Even in an age of instant messaging, the letter still has a firm grip on the human imagination. Enclosed in an envelope sealed by the sender’s hand, it achieves an intimacy that its modern electronic equivalents can never aspire to. The phrase “love email” doesn’t exist because the disjunction between medium and message makes it a contradiction in terms.
By contrast, Katherine Mansfield’s famous 1917 letter to John Middleton Murry, left between the pages of his journal, has a sensuous, tactile quality: “I long to write to you tonight,” it ran, as she rhapsodised about “your creamy warm skin … and your feet that I love to clasp with my feet”. It’s a somewhat more memorable missive than a “u wanna hook up?” text message.
Little wonder, then, that the latest threat to the system derisively called “snail mail” has stirred tempers. New Zealand Post announced last week that it will seek to change its 15-year-old Deed of Understanding with the Crown: in order to increase flexibility and maintain profitability in the face of plummeting mail volumes, it wants to cut the delivery frequency by as much as half.
The loudest complaints have come from elderly folk who remain devoted to letter-writing. Hamilton octogenarian Nanette Hynson spoke for many when she said that “in another 10 years, maybe, they could do it, but at the moment, there’s still people, my generation, that don’t have email”.
There’s anger in rural communities, too: getting the mail on time is a lifeline to the outside world. Federated Farmers suggests that as many as 86,000 New Zealanders – more than the population of Palmerston North – remain offline.
It would take a hard heart not to sympathise with both these groups. Many people still value written personal communication, greeting cards and the like. But their amenity will not be cruelly abridged by, say, a move to Monday, Wednesday and Friday delivery. As many have observed, most of what lands in the letterbox these days is in a window envelope, and a day’s delay is always welcome.
That said, it would be foolhardy for NZ Post to continue with a full-blown service that was costing it money. Despite its notionally independent status as a state-owned enterprise, it is still a public utility that functions at the will of the Government. There comes a point where it is irresponsible to continue a public service just for the sake of it. And if the company were to hike postage prices to balance the books, it would hurt the very groups who are protesting against the present plans – and probably aggravate its woes by chasing business away.
Growing environmental awareness has also affected paper communications: witness the exhortations to “think of the environment before printing this email” and the modern habit for emailed Christmas greetings, which may seem joyless and perfunctory but at least allow the senders to feel smug about conserving resources. But overwhelmingly, the 24-hour convenience and immediacy of cyber-communications has made NZ Post’s age-old business model obsolete.
A good chunk of the mail is made up of magazines like this one, and we are conscious of the potential for the proposed change to affect subscribers. It is with that in mind that, late last year, we made online access available to subscribers from Thursday noon, and that advantage will remain when and if the hard-copy delivery takes a day longer.
As always happens when progress wreaks a paradigm shift, however, we mourn the loss of something that will never be regained. Historians already warn of the possibility that their future counterparts will not find today’s letters and other written documents tucked in obscure corners. Will our correspondence, created and stored digitally, survive hard-drive crashes, changes of internet service provider and the repeated replacement of laptops, in order that it may be scrutinised by posterity?
A letter sent in 1915 from Gallipoli by Colonel William Malone, Commander of the Wellington Battalion, assured his wife that “I love and have loved you … I know you will never forget or let the dear children do so”. It has rightly passed into legend, not least because Malone never came home.
It is hard to imagine that a text message keyed in today, no matter how sincere its intent, will be as engaging a century hence as that last post.