Technology, which allows us to bang out emails with as much speed as we can muster, or make contact with friends through texts and social media, has a lot to answer for when it comes to the decline in the civility of taking pen to paper, thinking about what you’re going to write and making an effort to write legibly or perhaps, quite beautifully, if you have mastered your own form of stylish hand-writing.
But if technology has heralded the decline in the art of letter writing, then surely its death knell has been sounded by An Post’s announcement that the price of a stamp is going to jump to €1. This is a rise of almost 40% and is the third increase in the price of postage stamps in the past two years. And there’s to be more post office closures — all this bad news stemming from the fact that An Post is losing a staggering €10m a year.
However, there are still people — mostly of mature years — for whom letter writing is part of their lives. My mother still buys decent note paper (Basildon Bond was always a favourite) and regularly writes to her sister in Dublin.
However, my aunt’s daughter often relays any family news on Facebook which I pass on to my mother. It’s kind of making the letter writing a redundant exercise. A letter rarely contains ‘breaking news’ given that it can take 48 hours to reach its destination by which time anything momentous has already been relayed through more efficient means than snail mail.
When I was at primary school, we had inkwells on our desks and were taught to write with dark blue ink-infused nibs. We learned the correct way to fashion a letter with our address in the top right hand corner and the opening salutation, ‘Dear X’ lower down on the left hand side of the page. Do today’s kids learn this exercise in communication? Hardly. And I’m sure they moan despairingly when told by their parents to write a thank-you letter (or just an effortless note) to a relative who has given them a gift. Kids don’t like effort or formality. They’d much rather send a text complete with abbreviations.
It might be no harm to tell them what letter writing involved in biblical times. You’re talking serious effort. St Paul, the apostle, wrote thirteen epistles (designed to look like letters) which form part of the New Testament. He had to write on crossed strips of river reed with a pen made from a split reed or a goose quill. It was a laborious business. It’s been estimated that it would take an hour to produce 70 words back then. St Paul’s longest epistle, ‘Letter to the Romans’ would have taken 100 hours to complete. Time, back in those days, was a different currency to what it is today where time is money.
Queen Victoria was a prolific letter writer. In an attempt at efficiency, she had a stack of envelopes printed with her most frequent correspondents’ addresses, written in a facsimile of her own hand. One of her closest confidantes was her eldest daughter to whom she sent 3,700 letters. These included unkind observations about motherhood.
“An ugly baby is a very nasty object and the prettiest is frightful when undressed,” she wrote.
The novelist, EM Forster unkindly described writer, Jane Austen’s correspondence with her sister, Cassandra as “the whinnying of harpies.” Despite this, her letters were an invaluable insight into middle-class provincial life in the late 18th and early 19th century. It has been said that her letters were perhaps even more insightful than her novels with their extra strong biting satire.
Letters pages in newspapers are always worth reading and it would be a shame if they faded out. Often, the letters are sent by email. But for senior citizens, with plenty to say but perhaps no access to computers, taking out pen and paper is to be encouraged.
Some papers award their star letter writers with a modest sum of money or a book token. But there is a cohort that needs no such enticements. They’re known as the ‘green ink brigade’. A green ink writer is someone who becomes obsessive about an issue and will write across old railway timetables or any piece of paper to hand in green ink. Letters’ editors are scathing about them. But they’re all part of the newspaper experience although such correspondents are on the decline.
With the increase in the price of stamps, sending Christmas cards will become very selective and discriminatory. We’ll all be knocking people off our list!