This battered red holdall spent years in the upper part of one of my wardrobes, an area I rarely inspect, until last week when I hauled it down out of sheer curiosity (while looking for something else which of course wasn’t there.) To my amazement the old bag was full of letters, with neat bundles of correspondence sitting primly next to a chaotic mixture of more letters, photos, postcards, press cuttings and, to top it all, a box of unused playing cards. How could I have forgotten such a treasure trove for so long, I wondered, and started at once to explore it.
Since then I’ve spent much of my spare time digging up the past, preserved in that holdall, in a kind of individual lifetime archaeology. Reading the letters of old friends, professional contacts and casual acquaintances brought them back vividly – or not at all, because some names didn’t ring the bell, however fondly they had addressed me all those years ago. But there was more to the experience than just recalling friends alive or dead: I found huge enjoyment in seeing their handwriting, which I recognised instantly. Oh, the variety and individuality of them all – Jessica’s tall and narrow calligraphy, Paul’s relaxed, elegant script flowing as easily as his spoken words, my mother’s impeccable lettering, unchanged even in extreme old age, and all the others, with their personal choices of black, blue, green and even purple ink, thick or thin pens, quality writing paper or a page carelessly torn from a notebook, such varied choices that identified them well before their words were read.
Even typed letters had distinct personalities. Some were perfectly laid out, with clear paragraphs and no corrections; others had zigzagging margins and whole lines blacked out. One frequent and much loved correspondent of mine didn’t notice when his typewriter ribbon had spent its last iota of ink and went on typing into near-invisibility; I sometimes felt I needed the mythical Third Eye to be able to read his long letters. But it was handwriting that told me the most about my correspondents’ mood and state of health; for instance, with elderly friends I noticed sadly how their familiar handwriting was changing, as their hand-eye-brain coordination deteriorated.
It was all very interesting. But then last night I was shocked to realise that once I had recycled most of these letters, there would be no new ones to fill the holdall. These days I only get e-mails, huge numbers of them, but they all look identical, with no individual variations. Yes, there are plenty of fonts to choose from, ranging from Copperplate Gothic to Mongolian Baiti (not to forget Estrangelo Edessa, which suggests a psychopathic strangler on a remote cliff top), but most people stick to Times New Roman, so safe and boring. Also, e-mails get deleted easily and permanently. Yes, some precious correspondence can be safeguarded in a folder and even printed out, but even then the messages will look uniform, without the glory of all those infinitely varied and unmistakably individual letters I am beginning to treasure.
This is yet another loss in our one-to-one communications, one more part of our individuality removed. I value e-mails, I love the speed with which one can receive and answer them, but they lack something precious which my old letters still possess. This loss is akin to the alienation of people who look at their smartphones instead of at each other, or of those who have nearly two hundred “friends” in various social networks but suffer from deep loneliness. Banksy’s image of lovers embracing while looking at their smartphones behind each other’s back tells it all. It’s as if technology were getting between us, to separate us as individuals. The most chilling example I heard was of a psychotherapist who communicates by e-mail with her client sitting opposite her.
Besides, I notice how younger people of the PC generation are losing their handwriting skills. I keep receiving business letters with signatures that might have been committed by a kitten with learning difficulties. All right, you may call me hopelessly old-fashioned, obsolete, un-cool, out of touch and ready to be re-cycled; I am none of those things, just very aware of what we’ve lost while gaining something else. Ideally we should have it both ways, in a mood of “and-also” instead of “either-or”: use technology as a servant, not allow it to be our master.
One of these days I’ll write a letter by hand to someone I love, put it in a hand-addressed envelope, stick on a stamp (a STAMP!) and take it to the Post Office, as an act of peaceful resistance. And then go back to the still half-full holdall and do some more digging.