Stephen McGinty: Mission to save the handwritten missive

E-MAIL may be swift, but receiving a handwritten letter though the post is a far superior experience and we should treasure it, writes Stephen McGinty

Dear Reader,

This letter is being written to you from the comfort of my garden shed. As the weather is warm enough to shrink off the winter wardrobe of cord and tweed in favour of that harbinger of spring, the blazer and chino combo, I thought it appropriate to air out my “summer study” and tackle today’s topic amid the symphony of bird song and the accompanying chorus of the neighbour’s petrol mower.

Lest you imagine a modern garden study, as advertised on the back pages of the Sunday glossies – all glinting glass, burnished steel and hand-grooved wooden beams – let me flag down that train of thought, switch the gears and instead allow your Pullman carriage to roll into the siding where sits my old shed of splintered wood bound together by the accumulated resistance of an annual coat of Dulux. George Bernard Shaw had his shed erected on a spindle so that he could rise from his desk and swivel it around to chase the sun. I, however, do not, but mine does offer an attractive view into my neighbour’s raised vegetable patches and across to the bowling green beyond.

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I had, originally, planned to illuminate it with a paraffin lamp, like Palladin from Glen Michael’s Cartoon Cavalcade – until my wife compiled a complex equation that calculated my clumsy absentmindedness, factored in liquid gas, a lit flame and a timber structure, and which eventually equalled imminent and fatal immolation. We decided a battery-powered Palladin was probably best.

The reason for retiring from the din of the office to the tranquillity of the bottom of the garden is that a billet-doux to the letter should not be processed on a flashing screen with key strokes but pressed with pen and ink onto white lined paper. (Had I been really prepared the paper would be Basildon Bond.)

The letter is fading. This week, it was announced that the price of a first-class stamp will rise to 60p, an increase of 14p or a whopping 30 per cent. Ian Senior, a postal specialist with National Economic Research Associates, has said of the problem: “Most people, once they have e-mail, prefer never to send a physical letter ever again, if they can avoid it. When there are no letters being posted and received, that will encourage those people who don’t have e-mail to get it. That simply hastens the decline of the letter as method of communication.”

In 2007, a survey by the Westminster Department of Education revealed that half of 16- to 19-year-old boys and a third of girls the same age had never written a letter. It is safe to say that those figure are unlikely to have risen in the past five years. In 2006, 84 million pieces of mail were posted each day – that has now dropped 25 per cent, with predictions of a fall of 25 to 40 per cent in the next five years

Today we communicate by text or e-mail. Written conversation has become almost instantaneous, and we would not wish it differently. Once letters were carried by feet and horse, later carriages and trains and then, with the invention of the telegram, a message could be send from one side of the Atlantic to the other, retyped and delivered in a day. Progress is unstoppable.

Yet am I alone in missing the letter a little? I’m not talking about the dreary bilge that endlessly pours through our letterbox as a sorry substitution – the bills and offers and assurances from politicians of steadfast commitment to our well-being – but the letters from friends and family, the ones which you would save until the end of the day and read over a cup of tea. The postcards that made you smile and triggered a pang of envy that you were here and they were there. In the past, people kept letters from friends and lovers. Books were built around them. Will today’s generation save e-mails and texts? I think not, instead they will be swept away into the little digital dustbin. And do people express themselves as clearly and intimately in an e-mail as in a letter?

Perhaps some do, but for me, it is the very immediacy of e-mail that is the problem. In the past, an epistolary correspondence had a natural rhythm. A letter was received, slowly digested and an afternoon or evening set aside for the subsequent reply. There was a feeling of accomplishment when you affixed your signature, licked the envelope, applied the stamp and marched off to the postbox. The shudder as the letter was fired through the slot and tumbled down into the darkness was enjoyable, it was like a ship launched for a foreign shore.

Then there was the wait, the quiet lull of a week or two while your thoughts were bobbing through a sea of packages and letters. And then – soon enough, but not too soon – the game was once again afoot when a reply plopped down onto the doormat. Today, however, a split second after you have sent your thoughts, they are being read and a minute later will come the reply. It’s a little like, after years of enjoying the leisure of a transatlantic cruise, you discover teleportation. It is not quite the same.

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Then there is the physical, tactile pleasure of a letter. The embossed paper, the ink blotches and coffee stains or the trace of a worn typewriter ribbon. It is with deep regret that I have lost two letters I received from one of the great letter-writers of the 20th century. Martha Gellhorn is better known as one of the greatest war correspondents of all time, a writer who focused not on tactics and armaments but the consequences for the bullet ridden and the bombed. Born in St Louis in 1908, she documented the poverty of the American dust bowl and the Depression, reported on the Spanish Civil War (where she fell in love with Ernest Hemingway, whom she later married), was on the first Red Cross ship across the channel on D-Day and walked with the liberating troops through Dachau, of which she wrote: “Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice.”

A novelist and travel writer too, her letters, written several times a day, or updated over a period of weeks until they stretched to 50 pages, were, according to her friend George Brennan, her “real genre”. He wrote: “It’s where you yourself come through most genuinely and convincingly.”

Gellhorn’s distinguished correspondents included HG Wells, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, John Pilger. And, well, me. I can still picture the letters – composed on a manual typewriter with a wonky key and tucked into small white envelopes. The first was in response to a letter I had written requesting an interview and enclosing a copy of the collected novels of James Crumley. (She reviewed thrillers and crime novels for the Daily Telegraph). In the letter, she said no to a meeting at her Welsh farm, yes to a rendezvous at her small London apartment in Cadogan Square, and then devoted the rest of the page to a demolition of Crumley’s poetic but drink-sodden machismo.

The second letter, written after the interview, was a stern request for the prompt return of a photograph which I had borrowed and which the picture desk had misplaced. (It was, eventually, found and returned.) Thankfully for readers, neither appear in The Letters of Martha Gellhorn, published by Chatto & Windus in 2006, which, judiciously edited by Caroline Moorhead, comprises a gripping oral history. In fact, it was Gellhorn’s letters that introduced me to the pleasures of collected letters, and in recent years I have spent time peering over the shoulders of Saul Bellow, Ted Hughes and John Cheever as they agonised over work, fulminated at lack of recognition and bared their pain to friends.

Perhaps we shall see a mild rebellion against the speed of instant communication and witness a return to the bespoke weekly letter with thoughts ruminated on then pressed into paper. Like the Slow Food Movement’s celebration of leisurely preparation, or vinyl enthusiasts’ adoration of the authenticity of crackle versus the sterility of CDs, a new group may emerge willing to trade a hundred brief literary darts and e-mailed smiley faces for a single worthy letter, one rippling with feelings. Curiously, there is a glimmer of hope as stationery sales are apparently on the rise.

So what do you think? Am I laying this on too thick? Does the letter require this maudlin ode or has it merely compressed itself, quickened its metabolism and become turbo-charged? Answers on a postcard – or even in a letter – please.