As part of the 2018 “Being Human” festival, Prof Brendan Stone and Dr Chris Blackmore collaborated on a project about expressions of hope through the writing of letters. In this blog post, they reflect on the project, its origins and its impact. Some of the content generated by the project is shown and videos of participants available to watch.
In this age of instant messaging, social media and transient digital communiques, there is something increasingly rare about the act of giving and receiving physical letters, where one person sits down to write to another, and where the handwritten word carries with it the imprint of the writer’s physicality. In an era of immediacy, we have become accustomed to overlooking the journey of the message, via postal systems, through time and space, to be received physically by the reader.
An awareness of the special nature of writing and receiving letters, and the therapeutic potential of letter writing, prompted us to discuss, over several months, the possibility of a project involving letters which might somehow relate to mental health and well-being. We settled on an idea to connect people in Sheffield over something that would be personally meaningful – their hopes for the future – and for this to happen across the generations, to see what young children and older adults would say to one another, and what might emerge from their dialogues.
Working with Ignite Imaginations, we arranged for 10 children at a junior school in Stannington, Sheffield, to write individually to 10 older adults in a housing scheme, in the same part of Sheffield. The children started the dialogue by writing the first letter. In each case, it ended with the words “Yours hopefully”, but without a signature or name. The adults replied using the same format, and both parties wrote two more letters each, back and forth, so that there were 6 letters in each dialogue, and 10 of these dialogues. The children and adults did not know one another, and did not meet in person while the writing was taking place over a period of several weeks as the letters went back and forth. In the children’s class, there were 30 pupils, so the 20 who were not writing letters were invited to provide illustrations to accompany the letters that were sent to the older adults.
The letters and illustrations, which can be seen below, are a fascinating and touching insight into the hopes and dreams of children and older adults. In each dialogue, it is possible to see the participants reaching out to the other, offering up their own hopes and connecting these to the other person’s. Some of the letters touch on painful and difficult experiences, of loved ones who have gone or are far away; others speak of yearning for success, excitement, lives full of potential waiting to be experienced or lives full of hope for friends and family. In every case, we can see how the participants’ relationship develops through the expression of warmth, humour, compassion and sympathy towards the other.
The resulting dialogues were all displayed during a week-long exhibition in the Winter Garden in November 2018, and some of the children and adults were able to visit in person to see their letters and illustrations on display, which brought them much happiness. The exhibition included the use of “augmented reality” whereby some of the content contained visual codes which triggered video content for visitors with an appropriate mobile phone or tablet. So in some cases, it was possible to literally see photographs come to life, and to hear directly from the children and adults involved.
As staff involved in the project, it was wonderful to see the reaction to the project and to hear how much the children and adults enjoyed writing letters to one another. The videos (below) speak of the enjoyment and comfort that people gained from connecting in this way, and we understand that the children visited the older adults and were able to finally meet in person. They plan further collaborations together.
Thanks to children and staff at Shooters Grove Junior School, Stannington and residents and staff at Roscoe Court, Stannington. Thanks also to Charlie Barnes (Ignite Imaginations), Farzana Latif and Tom Foster (TEL, University of Sheffield), Greg Oldfield (Head of Public Engagement, University of Sheffield) and Being Human Festival.