From the exotic Netherlands.... Shocking Blue
The other day I received a beautiful handwritten – handwritten! – letter from an old friend. She’d embellished the edges of the notepaper with decorative squirls and even the little PTO in the bottom right corner was executed in a fancy script. It took me right back just to see her handwriting again. Just about the only handwriting I see, or do myself, is on shopping lists, post-it notes and cheques: unimaginative and functional reminders of life’s most boring bits. Whereas, letters… letters can be so much more.
As a child I was a keen letter-writer. I never wrote to Father Christmas, though, because I figured that if he was smart enough to get into our house which had a wall-mounted gas fire and no chimney, then he probably had sufficient magical powers to know what I wanted without me having to spell it out. However, the first letter I ever wrote was soon after he’d made his superhuman entrance, when I sent a little note to my Nan and Granddad thanking them for my present. (Proof if any were needed that Father Christmas did have the miraculous ability to get it from them to the pillowcase at the end of my bed, even if it meant secreting himself in through a gas pipe.) Nan wrote lovely letters back on small sheets of blue Basildon Bond, in her traditional old-fashioned fountain pen handwriting, where all the characters were very even and modest. Somehow, her sweet letters felt like virtual hugs.
Around the age of eleven, I got into penfriends. Being a precocious little twat I only wanted foreign penfriends and the more exotic the country, the better. For a while I exchanged letters with a Swede, a New Zealand Maori and the daughter of the Jamaican Ambassador for Haiti - see what I mean?! However, my favourite penpal for a couple of years was Mandeep. Mandeep was a Kenyan Indian Sikh and, best of all, a boy.
Mandeep wrote the most beautiful letters. He was articulate and imaginative, and even his handwriting looked intelligent, somehow – slightly sharp edges made it appear confident, while the characters with descendents had large flamboyant curls… passionate curls. When those folded blue aerogrammes with his handwriting on came through my letterbox I felt new things. Letters from Mandeep made my heart skip and my head rush in ways I’d never known before, nor really understood.
The eleven-year old me fell a little bit in love with Mandeep, or at least with the idea of him, and it seemed to be mutual. Gradually we began to write quite romantically… paying compliments in the most touching of ways, hinting at something between us that we didn’t quite comprehend and allowing each other to read between the lines. He had a poetic turn of phrase and was never boring. By the age of twelve, in my imagined future, I was going to marry this exotic, dark-skinned boy and have his babies, and all because of the way he wrote. I hadn’t even seen his picture.
Of course the dream was shattered when we eventually met. He came to the UK to stay with some cousins and incorporated a side trip to see me. It felt like a huge event, and it was perhaps inevitable that it would be a let-down, as well as one of the most awkward, cringe-worthy days of my life. We were both embarrassed, inhibited and painfully shy. He was nothing like I’d imagined; it was as if the skinny adolescent boy sitting there on my sofa nibbling on a Barmouth biscuit and struggling for words was an entirely different person to the hero of my romantic fantasy who wrote those thoughtful, exciting letters, and I know my disappointment was reciprocated. After that, our exchanges immediately lost their magic and stopped soon after.
Perhaps letters are best used as an extension of a friendship or connection you’ve already made? Or when you meet someone occasionally but not often enough, and writing can keep the bond strong. Up until email took the place of letters, I was still using pen and paper to write long, rambling missives to distant friends, enjoying the very craft of expression through the written word. The actual, physical written word. Likewise I’d still get that extra special pleasure from a handwritten reply, the sight of an individual’s distinctive script, even just the knowledge that their pen had touched the paper and their hand had held the pen gave it more of a connection. I love email for all the obvious reasons, and a lot of the time I couldn’t be doing with all that tiresome scribing any more when I can type quickly instead, but a bit of me misses that extra something that you give – and get - with a handwritten letter. If it wasn’t for the cost of stamps and the threat of an aching wrist I might send more.