Andrew Vine: Let’s not lose the human touch of pen and paper

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A STACK of Christmas cards awaits on the kitchen table, and writing them to family and friends will be one of the simplest pleasures of the whole year.

It will, for a few moments at least, make me feel close to those I haven’t seen in ages, and also a little guilty at not getting in touch more often and arranging to meet.

And it will remind me that it’s the only time in the entire year when I sit down and actually write anything by hand to anybody.

The world is one of emails and text messages, of missives dashed off at the keyboard, or compressed into the tersest possible form on the mobile.

I can’t remember the last time I sent a hand-written letter, it’s so long ago. But then, I’m far from alone in that. How many of us still send many letters at all, as opposed to emails? And if we do, the overwhelming likelihood is that they will be composed on a computer and printed out.

This was a subject raised by Bradford-born Paul Bayes, the new Bishop of Liverpool, a few days ago. He said the decline in sending hand-written cards as opposed to e-cards or messages via social media undermined the spirit of Christmas.

I found myself nodding in agreement. The bishop’s belief that nothing can replace a hand-written personal message of goodwill will strike a chord with many.

He is, naturally, practising what he preaches by writing all the 600 cards he intends to send, and for good measure delivering as many as he can by hand.

Bishop Bayes sounds like he’s in for a painful bout of writer’s cramp as a result of all those cards, but he will at least have the consolation of knowing that his personal message to each of those hundreds of people will bring them a moment of pleasure when they read it.

E-cards that drop into my inbox with a list of other people’s email addresses attached to whom they have also been sent leave me cold.

They are a tacky, lazy, one-size-fits-all substitute for sending proper Christmas greetings, less an expression of goodwill than an exercise in contacting as many people as possible with the minimum of effort.

We’re meant to think of others at Christmas, and sitting down to write and address a card makes us do just that in a way that rattling off a round-robin email can never replicate.

Email is invaluable for doing business, but it’s distinctly lacking in that magical quality of warmth when it comes to the personal.

The line-up of cards on the mantelpiece is part of the Christmas decorations, a cheerful reminder that others have spared a few moments to think about us, just as our thoughts are of them.

There is something special about a hand-written card or letter, a touching, highly personal quality that comes through only when pen is put to paper.

An acquaintance who is in her 
mid-90s has never lost the habit of sending out postcards to thank people 
for small kindnesses, and the arrival of one in her elegant hand never fails to raise the spirits of the recipient.

Such thoughtful cards or letters become keepsakes, tangible reminders 
of people when they are no longer 
part of our lives, or far away, that can never be rivalled by a print-out of an email.

Not too long ago, the wife of a soldier serving in Afghanistan told me that although she could speak to him by phone at certain times and received regular emails, the letters that he wrote to her as well held a special place in her heart.

She read and re-read them, and amid the ever-present worry about his safety, to have the piece of paper that had been in his hands in her own was a source of comfort.

Their letters to each other will be kept for the rest of their lives, but what’s to become of the love letter amongst the generation growing up never knowing a world before emails?

Maybe those young lovers won’t feel the need to set down on paper their deepest feelings when apart, and perhaps emails, texts and the memory of phone calls will be enough. But I can’t help feeling that the soldier and his wife with their bundle of letters have something infinitely more precious.

It will be one of my new year resolutions to put pen to paper more often, and not confine it to Christmas cards. Yes, the emails and the texts will still be flying off computer and phone to friends and family, but the occasional letter will be dropped into the postbox too.

There won’t be anything complicated about them, just a simple hand-written note hoping all is well and suggesting we get together more often. My hunch is that they will respond in kind and we’ll rediscover how touching it is to realise that somebody has taken the trouble to drop us a line.