1991: Last days of the hand-written letter

It may not seem so long ago, but back in April 1991 when I first came to the United Kingdom, Internet cafes and email did not exist.  Keeping in touch with friends and loved ones back home required a lot more care and consideration than it does now, perhaps even providing that added incentive to put that extra bit more thought into what is important and relevant to them.

The only instant written communication was by fax machine, and to send a lot of news by it was expensive – plus the copy was not always that reliable – and so the use of it was typically reserved for business or urgent matters.

Typewriters were not particularly portable either, and word-processing machines and software existed but were still not that widespread nor portable.

So the only ready and economical way to share a few thoughts  over a long distance was to find the time, as well as a good pen and some decent paper, to write as many pages as you could and then post it off.

Posting it was not a breeze either.  You had to find a Post Office or stationers where you could buy the right size of envelope to fit it all into, go to a Post Office to get the letter weighed so that you could buy the right number of stamps to stick on for The Royal Mail to accept it, and then find the right slot to put it in for the Royal Mail’s sorting office to then send on to its destination.  Strikes by The Post Office and Royal Mail were therefore very frustrating as it could then take a helluva longer time than usual to arrive – and were renowned to happen at Christmas time, just to make matters worse for getting that critical communication through. 

After all that was done, it could take anything up to three weeks for a letter to arrive at its destination on the other side of the world somewhere, depending on how good the mail service was at the other end.  Not like now with the Internet freely available in many locations, and at the very least at an Internet cafe, where a reply from the opposite side of the world can be instantaneous as well as printable.  So how much of this do we already take for granted now, just twenty years later?

Unbeknownst to me in 1991, only four months earlier Tim Berners-Lee had invented the World Wide Web and provided the beginning of this new highly informed and communicative world we have now. It provided the foundation that has allowed this blog to be born and the means that you, dear readers, can now all use instantaneously to share your thoughts on this and all other blogs with anyone, anywhere, at any time. 

So, once upon a time, writer and reader would have been separated – even a world apart – but now we are all part of the same digital communications machine that is almost close to having a life of its own.

1991 was, in a way, the last days of the hand-written letter. 

In a similar way perhaps, 500 years earlier and with the help of Caxton Press, reliance on verbatim recanting of the spoken word by town cryers reading from parchment (beginning with the catchcry: “Hear Ye, Hear Ye“), was near its end as the wisdom and stories of the common man first started to be captured and shared in England using the printed medium. 

One of the most renowned of these first published works, The Canterbury Tales, was written and produced by an English courtier called Geoffrey Chaucer.  Once upon a time these same stories would have relied on word of mouth to be shared, perhaps at a pub by the very same types of trades and common people that are portrayed as telling each tale as the travellers move on, from one destination to the next, on the road to Canterbury.

Before that time, for sure, there would have been some  tales written and available for a select few on parchment.  These would have been limited to being read to an audience at the king’s court, the clergy’s church or the bishop’s cathedral – and perhaps by a courtier such as Geoffrey Chaucer himself.  As such, the content would no doubt have been limited to what the king or bishop considered acceptable for sharing. Indeed, the higher brow would most often have been shared in the language of the court – which was typically Norman French, and so works of the Winchester-educated Norman scholar, such as Thomas Malory’s “Le Mort d’Arthur“, would have been popular as would publications in Latin, if the subject matter was ecclesiastical or political. 

Now, at the end of the fifteenth century, stories of the common tradesman – and even traveller from afar – were not just written down but also being printed en masse for sharing with the wider world.  

Moreover, it was in that century that the stories began to be printed using the new popular language of the day – English – rather than in Latin, a language restricted to monks and scholars, or French, the language used in court. Thus it was then that the first beginnings of freedom of expression for all, that we now accept as a right, was perhaps born – and using a language that was not as restricted to forms of spelling, grammar and syntax as that of other languages of its day. 

All that was needed from this legacy left by Caxton’s death, c. 1491, was for people to begin to learn how to read as well as feel free to write and share their own stories in the same way as the example set down in Chaucer’s Tales. 

A Footnote

Nowadays we learn how to read and write at the age of five (and sometimes earlier). However, with the advent of more and more sophisticated types of audio-visual communication, will we soon even need to do that?  Certainly now it is already more about putting finger to keyboard rather than pen to paper….


About Matt's Tale

A New Age travel writer, seeing the old in the new and the bold in the blue - but mainly seeking the freedom to be, as much as to do. His tales come from meeting modern day travellers following their likes of King Arthur to Geoffrey Chaucer, leading him on to places considered "Camelot" and different ways to see Canterbury and cafes a lot. Email: mattstale@yahoo.co.uk Twitter: @mattstale
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6 Responses to 1991: Last days of the hand-written letter

  1. gosh! how things have changed. 1991!!! I cant even begin to imagine how life was before the advent of the WWW, despite that I was actually around then. We are now quite spoilt really and it has certainly changed how we communicate. I am totally addicted to google and twitter and could spend hours just browsing.
    Actually I do remember when I started my first email account……what a learning curve that was for someone born in the dark ages 🙂
    btw have you been to St Bride’s Church? known as the Journalists church, it is a must for any scribe.
    I have just been reading your blogs on myspace and had a LOL at the GRiddle of the Sphinx….excellent! also really enjoyed The Nature of Music.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Thanks, Cindy. It will be interesting to see if we can recreate some of the atmosphere of a disparate group of travellers, let alone pilgrims, sharing their tales together at The Tabard in Acton this Saturday, 2nd April 2011. I now have at least one other who has said they will come along.

      In fact, Saturday 2nd April will almost be 20 years to the day that I first set foot in this country – and unwittingly trod the path where many had been before on the road to Canterbury (or perhaps Camelot?) – so starting off at The Tabard of the modern day is perhaps kinda poignant?

  2. Cindy Eve says:

    wow! that is quite amazing, and yes The Tabard (albeit in Acton) is a brilliant place to meet. April great month to start thinking about a re-run or perhaps a new journey on previously trodden paths. I am sure you will agree with me in that no matter how many times you actually follow a certain path, the journey is always different.
    I look forward to Saturday and delighted you’ve manage to persuade one other to join us. What fun!

  3. Matt Miller says:

    Actually, it’s a few others now – should be about 5 of us, if not more (as still two days left before Saturday). The good thing is that we will at least have a fellow traveller, a writer and a documentary film-maker in our midst – besides us two, of course!

  4. Matt Miller says:

    Scarily, just happening to be bemoaning the lost art of conversation with my local costermonger down at Portobello Market today when this (still rather glamorous) ex-model stopped off on her bike (as can only happen in Notting Hill) and remarked that she is just as concerned that no one hand-writes letters any more! No, I did not prompt her to say this at all….

  5. Pingback: Beyond The Sea – and Sky! | mattstale

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