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Is it the last post for letter writers?


A few days ago I was rummaging through my father's attic when I came across letters that I had written over 20 years ago.

Poorly written and occasionally flowery and pretentious they may have been. But details of my life that I had quite forgotten came back to me: songs that I had sung, games that I had played and journeys that I had made.

My grandmother kept every letter that she received. From the 1920s right through to the start of this century, she hoarded personal correspondence. She even had stashes of letters that she herself had written to her own mother and to my grandfather, or letters that had been written on her behalf.

Some of these missives were about life and death issues. One typed message from a Second World War Allied officer to my grandmother's brother told of what had happened to my father's family during the war in Germany: how the family had hidden away from bombardment in the Black Forest, and survived.

With telephone coverage unreliable and patchy, this was often the only way of communicating across long distances.

I belong to one of the last generations where letter-writing actually meant something. At school we had the conventions of letter-writing drilled into us. And after Christmas, my mother would try to force us, not always successfully, to write "bread-and-butter'' thank you letters.

The conventions of letter-writing have now almost disappeared completely, at least at a personal level. Television, telephones, and most importantly email have played a role in their relentless decline.

The speed of this decline was underlined by a recent report in The Guardian.

A postal economist Ian Senior was quoted as saying: "Most people, once they have email, 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 email to get it. That simply hastens the decline of the letter as a method of communication."

A recent survey in Britain shows that a third of 16- to 19-year-old girls have never actually written a letter in their lives. Among boys, the figure is over half. There is no reason to believe that the figures among Generation Bebo in Ireland are any different. My own generation, the fortysomethings, has also given up on personal letters. I cannot remember when I last wrote a letter on impulse, rather than out of a sense of obligation. When you are out of practise, it is a type of writing that now seems like an anachronistic chore.

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Twenty years ago it was an easy habit that could generate excitement. Who now waits for the postman to arrive with dispatches from a loved one? Love notes could even be written and sent from one side of a classroom to the other.

Email is no replacement. Like many office workers I associate it with the keyboard slavery of the workplace. Typing a personal email just seems like hard, unpaid work.

According to some observers, the decline of letter writing began long before the arrival of the internet, email and text messages. The novelist AS Byatt recently suggested that the decline set in with the arrival of television.

"In the Victorian era, letter-writing was what people did in their spare time, and then they read the letters to each other,'' said Byatt. "In a way, it was the news as much as anything.''

You have to feel sorry for the biographers and historians of the future, who will have to seek out personal messages about their subjects. While letters survive until they are thrown out, most email and text messages simply disappear into the ether.

The letters of politicians and famous writers have been a crucial source of information for researchers. But will any academic be able to sift through the emails of Anne Enright or the text messages of Bertie Ahern?

In the latter case they probably would not make much sense anyway.

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