I have been thinking in recent times about communication, how we, as human beings, share complex ideas and emotions. Billions of words pass through the ether that is cyberspace from one to another of us every hour of every day. However, one in four of us at least have not received a handwritten communication, a letter, in other words, for over ten years. Which is really quite sad. Young men used to read Keats then shamelessly plagiarise his love letters as their own before sending them to fortunate, trembling, winsome young lasses.
Modern methods, although accurate, are mechanical, antiseptic, lacking any personal warmth. A neat emailed typescript is cold and rectangular, like a military order, friendly little emojis appended notwithstanding. “The battalion will advance” has so much more pitiless gravitas when it appears on a screen in formal Times New Roman than ever it could as a sweeping curlicue from a Montblanc on cream notepaper. Dropping a handwritten letter into a postbox carries weight. The physical heft of a letter gives the communication psychological ballast that email and texts don’t have. Digital communication is ethereal, almost ephemeral, throwaway and disposable, almost regardless of content and consequently lends itself to impulse and flippancy. No better proof is needed that a glance at the endless stream of tweets put out by the president of the United States. The moment they are released into cyberspace, the more scattered and insignificant they become. A letter, on the other hand, is tangible evidence that someone has put some thought into their writing. They’ve outlined, perhaps redacted and there have been several stages to the missive’s creation. To make sure the letter was received they did more than flick their finger over the ‘send’ button, the author had to take the time to get hold of an envelope, preferably matching, fold the paper with care and procure a stamp. They then had to check that the address was written correctly to ensure its safe arrival, put the lead on the dog and walk to the postbox. In short, a physical letter shows that someone took the time to give a damn. And that’s hard for the recipient to ignore.
Perhaps it’s a function of age, but I have found myself in recent times reaching out to people I knew years ago but with whom, as the axis of the years rolls forwards, I simply lost touch, as great ships do who slip their moorings and glide majestically away from each other, disappearing into a forgotten mist of antiquity as the Universe expands. Or, like travellers in airports who end up thousands of miles apart after sitting next to one another in Starbucks.
It took me a while, but I found him. We exchanged emails, the Bishop and I, a few times, crackling with awkwardness as if the ink had been too long dry on our former friendship. I heard his voice in my mind, vast, deep, always with a hint of challenge yet encouraging, as it had always been. Finally, I called him up. The sound of that familiar, changeless tone, with a huge, unfettered belly laugh, brought dew to my eyes and the years rolled up like a scroll. He was an Army officer, with a gift for leadership, that years later I knew I needed so much and how much I had learned from him yet never found the courage to tell him.
Perhaps I may even write to him. Not an email or blog post but a real letter, written with a fountain pen in strong, manly black ink.
“Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls/For thus, friends absent speak.”
(John Donne, letter to a friend)