AUNT BETTY’S CORNER

My late father was an avid reader of The Farmer’s Weekly and once I could read well I enjoyed reading the articles too, gathering quite a lot of incidental information along the way! A column called The Hitching Post delighted the older me – tickled by the messages posted by people seeking companions. This column is still going strong: advertisements claim that ‘hundreds of couples have found love’ or companionship as a result of submitting their profile to the magazine. There was also a supplement aimed at women that was called The Homestead and in this was a page devoted to the interests of young children. This was called Aunt Betty’s Corner. I must have been around five or six when I became a member.

I was very interested in the Corner and it was there that I found addresses for pen-friends – which fed my abiding joy in writing letters. I also loved entering competitions when the opportunity arose. During my primary school years I won about three writing competitions – the prize was usually a postal order for about two shillings. This ‘success’ spurred me on to write ever since – though I don’t earn a cent from it, although ‘scribbling’ gives me a lot of joy.

LETTER-WRITING IS A WANING ART

Do you remember the poem by W.H. Auden, The Night Mail? In it he describes the train carrying:

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers’ declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Historically, letters have provided valuable insights about relationships, how people deal with wars, natural disasters and political changes. Over the years I have experienced the thrill of letters in my post box, of recognising the handwriting on the envelope, the anticipation of the crinkling of the paper and the possibility of ‘connecting’ with the writer through the quirks of his or her handwriting and the sense of character it conveys.

Alas, writing by hand is fast becoming obsolete in today’s technology-driven world filled with a variety of ‘instant’ forms of communication. A friend recently commented in an e-mailed response to a letter I had written: “How lovely it was to receive a letter in the mail. It prompted me to rush out and buy stamps. I would love to write more but time is not available!” Christmas cards have also been consigned to the ‘obsolete’ cart and one is lucky to receive an e-mailed ‘one-size-fits-all’ letter. Another friend once sent an e-card for Christmas with the note that a letter would be following soon … it never has. People seem to be too busy to write anything more than a line or two these days. Busy? Doing what?

Cursive writing has been around for centuries. Children still learn to join letters into a flowing script during their first two years of formal schooling even though fashions change and vary from country to country. At one time the Ronde hand was taught in France, the Palmer method in the United States, and the Civil Service hand in the United Kingdom. We have all heard of Copperplate too – all were aimed at legibility. The use of computers now mean that we can choose and change fonts at will and yet by doing this a part of our personality remains permanently hidden.

For how much longer are pupils going to use their newfound skills of putting pen to paper? Even primary school children are being introduced to keyboards of one sort or another. Secondary school pupils routinely submit printed assignments, and university students are expected to.

Is letter-writing as an art going to disappear completely?