Friday, 4 September 2015

For The Love of Letters

Recently, one of my best friends (even though she lives so far away and I see her about once in 20 years) sent me this book, For The Love of Letters. We had been in school together, reconnected on Facebook, and commented on each other's posts, but it was not till we started exchanging actual honest-to-goodness letters, that our relationship deepened and grew.

So naturally, when she saw this book, she just HAD to buy it for me. I would like to say, thank you Z. I love you. You will never know how much you mean to me.

I would like to share the first chapter with you. I relate to a lot of things he talks about. Especially, in terms of the disappearance of implements of letter-writing. All those things we took for granted before, all slowly disappearing. Unless you go to special boutique-type places that provide the necessary and charge you the earth for them, because what you are doing is no longer ordinary now. No, it's retro and hipster and therefore, expensive. But I have friends who go overseas and despite everything, find me writing paper. I have also ordered personalised stationery (bad idea, it was so expensive that I have so far only written a sum total of one letter with it - it's too precious). I go through periods of silence where I write nothing. And then, I take up my pen, apologise to my correspondents and sally forth.

So, here is what John O'Connell has to say on the delicate art of letter-writing.

Of Basildon Bondage

I'm sitting at the kitchen table. It's 9.15pm and the children are asleep.

A standard lamp behind my left shoulder casts the only light. In front of me is a sheet of Smythson's paper. In my right hand I am holding the Mont Blanc fountain pen my wife bought for me about 10 years ago. I have filled it with Burgundy Red ink from one of those beautiful, shoe-shaped Mont Blanc ink bottles, the ones with the 'last-drop' reservoir at the front.

I'm going to write a letter to a friend I haven't been in touch with for a while; a friend who, after my mother died six months ago, sent me the most fantastic letter, an account of her experience of her own mother's death. It stood out because it was so helpful and sensitive, and because it was an actual old-fashioned letter she had clearly taken trouble over.

To my shame I replied by email, too consumed with organising the funeral to do anything more considered. But now the letter is going to get a proper reply.

At least, I hope it is.

I'm nervous. What if I screw up? This paper is expensive. I can't afford to waste it. Maybe I should do a rough first? But then I'd be tempted to revise, and re-revise, and gradually I'd lose the spontaneity, the in-the-momentness I want the letter to have.

Or is that what I want? Aren't there any number of possible things a letter can have, and be?

I shut my eyes. Summon the will.

Stop worrying. Just get on with it.

I want the letter to feel 'written', not scrappy, so must follow the same procedure as when I'm trying to write fiction: coax my brain into a state where it isn't sensitive to distraction. Silence and solitude are vital. Samuel Richardson: 'The pen is jealous of company. It expects, as I may say, to engross the writer's whole self.'

The nib touches the paper. And instinctively I follow the old formula: address in top right-hand corner; date just beneath it on the left-hand side. My writing looks weird. I hand-write so infrequently these days that I've developed a graphic stammer - my brain's way of registering its impatience and bemusement.

What are you doing? Send a sodding email. I haven't got all night.

It's ridiculous, really. Before the advent of email I wrote letters all the time, maybe 10 a week. I was useless on the phone, but in a letter I could say what I meant - seem fluent and purposeful. And when replies came I could file them away in padded envelopes in my wooden 'letters chest': secret treasure - unless their authors had kept fair copies, the letters were the only proof of their existence. They had no footprint. If I had destroyed them, no one would know they had ever been written.

When did I stop writing letters? It can't have been that long ago - can it?

I'm 40 now. I started using email regularly in 1997, the year I bought my first PC. Like everyone else, I was seduced by the sheer ease of it; persuaded that email must, because it asked so little of me, have the evolutionary edge on snail mail. Only in the last year, as texting and Twitter - which ask even less of me - threatened the supersede email, have I started to wonder why I stopped writing letters when I enjoyed it so much.

All of us, as we age, harp on about what we think we've lost. Concrete things like looks, abstract things like innocence and direction. Nostalgia gives credence to this negative view of the world, coating the past in a treacly goo that's one part glaze and two parts barrier cream.

Without realising it, I'd consigned letter-writing to the 'lost box'. But - a thought-flash - that didn't mean it had to stay there. If I wanted to, and if I was quick enough, I could retrieve it before the goo-spreaders got to it, as I did with vinyl records.

I don't listen to vinyl records all the time. CDs and MP3s are fine and serve a purpose. But when played on a reasonable-quality kit, vinyl sounds a lot better than sharp, tinny CDs, and loads better than MP3s, which are so compressed that over half the 'sound picture' is missing. More and more people are realising this: sales of vinyl increased by 14% in 2010 according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Yes, it's less convenient to listen to vinyl. You can't carry it around with you. It's prone to scratching and warping. But the benefits are colossal.

Before I became a letters bore, I was a vinyl bore. Frequently, after a dinner party, my wife would have to take me to one side, "Will you stop going on about 'analogue warmth'?"

"I'll try," I said. "But people have to understand: we've been sold this idea of progress and it's...wrong. Just because you develop a new thing, it doesn't mean earlier versions of that thing have to become obsolete. Especially when the earlier versions had their own unique qualities."

Just as the vinyl experience is enhanced by buying good-quality records - 180g releases from Simply Vinyl, say, or the Vinyl Factory - letter-writing is more enjoyable if you use proper paper.

My hunt for the right sort of paper to write this letter on took most of the day. It started in WH Smith, the source of all my younger self's stationery needs. But as Morrissey didn't quite sing: Has the world changed or has Smith's changed? Amid the riot of tacking branding - everything seemed to be Hello Kitty or JLS-themed - it was hard to find no-nonsense writing paper.

The best Smith's could manage was Three Candlesticks watermarked A4 'correspondence paper' by John Dickinson, the venerable British company which owns the Basildon Bond brand.

Now, I quite like Three Candlesticks. For mass-produced, not-extortionately-priced paper, it's pretty good. Leagues ahead of pseudo-posh Basildon Bond - so christened after a John Dickinson director holidayed at the Palladian country house Basildon Park in Berkshire and thought: hang on a sec...

However, I left WH Smith paperless, certain I could do better.

Next stop: Paperchase.

Once, I loved Paperchase. Now I think: never was a shop more aptly named. Because where is it? Where's the bloody paper? I can see gifts and toys and boxes and files and bags. I can see birthday cards, I can see note cards. But I don't want those.

Ah, here it is. Paper. Oh, sorry, no - it's a 'letter-set'. With birdcages on.

Over there - what is it? Paper! It's paper! Oh happy day!! Well, sort of. It's 'spectroscope rainbow' paper, good for nothing except laying before your children with scissors and glue.

By the time I've found something resembling Actual Writing Paper I Might Want To Buy, I'm so angry with Paperchase I can't bring myself to give them my money.

And so to Smythson's.

You know Smythson's. It's the world-famous, aeons-old stationery shop on London's Bond Stret, where Prime Minister David Cameron's wife Samantha works designing bags - yes, yes: it's a stationery shop but it also sells bags, do keep up - and teeny0tuny pale blue lambskin-bound notebook (cost:£30) with cute words or phrases like 'Snogs' and 'Follow Your Dreams' on the front.

I didn't go there to buy a £30 notebook. I went there, frustrated by its high-street not-really-competitors, to buy the finest writing paper money can buy. Not much of it, obviously, because I haven't got much money and Smythson's is ridiculously expensive.

I wandered around, staring at all the stuff, trying to look harmless and low-key. But within seconds I was intercepted by a beautiful Japanese woman who asked if she could help me.

When I said that she could, she led me towards the back of the shop, to a small glass-fronted cabinet containing plain, unpersonalised writing paper. The paper, she explained, was available in cream and Nile Blue as well as white. It was milled exclusively for Smythson's, bore its 'own distinctive Smythson's watermark' and came in a dandy Nile Blue box. Cost: £14.50 for 50 sheets of 10" by 8".

The starburst in my chest felt like love.

"What about envelopes?" asked the beautiful Japanese woman.

"I suppose," I said. "Are they expensive?"

"£15 for 25. But they fit the paper perfectly."

"You'd expect them to, wouldn't you? For £15."

The beautiful Japanese woman packed them carefully in a Nile Blue drawstring bag. It took a little while - here was lots of business with tissue paper and tape - so she was obliged to make small talk while I waited.

"I don't like all this rain," she said.

"No. Though we are in a drought, aren't we? So, the more rain the better. I suppose."

Smiling, the woman held up the bag for me to snatch, which I did before racing across the shop floor and out into the soaking street.

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