I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I gave up on them many years ago, dispirited by the trail of broken ones in my wake. In 2021, though, I have decided to try something. I want to resurrect the practice of keeping in touch with my friends by writing letters – letters written in actual handwriting, with pen and ink, on real paper, sealed in real envelopes (not envelope icons) and sent by snail mail with proper invented-in-1840 postage stamps.
A few of my friends wrote handwritten cards during the first lockdown, and receiving them was lovely – so much more personal than a comment on a Facebook post. But it wasn’t until I was writing a recent post on this blog (In their own handwriting – connecting to the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels) that I started thinking about the importance of the personal connection that handwriting gives, especially at this time when so many forms of personal connection are impossible because of restrictions necessitated by the pandemic. It seemed strange to me that I know the handwriting of Eadfrith, a scribe-artist on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in c.700CE, and Aldred, a priest-scribe in the north of England in the second half of the 10th century, but have no idea what the handwriting of most of my friends looks like. Friends whom I have known a long time – before social media, text and email became the currency of communication – did used to write, but now it’s mainly just a line in a birthday card and their signature.
Regular readers will know about my addiction to notebooks. This habit extends to some degree to stationery in all its forms – I have drawers full of sticky notes, pencils, coloured marker pens, highlighters. However – and this is an indication of how long it is since I wrote a personal letter by hand – I had no writing paper or envelopes – only A4 printer paper and soulless DL envelopes for business letters. So my first challenge was to find some suitable correspondence stationery. This proved more difficult than I expected – my local stationers had only a very basic, rather scratchy pad and no envelopes. I wanted my journey into handwritten letter writing to be a tactile and sensory experience, both for me and the recipients, so I wanted a bit of luxury. OK, I wasn’t quite going to the lengths of the Lindisfarne Gospels and writing on vellum with handmade inks and gold leaf, but I wanted something a bit special.
In the end I compromised, with paper and envelopes from a brand (Basildon Bond) that used to be ubiquitous in my youth in the 1980s but which I could now only track down online. It’s cream, and smooth, and a pleasure to write on, but next time I might go for something a bit more fancy from a specialist stationers.
That was the paper and envelopes sorted out. Stamps were bought from the Post Office when I was in there anyway before Christmas to post some gift parcels. The modern self-adhesive stamps are less environmentally friendly (with all that backing paper, which is coated so it can’t be recycled) but I don’t miss the foul taste of the ones you used to lick. All that I was still missing was a pen and ink. Now, I am almost as obsessive about pens as I am about notebooks, and I’m very particular about what I like to write with. Even my ballpoint pens are carefully selected – fine point, black or purple ink, slim body – and inevitably I own a fountain pen. Having owned Parker pens since childhood, I finally abandoned them a while ago as I was tired of the ink blobbing and I found the barrels too chunky for comfortable, sustained use. I sought inspiration online, and found a Japanese company called Sailor who produce inexpensive fountain pens with fine nibs as standard. Their inks also come in funky colours, although so far I had only used black.
Let me tell you about the history of the Sailor brand. Early in the 20th century, a Japanese engineer was inspired by a fountain pen brought from England by a friend who was a sailor. The engineer determined to manufacture high-quality fountain pens in Japan, and became the first to do so. The brand, as its name suggested, travelled across the world. Even their entry-level pen (which I like because it is lightweight and fairly slim) is robust and pleasingly engineered, with the fine nib that is characteristic of Japanese writing implements and which I really like.
Fortunately, my favourite pens supplier, Cult Pens, stocks Sailor ink cartridges, and an exciting lumpy parcel soon arrived. I was ready to write a letter.
Handwriting a letter is a very different experience to handwriting notes from books, articles and websites, which I do a lot when researching. It is sustained, focussed, and it’s about the writing process and how the reader will engage with the words rather than just recording notes for future reference where, as long as it makes sense to me, that’s fine. A letter is written with the recipient in mind, sifting through all the possible topics to tell them about things which will interest them, which you want them to know about, and which strengthen the bonds of friendship between you. As a writer, especially someone like me who often writes for unknown readers on the other side of the world, it’s quite a shift of mind-set.
Of course, I’m not going to give up social media, and often knocking off a quick email, text message or WhatsApp is still a great way of keeping in touch with people in the moment. But handwriting a personal letter gives another dimension to communication between two people – it’s considered, takes longer (not only because I now type far faster than I can handwrite, but also because the letter takes a day or two to reach its destination) and is more tactile. It’s an artefact in its own right, its meaning more than just the words it contains. A letter can be eagerly awaited, re-read, treasured, as our forebears knew. It saddens me that future generations will not have the personal glimpses into our relationships that we do when we rediscover old family letters – no love-letters, no postcards from the seaside, no homesick letters home. I do wonder if the historians of the future will find it harder to gain an insight into our lives – will our emails and texts have quite the same longevity and value? I am not trying to turn the clock back on technology and its effect on the way we communicate, but I am committing to handwriting at least a letter a month, in the hopes that the personal touch will give, for their recipients, a little added value to my words.
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