Getting to know...Dinah Johnson

by Stuart Lennon

Getting to know – Dinah Johnson, founder of The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society

Customer and listener of 1857, Robert, put Stuart onto the Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society, which he joined instantly.

Stuart got into with Dinah, to find out more...

What’s behind your concept?

I think the main motivation is wanting everyone to experience the loveliness of writing and receiving handwritten letters through the post. I worry that we might have lost touch with writing letters to our friends and family and wanted to create a handwritten letter revival, as well as a quiet revolution in the art of intimacy. The internet and social media are great in many ways but nothing beats a proper letter.

There is a manifesto for the Society but in a nutshell The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society is about: 

  • Inspiring people to write handwritten letters to each other.
  • Uniting letter writers in a bid to boldly cling on to the dying art of writing letters.
  • Putting the fun and meaning back into personal correspondence.
  • Valuing the beauty of an individual’s handwriting.
  • Encouraging anyone and everyone to put pen to paper and sending a letter to someone special.
  • Gathering together everything to do with handwritten letters in one place.

 Who is your site for?

I guess the first people who might find it will be those who enjoy writing letters and have a love of stationery but it’s totally inclusive, i.e. it’s for everybody. If people want to join the Society that is fantastic but you don’t need to be a member to write a letter to someone. I would say “Just go for it!”

Do you take notes?

All the time. I’m always in awe of people who can remember everything they are thinking about but if I don’t make a note about a thought or idea or important job I need to do at the time it takes a while for it to recycle in my brain so I write things down on whatever’s to hand. We have several of those handy blocks of paper around the house (dressing table, kitchen work surface) but it can be a car park ticket, receipts from my wallet, an old paper bag. Any pen and any paper will do! I always write my blogs out in pencil first in a selection of notebooks and always have a list on the go. So yes, definitely a note-taker.

What’s next for you?

The most exciting thing to be happening next is The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society’s inaugural outing to Purbeck Valley Folk Festival in August. Not only have we been given the opportunity to spread the word and encourage people to have a go at writing a letter (or postcard), but Plankbridge Shepherd’s Huts have kindly said we can borrow their Writer’s Hut as a wow factor. It has been in a winning garden at Chelsea Flower Show in 2012, spent time in Kate Humble’s garden, and author Tracy Chevalier has even worked on her novels in there.  It also regularly goes to National Trust properties such as Thomas Hardy’s Cottage and Kingston Lacy. I’m so excited we have it for the festival.

 I’m also working on a Letter Writing Day at the beautiful Leeson House Field Studies Centre in Dorset to offer to local Primary schools, from the autumn term onwards. We trialled it back in the spring and it went really well. The letters were totally the children’s own with no reading or marking from the grown-ups. It was lovely to walk down to the post box at the end of the drive to post our letters. It gave a sense of the whole process.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve had a lovely time setting up The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society.  A friend helped me to get started with the website (I’m not very techy) and although it’s quite basic it’s had some great feedback from friends and family and a few famous folk. Paul Mayhew-Archer (co-writer of The Vicar of Dibley) said he loved it, as did both Madeleine Floyd (artist, illustrator and designer) and Abigail Thaw (daughter of John Thaw, aka Inspector Morse). Peter James (international best-selling author) commented on one of my blogs, Berlie Doherty (children’s author) has been spreading the word, and George Clarke off the telly follows me on Twitter.

It’s been fantastic being in touch with lots of letter writers initially via social media and then via handwritten letters, and especially wonderful to see handwritten letters aren’t lost to the world just yet.

Have I mentioned I love stationery?

For me the stationery things I love the most are a softish HB pencil (they do differ, weirdly), lined A5 notebooks with pretty covers, my writing desk from a local junk shop for £20, white erasers, arty cards, postcards, stickers (although not often used unless I’m writing to children), ring-binders and dividers, and Basildon Bond paper and envelopes.

Describe yourself in three objects

That’s a really hard but fab question. At this moment in time I think:

  • A watering can.
  • My favourite mug.
  • A CD player.

Notebook, Notes App or both?

Notebook. I might occasionally use the notebook thingy on my phone but then forget to look at it.

What’s in your pencil case right now?

Open Book Pencil Case

Not so much a pencil case as a pencil box (see photo). I was given it for Christmas and love it. It’s a box in the style of a book. It feels like the contents are a secret. It might need a sort out as currently it’s home to:

6 pretty (“special”) stamps
9 blue 2ndClass stamps
3 red 1stClass stamps
2 Large Letter stamps
2 air mail stickers
“Special Stamps for 2018” mini calendar/leaflet (very handy)
2 wax seals (a D and an M)
A stub of sealing wax
Medium size Pritt stick
Florescent yellow highlighter
Craft scalpel
2 HB pencils
5 gift shop pencils (Hardy’s Cottage, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, 2 RAF Red Arrows, D-Day Museum Portsmouth)
5 Uni-ball eye needle pens
2 Uni-ball eye pens (black and red)
A Sharpie
3 Fountain pens
3 classic Parker roller ball pens (one from my school days)
A red pen with “The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society” engraved on it (birthday present).
1 ink cartridge
1 refillable cartridge
Two spare calligraphy nibs
Large white paperclip

Pencil, ballpoint, gel, or fountain pen? 

I like to mix and match but I currently like the Uni-ball eye micro black (sometimes blue).

Which three famous people, (living or dead) would you like to have dinner with?

I would like to invite Stephen Fry, Michael Morpurgo and Dawn French. They all seem fascinating and funny and it would be great to pick their brains on love, life and the universe.  Also they have all kindly replied to letters I’ve sent them. Stephen Fry said “Bravo for setting up The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society”, Michael Morpurgo has sent several lovely arty cards, and Dawn French thought I was “clearly certifiably bonkers in a delightful way!”

Please could I have Benedict Cumberbatch on standby, just in case one of them can’t make it, and Kate Rusby for some folky entertainment?

What’s the best thing about the place you live?

In the garden we have a sheet of corrugated iron especially for slow worms. It’s amazing to see how many are underneath it each day (7 this morning!).  More generally the stunning countryside and views along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.  And on a basic level I want to say running water and flushing loos – I never take those things for granted. 

What’s your most treasured possession?

My letter writing shed up the garden. I share it with a cardboard cut-out of Horatio Nelson (long story). It’s currently full of festival gubbins but usually it’s a lovely space to escape to, looking back down the garden. It’s carpeted and has my writing desk in there, a Lloyd’s Loom chair, fairy lights and a fan heater for the winter. There’s a couple of shelves all higgledy-piggledy with lots of ornaments and motivational plaques of varying sentimental value, and a little sign in Welsh hanging on the door which says “Croeso”.

Letter Writing Shed

Where are some of your favourite Stationery spots on the Internet?

For me nothing quite beats standing in an actual stationery shop but I don’t know if many exist anymore apart from the big ones. However, having said that I just looked up the one that was in my old home town and it’s still there and on social media!