Long Lost Family and the power of a handwritten letter

"I wish I received more letters because they can be little bits of someone’s soul"

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I have a heart made of concrete, steel and diamonds. I’m hard, me, rendered flinty by my years down the mine, hewing coal from the rock face… er, hang on a minute, I think that might be someone else’s life.

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Actually, I’m as soft as a goose down duvet. I’ll cry at anything – I have to be hospitalised after watching ET, to this day I’ve never been able to sit through the Baby Mine bit of Dumbo without oxygen and a damp flannel, and the final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth leaves me inconsolable.

So you can imagine that Long Lost Family (Wednesday ITV) attacks every soppiness synapse in my helplessly wet psyche. But it’s not just those remarkable moments as siblings or parents and children see one another for the first time that attack my heart. It’s the letters.

Yes, the letters get me every time. I love letters, I wish I wrote more of them. I wish I received more of them because they can be little bits of someone’s soul. They can be treasured. Who doesn’t have a letter somewhere, from someone, that means the world?

In an age of chilly electronics and too-fast communication, Long Lost Family is powered by letters, words written on paper, words that have been considered and caressed with infinite care because this is important, really important. Perhaps the most important words the writer will ever write. It’s the first contact, an open door to the future that’s handed to someone who so badly wants to find a family. This week, though, a letter reveals a poignant missed opportunity.                                                                          

Understandably, the recipient, on reading the contents, weeps. That’s the power of letters for you – reading someone’s most crucial, critical emotions on a tablet just wouldn’t be right. Or in a text. Can you imagine? “Hello! I’m ur sis! LOL! See u soonest!!” Yeuch.

It’s the permanence of a letter that makes it resound through the years, clear as a bell. In Long Lost Family those first words, in alien handwriting, mean the entire world to someone who has searched so hard for the mum who gave them up at birth, or the dad they never saw, or the brother or sister they never knew they had.

The planet would be a much nicer place if we wrote more letters. And I say this as someone whose handwriting has been rendered chaotic-to-illegible by years of making shorthand notes as a reporter, and using a computer. Anything I write with a pen looks like the work of a lazy megalomaniac, you should see my notebooks – they’re manuals of madness.

Yet big decisions are always made on paper. When we resign from a job, we write a letter. When Andrea Leadsom walked away from her Conservative Party leadership challenge she was shown on the news reading aloud from a letter to the 1922 Committee. If she’d stood there tapping a screen as a prompt for the waterfall of words that was to come, she’d have looked like someone reading a bulk order for chutney.

In Tuesday’s Imagine (BBC1) we learn that the artist Georgia O’Keeffe and her married lover (and later her husband) Alfred Stieglitz wrote passionate letters to one another, some of them between 20 and 30 pages long, for years. Emails just wouldn’t have been the same.

So, like everything else about Long Lost Family, letters are apt and right and perfect, and they mean so, so much.

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Long Lost Family is on ITV tonight at 9pm