In the course of research the other day, reading a series of 1950s telegrams of the "DEAR-JOSEPHINE-COLON-WHAT-A-PLEASURE-EXCLAMATION-MARK-CAN-YOU- LUNCH-WEDNESDAY-QUESTION-MARK-IVY-QUESTION-MARK" variety, I lapsed into a familiar fit of bitterness about the fun that went out of our lives when the soulless Post Office abolished that wonderful means of communication.
The magic of the medium first became apparent to me as a child. There were the tragic telegrams in war movies, with English roses summoning up all their courage to take the envelope from the delivery boy. And in the Wodehouse canon there were all those criss-crossing wires saying things like: "WHEN MEET REMEMBER PERFECT STRANGERS" or "OH BERTIE, IS THIS WISE? WILL NOT IT CAUSE YOU NEEDLESS PAIN SEEING ME? SURELY MERELY TWISTING KNIFE WOUND. MADELAINE."
Then at university there was the fun of a professor, who had perfected the telegram as an unscrupulous social device. Desmond Williams - the most unreliable man anyone ever met - liked to keep his options open by sending to the same person two telegrams simultaneously: "CONFIRM LUNCH TODAY SHELBOURNE" and "DEEPLY REGRET CANNOT LUNCH TODAY".
I remember well my very first telegram, which was addressed to my great- uncle Parnell in County Cork. A man who had acquired his nickname because of a youthful enthusiasm for the great Irish leader, he would have been in his early nineties and I in my early teens. My father, a believer in delegation, instructed me to communicate that Parnell's sister had died in Dublin but that her body was being dispatched to be buried in the family graveyard. I dictated importantly: "REGRET GREAT AUNT HANNAH DIED THIS MORNING STOP REMAINS BEING REMOVED TO BANTEER TOMORROW STOP TRAIN LEAVING 11.15 AM." My deeply distressed relative clambered on his bike and cycled furiously the 10 miles or so to my aunt and rushed in shouting: "How in the name of Jaysus am I supposed to stop Hannie's remains being removed from Dublin? What kind of people are they there at all, thinking I can stop a train?" A salutary lesson about the need to avoid ambiguity.
Speaking of "at all", for years the Irish propensity for saying this has been ridiculed in jokes like: "Yellow line - no parking at all; Double yellow lines - no parking at all at all." Nowadays, while it rarely crosses an Irish lip, "at all" has become an integral part of Essex-lingo. Whereas with us it was simply a meaningless manifestation of our garrulousness, the Essex version, meant to be polite, is actually often offensive. Rather than saying: "Which doctor are you here to see?" or: "May I have your credit card, please?" one is now asked: "Do you know who you're here to see at all?" or: "Do you have your credit card at all?" implying by turns stupidity or incompetence.
Some people seem very quick to see incompetence - or at least illiteracy - where it may not exist. In my first diary I mentioned climbing with two friends on to a roundabout "on top, respectively, of two horses and a farmyard bird". My accountant, aka my pedant, has passed to me a letter which read: "Dear Paul, As Ruth's professional pedant, you should explain the use of `respectively'. If it means anything, it means that she rode both horses while her friends shared the bird." So why should you think that odd, Nick? Should you not have had the delicacy to realise that I may be larger and my two friends friendlier than is customary in your circle?
Now for a few more entries to the common-cold competition, none of which is for the squeamish. Richard Percy's was philosophical: "The cat-sick on the shag-pile carpet of life." Pat White revoltingly suggested "mushy pea soup" as conveying "the colour, flavour, density and Englishness" of the condition. James Johnstone offered three horrid definitions: "semolina in my sinuses; or, my septum needs a new washer; or, I've got a head full of congealed porridge". But had there been a prize for the most disgusting it would have gone to Bryan Conner Cooper for: "A head akin to a bladder, full to bursting with warm oysters in raw egg white and insecurely tied". Runners-up and winner next week.