Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Notes on the telegram

There are numerous ways to communicate with people nowadays, be it email, text, phone, Facebook, Twitter or Skype, each with their varying degrees of urgency and intimacy*. A text at midnight is more intimate than a lunchtime email, perhaps (Marshall McLuhan's the medium is the message, coined in 1964, is more valid than ever). Then there are the more old-fashioned ways of communicating, such as face to face (soon to be an anachronism, according to Susan Greenfield** in the Telegraph, and mocked here in the Guardian), letter, greetings card, postcard, carrier pigeon, smoke signals and telegram. Hand written missives add a personal touch that electronic data can't convey; an e-card or birthday text smacks of laziness; a hand-written card feels personal and sincere, and takes effort (ie buying it, writing in it, taking it to a postbox). In fact, anything hand written nowadays, so unusual has the method become, that it automatically adds a personal touch.

But there's something about a telegram, even though it's typed, that supersedes all other forms of communication, at least in terms of urgency and importance. Though largely obsolete today, thanks to text messaging and email (and the telegram's nearest relative in terms of brevity, Twitter), it's still possible to send one (though not to everywhere in the world). The familiar (mainly known through films) way of writing a telegram is a short message (each word used to cost money), to the point, and with every sentence broken up with the word STOP. This was because in the early days there was no full-stop STOP. The best ones (ie those not announcing a death) are punchy and pithy, and there's a fine tradition of famous people sending funny ones. Here's Dorothy Parker responding to a news editor hassling her for copy on her honeymoon: 'TOO F***ING BUSY. AND VICE VERSA.'

Though the traditional telegram was usually delivered the same day, and the message passed through electronic wire, the actual telegram had to be delivered by a telegram messenger, usually on a bike. I was vaguely reminded of Kevin Costner in the Postman (a remake of the Italian Il Postino), getting the mail delivered, no matter what, even during post-apocalyptic America (the year: 2013 – the future seems to be getting nearer and nearer nowadays) where probably no one can write or read anyway.

Our main knowledge of telegrams, though, comes through war films, where a telegraph messenger coming up the path to a suburban house with those vital words in his hands, usually to inform the mother/wife that their son/husband has been killed in battle. This was as true in the Vietnam War as World War II.

Email and instant messaging may be the modern equivalents of the telegram but the technology hasn't really progressed that much: the telegraph had to pass between electric wires and now the internet passes through fibre optic ones. The main difference is emails don't require a boy on a bike to deliver them. If they did, they'd be a lot more bikes on the roads.

Yes, it's happened again. The Guardian's blog section recently published a post on telegrams (needless to say, I started this one months ago). In particular, it concerns the last telegram to be sent from India (it was yesterday). According to most of the comments, the post abounds in errors, but that's the Guardian for you. Barnflakes, on the other hand, prides itself on factual accuracy.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Nothing is invented
Email etiquette (The Guardian recently pinched the idea. Read it here. Yes, I'm definitely getting paranoid)

* I've managed to communicate with someone over the course of an evening via mobile, landline, text, email, Gmail chat, Skype and Skype messenger – and each has their own mood, dictated to a certain extent by the method of communication.

** "If we're going to be living in a world where face-to-face interaction, unpractised as it is, becomes uncomfortable, then such an aversion to real life, three-dimensional communication combined with a more collective identity, may be changing the very nature of personal relationships themselves."

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