BIG IDEA | Why Don’t We Write More Letters?

Let’s write more letters to each other says PHIL KIRBY. Is he taking the epistle?

We all like to get a letter. Not a final demand or an invitation to apply for a credit card from a bank you never heard of, but a hand written, intimate piece of prose in an envelope with an actual stamp in the corner. Someone has taken the time to put pen to paper, just for you. That’s always a welcome delight.

We’d all like to get more, wouldn’t we? But, according to the Royal Mail, the numbers of letters delivered is declining precipitously.

I’ve been pestering a few people I know over the past few days to find out why they think there’s been such collapse in letter writing recently. Most blamed “the internet.” Specifically the culprits were email, texting, instant messaging and social media. Why would anyone these days labour with a ballpoint and a pack of Basildon Bond, purchase a stamp, lick an envelope, then leave the house to find the nearest post box when they could tap out their missive on a keyboard or screen, press send, and Ping! It’s arrived at its destination. So efficient. No fuss. And it costs nothing.

There is something in this. You wouldn’t write a letter to ask a friend if he’s free for a crafty pint in The Victoria after work, would you. An email, text or DM does the job perfectly. And these are brilliant technologies enabling us to get things done that snail mail can’t even imagine. Nobody would send a selfie by second class post or waste a stamp on a Like.

I doubt this is the reason why we don’t get many letters anymore though. Letters do different things, achieve different goals, create very different relationships between people. You wouldn’t send an email of condolence, or a facebook comment congratulating someone on their engagement, or a DM declaring war… well, probably some people (and Presidents) would. But you know they are complete twats, obviously.

I suspect the notion that email etc is supplanting the need for writing letters is based on one of those Daily Mail (other newspapers are equally culpable) tropes bemoaning the decline of Western Civilisation – how Whatsapp or whatever is destroying our children’s brains, their bodies, their safety, their very souls. Most of this is utter shite. There is absolutely no evidence.

When I asked friends why they personally didn’t write letters to friends and family or even random acquaintances any more the response was odd. Surely, I said, if you like getting letters from other people then everyone you know would appreciate a letter from you… so why don’t you? As Sting once sang, spread a little happiness

The responses broke down into two groups. Firstly, people blamed their bad handwriting. Their handwriting was embarrassing, shameful, illegible. And secondly, they hadn’t the time. Their “leisure time” was already spoken for. Scratching out letters and words and sentences in ink on a non-erasable surface was just such a chore. Why bother?

First point first. Handwriting anxiety ought to feature high in those lists that rate the top five fears people say they experience. Fear of public speaking always ranks higher than fear of death, or snakes, or spiders in mosts lists, but handwriting phobia is the fear that dare not write its name. It’s the most prevalent too – I don’t know anyone who doesn’t admit they hate their own scrawl – but the easiest to cover up.

Nobody expects you to reveal your insecurity about putting literal pen to material paper these days. In fact we’ve published almost a hundred writers in the last ten years of Culture Vulture and I’ve only seen the handwriting of perhaps three – four if you count a single signature.

There is something in this, and maybe as in the case of public speaking there’s a market for courses and workshops and mentors in the art? Should this be an income stream we ought to investigate?

But does bad handwriting explain why we don’t write more letters? Surely it’s an excuse, and a poor one at that?

Lack of time is probably more honest. In fact, it’s the main reason given one hundred years ago by famous literary critic George Saintsbury in his book about letter writing to explain why the art had declined from the mid nineteenth century:

… perhaps we have not yet mentioned the most powerful destructive agent of all, and that is the increasing want of leisure. The dullness of modern Jack, in letters as elsewhere, arises from the fact that when he is not at work he is too desperately set on playing to have time for anything else. The Augustans are not usually thought of as God-like; but they have this of the Gods, that they “lived easily.”

We don’t have it easily anymore. Sainstbury’s argument that it’s pervasive distractions that cause us to have so little time for ourselves is surprisingly contemporary. It’s the theme of Cal Newport’s recent, Digital Minimalism: On Living Better With Less Technology (coincidentally Kindle’s Daily Deal today, only 99p, and a pretty good read) and dozens of other recent books (I’d single out Joshua Cohen’s, Distraction, as one of my favourites, and Curtis White’s, We Robots if you enjoy a bit of ferocious literary Luddism.) Instead of leisure we have “leisure industries”, “leisure services”, “leisure centres”, “leisure activities”, and so many “leisure managers” we don’t have the time or energy left to write a letter.

Sainstbury locates the Golden Age of letter writing in the Eighteenth Century (his “Augustans”.) They took it easy. And while it’s probably not true that “Everyone wrote letter: and a surprising number of people wrote letters well” (what was the rate of illiteracy amongst the lower classes, I wonder) it’s still the case that a lot of letters were written back then. And the secret is simple; they had fewer distractions, not as many shiny new excitements grabbing at their attention. The only entertainments on offer were bear baiting, Morris Dancing, and ducking the local witch in the village pond. All great fun no doubt, but they hardly take up much of your spare time, and how do you while away the rest of the day?

So, instead of staring blankly into the corner of the room where the TV should be, or gazing down at their hands wishing someone would hurry up and invent the iPad, they whittled a quill out of a goosefeather, mixed up some lampblack, and wrote a witty couple of pages to Uncle Jeremiah in the next village. They got very good at it.

But then along came the newspapers, and the Penny Post, and the music hall, and eventually the radio, and a couple of hundred years later we find one of my favourite letter writers sending this to his wife:

Darling Laura, sweet whiskers, do try to write me better letters. Your last, dated 19 December, received today, so eagerly expected, was a bitter disappointment. Do realise that a letter need not be a bald chronicle of events; I know you lead a dull life now, my heart bleeds for it, though I believe you could make it more interesting if you had the will. But that is no reason to make your letters as dull as your life. I simply am not interested in Bridget’s children. Do grasp that. A letter should be a form of conversation; write as though you were talking to me…

Do write and tell me what you are thinking and how you are looking. Be natural when you write. Don’t send me any more of these catalogues of family facts. Tell me what letters of mine you have had.


It’s hard not to feel sorry for poor Mrs Waugh (and no, I haven’t a clue why she is referred to as “sweet whiskers”, and frankly would rather not know.) But Evelyn Waugh is surely right? We are all exasperated by stories of Bridget’s little darlings. Must you be so dull?

And this I think is the main reason we don’t write letters any more. We lead dull lives. We are dull and we know it. Evelyn Waugh was lucky; he was a fascinating man who lived an interesting life. But I do wonder if he’d have written so many entertaining letters if he’d had Netflix and Twitter and iPlayer and crazy cat videos on Youtube to compete with. Would even he have felt dull in comparison?

Most of us know that our friends and family – when they aren’t working or sleeping – are watching Game of Thrones or playing Call of Duty or busy liking things on Facebook. It seems rude to interrupt them with your pitiable scrawl about watching two neighbours have a fist fight over the possession of a green bin, thoughts of what to do with the people who leave dog poo and broken bottles in the local park, or tales of your latest embarrassing drunken escapade. Which is mostly what a letter from me today would contain.

But why not ask? If they are anything like most of us, they’d love a letter from you. There’s nothing like a handwritten letter to say you are thinking of someone.

And, let’s face it, these days loneliness is an epidemic. You can be watching Line of Duty with millions of others and still be lonely. You can be watching a Youtube video that’s had hundreds of thousands of hits and still feel isolated. You could have posted a tweet that went viral and still not feel connected to anyone. But a letter shows someone is thinking of you. Just you. And that’s nice, isn’t it?

It’s better than a direct message, surely?

So, who’s in? I’m happy to start. Let’s write some letters and not be dullsters.

My own handwriting is an utter shambles. It looks like the aftermath of a spidery civil war, a carnage of crushed blobs and broken, dismembered limbs scattered about the battlefield of the page. I’m not proud of it, but it is legible. And I try not to read much into another person’s handwriting trying to infer what their personality is like. Though I did recently see a note of feedback in a friend’s Airbnb flat that resembled a torn off scrap of bubble wrap – the letters all fat and round, with limp, detumescent ascenders, and descenders like the tails of a scolded dog – and I did think that if I ever met the writer in person I’d be wary of sudden movements and keep a clear space between myself and an open door… but I’m sure they were lovely really. (I’m not!) For anyone interested in the science behind teaching handwriting there’s a fantastic essay by Philip Ball. I admire his decision to show a sample of his own particularly terrible penmanship.

But let’s not worry too much about handwriting. Or be snobbish about equipment. The pens I use most are from the Poundshop, four gel pens for a quid, with a deep black ink and a lovely thick line, but they do packs of ten Bic or Papermate stick pens too – a bit too thin for me, and the ink a bit wishy washy, but I know plenty of people who prefer that style. The Poundshop does decent paper too. I’d recommend the heavier art sheets – I like unlined best – but choose what suits your own tastes. They even do packs of 15 blank cards and envelopes. All you need then is a stamp.

Or we could revive an old Eighteenth Century tradition – before there was a proper postal service – of leaving letters in a designated place, often a secret hole in a tree. This may prove a little tricky in Armley, though it might work for people in more leafier parts of the city, say Roundhay. Or you could ask one of your jogging friends to be useful for once and drop your letter off. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.

Personally though I think stamps are a good investment.

So, are we ready to write some letters?

If you need some more encouragement here’s a lovely essay by the sadly neglected A G Gardiner, On Letter Writing. Some very good advice.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Yours sincerely,


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