Joys of Modern Life: 12. E-Mail
Tuesday 01 September 1998
Mail bonding is one of life's greatest delights. Look around your office at all those dedicated workers tip-tapping away. The latest report to be filed? Not on your life. Something more deeply subversive is going on - affairs being conducted, reputations slaughtered, Coronation Street being dissected. And all those jokes about Clinton, Lewinsky and that cigar. We are constantly being told that we are working longer and harder than ever before, but don't believe a word of it. It's just that everyone wants to know electronically who went home with whom the night before, across the world.
And don't listen to those who pull long faces and bemoan the death of the traditional letter. It's not e-mail that did it, it was the telephone. As soon as mothers clocked on that fights and tantrums on Boxing Day could be solved by ringing up Granny instead of chaining the little dears to the kitchen table with their thank you notes, the written missive was doomed.
But e-mail is actually reviving the art of letter writing. Somewhere deep within every human lurks the desire to receive a communication which cannot be read by anyone else. Letters can be steamed open. Faxes are seen by half the office. E-mails, however, can be opened silently, read, replied to and sent before even your closest neighbour has the merest sniff of what is going on.
In fact e-mail is the biggest boom in note and letter writing since the birth of the postal service and the invention of the postcard in the 19th century (around a third of Americans and a quarter of Britons are said to have some sort of access to e-mail). And what you Luddites easily forget is that the golden age of letter writing was when you could send a letter to your lover in the morning and have a reply in the afternoon rather than waiting three days for a muddy, torn envelope pushed through your door.
It's true that, by using e-mail, we are unlikely to have vast collections of letters like those of the poet Pope (who incidentally asked for all his letters back before they were published so that he could "improve" them). But then, in the world of modern communications, it's only those with their eye on posterity who are likely to send them anyway. Most people just wouldn't bother at all.
Actually there's something horrible about the thought of old Alexander finessing his letter ("Hmmm maybe another rhyming couplet here before the page turn? Anyone know a rhyme for verisimilitude?"). The joy - and terror - of e-mails is that they are so impulsive, so of the minute with no capital letters and no proper grammar, that they reflect all too cruelly what people are thinking (from email@example.com - monica. sorry. it's over. gotta go and invade somewhere and buy flowers for hillary before she beats me up. bill. ps i need my dress back).
This summer, historians were appalled to learn that Princess Margaret had destroyed hundreds of the Queen Mother's letters in a tidy-up at the palace. But I think that our formidable matriarch is cleverer than that . I'm sure she switched from snailmail years ago to be rude about her daughters-in-law, the Blair government and the butler without her busybody daughter poking her nose in. If only her royal ancestor had had the same advantage. Then it could have all been so different, eh Bill?
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