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