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In Conversation with Dinah Johnson

At London Letters our goal is to create beautiful stationery pieces that encourages you to write more letters. We believe that letters play an important role in modern society, and we're not alone in this view.

Each month we'll be chatting with a different snail mail enthusiast to find out why they think letters are special, why they think they still matter today, and what drives their passion to continue writing. 

This month, I was so excited to speak to Dinah Johnson, founder of The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society. Dinah founded THLAS back in 2017 when, for many years, she'd wanted to create something to honour her love of letters. During one very muddy walk, and whilst looking up at the clouds above her, she realised, "There's a Clouds Appreciation Society isn't there? So why not one for Handwritten Letters?!" And so it was born. Over the last six and a half years they've grown from success to success, with mentions on TV, radio and in the media, as well as several high profile members including Rob Beckett and Axel Scheffler, illustrator of The Gruffalo, (which if you follow Dinah on Instragram, she is kind enough to share some of the beautifully illustrated letters he sends her).

Dinah is an ambassador for letters, and her passion for them is infectious. Follow along below to find out what she thinks about letters and their future, how she got started, as well as what her most treasured letter is, and see if she inspires you to put pen to paper!

London Letters - In Conversation with Dinah Johnson of THLAS

 

"There is so much that makes letters special. They are tangible, they’ve travelled, they transport us through time and space. They help us express ourselves, build empathy with others, empower us."

 

Tell us a little bit about your own letter writing history. Do you recall the first letter you received, or wrote?

My memories of letter writing start at around the age of 8 or 9, sitting at the dining table with a little box of stationery, specifically a Mr Men letter writing set, writing letters to my grandparents or to Kathryn who had emigrated to Canada or to Jill who had emigrated to America, enclosing photographs of me in the garden, adding stickers and stamps and walking up to the postbox outside the Post Office on the Village Green. I have never lost that feeling that sending letters is some kind of magic and is always my go-to communication means for any situation.

How often do you write letters now?

I always describe myself as consistently inconsistent, so I find it difficult to answer that question. I’ve never been one for routine (for better or worse) and although I write a letter with every membership pack (it would feel wrong not to), generally my letter writing is more mood led. I’ve never been one for keeping records of who I’ve written to, I just like to send them out into the world. There’s always people to write letters to, so as long as I can afford to buy stamps I’ll keep writing letters.

Describe your letter writing set up for us. Do you have any favourite stationery or pens you use? Where do you like to write from?

I love the romance of writing a letter literally anywhere, and went through a phase of trying to find beautiful or quirky or weird or wonderful places to pen a letter from including on a beach, a train, up a mountain, in a castle, or on a submarine (not at sea!) - you name it. There’s something so lovely about knowing where a letter was written that I always add a little note to say where it was, together with the time. I love getting letters with that level of detail as I find it really sets the scene. Mostly though you will find me in my little Letter Writing Shed up the garden, at my junk shop writing bureau writing letters.

For membership packs I always try to use blue Basildon Bond paper and envelopes (the small ones), and I write with a Uniball Eye (micro), only because that tends to favour my handwriting the most. I love experimenting with different letter writing “stationery” in the broadest sense from wrapping paper or wallpaper turned into homemade aerogrammes, old calendars recycled into envelopes, paper bags or old tickets as paper, so anything goes really. I love pretty or funny or arty cards, and I most certainly try to always use stamps without the barcodes if I can. When the mood takes me, and I cut the feather correctly, I love writing with a quill on parchment paper and then sealing it with wax. The thought of them arriving at someone’s house/ castle/ palace/ stately home/ island always makes me smile.

What type of content would you use for a letter, as opposed to digital communication?

Because writing a letter is a much more personal affair, I would say I tend to open up much more in letters than in a digital format, but it depends more on who I’m writing to. We aren’t against the digital world at THLAS, so emailing someone can be personal too, it’s just that the whole process of letter writing is more intimate as in choosing the paper and pen to use, finding a quiet spot to sit and think and write, letting the thoughts flow from head and heart to hand in one take without the temptation to change anything. A big part of the attraction of letters for me is seeing a person’s handwriting which adds so much to the presence of someone physically, which is missing in digital exchanges.

What do you think makes letters special?

There is so much that makes letters special. They are tangible, they’ve travelled, they transport us through time and space. They help us express ourselves, build empathy with others, empower us. We’re allowed to be ourselves in them, flaws and all. They carry a feeling of being thought about, a joy in the present, a poignancy from the past. We all use the expression “email” but nothing can replicate a real proper handwritten letter. They are an entity all of their own. They aren’t hobbyish, they are what they are, a piece of you in pen and paper format. If I really wanted to get on my high-horse I’d say I don’t really like the expression “snail mail” either because even despite some issues with postal services around the globe they generally get to their destinations pretty speedily when you think they are travelling actual miles. Electronic mail isn’t and never will be a substitute for a real-world, heartfelt letter. (I’ll get off my soapbox now!).

Are there any letters that you've held onto for a long time? Do you have a favourite?

I think I’ve only ever discarded a handful of letters from a few boys over the teenage years, which I still kind of regret. Some from an old school friend, ones from French boy called Frederique, a chap from an outdoor centre. I have letters from someone I had a big bust-up with (not romantically) and I was on the verge of ripping them all up into tiny pieces but still couldn’t bring myself to do it as they were aerogrammes from the 1990s all the way from Zimbabwe when we were really good friends and, beyond the hurt, I still have a pang of nostalgia and lovely memories, and a part of me hopes we’ll one day make up. But in short, I treasure all the letters I’ve been sent. I love all the letters and notes I have from famous people, mostly because I managed to inspire really busy people to write back to me, but really I find it hard to choose a favourite. They are all favourites for one reason or another. I often tell people about my Dad’s “big” letter that I asked him to write to me when I first moved away from home to Wales for a few months. By “big” I’d meant a “proper” letter but my Dad being my Dad wrote it on a piece of flipchart sized paper. It was big and it was proper and very much treasured.

Are there any famous letters you're especially fond of?

I think I’m in a minority but I don’t really like reading other people’s letters, famous or not. I do have books of them given to me but I don’t know why they don’t excite me to read them. It feels like a betrayal of the writer whose words weren’t meant for my eyes. The whole point of the Society was to encourage some meaningful connection and intimacy between people, rather than the idea that we are writing for an audience because it changes something in the way we write if we think lots of people are going to read it. Maybe it doesn’t matter once we’re long gone, it’s just something I do struggle with. Privacy and secrecy (in the nicest sense) is becoming such an alien concept these days that not reading other people’s letters is my small gesture in maintaining it. I should add a caveat that I might change my mind about that but I’d need to be persuaded.

Do you feel any positive benefits to your mental health when you're writing or receiving a letter?

Yes, I turn to letter writing when I'm happy, sad, excited, bored, grateful, frustrated, in love, out of love, overwhelmed, in awe, curious, cross, mellow, anxious, confident, scared, delighted, down, joyful and more. They really are my panacea. I find them an essential way to navigate the tricky landscape of life, and the positive benefits are just as powerful when I receive letters from people too.

How do you envisage the future of letter writing? 

That people keep doing it. That everyone discovers or rediscovers the beauty of it for themselves. Also that those in charge of our postal services around the world have an epiphany about the value of letter writing and support and promote it, especially with affordable postage. In the meantime we’ll keep encouraging them to do just that. 

What would you say to someone that's never written or received a letter before, to encourage them to try it?

I always say please just try it once. If you find it an awful experience and the recipient doesn’t appreciate your letter, let me know and I will rethink the Society, but I know deep-down that even if someone doesn’t write back, receiving a letter from a friend or loved-one even for the novelty alone is a special experience, and unless writing triggers a traumatic or painful experience, the realisation that you can write a letter which doesn’t involve electricity or gadgets is generally a rewarding experience. If people feel daunted by the prospect of a blank piece of paper, a postcard is a great place to start. It has limited space, an interesting picture, and only takes a few minutes to write. Also I’d say you don’t have to have the fanciest pen or the poshest paper or the best handwriting or perfect spelling. Friendly letters to loved ones are just that. They really won’t be judging you. Honestly, just go for it.

 

A huge thank you to Dinah for her time and passion. You can find out more about The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society by heading to their website or by following them on Instagram.

Why not start writing like a pro today, inspired by Dinah's favourite stationery, with our Mark'Style ballpoint pen and simple but beautiful letter papers?

1 comment

  • I love the new idea of you interviewing and chatting to different people each month. I loved knowing that there’s a whole other society that loves doing what we do too!!!

    Tehmina Hasware

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