It seems like a positively antediluvian method of keeping in touch with people these days, but when I was 10 or 11, pen pals were all the rage. Of course they were the rage for a long, long time before that, too – but it saddens me that the old-fashioned pen-pal, where you actually wrote and received letters on ink and paper, is a dying art.
I’ve always loved receiving letters. There’s a magic about receiving your very own letters in the post as a kid – a magic that vaporises as an adult, when you begin avoiding the letterbox for fear of another dread-inducing bill. I suppose in a way, it’s one of the first times you can assert a sort of grown-up privacy as a child, although I’m sure that my nosey siblings rooted out my ‘private’ correspondence, as I did theirs. (For the same reason, I avoided keeping a diary of any sort!).
I was your typical bookworm nerd as a kid – the sort of child who’d ask for extra homework when she was off sick from school and who raced ahead in workbooks at home on the weekends. That behaviour was shaken out of me by my second year of secondary school (‘rough’ is understating it), but a love of writing and especially receiving personal letters is something that has never left me. Acquiring a pen-pal was the logical step, so I swiped my Dad’s copy of Buy & Sell and got applying to the least strange-sounding people in the dedicated ‘Pen-Pals’ section.
I exchanged many letters with random people from the UK, New Zealand and America, but only three managed to stick. The first was a girl of my age from Kent; England seemed so ridiculously far away at the time that I didn’t even bother looking it up. The other two were from even further afield in Canada; one from rural Alberta, one from Ontario. We exchanged letters, inane facts about our families and very different lives and cultures, and tat and fancy papers bought from the pound shop and the dollar store for a couple of years, until school, and life, and the important business of being teenagers took over. Our letters grew further and further apart, until finally, they stopped.
There is a happy ending, though. The other week, though, I got an email from someone with the same first name as one of my Canadian pen-pals, wondering if I was the same person she’d exchanged letters dotted with glitter and stickers over fifteen years ago. She’d found some of those letters recently, googled my name, found my blog and recalled that I mentioned that I wanted to be a journalist “when I grew up” (it must have been after my dreams of being a vet were dashed, after someone pointed out that vets occasionally have to put their hands up animals’ bums). Our lives are still as different as they were back then – she’s now married, with two gorgeous young kids and a photography business in the same town that she grew up in – but it’s strange and wonderful to be back in touch with someone who knew you, back when you barely knew yourself. And sure, email doesn’t quite have the same effect as the drop of a letter onto the doormat, but, well, it’s still better than nothing.