A Paean to the Simple Joy of Pen-Pals

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…

Newspeak – The Curse of the Smartphone



George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984, describes a society in which the ruling autocrats control the population by restricting the scope of the vocabulary they are able to use. Negative words are removed from the language so that they cannot be applied either to the government or the actions they take. The word ‘bad’ is excised from the dictionary, but the word ‘good’ remains. To articulate the concept of ‘bad’ the suffix ‘un’ is added to ‘good’: thus ‘bad’ becomes ‘ungood’, awful becomes ‘plus-ungood’ and cataclysmic becomes ‘double-plus-ungood’. But it’s not ‘bad’. Get the drift? Good. Given sufficient time, the very concept of bad disappears, even in unconscious thought. Big Brother may be ungood, but he is never bad. An idiot is unclever, a bloody idiot plus-unclever and a blithering moron is in the White House.

‘So, what,’ I hear you ask, ‘is your point? What are you going to witter on about today?’’ I’ll tell you. The point is this. For Orwell the diminution of language was a tool of the oppressor, secateurs to rational thought, but in truth it is one of the few things that he didn’t get quite right. We do not need the government to denude and impoverish our beautiful language, we are doing it all by ourselves. Or, more correctly, we are doing it all by our smart phones. When we text, we abbreviate words into a vowel-less cluster of letters and numbers, sentences are truncated into a string of meaningless acronyms, the language of Shakespeare has become a kind of guttural Esperanto. Messages are so condensed that meaning is hard to ascertain and connotation is lost to such an extent that the only way you can let someone know that you are joking is by sticking a grinning face at the end of it. Who could possibly guess what emotion the staccato missive of random symbols is meant to convey unless it has an emoji at the end?

And Textspeak has spread beyond the world of texts into the language of the everyday. Who doesn’t say ‘LOL’ every now and then? I have heard people actually articulating emojis in normal speech: ‘So I said to him, don’t worry, you’ll be great, smiley face…’ And I know, I understand, that language evolves. It always has. Imagine trying to get by today, speaking as Shakespeare would have you speaking. I imagine that the attempt to get a half bottle of cheap vodka at 2am in the local mini-mart from a surly sleep-starved Latvian for whom English is the fourth language would not be particularly well received, particularly if it started with ‘Forsooth’. You would be perceived, initially, as quaintly eccentric, but very shortly afterwards as a PITA and within no time at all you would find yourself in secure accommodation sharing a room with Russell Brand.

Anyone who has read Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (and if you haven’t, please allow me to recommend it to you) will understand how baffling a language can be when it is just a sidewise step away from our own, until, quite suddenly, you start to hear the new words in your head where you would have heard the old words. Understanding comes in a wave through which the submerged brain suddenly bobs to the surface with the realisation that two words that sound roughly similar and are used in the same way, probably mean the same thing – or similar – and, pausing only to pop on a pair of water wings, works the rest out for you. But, and here’s my real problem, that doesn’t really help me when a word I am familiar with, a word I have grown up with, suddenly, and without warning, has its meaning totally and irrevocably changed. When a good word, a friendly word, suddenly becomes a bad word and the bad word becomes the accepted term. Words that are in common usage become unacceptable; words that are acceptable sink into disuse. Suddenly I am marooned at sea again. Innocently dropping the wrong word into a sentence is as fraught as dropping a three year old into a swimming pool: it can go one of two ways, and neither of them the way that you predicted.

It is so easy to offend people when so many are so willing to be offended. It’s the keeping up that’s the problem. Have you any idea, for instance, how confused it makes a man of my age to hear that someone is being trolled? To my memory a troll is part of the family that lives under the rickety rackety bridge: if you don’t want to be trolled, use a different bridge. I remember when mobile technology was a new caravan. I remember when ‘f*ck’ was the rudest word imaginable, before it became what it is today: a uni-purpose verb, noun, adjective, pronoun and adverb used by all. The world’s first, and possibly only, truly egalitarian word. Does anybody else still go for a widdle? Does anybody else still wear a pully? I didn’t realise how regional our language was until somebody I was speaking to did not understand the word mardy. I thought that everybody dackered down now and then. A strange country is this when so much can be read into the way you pronounce the word scone. It says much about us as a race, that we have as many words to describe a bread bun as the Eskimos have for snow. (I wrote that, and now I’m not even certain that Eskimo is any longer an acceptable word.)

When I was younger, a pension was something that was paid by the government to a person from the date of their retirement until the date of their death – the two being separated by about twelve months on average. Now it is something you start to worry about at birth, contribute to from age 18, pay all your life and draw at eighty if you live that long. A prostate was an almost mythical organ that gave endless trouble to the elderly. Now it seems to trouble people who are really quite young. Come on, play the game, please give me back the patriotism that was the love of one’s own country and not the hatred of everyone else’s. Please give me back the time when short-term memory was the ability to recall names, faces and events from the recent past and not…

… Oh bugger!