Red letter day

At the beginning of the New Year, I made a promise to myself. Not a resolution, I’ve long given up on the idea of setting goals that are difficult to keep, if not totally unrealistic. This Year, I decided to focus on a form of writing which I’ve always enjoyed, and to do my part in keeping this fading genre from dying out completely. I decided that I would write a series of hand written letters. The recipients could be family members, friends or acquaintances and the rules were as follows.

They would be written by my hand, with pen and paper my only tools for creation.

The people I chose would be unaware of my project, until an envelope appeared at their door.

I would not plan anything that I was going to write.

The idea for this project came from several sources. A few years ago, I was at an event at Hay Festival which would combine bestselling anthology ‘Letters of note’ by Shaun Usher and ‘To the letter’ by Simon Garfield with the launch of the now hugely successful letters live, where celebrities such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Jude Law and Olivia Coleman would read a series of letters to a live audience. These letters were written by people young and old, alive and dead, well known and unknown and covered a series of themes such as art, politics, love and friendship, war and loss. One of the most striking for me, was Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, left for her husband to find, before she walked into a river. Her depression had been ongoing and her final words of pain and anguish were extremely moving. On stage Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey (his Sherlock co star) read a series of letters from a soldier to his lover back at home. The mixture of emotions that both of them face throughout the exchange is very real, and all the more poignant in a society were the only form of contact was by letter. The weeks, even months of waiting for news, certainly took its toll on the young couple.

This event and the letters in the book played on my mind for a good year or so after. At which time I began to read through my own Granddad’s letters which he had kept from his time during the Second World War. These are first hand accounts of his experience in the Army, from his early training in the artillery, to his work as a Dispatch rider, travelling across Africa, Palestine and Italy. Reading through them now, long after my Granddad’s death, the words are very much alive with emotion and experience. In the pile, I found a solitary letter from my Great Grandmother to my Granddad, her only son. The concern and anxiety seeps through the fading ink, and her talk of my Great grandfather fire watching and the ‘Yanks’ in their jeeps nearly running her over in town, adds an authenticity, a realness that I could never have imagined. This sense of only having one way to contact someone, of waiting for news, of discovering things in writing, whilst incredibly difficult and frustrating at these times, was also incredibly valuable.

When I was a child, I used to write to pen pals. I had several friends all over the world and enjoyed getting to know people in this way. Family and friends who lived away used to write to me, and when I could I’d write back. When my sister moved abroad for a year during her Spanish degree, we sent letters and cards to keep in touch, as phone calls and internet wasn’t as cheap and readily available then. I found these letters recently, as well as letters that my best friend and I used to write to each other, silly ramblings when we were at school and during the holidays. Then more mature letters when we regained contact after our Uni years. Finding these letters made me realise that we just don’t communicate in the same way anymore. Sure we text, email, Whatsapp, Facebook chat, but it’s just not the same as an old-fashioned, printed letter. I love reading old literature where the crux of a story hangs on the fact that they may or may not have read the letter (Tess of the D’urbervilles anyone?).

So I made this promise to myself, that I would write a series of letters, to friends and family, with the idea of giving them something special, something personal that they can keep, a nice surprise at the beginning of a long day. It would also be good for me, a kind of therapy to get my thoughts and feelings written down, to share my plans and dreams for the future. This way it will be easier to complete them. This way i am more likely to do something about them, because i had shared them in a very permanent and personal way. I’m up to letter number four, and have chosen my next subject. So far, they have been very well received. I have even wrapped ribbon around those for my girlfriends and slipped a recent photo inside for family members. It feels good to be doing something positive and to be sharing that with others. Hopefully it’s the start of a very positive writing year.

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