Yours truly logs on and signs off

E-mail and faxes are killing off pen and paper. Roger Dobson reports on the rapid decline of letter writing
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The Independent Online
The art of traditional letter writing is being lost, usurped by the fax, the telephone, e-mail and the Internet. The weekend after Christmas would once have been a time when people across the country sat down to write thank-you letters for gifts and hospitality. Not any more.

Instead of investing care and time in a lengthy letter, people opt for a quick chat by phone, or a message sent by electronic media. Even those who do put pen to paper often opt for a short greetings card. Almost half the post classed as social mail by the Royal Mail consists of cards.

The death of the letter is evident in the falling sales of writing paper. So low are sales that City analysts and specialist stationery trade publications say that records are no longer kept.

Even one of the paper world's leading experts admits that he has swapped the pen for the keyboard. Basha Nazir, chief consultant and manager at the Paper Industry Research Association, said: "I stopped writing myself and communicate with a family group of 20 around the world with e-mail. The messages we send are very different from letter composition and are much shorter and more factual."

The fall in letter writing is not only something that affects paper manufacturers. Psychologists and educationalists warn that schoolchildren may lose both the physical and literary skills of writing as technology takes over from the pen. Historians, biographers and critics lament that there will be no long-term written records of people's more intimate thoughts.

Dr Lance Workman, psychologist at the University of Glamorgan, said of the decline in letter writing: "It is a worry. As the use of word processors and other hi-tech equipment replaces traditional writing among schoolchildren it may well be that they no longer value the ability to write with a pen and paper. That mirrors the changes in maths, where teachers complained that children don't have the motivation to be any good at their tables any more because they use calculators.

"We also have to be aware that universities have been complaining that there has been a decline in literacy standards, and that is in direct contrast to the rise in IT ability."

Dr Workman says of the letters of people using the Internet: "Because there is a risk of other people seeing them, they are less personal and shorter."

Basildon Bond, the icon of the letter-writing world, recently acquired by Spicers, is still the market leader. Retail marketing manager Sonia Gavira says that sales of traditional writing pads have declined, although other products in its range have not.

"People are not writing in the same way as they used to. They still communicate by mail and in some instances more prolifically in that they will send cards or notelets. What they do not do is write a traditional letter to their sister, for example, because they can just pick up the phone."

Robin Fawcett, senior lecturer and director of the computational linguistic unit at the University of Wales, Cardiff, is one of those who regret the passing of the traditional letter. "I do lament it and I think one of the results will be that in years to come we will have no record of what we have said to each other and that is very sad. We talk a lot more on the telephone because it is cheap and we send too much e-mail."

The value of letters as records of the past continues to arouse huge interest. In the past 18 months, letters written by Dylan Thomas, Robert Southey, Robert Byron, Boris Pasternak and Graham Greene have been sold at auction. There have also been sales of notes and missives from Mozart, Florence Nightingale and Nelson, and more recent celebrities including Peter Sellers and Paul McCartney.

These letters reveal Sellers's jealousy and paranoia, Nelson's mean-spirited view of a servant, Southey's patronising advice to Charlotte Bronte, and Paternak's passion for the woman who was the model for Lara, the lover of Doctor Zhivago.

Dylan Thomas tells his wife, Caitlin, in a language familiar to all who have read Under Milk Wood: "I love you for millions and millions of things, clocks and vampires and dirty nails and squiggly paintings and lovely hair and being dizzy and falling dreams." At auction the letters reached varying prices - but they all provide vital archive material for scholars.

For the historians of the future, just one group of people is ensuring that there will be letters left behind describing the foreign country of the past - British troops abroad. Soldiers posted overseas continue to write home on airmail letter paper provided by the Army, and the Ministry of Defence says that the airmail sheets it provides are as popular as they ever were.