If you’ve been following me on Twitter or reading this blog, you’ll know that lately I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia trip. It all started with re-watching The Bounty and re-reading about it, before I moved on to looking at some of my old diaries and finally finding out a pile of old letters. I have these months from time to time, but I think I’m having a more prolonged period of it this time round, possibly because I hit forty this year and so often at these milestones we start to look back more, perhaps to try and see how far we’ve come.
Anyway, having dug out a shoebox full of handwritten letters I’d received, mostly from the period 1994 up to around 1998 I’ve wanted to write a blog post about the lost art of letter writing.
Yes, here she goes again, harking back to the ‘good old days’ through her rose tinted spectacles. However, it’s not going to be that kind of blog post. I’m not necessarily going to bemoan the modern age we live in or the technological advances we have made since paper and pen were invented. Oh, who am I kidding? Yes, I probably will.
So to start with I am always incredibly grateful that I am not 18 now or indeed was 18 at any point in the last fifteen years – in the age I will call the ‘mobile’ age. 1998/1999 will always be the turning point to me. It is when I started a full time career. It was when I bought a house. It was when I became aware of something called ‘the Internet’ and ‘world wide web’ whilst having not a Scooby-Doo what it was and thinking it was just another fad which would fizzle out. Like blogging. Well how wrong was I?! (The same amount of wrong I always am with regard to technology as it happens). It’s also the time I got my first mobile phone. It was a Panasonic one (my dad always rated Panasonic and I always listened to him where technology was concerned), and it looked like this:
It sent texts and you could call people on it. It was a phone. That was it. I got a free portable TV with it too, which was my main reason for purchasing this particular one!
But really it was much more than that, because the mobile phone, and in particular texting, ended an era. It ended the era of letter writing.
Which may seem a bit weird, because surely e-mail would end letter writing, not text messaging. Well, no you see because I didn’t get a personal e-mail account until 2010. (See, this is how far behind the times I always am). I had an email account at work, but that rarely got used other than for internal memo type communications. No, you see being able to text my friends became an immediate thing. It became the way to communicate with them because sending a text message was cheaper than phoning them and cheaper than a first class stamp. Prior to texting my friends, the only options were to a) phone (land line – mum putting limits on as it was expensive or the other 6 members of the household were clogging it up) or write. Writing won. But then text messaging became not only available and cheap but it was also more instant. But you all know this, this is not a lesson on the history of mobile communications.
No, but you see, despite all this wonder of technology, the thing is, the mobile age makes me sad in may ways. It makes me sad because everything is transient because of it. Nothing is static. It doesn’t stick around (despite what we are told about the Internet and it all ‘hanging around in clouds’). It may be there, but we don’t go back to access it and the worst thing is we are not the only ones who *can* access it. Texts (back in the day) had to be deleted once you got to twenty in your inbox. Yes, twenty! So any texts you wanted to keep, well you couldn’t really, otherwise new ones wouldn’t come through. I know times have changed in that respect, but a device will still only store so many before it begins automatically deleting them. Letter writing was never like that. Yes, of course you could choose to get rid of your letters, but most people don’t. I’ve been surprised over the years to know the people I sent letters to back then, have kept them. I think we all realise and value the written word. We know these small historical documents give an insight into a place and time which we’ll never get back. I think the mobile phone and internet, social media in particular, is going to kill the type of history of the ordinary person on the street. There will be a plethora of political, entertainment and cultural global history more readily available because of the internet, but the small, real life stories, the anecdotal stuff, like the love letters between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn which give us the human story behind the political history, they will be lost.
I imagine there is already a generation of teens who have never given or received a love letter. How utterly sad and depressing I find that. I mean, there may possibly be some who still send them simply to be romantic or for posterity, but sadly the reality is there is no need to send them any more. Long distance relationships can be conducted through Skype and across the social media waves. ‘Free’ phone calls and unlimited texts and WattsApp mean it doesn’t cost the earth to communicate. E-mail is free. There are now so many ways to communicate, it is quite astounding. (It’s also kind of ironic that despite all these ways to communicate, we probably do so less than say back in 1994.) It is also sad that communciaction has to be so instant and rapid. Back in the day (was only going to be a matter of time before I used that phrase), I might not speak to, or hear from my boyfriend in any form in over a week. I didn’t worry about it though. I’d send a letter and wait patiently (ish) for a response. When going to visit him I’d have to get a coach or a train. I’d write and tell him what time it would get in and hope he’d be there to meet me. There was no way to inform him if it was late. He’d just have to rely on the information boards at the station to tell him. I find it hard to believe sometimes I’m only talking about twenty years ago.
So anyway, back in the ’90s I had reasons to write letters and I am actually so glad I did. Reading some of the letters I’d sent to my sister which she showed me to match up with the ones she’d sent me give an insight even my diaries didn’t fully give into the past. The letters added new dimensions to the diary entries and of course gave different viewpoints of the different senders. My letters (and I’d be intrigued to read more from others I sent) show how I communicated with my sister, how I hid certain aspects of what was going on in my life, or over shared, how much I’ve matured since then and how much my spelling and grammar has improved! As historical documents they are quite fascinating. But post 1998 there is nothing much like this for me to look back on and get that sense of my own history. Which is why I still keep diaries. I may not write and receive letters, but my diaries provide me with an insight into my life at certain points.
Now I always loved writing letters. Not everyone does, but I enjoyed sitting down with a fresh piece of (sometimes fancy, sometimes A4 lined from my study notepad) paper and sharing all the news of what was going on through stories. I guess really this is where my story writing began. I wrote long letters which used to prompt the recipients to always reply with “sorry this letter is so short/crap” as though I expected them to have the same love for it. The point was though I loved receiving letters too, however short, and always appreciated the effort people put in.
But why as late on as the mid ’90s was letter writing still fairly prevalent? Well for me it was quite simple. My boyfriend at the time and most of the friends I had made during my time studying for my A-levels had all moved away to university. My sister too moved away to work in Devon. With phone calls from landlines being expensive and Halls of Residence in Universities only having pay phones (and thus requiring expensive phone cards which my friends and boyfriend only sometimes had if their parents had sent them one), letter writing was the way to go. Weirdly though one of my friends who only lived a couple of miles away and who I used to see, if not every day, at least a few times a week, used to write to me and I to he. We all just liked getting mail I think!
Anyway, I was reading the letters from my first boyfriend from at that time the other week, and I’d forgotten how absolutely brilliant a letter writer he was. I was crying with laughter at some of them, and crying with sadness at the loss of what we had when I read others. I was cringing at our teen angst and laughing at it in equal measure. I would love to see the other half of those letters; the ones I’d written, though maybe I’d be doing a lot more cringing! But they were brilliantly funny letters, a personality on a page, and reading them transported me back to Leeds instantly and all the characters he met, and ultimately I met, at that time. For the way he wrote letters, these real people become characters in a two year saga. It is wonderful to have that and to be able to relive it in a way. He also wrote quite hopelessly romantic things but never in a slushy way, outrageous things (usually on the envelope to shock the postman or my mum and dad), and I am convinced his unique way with words must be attributed to his love of Morrissey! There are random song lyrics quoted, his hatred for Oasis rears it’s head in a brilliant anecdotal way, and a plastic sheep called It Right Up, which all had me crying with laughter on re-reading them. Through the letters I see how our relationship grew and how we destroyed it, and though that makes me feel sad and guilty (for it was I who ended it), it’s so long in the past now (and we are still good friends) that we can both laugh at it all.
One thing he wrote really stood out though when I was reading them which was the catalyst for this post. In one he was clearly feeling down and a bit homesick. He would always take ages to write a letter, and he would write the day at the top of each section when he’d start back up again from where he left off. In one letter, he wrote that he needed to write rather than phone me because he needed to feel the permanency of words on a page. That for me sums up maybe what the current generation will be missing out on. The permanency of words on a page. Not to mention the long form of communication which is also disappearing. If you can’t say it in 140 characters, folk can’t cope and they move on. We’re told blog posts need to be short. Novels can’t have description and need an instant hook in the first sentence. No one is willing to invest a bit more it seems. No one has a long attention span any more. Everything, as I say, is short, snappy, transient. Blink and you’ve missed it. I am glad to have those words, permanently here with me. I am glad he, my best friend, my other friends, my Grandad and my sister all took the time to write letters to me. They all tell the story of times long gone, but which because of them will never be truly forgotten. My Grandad died in 1994. I have all the letters I’d sent him (as he’d kept them) and the ones he sent me during the 1991-94 period we wrote to each other. They help me remember his voice. I am glad to have them, but who these days of the younger generation will have that?
I have no such letters from any of my other romantic relationships after my first or from any subsequent friendships made, as by the time my next one came round or the next set of friends were found, the mobile phone was there. I have been known, however, to sit and write down text message conversations just so I can feel some kind of permanency in the words spoken. It’s too easy in this day and age for people to forget that at some time in your life these people, whether friends or romantic partners, or family meant something to you. They usually meant a great deal. You shared good times and bad and have shared memories. It’s all too easy to forget and delete them from your life. Yes, life is transient and we should move on, go forward. But I don’t believe we should ever forget where we came from and the people we loved.
As for e-mails and anything written on the internet, I still don’t trust to keep it there, so even personal emails get deleted eventually, as who owns it? I own those letters sent to me. They were like gifts. But who owns the e-mails and text messages and Twitter and Facebook messages. It’s like music and photos now. None of it feels very permanent. You can’t keep everything of course. I couldn’t keep every phone conversation I had at those times, but the letters gave me something permanent. I guess we could copy e-mails and keep them. Print them. But it’s not quite the same. At least not for me.
As I say, I’m glad I was born when I was. That I got to experience what it feels like to have love letters, or letters of any kind. That I know how to read a map and can concentrate on reading a novel even if there are long passages of description. That I know what it feels like to listen to an album all the way through.
But I’m glad for technology too. I’m glad I get to write a blog and get to share that with as many people who wish to read it. I’m glad the 80,000 words of my novel have been word-processed not handwritten, as editing is so much easier!
See, now I told you I wouldn’t bemoan technology. Well not completely. 😉
Times move on, yes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally grieve for the past now, does it?