Monday, March 18, 2013

The last post

Remember these?
I was clearing out a drawer at the weekend and found a sheet of unused stamps from the Christmas before last. My first thought was to wonder whether they can still be used since they were bought at one price and second class postage has since increased in price. It seems that they are, and an inflation busting investment at that. Second class remains second class no matter what you originally paid for it.
My next consideration is more problematic. When am I going to use them?
Stamps used to be an essential component of a well run household. You needed them on hand for birthday cards, thank you notes, letters and for paying bills.
You could even, as David Brent pointed out, use them as legal tender. I did this a few times myself in my teens before I had a bank account, sending off for badges of bands I liked through dodgy small ads in the back of Sounds magazine. You could get a postal order, but they seemed a bit more faffy, and I didn't want to ask my mum to write me a cheque as she'd inevitably want to know why I wanted a large embroidered patch with 'Black Sabbath: Heaven and Hell' on it anyway.
I had money, thanks to my paper round, but no means to spending it beyond face to face transactions in my immediate vicinity. Stamps did the trick. They were almost like a precursor to Paypal, enabling micropayments for the financially disenfranchised.
When I went to university, stamps became an even more important currency, enabling communication with my mates who had been scattered to the four corners of the UK.
I don't think I've ever written as much as I did in my first year at college. Despite making new friendships, I missed my old buddies and longed to stay in contact with them, and to share some of my crazy and delinquent goings on with them.
Looking back, I think I was quite lonely, even as I seemed to have an active social life. But the initial friendships I made were fairly shallow and it's telling that only a few college friendships have really stood the test of time (hello Andrew, hello Mark).
So I reached out towards the people I'd known from my teens. I think a lot of them felt the same given the tone and the frequency of the correspondence from them.
Letter writing became quite addictive once you realised that when you shared your feelings with someone you would get a response in kind, a few days later, or maybe after a few weeks depending on the diligence of your correspondent.
Like so much of the near past, it almost seems like another age now. Nobody I knew had a phone in their student digs, let alone a mobile. There were about 20 computers in the whole of my department and none of them were hooked up to any sort of information superhighway that we could access - this was 1985. Crikey, it seems so near, yet so far away in many ways.
Communication came in three modes:
* a personal visit. (Either back home to your parents for a feed, a delousing and a machine wash of your humming clothes pile. Or a visit to another student friend which would inevitably be a massive piss up that would carry through into a several days to shift hangover.)
* a reverse the charges phone call. (These could be sporadic. I remember one time my mum had to send a letter to find out if I was still alive, it was so long since she had heard from me. Another time I stood in a phone box for about five minutes failing to remember my own home phone number, which is still one of only a handful I can remember.)
* a letter.
The latter was the most popular because it was the cheapest. Especially if you put sellotape over the stamp making it impossible to frank properly. The resulting stamp could then ping pong back and forwards between correspondents until such time as it became indistinguishable.
I well remember the thrill of finding a letter, or even two or three in my postbox at halls of residence. You could never expect the immediate response of today's email, text or instant messaging conversations, and it was all the sweeter for it.
Waiting was part of the thrill.
It wasn't just the fact of receiving a letter. The content was often pages and pages of funny, heart rending, satirical, annoying and surreal stuff. The kind that you can only really write when you are in your late teens.
I still have a bag full of letters from friends, and one in particular (hello Trevor, wherever you are) who was as verbose and as prolific as I was. They read like strange, one-sided conversations where the points in your previous letter are replied to sandwiched between flights of fantasy, and the latest tales and triumphs, real or imagined, .
It's such powerful stuff that I don't look at them very often. It's probably mainly rubbish and I don't especially want to tarnish the memory of what it was like by reading between the lines.
Letter writing continued for a good few years after university. Friends were still fairly dispersed. None of us were that well off, so often didn't have phones, or didn't want to run up big bills. People went travelling and writing remained an important connection to friends and family.
Do young people still write?
I'm sure they must, although they don't need to in the way we did.
My son, who is five, is starting to become quite the scribe. As his language improves he is discovering the joy of putting his thoughts down on a piece of paper. He can make people laugh, puzzle them, and make them like him. Powerful stuff.
Will he be doing it in his teens and twenties? I doubt it actually. And even if he is, I don't think it will have quite the same effect on him as it did on my generation because there probably won't 't be many elements of the message that haven't already been leaked to him across the other media platforms that he will undoubtedly use.
But times change and I don't doubt that his generation's form of communication will be every bit as compelling to him as mine was to me.
They'll probably write about many of the same things: loves and hates; friends and foes, hopes and dreams.
Some things don't change.
Now, who wants a handwritten letter?