Holding on to memories

Letters contain so much more than the written word, says author and journalist India Knight.

Email is a daily nightmare. The only part of it I like is hitting ‘select all’ and then ‘mark as read’ just to make them go away. Handwritten letters, on the other hand, are such a rare and wonderful treat that I lovingly keep them in a shoebox, as though they were rare artefacts. Which they are, in a way. I was thinking only the other day of how much I wish I’d kept the deluge (or so it seemed at the time – there were at least two a week) of letters my grandmother sent me throughout my late childhood and teenage years, when I lived in England and she in Belgium. If I close my eyes, I can picture her handwriting, the way she signed off and the pressed flowers she often included. With the carelessness of youth, I mislaid them all at some point or other. I’d give anything to read them again. 

Where email feels like endless small invasions of privacy, letters are like presents. They are leisurely, to be opened at the kitchen table with a cup of tea. You feel a jolt of pleasure when you sift through the mail and there, among the circulars and un-asked for catalogues, is a hand-addressed envelope whose writing you recognise as belonging to a friend. Handwritten letters are weighty, by which I mean that the words they contain carry more weight, and are more memorable, than anything typed on a keyboard. The effort involved in sitting down to write, finding an envelope, finding a stamp, finding a postbox is already meaningful and generous, and that’s before you even get to the words. It’s not by accident that the tradition of valentine cards persists. Letters, or cards, are a thoughtful and considered act, the careful setting down of words on paper. They have immediate heft and intimacy, and they endure. Anyone who has been to Letters Live, the life affirming occasional events where well-known people read out remarkable old letters, will know how powerful they can be. They catch you right in the heart, across the decades or even the centuries. 

But a letter doesn’t have to be magnificent to be meaningful. You don’t have to be a lyrical poet to make someone’s day. A lovely piece of stationery, the sight (so curiously intimate in this age of keyboards) of someone’s handwriting – these are treats in themselves. And then there’s the whole other pleasure of sending, or waiting for, a reply. Instant communications are disposable, ephemeral, unmemorable. Letters last.

India Knight writes a column for The Sunday Times and The Sunday Times Style. Her books include Darling and My Life on a Plate. She lives in Suffolk with her family and dogs.

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