The clocks have gone back and as the inevitable seasonal change approaches, the longer nights start to draw in. So, what better time to recall the art of letter writing? Esme has written this account on the joy of the written word and hopefully it will inspire you to pick up your quill ink pen, pencil or biro!
They say that letter writing is a dying craft. It’s undeniable that we don’t write letters nearly as much as we used to, and I suppose my generation, which heralds a new age of digital communication, is the first that has grown up truly out of practice.
The act of letter writing has always fascinated me though. There’s something inherently romantic about writing a letter which, from a young person’s perspective, glamorises the practice. Firstly, there’s a physical connection – somebody’s hand guides a pen, curls “C’s” and dots “i’s”. A real person touches the paper, licks the envelope, gingerly peels and sticks the stamp. The reply deliciously delayed; the gratification of receiving a response feels more satisfying, as if you’ve worked for it.
Historically, letters have connected people in unimaginable ways. We imagine soldiers clinging to words from home that transcend their grim reality; postcards written and received excitedly, telling of rich and exotic far-flung lands; whispered invitations to swanky dinners; mottled and uncertain tales from boarding schools; haphazard, scrawled well wishes from forgotten friends; formal engagement announcements. Their ability to transport cannot be underestimated.
I adore the craft behind them – the pride people took behind forming their letters, the care people took in their immaculate cursive or copperplate. I don’t own one now, but nothing seems more luxurious than a nice fountain pen. I hope I’m not romanticising past letter writing too much. I haven’t grown up with it being the normal path of communication, so naturally it feels novel and retro, like a record player. There must’ve still been letters for invoices and adverts, but that seems like an odd thought!
Whilst people write less letters now than ever, I don’t think it’s a dead practice. Strangely enough, I see young people online the entire time with pictures of journals full of sweeping calligraphy, or
letters they’ve written or received. They’re usually artfully positioned with some beautiful stationery into a filtered composition on Instagram. It’s almost a counterculture movement now, like vinyl. People are so anxious to preserve the bygone beauty that they introduce it to a new generation. I don’t think the 40’s boarding school children posted their letters home in filtered flat lays on social media, but it’s a new currency for an old practice that gives letters a voice online.
I especially love what you can tell about somebody through a letter. Does the slant of their handwriting feel familiar? Are they writing on embossed, personalised stationery, or quickly on an inky hotel napkin? Do they speak languidly of foreign streets, or breathlessly of markets and spices and unfamiliar beauty? There’s a funny sense of familiarity you can acquire from a letter, even one by somebody you’ve never met.
Letter writing is something I particularly associate with my grandpa. He uses postcards he receives as bookmarks, and often finds forgotten stories of travel tucked into books whilst leafing through them. Growing up, Mum always made us write postcards from our summer holidays to send to our grandparents. When we were very little, it was a short task to fulfil in between a run of “Finding Nemo” on the hotel DVD player and a trip to the local ice cream shop. Now we’re older, it’s something we make a note not to forget. I like finding a new strange myriad of foreign stamps in souvenir shops, but mostly I like seeing postcards I’ve previously sent at my grandpa’s house, along with hundreds of others he’s collected. They all document a colourful mosaic of experiences and sepia times passed, from people I never met. They are immortalised in their words and faded picturesque village scenes. My grandpa also got me into the practice of sending thank you letters. His are generally against cards of watercolour paintings, and are so lovely I have a few pinned around my room. Texts are a nice gesture, but
there’s something intimate and thoughtful about a letter or card that can’t be replicated.
I sing the praises of technology often, and chat with my friends over my phone the entire time. But I’ll try to keep remembering to send postcards and letters as much as I can too. Hopefully it will motivate me to improve my handwriting a little (my teachers will testify that it needs it), but if nothing else, it’s a nice tribute to all the letters ever written (and the ones lost in the post). Plus, getting a message will never elicit quite the same delight as a letter – a handwritten one, that isn’t a magazine subscription or a Domino’s coupon – addressed to you on your doormat.
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