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A Love Letter to the Letter

I love letters.

I love writing letters.

I love receiving letters.

Flat stack of letters tied with string

Writing letters is a lifelong passion of mine but it's certainly something that I've neglected over the past decade or so. I was inspired to write this post by a Twitter thread started by the musician and playwright Anaïs Mitchell, inviting those of us old enough to have experienced it, to share what we miss the most about our analogue, pre-mobile phone lives. It resonated with me that many of the respondents reminisced about handwritten letters because a few hours earlier, I had made a new year's resolution to write more of them.

I find that letters, in contrast to other written formats, flow easily and are so wonderfully freeing. When writing to friends or family, I don't have to worry about syntax or agonise over every word choice and I can draw or doodle across the pages with wild abandon and nobody raises an eyebrow. I love everything about the experience, from selecting the paper and pen to my recent experiments with using a wax seal on the envelope. (N.B. This is very satisfying but a bit risky as it sometimes doesn't survive the postal system. I'm going to start using it on the actual letters instead, I think.)

Gold wax seal with S stamp

The one thing I am guilty of, however, is carrying letters around in my bag or tucked away at home, addressed, stamped and simply forgotten. I think my current record is actually a good couple of years. A couple of years! Into the post it goes, pointlessly delivering its news from an age ago. 

As I said, I don't write nearly as many letters as I did in years gone by. As a child, I would even write to my favourite TV personalities and some of my letters to relatives contained fully-realised cartoon strips which continued across several instalments. So why has it lessened over recent years? To be honest, I just fell out of the habit as I found myself with increasing responsibilities and decreasing free waking hours. I'm not a complete technophobe and, of course, email, texts and group chats became my dominant methods of communication, as they naturally do. The ease and immediacy of these forms cannot be underplayed. I did, however, print out all of my early email correspondence in 2000, subverting its digital nature and forcing it into a tangible format. Those early emails between friends were letters, lengthy and detailed...this was our generation's fascinating transition to digital communication. Emails aren't generally like that anymore.

But there's nothing quite like receiving a good old handwritten letter. I'm sentimental and nostalgic and I like looking back through time...at letters exchanged with friends at different universities; those from my Mum when I was a student in Copenhagen with only letters and phonecalls from the local phonebox to connect me to her; letters from my older sister who had moved away to the excitement of London when I was still living at home; the pure thrill of receiving a letter in the most exquisite handwriting from Laëtitia, my French penpal; letters flown across the Atlantic from my lovely exchange partner, Jessica in Minnesota; thoughtful letters from relatives with cuttings that they knew would be of interest to me; letters from my friend who had gone to a different middle school, delivered by hand via a mutual companion; even secretive notes passed around at high school (the 1990s equivalent of the group chat). I still have pretty much all of them. I told you my attic is overflowing.

International post with AIR MAIL stamp
Letter from French penpal
Handwritten letter with hedgehog leaflet enclosed
Handwritten letter on lined paper

Whilst writing this, I took down a few of the bundles of letters from the attic to have a proper look through, some tied with string and scraps of ribbon with a semblance of order and many others jumbled randomly in shoeboxes. I had completely forgotten just how much we all wrote to each other in the 1990s and early 2000s. Was this just my family, friends and me, or was everyone at it? It's startling, actually. We wrote A LOT of letters. There was a letter from 2004 with a game of noughts and crosses (was it ever completed?), letters adorned with random stickers from magazines, even letters sent by FAX, which was the height of technology back then as it offered for the first time, instant written communication across a distance. I'm being sincere when I say it was completely enthralling to see the letter emerge from the machine on shiny paper, which was oddly reminiscent of that ridiculous toilet paper from our first school days. 

Handwritten letter with noughts and crosses game
Envelope with stickers and handwritten notes
Handwritten letter sent using fax machine

The letters in the attic chart my locational history, from my childhood home in Blyth, Northumberland to various student flats in Edinburgh, places I lived in with friends when I had my first job and five addresses on both sides of the river since moving down to London, with an increasing number of offspring.

I've always had a group of both male and female friends and there are lengthy letters from boys as well as girls. Mostly it appears that we rambled on about everyday news, interspersed with a funny drawing or fancy writing and often an intricately decorated envelope (which reminds me, this book is one of my favourites). Lots of drawings, actually. More than I expected and we didn't appear to overthink our sketches or worry about how they looked; it was an uninhibited visual language. (This discovery serendipitously links back to my previous blog post!) I've spent way longer than I should have today looking through these letters again and it's been wonderful. I knew I was right to hold onto them.


Driving test congratulations drawing
Letter with handdrawn illustrations

To summarise, I just find letters so tactile and unfailingly romantic. It's way more expensive to send letters now, of course, but in my opinion, it's worth it.

So that's my new year's resolution. To write more letters. Oh, and to remember to post them.

Piles of letters and writing paper with sunshine yellow mug

 

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