The case of the vanishing telegram
Those of us who are still distressed over the disappearance of the smoke signal and the jungle drum as major methods of communication are taking very hard the news that the telegram is being phased out in England. The prospect has driven the London columnist Katherine Whitehorn to suggest that her readers send telegrams of protest, urging: BRITISH TELEGRAMS MUST NOT STOP STOP STOP THIS MOVE.
Any supporting argument ought to be functional rather than nostalgic. There are things that can be said in a telegram that cannot be said another way - this should be the test. In such a spirit we challenge anybody to translate into a letter or a phone call Robert Benchley's famous telegram from Venice: STREETS FULL OF WATER STOP PLEASE ADVISE.
If the joke as an art form means nothing to you, think what the state of American literature would be without the telegram. As everybody knows, the young Ernest Hemingway developed his terse, frugal style partly from cabling stories out of Paris as correspondent for the Toronto Star. When he turned to fiction, it came out like this: ''Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream.'' Hemingway's staccato sentences practically click-clack off the page, disciplining the typewriters of young authors who may never have sent a telegram in their lives but write, under the master's influence, as if they were paying day rates for each word spent.
William Saroyan discovered his subject matter - what he entitled the ''human comedy'' - as a messenger boy for Western Union. To the end of his long career, the wild miscellany of emotions in his stories resembled a random sampling of a day's telegrams - congratulations, condolences, urgent requests for money, heart-rending pleas for forgiveness, all exuberantly mixed up together.
The specialized English of telegramese has stimulated the fancies of a number of British writers, including Evelyn Waugh. In the frantic sputters of telegram-English, Waugh seemed to find the perfect form of self-mockery for the hysteria and confusion of the 20th century - a century he cared little for. He took pleasure in inserting telegrams in his novels, inventing such horribly ingenious money-saving words as ''steptaking'' and ''upbreak.'' Carried away by telegram lingo, one Waugh character implored another to CABLE FULLIER OFTENER PROMPTLIER.
And where would the movies have been all these years without the telegram? The knock on the door, the youthful treble piping, ''Telegram, sir'' - this constituted a scene beloved by vintage scriptwriters. What suspense a resourceful actor or actress could bring to slitting the envelope and slowly - oh, so slowly! - extracting the yellow piece of fateful paper. Did the oil well come in? Does boy still love girl, or vice versa? Will Johnny come marching home? A composer could, and often did, cram a small symphony on the soundtrack while every emotion known to the human race quivered across the countenance of the telegram-reading ham.
What will take the place of the telegram in England, or anywhere else. The singing telegram? The dancing telegram? - now turning into a bad stag-party joke. Or just maybe ''Flutagrams,'' a Boston service advertised in three categories: solo flute, duet, or the budget penny whistle. Then there's the animalgram, already celebrated in literature by an Ann Beattie short story featuring a man dressed as a bear delivering a birthday greeting to one of those desolated Beattie wives.
The mail is not getting oftener or promptlier, to quote Waugh. The phone company is pushing for a 25-cent pay-phone rate in New York. The Village Voice foresees a possible revival for the postcard, but we have our doubts.
The questions haunt us. Are we facing an upbreak of many ways of communication, and not just the telegram? Is there any steptaking to avoid a future in which all messages will be delivered either by computer or by out-of-work actors carrying balloons? Please advise.