Yours faith­fully

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - LIFE - By Phillip Adams

Dear Sir or Madam, Af­ter years of cor­dial re­la­tions, helped by the friendly staff at Scone Post Of­fice, Aus­tralia Post is now driv­ing us bonkers. As farm­ers who sell much of our pro­duce (olive oil, honey, gar­lic) on­line, we and our cus­tomers de­pend on re­li­able, af­ford­able de­liv­ery. That’s all but dis­ap­peared as a once great in­sti­tu­tion keeps up­ping the costs and re­duc­ing the ser­vice. Un­pre­dictable in its poli­cies, bul­ly­ing in its deal­ings, bru­tal in ne­go­ti­a­tions, Aus­tralia Post seems in­tent on de­liv­er­ing the fu­ture to pri­vate sec­tor com­peti­tors and Ama­zon. Now a woman who’s been busy flog­ging Black­mores vi­ta­min pills has been ap­pointed CEO. One hopes it’s not tan­ta­mount to White Star an­nounc­ing a fe­male cap­tain for the Ti­tanic – af­ter it’s hit the ice­berg.

But to­day’s ser­mon isn’t about parcels. It’s about the hum­ble, tra­di­tional let­ter, a form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion the new Aus­tralia Post boss de­scribes with an af­fec­tion I share. I love let­ters. Used to get lots, tens of thou­sands a year, and along with my an­swers they sur­vive in hun­dreds of boxes now stored by the Na­tional Li­brary. The ideas, arguments and in­ti­ma­cies of read­ers in the era be­fore the in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion of an­ti­so­cial me­dia.

Let­ters from reg­u­lars recog­nis­able from their sta­tionery. Hate mail with my name in­scribed in anger so un­con­tained that it spills from the in­nards onto the en­ve­lope. Re­cy­cled stamps, re­cy­cled en­velopes mum­mi­fied in tape and all but im­pos­si­ble to open. Typed let­ters, ball­point-penned let­ters, knibbed let­ters with im­mac­u­late cal­lig­ra­phy. And the gallery of tiny im­ages in the cor­ner.

Emails are anony­mous and ig­nor­able, whereas let­ters seem more per­sonal, ir­re­sistible. They de­mand to be opened, read, re­sponded to. Let­ters might take more ef­fort, take ever longer to ar­rive, yet they take pri­or­ity. They jump the elec­tronic queue.

Ro­mans had a mail ser­vice of sorts, Au­gus­tus or­gan­is­ing state-run couri­ers to de­liver scrolls around the em­pire. So did the In­cas, with a lit­tle help from lla­mas. In 1490, Franz von Taxis (not a joke) im­proved things for Max­i­m­il­ian I. In 1516, Henry VIII es­tab­lished a “Mas­ter of the Posts”. In 1635, Charles I es­tab­lished the Royal Mail; Oliver Cromwell made it a mo­nop­oly. In 1775, the Con­ti­nen­tal Congress anointed Ben­jamin Franklin the first US Post­mas­ter Gen­eral. And in the 21st cen­tury, gov­ern­men­tal postal ser­vices fight to sur­vive. Soon some­one will write the last love let­ter, stick a stamp on the fi­nal piece of fan mail. The last cheque will be in the mail. Santa’s let­ter­box will be empty. The dead let­ter of­fices will be dead.

For now the let­ter is a mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion pre­served by and re­served for the aged, for those of us for whom “dig­i­tal” means fin­gers. The most pre­cious let­ters live on, lin­ger­ing in draw­ers, record­ing hopes, fears, events. Ev­ery now and then I find one that wasn’t sent to the Na­tional Li­brary, from a beloved friend or fam­ily mem­ber, or from some­one once fa­mous but well on the way to be­ing for­got­ten. And when you open the en­ve­lope, un­fold the pages, check the date, read the words, time and space evap­o­rate. You are back in the mo­ment.

It fas­ci­nates me how the phys­i­cal­ity of the let­ter cap­tures times past, keeps them fresh in the en­ve­lope. It’s cryo­gen­ics for mem­o­ries.

Hard to see that magic en­dur­ing in the era of email, in tech­nolo­gies for­ever self­de­struc­t­ing. It is, of course, much the same with other me­dia em­ploy­ing pa­per. Tough stuff, pa­per. Take news­pa­per clip­pings as an­other ex­am­ple. Or books. Like let­ters, they are the­o­ret­i­cally re­dun­dant, but en­dur­ing.

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