Letter Writing

August 1, 2010 at 11:07 am | Posted in Writing | 2 Comments

I remember when kids used to write to the children’s pages of newspapers and magazines – yes, they had those then – asking for penfriends. In those days, there was no internet, or even computers, and telephones were for the better-off folks. But even they couldn’t afford to make long distance calls unless they had to. Communication meant letter-writing.

 We were taught how to write letters in school; all kinds of letters. We had to know how to write to a friend, to a prospective employer, to a business or agency asking for information, etc. Each type of letter had its own requirements in language, structure and setting out. And there were to be no ink blots!

 Some kids in my primary school had penfriends. I always wanted to have one too. It would be great to write about my life and the place I lived, and learn about someone from a strange place. However, I lacked the confidence to do anything about it, and so missed out on a valuable social experience. Then, when I was in middle high school, my Great-aunt Nancy, in my home town in England, suggested I write to a boy from there and I did as she suggested. Geoffrey and I wrote for a while but, with nothing in common, we didn’t establish a real friendship and it soon petered out.

 Then, after Australia became involved in the Vietnam war, our local radio station ran a campaign, asking for listeners to write to a National Serviceman there. I decided to put my name forward, and wrote a letter giving a general picture of myself. The station forwarded it to a soldier. Not long after, I received a letter from Private Michael B. We wrote for quite a few months. I cannot remember what we actually wrote about now. I am sure I kept those letters, but I don’t know where they are. He sent me a package of Vietnamese coins and notes.

 When Michael returned to Australia, he visited me and took me for a drive in his lovely white Mini Cooper S. I suppose I was too young really, being only seventeen, and I didn’t hear from him again. But I had enjoyed our communication, and it made me think more about other people, places and situations. I became more politically aware – and upset by the horrors of war.

 When I was married in 1969, my husband and I moved to teaching posts far from home. I wrote a lot of letters, mostly to my parents, and also to several friends. Each life event, every birth and relocation and many of my problems travelled in canvas bags by rail and road to their destination. I often waited anxiously for a reply, but it might be weeks before it came. The telephone became cheaper, but it was still expensive, so we didn’t call much – it was always long-distance, and besides, I liked the idea of words on paper.

 Years passed. I divorced, the children grew up, and I took myself off to teach in a remote Central Australian community, where there was no telephone and only a weekly mail plane. This was a great opportunity to write. Mum loved receiving my letters. She said that getting a letter from me was like getting a novel. As I was too busy to keep a journal, I kept copies of my letters as a record of my life there. And then, after eighteen months, something much anticipated by the community, but which I almost dreaded happened – the telephone arrived. Weekly phone calls to my kids and my parents, and occasional calls from them were great, but they changed things completely. The letters, in both directions, stopped. I remained in Central Australia for nine years but I only have a good written record of the people, events, and my experiences from that first eighteen months.

 Today, we have instant communication -not just the landline telephone but mobile phones, the computer, email, social websites like MySpace, and Facebook. And who knows what is just around the corner. Never before have people been so connected. But it seems to me that there is something missing. Something important.

 I think about those people in the past who left us their letters. These documents are a historical record, of the people and of the times. Nowadays, we talk and send text messages, we chat online, we put up messages for the whole world to see. But where are the lasting records? What will remain to show that we were here? The uncountable gigabytes of information that float in cyberspace have no anchor, no solid home. If and when technology changes, or fails for whatever reason, those digital records will be lost. The Digital Revolution does so much for us now, but what does it do for the future? Will the era of the greatest communication in history result in a period of history that is lost forever?

 Maybe we should all start writing letters again – on paper.

 © Linda Visman


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  1. Letter writing used to be much more common when I was young. As a young teenager I had several penfriends and used to look forward to hearing from them.

    My Grandfather lived many miles away and mainly kept in touch by his weekly letters which were read with enthusiasm by every member of our family,.:)

    • It’s not so common now, unfortunately. I had a couple of penfriends when a teenager too. One was a national Serviceman serving in Vietnam – the local radio station set up a programme where we could write to a soldier. After his tour of duty, he visited me. 🙂
      I’d love my grandchildren to write to me – perhaps I should write to them to start something going. 🙂

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