My first pen pal lived in a town called Anaheim in California, which I was recently and reliably informed “is a toilet”. I’m just the messenger here Anaheimers, don’t blame me.

The lady’s name was Lori Hartford. I was fifteen at the time, and I would put money on the fact that, half a century later, Lori is a fully signed-up Tea Partier. I wrote to her that I liked going to beat clubs in Manchester, and she replied that she saw such places as “low dives”. But I could’ve forgiven her a lot, because she looked like a cross between Doris Day and Demi Moore. I’d much rather have a crack at Demi Moore than inhabit a demi-monde. I’m shallow you see. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Anyway, my point is, whatever happened to pen pals? Everyone had them when I was a kid. A minor-league friend at the time, Dave was his name, used to write to unsuspecting females all over the world, fantasising a different profile every time. On Tuesday he’d write to Annette in France to tell her he was having trials to sign for Paris St Germain FC, and by Friday he was corresponding with Heidi in Germany about his exploits in the Arabian desert. He was a slate short on the roof was Dave. He went to prison in his twenties for bigamy. I lost track of him after he wrote to me in London saying he was auditioning in Hollywood. I didn’t believe a word of it.

Do kids still have pen-pals? Well, the reality is that everyone does. Google the term ‘pen -pals’, and 5.8 million sites come up, all of them offering to help you find pals far, far away. There are prison pen-pals, Christian pen-pals, military pen-pals, gardening pen-pals, singles pen-pals, and altogether any kind of pen-pal you want….although they’re all really e-pals. Like every market in the world, the pen-pals sector has been salami-segmented to the nth degree.

In the Peanuts comic strip from the 1960s and 1970s, Charlie Brown tried to write to a pen pal using a fountain pen. After several ink-blot mishaps, he switched to using a pencil and referring to his pen-pal as his “pencil-pal”. Several movies have been based on pen-pal relationships: the 1999 Bollywood film Sirf Tum is about two people who fall in love after becoming pen-pals. The 2004 action-drama film Out of Reach is about a pen-pal relationship between a Vietnam veteran and a 13-year-old orphaned girl from Poland. When the letters suddenly stop coming, he heads to Poland to find out the reason. And the 2009 claymation film Mary and Max is about the pen-pal relationship between an American man and an Australian girl.

Some of the celebrity pen-pal relationships are fascinating. The Russian tram driver Evgeny Karamyshev, a long-time pen-pal to Queen Elizabeth II, still sends his wishes annually on the occasion of Her Majesty’s birthday. Elizabeth II has in turn sent twenty letters to him since 1997. One wonders why she does it, or indeed what she writes about. Does she ask him, for example, if he enjoys being a tram-driver? After fifteen years and twenty letters, should we assume that by now they are swapping important State secrets?

Most reasonably successful bloggers have email pals, although it really is somewhat different when you’re 64 rather than 14. I have sources who have become valued companions in Greece, New Mexico, Spain, France, Italy, Singapore, Hong Kong, Liverpool, and all points leading out from Devon. I’ve never met any of them, but I share their concerns, laugh with them on Skype here and there, and am genuinely rejuvenated by writing to them about everything from the Euribor rate and dogs to Portuguese law and French politics.

That’s pretty much how it was with pen-pals in days of yore….except that, aged fifteen, I was very much out to impress Lori Hartford. So I persuaded my father to play Leni Riefenstahl during one Sunday afternoon, and take shots of me looking cool in an Italian checked suit and winkle-pickers against a 1936 Olympics-style sky – using a red filter lens for cloud-capture. About ten minutes into the mission – as I pestered him to take further shots looking skywards from my ankles – Dad asked, “Are you some kind of pansy or what? Get a grip lad” and handed me the camera back. I sent the best photo off with the next letter, and was thrilled to receive a reply asking were all English guys so good-looking. No, I replied, it’s just me: I’m the only one. (Whatever folks tell you, the camera is an even more incorrigible liar than the sender.)

But sending letters to pen-pals was fun. It endowed one with a certain cosmopolitan air. I could swan into school of a Monday and casually point that there were junior proms in California, floods in Queensland, and grain shortages in Kiev. While many of us do have e-pals now, the receipt of a letter whose envelope was adorned with an exotic stamp represented a considerably more exciting experience. I think this was to do with delayed gratification: you’d see the familiar writing on that foreign-looking envelope (fringed with blue and red airmail chevrons) and think, ‘Something to look forward to later’.

I remain convinced that letter-writing will, over the next decade, become incredibly chique. It will inhabit an emotional niche in exactly the same way that bicycles, candles, and horses have maintained a role in contemporary life. And it will do so on the basis of being a higher-quality experience. For while there is no doubt than an email from an absent loved one quickens the pace of the heart, the attics of our lives will never be filled with printed-off emails. Up there above the ceiling – locked in small trunks – there will forever be a litter of personal literature, scented envelopes, and postcards wishing we were there as opposed to here.

Their value will lie in the handwriting behind the expressions of everything from surprise to admiration. This is, I suspect, what made writing to pen-pals so fulfilling all those years ago.


37 thoughts on “ANECDOTAGE

  1. As a spotty teenager at school, we were asked to complete an application form for pen-pals in Sweden.
    One box was labelled “Sex Preferred” – I just put “Yes”. Detention followed.

    But there also followed a very tasty girl called Ingrid in Eslov, lovely photo, never knew if it was really her. We never met, dammit.


  2. I’m surprised and disappointed…….

    Nickers Off Ready When I Come Home. (Excusing the silent ‘K’).

    You’ll probably be mystified by ‘See You Next Tuesday’ then.


  3. I remember the first of the census forms and they asked ‘Sex’? And I put down infrequent, and the collector who used cast an eye over them asked, ‘Is that one word or two’?


  4. Now I’ve discovered these gems, when it’s too bloody late to exploit them!
    I have a lovely pen pal. She’s 94 (ish: ladies don’t divulge their age) and has lived in London all her life. She writes about all sorts of people I have never, and will never, meet; but it’s a treat to read them. Sometimes, she writes about the war, but not the bombing and privation, more the fun they had in between. ‘I miss the sex, darling. The sex was the best thing about the war.’


  5. VJ – Some useful info in the comments too. Given what we know about big Pharma, it’s pretty obvious that their interests are diametrically opposed to those of the public. It’s not just a matter of (not) finding cures for cancer and other serious illnesses but promoting preventative measures to maximise people’s ability to be healthy. Good health for all is anathema to their profit margins. The pharmaceuticals and allied businesses are to people’s health what banks are to their money.


  6. DL…
    You don’t HAVE to read this blog.
    At least John has the balls to say what he means consistently without modifying his statements to be ‘politically correct’.
    After all, he isn’t charging you anything.
    Why don’t you start a blog and be as prolific as John.
    As to John’s references to his own personal predicament…there is value in every person’s expression of their feelings about both the positive as well as the negative events in our individual lives. Probably more from the negatives as they trouble us more.
    They allow us to understand that we aren’t all that different at the base of our short existence on this grand stage.


  7. Alan Bennet did a delightful monologue as an academic dictating a telegram and trying to explain NORWICH to the operator.

    “Alan Bennett: [dictating a telegram into the telephone] I want to end it if I may, “NORWICH”.
    Alan Bennett: “NORWICH”, yes. Well, it’s an idiomatic way of saying, “Knickers Off Ready When I Come Home”. You see, it’s the initial letters of each word.
    Alan Bennett: Yes, I know “knickers” is spelt with a “K”. I was at Oxford, it was one of the first things they taught us.”


  8. You have to take your input from as many sources as possible so as to try to synthesise your own views. I (most of the time) find JW’s views and insights extremely informative and interesting and agree with them. I use them as a valuable counterbalance to the interminable obfuscation, blatant lying and political chicanery of the MSM and politicians. As has been said elsewhere, you do not have to read this Blog if you do not want to.
    Like most of JW’s readers I have been through difficult times. Hearing of JW’s travails only makes him more human to me and informs my view of some of his darker writings.


  9. A brilliant Alan Bennet monologue

    Alan Bennett: [dictating a telegram into the telephone] I want to end it if I may, “NORWICH”.
    Alan Bennett: “NORWICH”, yes. Well, it’s an idiomatic way of saying, “Knickers Off Ready When I Come Home”. You see, it’s the initial letters of each word.
    Alan Bennett: Yes, I know “knickers” is spelt with a “K”. I was at Oxford, it was one of the first things they taught us.
    Share this quote


  10. Sorry about the double posting. WordPress did not seem to post the original and then, as if by magic, it appeared AFTER my repost.


  11. You’ve got gremlins, our John (don’t worry you can get a cream for it).
    I was about to comment on your pen pal post when Viking Jack appears to have gone off at a tangent about cancer. After that a whole manic rant about you and your posts developed from several other readers …
    Presumably confusion tactics by GCHQ … though why they should bother o a post about pen pals is anyone’s guess.
    It could be that some of your commenters are losing the plot a bit? And that does include myself :)


  12. ‘Life, as you see life requires a sense of humor. And what does it mean to have a sense of humor? It doesn’t mean you have to be a wit. It means that you accept that life as it perceived is the theater of the absurd. When you come to think of it, what is not to laugh about or to laugh along with. A sense of humor holds you in good stead. A sense of humor is refreshing. A sense of humor tells you that seriousness and taking life literally is not always the best policy’.
    Scroll down to: God created all manner of wondrous Things


  13. I had a german pen-pal, the brother of my sisters’ pen-pal (she was learning german at school and it was to help her writing skills ).
    My pal was called Uwe, and I had the privilege to visit him….he tried to jump me, and so ended the writing! eeuurggh !


  14. Anaheim probably was not a toilet around 1960. It was the original home of Disneyland. In those days, a couple of years before the Beach Boys, California represented modernity and hope.Alas today, it represents hope turned sour and something of a living hell, the reducio ad absurdum of the American dream, a throwaway society, an urban jungle amid a confusion of decaying motorways, a failing education system and a racial hell where there is no majority. If it still represents the future then I’m glad I’m out of it.
    I turned down a job in 1965 in San Bernadino for one in Washington DC and am I thankful I made that decision!

    As Robert Frost said ‘ I came to a fork in the road and I took the one less travelled and that made all the difference@..


  15. Amgela
    It’s a plot. It’s called age. I’m writing a tome about it, working title The Burial Plot. As Ricky Nelson sang, “You can’t please everybody so/You gotta please yerself”.


  16. @angelajardine

    Sweetheart, I can assure you I have nothing at all to do with GCHQ.

    I appreciate OT’s can sometimes be a bit of a pain in the rectum, hence they should be used sparingly. This paper about the dangers and risks of chemotherapy was found using an excellent German language website as the base and then following the links.

    Lo and behold, I eventually finished up on an English language site. The bit that I found rather disturbing is the dateline on the article, and that of its update:

    “August 7th, 2012 | Updated 11/18/2012 at 2:25 am”

    Originally printed/pixelated some 6 months ago, and I can’t recall anything about this appearing anywhere in the MSM in the intervening period. As Alexei has commented, a moloch often referred to as Big Pharma certainly has no interest in this information being spread around!

    I am sure lots of Sloggers are approaching the age group where this sort of medical treatment may be about to come under consideration – or perhaps they know of potential candidates in their social/family circles.

    Surely you are not suggesting that I should have simply kept it to one side, to enter it into one of JWs pieces about the NHS, which is scheduled to appear whenever? Nah, on a subject like that, get the info out there asap – it just may be a boon for someone right now.


  17. Ah gotcha Vik! I was not implying you are one of those sneaky GCHQ bastards, I know you are a good guy.
    I was confused as I felt your comment was a bit non sequiturish after a post about pen pals is all … whatever non sequitur means :/

    (P.S This is the third time I have written this reply – it kept disappearing!!! Let’s just hope it’s WP, eh?)


  18. Anaheim is where I “live” for the purposes of participating in US opinion surveys etc . I lit on this place too because if the Ur-Disneyland connection.

    And totally agreed re: art of letter-writing; me and the better fraction always correspond by text – or, primarily, post (even though the cost of sending a letter is approaching the price of a train ticket)


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