Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Postcards: Hello, I'm Here and You're There

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Postcards: Hello, I'm Here and You're There

Article excerpt

Why do holiday makers still send postcards? Now that we can relay instant text messages and snapshots on our mobile phones, the postcard seems the definition of a redundant technology. By rights, it should be going the way of the telegram, but the Royal Mail tells us that no fewer than 134 million of them will be delivered in Britain this summer.

The point of the postcard is that it is a material object, with its own rituals of sending and receipt. Tourist etiquette demands that it be purchased at the place it depicts, rendered personal by a handwritten message on the back, and posted (rather than handed over) to someone back home, even if it arrives later than the person who sent it.

So the postcard is the epitome of what linguists call phatic communication: a message with no inherent content, sent for its own sake and simply saying, "Hello, I'm here and you're there." The most touching item in Martin Parr's cult book of Boring Postcards is a postcard of Reighton Sands Holiday Village, on which someone has scrawled the words "our caravan" in blue Biro, next to one of about 50 identical-looking caravans.


The compound adjective "picture-postcard", describing a scene of exaggerated prettiness, is misleading. Postcards have an inclusive, non-judgemental aesthetic. Often locally produced, they have consistently expanded our definitions of the picturesque. In postcard land, as Parr's collection shows, the Chiswick flyover and the Arndale Centre in Crossgates are as worthy of attention as the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower.

The messages are also a social leveller. Before the arrival of the postcard in the late 19th century, there were Byzantine rules about how to open and sign off a letter, depending on one's social status and familiarity with the addressee. It was bad manners to send a short letter because the recipient often had to pay for the postage. …

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