Letter-writing: the return of pen to paper
The long-lost art of corresponding with each other by hand is to be taught in state schools What’s this on my door-mat? A handwritten letter from an old university friend. Alleluia! It stands out among the bills and junk mail like a diamond in a pig sty. Given its rarity, the Government should be applauded for announcing that the new secondary school curriculum will include instruction at Key Stage 3 in drafting “personal and business letters using the correct form”.
Not before time, some would say. Letter-writing skills have fallen off so steeply in the age of emails and text messages that many pupils leave school barely able to write a letter for a job application, let alone master more subtle forms of correspondence, such as letters of condolence.
You can’t turn back the clock, but you can make a principled stand in defence of old-fashioned values, and this is a textbook case. Someone who leaves school unable to compose a letter is going into the adult world naked. And if teachers don’t ram home that
message, who else will?
Usually, it does not matter whether someone can write a letter or not – other means of
communication will serve. And with computerised spell-checks available to spare the illiterate their blushes, people can get by for years without the kind of letter-writing skills that would have been second nature to their parents.
But it is the rare occasion that matters – that complex human situation that cannot be
negotiated with a simple tweet or text.
Unfortunately, letter-writing has become so comically passé that, when anyone in the public eye sends a letter, rather than tweeting, there is a collective gasp that such a Victorian practice endures. Witness the near disbelief at the revelation that ex-England cricket captain Andrew Strauss, before resigning the captaincy earlier this year, had sent handwritten letters to his team-mates. But amid the disbelief there was something else: admiration, even among the Twitter generation.
Handwritten letters? What, using real ink? How cool was that?
Strauss is an ex-public schoolboy, educated at Radley, so it is perhaps not surprising to find him putting pen to paper. It is one of those arcane skills that independent schools are uniquely good at instilling in their pupils – another reason to applaud Education Secretary
Michael Gove’s plans to teach it at state schools.
I have a shrewd idea where Strauss cut his epistolary teeth. Boarders of my generation, incarcerated without trial in god-forsaken institutions in Yorkshire and Somerset, would be sat down on a Sunday morning and supervised while they wrote letters home. The letters would then be censored by eagle-eyed housemasters before being posted. Were they worried we would spill the beans on the school food?
Such censorship would be regarded as monstrous nowadays – a flagrant breach of our
human rights – but it kept us on the ball and, if our efforts were hardly scintillating, they would certainly have been appreciated by our parents in the days before texts and emails. My late father, bless him, kept some of my letters home. Judged as literature, they are execrable: a couple of scribbled paragraphs (how many runs I had scored for the Second XI against Sherborne etc) then a “No more news, I am afraid”. But against the odds,
perhaps, they were habit-forming and transformational.
I have been an enthusiastic letter-writer all my adult life, and am just about to sit down and
pen a reply to my university friend. And I hope the sight of a letter plopping on his doormat
will give him as much pleasure as his did me.