Sally Hall: Memories of a lifetime’s letters can’t be discarded on a whim

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Unlike my boyfriend, whose parents’ capacious garage seems to hold every Lego brick and monkey-baby toy he has ever owned, I can boast that my mum’s house has been free of my junk for at least three years now. And I’m not even 40 yet!

But recently I decided it was time to declutter.

Shoes with a whiff of the grave about them. Saggy dresses. Board games I’ll never play. I chucked them all away merrily.

But there is one cherished corner of memorabilia I can’t bring myself to toss out. I would never refer to this pile of boxes by the ‘c’ word.

‘Clutter’ it is not.

These boxes contain the silly postcards my friends sent me from the other side of town (when we were going to see each other at school the next day anyway), notes slipped under my door at university(‘Horrors - Kurt Cobain is dead!’), and the papery-thin airmail letters I sent and received from all over the world during my 20s.

As the Nineties sashayed slap-bang into the Millennium, these missives dwindled. But still, there were the long, gossipy letters Mum sent when I lived in New Zealand in my early 30s, hand-made cards bearing photos of my friends’ newborn babies, thank-you cards from students I’ve mentored over the past couple of years.

So much meaning is contained in those boxes. And no other means of communication can ever match these written artefacts for me.

It’s not as if I can’t do immediacy.

At uni, I would spend lectures passing notes back and forth to my mates, scrabbling juvenilia in the margins between bouts of earnest note-taking on ‘transgressive identities in the Gothic novel’.

Little poems about our favourite subjects – like the brooding Sexy Tom, who always sat at the back of lectures in a tweed flat cap. Analyses of the previous evening’s shenanigans. Speculation on the lecturer’s hairpiece/marital status/bizarre obsession with transgressive identities.

Google could not have algorhythmed a couplet rhyming ‘boudoir’ and ‘rude bra’ more rapidly than me.

Yet now my friends view me as a slow-coach communicator.

In response to texts sent on a Wednesday, I will pen a considered reply by Saturday. Facebook messages may languish for a week before I decide what tone to strike or words to choose.

I have taken to placing my response-times within an epistolary framework.

‘How long would you expect to wait for a letter? Then that’s how long it’s likely to be before I reply.’

This coda may seem like laziness, but it’s actually a form of discipline.

It is a mindful choice not to interrupt evenings out with friends by replying to others’ messages, or to dash off ill-worded birthday wishes or trite messages of support while I’m snaffling down my lunch. I’d rather wait and send a proper card instead. Even if they’ve forgotten why they were upset by the time it gets there.

Communicating with friends used to be fun – now it often feels like an extension of work. Computer, smart phone or tablet – a screen is no substitute for a pen and a bit of paper.

Not when you want to convey something heartfelt, or tell a tall tale - never mind create a comedy drawing of the lecturer’s toupee leaping off his head and scampering up the blackboard.

A drawing which will never be ‘clutter’ to me, and which will always have a place in my box of treasures.

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