Just the other day I read that Australia’s internet speed had dropped from 30th to 60th fastest in the world over the last three years. Now this caused me to pause and speculate, and I concluded that Australian email now takes longer to be delivered: And I reflected back on that bygone time of letter writing; the time designed to slow you down. The time intended for you to catch up with friends and family about your travel adventures, share family anecdotes, puzzle over the weather, or just scribble a little something to let them know that you were thinking of them. Back then a standard letter was delivered in two or three days; today the delivery time for regular mail in Australia is three-six business days.
One of my first written letters was to the Revell company in America. In the early fifties Revell started to make plastic scale model kits and these made their way to Australia. I had already assembled a couple of kits when I snagged a cargo ship kit; it was an intricate, realistic, true to life, miniature of the real thing. From our house I could watch the giant cargo ships, low in the water, glide their way into the mouth of the Yarra River and the Port of Melbourne and on foggy winter nights I was put to sleep by the mournful fog horns warning the ships of the close foreshore as they navigated the Yarra estuary. I knew cargo ships and this was perfection in plastic.
It seemed like there were hundreds of parts; every part was the same white gray colour. And so I decided that I would paint some of the parts. The hull of the ship was the largest of the parts. I painted the hull but not very well and I tried to remove my scandalous painting with turpentine; unaware of the effect that turps would have on the plastic I transformed the perfection in plastic into a maculation of worthless plastic. I told mum and dad I was going to write a letter to the Revell company and ask for a new hull.
A Street in Newport
April 11th, 1958
Elk Grove Village, IL
Dear Mr Revell,
Hello, my name is John and I am writing to ask if you would send me another hull for my boat because I messed it up when I tried to take the paint off the first one.
I forgot about writing a letter to Revell until mum told me one day after I got home from school that the postie had delivered a small parcel addressed to me from overseas. It was a new unpainted ships hull.
I don’t remember what caused me to get a job that year. I was still in school at Footscray Tech and the school year had finished; December was just around the corner but summer was already in full blast. I saw a notice in the window of the Newport Post Office: PMG seeking part-time Christmas Letter Sorters; and was soon catching the train every late afternoon, for the next six weeks, from Newport to Footscray and then walking to the Post Office to sort Christmas letters and cards. From four in the afternoon to ten or eleven o’clock at night I sat in a rolling wooden swivel chair and faced a postal sorting wall. I did the final sorting and pigeonholed everything according to a postman’s delivery route of postcode and street numbers. The wall was made up of a lattice of at least 150 cubby holes. I would have a collection of letters and postcards unloaded onto the shelf in front of the cubby holes every thirty minutes.
At first, I stood in front of the wall and carefully placed each letter and card into its reserved space. As time went by I became more confident and started to flick the items into their assigned space: And by the end of the second week I was leaning back as far as I could in the rolling wooden swivel chair, several feet from the cubby holed matrix, flicking letters and cards with an uncanny accuracy into their predetermined slot. I was on the cusp of becoming a post-adolescent teenager and so still had trouble sifting through and recognizing what were meaningful experiences, disappointments, discoveries, challenges, and rewarding achievements. I didn’t know at the time but I had mastered the art of card throwing by flicking Christmas letters and cards with great accuracy and force and I could have been Australia’s second most famous magician.
Leslie George “Les” Vante Cole was Australia’s most famous magician and is acknowledged as the creator of the impaling illusion. My performances could have included earth-shattering kung fu card throwing maneuvers, spearing cards into pineapples, and slicing Cherry Ripes in two; or I could have adapted the classic sawing a woman in half magic trick to carving a woman into three with a deck of Queen’s Slipper playing cards.
Our letterbox was fixed onto the inside of one of the front fence wooden pickets. It was a small metal box with a hinged lid and a slot for the postman to push the letters between the pickets and into the box. The back was half glass so you could see in there were any letters. The mail was delivered twice on weekdays and Saturday mornings. The postie rode a red PMG bike; I think a shoulder strap canvas bag for the mail. He would ride on the footpaths. You always knew when in the morning or afternoon the postie was going to stop at your house and you listened for his whistle to announce that you had mail.
The Rider & Bell manufacturing company was established in 1920 and is still Australian owned. The company began making the original postman’s whistle in the 1920s; it was later named the Aussie Thriller Whistle. Railway guards, paperboys, referees, police, corrective services, fishermen and work cover authorities also began to use the Thriller. Change marches into the future and the peas in the Thriller were replaced by cork balls; continuing to provide the shrill sound when the whistle was blown. I can only imagine mum’s anticipation each morning and afternoon as she waited for the posties whistle to announce that a blue, paper-thin, aerogramme had arrived in the letterbox.
The aerogramme was a lightweight piece of easy foldable paper for writing a letter that could be sent by airmail. The paper was gummed on one end so that when it was folded in three it could be licked and sealed; the letter and envelope became one. In most countries, aerogrammes had an imprinted stamp. You paid for the postage and aerogramme together.
On my hallowed rite of passage searching for inspiration and idealism I became Banjo Patterson’s, Clancy of the Overflow.
I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just “on spec”, addressed as follows: “Clancy, of The Overflow”.
I roamed England, Europe, and Asia, addressed as follows:
c/o Australia House
Back then Australia House was a refuge and solace for an army of lonely Australians forging the hippie trail. Each week I would take the tube into central London from Tooting Bec.
My journey’s end was the counter at Australia House where I would show my passport and collect my letters from home. After reading the precious aerogrammes at least three times I would head to the reading room to pour over the Sun newspapers from the homeland. The reading room closed in 2005.
Main Post Office
And after you picked up your aerogrammes you sat on the steps of the main post office if you got that far, or you started to carefully tear the top off the flimsy letter from back home at the counter and began reading.
That night you would release the images of the last three weeks from your mind and transfer them onto an aerogramme with barely legible miniature handwriting. You would always close the letter with your next self predicted stop.
General Post Office
And I wondered if mum got very far from the letterbox behind the front fence before she started to carefully tear open the aerogramme. Mum’s writing was never small; she would always write about the long and short of the weather, family anecdotes, and what the Ashford’s and Preston’s a few doors up the street were up to. She would have sat at the kitchen table with the radio tuned to midday 3AW. There was a post box, a block away, on the corner of Douglas Parade and North Road but mum would have walked to the Newport Post Office to post her aerogramme.
I still remember the streets of Calcutta and New Delhi; each street was a journey through the grimy layers of time and human existence. And I still remember hearing the muffled, faint, sound of the Aussie Thriller. I was drawn to the sound only to discover it was the ping of margin bells from Underwood’s and Godrej’s. There was a gaggle of men at tables typing at typewriters. And the shrill of the pseudo Thriller was drowned out by the clatter of typewriter keys as the blurred and uncanny accuracy of fingers sent the typebars slamming into a black ink ribbon.
Most of the typewriter men were outside of courthouses and government offices, but there were scribes and public letter writers hunched over portable typewriters writing letters for those who couldn’t read or write. I imagine the scribes were busy writing condolences, romantic verses and congratulatory letters using their own persuasive or romantic descriptive turn of phrase; a form letter for any occasion. Now that technology has started to move off the streets of cosmopolitan India for the everyman, the street scribes of Kolkata are probably writing the letters from the credit card companies that enthusiastically inform you that you’ve been pre-approved for thousands of dollars of credit and dashing off those retirement planning seminar letters inviting you to a free lunch; no doubt posting a scanned copy of the original for the companies to use as a master for their copy machines.
In my England, Europe, and Asia there was no wifi, smartphones, Ipads, email, GPS, Google Translate, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook. The Australian Postal Service also changed as the future transformed; the mail started to be delivered only once a day, and then Saturday delivery was abandoned. In the eighties, Australia Post stopped the tradition of the postie blowing their whistle to announce they had put mail in your letterbox. Mum never listened for the sound of the Thriller again. And today, in our frenzied digital universe we lament the lost art of letter writing; and our forgotten, meaningful and deliberate, emotions that choose the colour and texture of the paper for our handwritten letter. Now we ponder whether to send out Christmas cards and letters or instead just email, forward an e-card or post a Facebook message. But for those who know that letter writing is an art worth bringing back, there is an app; the letters app lets you send snail mail from your smartphone. letters is described as the authentic social platform that allows you to express yourself in more meaningful and genuine ways through the use of letter writing elements such as fonts, themes, stamps, and signatures.
I think I might sit down and write a beautifully crafted handwritten letter and post it to myself. And lick the envelope so it is sealed with my saliva.