Following on from the previous post in praise of the fountain pen, this blog entry is all about the dying art of letter-writing. Why would anyone still want to write a letter when emailing is free, stamps are expensive and the postal services are not always reliable? Well, I think the answer, again, like with the fountain pen, has something to do with savouring the experience of spending a little more time writing something personal and meaningful.
People still send postcards (which have always been more about the image than the word, anyway), but there are not many practitioners of the epistolary arts left. I think that is sad, but I have an on-going correspondence with numerous people who still like writing letters, and in the case of my friend, the poet and scholar John Manson, there is no email alternative because he has resisted the pressure to go online. I salute him and look forward to his entertaining letters, hot from the research libraries of Edinburgh where he is forever at work. I collect all the letters I receive and take pride in arranging them alphabetically. Also, some of my letter-friends are now dead, so their correspondence is very important to me as it lets me hear their voices again.
Emails matter and can be collected too, but they are just not the same as a handwritten letter. The poet Wendy Cope made history by selling her email archive to the British Library a few years back. I have recently been trying to get my emails in order, but it is a pain to try and collate all the emails from a certain person. This isn’t the case with letters – they are a tangible reminder of a person. Like Wendy Cope’s emails, the letters of well-known writers have always been sought after – the biography of Hamish Henderson by Timothy Neat suggests that Henderson photocopied a number of his more important letters and sold the originals to the National Library of Scotland in order to fund one of his daughters’ weddings.
There was a controversy on Facebook recently when it was discovered that letters from the great Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean to a poet friend of mine were found for sale in a rare book-dealer’s catalogue. The catch? My friend had sold the letters to a book-collecting friend on the promise that he would then pass them onto the Mitchell Library in Glasgow after his death. Instead, they were sold and now carry a £500 price tag. This is the unfortunate side of letters – they are intensely private, yet we want to read them – not necessarily out of prurient interest, but instead a literary interest in the writer or poet involved. Sadly, they sometimes end up in the wrong hands, far away from the original recipient. But that is not a good enough reason not to write them.
I was proud to send my 6 year old nephew his first letter recently. He was delighted to get it and then respond – the novelty of it really appealed to him and he boasted to his friends at school that he had received a real life letter. The handwritten letter is a present that doesn’t cost much at all and gives a great deal of pleasure to its recipient (that is, if it is a friendly letter, and legibility helps!). The moral of this blog seems to be that words matter and the way in which we put them across to others matters just as much.