When I was about 13 years old, I put an advert in the back of a music newspaper called Superpop, which was the ‘poor relative’ of NME and Melody Maker, I guess. I’m not sure if anybody even remembers it. Anyway, I wanted some pen pals. And I had quite a lot of responses. Interestingly, they were all boys. Anyway, for the next five years, I wrote to three of them on a regular basis, got to learn more about them, where they lived their school, what they enjoyed doing, what they enjoyed reading, what music they liked.
And I developed a friendship with these people from afar and none of us ever met up.
When we got to 18, we just stopped writing; life got in the way and we went off to work or college or moved away. I wonder what happened to them all. No, I’m not going to go down the Facebook wormhole here!
And then, of course, communication became a lot more digital and a lot less analogue. So we had telex machines. Then we had faxes and emails, and then texts. Now of course, we have WhatsApp too and everything is so instant, isn’t it? I’m not sure how much thought goes into messages when we are communicating instantly and expecting an instant reply.
Dave and I like to go to at least one music festival every summer. And in 2019, we pushed the boat out and booked two. We were going back to Wickham Festival, which is near Portsmouth (which would have been our third or fourth time there). It’s definitely one of our favourite music festivals. And that year, we also booked to go to Purbeck Valley Folk Festival. The festival is held in the shadows of Corfe Castle. So, we went off to Wickham festival and then we went camping for nine nights on the Dorset coast in the Dorset weather. That’s another whole story in itself, but suffice to say, all the other campers packed up and went home. Our tent by the end of it was held together with duct tape and good luck.
Anyway, we got to Purbeck Valley, the day before the festival itself started and got the tent set up.
I noticed on Twitter that the organisers were talking about a handwritten letter writing workshop that was taking place in one part of the festival. I was intrigued by this, so I thought I’d go and track it down. So although the festival itself hadn’t properly started, Dave and I went into the site to see if we could find this person who was running the letter writing workshop. Anyway, we found this gazebo with its own little postbox outside and beanbag cushions made of parcel bags, and next to the gazebo were two old Romany caravans, which were also there as space for letter writing, as well as impromptu stages for some of the performers.
Turns out the lady who was running the workshops wasn’t there at that time. But her daughter made me promise that I would come back the next day. So on day one of the festival, we turned up.
And that’s how I met Dinah Johnson, founder of the Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society. https://thehandwrittenletterappreciationsociety.org/
We spent some time together that day and the next at the festival and haven’t seen each other since. Not in real life.
She inspired me to start writing letters.
Well, to start writing letters again, I suppose. She and I write to each other at least once a week and we have the occasional catch up on zoom or a telephone call. But just writing those letters to each other is such a perfect way to build a friendship and really get to know each other, particularly during the pandemic.
And I rediscovered a passion for writing letters. Early on, I realised not to write a letter in anticipation of a reply. For me, I discovered that the joy was actually in the writing. And while I’m writing a letter to someone, I’m holding that person in my mind, in my heart and my thoughts, and almost hearing them reading my letter once they receive it.
So who do I write to? Well I write to family, I write to friends, I write to old school friends, people I’ve met on Twitter. I love how social media, which is so digital, can create analogue friendships. So yes, I write to quite a lot of people on Twitter. And I write to quite a lot of celebrities too – friends of mine joke that I’m a bit of a stalker, that I stalk pop stars on Twitter until they become my friends.
Well, there’s a little bit of truth to that.
But mostly I write to celebrities because well, having suffered from imposter syndrome myself, I think a lot of us do. And I think it’s nice to be able to write to someone and tell them specifically about a positive impact they’ve had on either my life, or the life of my family. So let me give you an example.
My dad, who died in 1990, wasn’t always quick to show his emotions. But what I do remember is on a Wednesday evening, when MASH was on the TV, hearing my dad roar with laughter watching it. And he especially liked the character of Hawkeye Pierce, played by Alan Alda. So last summer, when I was writing some letters, I thought, you know what, I’ll write to Alan Alda and tell him because perhaps he’d be interested to know that he brought laughter to our family home for many, many years.
So I’ve written to other actors. I’ve written to journalists, disc jockeys, poets, authors, newsreaders, musicians, other people in the public eye.
Mostly just to say ‘Hello’, and ‘thank you’.
The irony sometimes is when people then direct tweet me or send me a message on WhatsApp to say thank you for the letter. But you know what, it really doesn’t matter if it’s brought them a moment of joy, perhaps some smiles or some chuckles or even some rolling of eyes, then I feel it’s been worth it.
I have had some handwritten replies. And they just come out of the blue. And it’s just wonderful that someone else has taken time to put pen to paper.
Often people say to me, I’d like to write a letter, but my handwriting is terrible. Well, I’d like to be able to tell you that having written hundreds of letters over the last year and a half, my handwriting has improved, but I don’t think it has. I bought myself beautiful fountain pens, I’ve got some lovely, coloured inks. But I still resort to a purple biro because it’s easier. It’s less messy. And I think it makes my handwriting a little bit easier to read. I’m not sure; you’ll have to ask the people who were on the receiving end of some of my letters.
Having joined the Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society, Dinah also introduced me to Alison Hitchcock, who along with her friend Brian, founded From Me To You https://www.frommetoyouletters.co.uk/ Because of their own story, Alison and Brian understood the power of handwritten letters, particularly when someone is undergoing treatment for cancer. That’s what From Me To You do. They ask people to write letters to donate to people having treatment. You’re writing a letter to someone you don’t know; you don’t know what gender they are, how old they are, whereabouts they are in the country, but you write with positive intent, and you just write newsy stuff. Well, I do, although my letters are quite rambling.
I write letters to donate. In fact, today I’ve written five, they go in the post to From Me To You and they work with various hospitals and other organisations to ensure these letters get to people who need them. And when I’ve heard feedback through the charity from the recipients of the letters, it makes it all worthwhile and really just encourages me to write more.
I also decided at the start of the pandemic that I was going to start running using the Couch to 5k. I managed to run 5k and then I decided it would be a good idea to run 10k and at the same time, I would raise some funds for From Me To You. Getting fitter and indulging my passion for writing letters, what a great combination and people have been so incredibly supportive.
There are some people I write to on a regular basis, and we started having lovely correspondence. Let me just share with you one second-hand example of something really lovely that happened A friend I write to told me that she was inspired to write to another old school friend who now lived overseas. And this school friend was always a great cello player. Turns out the school friend is actually a professional cellist living overseas. And my friend always nagged her at school to play the Pink Panther theme on the cello, because she just loved it.
Anyway, she wrote to this friend who she hadn’t seen for many, many years, and the friend wrote a handwritten letter back. The loveliest thing was that the letter back was written on the back of a music score to the theme from the Pink Panther. Isn’t that wonderful? The fact that people remember these things, and they mean so much to both people. So that’s just one story of the joy that a handwritten letter can bring.
I’m not here to convince you to start writing letters, although of course, I’d love it if you do. Is there someone who you could drop a letter or even just a postcard to, someone you’ve been thinking of recently. Just tell them about your day. Tell them what you can see out the window, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is you take the time to think about them and just invest a bit of your own day for them.
Somebody asked me today, if there’s somebody I’ve written to that I’m still waiting and hoping for a reply from.
Well, Bruce Springsteen, you know it’s your turn to write back.
Watch this space.
Happy letter writing, everyone.