On returning from holidays, a system of sorting the post developed.
Obvious junk mail went straight into the recycling bin. Mailings carrying a personal address, but obviously magazines, newsletters, or the like, went to the bottom of the pile. Envelopes with printed address labels were next up the pile, followed by any envelope bearing the harp crest of Irish government departments (these generally contained letters about tax). Envelopes with directly printed addresses were next – these could be important, though might only be letters from the bishop’s house. At the top were envelopes bearing handwritten names and addresses, these could be letters of complaint, in which case they needed an answer, or they could be old fashioned letters from people who still sat down with a pen and paper.
Old fashioned letters were a delight; pages from a writing pad covered with words telling of everyone’s health and the local news and much that was inconsequential. In a letter, one had a sense of the writer, a sense that they had put something of themselves into what they had written. Letters from older people, used to the shortages of the war years, might reach the bottom of the second page and then go up the side and across the top in order that everything might fit on a single sheet of paper.
It is a long time since an old fashioned letter came. Correspondence requires two parties and being the worst writer of letters, I would leave letters unanswered and the other person would not write again. The line of the song ‘From Clare to here’ that goes. ‘My Ma would like a letter home but I’m too tired for writing’ always struck a chord. Of course, he wasn’t too tired to go drinking, only when it came to trying to write a letter home did the fatigue set in. To sit now with a blank sheet of paper and a pen would be an intimidating experience – how on earth did a letter begin?
It would be easy to suggest that hand writing a letter does not allow the flexibility of a computer screen where letters can be drafted and re-drafted, where paragraphs can be moved around or deleted altogether, where a succession of endings can be tried in search for a satisfactory closing line. All those thing are true, but email correspondence has gone the way of handwritten letters, emails go unanswered to the point where to respond would be an embarrassing admission of previous failure.
Perhaps letter writing evokes memories of having to write the weekly side of Basildon Bond home from boarding school, perhaps it’s connected with memories of feeling isolated, perhaps it lacks the immediacy of the telephone, where the 500 minute monthly Vodafone package includes calls to anywhere in the world; whatever the reason, to attempt a letter would be a process unlikely to make much progress.
Should an old fashioned letter arrive, it would likely be gathered up with assorted envelopes and mailings and put in the blue box beside the desk, to lie there to the point where a response becomes redundant.