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Letter-writing helped me discover myself

Letter-writing is now such an antiquated skill that it inspires nostalgic yuletide programming

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I got a letter from my pen pal the other day, for the first time in more than three decades. It was more of a covering note, actually: He had found some of the letters I sent him between 1982 and 1985, and enclosed them, thinking I might find them amusing.

What a kind, and wholly erroneous, thought. I had supposed that nothing in life could be more embarrassing than the experience of rereading my own teenage diaries. I know better now.

“Dear Tom,” begins a typical offering, written on multi-coloured notepaper and decorated around the margin with doodles of hearts, each one pierced by an arrow. “I am deeply in luv with two people at the moment (not including you of course!): Martin Salt (who’s really hunky) and Daniel something or other who’s even more hunky. Bad luck, Tom, my heart is fickle.”

There is more in this vein — oh God, so much more. Thousands and thousands of words, carefully inscribed in the fat, rounded handwriting of a suburban 12-year-old, straining to convey a wit and sexual elan years beyond my reach. The gulf between the desired and the actual effect is so wide, it gives me a kind of vertigo.

“Never write a letter while you are angry”, goes the Chinese proverb — to which I would add “or an excitable convent-school girl”. My only consolation is that when I was growing up, everyone had a pen pal. The attics of the world must be stuffed full of similarly incriminating documents, written in glitter pen on Holly Hobbie notepaper.

‘The old-fashioned way’

Letter-writing is now such an antiquated skill that it inspires nostalgic yuletide programming. As part of its Christmas schedule, Radio 4 in Britain is doing a series called Pen Pals, in which five well-known broadcasters will undertake a hand-written correspondence with acquaintances in other countries. The programme promises to celebrate “the art of writing a letter the old-fashioned way”. Was the old-fashioned way really so superior? It is true that sitting down to write with pen on paper was more of a commitment — and therefore, perhaps, an art — than tapping out an email or a text message. The slowness of the gesture made it more significant both to give and to receive.

And before the internet shrank the world, a letter from a pen pal (even my Tom, who was only at a boarding school in Scotland) did feel like a thrilling blast of foreign air.

But above all, what distinguished my pen pal correspondence from a modern text flirtation was the absence of a camera phone. Without FaceTime or Snapchat, I could be both present and invisible. I could try on some of the costumes of adulthood — the Vamp, the Comedian, the Literary Wag — in front of an audience who was kept in permanent darkness. The plump, buck-toothed child chewing her tongue in concentration became, on strawberry-scented notepaper, the Dorothy Parker of Class 7b. I had the freedom to try on every disguise, however ill it suited me. And Tom, far away in his all-boys dorm, had the luxury of suspending his disbelief.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017

Jemima Lewis writes with wit, insight and sense about Britain today, questioning social mores and the cult of celebrity.