Long Live Letters!

Women of LettersThis is not just about alliteration. Over the weekend, I wrote a letter. Yes, you read that right: I wrote a letter. With a pen. On a piece of paper. Several pieces of paper, as a matter of fact. Four long pages of long-forgotten cursive writing that my friend, Kathy, will have to endure when she receives the letter in approximately a week’s time, if Australia Post and Royal Mail are co-operative.

It has been a very long time since I have hand-written a letter, probably several years. Every year, at Christmas, I would attempt to write a short missive inside Christmas cards to overseas friends and relatives, just to give them a quick update on what I’d been up to over the course of the year. I never bothered to do a “standard” computer-printed letter insert that people frequently use, mostly because I never had that much to tell – just a couple of highlights such as “I spent five weeks around the US for the first time in more than 10 years” would generally suffice. After all, who wants to hear you brag about what a glorious time you had wandering around New York City for two weeks going to Broadway shows and meeting Alec Baldwin?

Anyway, I digress.

Letter-writing has become a lost art in the last twenty years since the rapid growth of the use of computers, internet, electronic mail, mobile phones, tablets and so on. Whilst I am a big fan of technological growth – many of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook well know I can barely go a few hours without checking my phone – I also remain a steadfast and loyal servant of the humble paper and pen. I still prefer to read a book in paper form, unless the book requires a cherrypicker to lift from my bookshelf. There is still a special excitement when I can turn a physical page in a book and being able to see your progress as the left side of the book starts to get thicker than the right side (unless you are reading a book in Chinese or Arabic, in which case you would be reading from right to left).

The same applies to letter-writing. When my family first moved to Australia over thirty years ago, I kept in touch with my old friends by writing letters to them. It was always exciting when the mail arrived and I would find a letter for me from my friends with news of what they had been up to. Of course, when you are in primary school, there really wasn’t much that happened to talk about. I still have a pile of those letters. Over the years, the excitement I used to get from retrieving the mail from my letterbox has dwindled, mostly because the incoming mail almost always meant bills, bills and more bills. Increasingly, this has spread to my electronic mailbox as companies moved from paper billing to electronic bills.

Thankfully, the love for letters and the written word has not disappeared completely – at least not yet. There are festivals dedicated to the written and spoken word and in the art of letter-writing. I recently attended a People of Letters event (hosted by Women of Letters) as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The event featured some of Australia’s most notable names in entertainment and journalism. The theme was “Letter to My Other Half” and paired up a playwright with his wife, an actress with her step-brother, a journalist with his partner, a radio and television personality with his on-air partner, and an author with his editor. Their letters were funny, honest, heart-breaking, heart-warming, revealing and refreshing. I laughed till I cried and I cried some more. They also handed out stamped postcards and aerogrammes (remember those?!) that we could use to write our own letters. I haven’t used mine yet although it is probably only a matter of time.

Our letters are our legacy. It’s like our diaries or journals, except they are for someone else to read. When my parents were moving house last year, they dug out a bunch of old letters that my Dad had written to us when he was in Europe for work for several months. I was only about four at the time so he kept his words simple enough so that Mum could read them out to us. Then we found letters my older sister had written back to our Dad – mostly she told him how annoying I was (she is two years older than I am). I was too little to be able to defend my honour, although she was probably telling the truth. Is there any younger sibling in this world who has never annoyed their older siblings? I think not.

Whilst my letters will not likely to ever be read out in public, there have been many correspondences by more famous people that have been made public that tell important stories about our history and our culture and give us insights into the psyche of their writers. One such letter was written by Alan Turing, the British mathematician who developed the Enigma machine to break the German codes that helped the British end WWII. He is also regarded as the Father of computer science and artificial intelligence. Sadly, he was also a gay man who lived in a conservative society where homosexuality was considered a criminal offence. In 1952, he was chemically castrated for his “crime”, which he chose as his punishment instead of going to jail. He committed suicide two years later by eating a poisoned apple (I read somewhere that Steve Jobs dedicated his company to Turing).

In 1952, just before he pleaded guilty for “gross indecency”, he wrote a letter to a friend and colleague, Norman Routledge. Below is a reading of that letter by actor Benedict Cumberbatch. It will bring a tear to your eye.

And now, I urge you to pick up a pen and paper, write a letter to someone you love or haven’t seen in a while. Even if it is only to say hello or to let them know you’re thinking of them. Go to the post office (yes, yes, I hate the queues, too), get a stamp and post the letter. It will put a smile on the recipient’s face. You never know, it just might brighten up their day.

P.S. In September 2009, Turing received an official public apology by the British Prime Minister and was granted a posthumous pardon on 24th December, 2013, by the Queen. 



2 thoughts on “Long Live Letters!

  1. Christine (@christinelive)

    Letter-writing is absolutely a lost art. Hand-writing in general is becoming a lost art. I don’t know about schools in Australia, but California removed teaching cursive from elementary schools a couple years back. And now most students are getting iPods or Chrome books in school. In few generations, no one will ever write a letter, and it’s a shame.


  2. Big Sis

    Yes, you so totally annoyed me when we were kids. (Yes, this is Val’s older sister.) Luckily things improved. Good post. Though I’m glad it’s you, not me, doing the hand letter-writing. I’ll stick to using my Montblanc fountain pen for chicken scratches aka “notetaking” and use my computers/devices for the rest.



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