Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

Opinion: I salute all those who wield a pen in the name of letter writing

Writing a letter means something
Writing a letter means something
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

I am not the first to remark that the art and practice of personal letter writing are fast fading. More immediate and cost-effective methods like text, email and a variety of electronic chats, snaps and apps have replaced the handwritten epistle.

The beauty and the tragedy of these new communication mechanisms is that they require little time, care and reflection. Spelling, punctuation, layout and logical order don't matter - just get the message across and that will do.

Rather than sit and bemoan the looming demise of the handwritten letter, I suppose it is better to celebrate it and remember it for what it was while enjoying the occasional gem that finds its way through the post box.

In the last number of months, since I started writing this column and following the passing of my father, I received more personal letters in the post than I had for a long time.

Like everybody, most letters I get nowadays are business missives of one kind or another, giving me hard information on the soft nature of my finances. There is also the constant stream of glossy booklets offering once-in-a-lifetime deals on everything from gas and electricity to special meal deals from the local burger and chip emporium. At least once a week the staid and sterile bundle of post will have in its midst a warm handwritten envelope with a real stamp.

It is lovely to get a handwritten letter or even a typed personal letter. When the post includes such an epistle, it excites both curiosity and anticipation. I will open it last knowing it contains something of a more personal nature than "Dear Householder". In a rare fit of delayed gratification, I wait to savour the contents.

A handwritten letter tells you that someone has taken the time to sit and consider and write. It represents a real personal investment in terms of effort, energy and time.

I'm reminded of my secondary school days and the Dean going from table to table distributing the post. The tall Corkman would glide around the refectory calling out names and, without even looking up from the bundle of envelopes, would send the relevant letter flying towards each recipient with deadly accuracy.

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It was a thrill to hear your name called out and equally thrilling to clutch the envelope as it flew in your direction. My mother's handwriting was distinctive and her hurried note gave a short summary of life at home where it was always busy. Most letters contained a few bob, anything from a red 10 shilling note to an olive-green pound or a fiver. The tuck shop would be the first to benefit from my mother's largesse.

The sight of those envelopes and the thrill of opening them will always remain with me. As a skinny young First Year, they were a real comfort, there was something about them that bordered on the umbilical. I still get a thrill when I see the postman coming and while most of what he brings is harmless or frown-inducing, there is always hope that in the midst of the hard, officious bundle, there will be a soft centre in scribbles and scrawls.

I am among the worst of offenders when it comes to letter writing - I will reply by email if I can and by text if it is appropriate, but sometimes neither represents the decent thing to do. I appreciate it when someone takes the trouble to put pen to paper and write to me. Surely the decent thing to do is to write back.

I'm hesitant about putting an actual pen to actual paper. When I write to friend or foe, I type. I couldn't inflict my squiggle on anyone who doesn't have access to an expert in hieroglyphics. Maybe I should take time to write carefully rather than squiggle.

As Christmas approaches and the Christmas card list beckons, there is ample opportunity to rediscover the joy of the handwritten letter or note. I only hope the price of a postage stamp at €1 doesn't mark the beginning of the end of this tradition and drive yet another nail into the coffin of the handwritten word.

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