Old fashioned Basildon Bond notepaper with a lined sheet to put under your letter so you could write in nice straight lines, and blotting paper so that you didn’t smudge. Because of course it’s expected that you will still write with an ink pen.
I must have been a spoilt kid. I can remember thinking it wasn’t worth getting presents when you had to write those endless thank you letters after. Although there would always be the gems – the detective book which had a jigsaw you had to complete in order to find out ‘who did it’. That got a heartfelt letter. But the present I love most now – a china tea-set – came cup and saucer by cup and saucer for years. One at a time. I wish its giver was still alive now so I could write and tell her how much I treasure it. Difficult when you are seven though, and long for a trampoline. Or a white horse to be waiting in the garden when you wake up.
Dear xxx, Thank you for your present. I will have fun using it. I had a lovely birthday. Love Sarah.
When I went to boarding school, we were only allowed to ring up home before eight every morning, and there would be a queue of people waiting to use the one public phone in the hall so no conversation would be private. We would all write letters home but were told not to complain. Because it would upset our parents.
Dear Mum and Dad, Everything is fine. I hope it is for you too. Sarah.
I don’t remember what my actual letters contained but I imagine them something like that. I was a bolshy kid at the best of times.
I expect my parents didn’t keep my letters, although I’m surprised I don’t have any of theirs from this time because I know I treasured them. I can smell exactly as if I was standing there now the line of pigeon holes in the hall of the boarding house, next to the phone, and how we’d rush there every day after morning lessons to see if we’d got post. We’d pretend though that we didn’t care either way. We became expert at not-caring.
One Valentine’s Day, I must have been about fifteen, I was worried about not getting a card and so my father sent me nine. All with different handwriting on the front and even with different postmarks, and all signed with a question mark. Of course the minute I saw my bulging pigeon hole, I knew they were from him, and there was no way I could have pretended that I had nine admirers – I don’t think I had ONE – but it was the funniest Valentines Day ever. One was addressed to ‘Sarah Bless Her Cotton Socks’. It still makes me laugh.
And then there were the penfriends. Do people have penfriends any more? I had a French girl and a German boy. The german boy, Klaus, came to stay one summer. We’d been writing stilted letters to each other for a year. I have two pets. I have a sister. I like to play football… I didn’t understand why my father – who wasn’t much older than we were then when he fought in WW2 – was so upset about the idea of having a German staying in our home – who was his father? – but they became great friends. I can still picture them deep in conversation as they walked the dog every day. What did they talk about? After Klaus had gone home, he wrote to my father once, but I was never allowed to read it. Here we are… (I have no idea why it’s B&W, I think we were both arty. It was one of the few things we had in common)
I spent the summer between school and Fashion College writing letters to try to persuade a travelling boyfriend I was the one. They were long and rambly and I thought it might be interesting for him to know every single detail about my childhood. It didn’t work. My first week at college and I received a letter from him saying he wanted to go to University without commitments. But he wished me well. I didn’t keep that letter.
Then there are letters that have come at just the right moment for me. The one congratulating me on the birth of my first child and promising that after six weeks, things would get better. I read that one day after day for six weeks, and she was right. Work ones: the letter offering a month’s writing residency, the contract with an agency, a stranger telling me she’s just read my book and it’s as if we’ve had a conversation. And the personal ones: chatty details from a brother too far away so I can imagine his day, a friend enclosing a photograph of us together at fourteen. Remember this, she wrote.
And then there are the ones containing news I wish I didn’t have to read. Deaths, illness, bad luck. Official ones, and personal ones. I thought you would want to know… Too many of those these days, but at least a letter lets me take the news in on my own before I have to do anything.
And in all of these, I can see the handwriting, feel how the hand moved across the page I’m now reading. Keep them in a file to read after I can’t write back. My battered old address book is criss-crossed with old addresses, people who only exist on paper now. But I can still listen to them speak to me.
I went out yesterday to buy some writing paper and envelopes, and had to try five shops before I found the ones in these photographs. Two of those shops were card shops stuffed full with messages written out for me so all I had to do was sign them. ‘People aren’t writing letters any more,’ I was told again and again.
Tell that to these people.