Sealed with a kiss

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Pupils today are required to think fast and often; their writing reflects that. In an email age, Clarissa Farr misses the days of thoughtful letters

In a letter to her future husband, in 1653, Dorothy Osborne offered the opinion that "letters should be free and easy as one's discourse, not studdyed, as an oration, nor made up of hard words like a charme".

Some 350 years later - last week - I received just such a letter from a former student, Amelia, now spending her gap year helping at a centre for adult cerebral palsy sufferers in Cape Town. The letter, which brought its author vividly to mind, ran into several tightly packed pages on the kind of small blue, tissue-fine paper I hadn't seen for years. A real letter: tangible, anecdotal and pungent with the heat of Africa.

A generation ago, girls at boarding school wrote letters copiously; politely and affectionately to their parents on Sundays; lengthily and confidingly to their friends.

The weekly letter home was full of snippets of news: Saturday's hockey ball to the knee, Wednesday's unexpectedly good bread and butter pudding, Friday's triumph in a history test. With the benefit of a few days'

reflection, news could be conveyed with some balance and objectivity; not every disaster was irretrievable nor every success unblemished. The pleasure (or duty) of writing could be matched with the exciting but by no means immediate prospect of a reply.

Today's girls at the same school are no less eager to communicate and to verbalise; more than ever, they have ideas, opinions and passions and want to share them. But, on the whole (despite the pleasant surprise from Amelia), they do not write letters.

Perhaps inevitably, the letter fails the two crucial contemporary tests of speed and immediacy. Why write a letter when you can send an email in half the time or a text message in less?

With the demise of the measured letter has come the spawning of thousands of much shorter, much more spontaneous and frequent communications. Emails and texts are sent and received instantly and urgently; they brook no hesitation in the recipient and too often reveal little reflection on the part of the sender.

The result is a pattern of exchange which is at once more immediate but also more disjointed, transient and sensational. No more Wordsworthian emotion recollected in tranquillity; today's night skater is already on his mobile as steel sweeps hissing through the ice.

Many may mourn the passing of an epistolary age, but for a generation obliged to respond to all cultural phenomena from films to the school curriculum in short, attention-grabbing chunks and to consign spent data rapidly to the outbox, the ability to move rapidly from one idea to the next is vital. What reflective 19th-century correspondent could endure even the trailer sequence in a modern cinema, with its violent editing and explosive soundtrack? The adolescent mind today is a microprocessor of far more robust specifications.

In schools, mobile-phone technology is of mixed benefit. Safety and peace of mind are enhanced on school trips, but when history of art students being shown the glories of Venice prefer to be hooked up to their friends back home discussing next weekend's party, one wonders whether travel can any longer broaden the mind.

Equally, the scope for exaggeration and for short-circuiting the authority of teachers is now much greater. One teacher, escorting a party of Year 8s to Spain last summer, was surprised to receive a call from an irate parent accusing him of exposing his daughter to an act of terrorism. Puzzled, he glanced out of the window to see a small banner suspended from a neighbouring balcony in silent protest at the actions of the Cantabrian government.

Whether we welcome it or not, young people today need to be able to think and communicate at speed; society and their education require it. Yet, I confess, I regret the lack of a domestic literature of our age, which would have been a fascinating legacy for future generations; one cannot imagine the "Oxford Book of Emails" being eagerly anticipated. And one cannot help concluding that if we tend to write with less forethought, we perhaps think less deeply, too. Our world leaders reflect this; slaves to the photo opportunity and the soundbite, extended utterances of any profundity are rare.

It's difficult to imagine George Bush or Tony Blair being capable of penning the three gracious paragraphs that Abraham Lincoln famously wrote to Mrs Bixby in 1864, expressing his personal and respectful sorrow at the loss of her five sons in the American civil war. Though he saw his words as "weak and fruitless", his acknowledgment of "so costly a sacrifice" remains for us a powerful symbol of the impact of national events on private lives.

Our times require no less as we respond to momentous events; we must struggle to find words sufficient and forms worthy not to be lost in the corridors of cyberspace.

Clarissa Farr is president of the Girls' School Association

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