Written out: An in-depth look at the Royal Mail sell-off
We love receiving letters. We value them as a historical record. What we can't be bothered to do any more is to take the time to write them – as the privatisation of Royal Mail makes only too clear. Is our future to be a solely electronic one?
When I was eight years old, in my last lesson of each week, I wrote a letter. It was at the initiative of Miss Coggan, my class teacher: pick a friend, or a family member, even one you might be seeing that evening, and tell them how you're doing. Tell them what books you're reading, what games you're playing, who you like and who's driving you crazy. Tell them about your collection of Pogs. Tell them what it's like to be eight.
I didn't take to it at first. I filled out my obligatory page with lists of lessons and enormous crossings-out. Over the course of the year, though, as my handwriting clarified a bit, and my thinking did the same, I found a rhythm. The letters got a little better. For the most part, my correspondents seemed to like getting them. When you are eight, and no one is interested in your opinion about anything, this is intoxicating enough. Imagine, then, my euphoria at the greatest boon of all: sometimes, people wrote back. I don't remember a word of the contents, sad to say. But I remember the plop on the doormat, the sifting at the breakfast table, and the first time I heard the words "this one's for you".
No eight-year-old today is likely to know that feeling. That the practice of letter-writing is roughly as relevant to a child of the 21st century as the practice of semaphore was to a child of the 20th is a painful fact, but there is no use denying it. The precipitous decline of the form was confirmed last week when we heard the details of the privatisation of Royal Mail – a redoubtable national institution founded on the idea that we needed to write to each other, now reduced to a battle in the marketplace for Amazonian packages.
The same thing is happening everywhere. The United States Postal Service wants to cancel Saturday deliveries; the Netherlands' PostNL is shutting 300 local offices; New Zealand Post is cutting its service back to just three days a week. In this country alone, there are 22 million letters fewer a day than in 2006, a decline of 25 per cent. The only person left who seems to write proper letters is Prince Charles, in the news again for his famously illegible "black spiders" to ministers – a practice that, if his sons were ever to adopt, they would surely pursue by email. Even Postman Pat has been forced to make some adjustments. No longer allowed to use the Royal Mail logo on the side of his van, he has had to change the lyrics to his theme tune, as well. He used to deliver "letters through your door"; now, it's "parcels".
Of course, even Postman Pat was probably delivering more bills and gadget catalogues than letters. Relatively few of those 22 million missing items were the inscribed outpourings of one heart to another. Still, we would all recognise that something has changed. These days, if I get an envelope with handwriting on it, and the handwriting is not my mother's, my thoughts run as follows: wedding invitation; marketing ploy; crazy person. If I were to open the envelope and find a friend's news and observations of the world, I would be delighted. But I would also wonder what unexplained life event had triggered this endearingly regressive step. I fear I would ask myself: is it OK to reply by email?
Part of the sadness of the letter's decline is exactly that sort of affront to the form's dignity. It doesn't seem right that something with such deep roots could be written off so fast. Whereas email has been around for no more than a mouse click, the letter is almost synonymous with the historical record. Handwritten letters are reported as far back as 500BC, about the time of Herodotus. Friends were signing off with "best wishes" in ancient Greece. And, as Simon Garfield relates in his superb elegy To the Letter (which is published by Canongate in October), the outposts of the Roman empire are still littered with the remains of the credit-card-sized wooden tablets that carried messages from one fort to another.
In that history some might find reasons to be optimistic for the future. After all, this is not the first time that the letter has been declared extinct. Every encroaching technology, from the telegraph to the fax machine, has been heard as a death knell. (Indeed, India will tomorrow end its telegram service, a technology now rendered unquestionably obsolete.) Garfield tells us that even the democratising arrival of the adhesive stamp in 1840 was viewed by some as a despoilment. The Victorian literary critic George Saintsbury, considering that the practice was best left to the sort of fine writers who had no need of such conveniences, told his readers: "The penny post killed it." He turned out to be extravagantly wrong.
It's also possible to draw comfort from the sheer numbers. In 1850, a mere 347 million letters traversed the UK; today, it's 21 billion. We should beware the knee-jerk nostalgia which assumes that the cultural dominance of one thing necessarily means it was universal. Letters seem to define the past partly because they were popular, but partly because they had less competition. Lots of people weren't writing anything at all.
And yet these arguments don't count for much in the face of one's experience. When was the last time you saw someone smiling at a letter, and not a text message, on the bus? When did you last put pen to paper yourself, and hurry to catch the post, unless it was to mark some joyful or solemn occasion? When did you last devote that sort of intimate care to anyone you weren't trying to sleep with or console? If the answer is within the past year, I submit you are unusual. If the answer is within the past week, you are a saint, and perhaps also under-occupied.
This is the weird thing about this much-mourned form: it is sad it is gone, but also, there is no point in trying to recover it. To do so is to become like those people who buy new albums only on records, and who insist on exclusively using the term "vinyl". The artefact is beloved for the right reasons, but the revival is impossible, and undignified. It takes a culture to bring it back, not a unilateral affectation.
Our wallowing unease with the change is most clearly displayed, ironically enough, online: the internet is fast becoming a digitised fetish museum for the very practice it is obliterating. Sites such as Shaun Usher's delightful (and self-explanatory) Letters of Note, or the excessively sentimental More Love Letters, where participants "bless" strangers with affectionate messages, and a score of others; they are all well-visited evidence that we like other people's letters and the voyeuristic insight they seem to bring, almost as much as we like getting them ourselves. We like everything about letters, really, except for the trouble it takes to actually write them.
While I remain an enthusiastic recipient of letters, and wish I wrote them more, it seems disingenuous to mourn excessively when I have checked my email at least a dozen times in the writing of this piece. Nor is the argument only a practical one, although email obviously wins on that score hands down. When the grief-stricken enumerate the virtues of the letter, they sometimes frame their points in opposition to electronic communication. Where the email is transitory, the letter can outlast its author. Where the email encourages instantaneous replies, and therefore carelessness, the letter provides the breathing space for deep thoughts, and extended consideration, and a conversation quite unlike those we have by other means. All of this is true. What it doesn't do, however, is consider the possibility that email might have charms of its own; might, as a new form of communication, reshape our sense of ourselves in ways that could make life more interesting, and that letters, wonderful though they are, could never imitate.
Email's chief virtues are organisational, which is a more exciting statement than it sounds. For the beauty of that organisation is not only visible to the sort of person who spends his time worrying about getting to "inbox zero". Instead, email offers us novel means of figuring our relationships, and ourselves. Start a conversation; that conversation will stack neatly up, and you will add to it with tiny building blocks, a collaborative, cumulative pleasure, quickly reviewable, that is not as sure to be intellectually impoverished as the Luddites would have us believe. Add a third person, add a fourth, and see how the pattern changes, and take pleasure in the way that your friendships overlap and coincide, and notice the disjunctures that occur when those others don't quite gel.
Or try this. Go to the first page of your sent mail, which may be many years old now – eight, in my case, and coinciding with a week of newspaper work experience and the 7 July bombings. Read the messages there, and try to hear how your voice has changed, and grapple with the strangeness of ephemeral communications of which you have no recollection, that were barely meant to outlast the moment in which they were written, now visible again, and perhaps, therefore, offering an insight quite unlike any that past generations have had available to them. Wonder at your use of the word "anyhoo". Think fondly of the friends you used to pass the electronic time of day with, and resolve to see them again soon.
Or search for the name of the person you love, and feel a small fizz of pleasure at rereading the message you sent a mutual friend in which that name is mentioned not remotely by accident. Or search for the name of a good friend who has moved away, and see that your account has returned results 1-20 of many. Feel a deep glow of pleasure at that many, at a stack of correspondence to be dipped into at your leisure. Feel like you haven't wasted as much of your time as you had thought. Worry a bit about your hypothetical children reading it all when you are gone. And see if you don't feel this, too: the day the last letter is sent will be a day for grief. But we will have ways to talk about it. And perhaps we'll be talking in a way we never have before.
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