As you have learned from my previous posts on my Reclamation series, I was sent over alone from Nigeria to Kent when I was 4½. My father was a product of the African generation who were raised to romanticise England. I rarely saw my parents until I was 15 years old when my parents eventually came to live here. Correspondence home was my lifeline to a world that gradually became unfamiliar. At first the letters were read to me but then I was able to get a respect for the written word and the ceremonies surrounding it.
Letter writing has been all but lost in our generation. While I am not opposed to messages of 140 characters or less, there is something deeply personal and powerful about a letter that cannot be conveyed in short bursts of communication.
I know that I am in danger of sounding terribly old, but I still enjoy getting a letter especially a handwritten letter – in the mail. You can’t ignore a letter – they impose themselves on you in way an email can’t. You can scroll past a message in a crowded inbox but something that lands on the mat or is handed to you is physically intrusive and demands attention, even if only to remove it from view, and it is a concrete reminder of a person or subject. As Tom Hanks wrote in his recent homage to typewriters; ‘no one ever chucks anything type written into the trash after just one reading. Emails? I delete most before I see the electronic signature’. Even the act of disposing of a letter takes effort and demands more engagement than pressing ‘delete’ – recycling or a more theatrical ripping or burning are visibly decisive acts, as irrevocable as they are symbolic. So letters demand engagement on every level.
Once a letter is gone it’s gone. A handwritten letter torn into fragments is not backed up on a giant server – the words of the writer are consigned to oblivion, whether this outcome is desirable or to be regretted later. Sadly, my letters suffered that fate, hence the obliteration in this series. A letter can’t be accidentally forwarded to the whole office and when it arrives it’s in a sealed envelope and unlikely to have been ‘hacked’.
On the other hand, letters can, if deliberately preserved, survive long after their senders and recipients have gone. Letters we write now can form a paper trail back to their writers and intended readers, but their usefulness as windows on the past are perhaps less about the events or actions they document and more about how our forebears expressed ourselves, the language and written conventions of the time. This is in part because letters don’t lend themselves to short cuts, pro forma vocabulary and clichés as much as digital communications do – we don’t draw emojis or use text speak in letters.