The languages that time forgot

'Excuse me while I get out my big spotted red handkerchief and snuffle into it'
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The Independent Online

On Monday morning on Radio 4 a new series called Dead Media started. It was intended to celebrate outmoded means of communication, and the first show dealt with the line of semaphore towers that, in Napoleonic times, was built to zip messages from the Admiralty in London to the Navy at Portsmouth.

On Monday morning on Radio 4 a new series called Dead Media started. It was intended to celebrate outmoded means of communication, and the first show dealt with the line of semaphore towers that, in Napoleonic times, was built to zip messages from the Admiralty in London to the Navy at Portsmouth.

Not being a Home Counties person, I knew nothing about it. I had no idea that they could get the time according to Greenwich from London to Portsmouth in an incredible 13 seconds, just by dropping a wooden arm here and there. I had no idea that you could still see one of the towers, at Chatley Heath near Cobham, restored and working. Nor had I suspected that the only thing that temporarily prevented the system from working (apart from nightfall) was air pollution in London. If there was a pea-soup fog, you couldn't see from one tower to the next, so they had to send a horseman with the message through south London till he reached the first tower with a clear sight of the next in the line, and then transfer his message to the semaphore...

Not having known anything about that before, I can't feel nostalgic about it. But there must have been people in the 1840s who mourned its passing.

"I miss the clashing and bashing of the old semaphore arms," they would have said when it was closed down. Or perhaps someone in south London said one day, "I wonder: whatever happened to that horseman in naval uniform who used to come riding past so fast sometimes? Always on foggy days, for some reason..."

Then the memory faded, and people forgot all about the semaphore, because the telegraph had come in. And then people forgot all about the telegraph because the telephone had come in...

Odd how what one generation takes for granted is a misty memory for the next. I knew semaphore because we learnt it in the Scouts, and very useful it was, too, in Latin lessons, when you could transmit rudimentary silent messages. But semaphore is no longer used; nor, I gather, is Morse, so our children will not have the faintest idea what we are talking about when we say "Dot dash dot dash..."; nor do they know what we are talking about when we say, "pea-soup fog", because air pollution is now much less in London and young people have never seen the kind of smog that reduces visibility to a few feet. Talking of pea-soup fog, when did you last eat pea soup? When did anyone last have sago or tapioca or junket?

Those are all small losses and, in the case of junket, much to be applauded. But, as they say every time a language dies because there is no one left to speak it, all the losses add up. And occasionally they signify something more important. The other day, for instance, I suddenly remembered a gadget that my father bought and screwed on to the front of our car. It was a piece of plastic like a transparent ploughshare. The idea, believe it or not, was to keep insects off the windscreen. Some bright spark had worked out that the oncoming air that splattered insects on to the windscreen all passed through a small space just above the front of the bonnet, so if you put a little spoiler there, it would divert all flying objects from the windscreen. In those days such a thing was a godsend; I can clearly remember our windscreen at night becoming almost opaque with the little squashed bodies of insect road casualties...

You don't see them any more. Those little insect-diverters. Windscreens don't get clogged up with dead insects any more. I would guess the melancholy truth is that we don't have nearly so many insects as we used to. Chemicals; modern farming; threat to wildlife...

And platform tickets. Remember platform tickets? If you just wanted to go on to a station to meet someone or spot trains, you paid a penny for a platform ticket. Then they abolished them, maybe because unscrupulous passengers were going long distances on a platform ticket. I hadn't thought about them for a long time. But I thought of them the other day, when I was helping someone to change trains at Bath Spa station and nearly got arrested in a sudden random ticket inspection...

Ah, memories. Excuse me while I get out my big spotted red handkerchief, of the type that tramps used to have on the end of a stick, and snuffle into it...

Red spotty hankies. That's something you don't see much any more. Tramps, too. When did anyone last see a proper old-fashioned tramp?

Mr Kington will be spending the weekend in a home for the dangerously nostalgic. He will be back, fully cured, on Monday.

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