Life

How to stay in touch with pen pals | Paul English

In the age of constant communications, a love letter to letter writing

The envelopes bore the miles of their journey like the soles on a well-worn shoe. The post marks, inked across a foreign stamp, smudged and dated, framing an exact place and time at the start of their voyage.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1 December 1986. Beer-Sheva, Israel, 26 October 1987. Huonville, Tasmania, 21 August 1990.

Holding them, I remembered how I’d stare at the envelopes, imagining the journey of each one, flights across oceans through dark and night, marvelling at the robust endurance of something so fragile as thoughts on paper, speeding their way from there to here.

Now stuffed in a shoebox alongside the discarded touchstones of youth, the Scalextric, the Commodore 64 and Panini sticker albums. The writing on the front of each as familiar as the contours of a face, the senders’ names recalled as readily as old phone numbers once were.

Almost 30 years had passed since I’d last looked into this box, recovered from the attic in my childhood home in Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire. The voices from my nascent days of putting words to paper in a bid to connect with people in the wider world.

My letter-writing habit fizzled out in the early 1990s, as I was swept along by the dawn of digital connectivity, new novelties of early email and internet as I started my studies at Glasgow University. Three decades on, these handwritten echoes reminded me of the thrill of the pen pal contract: send, wait, receive. An exchange of weeks – but when those envelopes landed on the breakfast doormat, they brought with them bursts of joy, the likes of which we rarely encounter now.

Today, most personal written interaction has been reduced to the anticipation – the textpectation – of a reply to an SMS, a red dot of notification, the fleeting ping heralding the arrival of a two line WhatsApp message. A one line birthday greeting on Facebook. Digital nudges and pocket vibrations, never to find a home in a shoebox in a loft. Immediate. Constant. Intangible. Ephemeral.

As I crouched in my parents’ attic sifting through pages of frozen time, I wondered what became of these names, some I’d never met, some I’d simply lost along the way. Where was Maria, the sparky girl from Cranhill in Glasgow’s east end? Where was charismatic Patsy, landlady from my childhood holidays on Jersey, whose last post told of her plans to leave for Australia, and contained a tenner for my 18th birthday, something that I only just found? She’d be in her 90s by now…

Thirty years on I set out to find their voices once again, on a mission to reunite the writers with their words; thoughts and letters from the past the conduit to a life-affirming quest in the present.

Listen to Paul English’s documentary Lost Letters @paulenglishhack

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