Wednesday 18 September 2019

Mary Kenny: Postcards from the past

The written format is in decline but will selfies give us the same delights of memory?

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It's pleasing to see shops in Ireland still display and sell pretty picture postcards. I hope that visitors are buying and sending them, but the postcard is not a thriving business, worldwide. The American postal service has been charting a progressive decline in postcard sending since 2010. Last month, in Britain, the oldest postcard publisher, J Salmon of Sevenoaks, announced its closure - put out of business by changing holiday habits and the instant gratification of social media. It's reckoned there's been a 60pc decline in the picture postcard over the past 20 years. People are taking more holidays but sending fewer cards.

A picture postcard from abroad was once not only a greeting, but perhaps a subtle, if harmless, form of boasting. "Here I am at the Grand Canyon! Amazing!" A trip abroad is no big deal for most people now and a postcard, which may take weeks to arrive, seems hardly worth the money, the stamp and the trouble - especially when you can send an instant selfie via Facebook or Instagram.

Some postal services have always treated postcards as non-urgent mail and they could take ages. ("Wine fine, but weather could be better," a pithy, yet informative, card message from my brother at Le Touquet). It wasn't unusual to receive a postcard - especially from Italy - weeks after the sender had arrived back home.

What was once exotic, now seems a bit so-what. "We are in Istanbul at Pera Palas, the old Agatha Christie Orient Express and all that," reads a postcard from pals in the 1990s, bearing an artistic image from the reign of Sultan III. "Budapest next!"

Yes, I have a collection of postcards from the 1980s and 1990s which I saved in an album and, though the messages can be simple, they are a poignant archive of times past, or friends and family now gone, of events otherwise forgotten.

Sometimes the images are just everyday tourist photographs - St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, the trees of Provence - and yet the few words still tell a story. Here's a postcard from my mother in Paris - her vivid personality expressed in her handwriting - to my sons, and here are postcards from Asia from my husband to the children, signed "With love from Daddy", in India, Singapore and Vietnam. There's also one of 'Sunset over Kariba' with a rhinoceros stamp from 'Rhodesia'.

Parents, when overseas on a working trip, perhaps feel guilty about swigging back the gin at Raffles Hotel while the family continues in its daily round back home. Today, they Skype, call or text: back then it was the picture postcard, which is still in my hand this very day.

I seem to have collected the more artistic cards sent by friends, as well as the 'ironic' ones (a Polish cartoon of Karl Marx as a penniless beggar, sent by the late Stan Gebler Davies). Cards from friends now departed this world remain so touching: from Maeve Binchy, in her round, generous hand, one from Sydney urging me to persist with quitting cigarettes, another from Dalkey saying she once had seen a woman at the Aberdeen Arms Hotel reading a book I'd written (picture of Early Christian Monks' Beehive Hut). Cards from Mary Cummins in Ballybunion, from Mary Holland after a "depressing" visit to Belgrade.

Going through the old postcards, you ponder on the course of life that followed. I had two friends who died in fires - one, Miriam, the victim of an arsonist, and another, Corinna, who fell asleep with a glass of wine and a cigarette, which caused a conflagration. Miriam's postcards are thoughtful, Corinna's expressing zest. "Start saving now!" she writes from Kenya, the image showing a Maasai Eunoto ceremony. "You must come here! It is splendiferous." Never did.

They say "eaten bread is soon forgotten", but it can be immortalised in a thank-you card. Jack Mulcahy, visiting London, thanks me "for a memorable election night party, filled with high emotion & heated debate (though a regrettable outcome!)". Thatcher won. And a colleague who had just had a baby thanked me for sending her a "beautiful basket of flowers - and, thank heavens, no arranging!". As a reluctant flower arranger myself, I got the point.

There are cards from my sons when young, which instantly recall those days before the cares of adulthood enter the soul. The collection itself is a postcard from the past, but also a resolve for the present: to appreciate better family and friends who still remain.

Retro practices can come back into fashion, like vinyl records. And look at book publishing: it was predicted that Kindle and its like would kill off the printed book, but publishers upped their game and began producing books which are beautiful objects in design and presentation, and the printed book is recovering. The postcard could hold its own, and even revive, by emphasising its specialness and durability. And add a touch of status snobbery too.

A postcard bearing an image from Matisse, say, tells you more than the words written thereon: that the sender is a cultured person who frequents art galleries and museums. Not everyone can afford a Ferrari as a status symbol, but most people could afford the wherewithal for a pretty postcard which will last through time.


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