“Tracy Swalk, there’s a letter here from Tracy Swalk.” My ten year old sister was intrigued at the arrival of letters bearing the postmark of Stourport-on-Severn, a town in the English Midlands, even more intrigued that her frail and sickly fourteen year old brother might know a girl who would want to write to him. The embarrassed fourteen year old would not disclose the girl’s surname, so the ever practical sister simply added the word from the back of the envelope to the forename she had managed to discover.
1st April 1975 would have been Easter Tuesday, the regular postal service would have been disrupted by Good Friday and Easter Monday and letters posted the previous week may have taken five days to arrive. It would have been an eternity of waiting for a teenager in a house where letters were the only means of communication. A neighbour two doors down had a telephone, but one only knocked at their door if it was necessary to call the doctor.
The past may be another country , and things may have been done differently, but what would a fourteen year old have written to a thirteen year old girl? The memory remains of covering sheets of paper with an untidy handwriting that would be abandoned the following year in favour of what the teacher called “printing,” but even though the writing was untidy and the words took more space, there must have been words to write. What did one write about when one was fourteen? At school, we were made to write home every Sunday, but the litany of inconsequential events that would have been the stuff of one’s letters to one’s parents would hardly have impressed a thirteen year old girl.
Perhaps there were expressions of undying love; perhaps there were sentimental lines from Top Twenty pop songs, though the Bay City Rollers singing “Bye, Bye Baby” were at Number One, not the sort of lyric that would have provided appropriate inspiration; perhaps there were the just the things of everyday life, though in a small Somerset village, that would have not been a rich vein of stories. Who knows what words covered those sheets of Basildon Bond in those distant days?
The emotional power of a letter is probably lost and gone forever. In 1975, the song “Please, Mr Postman” by The Carpenters would have expressed the inarticulate thoughts of a teenage boy if no letter had come:
So many days you passed me by
See the tears standin’ in my eyes
You didn’t stop to make me feel better
By leavin’ me a card or a letter
Reading through old letters now gives an insight into people’s hearts. The letters soldiers wrote home to parents and wives and sweethearts from the Western Front a hundred years ago reveal a deep humanity not discernible in photographs or history books. Perhaps there are people who still have their letters from the 1970s, letters that may one day fascinate historians.
The capacity now to communicate, instantly and without cost, with anyone, anywhere in the world is wonderful, no-one who has known the isolation and loneliness of rural life would wish to be without it, but something has been lost. Never again will a fourteen year old boy spend his Easter holiday trying to use his limited vocabulary to form sentences that might impress a teenage girl.