The lost art of letter writing

Lynne Wallis

A beautiful yet often neglected medium of communication, Lynne Wallis takes a look a the wonders of a handwritten letter 

Ever since childhood I'd Longed to meet my uncle Jack, although it was an impossible dream. His kindness, good humour and upstanding character were legendary in our family. Jack Hollis, my mum’s only brother, was killed aged 24 serving in the Navy aboard the HMS Egret. His ship went down under enemy action in August 1943 during The Battle of the Atlantic. My mother, Madge, and her own mother, Ada, were devastated.

The telegram arrived from the Royal Navy that September, and the loss was almost too much to bear. It followed the suicide of Ada’s husband William who took his life early in 1940—he'd been an ambulance driver in the Battle of the Somme and was damaged irreparably by the horrors he saw. He was unable to face another war.

 Lynne's parents on their honeymoon

I have felt the loss of the wonderful uncle I never knew all my life. Until now all I had were photographs. I knew Jack was handsome, that he was a top boy at his school and very good at drawing. But only now do I have a deeper insight into his psyche. My mother died in March and I'm getting to know more about who he was through the scores of letters he wrote home in 1943. It sends a shiver down my spine to think of Jack in his cabin on the Egret writing home 75 years ago. He used a good fountain pen, usually opening letters to his sister "My darling precious Sug." Jack was a huge James Cagney fan and often used words and phrases from American films. He even wore his hair like Cagney, and by all accounts he did a mean Bronx accent.

"It sends a shiver down my spine to think of Jack in his cabin on the Egret writing home 75 years ago"

Jack was very upset about how my mother—who was in the WAAFS—was posted to Northampton, leaving their widowed mum alone in London. He writes in a letter to his mother just three weeks before he was killed: "What do they mean, shifting her gradually farther and farther away? Hell, it isn’t right. I realise that perhaps my view isn’t quite ringing with the patriotism that it might, but they must consider the individual. Is there anywhere I can write requesting at least a little consideration? After all, the authorities must have some understanding or at least some human feelings."

Uncle Jack in his navy regalia

He always signs off with "Your ever loving son/brother" with eight kisses, referring to them throughout his frequent joint letters as "My precious darlings." The letters are full of longing and pain at being away from his beloved family. What Jack doesn’t say is as significant as what he does say, and I get the strong feeling when he writes about banalities that he's masking his fear and vulnerability.

"My dada isn't a very open person face-to-face, but he can somehow put things down on paper"

Other letters have a lighter tone. He writes of mum and Ada’s trips to The Concorde pub in Bermondsey. It was the social hub of their war-torn lives. “And how many keyholes could you see when you got home, my precious darlings?”

On August 8 he writes touchingly to thank his mother for his birthday card: “I pray with all my heart that the next card will not have to come so far, that I will be home living once more in a peaceful world. And really, my precious, as I see it, the current good news and excellent results all around—although perhaps a trifle optimistic—give me good heart that I may spend my next birthday at home”.

It fills me with immense sadness to know that he never returned. The thrill of finding a box of lost letters in a tin in the attic, or a late parent’s old writing bureau, will never be equalled by looking up archived emails on a computer screen. Every letter is unique, written on a different typewriter or computer, from a different address, on different paper, with a different pen. Then there's the distinctive writing of the author, the signature, the opening greeting—letter writers rarely start with the impersonal "Hi" of emails. Peter de Bolla, director of the Cambridge Concept Lab says that while emailing or texting lends itself to rapid communication, letters have a residue of formality about them. “You might ping an email across two, three, four or more times during a correspondence which is very different from a letter, which has a much longer format. All of those things change the nature of what is actually communicated.”

Lynne reads Jack's letters

Stephen Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster says we're losing a lot of precious insights by replacing letter writing with email, text and social media. “In a hundred years’ time there will be masses and masses of data but we’re less likely to have the kind of intimate insights into ordinary, everyday lives that letters to friends and family have traditionally given us.” Barnett describes what is being lost by the immediacy of social media replacing letters as "the things that happen under the radar."

 

Sarah Graham, a health writer in her twenties, comes from a long line of letter writers, and had always enjoyed the colourful missives she received from her grandfather. When he died just over ten years ago she was bereft, and then something she hadn’t expected happened. Her father, with whom she'd always had a loving but distant relationship, took over and began writing regularly.

“I was having a hard time at university,” she began. “And so Dad, who is quite a reflective person, started writing about how difficult he found it when he went away to study—we both went to Warwick and by coincidence I stayed in the same accommodation block as him. He wrote his observations about various things, how he coped at uni, how he faced his problems and I found it incredibly reassuring. My dad isn't a very open person face-to-face, but he could somehow put things down on paper. It made me feel much closer to him, and we understood each other so much better afterwards. We couldn’t have achieved what we did by letter through Skype or mobile phone. It was a very special thing, and it changed our relationship for ever.”

"According to research, routine letter writing increases levels of contentedness and lowers rates of depression"

According to the Write A Letter to A Friend With Cancer project, research shows that routine letter writing can increase levels of contentedness and lower rates of depression—not just for the reader but for the writer too.

 

Emma Haydon found a whole treasure-trove of letters after her parents died. She describes the find as "an oasis of beauty" amid her grief. The most interesting letters were written during their courtship in 1951, two years before they married. Peter travelled a lot, and his letters certainly give a flavour of his last carefree adventures as a bachelor, but he always ends up reassuring his "darling kitten" Jane of his commitment to her. They were married when they were both aged 31 and stayed so for a very happy 60 years. Peter became a chartered surveyor, while Jane was a PA for Jaeger.

In 1951 Jane was in England and Ireland, Peter in France with three friends. Emma reflects, “The letters were confirmation that our parents were authentic people. They were interested and interesting, honest with their feelings and sincere. They always looked to the future with great hope and remembered the past with respectful sentiment. They were always doing things and planning adventures. Mum’s favourite expression right up until she died was "go for it." They did everything hard—played hard, loved hard, lived hard.”

Jane and Peter Haydon pose to the right of friends

Peter’s letters to Jane usually began with, "My Darling". He writes playfully from Nice, “On arrival here we have had a spot of bother. Mike and I lost the other two in Nice and didn’t find them till Monday. We had to spend the night in a foul hotel as we had no money or clothes. As I write Mike and Pete are reading magazines and looking very opulent, sipping their drinks. I wish you could see them. And now my darling, how are you? How is life? Good I expect. Did you find a nice handsome pilot, you wicked pussy cat? I bet you made eyes at him.”

In August that year Peter wrote, “Believe my darling baby I shall think of you a lot, not just a little. Life’s coming! We will be together”.

They continued these flirtatious, fun, loving letters throughout their marriage if they were apart, but also liked to leave each other notes around the house. Emma explained, “It would be about anything, how to cook beans, plans for dinner, what they were both doing. They were natural writers. When email arrived Dad embraced it, and to be honest, his writing style didn’t change much.”

Together in later years

There's still nothing quite like waiting for a letter, seeing it plop on the mat, reading the postmark and then picking the moment to open it. And writing a letter is such a great opportunity for reflection. But sadly the art of letter writing is being lost with the advent of email and text.

Sure, emails have their uses, and texts are convenient, but there’s nothing like a letter. As Sylvia Plath once said of receiving a handwritten missive, “I must say, the best present anyone can give me is a fat typed letter.” I couldn’t agree more.