One of the hardest things a letter writer has to come to terms with is not so much how long it takes to receive a reply, or even how much time they spend writing themselves, but what to write about. The very core of a letter is information passed on in this one, simple manner to someone elsewhere, someone who cannot see what the writer sees, what the writer experiences, what the writer does in their normal day-to-day life. This is what makes receiving a letter so worthwhile, assuming that the writer has managed to put visions into words, and manages to spark the imagination of the recipient. No real letter writer sits at home all day, waiting patiently for the next delivery of post, hoping that there is someone out there about to send them a message. That doesn’t work with letter writing, some say it is one of the drawbacks, but I tend to disagree, I see it as being a benefit. The true letter writer cannot sit at home all day, or at work, pondering the next arrival, he or she has to get out and live life to the best of their ability, and record it in their mind. There are times when several weeks go by between letters, and anyone who is active, who goes out and lives in the truest sense of the word, who experiences and learns – in a lesser way – uses their time between these missives to the beast of their ability.
This is one of the reasons why I love letter writing so much, why I cannot bring myself to switch over to the electronic means of communication. I do not want to be one of those people who sits and waits for a message: I see them every single day as I am out and about, and I feel very sad for them. Caught in the midst of all these technological advances, and Damned to believe that the next message will disappear if not caught immediately, that their friends will abandon them if there isn’t an answer within seconds. Can you imagine what it must be like, hitched to a small electronic device throughout the day and night, just waiting for it to beep or ping? I imagine this feeling to be similar to the first few weeks with a pacemaker planted in your chest; always worried that there will be some form of warning, some final hint that things didn’t work out after all, thank you for your time here, off we go to the big blue beyond.
I see these people every day of the week: no matter where I go, they are there too, attached to their mobile pacemakers, waiting for a peep or a beep or a ring to show them they are still alive, still connected to people who can confirm their existence. And they, in turn, immediately turn their full attention to these small devices, scrolling up and down with well-practiced fingers and thumbs, clicking and Liking, linking and marking. But it isn’t the same. A pacemaker is not the same as a real heart. A smart phone cannot replace true conversation. Social intercourse, friendship, is not held together by an electronic umbilical cord, but by real conversations, real social interaction, person-to-person. And who can do that in one hundred and forty characters? Who can talk privately, confidentially to their friend on a public social media platform? Who, to be perfectly blunt and down to earth, really needs this faked adoration from a fan base of people who remain faceless, represented by an avatar, by an out of focus selfie, but a few abbreviations claiming to show love and affection?
How can we live a life of following someone to see their life, knowing that they are following someone else in the hopes of seeing their life? It is a circle of nothing. It is a roundabout of people who follow other people and then, when there isn’t an automatic follow back, unfollow them as revenge. If their life, their words, their images were so interesting before the follow to justify it, why change your mind now, when they don’t find you as interesting? Are they any less a person because you are not being followed by them? And even these people who do make it, have followers, adoring troops of people waiting upon their every word as if it were gold from heaven, succeed in bolstering their numbers to the heights of popularity in a virtual, unreal world, what does that make them? Are they more than an electronic signal beaming itself from one remote device to another?
The advantages of letter writing. The individuality of communication almost guaranteed to be between the writer and reader, unless some government agency stands between them. The knowledge that, between missives, both parties can go about their lives normally, without the need to check their post box every five minutes in case something has been delivered and they didn’t hear the footsteps of the postman, the ring of the front door bell, the snap of a small flag on that metal container at the end of the drive. The knowledge that this wonderful form of communication, so personal and individual, takes time.
So, I must admit, I was rather surprised to get your letter yesterday in which you wrote:
I haven’t heard back from you. Did you lose interest? ♥
Surprised because I know that I did write back to you. Surprised that this was all you wrote: an envelope, complete with stamp, and only this as message? I would expect something like this from a younger person who has waited, impatiently, ten minutes for a reply to a text message. I’ve never had it in a letter before, not even on a postcard. I do hope that it is not a sign of the times and that other people will send their text messages on paper, at high cost, rather than their thoughts and news, because that would be just too sad for words.
I sometimes wonder what it must have been like for those who lived and worked several centuries ago, before a regular postal service came into existence. Messengers sent out from distant lands, such as from the conquering armies of the Roman Empire, informing the Senate of their victories, their defeats, their requirements, running across the countryside and hoping that they were the bearers of good news, that no one would intervene en route, steal their wares, rob them of life. Messengers with bad news, it was often said, were executed for the effrontery they brought with them. One bearer of good tidings has been immortalised in a manner of speaking: his name is gone for most people, but the marathon, named after the town in which the Greek army landed, remains. He was Pheidippides, and he ran the twenty-six miles to Athens with news that the Persian army had been defeated, dying once he had given up his message. Not that we would wish that on other people, I am sure the post office would be hard put to find new staff if the messengers of good news died from exertion and those of bad news were executed. Not exactly the best prospects for advancement in the profession. Hopefully the bearer of this letter will have better chances of survival.
We have the bear in mind, of course, that this was a time when there was no written record, when letters were not sent from one person to another, and a messenger was expected to learn their text off by heart. We’re looking back to the days of nearly five hundred years before Christ, when the world was a completely different place, where literature didn’t exist, and the great Greek minds, as we know them today, were predominantly illiterate. There was writing, of course, matters of public record from Persian times but, as Christopher Tuplin concludes:
Written language was not part of the inherited sense of identity for Persian speakers; changing that was not worth the candle.
It would be sad, for me and a few others I think, if we progressed back to the days where all language, or communication, was oral, but that is almost what seems to be happening. People are relying on their electronic means of communication more and more, cutting back on what they want to say in order to fit in with some strange guidelines, a prefabricated scheme of things without the possibility of extension. At the same time they are losing the ability to communicate, to put their thoughts into words, into sentences, into some form of logical, understandable language, written or otherwise. Attention spans are slipping – we live on sound bites and snippets – and the ability of some people to spell even the most common words, those which they abbreviate for text messages, is withering.
Listening to Wesley Cecil’s Humane Arts lecture on letter writing recently, I was reminded that this is all a matter of education; the laxity of our educational system draws the masses down with it, into a potential mire of ignorant oblivion. He reminded me, and informed his students, that the education system was once a fairly simple and quick means of getting to know all you needed in the shortest space of time, as a preparation for a worthwhile life. The basic educational model was three subjects, the advanced a further four. Those going through the entire course could have finished school by the time they were fifteen, and be ready for a life on the outside, in the professions: the military, arts, medicine, politics and law. But the western world decided it would be better, following the German educational unification model, to break everything down into smaller and smaller subjects, to become more specialised. And now, this system in place and no one wishing to change back, or knowing how to do it, we have children and students who learn what is taught, but not how to think for themselves, not how to research for themselves. We have people released from High School and college who have to be retrained in order to fit in with the real world.
And letter writing went down the drain with the educational system; he thinks real letter writing died in about 1920, when the last people who had worked through the old educational system – the three and four courses – finally died off. People no longer knew how to express themselves, could no longer find the information they needed for themselves, could no longer be trusted to travel abroad alone, if at all. And now, in our modern times, the technologically advanced world of electronic communication threatens to bring it all to a close, to cast us back into the Persian times of two and a half thousand years ago, where speech is the last bastion of communication, and friendship is held together by abbreviations, and little pictures of apes, hands, hearts and numbers.
As you can imagine, I consider this to be a bad thing. I am old enough to know what it was like before – not quite before 1920, although I do look like that on a rough day – when people would stop and talk to one another, share a coffee in a café, a beer in the bar. People would walk down the high street looking in shop windows, stand around in museums looking at the exhibits, cross the road watching for traffic. All this is still stored in my memory along with so many other things, just waiting for the right moment to come out, for the right person to be communicated to. Not by electronic means, but in person or in a letter longer than two sentences.
So, no, to answer the second part of your missive: I have not lost interest, it was always there and still is. But sometimes it needs a little cultivation, nurturing, the right sort of fertiliser. And electronic means of communication, I regret to say, do not provide, cannot satisfy, that need.