My last post, about how communications technology affects the way we tell stories, has given me a great excuse to talk about one of my very favourite things: telegrams.
I'm fond of telegrams. I like old things that involve words.
I own a telegram, actually. My dad's old company sent it to my parents a few days after I was born, congratulating them (kind of a cool thing to own, right?), so it's 26 years old. I can't remember the last time I heard anyone mention a telegram, apart from me mentioning my one. And when he was growing up, my dad worked as a telegram boy in his local post office, and loved it, and wanted to do it for the rest of his life. He might have, except that someone intervened and he became an engineer (which he also loved).
In their time, telegrams were not just a form of communication, they were an art. As they were usually charged by the word, it was in the interest of the sender to keep them short. Robert Benchley's famous telegram to Harold Ross when he arrived in Venice was a masterpiece of brevity: Streets full of water. Please advise.
Will Rogers used to do the world's shortest pre-Twitter column, by sending a daily telegram that was syndicated all over the world. They can be found here and some of them are pretty good.
Then there's Mark Twain's 'Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated', which was delivered by telegram, Peter Sellers cabling his wife downstairs to ask her to bring him up a coffee [my mother and I, when we lived together, used to text each other rather than calling from room to room, which we felt was vulgar. Our house is *really* small], and the lovely telegram sent by a British biologist investigating platypus eggs: Monotremes Oviparous, Ovum Meroblastic. Indeed, and so say all of us.
JFK used to joke that he received a telegram from his father during his election campaign that said Dear Jack. Don't buy one more vote than necessary. I'll be damned if I pay for a landslide.
Some classic put-downs were delivered by telegram. I quite like this exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill, even though I'm sure it's apocryphal. Shaw sent Churchill tickets to his opening night.
Shaw: Here are two tickets. Bring a friend, if you have one.
Churchill: Impossible to make it opening night. Will attend second night, if you have one.
And Dorothy Parker famously cabled a friend of hers who had just given birth (and who had been boring Dorothy senseless about her pregnancy) to say Congrats Mary - we all knew you had it in you.
When I first started college, I had only owned a mobile phone for a few months and I lived in hope that text messages would take over from telegrams when it came to providing short funny anecdotes like these.
Hasn't happened yet.
I was also hoping Twitter or Facebook might do it, but alas not yet. Either we're getting less funny, or our celebrities getting more crap, or maybe there is just such a massive volume of content being generated nowadays that anything funny gets lost. Whatever it is, I miss telegrams.