During a recent walk home from work I found myself feeling incredibly excited when I stumbled upon four unused second class stamps, the bright blue packet of which stood out against the dirty grey of the pavement like a lotus flower sitting in the mud. Strangely, it was the same level of excitement that I’ve felt on occasions when I’ve found significant amounts of money in the street. Stamps are by no means expensive, of course. But what they represent and what they are able to facilitate is, in my opinion, worth far more than the small amount of money they cost to buy.
When I was eleven years old my family relocated from noisy, polluted, over-crowded London to the very rural village of Hartland in North Devon. In addition to the isolation I experienced due to the profound lack of public transport to and from the village, the most difficult part of moving to the country was the distance it put between my friends and me. In addition to regular phone calls and visits, something that proved incredibly helpful was writing letters to my friends and receiving their replies in the post. This is something that I continued to not only enjoy but find hugely therapeutic throughout my early adolescence, up until the mid naughties when letter writing was sadly replaced with email and social media.
Some may argue that sending emails back and forth does the same job as letter writing in that it connects you to those you love and miss. And for the last ten years or so my main method of corresponding with friends and family has indeed been via the internet. But whilst email and social media has made keeping in touch incredibly quick and easy regardless of distance, writing and receiving handwritten letters facilitates a level of connection that electronic messaging just can’t compete with.
It was the letters that smelled of Indian spices rather than the typed emails I received that made the distance between us feel less significant.
When you receive a handwritten letter you are given an opportunity to learn a little something about the person who sent it. Are their words cramped together or widely spaced? Are the letters long and sweeping or short and compact? Have they scribbled out any spelling mistakes, or strained over perfectly composed sentences? And what about the stationary? Has your pen pal put effort into their chosen paper and ink, or have they made use of whatever they can find? Have they sprayed the letter with their perfume, or enclosed a little gift to make you smile? All of these details work together in a letter to give a real sense of the person who wrote it. When two of my closest friends left the home that we’d been sharing in Bristol to travel India for three months, it was the letters that smelled of Indian spices rather than the typed emails I received that made the distance between us feel less significant.
And there’s something so incredibly enriching about sitting down to physically scribble thoughts on paper; about kissing the sealed and stamped envelope for good luck before it’s dropped into the postbox, and then eagerly checking the mail every day in the hope that a reply has been delivered. It’s the time and effort that it takes, and the feeling of anticipation. It’s the not knowing if your words will make it to their destination, or if the person you’re writing to will take the time to send a reply. Most importantly, though, it’s the sheer joy that arrives along with a letter, and the feeling of closeness that you feel to the person who wrote it when you read their untidy, or neat, or illegible handwriting. Each person’s handwriting is wholly unique to them, and when you open a letter you touch the very same paper that the writer has touched. No matter how eagerly anticipated, or beautifully composed, emails can never achieve this level of intimacy.
The last time I sat down to write a letter was in 2015 when I was crowdfunding for my post-graduate tuition fees and sent letters of thanks to those who’d donated. Not since my own trip to India in 2010 have I written a letter to a friend just for the sake of it. What better excuse is there than finding a packet of stamps in the street?