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A love letter to a lost art

This column first appeared in the Western Mail in October 2021

When was the last time you received a handwritten letter?

Or, indeed, sat down to indulge in the rare and nostalgic pleasure of writing a letter by hand?

In an age of instant electronic communication, where decisions and plans can be made instantly at the tap of a few buttons, there is something magical about taking the time to pen an old-fashioned missive. 

The ritual of sealing the envelope, attaching the stamp, and waiting for linear time and the postal service to do their thing feels like a radical act, perhaps because we simply don’t do it enough anymore. 

Why would we? Technology has facilitated faster, more efficient forms of communication. Yet, opening an email attachment is *not* the same as a lovingly folded note containing thoughts poured onto the page from other minds and places. Don’t at me. It just isn’t. 

Letter writing is one of those things I love doing when I make the time, which is far too rarely. So I decided to break a long dry spell this week. After a lovely weekend in Pembrokeshire organised by a friend who thought of everything, to the point where I just had to chuck a swimming costume in a bag and drive, I decided this warranted more than a hastily typed Whatsapp thank you (complete with gratitude emoji). Single (and otherwise) parents everywhere will recognise how bloody lovely it is when somebody takes the burden off you, even if just for a few days. It warranted a proper, heartfelt thank you. And there is no more human, sincere way of thanking people than a handwritten letter explaining just what their generosity has meant to you. In my world, anyway. 

So after half-typing a Whatsapp message, I decided it wouldn’t cut it and reached for my stationery drawer. Just the sheer act of writing down my grateful thoughts in chaotic cursive (I’m out of practice, throw me a bone here) was a pleasurable act in itself. There’s something deeply therapeutic about having to think through every word and choice of phrase before you commit it to paper (there’s no delete button on a pen, but give them time). So in some ways, letter writing is a beautifully selfish act – entirely rewarding before you’ve even reached the post box. Then there’s the satisfying thud of the letter landing in the box as you entrust it to her madge’s postal service. And then, with a fair wind, the letter arrives and hopefully sparks some joy or respite in somebody’s day. Bingo! Everybody wins!

As a teenager, I was obsessed with writing letters. My attic remains stuffed with letters from various pen pals, school friends, John Major (to whom I’d penned a heartfelt plea about nuclear testing) and children’s TV legend Gaz Top (remember him?). I’d write letters for fun, regularly. What can I say? It was pre-Netflix.

As well as writing them, I loved receiving letters so much. I’d retreat to my room and luxuriate in all the words, in random news and events that were already history by the time they reached me. One pen pal, a fellow word-obsessed schoolmate (who went off to University while I languished in the sixth form) used to send magical, multi-page ramblings. In them, he toyed with language so playfully, so lightly, that I would spend hours mulling over his Lear-like works of art. Even now, when I get them out of the box I have carefully stored them in, I’m right back there, in the sixth form common room, full of wonder about the big wide world he was already traversing. When I moved to the other side of Wales at 17, my best friend would keep me abreast of news from home in long, rambling notes I still treasure to this day. For what are letters, if not bookmarks in the chapters of your life? If not passports into the hearts and minds of those closest to you? If not keepsakes, and portals to times past?

In 1994 I had the honour of winning runner up prize in the Royal Mail Young Letter Writer Of The Year competition. My epistolary effort involved writing to an imaginary dead fiancé, who had been ‘killed’ in a motorbike accident, after his (also fictional) funeral. What can I say? I listened to The Shangri-Las a lot and was obsessed with death. But even for me, it was more than a little strange. So when I received my certificate in the post, and my £50 book token, I was both astonished and delighted. I decided there and then that this would be the beginning of a long and illustrious life of letter writing. I would write letters. It would be part of my identity, just something I DID.

But of course, it has become something I do not do. Because, well, life, linear time, child-raising, the rat race, and many other excuses besides.

But as Ernest Hemingway said:

“Or don’t you like to write letters? I do because it’s such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something.”

He was onto something, I think. Writing a letter is one of the loveliest life ticks you can achieve, and this week reminded me of that. 

So I’m adding more letter writing to the list of things I’d like to do this winter. Time to top up on cartridges, stamps and that lovely, thick paper that makes you want to write, and write, and write until your hand aches. 

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