The Dead Art of Letter Writing

Last Saturday while reading What am I doing here by Bruce Chatwin in the bath, I was struck by the thought: When was the last time I wrote a letter?

When I lived and worked on a farm in Provence in 1994, I had no phone, no radio, no TV, and of course no internet. Only a guitar, cigarettes, wine, and a cat, whose name I can’t remember (Pascal, perhaps), to entertain me. I used to write regularly to my parents and my friends, and always looked forward to receiving a letter back. It was an incredible event.

I remember the yellow La Poste van rolling slowly up the rutted driveway at about ten-thirty in the morning to deliver the mail to the farm’s owner and some of the other workers who lived there. About once a week (strangely it was always on a Saturday) there would be a letter for me. Either a brown manila envelope from my father, posted from his office, or small, cheaply-made white envelopes from my friends.

I used to save it until the evening and open the envelope under the ancient olive tree in the yard, reading it many times over. Laugh and reminisce and sometimes want to be back in Nottingham with my friends going out on the town, drinking and meeting girls.

Then I would go into the cavernous kitchen of the farm to cook some strange Anglo-French concoction — normally a steak sandwich with brown sauce — and settle down to my reply. Sometimes writing five or six sides of A4 about my life on the farm or things I was looking forward to on returning to England. I would then address it and get excited about posting it in the village on the Monday, which I went to anyway to buy cigarettes.

Now I think about it, it wasn’t really the news or the puerile banter in the letter that counted, but the process of sending the letter. The writing of it, addressing it, sticking on the stamp, walking to the post office in the village. The routine was far greater than what I had to say to my friends— I could have drawn doodles for all I cared. True, I may not have got many replies, except for, ‘Are you OK out there?’ But the ritual of traipsing down to the post office to converse in my mangled French with the postmistress once a week was priceless.

For my brother and sister, who are fifteen years younger than me, the idea of communicating by letter with their friends, is utterly ludicrous. They’ve never done it; there’s never been the necessity. So why would they?

By the time they reached the age of nineteen (the age I was in Provence), the internet and the smartphone ruled, and letter writing became something their parents did — or their older brother. The very time-consuming process of writing on real paper, addressing it and walking down to the post office belongs, in their minds, to the Middle Ages.

The only exception I guess is the Christmas card. But rarely do these contain any pearls of wisdom except a photo of a robin and Happy Christmas scrawled inside. Love Bob and June xxx

When I did return to England after my adventures in Provence, email, texts, and mobile phones were much more in abundance, and I never really experienced that joy again. I wrote letters, but the frequency decreased until one day I must have written my last letter.

And that’s what I was thinking about in the bath last Saturday. When was this? When did I write a letter addressed to a person I know? To be honest I have no idea. Bar job applications, paying bills, or sending documents out, it must be twenty years since I wrote a personal letter. And I miss it.

And brings me back to a topic that floats around my head most days. Has technology made life better?

I can actually make a good comparison here. Because as it happens, I’m living on a farm in France right now. Alas, not in Provence, but in rainy Normandy. But I’m still on a remote farm, and if I was here in 1994, things I guess would be very similar.

Except now I’ve got the internet, TV, films, and two mobile SIM cards (although I haven’t got a Smartphone). True, the reception and internet reliability isn’t great, but I can still phone, write and converse with people pretty much instantaneously

A yellow La Poste van still comes up the lane a few times a week (not the same one obviously), but it isn’t carrying handwritten letters anymore. Oh no, today the postman’s arms are filled with supermarket advertisements, bills and Amazon parcels. There are no badly scrawled letters from my friends giving me the latest news and gossip. No firm instructions from my father to keep working hard and keep learning French. Now it’s just photos of people’s lunch on Facebook.

I blame myself though. I could write a letter, and I often ask myself, why don’t I? But it would feel strange, wouldn’t it? People might actually think I’ve gone crazy (again).

They might ask: ‘Philip? Why are you writing letters? Haven’t you heard of the internet?’

‘Yes, I have,’ I would fiercely reply. ‘That’s why I’m writing you a letter.’

I’m 45 now and a long time has passed since those letter-writing days of Provence — pre-email, pre-mobile phone, pre-social media. Sitting under the olive tree in the sunshine looking at the ants crawl over the baked ground reading letters from my friends. Now I just get an annoying beep to read someone is going to the movies or a new restaurant. Great, I think! Why don’t you tell me about it in a letter, it might be more interesting?

Le Glitch by Philip Ogley is out now. Click here

7 thoughts on “The Dead Art of Letter Writing”

  1. What a great piece! I can TOTALLY identify with this whole thought process. From my childhood on, getting a letter in the mail has been a source of great joy. When I was away at college and homesick as can be, there was nothing better than receiving several letters a week from my sweet mom who was apparently missing me as much as I was missing her and the rest of my family. I LOVE to write and receive letters but, alas, I too cannot remember when I last did that. To me it’s a rather sad commentary on where things have gone and one of the joys we have lost to modern technology. Thanks for sharing these kindred thoughts.

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    1. Thanks for your reply. While technology has improved our lives in some areas, it’s certainly destroyed a lot of those valued moments, like receiving a letter. Christmas was fun when I was a kid because we had four TV channels (in the UK), and there was a certain joy in choosing what films to watch (even recording them on our new video player!) Now, even though I hardly watch TV, there are millions of channels. There’s no joy anymore, even watching TV!

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      1. I agree. There is so much we take for granted these days with all the advancement that the very simple pleasures, and the striving that used to be required in order to achieve those simple pleasures is now many times just buried in all the excess.

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  2. Writing letters taught me to write. English at school was an awful experience. Being dyslexic before dyslexia was recognised, or should I say “invented”, meant my poor performance was explained as laziness. By choosing a career in engineering, writing did not feature in my day to day life or my plans for the future.
    That changed when I joined the Royal Air Force. Being a serviceman is typified in many different ways, but the way I think of it most is of almost constant letter writing. The most significant of all the memories of my all correspondence were aerogrammes, or “Bluies” as they were known. These, flimsy letter envelope in one, cost twelve pence in 1986; the year I spent four months detached to the Falkland Isles. Their arrival on the troop transport flights on Sundays and Wednesdays was all that kept me going through that time.
    It was in writing many many letters that I learned to express myself in written form. It was truly a three dimensional learning process, perhaps even four. I learned to keep things simple purely because I didn’t know how to get the complex down on the paper in an intelligible form. For many years I had practised calligraphy, my penmanship developed to a point where I am quite satisfied with it. I could draw an audience watching me write a cheque in the NAFFI even back then. My spelling improved to the point I only spell some words wrongly. I even ventured into punctuation; which I have, occasionally, been known to get in the right place.
    I owe much to my years spent writing letters to my longsuffering family and friends. Alas, technology has wormed its way into even my life. Though I still carry a fountain pen, I use a stylus and keyboard far more often.
    I wonder if I wrote a letter, might I get a reply?

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    1. Thank you for your interesting reply. I too when I was at school was hopelessly dyslexic, and remember whole stories I had written slashed with red pen from my teachers. It’s only through writing constantly over the years that my English has improved to the point where there are rarely any mistakes. I’ve even had a novel published, which considering I failed my O-level English twice is quite an achievement. I went to boarding school for ten years and letter writing to my father was my only communication with him. No phone, no internet. So like you in the RAF it was a vital link to reality. My only link in fact.

      Writing a letter to someone and wondering if I would get a reply is something I’ve thought about over the years. It probably depends on who you wrote it to.

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  3. Hello from Nottingham.. I was thinking about letter writing recently too. I have a friend that lives in the Netherlands, we were flatmates in Sevilla. We’ve always kept in touch until the past couple of years, and the reason for that is that we had an email conversation about missing receiving actual letters from one-another and vowed to write by snailmail, rather than any other format. Neither of us have, and now we have also lost the regular email correspondence we had. So, for us not using technology has resulted in us drifting, whereas when we were accepting of it we corresponded more often. I guess, on my part, it is the laziness of posting. I still write a lot by hand, poems mostly, but then have to type them to share, and save legibly.
    However, I remember fondly the trips to Poste Restante spots when backpacking to collect mail. It was a special thing. Would there be anything? Who from? Once received all the social chitter chatter stopped and we all scattered to separate spots to read in seclusion. It took a while to return to the present, and present company and recommence were we’d left off on the way to the poste restantes. Thanks for the article – and prompt. Think I’ll write to Henny now, via the internet, so she actually receives it!

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    1. Hi From France. How is the old place? I haven’t been back for years.
      I used to write in notebooks, but now I write anything, even ideas, on my computer. I don’t know why? I just do. I’ve actually got a notebook right by my desk, but I never use it any more. Lazy? Or perhaps, it’s simply not as convenient as writing everything on a computer where everything is in one place. Mmmm…maybe when the lights go out, we’ll all start writing by hand again…

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