In Britain we have an organization called "Parcel Force." It delivers what, in some other English-speaking countries, are, I gather, known as "packages."
We still send "parcels" through the post (mail) here, and we even on occasion use the word as a verb – "to parcel."
But if we do mischievously manage to hang on to some of our old verbal eccentricities, the fact is that "parcels," even in Britain, "ain't" (like the old gray mare) what they used to be.
Things have changed, technologically speaking. Long gone, thank goodness, are those brown-paper strips with glue on the back you had to lick.
That kind of tape had two major disadvantages. One was the skill it demanded gauging the requisite degree of tongue moisture. Too little and the glue remained dormant. Too much and it wiped off. A sponge was not the answer; the strip became helplessly soggy and disintegrated.
Its second disadvantage was its indescribably nasty flavor.
Today, of course, licking is no longer needed. Duct tape, brown parcel tape, and clear plastic tape have all made life easier.
However, it's attitudes to parceling that have changed. My mother was (in my admittedly partial observation) one of the great parcelmakers of her day. Nobody did up a parcel with such thorough dedication. Tissue paper, newspaper, cardboard, decorative wrapping paper (for birthdays or Christmas), tough brown outer paper, and, finally, string were all part (and parcel) of the equation.
Most of these things were recycled – well before ecological necessity was thought of. But I remember she did have a seemingly endless supply of new string. It was coarse and very tough – twisted strands of red and white.
The final trussing of a parcel was triumphant. If it had wanted to escape, it couldn't have. She would have defeated Houdini. The strings crossed over and under each other, around the parcel, and back again several times in different places, knotted tightly at intersections with an intricacy to defy the wiliest scoutmaster.
You could be certain that whatever she put in a parcel, however breakable, would arrive intact. She could have sent you a blown egg with perfect confidence.
The other evening I witnessed a scene that suggested the imminent extinction of the craft of parceling.
Our amateur drama club is about to present "Rope" by Patrick Hamilton. There is an episode in this play when the young ingénue, Leila, constructs a parcel. It is to contain some precious antiquarian books for Sir Johnstone Kentley, distinguished collector. The year is 1929 (long before plastic bags or Bubblewrap), the place, London, and although Leila is a bright young thing, the task would not have fazed her; she would have learned this job at her mother's knee.
The problem was that Gillian, the young actress playing Leila, had managed to demonstrate through several rehearsals that she hadn't the faintest notion how to make a parcel using brown paper and string. Watching her reduced all of us (and her) to helpless laughter.
Acting with props is difficult. You have to remember your character, your lines, your timing, and make it look as if the use of your prop is the most natural thing in the world. In the end, Walter, our director, decided that enough risibility was enough. If Gillian were to come to the next rehearsal 10 minutes early, he would give her a lesson in old-fashioned parcelmaking.
And this is what happened: "Watch me carefully," he said professorially, taking hold of books, paper, and string. "Now let's arrange the books. Next, the brown paper. And now the string. We'll start by making a slip knot."
He pulled the string tightly ... and, caught between two books, it tore the paper. "Oops!" he said.
So Gillian fetched more brown paper, and Walter decided to use it double thick. He started his parcel again.
"That's better. Now, you see, you feed this end of the string through the slip knot – thus – and then just pull it hard," he instructed. "The slip knot tightens, which why it is called a slip-kno – oops!"
Walter's slip knot had failed to close, and the string flew out of it. Who was giggling now? We all were, Walter included. It appeared that he didn't know much more about parcelmaking than Gillian.
Finally he managed a passable parcel, and Gillian seems to have learned something, because her next attempt was better. Sir Johnstone Kentley's comment – "That's a wonderful parcel, isn't it?" – sounded almost convincing.
I modestly didn't mention it, but if they really wanted to know how to make a good parcel, they could have asked me. Friends will vouch for the fact that my parcels – constructed with hyperbolically elaborate care – belong to another era and are almost impossible to get into. It's a maternal inheritance, I suppose.