Robin Ashenden

A tribute to the lost art of letter writing

Credit: iStock

There are many good reasons, we’re constantly told, for millennials and Generation Z to resent their elders. What they can barely imagine, we took for granted: affordable housing, state-paid education, free dentistry and slow, misspent youths on unemployment benefit. But there is another justification for their envy, one that is hardly ever mentioned: we wrote letters to each other.

Mine was the very last generation to do so. Bleak and empty was the day you didn’t find a stuffed envelope, in handwriting you recognised, waiting for you on the doormat. As well as being a sign you weren’t forgotten, letters could, at their best, be sources of sheer delight. Many went on for pages – it wasn’t unusual to find five folded sheets inside, written on both sides. There were sad letters, angry letters, adoring letters, funny letters, confessional letters, admonishing letters, guarded letters, letters which expected you to ‘read between the lines’. And often, it must be admitted, there were pointless and boring letters, with their flat banal accounts of surface facts and what the writer had done and when.

We were writing to each other in the last microseconds of a tradition which had endured for millennia

But for those of us blessed with a few good correspondents, receiving a letter was as intense a pleasure as we would ever get later on from great literature. It was instructive too: there were friends whose separate and equal existence you never quite believed in until you started writing to each other.

One friend described her platonic correspondence with someone we both knew as a ‘slow, steady, mutual exploration of our deepest thoughts’, and that often was about right. But it was also a kind of shared apprenticeship. You would hone your jokes, find ways of talking about your insecurities in ways which wouldn’t be embarrassing to the other party.

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Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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