ED2013 Columns ED2013 Comedy ED2013 Week1 Edition

Ben Van Der Velde: Why I’m saving the handwritten letter

By | Published on Tuesday 6 August 2013


Ben Van Der Velde (who was judged by one of our reviewers last year to be ‘flawless’, incidentally) is concerned that the rise of email and social media means the end for more traditional means of communication. And it’s that concern that his show ‘Chain Letter’ is built on. In his column for ThreeWeeks, Ben tells of his fears, and explains why he thinks the process of hand writing a letter still has value.

It’s the year 2053. You enter your office, and the inbuilt house computer immediately controls the temperature, humidity and lighting conditions to your exact specifications. The sentient office chair morphs around the contours of your body and a cup of precisely made breakfast chai appears seamlessly from a slot in your priceless wooden writing desk with the studded green leather inlay. In total contrast to the automated comfort of your surroundings you pull a pristine Parker pen from its box, slowly draw ink into its chamber from the glass bottle you’ve pulled out of a drawer and begin to make marks on the finest Basildon Bond writing paper you can lay your hands on.

Just as you reach the bottom, signing your name in a manner completely unique to you, one of your grandchildren wanders into your office, only partially focussed on her surroundings.

“What are you doing granddad?” she asks.

“Writing a letter to a friend, sweetheart.”

“A letter?” she replies, as though you’ve just told her that you’re fashioning a flint hand axe. “God, you are soooo Twentieth Century. Why do you bother with those things? They’re so slow and boring. When you made me send one to Uncle Simon it made my hand cramp up. It’s such a waste of time!”

She wanders off, only faintly paying attention to the world around her as she uses her retinal internet implant to give her constant updates on the mood, location, body temperature, digestion history and listening habits of her current top twenty friends.

This is the communication dystopia that I’m trying to save the world from in my Edinburgh Fringe show this year, ‘Ben Van der Velde’s Chain Letter’. I’m deeply worried that as the way we connect with each other becomes increasingly digital, transient and ephemeral, we’re losing something deeply important and personal.

Ever since one bold caveman went in search of new horizons and sent a scout back with some basic runes carved into clay saying “weather lovely, Mammoths terrifying, wish you were here”, we’ve felt the need to send written messages to each other about everything from what we did on our holidays to letters of congratulation and condolence or just a monthly update on what’s happening in our world. To my mind there is no more eloquent way of expressing yourself to another human being.

Whilst the new generation of internet users (which I am part of, despite sounding like an aged Luddite here) can let the world know its thoughts and feelings in an instant, there is something intimate and meditative about writing a letter, which digital communication will never be able to match. I have never received any email from a friend or family member that didn’t immediately seem like a cold communique from an HR department. Taking time to write a letter shows that you really care about a person as an individual and a companion in life, rather than just an intriguing algorithm to approve of during your daily intake of web information.

In my show I decided to try and spread the message of the importance of letter-writing by turning myself into a human chain letter. I ‘posted’ myself to four long lost friends and, when I appeared on their doorstep, asked them to write to someone they hadn’t connected with in years, promising to hand deliver that letter. By turning myself into some sort of messenger I would spread the message of the importance of keeping the art of letter writing alive. And it is an art. From dashing off quick postcards to ten page stream of consciousness epics complete with cartoons and doodles, handwriting to someone engages more of your brain and creativity than anything a smartphone or laptop can offer.

I want to bring back the art of letter-writing so that we can remain a nation of emotionally connected creatures sharing our lives with the people we care about in a way that won’t be consigned to a computer’s recycling bin within five minutes. Writing letters has served humans well for the past ten thousand years, let’s make sure there will be postmen delivering letters on Mars for us in another ten thousand.

‘Ben Van Der Velde’s Chain Letter’ was performed at Underbelly Bristo Square at Edinburgh Festival 2013.

LINKS: www.benvandervelde.com | twitter.com/benvandervelde

Photo: Tom Bateman