In the age of e-mail, Skype and texting, letter writing is a dying art. But they don't capture the emotion we expressed in writing, in a million different ways, was simply that we missed each other. And we could touch the very paper they'd touched.
Handwritten letters made emotions tangible
A lifetime of letters is strewn all over the terra cotta floor. I can see my late grandfather’s long, sloping writing on paper he cut to size so as not to be wasteful; the tightly knitted biro scrawl of my best friend on hundreds of thin blue airmail envelopes from Kenya; and the fat script with hearts dotting the “i’s” that, as teenage schoolgirls, we all used to write to each other in the holidays.
Thirty years’ worth of correspondence got soaked when my radiators burst in the cold Italian winter this year and now I am using electric heaters to dry them out. Just a glance at familiar handwriting on an envelope can make my heart race at the memory of waiting for that person to write. And we didn’t just write a few lines. We wrote pages and pages and pages.
When my best friend moved to Kenya and I moved to Russia in 1992, we couldn’t phone each other and we certainly couldn’t email. So, we wrote. I remember saving up stories and anecdotes – funny things people said and did, amazing things I’d seen – so that when I sat down to write I could have gone on forever. It was a conversation, a story, a life told by hand.
Last week I was driving through France with my children when we saw a camel in a field, chewing the cud under a willow tree. Stunned, we pulled over to investigate and found two llamas and a cage full of lions. A circus was in town. My daughter took a photo and texted it to her friend with a caption: “Camel in field in France.” Texts all have the same handwriting. It’s just a fact with no narrative. If she’d had to write a letter to her friend she would have included the drive, how annoying her brother was being, how she felt when she saw the camel in the grass by the chateau. She might even have drawn a little picture – my dad always did.
A war correspondent, Dad sent me letters and postcards from all over the world at least once a week from when I was born in 1970 to the day before he died in El Salvador in 1989. He did drawings, told jokes, let me taste Tripoli, Beirut, Cairo, Jerusalem, made me feel that I, in rainy suburban London, was part of a blazing world.
I have letters from behind the Iron Curtain, opened and resealed by the KGB, crass, badly written love letters from a boy I met in Moscow. There are love letters from other boys, too, neatly written, apologetic, explanatory, descriptive, sometimes pleading. There are even a few, I confess, from boys I don’t remember. One begins: “I was walking past your college the other day and got your address from the porter’s lodge. I hope you don’t mind.” How could I?
The emotion we expressed in writing, in a million different ways, was simply that we missed each other. “I wish you were here,” told so eloquently, amusingly, with words so drenched in longing that we almost felt we were there. And we could touch the very paper they’d touched.
I found, underneath a heap of wet, inky writing, a telegram that read: “I LOVE YOU STOP COME STOP.” I haven’t seen anything so romantic for years. Why? Well, partly because I am married and 42, but also because email has killed romance. There is no need to miss anyone – we can Skype! We can text, email, Facebook and tweet. We are in touch all the time with thousands of strangers. Actually face-mailing someone has become rarer and rarer. Letter writing is extinct.
A woman receiving a flirtatious email from a suitor might thrill at his name on the screen, but this is nothing compared with the sight of his actual handwriting on a cream envelope. I promise you.
Anna Blundy is a novelist and journalist based in London.