Friday, 30 December 2016

Postcards from the past

Every now and then, one of my best friends sends me a completely priceless gift. I'm never sure when exactly this gift is going to arrive, or what exactly it's going to contain, but what I do know is that it's guaranteed to make me smile. What is it? A letter.

It might seem strange, in the age of instant gratification, when we're at each other's constant beck and call, slaves to the double tick of our WhatsApp messages and forever firing off memes and in-jokes and the latest gossip to our various group chats, that I still have what was once a fairly common relationship status – that of 'penpal' – but it's one that however many apps or advancements they make, I'm pretty sure I'll always have.

Like most 20-somethings, I'm a slave to my iPhone – I wake up to its harsh glare and pretty much fall asleep to it too, fitting in that one-last-scroll before I conk out each night. For most of us, the reasons we keep posting online are the same reasons that keep gamblers returning to the casino – every 'like' that rolls in delivers a hit of dopamine that's like hitting a mini jackpot, the numbers that rack up our very own matching dollar signs.

If social media is the casino of the communication world, then letter writing is definitely the savings account. Instead of rushing in, letting all you have go in a rush of excitement and the desire for instant reward, it's an exercise in patience and commitment. If you regularly write letters, then you store up anecdotes and recommendations like precious pennies, ready to be deposited into your next missive, despite the fact that it would be far easier to blow them all in one ranting Facebook message. But while it takes far more time and effort, just like the eventual contents of your savings account, the end result is tangible, satisfying and has a great deal more longevity than online correspondence ever could.

The real beauty of letter writing, though, lies in the fact that whichever side you find yourself on, writer or recipient, there's the simplest of pleasures to be had. As the writer, knowing that your words (though unlikely to be immortalised forever) aren't going to be forgotten quite as easily as they would if you were texting, you're forced to be more considered, really thinking about what you're saying for once. This means you're less likely to say the daft or sometimes (let's face it) unnecessarily mean things you would over WhatsApp.

You're also forced to reflect more than you might otherwise on recent events, distilling them into just enough words to fill a card from Paperchase, and sometimes, when you really get going, using the blank page as a sort of cathartic medium – there's nothing quite like putting pen to paper when you've got something on your mind, as everyone from the fictional Adrian Mole to the heroic Anne Frank have demonstrated in their own way.

And then there's being the recipient, when you get no end of things to enjoy: the all-important element of surprise, not knowing when exactly you're going to come home to a little treat waiting for you on the mat; the knowledge that someone has taken the time and effort to write to you by hand, and even that they've paid the price of a now pretty extortionate stamp; the contents itself, with updates and stories and news of life in another part of the country or the world; and finally, the knowledge that you have the power to return all these little delights yourself, the ball now pushed firmly through the letterbox and into your court.

And before you start thinking otherwise, there's no pressure to suddenly become Jane Austen-like with your letter writing skills. In actual fact, one of my favourite Twitter accounts is called 'Postcard From the Past' (@PastPostcard), and it's a nostalgic glimpse into the holidays gone-by, written by real-life anonymous people and stretching back decades. The very ordinary cards featured in each tweet have the weirdest and most wonderful messages on them. They can be touching, funny, entertaining or concerning the dullest of subject matter, but all the same, they're little snapshots of people’s lives.

In the hyper-connected world we now live in, snapshots – particularly of the heavily filtered variety – of people's lives aren't exactly hard to come by. You could argue that it's just nostalgia, or the novelty and the rare pleasure that comes from enjoying a dying art (much like record collecting), that makes letter writing feel a little bit more special than getting an email like this one. But there is, undeniably, something special about it. Letters capture a particular moment in time that's already, by the time you've read it, out of date – leaving you with your very own historical artefact in hand. And apart from anything else, in a time when contacting someone takes little to no effort at all, letter writing shows you really care – and there's a lot to be said for that.