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.