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Pigeons, quill pens and cablese...

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Recalling a time whencommunication was not instant.

So the life of the telegram is over.

Given the major changes that have taken place in methods of communication during the past half century, this is no surprise, and it would be difficult to make a strong case against its abolition. Nevertheless, for those of my generation, the telegram provokes many memories, and its departure is inevitably accompanied by a touch of nostalgia.

In the early 1960s we lived for two years on a canal boat on the outskirts of London. We were unable to arrange for a telephone to be installed and, in that era, of course, there were no mobile phones. At the time, I was working as a journalist on The Times , and it was important to be able to communicate — in both directions — with the paper. To telephone the office, I had to walk up the road to the nearest public telephone box. When the office needed to get in touch with me, they sent a telegram, which was delivered by a young man on a bicycle.

The recollection, against the background of present-day instant communication, seems almost incredible but it was most certainly what happened. Interestingly, when my wife and I moved to our home outside Cambridge, telegrams were still in common use; sometimes in ways which now, similarly, seem incredible. For a week or so, my wife had a part-time job as a post deliverer, and her role included delivering telegrams. There was one man who regularly received telegrams telling him that he had been selected for the local football team. This was the early 1970s, but he was not unusual in not owning a telephone.

Any foreign correspondent in the 1950s and 1960s was likely to be familiar with the use of telegrams, and cables, and the “language” employed when using them, a language designed to reduce to the minimum the number of words, because payment was by the word.

There were many widely used short forms, such as the addition of “ward” or “warding” to a place to indicate that the writer was about to go there: Delhiwarding soonest is a good example of the kind of thing.

Inevitably there was often a temptation to add a note of humour to the message. A good example of this came from the American journalist Robert Benchley who, on arriving in Venice, sent a celebrated telegram to his editor in New York, which read: “Streets full of water. Please advise.”

Another example is that of a journalist who was working in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), when his newspaper planned a background feature, including a profile of the governor (this was before independence), Sir Arthur Benson. The London office bombarded the man on the spot with questions, the answers to most of which could quite easily have been found in London. Finally, he lost patience, and receiving a cable: “How old Benson?” sent his cabled reply: “Old Benson fine stop How you?”

Yet another, possibly apocryphal, example is the foreign correspondent who received from his newsroom the laconic cable: ‘Why unnews?” He replied: “Unnews goodnews”, to which the immediate riposte was “Unnews unjob”.

It was not only journalists who used cablese. One of my favourite — albeit slightly risqué — examples is recorded in a book, Dan Bana , by Stanhope White, published many years ago, covering the colonial period in Nigeria (where the author served). Discussing the problem of locusts, the author explains that the required action at that time when a swarm was seen was to note direction of flight and whether the locusts were copulating. If egg-laying was imminent, the eggs could be destroyed. A cable sent by a very senior official to his underlings read: “Very large swarm front estimated 10 miles taking 30 minutes to pass Gumsu on 11th stop. Copulating stop Resident on tour”. The recipient replied: “Stop copulating and get busy killing locusts”.

For journalists and others in the pre-computer age, telegrams and cables, and the language used in them, were the norm. For many foreign correspondents, certainly, the use of cables, and cablese, became second nature.

As communication systems have developed, and become ever more sophisticated, it would make no sense to continue using something that has been superseded by email, mobile phones, Facebook and twitter — to take just a few examples. In “my day”, similarly, it would have been absurd to use carrier pigeons and quill pens.

Accepting all that, we may perhaps be allowed a moment of regret for the passing of telegrams and cables.

bill.kirkman@gmail.com


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