Sunday 20 June 2010

The lost art of letter writing

What a pleasure yesterday evening as I was sitting nursing an awful head cold to open a parcel delivered to my office and from there to my home by a colleague. It was a packet of printed materials from my friend E in Scotland. I opened it with curiosity, for its size it was quite heavy. A couple of UK newspapers Sunday supplements, some magazines and there in amidst these two absolute delights. E's two boys had hand written me letters! I am so glad to see the art of letter writing is still being fostered in some parts of the education system and in some homes.
The boys are 10 and 13 ( hope I got the ages right)  and they told me all about  their latest escapades. I had to  smile as C, the youngest, started his letter with a "On Sunday the sixth my mum made me write this to you" :)  but he soon get into the swing of it and told me all about his trip to Gardening Scotland to search for plants for the  dark part of their garden, complete with drawing of a bag of plants purchased and mouthwatering description of the goodies he'd tasted on route. B told me all about a boat trip he had been on along the estuary of the Firth of Forth, the river near where I grew up. His had more of the boyish teenager to it, confessing that the "thrills of seeing all the wildlife" had been "interrupted by a horde of screaming babies" and " a fat man breaking wind" ! Loved it!
But what complete blew me away were B's photos - water birds, sea lions, ruined castles, streams feeding the river  - but best of all the shots were two of the Forth Railway Bridge, a major engineering feet of its day, a cantilever construction of steel, famous for eternally being painted. One photo caught the intricacies of the red girder work, the crisscrossing of the smaller struts messing amidst the massive anchoring spans. The second a panorama from the south bank with the 3 lights of the old ferry pier aligned with the 3 diamonds of the bridge. Very nice framing, B! The third photo was very different, a close up of a bee sucking honey from a white flower - stunning contrasts of colour, pitch perfect focus on the bee and the innards of  the flower, fuzzing up the surrounding flower heads and stalks just enough, and setting it all off nicely against a blurry darker backdrop. He really has the eye! I hope my words do them justice as I can't reproduce the glossies B sent.
I became quite nostalgic (again) reading the letters, and recalling the last time I visited E and the boys when we went walking along the shoreline there. Seeing the Bridge pictures made me think again of where I grew up because the two Forth Bridges are still iconic symbols of home and my youth. I was present at the opening of the Forth Road Bridge and I suspect my love of them, but maybe the Rail Bridge in particular, from the many trips made with my parents to visit aunt and family in Edinburgh either by rail or by the pre road bridge ferry, has more than a passing causal effect on my love of metal artwork and sculpture in general. There is something inherently aesthetic, comforting, yet at the same time inspiring, about the shapes and forms of both bridges  - for me the Rail Bridge defines endurance,  its mechanical grandeur  screams the chug of the old steam trains at you, and transports you back to playing with Meccano sets. The Road Bridge also portrays strength but this time with balletic elegance of a grand jeté.
I can't actually recall the last time  I received a real hand written letter. There used to be that heart stopping moment when the door flap would open and the envelope fluttered downwards. The "You've got mail" bleep just doesn't do it! With email as the de rigueur, technology has all but eliminated real letters from our post: the postman at home reduced to delivering unwanted circulars and associated junk mail or the wanted parcels from online shopping. But that is not to say the letters of yesterday are forgotten. There are still some I recall with quite affection - the massive tomes from D when he was in Canada during our university days, describing his stay there and the mile by mile train journey cross country from Vancouver, through the Rockies, eastward  - those were the days of that thin blue airmail paper :) ; the almost daily love letters from my born again romantic Valentine boyfriend of early years;  and the letters I still have from L that were poems from a budding talent. None of these could ever have been quite the same as emails, the hand written, first time writes, complete with mistakes and changes en route, and the language - email transiency, terseness and SMS  like shortcuts are not in my opinion the medium for  the heartfelt renderings of young love.


  1. Sheila, I wish hand written letters didn't fade into the past. Maybe I'll grab a pen and some paper and surprise someone..

  2. I used to write so many letters. maybe an average of 20 a fact I used to keep track of my mail on my calandar making sure to write people back etc. Email and blogging has totally replaced that side of reverie with writing and reading. In fact...blogging has more than replaced it because people just don't write but their blogs seem to fill that pleasure or need.

    You must have been thrilled to get that parcel...what a treat!

  3. Oh what a lovely post, I grew up in Fife and can totally relate to your feelings on the Forth Rail Bridge, I adored trips to Edinburgh... my mum would take us to the Woolen Mill for lovely soft sweaters for school.
    Letters are the best, we're compiling a package for Grandma right now and this post made me glad we're doing it.

  4. I like this posting very much, Sheila. Very much.