Opinion

Postcard from the past: A dying, poignant missive

These days the picture postcard has got lost in the email, but collector Tom Jackson’s new book celebrates this dying communication. Their messages carry a funny and often poignant link to our past.

About a year ago, on a quiet day at the office, I started posting postcards on Twitter. Not for their collectable beauty or even for their historic interest but simply because I had one or two knocking about the house and the messages intrigued me. I could see that, presented this way, the messages on the most ordinary old postcards were loaded with a humour and poignancy that, despite their age, is startlingly fresh. Something like gold glitters behind the faded ink and smudged postmarks.

And so began a strange, between-doing-proper-work mission to gather a hoard of abandoned postcards and bring them to a new, digital audience as Postcard From the Past, a rolling anthology of micro-stories, misshapen one-liners and cries for help. Who wouldn’t be beguiled by messages as cryptic, as unwittingly Carry On, or as artlessly pure as these?

“A very dry day except in our room”
“The proprietor had an organ a bit like Uncle George’s”
“Our sticklebacks died last night”

We have all observed how people don’t customarily send postcards any more. But we did, by the million. My role in this enterprise is to gather an Everest of old cards then chip away to leave just the telling message. I’m a fossil-hunter. I’m a ventriloquist. I’m a reanimator. I’m a bloke with his hand in a big box of slightly smelly old postcards.

All those hours earwigging on holidaymakers from half a century ago is informative, too. It is interesting to remember how hit and miss long car journeys used to be. (‘The exhaust on Dick’s Viva has collapsed’.) How we used to stay in ‘digs’. The time when window-shopping was ‘shop-gazing’, and tea-cosies mattered. To read these messages 50 years later is to stroll into a world that I hadn’t noticed had slipped away. Of course the cards, with their forget-me-not skies, take us back to our own holidays – sandwiches in the car in the rain, lost sandals and sunny days that lasted for weeks. But memories are slippery. Do I remember spotting Terry Scott at Paignton Zoo or did I read that on a postcard?

A lot of the cards are very funny but I’m not laughing at anyone but myself. It’s our own lives that are written on these cards. It strikes me that the past is funny and odd and serious and heartbreaking and packed full of people who feel a lot like us.

Postcard from the Past by Tom Jackson is published on June 1 (Fourth Estate, £9.99)

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