Artillery Row

The forgotten art of the handwritten letter

The humble handwritten letter has made a comeback during the coronavirus pandemic – but will it last?

I love receiving a good old-fashioned letter. There is something so comforting about it. It is more than just catching up on what’s been happening; it’s all about the drama of opening the envelope and taking time to read and enjoy the handwriting. For me, letters have been a saving grace. At times, receiving a letter from a loved one has lifted me up and pointed me back into the outside world. Reports of the death of this more personal form of communication have been much exaggerated. Thank goodness.

The letter has power. It is no accident that the one of the very earliest English novels was epistolary in form, and that the device of letters sent and received has remained part of the novelist armoury.

People tend to think of letter writing as a beautiful concept, but one not worth spending time on

A very recent scientific study from researchers in Japan and Canada has highlighted the odd power of letter writing — especially during the coronavirus pandemic. The study selected 738 people and then randomly assigned them two different tasks: one group to write a letter to their future self, another to write a letter from their future self to their present self. The positive impact on people’s mental health and well-being was immediate and extraordinary. It was as though the magic of a letter sent from, or to, better times allowed people to get a new perspective. The currency, the real stamp on the letter, is hope, it seems.

There are so many very immediate ways of communicating these days — it is impossible to think of doing without emails and texts, isn’t it? But, despite all the new ways of communicating, letter writing refuses to die. Perhaps we need to embrace this, encourage it even.

The Republic of Ireland Post Service, (An Post) are doing just this. In January they sent each household in Ireland two free stamps and postcards — that’s five million cards and stamps. It is a beautiful gesture and the second time An Post have done it throughout the pandemic. This time, they included one printed postcard and one blank — so people could unleash their drawing skills as well as their written ones. If this round of freebies does the trick like the first one last year, then there will be another increase in letter writing and postcards more generally in Ireland.

Can you just imagine the boost to writing and friendship it would be if Royal Mail did the same?

I sometimes think that people look at the personal letter in the same way they do an old heritage church: a beautiful concept, but not worth spending time on. But there is still hope for us letter writers. We just need to understand the odd witchy power of the personal letter or card.

The letter writing bug has become a phenomenon around the world during the pandemic

As Mark Street, Head of Campaigns at Royal Mail told me: “It takes a certain amount of emotional commitment to face a blank page, then think about what it is that makes the other person so special to you. And your handwriting makes it all the more personal.” There is something very civilized about letters. It is completely different to a culture that swipes right or send pictures of their private parts in order to woo a mate. And Royal Mail report that stamped mail is doing better than expected.

The letter writing bug has become a phenomenon around the world during the pandemic. In Medellin, Columbia an anonymous letter exchange organised by the libraries led to hundreds of people getting cards and letters that genuinely cheered them up.

Sometimes letters are a bit like unexploded bombs: they come unexpectedly and can have unforeseen results. A Sue Ryder shop in Belfast recently discovered a cache of love letters from George Fortune to his wife Mary written during the First World War. The letters were deeply touching, and the charity were able to reunite the letters with family members. Letters can be voices from the past, reminding us of who we used to be or what our loved ones thought and how they loved others.

Letters are a lifeline — a window to the past and a voice from the future

Letters can also be difficult. C. S. Lewis received thousands of letters and responded to each of them personally with the help first of his brother Warnie and then of his secretary, Walter Hooper. Lewis treated people with extraordinary respect and answered all kinds of rather deep and personal questions in a way that you couldn’t imagine a celebrity doing these days. Lewis saw it as his duty to correspond with people who had taken the trouble to write to him. However, it took its toll. At the height of his fame and swamped with letters he suffered a nervous collapse — exhausted by his home circumstances and pressures of work.

But that was then, what about now?

The Royal Mail reports an increase in the number of letters written over the last year. To me it’s heartening, and it has a very strong family resonance.

My father, Ralph, was a serviceman during the Suez Crisis. Middle-class girls would send pen pal letters to cheer up the troops. My dad loved it when he received a letter, but there was a problem. He could not read or write and so he spoke to his commanding officer who would read the letter out loud and then, Cyrano de Bergerac style, wrote back as though he were my father. The exchange continued and, when Ralph got home, it was love at first sight, marriage and then, well, I happened.

There’s a rather beautiful twist in the tale. When my father told my mother that he was unable to write she taught him how to do it. They sat and did the crossword every night and, eventually, dad’s confidence grew in a way that enabled him to get a job as head of advertising at one of the major national companies.

Letters are a lifeline — a window to the past and a voice from the future. Let’s just hope this new trend is here to stay.

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