The lost art of letter writing

There’s a generation of young people for whom letters – especially handwritten letters – must seem old-fashioned and quaint. In an age of instant communication via text, emails, Twitter and Facebook, most young people won’t have written any letters themselves, except perhaps to the tooth fairy, or Santa, or the occasional thank-you note.

But here’s the thing: even if most of us are too ‘time-poor’ to sit down and craft letters on a daily basis, most people surely still get a thrill out of receiving one. So the art of letter writing may well be lost but our fascination with letters endures.

The attention being given to the First World War during this centenary year is making me think of my paternal grandfather, Alfred Walder, who fought in the war and survived. Sadly, he died just after I was born so I never got to know him.

One of the few things I have from my grandfather is a handwritten letter, dated 15th June 1920, in a battered wallet (see image at top of page). The letter is from his brother, my grand-uncle, Percy who was serving on a dreadnought battleship HMS Temeraire in London. It begins:

My Dear Bro Alf, Winnie & Babs.

The letter doesn’t contain much in the way of news but it is brimming with cheerfulness and love. The Babs referred to is my uncle John, who was a newborn at this point and it seems grandad had just sent Percy a photograph of Winnie and the baby.

He closes with:

I remain your Loving and Affec. Brother Perce xx

Give these to Winn and Baby xxxxxxxx

And these? to you, Wonder xxxxx

PS I am keeping a four hour watch whilst writing this. I guess you’re between the sheets. Goodbye.

I find this letter genuinely moving. I never met my grandad or Percy but having heard how close they were, these flimsy sheets of paper provide a connection to the past and a little glimpse into their lives.

My grandad survived WW1, even though he was in a cavalry unit. Fortunately, he was kicked in the knee by a horse rather badly while in France and was shipped back to England. My father always spoke of grandad’s amazing affinity with, and love of, animals so it was especially pleasing to discover a couple of handwritten notes in the battered wallet that provide recipes for dealing with horses.

One is titled “To Quiet A Mare or Gelding”:

1 dram oil of Cummings, 1 dram oil of Carraways, 1 dram oil of Cassia, 12 drops oil of Rhodium. Rub a few drops on bit or nose…

There are other recipes for Appetite Powder, Oils to Make a Horse Follow You, and (ironically) How to Quiet A Kicker. Maybe grandad forgot to give that horse in northern France his quietening dose… If grandad hadn’t received the wound that sent him back to England things may well have turned out very differently. If he hadn’t survived the war, my father wouldn’t have been born, and I wouldn’t be writing these words.

But you don’t need to be related to someone to find their lives and times of interest. One of my favourite blogs is Letters of Note, run by Shaun Usher, who describes it as an “archive of fascinating correspondence.”

I’d urge you to read the blog and follow @LettersofNote on Twitter. The blog has been so successful that a compilation of letters has now been put together in book form.

Letters of Note - Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, compiled by Shaun Usher.

There are letters from the rich and famous as well as the more humble and ordinary. All have something to say, and they say it in a great variety of ways – funny, sad, wise, and flippant. This article in The Guardian tells you more.

Shaun Usher’s favourite letter is one written in 1934 by Robert Pirosh, an aspiring screenwriter, to all the Hollywood players he could think of. It opens with:

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady.

He goes on to list many, many wonderful words. It closes with:

May I have a few with you?

Having a word – how could he fail?




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