Like (probably) a lot of teenage girls in the 90s, I had pen pals. Maybe you were too cool, and were too busy practising applying garish make-up to a Girls World head or were meeting your more local friends in town to raid the lip balm tester pots in Body Shop, but I loved to write letters. With a proper stationery set of whimsically printed writing paper and matching envelopes, a favourite pen or preferably several in different colours, and a Sunday afternoon with little else to do, it was a favourite pastime for 14 year old me.
The only thing better than writing a letter was receiving a letter. In the post. Not via email. With a stamp and everything. The excitement of seeing an envelope addressed to you on the doormat, and ripping it open to find the heady sight of 5 sheets of A4 folded in three and stuffed tightly inside. The wonderful few minutes of running upstairs, flopping onto your bed and just enjoying every word, written so neatly at first but increasingly carefree towards the end; everything that your friend from faraway just had to tell you. A boy at school, a family holiday, a new Sweater Shop jumper – the subject didn’t matter. The words were written for you.
My pen pals were varied and individual, each letter bringing news of a different place, a different life. An old friend from infant school who remained in Coventry when I moved to Blackburn aged 7 but had kept in touch. Two sisters I met on holiday a couple of years earlier who if memory serves may have been from Nottingham. The French exchange student called Helene who had stayed with us for a week and practised her English by writing to me. I treasured their letters, and many more, in a box for years.
But times change, people move on. Apart from my friend from Coventry who is now a friend only on Facebook and I communicate with very rarely, I have lost touch with all of them. Letter writing fell out of favour as I started college in 1997 and had new and exciting sixth form friends to hang around with. The same when I went away to university in ’99. I found writing letters the most efficient way to catch up with my best friend from college, but that was about it.
That year I got my first mobile phone.
It was a Philips Savvy, with a green lit screen and three lines of text, pay as you go on the old BT Cellnet network. I got it for free when I signed up to my student bank account. It didn’t really do anything other than make phone calls and send texts but back then, we didn’t really expect anything else. It was like opening the door to a whole new world. Suddenly I could contact people wherever we both were. I didn’t have to find a landline, wait until I saw them in person or write a tedious letter. I could send them a little message to see how they were, and that was all it took.
15 years later, that’s all it ever takes. My pen pals of the mid-nineties have become my #TwitterBuddies of today, albeit a new and varied array of people. We don’t spend hours on the phone to each other, and with busy grown-up lives full of jobs and children and everything else in between, we certainly don’t write letters. Yes, I have friends who live locally who I can catch up with in person, but a huge proportion of my friends and acquaintances are online only, most of whom I have never met or even spoken to but have nevertheless become close to.
It’s not always easy to strike up a friendly relationship in 140 characters but when it does happen, it’s as exciting to see a notification ping on your phone as it was to have that letter drop on your doormat all those years ago. Somebody enquiring how you are, sharing some news, offering their help – considerably fewer words but just as meaningful as 5 pages of teenage blabber. Social media has enabled me to come into contact with some amazing people – and the short, snappy communications make it possible.
Maybe there is less soul in a Tweet than a letter, you can’t treasure a Facebook post in a box, words on a screen might not be as personal as handwriting on paper, but it doesn’t diminish the reality of the connections we make. Friendships, not envelopes, are the most valuable thing.
Say hello on Twitter @GreatNorthMum
Address to write a letter on request.