February is InCoWriMo, otherwise known as International Correspondence Writing Month, which challenges you to hand-write (no new-fangled typing in this challenge) and post or deliver one letter, card, note or postcard every day during the month of February.
And whilst writing to strangers is perfectly acceptable during InCoWriMo – sign up here if you’re in - the current travel restrictions and the ban on the mixing of households mean there’s never been a better time to re-connect with friends and family. And after all, who wouldn’t want to say toodleoo to Teams and see you later Zoom?
‘Snail mail’ is something that we think of as belonging to a different age and indeed there have been many key letters through the years that we can’t imagine having the same impact had they been sent via text, email or - heaven forbid! - a WhatsApp message (other chat Apps are available). When we think of letters through history we may think of Beethoven writing to an unknown ‘Immortal Beloved’:
'…What longing in tears for you — You — my Life — my All — farewell. Oh, go on loving me — never doubt the faithfullest heart
Of your beloved
Then there are letters that changed the course of history. Take the ambiguous pencil-written letter from Lord Raglan to Lord Lucan detailing the order to ‘…take the (Russian) guns’ – the tragic consequences of which were soon after immortalised in Tennyson’s poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’.
Letters aside, Charlotte used the only communication tool available to her in cementing her friendship with - and the ultimate salvation of - Wilbur the Pig in the delightful E.B.White children’s story ‘Charlotte’s Web.’
And for a heroine of the human kind, literature lovers may want to revisit the perfect love letter from Wentworth to Anne in Jane Austen’s 'Persuasion':
'I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever... I have loved none but you.'
Back in the time ‘BEM’ (before email), letters and postcards were certainly the de rigueur way of keeping in touch and for me, a child of the 70s, they represent the continuous thread of communication that has run throughout my life.
Sending thank you cards goes back to ancient times, when the Chinese and Egyptians were writing notes on papyrus as tokens of good luck. And they represent my earliest form of letter writing too - on the occasion of Christmas and birthdays to Great Auntie Janey thanking her for my pound note and Twinkle annual (strapline ‘especially for little girls’), written on newly gifted notelets (the standard Christmas present in 1974, along with soap on a rope and the odd random kaleidoscope).
Age 13 I was confident that pouring out my teenage yearnings on paper to rock and roll pin up Shakin’ Stevens (real name Mike Barratt) would guarantee that he would ‘Give me his heart tonight’ or at the very least suggest that I was a perfect candidate to run his fan club and that I should henceforth hot-foot it to Walton-on-Thames. Who knows if the letter ever reached its destination, but for me, a shy teenager, the mere act of communicating - much like allowing a child the freedom to play at ‘make believe’ - served its purpose.
And what is a pen friend without the act of letter writing? Valèrie, from the delightfully-named Fleury les Aubrais near Orleans, was paired up with me in the spring of 1981. Fast forward a couple of decades and being a pen friend still holds certain responsibilities; it was testament to the power of communication that 17 years later she made the solo trip to my wedding in England. Our friendship again came full circle when 10 years ago our own boys started the tentative first steps in their own communication journey… ‘Je m’appelle Louie’.
My 18th year saw me leave my childhood home, not for the dreaming spires of Oxford but for the flatlands of Essex. With one communal pay phone serving 200 students (what were they thinking?), writing became the only way of keeping in touch. Family letters provided updates on Snoopy the dog (the real life variety) and were often accompanied by gratefully-received postal orders. And it is hard to believe now that when my father came down to London to take me out for a termly treat of dinner in the city, all the arrangements were made via letter. What if the missive hadn’t arrived in time, what if he hadn’t shown up, what if …?
My letter writing paper of choice was Hunkydory and I can still remember the excited rebellion of pairing a sheet of red writing paper with a yellow envelope!
Postcards too featured in the life of this girl. From the cherry blossoms of Japan to the skyscrapers of NYC, my father kept in touch with me from his work trips around the globe.
As my postcard collection grew, for a while I scoured antiques markets, adding postcards from the golden age of British seaside holidays. Whilst the sepia-tinged ‘Greetings from Margate’ were all very well, it was the records of other people’s holidays on the reverse that really fascinated me – ‘Weather very mixed, we’re hoping for an improvement’ sat alongside ‘the rolling sea mist means we can’t yet see the beach but we expect it to clear soon’ – proving that an obsession with the weather plus a tendency to always look on the bright side of life are nothing new within the British psyche.
The 2000s saw me extending not only my own family but my global family too, in the form of an Ecuadorian sponsor child. Through a dictated letter (‘David’ was age 5) we learned that our new friend was attending first grade, liked to ride a bike with friends Tito and Jaime and that he and his family lived in the shadow of a volcano – the omnipotent Cotopaxi. Corresponding with David not only enabled me to practise my Spanish but also to witness the transformation from shy child to confident young man. It was with certain sadness then, that some 13 years after we undertook this adventure we were informed that the family had moved on – a common occurrence in rural communities searching for work.
Whichever way you decide to take up the challenge this February, know that committing your authentic self to the page will elicit within your recipient a warm, fuzzy glow that no email or text can ever achieve.
8 February 2021