Thursday, 25 April 2013

My Newest Favourite Thing: Letters

I’ve already told a bit of an untruth here. My love of letters isn’t a new thing; I’ve always been in their thrall. Although I’ve never liked the phone, I could always write letters to friends I saw all day at school, and often got into trouble for tearing pages out of my rough book to write notes in class to people who sat at the desk in front of me. I even once had a clandestine correspondence with someone a couple of years above me who sat at the desk in my form room on Mondays for Latin while I was elsewhere – probably in one of the labs studying chemistry. We never wrote much of any interest but it was the highlight of my day. Did I mention it was Monday? And I had chemistry?

I was reminded of my love of letters by a couple of recent events. Yesterday I was setting off for a run when the postman came round on his moped. He passed me with a smile, calling out, ‘You’re in luck; there’s nothing for you today.” I was disappointed and confused – how could a lack of letters possibly mean I was in luck? And then I remembered that a friend told me when she went away for a month, she returned home to a stack of mail – all of it bills and ‘friendly’ reminders from the bank. If people aren’t getting news from friends and family in their letterbox, no wonder they are not thrilled by the prospect of the postman ringing, no matter how many times.

My mum and I write to each other quite a lot. I really enjoy seeing her handwriting on the envelope and knowing I will receive interesting articles clipped from newspapers, and little nuggets of information from home, from which birds have been spotted in the garden, to what they (my parents, not the birds) went to see at the pictures. Mum, in turn, tells me that she feels closer to me when she receives my letters from abroad. And that has to be a good thing. I am, after all, as geographically far from her as I can be on this planet, so it is reassuring to think she can put her feet up with a cup of tea and feel as though I am near.

When I was a child my aunt and cousin were often in various exciting places around the world, from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Portugal, California and Kwajalein. I absolutely loved receiving letters from them. It wasn’t just the colourful stamps or the distinctive blue aero-paper, but the contact I was keeping with people close to my heart. When I left home and lived in Paris I sent letters home regularly and poured my heart and soul into some of those envelopes. I hung around the mailbox in hopes of collecting reciprocal communications, and I have kept them all – I have shoeboxes full of old letters.

I don’t know if anyone has bothered to keep my letters – I was never conceited enough to keep copies, but I’m sure I could trace my development as a writer and indeed a human being through them. Recently I met A.J. (Sandy) Mackinnon at a readers and writers festival in the Snowy Mountains. He is a published author of travel anecdotes and a thoroughly charming chap. He said that he had never kept a diary of his travels; rather he always sent letters to people describing his exploits. He explained that by writing a letter, you are already interpreting events to an intended audience and moulding your words and experiences into a story that you hope will be entertaining. I found that a fascinating point.

Today is Anzac Day; a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that commemorates those citizens who have served and died in all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations and honours the contribution and suffering of all those who have served. I recently made a trip to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. It’s a very impressive building full of well-presented and thought-provoking exhibitions. Many are based upon letters that combatants sent home to mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends (hardly ever Dads, for some reason). Nearly all of them beg for more letters in return and news of home.

Despite being more ‘connected’ than ever before through electronic communication, we send fewer letters these days than ever before. I think this is sad. Letters bring comfort in a way that an email or Facebook or text message never could. If they stopped being delivered, I would miss them desperately. But if no one writes them, there will be nothing to deliver. It doesn’t take long to jot down a few lines on a card to say ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ or ‘thinking of you’. In honour of loved ones everywhere, why not write one today?

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