The Lost Art of Letter Writing: Elspeth Penny at TEDxSWPS (Transcript)

Elspeth Penny – Writer, Director and an Arts-in-health specialist 

When did you last receive a proper handwritten letter? What would you feel like if one came through the post this morning? What would it mean to you?

Well, according to Royal Mail, letter volumes have decreased by a third in the last decade and went down 4% last year. There’s more parcels delivered than letters. So, we have this thing called ‘universal delivery’, which means if I put something in a post box, it goes to anywhere in the UK for the same price as anywhere else. But how long are we going to have that for?

So, what I want to do is celebrate and reinvent the handwritten letter. It’s about the trail we leave and the future we wish to shape. 1915, August the 16th. Flo wrote to Sergeant Jones, great-grandfather of my son’s headmaster. ‘It is with extreme sorrow that we thank you for your kindness in acquainting us of the death of our dear boy.’ She continues to say how grateful she is of the decent soldier’s burial he got and how cruel it was that he got shot down by a sniper, without a sporting chance. And towards the end, she writes, ‘If you have the time at your disposal, would you let me know if my dear boy spoke after he was shot?’ This is still in the hands of the family, who treasure it.

So, I have lots of letters, boxes of them. And some still have the scent of the people who sent them to me. To read them is a sensory and emotional experience, just as when I first heard them come through the letterbox, even more now. And the main thing for me is that they’re handwritten. This makes them perfect because they’ve not been perfected.

My dad’s handwriting was neat and precise, and my mum’s is larger, wilder and freer. In my first term at University, I wasn’t very happy, and my mum sent me this: ‘Just close your eyes and think of England.’ There’s a smiley face two years and seven months before the first-ever text message. My mum invented text messages – smiley faces. I love my brother Rupert’s way of putting things: ‘Ah hell, El, I’ll miss you, sis.’ He doesn’t say that to me anymore. This is a rare letter from my brother Alistair, with real cat prints from Muffin.

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Looking through my letters, I’ve been called many a name. So, letters can be part of an ongoing joke, like a Snapchat story: ‘Mrs. Edna Muriel Pencil’, ‘Dear Bog’, etc. So the difference is that it’s kept. I’m so happy I’ve got these. So sometimes there’s not enough room on the paper to express what you’d like to say. And some of my favorites are from Auntie Barr, and look how she’s written ‘mail’ at the top – she spelt ‘male’.

A couple of months ago, I felt the urge to feel letters again and to get into them. I found my sad, old, forgotten letter rack in my son’s bedroom, and I tipped out the marbles, and I put some paper and pens and things like that in them, and I went into a cafe, and I asked people if they’d like to write letters. So, the first person said yes; she was called Nicolette, and she wrote a letter, and she thanked me and she left.

So, to tell the truth, I’m a terrible example – I’ve more or less stopped writing letters. I used to write regularly to friends and relations. I write emails – a lot of them – and texts. So I wanted to ask, why have I got blasé? Is it just I’ve got too busy? I’m too busy looking at text messages, and I’ve stopped enjoying handwritten letters. So, a letter is direct from brain to hand to paper. It’s something in the hand and by the hand, and it carries something of our DNA, sometimes down the generations.

So when we press the send button on email, we are told it is sent. So I started ‘Scent’. So this ‘scent’ has another letter in it because it’s something extra. It’s that trail. And there’s two parts to a scent-a-bent. First, I ask people to bring in a letter and share it, something from their past – whatever letter and whoever they are, whatever age and whoever they received it from. It’s a treasure. And then I invite them to write letters. So, I’d like to remind myself and remind you of how to write a letter.

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So you take up a piece of paper: cool green, gray or silky. You take up a pen: a biro, an ink pen – a feather, if you like, or ink. You make yourself comfortable somewhere you want to be – in the garden or on the sofa. Now in this letter, my son tells his fairy godmother Cora – who’s a speaker later – ‘While I am writing this, the CD is playing beautifully in the background. I love it. It reminds me of home. Or the finishing song of a play, and you’re just about to sink into your favorite armchair next to a blazing fire with a mug of mint tea.’ Be absorbed; be meditative. Write one word or many. Draw pictures. Make mistakes and scribble them out or leave them in – they’re part of the whole thing. It makes them personal; it makes them the story that they are.

So you don’t need to be too precious to make a Scent letter precious. I recently asked children at a local primary school to write letters. Zoe wrote to this to her mum about how the trip her mum took her on after the operation made her better. I was enchanted by the range of children’s responses, uninhibited by not having an address. They went for the concept of communications. So, this is written by Charlotte to Picasso. She wanted to send it up in the air on a balloon for him to receive. It’s actually expressing her own dream, to be an artist.

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