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.