Thursday, 27 August 2009

Why does no one write letters anymore?

Nearly a week has passed since yet another idyllic few days in France, and I am yet to write a letter of thanks to my hosts for a sojourn that was, even by my own prodigiously gluttonous standards, hard to beat. The days passed like one long meal, punctuated by the odd (sometimes very) game of tennis, or a brief lollop in the swimming pool. Breakfasts were spent fighting over the myrtilles sauvages (is there a better jam?) and discussing what to eat for lunch. Lunch, in turn, consisted of wondrously smooth mousse de canard slathered on crusty loaves, beetroot and goats' cheese salad, and the juiciest peaches. Then around 4, as the last of the salad was being mopped up and the cheese rinds gnawed at, talk would turn to supper. And on it went, in this perfect cycle of insatiability.

You will, then, understand my horror of taking so long to write after such a delightful week. I finally made it to a stationers by Old Street, in search of writing paper. I get a bit overexcited in stationers. All the pens, the paper, the funky notebooks and glossy diaries - it's the sort of procrastinatory nonsense I'm such a sucker for, as if buying pens and notebooks makes you feel like you've actually done something constructive. With blinkers firmly on, I wandered up to the counter:

"I say, old boy," I whispered conspiratorially (I often do this, when buying something as banal as writing paper - adds a bit of intrigue). "I say," I continued, "could you point me in the direction of the letter-writing paper".

"I'm sorry sir," replied the shopkeeper amiably, "but we don't sell that shit anymore."

"I beg your parsnips!" I ejaculated. "What is the meaning of this?!"

"Well," started the man, his wizened old face a strange amalgam of shame, amusement, and confusion, "no one writes letters anymore".

"But you sell envelopes," quoth I, aghast.

The man smiled.

"Seriously, are you joking?" I chuckled nervously. The oxymoron was beyond me at this particular moment of peturbation. You see, I'd been lamenting the slow death of the art of letter writing for some time now. So much so that a friend and I had resolved to write a letter once a week. I wrote two in a day and then, well, I went to France. Though I did write to my grandfather from there. So I guess that counts. Though it was a thank you letter. Quite a late one. Pattern emerging, I fear.

He was not joking, it turns out.

"Surely you could stock just some paper old bean, couldn't you? It's not like it goes off."

He mumbled something about quota-filling, then something that sounded like an swear word. I made a swift exit and stomped back to my flat to send an email to someone about the experience.

And that, my friend, is just the problem. If e'er there were a stupid title for a blog post, it sits atop this one. No one writes letters anymore because of email. This was highlighted for me during a previous trip to France, when a 95-year-old madame enquired of my friend as to his profession. His French shaky, his acting skills less so, he mimed typing (he is, you see, a writer).

"Ah, tu es pianiste alors!" she exclaimed, enthused to have a musician in the house. Ah, the technological follies of old age.

I was struck by Ed's reflex of miming writing as something that one does on a keyboard, not with pen and paper, and realised I do the same thing. It's a little bewildering.

I'm not saying this must change. God knows the internet, email, and all that comes with it (bloggers, facebookers, stalkers, twitterers, pornographers) have made our lives easier. But they've also taken the soul out of correspondence. Do you remember the elation of receiving a hand-written letter? There are few things more special, few things that can, in such an understated manner, say 'I care'. A revival is in order.

A plan is forming in my mind. A hand-written cookery book. How this might work, I'm not yet sure. In the meantime, do you think you have the discipline to write a letter a week, in which you have also written a recipe? If you email me your address, I'll send you a recipe. Could be the start of a whole new kind of food chain. Who knows?


  1. It's sad but true, the art of letter-writing is dying :(

    Tried engaging in weekly snail-mail correspondence with an old friend in California. We wrote our first letters with great gusto and then ran out of steam after writing 17-page monologues about our lives

    A hand-written cookery book sounds like a genius idea James, do it! Um, I take it your handwriting's legible???

  2. Sadly, it is dying out. I write letters/cards to my Gran, largely because she refuses to enter this century and doesn't even have an answering machine, let alone venturing near the complexity of a computer. Plus it's usually pretty hilarious because she says stuff like 'cor blimey!' and 'do you go clubbing?!' which make me chuckle quite a lot.

    However, I do try to send letters to my friend who I've known since I was 4... she moved to China for 3 years when we were younger and we wrote all the time. Now we're both at uni (and she does English Literature so she's very into the writing thing anyway) we try and send each other an epic every so often. I've also been writing to another uni friend, partially because she sends me exciting Cath Kidston notecards. I'm easily amused apparently.

    I like the idea of the handwritten cookery book! Bit 11th century though, might be a bit tricky to put into mass production unless you do that thing where you sellotape 12 pens together...

    Recipe chain sounds exciting. Think your recipes would be a great deal better (and numerous) than mine though...

  3. Excellent post.

    Letters: something I've been thinking about for quite a while, since I bought Sam Beckett's collected letters and realised that this generation of writers, I mean novelists and poets, will be the first not to leave a trunk of fragile, dusty insights on paper in their attic when they die. People won't have to scrabble around after your death, contact everyone you know, and assemble your inner life through your correspondence in several volumes. It just won't exist. Does anyone publish e-mails (apart from scandal)? It is done? It is even necessary, given the amount of public interaction in which e.g. Stephen Fry engages?

    I write letters. They're amazing (in general, not mine in particular. Though mine do sometimes have a dried flower or a mint imperial or a cigarillo inside.) Almost all include a pathetically unsubtle nod to my biographer, should he some day exist (he won't.) And I do the same to my letters as I do to my recipe book, i.e. spill coffee grains, smear chocolate, splash drops of red wine. Nothing says 'soul' like drips of chicken fat. Handwritten cookery books are amazing. You don't feel bad about defacing them. You can cross out an ingredient without feeling guilty and subversive as you might in the "official" version. You can paste in clippings, pictures, photos, herbs. And they're so personal- I have notes in my Granny's handwriting telling me the 'proper' way to make pancakes or trifle or christmas pudding. If you like someone's cooking, you can ask them to jot it down and stick it straight in for future reference, none of that 'you must give me the recipe' back-and-forth dance. Post-it note, done. The point is that they're never the same, though. It would take all the magic out if everyone's hand-written cookery books were the same. They would just be, well, recipe books.


    p.s. (You only get to do this in a real letter. It's for when you've signed off, then you think, damn, the whole point of writing was to say X, and you add a p.s. It just doesn't work in virtual letters because of genius editing properties.) Can I have a paste-in recipe please?

    p.p.s. Bon Marché in Paris has an orgasmic stationery department. They have ivory watermarked letter paper coming out of their oreilles, and very probably stock a beautiful cookery-scrapbook-recipe book. As if you need an excuse to enter a stationer's.

  4. Wow - thanks for your lengthy responses guys. Much food for thought. I have written at least 4 letters since this post, of which I am very proud

    Gemma - I promise I haven't forgotten about you, will send you a recipe asap.


  5. It's a sad thing that so few people still appreciate the written word. I have been using email since 1992 and yet, I still send (and love to receive) a hand-written letter.

    Even sadder is the demise of the postcard. I send some every year and receive a paltry few in return. I absolutely love reading them, pondering over my friends' choice of cards, hearing what they were getting up to days or even weeks ago. An email is just not the same at all!

  6. I'm glad I'm not the only person who has a long standarding love affair with stationary shops around the country. Art shops will provide you with quality paper that can be guillotined to the right size. Paperchase also still do letter paper, if I remember rightly. The Guild in Bristol does beautiful paper and cards too. :¬)