Wish you were here

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
A picture can say a thousand words, and adding a few more words can create magic, writes Liz Breslin.

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin

Back in the world of terms and bells and I’m missing the summer already. And I’ve realised what I need to prolong it is not another heatwave or any well-meaning top tips of how to keep summer in your heart while preparing perfect lunch boxes and transitioning your exfoliation routine. No. What I need is postcards.

I bought a postcard recently in Greymouth. It was limited edition, numbered and plastic bagged, so I didn’t open it, scribble on it, stamp it and send it. Instead, it was carefully stored, flat in another bag, ready to hand deliver as a gift to a friend.

How things change. Back in the day, postcards were as much a marker of my family holidays as ice creams, sunburnt skin on sheets and puking from the back of the packed Mini. We laid out the purchases, licked and sticked the stamps and then came the agonising decision of which to send to who. Landscapes for the grandparents, cut out shapes (beer steins, the Eiffel Tower, the Queen’s face) for friends and always a funny one left over, like "Hamburg bei nacht" in white writing on a blackout background. Ha ha. And the one of the topless woman eating ice cream under the glittery title "Capri" for ... no, come to think of it, I didn’t send that to anyone. I’m pretty sure that’s a saucy seaside postcard that was sent to me.

Writing the address clearly was always an exercise in fitting too many things on not enough lines. Excellent training, come to think of it, for a writer. Writing any of it at all was done in the knowledge that it was a little bit of life in public. Unenveloped.

Early social media - just enough text for Instagram. Or Facebook for posties and the mantelpiece. And isn’t the Facebook "memories" function a sort of delayed postcard-to-self anyway?

Or perhaps postcards are more like Twitter, with stamps and without vitriol, in that you’re limited to the amount of words you can actually fit in one space. Although writer Jan Carson has made a bit of an art of that (and a book, Postcard Stories), fitting hundreds of words AND the address AND a stamp on each one. She actually posts them to actual people through the actual post who actually take the actual postcards out of their actual postboxes because that is how these things work, still, even if the heart has gone out of everything and the drones are taking over the warehouses.

Wouldn’t it be awesomely nostalgic for all of us to be able to have copies of all the postcards we sent, back in the day, of snapshots of family holidays and braver travels? No wonder postcards are the third most popular things to collect, after stamps and currencies. I once did a 30-day postcard-sending stint to my then-boyfriend now-husband and though the news at the time got cross-wired with phone calls from claustrophobic windowed phone booths on European street edges, and though they’re probably dog-eardly mouldering in a box somewhere (doubtless with the one with the tits from Capri), I guess we could get them all out, sort through the memories and patchwork them across the walls, since who has a mantelpiece anymore?

Travelling only with a backpack, no internet and no change for the payphone, postcards to the folks "back home" were a big thing. Probably bigger for them than to me, casually pen-sucking, dashing off lines, slapping on a stamp. Thinking about away, writing towards home. Wishing only to be here and here and here. And can you even imagine the hugeness of soldiers’ postcards, sanitised and form-fitted, "wish we could say", handwritten between the line and over the miles?

I’d imagined such postcards would be the most precious to deltiologists (the war ones, not my musings from Thailand or wherever) but it turns out that the most expensive postcard sold at auction (and the first sent) was written by writer Theodore Edward Hook ...  to himself. Apparently, in 1840, he thought it would be funny to pop a Penny Black stamp and a message to self on the back of a bit of a rude picture of post office workers and see what would happen next. Nice one, Theodore. Love your work. Love a lot more all the memory-prolonging, time-and-place-travelling postcard stories it has spawned. 


BURMA, the code

Be Upstairs Ready, My Angel.

The above is not dodgy.

It is part of a monologue by Alan Bennett, 'Sending a Telegram'.