Last post for letters

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There were always letters. The obligatory ‘thank you’ notes after Christmas and birthdays to distant relatives that I and my siblings were obliged to write as soon as we were literate, then the letters that were part of almost daily life for half a century.

There was always something to put in the post box before the last collection at 4p.m. and most days of the week something through my letterbox be it a personal missive from a friend or something official – gas and electric bills, local taxes – and it has all pretty much disappeared.

It was a re-shelving of a part of my library that sparked this column. There are reams of letters and diaries all collected over a lifetime of book-buying. Perhaps a couple of hundred in all and they had got out of sequence from frequent reference. Strachey was next to Walpole, Woolf to Houseman. Down they all came and back up alphabetically when it struck me how few collected letters and diaries there were after the early 80’s…was nobody writing anymore?

It seems not. My courtship with my wife of the last twenty-three years was entirely by letter. I still have her side of the correspondence and she has my scribbling. There are hundreds. We wrote two or three times a week over two-and-a-half years and they are all carefully filed on the same shelves as my diaries of the last forty years. We wrote our last proper letters to one another in 1998, when she was in UK and I was in Kabul. After that it all went electric.

Curious, I set up a straw poll on my Facebook page. Who among nearly a thousand of my contacts on FB still wrote letters? Over forty replied within twenty-four hours and by a heavy majority most had stopped writing letters to anybody, and the shift was spread around a few years either side of the turn of the century. A handful still did – one continues a long-standing pen-pal correspondence – and there are a very few, myself included, that have a tiny number of people that get a ‘personal’. In my case written with a fountain pen with the sepia ink I have used since my teens. I see no reason to ever discontinue that.

Not only have we lost both the need and the urge to correspond we have lost a legacy item that is irrecoverable. Nothing personal is written for posterity any more. In the time of letters the great and not so great knew that what they wrote had a fair chance of getting forwarded into the inbox of that also-fading thing called ‘posterity’.

They wrote with an expectation, indeed a desire in many cases, to be read long after their passing. Today we live in a time of transient ephemera. This column is published in a newspaper that has no physical edition; it exists only in cyberspace as an online publication. It cannot be bought and has never been for sale, and there will be no posterity, and whatever legacy I may have with the written word disappears when the server it is held on – crashes.

With the exception of my travel diaries I have written nothing worthy of preservation and arrangements have been made to pass them on, but most of my journalism has a very finite life and beyond the big beasts that is true of all of us, published or otherwise.

There are no Literary Lions anymore and the entire world that has access to an internet connection is a published author with no editorial oversight, no handbrake and quite definitely no quality control. Everybody is famous for as long as they want to be, and that can be an awful lot longer than the famously granted fifteen minutes from Andy Warhol that came into being in 1968, long before the internet was a reality beyond works of science fiction.

Sitting on a little stool in the library I dipped again into the travails of Virginia Woolf as she grappled with her domestic staff. It was wry and funny writing and made me smile. And here’s the thing…Woolf wanted me to smile and knew she could do that far into an unknowable future, the known unknown.

That smile in a little library in a town nobody has heard of in South Punjab was Woolf’s legacy, and I live in the posterity she spoke to. Think about that as you pen your magnum opus – this week’s shopping list! Tootle-pip.

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