It should always be a red-letter day

The joy of receiving post, be it a card or a ‘thank-you’ note, is at risk as technology displaces handwriting, says Sue Leonard

IT’S nice to get a letter in the post. Whether it’s a ‘thank-you’, a post-card from abroad, or a love letter nestled among the bills, handwriting on an envelope can lift the day.

Once, letters were the main form of communication. Now, with technology, there’s a danger we’ll lose the art of handwriting.

Does it matter? The writer and critic Philip Hensher says it does, that it helps form our personalities, and connects us to language. His book, The Missing Link: The lost art of handwriting (and why it still matters), urges us to start handwriting again. “If you don’t like your handwriting, do something about it,” he says. “Write to people you love, people you like, people you work with. Write postcards. Write notes. Write shopping lists.”

Jane Connolly, 53, an architectural assistant and technologist, agrees with Hensher. A member of Peannairi, the Irish Association of Calligraphers, she says handwriting is an art. “It’s something nice to look at,” she says. “It shows personality.”

It worries Connolly that schools place little emphasis on it.

“Years ago, it was drilled into people,” she says. “In my convent school, we started with pen and ink. We had inkwells on our desks. I can remember my copies with red and blue lines, and blots of ink. It was messy, but I enjoyed writing from the start.

“My children learned a nice, cursive hand. But one of my sons has terrible, small handwriting. I mentioned this to his teacher, and she said ‘that’s fine’.”

Connolly’s love for writing started when her art teacher in secondary school taught her calligraphy.

“I loved all the different hands, and the history of how they came to be; like copperplate coming from copperplate engraving. It’s considered a craft now,” she says. “We give classes in various hands; like italic, round-hand, and copperplate. Calligraphy can end up as a picture on the wall. We’ve exhibited over the years. One year, we had an exhibition at the Chester Beatty museum.”

Connolly made the invitations for her son’s wedding last year, and she’s making cards for Christmas. She also makes presents, with, for example, the details of a baby’s birth. Last year, she was employed by Brown Thomas to make gift tags for Jo Malone products.

“Customers could have their individual greetings done,” she says.

Perhaps Connolly’s strangest commission was the calligraphy for the BBC TV series, Ripper Street, about Jack the Ripper.

“They wanted me to write coroners’ reports, and notes found on the body. They wanted it in an authentic copperplate hand. You can see all this on TV. I wrote the list of names in an orphanage log book, too. Some of the coroners’ reports were gruesome,” she says.

People often comment on Connolly’s lovely handwriting. Can she teach everyone to write better? My handwriting is unreadable. So bad, that a teacher in an early school report wrote ‘handwriting is a sad trial to us both.’ Could she teach me?

“Anyone can improve,” she says. “But you need patience. Most people come with an interest in crafts. You might get impatient with the technical aspects. You have to obey the rules.”

Olga Pirog, 28, says her handwriting is quite nice when she concentrates. At school in Armavir — in the south of Russia — the teachers focused on handwriting skills for the first three or four years.

Olga left Russia at 16, and went to University in the Ukraine. Since then, she has lived in Oxford, then in London, and she moved to Dublin in July. She works in analytics. Olga uses Skype and email to keep up with her family in Russia, and her friends in the Ukraine, in Canada, England, and America.

Last year, she sent e-cards at Christmas. But, this year, she’s had a change of heart.

“I was thinking ‘which cards do I really remember?’, and I realised I still treasure the personal cards from two, three and four years ago. It’s wonderful getting cards in the post. If I think that, perhaps others will, too.”

Olga plans to send 50 cards, and in each one she’s enclosing an individual, handwritten letter.

“I’ve bought special paper,” she says. “It’s rough-edged, and has a watermark. It looks 19th century. I’ll use one of my favourite gel pens.”

To personalise the letter, Olga is using the social media site, Pinterest.

“I’m collecting quotes that I associate with each of my friends. I will pin them on my Pinterest board and use them when the time comes.

“When I write each letter, it will be a dialogue with the person. I’ll have them in my head, and write something personal, just for them.”

This Christmas will be quiet for Olga. She won’t see her family during ‘our’ Christmas, or during the Russian Christmas in January. Hopefully, she will receive some personal cards of good wishes.

“Last year, I received around 15,” she says. “I have kept all the cards and letters I’ve ever received. I have them all collected together. I really treasure them.”

Siobhan Worn will be missing her eldest daughter this Christmas. A keen traveller, Lisa, 25, is spending a year working in New Zealand.

“She spent a year in Australia, then returned to college in Ireland. And after spending six weeks in New Zealand in the summer, she decided to just go,” says Siobhan.

“We Skype and email a lot, and that’s very handy. But Skype can be a little detached. You never get to discuss what you really want to. I want to give her motherly advice and take time to get all my thoughts down. And a long letter is the best way that I can do that.

“While I’m at it, I thought I’d write long letters to my other two children, as well. Olivia will be 21 in January, and George will be 11 six days before Christmas. He’ll be entering his second decade; it’s a turning point in all their lives. They might not want to read the letters straight away; but, in the years to come, I hope they will read them again and again.”

Siobhan always sends cards — though this year she’s going to cut down. But she’ll choose the cards carefully.

“I’m very fussy,” she says. “I’ll only send charity cards and I’ll choose each one to suit the person. I take photographs and I have some lovely winter scenes taken specially. I’ll print some of those out for cards, as well. I’m sending about 40; ten to go abroad, and each will have a personalised letter.

“I send them to people I know will appreciate them, and I get upset if I miss the last posting date. I’ve a brother who’s a priest in America. It’s important that he hears from me on time.”

Siobhan has never sent out a ‘round robin’ news letter, but there’s one she receives each year, which she adores.

“I have three aunts in America; sisters in their late 70s who live together in a huge house we call Aunt Hill. They are lovely, and highly educated and live interesting lives. They send a mutual letter, which is decorated, with parts in rhyme. It’s almost like a Maeve Binchy book, and we get a new chapter every year.”

* The Missing Link: The lost art of handwriting (and why it still matters) by Philip Hensher is published by Macmillan.

* For classes in calligraphy: www.calligraphy.ie

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