Pen palpitations

I was forced into my first correspondence with a pen pal. My mother had a cousin in New Zealand, and this cousin had a daughter who was about my age. I think that makes her a second cousin, but I have never understood that stuff.

I think my first, peevish, letter might have included the line, I don’t know if you, like me, are being forced to write… What a little snot.

Natalie was a nice girl, half Maori, and probably opposite to me in every possible way. On the other side of the world: check. Sporty and outdoorsy: check. Optimistic and ambitious: check. But she was good at writing letters, and I grew addicted, over time, to those air mail envelopes dropping onto the doormat.

One of my eternal frustrations was how expensive sending anything that weighed more than a few grams was. Back then, the fiction was that heavier items cost more to send: in reality, of course, it’s space that’s at a premium with air mail, not weight. Still, Natalie and I started exchanging letters. I think it started when I was 15 or 16, and she was, what, a year younger than me? But more mature, it goes without saying. She sent me a couple of photos. I tried hard to fancy her, but didn’t. She had striking looks, and would eventually go on to become famous (in New Zealand at least) for reading the evening news and presenting their equivalent of Crimewatch. She was the Selina Scott of New Zealand, and her good bones meant that she looked good on TV: anything that can give you the illusion of three dimensions in a 2D medium is an advantage.

After a while I got my first typewriter, and I started to type my long letters, but one penpal wasn’t enough. Through the Beatles Monthly magazine that I bought (reissues of the fan club publication from the 60s – it eventually evolved into Record Collector), I found other pen pals: in Singapore, Japan, and other parts of the Far East.

None of these letters amounted to much, though I think at least one of the Singapore girls was angling for an invite to the UK. What happened, though, was that I discovered a deep and enduring love for the letter that became crucially important after I’d left home. These pen pals (apart from Natalie) were people who (presumably) shared an interest in The Beatles, which I think was probably a foreshadowing of my love of podcasts: no such thing as too much when it comes to one of your obsessions.

I was having a conversation, many years later, with a girl with whom I’d exchanged a lot of letters, and she asked me when do you feel most like yourself?

It was an interesting question, and I answered it almost instinctively: it was in the moment when I slid my finger under the flap of an envelope and began to rip it open, I said. That moment, when anything was possible, when the awaiting letter had yet to be read, was part of the cycle I loved: of sending and receiving correspondence.

Video killed the radio star, of course, and email killed the letter. But just as a video could never mean what 3-minute single or an album track could mean, an email wasn’t a letter and never would be. In fact, email killed the letter without even attempting to replace it. You don’t exchange emails with friends. In fact, the only correspondence-at-a-distance that takes place these days is by instant message or chat app, neither of which come close to offering what a letter could.

No, letters are dead, and with them died a form of human interaction, and a way of creating meaning, over time and distance, that dated back thousands of years, at least as far as Pliny and his letters from Pompeii. Writing letters made you feel part of human culture and civilisation in a way that an email or a chat message never could.

And yet, over a few short years, we threw them away, abandoned them, gave them up, just as if they were as ephemeral and unimportant as every other form of communication. And I’m not pointing fingers here: I’m just as guilty as anyone of abandoning the form. It takes two, as I said before, to lose touch.

My friend Roy, bless his heart, tried to keep up the tradition, but I was too lazy to bother with the printing and the stamp and the envelope, and anyway, I’d long come to suspect that everything I wrote was terribly boring, and I grew to hate myself for everything I wrote. For that, I can blame the computer and the word processor, because it allows you to keep a copy of everything you say, and then commit the dreadful sin of re-reading something you wrote, and realising how pathetic, obsessive, or self-involved you were.

Ironically, when I left home and started writing to a number of different people, the letters from Natalie stopped. She chided me for giving up my education and leaving home, and I sniffily dismissed her as a square, on the side of my parents and the other adults who decried my decision: someone who didn’t understand me.

So I didn’t write back, and replaced her as a correspondent with a number of others. She went on to become the news reader/presenter, and then moved to California with her producer husband. I wish her all the best, wherever she is now.

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