As a child, my letterbox was a link to the outside world. Our letter box was an old biscuit tin with a slot cut out of it it. Dad painted the biscuit tin white and mounted it on the fence. With hindsight, I think that this was a stroke of genius and showed off off all his bush carpenter skills. Back then, I cringed and desired a standard letter box like everybody else had.
Photo Erica Murdoch
An only child and with no close family nearby I relied on mail to keep in touch with far flung relatives. As a teenager I never quite fitted in and my penpals were the most important friends that I had. My penpals were from places as far flung as New Delhi in India and Kinlochleven in Scotland. I can’t recall how we linked up. I was the buyer of English comics and maybe some of these had penpal columns. In the early days of penpaldom, my long distance mates were girls who liked the Bay City Rollers. We’d swap photos of us in our Roller strollers, discuss our favourite Roller and dissect the lyrics. A day with a blue British aerogramme in the letterbox was a highlight.
The letters are long gone but I remember Francine from Scotland, Jenny from rural Lincolnshire, and Mandy, who used to sneak into North London pubs at the age of fourteen. As a young adult, I stayed with Francine at her nurses home in Glasgow and we reminisced about the Bay City Rollers in a backstreet pub as The Clash played on the jukebox. This was the mid 80s. Tania from Brisbane and I found each other in Scream magazine in 1976 and she (poor thing) was on the receiving end of 16 page letters written over a month. In return, her letters were just as long and just as confiding. This was the teenage dislocation period. Looking back, I was probably desperately lonely.
Tania and I met a few times in Brisbane, Melbourne, and the UK. She was into new wave before I’d heard of The Birthday Party. I still have a compilation tape of music she liked. Patti Smith, The Cure and The Laughing Clowns. And now, four decades later, we’re still in touch – infrequent emails have replaced the very thick envelopes.
Photo Erica Murdoch
Penpals dropped away with time, lack of interest and the internet. The only thing coming through my letterbox was junk mail, bills and occasionally, a letter. Every house had a letterbox, but they were rarely full. Post Offices once just sold stamps and weighed parcels. But they had to diversify and adapt. Nowadays you can purchase everything bar a litre of milk at the local Post Office . My postie comes every second day, but he rarely stops at my gate. It’s been the same postie for years. I can see the grey hairs underneath his sensible high-viz hat.
Letterboxes didn’t figure highly for years with me until one day I took a photo of a box and posted it on Instagram. A few people liked it. So I posted a few more. It couldn’t be just any letterbox. Oftentimes it would be about the house and garden behind, the shape of the box or the way the light fell. On my travels I have an eye out ready to snap. Friends began sending photos of letterboxes saying , “I thought of you when I saw this.”
People have asked. Why letterboxes? It’s something I can’t answer easily. Letterboxes signify hope, community and love. The bills may come in, but so to does the odd love letter, an acceptance note for a budding writer or a letter from a long lost relative. At the same time, the choice of a letterbox may tell you something about the people who live in the house – from the colour of the box, the stickers on it or whether it’s upright.
A couple of years ago, my friend Cara, sent me a bunch of old letters that I had written her in the 90s. This was when I lived in England and Hong Kong. I relived my time in both those places, marvelling at my very crooked handwriting my ability to write very long letters and the views of twenty-something-year-old-me.
And in this time of Covid, when we’re looking for other ways to communicate, when Zoom has lost its first appeal, and our Inbox overflows with things that don’t really matter, writing a letter can be soothing. It’s not just a matter of opening a word document. It comes down to the choice of the paper, the pen and the words we write on the page. A little something of ourselves goes into each letter that we write, and that’s probably the most important thing of all.
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