How I nearly turned into John Birt

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The police vans started down by the river: one by the Savoy, a couple further along towards the Temple, a bunch of them up by Essex Court. Little knots of desultory, sweltering plods stood around, shifting from foot to foot in the unwholesome London humidity, the air like hot mud, heavy and gritty with the promise of a storm which never comes.

As my taxi slowed to a crawl, I asked one of the coppers what was up. "Animal rights demo," he said, and there they were, round the corner, caged up behind barriers across from the High Court. As far as I could tell, some animal rights person had been banged up. The other animal rights people wanted him out. A woman was ranting incomprehensibly through a megaphone in a voice of incomparable ugliness, like a lathe. You'd gnaw your arm off to escape from her embrace.

"Call this justice?" said the banners. Indeed they do. The High Court building has a logo, now: a fake, cheap California Heritage script: Royal Courts of Justice, it says, unequivocally. How long before someone prosecutes, under the Trades Descriptions Act?

The animal rights people looked terrible, as always, thin, grumpy and put-upon; but, watching them as I drove past in my taxi, I thought: "The London Pneumatic Telegraph system", and I thought: "The BBC World Service".

If you had lived with my brain for as long as I have, you'd be used to the sort of bollocks it comes up with. Normally, I pay no attention, but this stuff was beyond the pale. So as we drove up Chancery Lane, I ignored the taxi driver ("Ere. Wunt mind roddin' aht one o'them lady barristers. Inna wig an wotsit. Ar bart you?") and concentrated on working out what my brain was trying to tell me.

The Pneumatic Telegraph seemed a good place to start. It was one of those wonderful Victorian inventions which seem like a dream but were actually real: a network of pipes running under London, along which messages could be sent, in those little metal tubes, blown along by compressed air from outstation to sub-station to the Central Telegraph Office near St Paul's. Some great businesses or public institutions even had their own Pneumatic Telegraph terminals: a sort of heaving, puffing, thumping premonition of the Internet.

We'd been worrying about the Pneumatic Telegraph some weeks ago, having decided to use something similar in our Major Multi-Media Entertainment Project. We did a bit of research, even going so far as to visit the site of the old Central Telegraph Office, in the unspoken hope of absorbing information by some inexplicable process of ghostly morphic resonance from the pipes, probably still beneath our feet, still infinitesimally pressurised, down there, holding their breath.

But we couldn't solve the central problem, which was this: how were the message-containers routed from place to place? How did a message originating in Clerkenwell find its way via St Paul's and Holborn across to Russell Square? The answer wasn't in any of the references we could find, so we tried to work it out from first principles. We designed special containers of varying shapes and diameters. We played with the idea of weight-sensitive pneumatic switches. We fretted about the possibility of systems of flanges and cams on the containers themselves, which could be set, like combination- locks, to trigger their routing through intricate nightmares of flaps and valves.

Finally, I came upon a photograph which answered the question. There, in a great room in the Central Telegraph Office, surrounded by bank upon bank of pneumatic delivery tubes, was the one solution which had simply not occurred to us: people.

The London Pneumatic Telegraph system used people. The people collected the containers as they arrived; read the address label; and put them in the appropriate tube for the next stage of their journey.

I suddenly realised that my brain was giving me a warning. I was going the same way as the animal rights lot. The same way, too, as poor foolish John Birt, with his silly faith in Systems and Computerised Resource Databases, and his belief that an organisation like the World Service can somehow exist apart from the people who make it up. The common link is people: or, rather, not really wanting to be bothered with them. The animal rights lot find it easier to care for brute creatures. Poor silly Birt finds it cleaner and nicer and much more modern to deal with Information Systems and organisational charts. I was prepared to go to huge, complex and ultimately futile lengths, rather than imagine a concept so simple as employees who knew their job.

And I wonder whether the root of it isn't some queer kind of collective self-loathing. We are being buried beneath a daily blizzard of media images of ourselves as a truly rotten lot. Our television screens, our radios and newspapers, show us a species of murderers, drug addicts, child abusers, spendthrifts and warmongers. The smug pudgy faces of politicians upbraid us incessantly, telling us how badly we're doing and how we'd do even worse under the other lot of politicians. Doctors warn us that we're going to die. Policemen warn us that we're going to go to prison. Extremists bomb us, advertisements heckle us, and even our entertainments either show us as troubled, mad, bad and diseased, or ignore us altogether and tell us stories about things: tornadoes, spaceships, computer-drawn toys.

No wonder we are, consciously or unconsciously, writing ourselves off. We are like so many Calibans living in a hall of mirrors. But they are distorting mirrors, and people who believe not in themselves, but in animals, systems and computers, are fools. Just consider: what animal, what computer, could look at an animal rights demonstration and think of John Birt and the London Pneumatic Telegraph? To the human brain, that's peanuts; but it's lousy television, and it's definitely not news. !

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