When I was at university, there was one computer suite for the whole student body. These were painfully clumsy machines with flickering green screens, and it took longer to use them for work than it did to write out my essays long-hand. There was no email or internet to speak of, and practically no one had a mobile phone.
Communications were much more awkward than nowadays. In the recent haul of boxes from my parents’ loft, I’ve discovered piles of letters and cards from any number of friends, and found 20-year-old party invitations with hand-drawn maps and instructions. For 2 years as a student I lived in places whose only phones took incoming calls only. Calling my then-girlfriend who lived 150 miles away was an event that required careful planning. We had to arrange a specific time to call. I had to hope the nearest phone box (300 yards away) was free when I got there, and at her end she needed to make sure none of her housemates wanted to use their phone…
But this awkwardness and lack of immediacy made communications that much more considered, important even; less throwaway in every sense. My diaries suggest that writing letters was very important to me back then, especially when I was studying in Chambéry or working in the Pyrenées. Letters took a week to arrive, so receiving them was often a truly uplifting experience, and their absence could also be a cause for gloom and despondency.
Letters take time to compose, often lasting days, punctuated by interruptions like lectures, or falling asleep (or both at the same time!). They can create a rich experience, immersing the reader into the life and thoughts of the writer in a way that rewards repeat reading. When I recently re-read my diaries I found a quote that appeared repeatedly amongst all the parties and angst and exams and parties and other song-lyrics. Strangely, it’s unattributed…
And when you are dancing and laughing and finally living, hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly.
I’ve discovered that it’s a lyric from The Smiths song “Rubber Ring”, but to be honest I’ve never listened to that track in my life, so I’m still at a loss where I got it from. Nevertheless, it seems to sum up for me the entire raison d’être of my diary and indeed this blog; a permanent memorial of ‘me and my important thoughts’. Letters and the written word are a crucial part of this.
Facebook and Twitter are immediate, which makes them vital, dynamic and exciting. But stay away from those sites for even a couple days and apparently the whole world has moved on. Trending topics last for hours (if they’re lucky). The concept of “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping” is outdated. Apparently the world moves faster than that.
But must it always? Alain de Botton wrote an article this week exhorting the need to relearn how to concentrate.
The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties—something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows.
Despite the drive to virtual formats in every part of the media, I believe that humans are still hoarders who covet and cherish physical records. We tend to use the written word for important occasions and messages, and for those people who aren’t connected to the interweb, written communications can be vital. They can be filed, stored and reviewed just like any email, but their very physicality acts as a far more personal and powerful link to the past than any 140 character Tweet or SMS message, through the handwriting, the phrasing, the exclamation marks (!!!!) and through the paper itself. The written word, because of this permanence and personality should live on.