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The Lost Art of The Letter

My first e-mail

Whilst rummaging in my closet recently, in amongst the stilettos and skeletons, I happened upon a shoe box emblazoned with a well known trainer brand name. Well, anyone who knows me will know that this set alarm bells ringing in the PFPT Fashion Police headquarters. What the chuff were flat shoes doing in amongst my 80+ pairs of 5 inchers?! I put on my hazmat suit and asbestos gloves and cautiously peeled open the lid. What lay waiting for me there wasn’t the ghastly sensible running shoe I had feared, but rather a nostalgic punch in the chops so violent, it almost knocked the lipstick right off my face! The box contained actual real life letters. Remember those?

It was like finding a veritable treasure trove of rare and beautiful gem stones. These simple pieces of dog eared paper in torn, crumpled envelopes, ripped open in haste to greedily get to the inky stories within, long forgotten but now triggering a rollercoaster of memories and sentiment from a youth clearly spent continuously running relays to the post box. How had I forgotten I had these? Then it hit me. I hadn’t just forgotten I had these, I had forgotten how to write these. Each one of these letters was so eagerly anticipated and gleefully received, each one stamped and addressed as part of some spittle enriched ritual and each one replied to with gusto, until suddenly, no more.

Some of these letters date back to when I was 12 years old (not THAT long ago, thank you!). Apparently I and my friends were prolific scribblers back then and I have to say, especially around the age of fourteen, we were hilarious (if you like jokes about virgins and farts). Obsessed with sex (that we weren’t getting) and boys (that we weren’t getting) and homework (that we were getting too much of) and even though we saw each other every single day, we spent our evenings writing comedic works of genius, complete with scratchy biro illustrations and magazine clippings. As well as school friends, I found beautifully penned friendships from people I’d met only once at a drama or art camp, that continued for years after our brief encounter, with all the dedication and loyalty of a butcher’s bloodhound.

I also unearthed love letters. Who knew that teenage boys could be so romantic, so eloquent, so charming?! I look at the male teen now, lurking on street corners with their sullen spotty faces and grunted vocabulary. How did one of these pestilent, inarticulate, vile little oiks produce works of poetry that could melt the heart of a bag of frozen peas? Ok, not all of it was poetry but at 15 years old, I was probably highly impressed by the fact a boy could put pen to paper in any shape or badly spelled form.

As I pawed over the contents of this abandoned treasure chest, relishing each hand written snapshot of a relationship gone by, I couldn’t help wonder, why did they suddenly stop? Where are all these people now and why does my postman, instead of hilarious exchanges from far flung places, or sincere sunset-inspired words of wooing, bring nothing but tax bills and pizza menus? It is with great sadness that I must now point a finger at my close friend, my dear ally and some might say, my greatest love addiction. The Internet!

Yes Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, I’m looking accusingly at you! Before you all showed up, the postman was a popular figure on the street and people actually made an effort to stay in touch. Now all you have to do is add someone as a contact on Facebook or Twitter and forget about them, knowing that you can update all 793 casual acquaintances regarding what you had on your toast this morning in one badly punctuated electronic fart.

As much as I adore e-mail, and I really do – I ping them out from the second I wake to when my fingers can’t ping any more and then one more for luck – I have, since the shoebox of postmarked delights came back into my life, realised that this is such a throw-away method of maintaining a pen pal (remember them? They were what you called someone you wrote to with an actual pen).

When you rattle out a hasty reply to your chum’s relationship dilemma on a smartphone screen whilst running for the train, or drop your true love a glib “c u l8r” in Ariel 10 while simultaneously talking to your mechanic on the phone, these are a very far cry from the specially crafted thoughts and emotions that flow from a pen, when time is taken out of the day to create someone an envelope of uniquely beautiful handwriting and doodles (complete with good, honest spellcheck-free spelling mistakes and do-overs), that says “you and you alone have my thoughts right now”. It’s hard to treasure an e-mail, but rediscovering the magic contained within a few simple leaves of fragile paper, upon which a cheap fountain pen has danced, well, that feeling is akin to finding the Mona Lisa there in the closet and remembering that Leonardo painted it just for you.

Never once in all my recent travels did it cross my mind to seek out a purveyor of postcards and stamps. Why, when all you need is a camera phone and some Wi-Fi, and let social media do the wish-you-were-here-ing for you? Convenient it may be but it’s also cold and heartless. There used to be something so exhilarating when the rattle of the letterbox was followed by the soft flutter and plop of a picture postcard from some far away place hitting the doormat. Ok, some of the postcards were from Benidorm and had pictures of breasts on them, but still, you got the impression that someone had taken a moment out of their fabulous holiday to sit at a café, sipping exotic drinks and swatting at mosquitos while finding time (and a working biro) to tell you personally they had sunburn and fling with a waiter called Pablo.

I’m ashamed to say that the last “letter” I wrote was typed in void-of-all-character Calibri 11, opened facelessly with “Dear Sir/Madam” and was a petty rant about the state of a packet of crisps I had found to be less than satisfactory. Compare this to the letter a 15 year old girl once penned me, posted in an empty yoghurt pot and with a joke for the postman scribbled along the side and it’s almost like a metaphor for lost youth and joie de vivre, and so I have decided to resurrect the lost art of the letter. I shall henceforth be celebrating ink-stained hands and investing in postage stamps and brightly coloured, scented stationery sets once more!

Now can someone please tell me, where do I plug in this pen?


About prettyfeetpoptoe

I live in London and have both my own legs so I am fortunate enough to get out and about on occasion. I form many views on the things that I see and do and love nothing better than a session of linguistic gymnastics in order to share these views.

28 responses »

  1. Oh it’s true, I also have a collection of old letters from my friends. Since there was no email or computers, we would write to each other often, and i have letters from friends in Canada, Australia, Russia and from a friend who lived on the other side of the island. We would exchange photos and all. And then, there is no more ‘stalking the mailman’ to see if he brought in a new letter. Good times indeed!

    • I actually used to know the name of our postman, now I don’t even know what they look like!

      I found a packet of photo negatives that someone sent me in 1994, asking me to return them once I’d copied them. Clearly I never did so maybe Facebook is the safer way to share pictures. Whoops!

  2. 1) Were the skeletons wearing the stilettos? That would be pretty punk. 2) I can’t remember the last time I wrote a letter. I think when I started writing on a regular basis, computers were already creeping their way in. I remember writing thank you notes to Grandma. Now I just call. It is nice getting letters in the mail though. I hardly ever check the mail now unless I’m getting something from Amazon. Sorry I went on a rant there…. Good post.

    • Thank-you notes were always my least favourite part of birthdays and Christmas. Such a hideous chore but now I kind of miss them and yes, if it weren’t for Amazon, I think I’d probably have a huge amount of hatred for the poor postie.

      As to what the skeletons were wearing – you know how it is; what goes in the closet, stays in the closet. 😉

  3. Should I be expecting a letter then?

  4. I am thinking that I must be very strange. When I sit down to read emails, once I decide they are personal, I read them like a letter. I answer them like a letter. Sometimes, perhaps, a bit shorter as it doesn’t cost to send them; however, I try to show the importance I place on them by responding and caring. Perhaps, I am fooling myself and no one notices this.

    • I think that sounds highly admirable! I have a couple of “pen pals” on e-mail but I have to confess, I read their offerings as I rush for trains on my phone and I’ve even been known to reply to one recent lengthy e-letter while sat in the hairdresser’s chair.

  5. My “box under the bed” has hardly been added to in the last 10 years or so.
    I used to make an art form out of it. Writing two letters at the same time on alternate lines was a favourite.
    I once did 4 sides of A4 where the message went down the left hand side as the first letter of every word but was impossible to see. I have never asked her if she realised…

    • You sound like my yoghurt pot posting pal! I like a good cryptic note. Well, unless it’s cryptic because the spelling, grammar and handwriting are so abysmal that you question whether it’s actually written in hieroglyphs.

  6. I still have a friend who occasionally sends me a letter. She addresses it to me, but her return address is something like this: Mars, Outer Space, Universe, 9999999. Somehow it still manages to get to me. I hate writing letters. I send cards. I still have some of those received from friends from my teen years. Occasionally, I’ll come across them looking for some other relic or artifact from my past. They’re a hoot to read. Then I realize what a nob I was back then!

    • It really is so revealing of who we were back in our youth, when we read these silly little bon mots from friends of yesteryear. We thought we were so radical and sincere and knew better than anyone over the age of 20. Hilarious.

  7. charmedbylove

    my ex and i used to send each other letters… until twitter came into play… damn!

  8. Exactly. You get the real feeling when you actually pen down your thoughts with ink-stained hands.
    I remember sending letters to my aunt in cursive writing on a greenish card with an actual fountain pen and a lot of thinking for an error-free text (there was no spell check back then) and I loved the feeling when she received my letter and replied back. We were so far away yet so close. And now, we are so close yet so far away. The times have changed. It’s neither good nor bad.

  9. I’ve tweeted this for you.

  10. edshigginsblog

    Nice post! I’ve recently found the joys of letters, having grown up with the internet, there’s so much personality in handwriting that you don’t get with printed text, although most people apparently can’t read mine!

    • You don’t need to be able to understand the scribbles to get a fix from that flutter of the letter box. Keep up the good work – I thank you, your recipient thanks you, your postman thanks you!

  11. When I was nine years old, I found a bit of metal in a tin of Heinz spaghetti and wrote them a long, imaginative letter of complaint, detailing all the dire things that could have befallen me had I ingested said bit. My father derided my efforts – until two weeks later the postman came staggering up our drive carting a big brown box containing twelve large tins of assorted Heinz delights including my then absolute favourite – macaroni cheese. And a fulsome letter of apology from Heinz’ managing director himself. I was in seventh heaven, my father was cowed and uncharacteristically silent. I believe that episode was a major catalyst for my lifelong addiction to producing the printed word – and even writing the occasional letter. What’s your address? I have my green pen all ready….

  12. This is such a great post! I do miss the lost art of letters, it’s always such a pleasure to have a hand-written letter turn up in the post. Due to their rarity they always terrify me to some extent while I’m opening it, expecting some of the worst/strangest news I could have imagined, but then it’s always from my Diabetes nurse and I can relax a little before quickly becoming disappointed that it wasn’t something else.
    *shakes fist*

    • Maybe you should start replying to your diabetes nurse with some updates in your personal life and ask her about her husband’s IBS. I bet she’s gutted no-one ever replies to her!

  13. I too have a shoebox full of letters from my teenage years and they are kept safely tucked away with other valuables. There the similarity ends with your post which yearns for a little return to those days.

    I was RUBBISH as a penfriend and hopeless at letter writing. My handwriting is crap (I tell all my students my writing is so bad I should have been a doctor – if it weren’t for all those patients who would die at my hands as a result. Can’t even use a thermometer properly); my hand always used to hurt when I wrote letters, essays, my signature…and I could never think of anything to write!

    Computers and the internet were invented for me – not anyone else. Bill made them ALL for me. Because I learned to type almost as fast as I think (yes, I type that slowly) and it doesn’t hurt to type (not until she reads the email anyway…). I can actually think of what to write on the net and this spills out, rather a lot really, into my blog.

    I actually lost some friends as a teenager who wrote to me foolishly spilling out their problems to me and I failed to write back in time (or often at all) to offer my sage advice. I just couldn’t do it. Several of them were really important to me too (well, I fancied them and that more or less bottles down to the same thing when you’re 15).

    Never with the internet – may it reign forever!

    PS – the pen should plug into your USB port – just find it’s connecting wire….


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