A Paean to the Simple Joy of Pen-Pals

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

I find myself wondering whatever happened to pen-pals? I presume that they may all have been killed by this interconnected world of ours, crushed under the wheels of Mark Zuckerberg’s little leviathan. Who needs a pen-pal when you have over a million virtual friends in bedrooms the world over?

I, like almost everyone of my age, had a pen-pal. For a short while anyway. They were arranged by the school I think. Usually French, German, or if you were for some reason particularly unpopular with the teachers, Belgian. The idea was that you wrote to one another in your native tongue so that you each had to translate what you had been sent before you replied. Eventually, if all went well, you would meet up and exchange tales of teenage derring-do in a sort of non-verbal Esperanto of signs and gestures (and we all know how good the French are at those). If he was French (we were all very carefully paired with members of our own sex I recall) he would get off with your girlfriend and when, in the fullness of time, you went to his, you would discover that his père was a Marseille docker who, in order to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible, insisted that you fed exclusively on sewage-sifting bi-valves, terrestrial gastropods and the rear limbs of amphibia for the week.

Not that I, personally, ever got that far… Generally I found it in me to scrape together a twenty word reply to my new pen-pal’s multi-page airmail missive, which I then didn’t post as the postage was almost exactly a week’s supply of Bazouka Joe bubble gum. Now, I’m not proud of my indifference, but in truth, I fear that my Euro-counterpart would have gained little from a ‘conversation’ with me that would not have served merely to deepen his cross-channel sense of distrust and puzzlement.

For the more romantic among us, the ideal method of gaining a new pen-pal relied upon the launching of a sealed bottle onto the bosom of the dun-brown waves of the English Channel. Unfortunately the chances, always slim, of it being picked up on some exotic foreign shore by someone with an innocent interest in your favourite edition of Smash Hits and a desire to swap postage stamps appears to have diminished somewhat over the years. Far more likely you will find yourself corresponding with somebody that wants to plunder your bank account rather than find out what you had for tea on Friday. In any case, I think that the whole business of lobbing a glass vessel (or even worse, a plastic one) out to sea these days would be considered, by and large, to be environmentally unacceptable. Let’s be honest, if you walked out today to find a hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore, you’d probably be more concerned about contacting David Attenborough’s agent than replying to Sting.

Which brings us back round to the internet: the true home of the Voyeur and the Conman, the Predator and the Weirdo, and probably not the best of places to search for someone to help you with your French Oral. Besides, the cosy one-to-one no longer seems to exist – nothing, it would appear, is worth sharing, if not with a group. The ballpoint tête-à-tête of a pen-pal correspondence has been replaced by the megaphone yell of a political rally and, in our contemporary paperless society, the art of writing a letter on gossamer stationery to someone you have never met, who speaks a different language and wants only to know if your girlfriend is fit, has disappeared as swiftly as the thousand words you didn’t save before going to bed…