Monday 28 July 2008

An Old Friend

The other day I had a letter from an old friend I hadn't seen in 35 years. We were very close friends, together through the madness that was 'growing up' - or, rather, failing to - at the tail end of the sixties and into the early seventies. Then somehow we drifted into the kind of impossible tangle to which the only solution seemed to be a clean break. And break it was, as I neither saw nor heard anything of him for three and a half decades, though I often thought of him, wondered what he was doing and where he was.
Then, earlier this year, another old friend, with whom I am still in touch, happened, in the course of business, to come across another link in the chain - a mutual friend (Friend B?) who was in the same circle, and who was still in touch with the old friend I began with (Friend A?). And so, as I renewed the friendship with Friend B (which I was also glad and amazed to rediscover) via email, I also learnt a little of Friend A. He, it turns out, is one of those rare creatures who live offline, but I conveyed my address to him vicariously - and so the letter came.
I can't remember when I last had a handwritten letter, and had forgotten how much of a person's character such a letter can convey - so much more than type or email. My old friend was vividly present in that letter - written with a pen dipped in an inkwell, lapsing at times into stream of consciousness, and towards the end written around the margins of the page, aerogram-style. Letters, handwritten, tell us so much about the writer - and hardly anyone, even writers, writes them any more. The literary archives of the future will be strangely characterless, much will be lost. Think of Keats's letters...
Yet it is to the new technology of electronic communication that I owe this renewed contact with my old friend - it's a familiar enough story in our shrunken cyberworld. This is part of the magic of the web. Perhaps it is sufficient compensation for the lost magic of the handwritten letter. Anyway, I intend to write back to my old friend, in my own hand...


  1. Well, here’s a case of cause and effect that confirms my own ideas about the internet and human consequences.

    Obviously, Nige, you’re haunted by apprehensions about what a technology in possession of billions of human minds can do to our civilisation when an entire generation of young people not only can't read or write properly, but are developing repetitive brain injury in their frontal lobes while the great mother, Google, is driving them into madness.

    How do we extend levels of consciousness by opening gates at the extremity of a great hallway ...when those gates will only open in silence?


  2. I love handwritten letters. I'm going to write one today, in fact, and it's also going to include some drawings I've done.

    More power to you -- and your friend -- Nige.

  3. Nige, you can expect my comment tomorrow. I've just finished writing it, addressed to NigeCorp, signed in blood, written on parchment and sealed with the Madeley crest in wax.

    Judy's now hobbling to the postbox to post it.

  4. I've been spending the last few weeks sorting out a box of letters that had been sitting in my cupboard for 20 years. what a treasure trove! Letters from friends and relatives, and some I'd written myself to my husband that I'd kept. All of them giving an extraordinarily vivid picture of life in the 1970s. I feel very sad that my children will have nothing like this, as all their communication is done by text, email and Facebook. What a loss to cultural life.

  5. Nige, that struck a real chord with me. I was only thinking last night about writing a letter. I want to contact the son of one of our greatest actors, now no longer with us, and I thought, I think I'll write him a letter. It's somehow so much more personal...and appropriate.

  6. I've been collecting old postcards for years (my specialties are hotels, main street scenes, anything strange, amusement parks, beach scenes). The messages penned on them are a big part of the pleasure. But perhaps they also say that most people have never been letter writers -- more likely to jot down a quick "wish you were here" and slap on a stamp ... I look forward to an annual letter I receive from a former work colleague, and I presume she anticipates mine in return sinmce she keeps writing once a year. We never email, though we could, and we don't phone. The relationship literally lives in that single yearly exchange -- that's its shape, the words we write down by hand, the script. I find that I choose my words carefully -- and yet, the message flows smoothly ... I carry on an almost daily email exchange with my friend Floyd Skloot. We send each other our work in progress and trade news on our various doings. It's a rich correspondence. I've never felt that technology is the culprit -- though it may be guilty of testing our limits to favor our intelligence over our ignorance in light of its facility to abet both.

  7. It seems that the art of letter writing is age dependent, people of my generation still indulge themselves, Frau Malty and three of her cousins, who are spread all over the place ( geographically speaking, of course) still regularly communicate by letter as well as t'internet. There is something very tactile and permanent about pen on paper, seeing a persons handwriting can conjure up pictures of them in a way that an email can't.