The last post
Saturday 13 October 2007 Ten.53 BST Very first published on Saturday 13 October 2007 Ten.53 BST
For anyone whose wellbeing depends on the daily arrival of what some people call snail-mail, the past two weeks’ postal strikes will have brought disquieting auguries of the future. Some people have very likely welcomed a respite from junkmail and bills, but there are thousands who will have been troubled by more painful absences – chiefly, the people who still write and receive letters, postcards and notelets, and cling to a cherished means of individual contact.
Earlier this week, the postal economist Ian Senior appeared on Radio Four and highlighted the likely effect of the strikes on this supposedly dwindling xxx. What he said was hardly revelatory, but sobering all the same: “Most people, once they have email, choose never to send a physical letter ever again, if they can avoid it. When there are no letters being posted and received, that will encourage those people who don’t have email to get it. That simply hastens the decline of the letter as a method of communication.”
Sharpening one’s understanding of all this is not effortless. For the past decade or so, the decline of individual letter-writing has been masked by a thick growth of junk mail, so annual falls in the total volume of letters have been a matter of increment. At the last count, the figure was down 1.6% year on year, however nosediving comes back from the letters market most likely said a excellent deal more: inbetween 2004-5 and 2005-6, Royal Mail’s profits from letters fell by a third.
To truly grip the decline of letter-writing, it’s most instructive to look at surveys of the youthfull. Those upstanding parents who still insist on thank-you letters may well be a dying breed: two years ago, a poll carried out by the Department for Education found that a third of 16- to 19-year-old women had never written a letter, while among boys, the figure was over a half. Anecdotal evidence surely completes the picture. When did you last write a decent letter to a close friend or family member? Where do you keep your Basildon Bond writing-paper and stock of envelopes?
If the letter truly is fading prompt, now might be a good time to chew over what we are about to lose. Out will go the epistolary novel. What will happen to righteous postal missives sent at the suggestion of Amnesty International, or angry screeds mailed to your MP? Whither old-school fanmail? Perhaps most importantly, what could ever substitute the soppy wonderment of the old-fashioned love letter? These thoughts underline why the practice of letter-writing may turn out to be a little more resilient than the figures suggest. Somewhat remarkably, we are evidently spending more on pens and stationery, so all may not be lost.
The advent of email – not to mention texting, instant messaging and social networking – has undoubtedly played much the fattest role in the fate of the letter, but the novelist AS Byatt traces its long-term decline a little further back. “I think the television has killed letter-writing just as much as email has,” she says. “In the Victorian era, letter-writing was what people did in their spare time, and then they read the letters to each other. In a way, it was the news, as much as anything. People would get these very long letters, and they’d know the writer expected the person to whom they had written to display it to the rest of the family. I don’t think that happens any more, except those round-robin things people write at Christmas. They’re the last ghost of all that.”
Largely in reaction to fanmail, Byatt still manages around five letters a week, however she is an enthusiastic convert to the brisk efficiency of email. Computer-based communication, she says, is “conversational without being intrusive”: preferable not just to letter-writing, but also the fear prospect of wasting time on the telephone.
There is only one problem: what her reliance on electronic communication will mean for her legacy. “I’ve been talking to the British Library, who are interested in my archive, but it’s not going to be effortless for them, because technology keeps switching,” she says. “Very often, they can’t read the computer material they’ve collected. They say that eventually they’d like to take away a copy of my hard disk, but with a lot of the stuff they’ve collected, the technology has gone out of date and they can’t read it. They still love ink on paper.”
And so we arrive at one of the more worrying consequences of the transition from paper to computer: if emails rather than letters now denote the progress of significant lives, how will future biographers manage?
“From that point of view, it’s a accomplish bummer,” says the novelist and biographer DJ Taylor, whose life of William Makepeace Thackeray drew on voluminous handwritten correspondence. “Thackeray always reckoned that he wasn’t much of a letter-writer, but he wrote 15 every morning. He went through the business ones very first, and then he went on to letters and chums and so forward, and in some ways, it’s the only way that you can track his life. With Orwell, my other biographical subject, you wish that there were more. There are letters, but he’s not terribly lucid at times, and there are entire weeks and months of his life where you don’t know where he is.
“A long letter correspondence inbetween people who know each other well is fairly a sophisticated mode of discourse,” he says. “The problem is not so much the contrast inbetween the letter and the email and text message; the problem is, is anybody going to bother to keep those forms of communication? If you’re a famous writer, and you’re sending emails rearwards and forwards to your mates, are you going to retrieve them? I don’t know.”
Talking to Taylor also shines light on the fact that an afternoon spent with paper and pen permits far more scope for self-reinvention than a few minutes spent at a computer. “Letters give you distance,” he says. “They give you the chance to present yourself – to perform.”
There is perhaps no better example of all this than the role played by the letter in the bohemian subcultures that open up from the English Romantics, through Rimbaud and Verlaine and the American Hammers, and on in turn to the kind of neurotic outsiders who have recurrently kicked along postwar pop culture. In the palms of the latter, the archetypal letter became a combination of stream of consciousness and confessional – there in the letters of figures as diverse as Jack Kerouac, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain. The latter’s posthumous book, Journals, was littered with letters to friends, colleagues and paramours (e.g. “Dave, a band needs to practice in our opinion at least Five times a week if the band ever expects to accomplish anything”). By way of linking him to this heritage, the demise of that fated romantic Pete Doherty’s most celebrated relationship with Kate Moss was commemorated by the Sun headline “Kate Moss burns Pete Doherty’s love letters”.
For one British rock group, letter-writing was once almost as significant as the business of making music. Manic Street Preachers, whose career began in the pre-email days of the early 1990s, navigated through their pre-fame teenagers and early 20s by indulging in long, artful correspondence in which they managed to transcend their home environment of post-industrial South Wales and believe that their existence was already ever-so-slightly mythic. “What we wrote were always more than letters,” says their bass player and lyricist, Nicky Wire. “There would be a dodgy poem, or a lyric, and a picture of, say, The Clash or Sylvia Plath. I’ve kept them all. There was something tactile and beautiful about them. And even back then, there was a bit of us that thought, ‘This is indeed significant – one day, everyone will read these letters.’ Because we grew up reading books about people writing letters, that’s what we thought.”
Wire, who goes on to talk about the glory of the cautiously chosen postcard (“We’d send each other things like miniaturised posters for Rumble Fish and Birdy, then it moved on to Klimt and Munch”), remains a sultry advocate of longhand communication. “I still write letters and postcards,” he says. “Not as much as I used to, but they’re still part of my life. There’s a lot of thought and care put into them – the envelope, the writing paper, everything. The world will be poorer without all that. And besides the precious nature of it all, for any writer, letter-writing is indeed good practice.” He has never sent an email in his life: “I’ve just got this conviction that skill is only skimmed on a computer. When I look at emails, a kind of dyslexia overcomes me. It just seems bothersome.”
As an advocate of handwritten communication, Wire is hardly alone. Like him, the writer and illustrator Posy Simmonds has yet to send an email, and talks about her endless postcard and letter-writing with an infectious enthusiasm. “I love receiving letters,” she says. “There’s nothing nicer than getting somebody’s handwriting in the post. They might have put their coffee down on the page, so there’ll be a splodge on it, or a wine-stain, or you see that they were in a hurry because the writing goes Vrrrrrrrrrr! It all adds more. It’s all about context; human life is there.”
Underneath the doom-laden statistics, letter-writers such as Wire and Simmonds can find cause for hope. The elementary volume of letters may seem to be falling, but there are signs of renewed interest in the world of paper, envelopes, and trips to the post office. Last year, the consumer research company Mintel found that annual sales of pens and stationery had reached ?546m – up 4% on the figure for 2005.
Perhaps the best example of all this is the ongoing success of the upmarket stationery sold by Smythson, the company whose most notable face is their creative director, Samantha Cameron. Its merchandise includes a personalised range, nomable items such as watermarked paper in “Fluid Wove”, “Glen Cova” and “Bond Street Blue”, and a pigskin correspondence box that goes for ?495. The request for Smythson stationery, says a company spokeswoman, boils down to the fact that “in this time of advanced technology, the written word is more celebrated and appreciated than ever before”.
The letter, then, may be more suffering than some people would have us believe – not least because there are some things to which pen and paper may always be better suited, as an email I received this week from that inveterate missive-writer Julie Burchill pointed out. “Email is better for politics because it’s more aggressive,” she said. “Handwriting for hook-up, I think.”
How to write one
Letterhead: Put your address at the top on the right. The addressee’s address goes below, on the left-hand side. It used to be thought courteous to go after the name of a man you might be writing to with the abbreviation “Esq.”. Nowadays, this can have an old-fashioned ring to it.
Salutation and sign-off: “Hi” is not regarded an acceptable form of salutation in letters. Use either “Dear Deirdre/Peter, etc” or “Dear Master/Madam”. And stay consistent: if you use the private salutation, sign off with “Yours sincerely”, or perhaps “Best wishes”. If you address the recipient of the letter impersonally, use “Yours faithfully”.
Main assets: traps to avoid: Familiar to the speaking-writing hybrid of email exchanges, many people tend to slip into a fusty, archaic mode when they write a letter. Be clear and to the point, using brief sentences where you can. It is best to avoid mock-formal expressions such as “With reference to our telephone discussion” or “Further to my latest letter of complaint”.
Completing: useful tips: If you are expecting a response, use the present continuous form of the verb in the last paragraph, ie: “I look forward to hearing your response”. If, however, you want to bring the correspondence to a close, let your grammar reflect this: “We regret we cannot assist you further with your query”.
· Ben Harris, editor of The Oxford Guide to Effective Speaking and Writing.
· The following clarification was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Monday October 29 2007. In this article about the art of letter-writing, we suggested using the present continuous form of the verb in the last paragraph if a response was expected. However, the example given, “I look forward to hearing your response”, was an example of the present ordinary tense with a gerund, not the present continuous tense.