Irritations of Modern Life: 16; Fax Machines

EDWARD LEAR could have done justice to the foul and beastly fax, its slippery paper, smudged print and insistent intrusiveness, with five lines: "There was an old man with an axe..."

My telephone rings. "Is that Brian Sewell's number?" enquires an unbearably chirpy voice from sarf-east Essex. "Yes. Who wants him?" I grudgingly ask, suspecting an imminent sales pitch for Tupperware. "Oh, nobody," is the response of this Tracey, this Sharon, whose voice on second hearing has something of a whine of American waitress at breakfast suggesting eggs-over-easy with a drench of maple syrup, and I have a vision of her on the office desk, legs-over-easy with a boy from Billericay. "Nobody wants him - I'm just ringing to get his fax number."

"I have no fax. I am a Luddite."

"A what?" I despair at the thought of having to explain, and suggest that she should, now that we are speaking to each other, tell me the contents of the fax to which I am inaccessible. Her "Oh no" quite certainly qualifies her for tuition with Professor Higgins - "It's far too long." "Then put it in an envelope with a first-class stamp." "Oh no" - again my ears flinch - "We don't do that in this office any more."

The office was that of a major museum, the fax a press release reporting the appointment of a new panjandrum to its board - hardly a matter of operatic urgency - and Sharon-cum-Tracey was eventually persuaded to send it to the office of the Evening Standard, whither I go only for an odd hour every day.

The fax machine there is in a state of constant Sorcerer's Apprentice hyperactivity, a Pelion on Ossa of flimsy sheets piling up as the Commission of the Heritage, the Lottery, the Millennium and Loyd Grossman's Museums and Galleries send me information on this electronic Paul Revere. Art galleries implore me to attend symposiums, artists tell me that they are now on the Internet, television channels advise me of broadcasts imminent by other art critics.

These are things I neither need nor want to know. The faxes slide, slither and slip, as lubricious as genital skin dowsed in sexual lubricant, and are disorderly. Their pages offer literary surrealisms from time to time, but these are too small a compensation for those that are upside down or twice as long as they should be, as well as in a floppy jumble. Pelion slides from the desk. Ossa, half-sorted, remains in place, but "Sod it", I say, "a pox on all facsimilists" - and into the waste-paper bin their slimy, soapy, mucous papers go.

It would be madness to have a fax at home and daily endure this tedious torment - calculated to induce what Lear described as a "bilious and skrogfrodious temperament." Dear Lear - "There was an old man with an axe..."

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