Talking ‘Pen Pals’ with BBC Radio York

Our Director and CEO Max May and Keepsake artist Tom Wentworth were invited onto BBC Radio York with Jonathan Cowap to share about Pen Pals, Tom’s Keepsake commission.

You can read a transcript of their conversation below, or tune in from 1:26:35 on this link until Saturday 19th June.

listen to the recording on the BBC York website

Jonathan: We were talking on the show yesterday about letter writing – whether you still write letters, whether we’ve lost the skill of letter writing, and just how lovely it is to receive a proper letter as opposed to a credit card bill through the post. A brand-new audio play exploring the whole idea of pen pals, the original form of socially distanced friendship, has just begun streaming for free. Pen Pals was written by Tom Wentworth, he’s with us now on the line, along with Max May, from Rural Arts in Thirsk, who have commissioned the play. Tom, to start with, tell us about the play and what it explores?

Tom: It’s an audio play and it’s about two friends who have been pen pals for over 40 years, and one of them has unfortunately passed away. Her daughter discovers these letters and her pen pal, and they start a relationship which is quite surprising and unexpected. But as you say, it’s about that first socially distanced form of communication, and it’s kind of a social media before we had social media. I wanted to explore that, and lockdown felt like a perfect time to tell this story. The project that Max and the Rural Arts team brilliantly came up with is around people who perhaps don’t have access to the internet or don’t find the internet as easy as some of us. So, you can listen to Pen Pals over the phone as well as streaming it online. Letter writing felt like such a brilliant way to explore that theme.

Jonathan: Max, what gripped you, why did you commission this play?

Max: Well, I wanted to work with Tom for a while and we had a discussion about Keepsake, our project to support people affected by loneliness during the pandemic. He shared this idea he’d had for quite a while around pen pals and letter writing, and we just thought that would be a brilliant way. A lot of us have written more letters during the pandemic than we have before. At Christmas time, we ran a project with North Yorkshire Youth through which 50 young people handwrote letters to isolated older people across the county. People that they’d never met and probably will never meet. Just as you were saying Jonathan, that specialness of having that letter drop through your letterbox, it just felt like a really lovely opportunity to explore.

Jonathan: Tom, this play you have created has come at a moment when perhaps lots of people have learnt about the value of letters. I remember the story of a care home in North Yorkshire and there was a school, or maybe a number of schools, who were writing letters to unknown people, people living in the care home. We shared the stories of the young people and why they’d written the letters, and we heard some of the reactions of the older people getting the letters. They are a very special and personal thing, aren’t they? Are you a letter writer?

Tom: I am and luckily, I receive a lot of letters and my Mum doesn’t really do the internet, so we do communicate in that way. I’ve got letters that I’ve kept for years from my gran, from when she was in her care home, and she would write to me. It’s like Christmas, isn’t it, everyday? And as you say, far better than getting that credit card bill! Much nicer to get something special, handwritten, crafted, taken a bit of time over, than shooting out a tweet without really thinking about it. They’re a glorious thing and I think something we need to hold onto.

Jonathan: Max, let’s be honest, you and I have communicated quite a lot over recent months about lining up guests for the show who are connected with Rural Arts. We ping one a text message, we make hasty telephone calls and send the odd email. Letter writing just wouldn’t do it in this day and age with the speed we need to do things, would it? Max, do you still write letters and get letters? Do you have a pen pal or correspondent where you actually sit down with pen and paper?

Max: I’m a really big fan of sending a little card, like “I’m thinking of you” or “I just saw this and I thought of you”. I’ve sent a lot of postcards, we’re very lucky in North Yorkshire as we have lots of artists and can send postcards with pieces of art with a quick note saying, “I’m thinking of you and love and miss you”. My handwriting is pretty abysmal, so I don’t often sit down and get a whole letter written! But you’re right, sometimes we need that, it’s the balance, isn’t it? We need to be able to send these quick messages and get important information out there, but then you have to balance that with the specialness of taking that time to craft a letter.

Jonathan: Tom mentioned a moment ago that in a day and age when a lot of people are connected to the internet, many people still aren’t. You’ve made it possible for people to enjoy Pen Pals, not just online but over the phone.

Max: Yes, we are really committed to making sure that people that don’t have access to the internet or who don’t like using the internet, can still have our full offering. Both Pen Pals and our previous commission Ask For Sophie are available on local rate telephone numbers as well. So, you can call up and sit with a cup of tea and just listen over the phone too.