The lost art of the postcard

Lottie Limb 16 April 2015

We’ve seen a lot of things flowering lately. Outside, Girton’s cherry trees can be seen in all their vernal glory. Elsewhere perhaps, post-it notes cover study spaces. On screen, memories of Robb Stark’s ‘Red Wedding’ have blossomed blue in Cinderella. Spring is a transitional time and, in that spirit, I too have been on the move. I’ve travelled to Sligo, and the dark sanctum of my Yeats dissertation; London; and upon trains to and from Cambridge – including, to my delight, passing through the market town of March on 31 March 2015.

Staying in contact with people during breaks is important, and, as far as making and changing arrangements go, never has texting ETAs (and inevitable apologies once those estimates prove optimistic) been easier. However, some things never change, like the timeless elegance of the postcard. Obviously, letters and cards are great too – no one is disputing the lovely physicality of the entire family – but I’d like to make a particular push for the postcard here.

Letters are long, rambling and prone to overflowing feeling, cards too miscellaneous; postcards capture a single sentiment. It has a lot to do with the picture on the front. Cards have pictures too, of course, but there is something inimitably charming about the way the postcard picture and text combine by being opposite sides of one piece of card. Pictures can inform the recipient, as with touristy snaps, or ironise the text (see the Postsecret Project). The limitation – and strength – of fewer words make this a minimalist art. Restricted to one half of A6 (though some writers opt to scrawl across it all), the sender can create a little mystery, can build up a story around picture and content – often relying on the reader to provide some context.

What also aids the idiosyncrasy of the postcard is its transparency, and so tendency to lightheartedness. The absence of an envelope creates opportunities for comedy; you can’t take something too seriously that will wing its naked way through the world’s postal service and adorn expectant mantlepieces.

When my best friend moved away from home, we coped with the distance by writing postcards, using the pseudonyms Marcus Boob and Jonathan Pube. One of hers began, “To my FRIEND Jonathan,’ and ended: ‘I am dying to hear from you. Your eternal slave, Marcus xxxx P.S. you may have observed that I have underlined the word friend. This is to demonstrate to the meddling postman that we are indeed merely friends, nothing more. THAT’S RIGHT POSTIE I’M ON TO YOU!!” After a while we got bored and directed our epistolary energies towards sending love letters to HSBC. Such is life. But it was fun whilst it lasted and, though biro ink and hilarity have both faded, I will always treasure those postcards.

Post-rock band Explosions in the Sky made a beautiful music video with ‘Postcard from 1952’. It moves in incredibly slow motion: a mother blowing a bubble into the outstretched arms of her child; a boy blowing out his birthday cake candles as his brother looks sleepily on; a girl’s hair bouncing in a green ribbon, running a stick along a picket fence; and other sepia-tinged snapshots. As the far more musically astute Ben Jones comments, the song acts like a series of postcards in conversation: “The shifts from one repeated riff to another make it feel very much like the sections of the song are responding to the previous sections, each one quite distinct in tone and feeling.”

There’s not always much time in Cambridge. Which is why my recent reading has favoured Penguin Classic’s new range of 80 little classics for 80p – a publisher who incidentally do a nice range of literary postcards. But there’s still time for a postcard or two. So, stay in touch memorably this Easter, or make a start when we’re back. If stamping is just too distressing, pop one under someone’s door, or attach it to their bike with string (preferably that of someone you know). Create a time-capsule, something to treasure: write a postcard today.