LAST TELEGRAM ENDS MSGE
WHAT happened to telegrams, with their pithy content of "telegraphese", cutting down on costs charged at so much a word? They got replaced first by the fax then by e-mail, that's what.
Except in India. There you can still send a telegram: "CONGRATS WHAT NOW?" (always in capitals) in place of sending a longish formal letter. But not for long. Next month the last telegram in the world will have been sent when the state-owned telecom company shuts down its telegraph service.
Telegrams and their close cousin, the telex, left a rich linguistic legacy, especially in the newspaper industry where thousands of words in telegraphese would pour in daily from correspondents in every corner of the world. The prefix "UN" was used to save a fortune in superfluous words.
For example: Peter Younghusband, doyen of foreign correspondents in Africa at the time representing the London Daily Mail - once travelled to some remote village, accompanied by his competitor from the London Daily Express, a man named Monks.
It turned out to be not the most exciting news event so Younghusband dressed things up a bit with a lively account of the excitement of getting there. Next day Monks got a peeved telex from his office: "WHY YOU UNSWIM CROCODILE-INFESTED RIVER LIKE YOUNGHUSBAND?"
Cables between foreign correspondents and their newsdesks have become part of the legend.
The London Daily Telegraph had a policy of sending in its man on a news story and leaving him there for quite a time in case something more developed. He would be left kicking his heels long after all his colleagues had departed. One fellow who had been languishing for weeks in some part of South-East Asia eventually telexed his news editor: "BOO!"
Back came the reply: "BOO OR UNBOO YOU STAY"
There was also the fellow who had interviewed Sir Roy Welensky, prime minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. In his report he had not mentioned Sir Roy's age. The newsdesk in London could have looked it up in their library or in Who's Who? Instead they sent a cable.
The correspondent was woken from his slumbers in a Salisbury hotel to be handed the message: "HOW OLD ROY WELENSKY?"
He sent a prompt reply: "OLD ROY WELENSKY FINE HOW YOU?"
Some foreign correspondents could become rather testy in their communications with head office. One had been peppered with ridiculous requests. Eventually he sent the message: "YOU UNINFORMED UNREASONABLE UNPROFESSIONAL. RUDE LETTER FOLLOWS".
The above-mentioned Younghusband a bulky giant of a man, known to his colleagues as Bigfoot, after the legendary American grizzly bear used an exchange of cables as the title of a hilarious book he wrote about his days in Africa.
A certain correspondent had not sent any material for some time. He received a sarcastic cable: "PRESUME YOU ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN AFRICA". To which he responded: "EVERY MEAL A BANQUET EVERY NIGHT A HONEYMOON" (the title of Younghusband's book.
Yep, them were the days. Nostalgia's not what it used to be.
PART of the trick as a foreign correspondent was to locate a telex machine. Otherwise there was no way of getting your material out.
In Angola in days of yore, there was a gents' outfitters in the town of Nova Lisboa called Nova Yorque. This shop had the only telex in town. Messages from it were automatically headed "NOVA YORQUE". Foreign correspondents made a beeline for this machine.
A colleague once telexed through a despatch, to receive an indignant reply from the office: "WHAT THE HELL YOU DOING IN NEW YORK?"
Yep, nostalgia's not what it used to be.
WHAT was the world's first telegram? It's thought to have been one that read: "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT", sent wonderingly in 1844 in Morse Code over an experimental line between Washington and Baltimore.
What will be the world's last? No doubt the telecoms folk in India will share it with us by putting it on the internet.
"I'M PLEASED to say your husband is not seriously ill. All he needs is some rest and peace and quiet. Here are some sleeping pills."
"That's a relief, doctor. How often must I give them to him?"
"Actually they're for you."
Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.