill of the post dropped through the letterbox, the sense of anticipation to see if any had arrived for them; the disappointment when there wasn’t, the excitement when there was.
All of this, they told me through texts, emails and social media messages. Not one of the six replied by letter. Not one. I will not name names, but you know who you are! I shouldn’t have been surprised, and I wasn’t really, although there was still a small measure of disappointment. I wasn’t necessarily looking for pen pals, but surely one letter in reply was not too much to ask for. However, it did confirm what I already knew and was mourning in my epistolary text to them.
Writing a letter is not like composing a text message or email. Care and attention is given to its content before the pen finally caresses the paper, and the words reflect the letter-writer, shining a light on their character, emotions and thoughts. In writing a letter, you commit something of yourself on to the page, indelibly left there in the sentiments scrawled on the page. Every email or text looks the same. Letters, however, are identified with the writer by virtue of their handwriting, which is as unique to a person as a sneeze. There is also thought given to the recipient of the letter, and their reaction to its contents. It establishes a relationship between the two – writer and recipient – that can feel intimate regardless of the distance separating them.
Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland amongst other works, once stated that, ‘The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters’, a somewhat simplistic definition but one that resonates with my lament. However, the irony of writing these words on a laptop and using Google to source an appropriate quote is not lost on me.
It is believed (okay, Mr Google told me this too!) that the first handwritten letter came from the Persian Queen Atossa around 500 B.C., though its contents are not known. What Queen Atossa established was the possibility for two people to communicate without being face-face, with the method of delivery evolving over the centuries. It is safe to assert that Queen Atossa would not have been aware at the time that her actions were creating a form of communication that endured for over two-and-a-half-thousand years, though I suspect she will now be spinning in her sarcophagus at the prospect of its demise.
My namesake, the slightly more renowned letter writer, Saint Paul – the artist formerly known as Saul – was a man who liked to proselytise with the pen. His influence on the growth of fledgling new Christian faith cannot be underestimated and, indeed, he is one of the most important figures in western civilisation over the past two thousand or so years, given the impact Christianity has had on our culture. I don’t think it was in honour of him that I was named, any more than the fact the Pope of the time was Paul VI. My mum just liked the name, but sometimes I like to fool myself into believing that some of whatever tiny measure of God-given talent I have for writing is linked to the name given to me.
Paul identified the benefits of letter writing in espousing the teachings of Jesus Christ and in maintaining contact with the faith communities he established on his travels. Those words remain integral to Christianity to this day, and are a tangible example of the power of letters.
So does it matter that traditional letter writing, which endured for thousands of years, appears to have vanished in the blink of an eye? After all, communication continues through emails, mobile phone texts, or contact through an ever-growing myriad of social media platforms. Moreover, what would be the appropriate response to its demise… a sad face emoji perhaps? Those who embrace such modern means of messaging will probably dismiss me as an old curmudgeon who is obstinately refusing to move with the times.
They may have a point. Yet, in my heart, I know that we have lost something, not only in how we interact with other people – friends and strangers – but also in our introspection and subsequent expression of thoughts and feelings. The whole panoply of emotions in relation to people and places, is carefully constructed in a letter, whereas it is carelessly expressed through a text… and don’t get me started on the laissez-faire attitude to spelling and grammar, never mind the proliferation of emojis.
We – and by that I mean the wider society – are also losing a tangible record of history, both personal and public. Emails, text messages and tweets will not be preserved for future generations in the way that handwritten letters have been. For historians, that presents a problem in terms of source material on any given subject from a particular time. Now, I have to admit that my first thought in this elegy for the lost art of letter writing is not for the historians – apologies to any historians reading this tract – but it has been through such archives that we have been able to learn about a particular period or a specific historical character. The composition of letters, through sentence structure and vocabulary, also give a sense of time and place, and an indication of the ongoing evolution of language.
It is part of a wider focus on the present without regard for the future, or subsequently being able to look to the past. It reflects, in a similar vein, what we have lost with the advent of phone cameras. Now, everyone is a photographer and can take countless pictures, deleting the imperfect ones and using various functions to perfect the ones we’re happy with. Yet, does anyone look back through their photographs now in the way that previous generations – and I include me with my children when they were younger – trawled through boxes of printed photographs that conjured up all sorts of memories.
Similarly, it make me long for cassette mix tapes which, like handwritten letters, contained part of the personality of the person compiling the tape. It could be a glimpse into their soul, a declaration of love or just a shared gift of music between two friends. Even if today’s equivalent is making a playlist for someone on Spotify, Amazon Music or iTunes, or swapping YouTube links of favourite songs during courtship chats – and by that, I mean WhatsApp ‘chats’ as opposed to actual conversations – it’s not the same thing. Cassettes, like physical books and letters, are something tangible, a physical product to hold and appreciate the care and attention put into curating the compilation.
I realise this letter is in danger of turning into a paean to a time when there were only three television channels and no remote control, penny caramels cost just that, and asking someone out on a date meant plucking up the courage to call them on a landline phone and then endure a few moments of agonised silence before receiving an answer. Perhaps it was a time that never really existed except in my mind. As Irish comedian, Dara Ó Briain, so succinctly put it, ‘Nostalgia is heroin for old people.’
Given that I have never tried heroin, I can only speculate as to whether or not they are comparable, but even a cursory search of the Internet will uncover a whole range of articles and studies arguing that nostalgia is a positive thing and can have a beneficial impact on mental health and wellbeing. According to Wikipedia:
The term was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer (1669–1752) in his Basel dissertation. Hofer introduced nostalgia, or mal du pays ‘homesickness’, for the condition also known as mal du Suisse ‘Swiss illness’ or Schweizerheimweh (‘Swiss homesickness’), because of its frequent occurrence in Swiss mercenaries who, in the plains of lowlands France or Italy, were pining for their native mountain landscapes. Symptoms were also thought to include fainting, high fever, indigestion, stomach pain, and death. Military physicians hypothesized that the malady was due to damage to the victims’ brain cells and ear drums by the constant clanging of cowbells in the pastures of Switzerland.
While the constant clanging of cowbells has never disturbed me, a warm feeling of nostalgia does wash over me when certain songs ring in my ears. The Carpenters’ song, ‘Yesterday One More’, for example, takes me back to 1974, sitting in the back seat of the family car – a red Vauxhall Viva – alongside my sisters as my parents drive through the Scottish Highlands on our summer holiday, heading towards Ullapool. I remember being in fourth year at high school and sitting my ‘O’ Grade exams whenever I hear Duran Duran singing ‘Rio’, while ‘What Difference Does It Make’ by The Smiths transports me back to Level 8 at Strathclyde University and that time in my life when I danced like nobody was watching.
So is my wistful longing for the return of letter writing simply due to an overdose of nostalgia? If I could clean up my act, would I consign such things to the past and embrace the world of emojis and gobbledygook that masquerades as messages which often need an Enigma machine to decipher? I want to remain optimistic that there can still be resurgence in letter writing despite a growing fear that it is becoming an obsolete form of communication, soon to be consigned to museums as artefacts of curiosity. Certainly, none of my friends or family helped redress the balance, despite agreeing with the sentiments in the letters I sent to them. No, I’m not bitter about it at all.
I live in hope that my words will resonate with at least one kindred spirit who will take up the pen and paper and write a letter telling me how much they agreed with my argument. Mind you, they’ll have to send me a social media message to get my address first.
Yours in hope, but with no great expectations,
P.S. Every letter needs at least one postscript (PS), and this epistle is no different. In 2016 for National Poetry Day, a number of poems printed on postcards were distributed to libraries and participating schools across Scotland. One of those poems was called ‘Letter’ by Hugh McMillan, a Scottish poet and short story writer. It is a beautiful summation of what this essay is arguing we have lost… the art of letter writing.
LETTER by Hugh McMillan
Here is a letter
come across the ocean
over the back of a world
curved like a whale.
I unwrap it, like tissue,
and sentences spill out,
as though the seal on a jar has broken,
coils of cornflower blue
on paper thin as shell.
I saw a sailor’s valentine once
in a museum in Nantucket Sound,
a mosaic of broken scallop
glued in a compass rose.
‘Writ from the heart’ it said.
Words come best like that:
in ink or blood,
when the source is from a major vein.
I read, and understand this much:
if ink sees off time and miles, then so must love.