The magic of a letter

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You cannot tie up an e-mail in blue ribbon and place it tenderly in a casket containing others like it, to leave for a grateful posterity to find and marvel over its touching sentiments, and even write a blog about their great-grannie and the beautiful or scandalous love letters she received!

I miss letters which aren’t bills and rates demands. There was so much more to decipher in a real letter than just words. First of all there was the paper it was written on. Cheap, thin, lined paper or coloured paper was a no-no, and spoke volumes about the taste of the unfortunate writer. Discriminating letter writers used a thick writing paper like Basildon Bond in white or pale blue. Even fussier ones tried to afford thicker, expensive, crisp, cream deckle- edged paper, bought from specialist stationers. Yes, there were shops in those days that sold nothing but high quality stationery, often beautifully boxed, and of course, fountain pens.

Fountain pens had the same competitive edge then, that an Apple or an I-Pad has now (or am I out-of date?)… sporting a gold nib, a gold hook to clip it into your suit pocket if you were a man, and a gold clip to pull back for the ink to be sucked up into the pen. You had to remember to empty it if you were flying, or the pressure caused the ink to flood out and stain the suit. I particularly loved the mottled versions, a bit like the marbled end papers on old books.

The ink had to be black or blue…green was vulgar, red was for money matters! The hand –writing was usually based back then on a form of copper-plate. From the age of six onwards, we used horrible crossed nibs from over-use, and dip pens to copy rows and rows of letters in long-hand. It was actually good hand- to- eye co-ordination in retrospect, and there was all sorts of etiquette round that too.

A capable girl named the ink monitor (never me) filled the inkwells and handed them out. The pens were shared out, and our copy books sorted. Woe be-tied the careless child (usually a tiresome boy!) who spilled his inkwell over the desk. And unless you learned to hold the pen correctly, it was impossible to actually form the letters – so you had to learn – unlike the way children hold pencils nowadays, in all sorts of strange postures.

There was a lot of un-official lore around hand-writing. We gathered that a hand that sloped backwards, showed the person was deceitful – oh dear – that when the dots to ‘I’s’ were flung wildly far from the ‘I,’ that showed the person was wildly imaginative. My dots remained firmly in place over the ‘I’s’ in my tightly controlled handwriting, which disguised the anxious persona underneath my vivacity.

I read that if a person used the word ‘ I’ more than every seven words in a sentence, this showed how egotistical they were… I wonder if that’s why it was so popular to say, “one thinks”, instead “I think.” I even had a friend who referred to herself in the third person.

Graphology, the art of reading character from hand-writing, turns out to be rather accurate in the hands of a skilled practitioner. When my brother worked for a London recruitment agency, a potential employer asked for a graphologist’s report on a possible employee.  Sceptical, my brother had his hand-writing analysed first, and was amazed when the report came back even detailing the problems he had had at birth!

But even an unskilled interpreter could enjoy the impressions that hand-writing displayed… scrawling, well-formed, exuberant – to un-readable – lots of that! Old people’s handwriting often became indecipherable, and what was always called ‘crabbed’, which seemed to mean it looked a bit spidery and wavery, thanks to arthritis.

Then there was the envelope – which had to match the writing paper, and here we come to one of writer Nancy Mitford’s famous jokes, or teases as she called them! She decreed that non-U (Non-Upper class) people called it ‘notepaper’, while the others opted for ‘writing paper’. Envelopes which displayed their owner’s regimental crest on the back were particularly prized when we were young – a symbol of the boy-friend’s status. But the fat envelopes stuffed with a thick wodge of pages of scrawl, sharing, gossip, and fun written by girl-friends were even better. They came through the letter-box, until I came to NZ, where we have boxes by the gate and I used to enjoy a stroll out to the letter-box to find these treasures.

Inside, the greeting obviously varied from dear, dearest and darling, to the more formal,’ dear sir or madam’, while the endings – here etiquette ruled with an iron hand. ‘Yours faithfully,’ and a full signature if a business letter… I think ‘yours truly’ was next in line, before getting to ‘yours sincerely’, which could be signed with full name or just Christian name depending on the level of intimacy.

No-one ever signs off: ‘I am, sir, your obedient servant’, these days or: ‘yours respectfully’, or even: ‘yours affectionately’, which rather appeals to me. And how I loved in those old romances the signing off by rejected suitors: “I beg of you to believe that now and always I am your very obedient servant to command” …those were indeed the days. Such chivalry seems dead when most of our e-mail communications seem to end either with Kind Regards – or Regards – so formal, so cold, so colourless.

Some of my favourite books are collections of letters. Will there ever be such collections again? Who keeps e-mails? Maybe some print them off or transfer them into a Keep File. But too often, it’s too easy just to hit ‘delete’ when the in-box gets too full. The one good thing about e-mails is that they’re easy to write so maybe we are in touch more often.

I had one friend whose hand-written letters were delightful puzzles. She was dyslexic and there were great and crucial gaps on every page where she’d left a space in order to go and check the spelling in the dictionary, and had then forgotten and sealed it and sent it. Dear Jackie would have loved the spell-checker… maybe she’s found a heavenly spell-checker in the land of her fathers, where she now rests in peace!

Food for threadbare gourmets

Home after another day gadding about with friends, and feeling guilty about leaving my husband with a scratch lunch, and I hadn’t planned a decent supper either. In the freezer I found some cooked pork sausages which he loves, and thought I’d better dress them up to make a decent meal. Lots of leeks gave me inspiration, and I adapted a recipe of Elizabeth Luard’s.

I sauted several large chopped leeks in butter till almost soft. I added some stock, and let it boil to finish cooking the leeks. At this stage I put the sausages into the leek mixture, then added a teasp of Dijon mustard, and a good sprinkling of nutmeg, salt and black pepper, plus plenty of cream to bubble up and thicken. Delicious, eaten with new potatoes, and green vegetables.  I was having a little cold salmon, so I used some of the leeks as a sauce with it, and that worked well too.

Food for thought

There is no greater sin than desire, no greater curse than discontent,
No greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself.
Therefore he who knows that enough is enough will always
have enough.

Lao tsu

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63 Comments

Filed under cookery/recipes, culture, great days, humour, philosophy, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

63 responses to “The magic of a letter

  1. I remember the inkwells. My grade school desk had them but we had already moved to fountain pens. The school did not fill the containers. We had to “pop in cartridges” instead.

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  2. Emily

    I had one fountain pen with a nib just for shorthand,…..imagine. I miss real letters from friends, too. Now I even just get ecards. Sad

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  3. I enjoy the gentle, but thoughtful, tone of your post. I used to absolutely love the physicality of writing, as well as the writing of letters. Every now and then I still write a letter, or at least a note inside a particular card purchased for a particular person. The quotation from Lao Tsu is perfectly suited to this day for me, and perhaps the ‘season’ for us all as we get carried away with holiday demands and temptations. Thank you.

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  4. A nice post.
    Since my granddaughter and her Mum moved away last year I have written my granddaughter a letter every week and drawn a picture for her. She has kept every one in a big folder for “when she grows up” and I was so pleased to hear that she treasures them so.

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    • How lovely…I envy you still having littlies to write to… I keep being told that the best way to communicate with my student grandchildren is by text messages, but I still live in the dark ages and haven’t mastered a cell phone!

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  5. I still love writing proper letters but have only one friend now with whom I do that. I have a beautiful pen and lovely paper but then, I am of an age where we learned how to handwrite and where letters were the way to communicate.

    I have to say though that I love emails and the ease of communicating, especially when my Dad was in the hospice and I could write one email each night and it went around the world to family and friends; one email to all the family to make arrangements for our big family gathering for Christmas; one email to tell them all good news.

    Mr S would love that sausage dish and I would love the salmon! 🙂

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    • Yes, there are so many pros and cons, aren’t there Sally.. e-mails are so quick and easy… and letters were so beautiful and collectable !
      And yes, that ease of communicating with a group of people is amazing…
      Yes, I think you’d enjoy the salmon !!!

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  6. Letter writing was an art in itself. I was talking to someone recently about pen-pals and knowing when to downgrade the formality if real friendships were to grow. Because of my letter writing and the way I was taught to write, I loved to take my time and really form the letters. Caligraphy became my hobby. Nowadays my hands can’t hold a pen properly so I’m grateful for the internet which still has exciting fonts to play with. The speed of communication is wonderful. I do think that the proper training for youngsters would be good though to teach them patience.
    I love the sausage recipe.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

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    • Hello David, lovely to hear from you.. so you’re a calligrapher too! I took my art exams in calligraphy and illuminating, and inevitably they shaped my hand-writing too…
      Hope you get a chance to try the sausage recipe – very easy – though if you’re an experienced cook, I don’t need to say that, do I?????

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  7. How beautifully you cover this territory, Valerie. I well remember the Basildon Bond paper, and the mottled fountain pen. Post a letter requires thought, and time. I still have a letter-writing old school friend and even though email has now crept in to our exchanges, we still love to send a ‘real letter’ to one another from time to time.

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    • Juliet , lovely to hear from you, glad you enjoyed the post… we are the last of a civilisation to use mottled fountain pens!
      Yes, I have one friend who is resisting the march of time, and it is lovely to see her familiar hand-writing…
      I’m enjoying your book, and will be in touch…

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  8. sue marquis bishop

    What a nice trip down memory lane. I too miss the culture of the letter exchange. Sue
    Womenlivinglifeafter50.com

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  9. I actually still have a fountain pen which I fill. There is nothing like the written note using a fountain pen.

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  10. Hi Valerie,
    So true. I still have a filing drawer full of old letters BUT I also have emails & letters from old Slim School pupils and teachers dating back to 1996. Since the inception of email though I have to confess my spider scrawl has gone downhill so even I can hardly read it….

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    • Hello David, so good to hear from you.. well they were a switched-on group of old school-mates, weren’t they! I was a slow learner and have only been using e-mails for the last few years…I also think spidery scrawls are age-related, and e-mails can’t take all the blame!!!!

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  11. Dear Valerie,

    Your post has dislodged some long neglected memories this week.

    I remember the thrill of writing with a fountain pen, particularly when I was ten and penmanship was of the utmost importance to me.

    My earliest remembrance of letter writing is my dad who faithfully exchanged letters with his mother, my grandmother every week. He would sit at the dining room table and read her letters then he would answer them.
    When I was old enough to read and write, around five I think, I joined in the weekly ritual. Grandma became my favorite pen pal.I loved to make cards with my own drawings in them and she would write back and tell me how delighted she was to receive them. Somewhere I still have the card she sent after the birth of my first son. It was a bird tethering her nest and a little poem she wrote for her first great-grandchild.

    There’s something personal and connecting about seeing someone’s handwriting that you don’t get from an email. I recently received a gift from a friend whom I’ve known only online. For me, the card, written in his own hand means as much as the gift itself.

    On the other hand, I love the way we can connect across thousands of miles. There are some with whom I feel closer ties than those in close proximity.

    Thank you for your posts that have come to mean much to me.

    Shalom,

    Rochelle

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  12. Thank you so much Rochelle for your delightful comment… I was very taken with your phrase ‘ dislodged some… memories’ – lovely imagery… and your memories of your grandmothers letters… so precious…
    Yes, the pros and cons of progress or change just have to sit side by side don’t they… enjoying the best bits of both…
    Thank you for your generous remark at the end – so sweet of you and very much appreciated,
    Valerie

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  13. Like katecrimmins, our school desks had an indentation for ink bottles, but we never used them. We started out with pencils and graduated to ballpoint pens.

    I did so enjoy writing and receiving letters. I still love beautiful stationery. Christmas cards are about all we have left, and I still like them, especially if they contain a letter, generic or not.

    For nearly twenty years while we lived in Asia, I sent letters to my mom and sister every week. Mom saved all the letters, and now I have them. My sister and I also have the precious box filled with 191 letters our dad sent to Mom from Italy and France during WWII. They don’t contain much about the fighting–the censors wouldn’t have approved–but they are wonderful love letters.

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    • How utterly precious all those letters are… yours from Asia and your father’s from Italy…I had two from my father when I was a little girl, about Italy with pictures he drew… but somehow after a zillion moves around the world they disappeared, and I still regret them…
      There’s something about lovely stationary and pens and pencils isn’t there… and all those notebooks and other gorgeous things in stationary shops…

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  14. Oh, how I love/d my fountain pens. They made handwriting beautiful. I would use mine still, if I could get the ink cartridges for it; and if I had letters to write. And do you remember the blotting paper?

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    • Blotting paper??? Blotting paper is a whole blog in itself, Gallivanta..!!!. do you remember how Anne Eliot’s whole future seemed to rest on the blotting paper in Persuasion, if I remember rightly…???

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      • Gosh, I don’t remember that so it seems I will have to ask you, kindly, to write a blotting paper blog? Shall I send the request in writing; my very best handwriting?

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  15. To me, the greatest treasures in this world are the letters that have come down through the ages. Without them, history would be a listing of dates and events devoid of the soul of humanity.
    “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”(Letter 16, 1657)” Blaise Pascal, The Provincial Letters

    BTW, i just read a book review on your “The Sound of Water!” Fantastic…

    http://arrowgatepublishing.com/2013/11/27/the-sound-of-water/

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    • Yes, Rebecca, I know what you mean, and there’s something very touching that whisks us straight back to those times when we read them isn’t there…
      Thank you for your kind words about the book !!

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  16. I learned to write in Germany, in a German school. Handwriting, pens and ink were still ‘in style’ unlike my breathren in the US. My handwriting still looks much different from my peers. I still love to write letters now and then and still keep beautiful stationary and a fountain pen for just that purpose. I have certain friends who I correspond this way with, each of us loving the idea of letters.

    My beloved heart mother was a writer, a sharer of family secrets, nonsense and doings. She wrote long letters each month and sent them around to all of us. The advent of the computer and e-mail was a miracle for her, one letter and lots of cc’s. Before that, she hand wrote the letter than had it copied to send. She only started the copying after we explained to her we didn’t each need to receive a handwritten letter.

    This was such a wonderful reminder of why somethings should not be lost to technology. Thank you.

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    • Lovely to hear from you Val…how interesting that you learned to write in Germany… the rituals of writing were rather satisfying weren’t they…
      and yes, you’re right, the e-mails has made communication another ball game altogether, it’s all swings and roundabots.. .but there was so much ‘soul’ in a hand-written letter !

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  17. Valerie, one so agrees with you! 🙂 I don’t send many letter now (not as many as I would like) but I still send cards and postcards and am told often how much people appreciate them. I love the advantages of email, especially being able to quickly send even the longest missive. But emails can’t replace the specialness of actual mail. As for pens and paper, I still love them. 🙂

    To be someone who still sends this type of mail will always give one a special pace in the heart’s of those who receives one’s missives.

    Blessings,

    janet

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  18. It was through writing letters that I discovered I had a flair for writing! Handwritten letters are a way to express yourself, whereas email is a way to quickly inform, ask a question or post a date. Have you noticed that they are more abrupt than a handwritten letter was?

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    • Yes, all those things Ronnie. But you made me think and I realise that my daughter and I use the e-mail to each other the way we talk… our conversations baffle others – ‘Did they ?’ – ‘did you?’ – ‘Yes, so when…’.. ‘no. he didn’t’…’ oh, well, I’ll send it…!!!!..

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  19. Great post – and I agree, I miss the handwritten letters! The only one I receive them from now is my father. We just celebrated his 90th birthday and his letters are treasures for me. My own generation now emails me, my son and his generation sends texts or Facebook messages…

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    • Thank you, so good to hear from you… what a treasure your father’s letter will be in the future… I know the texts, Facebook thing – it means I just can’t communucate with my grandchildren !!!!

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  20. Dear Valerie,
    I did enjoy your post. I’ve been writing regularly, to my daughter at Otago University and she to me here in Riverton. She pins my letters, along with those of her grandmother, onto the wall of her bedroom, one of which is almost completely ‘papered’ after one year.
    Do you know the scene from the Harry Potter movie where hundreds of letters, sent from Dumbledore to the nascent wizard, fly in through the mail-slot of the door of the house in which he’s imprisoned? My wife says it’s like that here (I’m not being held captive – this is not a veiled call for help 🙂
    I get a lot of letters, handwritten and delightful and the reason is …
    may I take the liberty of posting the following? It will explain all.

    I’m starting a movement and calling it ‘Common Ground”.
    I invite you to join; it’s free and you probably already qualify for membership, as ‘Common Ground’ is for people who plant.
    It’s as simple as that.
    There’s a token as well, a sticker with the head of the leafy-faced Green Man, a traditional symbol of vegetative vigour.
    I’ll post a sticker to you, if you would like one, just send a self-addressed envelope to Robert Guyton, 20 Thames Street, Riverton 9822.
    You could attach your sticker somewhere visible; on the handle of your garden fork or on the bumper of your car, so that anyone who’s not heard of the movement can ask you about it.
    You’ll see the Green Man face on some of the articles I write, on my blog and in other publications kind enough to give me space, where the topics might be of special relevance to the objective of “Common Ground”, that is, encouraging more planting, especially that which benefits the community you are part of.
    That’s all there is to it.
    Keep an eye out for the Green Man and the ‘Common Ground’ movement.
    I intend that it should become a useful and enjoyable vehicle for improving our shared spaces.

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    • I simply loved your comment, thank you Robert, and thought the idea of your daughter’s room beings plastered with letters – just gorgeous… I didn’t see that particular Harry Potter … it all depended what my grand children were watching when I was looklng after them !!! It sounds as though I should catch up on it.
      Love the Green Man, and will be in touch… thank you so much

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  21. Though I never had the opportunity to use a fountain pen, I do miss the anticipation of receiving a handwritten letter. It was just so much more personal. Thank you for reminding me.

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  22. Dear Valerie,
    what a fine post 🙂
    Writing a letter with one`s favourite fountain pen on fine paper is great for both – for the writer and the receiver. But I hardly ever do this, except for special birthdays, deaths and marriages. I know, it`s a pity – but it`s so much quicker to type it into your notebook and send it away from home.
    For the aethetics of a letter the envelop is important as well. You see it first – first impression …
    Anyway, great that you reminded me on the art of writing a letter.
    Thank you!
    Greetings from Norfolk
    Klausbernd

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    • Dear Klausbernd,
      Thank you so much for your lovely comment… writing a letter was such a tactile activity, was n’t it… and I also think it revealed so much more of our soul than an e-mail ! And you’re right, it was, and is an art… I still treasure all the delicious notes and letters ,my children sent me over forty years ago !!!

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      • Dear Valerie,
        last Christmas Dina gave me a Mont Blanc fountain pen, the “Big Boy” this model is called, and this pen got me back to handwriting. I noticed in former times writing paper has been heavier, nowadays one has to look for heavy writing paper where the ink doesn`t shine through.
        You see, I like writing by hand and do a tiny bit of it every day, but 95% of my texts I write on my notebook.
        You must have quite a big archive now!
        Have a relaxig week
        Klausbernd
        Funny, on the computer I write modern German spelling, by hand I write an old German spelling – just naturally.

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    • Dear Klaisbernd,
      You have made my mouth water with your description of your new fountain pen… I can see a visit to a very expensive little boutique stationery shop nearby coming on… and not just for pens, but for some of that gorgeous thick crisp writing paper and matching envelopes! Since writing this post, I have the promise of some hand-written letters coming my way, so have to limber up, and prepare to reply in style !!!
      Yes, it’s been a real surprise to me that so many people care about hand-written letters,
      Warm wishes from the other side of the world,
      Valerie

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  23. This is a love letter to letters Valerie! I love the way you explore not only the thought of the romanticism and excitement of letters, compared to emails, but also your thoughts on handwriting and the pens that were once used. It’s such a shame that this has been lost, I wonder if there’ll be a revival in letter writing one day.

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    • What a delightful comment, Andrea, thank you so much… you added an extra dimension to the discussion… yes, as Klausbernd in the previous comment said, it is an art… and maybe it will become an art we begin to treasure again…handwriting and letters revealed our soul as well as information !

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  24. Valerie, you might like to google a small but beautiful book ‘The Art of the Handwritten Note, a guide to reclaiming civilized communication’, by Margaret Shepherd. I did a post on it here:

    http://mindfuldrawing.com/2012/11/02/a-handwritten-note/

    May I add a link to your blogpost on this post of me? I have read your post with great pleasure.
    Love, Paula

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    • Thank you Paula, so glad you enjoyed the post, and of course you may add a link, very generous of you.
      I’m now about to find your blog on the subject, and will be back to you ! love Valerie

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  25. Pingback: A Handwritten Note | Mindful Drawing

  26. Well, Valerie: another perfect post: how mindful you are of the texture of life!!

    I don’t have inkwells or lovely paper to remember…or even real stationary stores. But I can’t go hear even the pen/notebooks/pencils/paper/paints/markers/ section of an ordinary pharmacy or dreadful WalMart (are you fortunate enough to not have the latter?) without being being entranced by the smell of even modern erasers and crayons. And there are still wooden rulers…. I always have to tell myself why I DO NOT need another notebook and/or any more colored pens.
    When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, my friends and I used to send out those thick, decorated packets you describe, illustrated, stamped with images carved into raw potatos, embellished with original verse…..how I wish I had saved them!
    I never write real letters now – and don’t know anyone who does.
    Well, that’s a dreadful state of affairs. I mean even birthday and holiday greetings are clever electronic creations….maybe this years, real paper should travel the U.S. Mail.

    It was great to visit you again. Please forgive my absences, okay pal?

    I beg of you to believe that I am now and always your obedient, respectful and affectionate servant

    Claire Marie

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    • Dear Friend,
      so good to hear from you, and such a treat to have your take on my posts… so appreciative…
      Yes, we too have what are known as stationary warehouses here, overflowing with goodies… I ‘ve gone there for years to buy handfuls of lovely blue and silver black lead HB 6 pencils to put in a mug and have to hand on my desk. The last time they were all sealed in heavy plastic packs, two at a time, so I left the place indignantly, wanting neither to spend money on plastic wrappings I didn’t want, outraged at the waste of all the plastic and resultant rubbish, and fed up that they came in two’s not in handfuls!
      I forgive you your mysterious absences – presumably on secret missions, on the underground railway…
      and remain ever, your affectionate friend, Valerie !

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  27. Letter paper, fountain pens, writing and receiving letters; how delightful! My grandmother recently passed away and I have been rereading all the letters she and I wrote to each other through the years, from when I was a child to the adult years when she could only write a few words on a notecard. They encapsulate so much love, and I am so happy to have these cherished mementos.

    I do hope letter writing will come back in ‘fashion’…..

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    • Letizia, how lovely to have such a lovely record of love from your grandmother… letters like that are so precious, a real legacy for future generations… who will never know the joy of a letter through the post, the way things are going !
      Let’s hope it becomes the mark of a civilised person, and makes a comeback !!! Lovely to hear from you…

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  28. You encouraged me to sit and write some letters to friends instead of emailing them…imagine the nice surprise of receiving it. I too miss letters/cards. I heard here in the states the schools are discussing doing away with cursive writing – how sad to know that in 12 yrs there will be young people who cannot read a word I write. Cursive writing is so elegant and beautifies each word and thought. I am sorry the next generation will not be able to enjoy its beauty.

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    • Hello Patty, it is sad to think that children will never know the beauty and pleasure of good hand-writing, isn’t it ..
      .Letters give you so much more than the bare news in them, don’t they… they are a gift in so many ways…

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      • They are indeed – but I am enjoying meeting people from all over the world through the internet! If it was not for the internet and blogging we would have never met! Now that is cool! 😉

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  29. Lovely, even the name Basildon Bond suggests tradition, reliability, and elegance. I love to do calligraphy, did all our wedding stationary, invitations etc earlier this year, and am always tempted by little writing sets and notebooks that I take home and then never write in for fear of blemishing something precious. We have lost the art of the hand writing. But at least we can lament the loss together!

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    • Oh yes, those gorgeous boxes of writing papwr, and heavenly notebooks that I can never resist… so good to know that others have the same addictions !!!
      How lovely to do all your wedding invitations.. so personal and special..
      Yes, I too did calligraphy at school for my art exams, and have never left it behind… even calligraphy pens are good now I no longer have a stiock of nibs for my old dip pen !!!

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  30. I still write by hand and it has been made a pleasure lately by a luxurious fountain pen that I won. Send me your address and you shall receive a letter that will blow your socks off! 😀

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  31. Dear Lesley, how lovely on all counts… I will send you my address and will wait t have my socks blown off…what fun !!!

    Like

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