Saturday, 21 July 2012
The Death of 'Dear....'
I miss letters. I don't just mean that I miss writing or receiving letters, because in reality there are only a handful of people for whom I have ever taken pen to paper. I am mourning the death of letters the whole world over.
The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check my emails. Admitting that depresses me. But I know that sadly I am far from unusual in being so tied to my online post box.
Most of the time the only things I receive via email are Groupon vouchers and messages from Transport for London telling me about disruptions to my service. Yet for some reason checking my Gmail account is a habit as reflexive as twiddling my hair when I'm thinking. The times that I do find a nice personal email waiting in my inbox it is lovely.
But it is not half as lovely as the thrilling sound of a fat envelope with my name handwritten on its smiling face falling onto my doormat. I open the envelope's mouth and out spills the sound of whoever has written me a letter. The curve or slanted scrawl of their handwriting dances to the sound of their voice and I am suddenly not just holding a letter, but my friend.
If my house were to be ravaged by fire, living loved ones aside, there are a few things I would battle the flames in order to save. My laptop, not so much because it is the most expensive thing I own but because it holds all my photographs and all of my writing. My childhood teddy (don't judge me- wouldn't you?). And my letters.
One of my very best friends is a friend whose handwriting I met before I met her. We started our friendship as pen-pals, put in contact through our schools' language exchange. She is called Juliette and (as the name might suggest) she lives in France.
Throughout the course of our long friendship, I have kept every letter she has sent to me. There are the very first letters, in which she introduces herself and describes her family (who I will come to meet and eventually to think of as my own), there are the letters she sent me after we first met and there are later letters which consist of pages and pages of teenage conversations (mostly about boys). The pile of envelopes, stamps and handwritten 'Dear Libby's are a record of our friendship and I would no more throw them away than I would throw away my own arm.
As well as my letters from Juliette, I have whole stacks of letters and birthday cards from other friends and family members who have written to me. Tucked away in the pile of papers there is probably the odd Valentine's Day card too (not as many as I perhaps would have liked to have received over the course of my 20 years, but special ones none the less).
One of my favourite songs is Baz Luhrmann's 'Wear Sunscreen' that is essentially a list of advice (to wear sunscreen is not surprisingly one of the recommendations). In the song one of the lines I most remember is, "Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements." Because when you are looking back on your life or are just generally feeling blue, it is not as much of a comfort to know how much money you (don't) have as it is to know how much you have been loved. And a love text just doesn't compare. It is far too easy to delete.
Love letters, sadly, are a dying breed. So if you are lucky enough to come across one of these near-extinct species it is only right to keep it safe.
Another casualty of the battle between letters and emails is the word 'Dear'. Most emails I receive start, 'Hi Libby'. It would be somewhat unusual to address someone as 'Dear so-and-so' in a text. Yet the endearment is, well, endearing. When I start my letters to Juliette (usually she writes in English, I write in French) I like writing 'Ma Chère Juliette', because she is my dear friend.
It makes me sad that there are many of my friends whose handwriting I wouldn't recognise. The way we write is such an expressive and personal thing, like the way we sneeze, the sound of our laugh or whether we have dimples when we smile. (In my case: loudly, loudly, and yes.)
One of the problems is that we have become so unaccustomed to sending letters that it is difficult to ask for someone's address without sounding like a stalker. Somehow, "where do you live?" just comes out in a sinister tone. There are many friends who I would sometimes like to write to, but then I remember I only know the way to their Facebook pages, and not necessarily their homes.
It has been a long time since Juliette and I last wrote to each other. University has been hectic for both of us, and it is true that one of the downsides to letter-writing is that it takes time. (Especially when you are not writing in your first language.) Next week I am going to visit her in Paris, but I think beforehand I will put a letter in the post anyway. I may arrive before it does, but I know that when it does arrive it will make her smile, because receiving letters from her makes me smile. And, how can you expect a lovely letter to fall on your doormat if you cannot make time to write one?
To my dear people of the world: write. Even at risk of sounding like a stalker, ask your friends for their addresses, and write them a letter. It will make their day, and when they write back to you it will make yours.
And if anything, do it for the good of humanity. I don't know about you, but I want to live in a world where the sound of post being fed through the letter box can bring excitement and not just the thought of bills, where I recognise my friends' handwriting and not just their phone numbers and where stacks of old letters are the things I would save in a burning building.
Now if you will excuse me, I have some letters to write.