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Wednesday, 8 March 2006
Soul of wit

Ben MacIntyre in The Times has some choice words to say about telegrams:

Mark Twain once received the following telegram from his publisher: NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS. Twain replied: NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES TWO DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS DO 2 PAGES.

Twain was making an important point about brevity, time and quality of writing: for many writers, writing at length is easier, but not always better.

No invention more clearly demonstrated the benefits of brevity than the telegram itself. E-mails promote prolixity. When one can download and despatch War and Peace at the push of a button, there is little incentive to be succinct. Text messages are mere scraps of communication, not intended for preservation. Telegrams, by contrast, were expensive and short: every word counted.

In 1929, Western Union sent more than 200 million telegrams. In 2005, the American company sent just 21,000, and last January it stopped entirely. The telegram has died, and with it a particular literary genre: concise, pithy and often splendidly rude.

Where the haiku demands 17 syllables, the traditional telegram had to be crammed into 15 words to avoid a higher rate. Compression required intellectual dexterity. The American inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller somehow managed to boil down Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into a 249-word telegram. Even more concisely, Victor Hugo, anxious to know about sales of his newly-published Les Misérables, sent a telegram to his publisher which simply read: “?” The encouraging reply came back: “!” (If Hugo's publisher had been able to predict today's multi million-pound Les Mis industry, he might have been moved to write: ****@$££££!!!) The form also developed its own truncated vocabulary, “telegraphese”, an early form of txt msg: SD for said, HV for have, TMRW for tomorrow, and the combination of words that allowed the telegram-writer to economise.

For Samuel Morse, inventor of the code, simplicity was part of the telegram’s appeal. As Marvin Kitman wrote: “Morse loved the brief, the clear, the bold, a style epitomized in his code. The Morse code was popular with the avant garde not only because it pruned the deadwood out of the language, but because it couldn’t be understood by the masses.”

Journalists and writers made particularly good use of the telegram, to insult editors, hold off publishers and demand more time, or money. In 1928, F. Scott Fitzgerald cabled his publisher: “MY INCOME TAX CHECK IS DUE IN NEW YORK TOMORROW MONDAY CAN YOU POSSIBLY DEPOSIT THREE HUNDRED FIFTY DOLLARS TO KEEP ME OUT OF JAIL STOP.” Ernest Hemingway, outraged that his outrageous expenses when working for the International News Service had been questioned by bean-counters trying to balance the books, sent the following brief message: “SUGGEST YOU UPSTICK BOOKS ASSWARDS.”

Foreign correspondents were used to getting messages along the lines of: “DAILY MAIL MAN SHOT. WHY YOU UNSHOT?” Evelyn Waugh, while working as a journalist covering the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, was told to follow up a rumour that an English nurse had been killed by bombing: “SEND TWO HUNDRED WORDS UPBLOWN NURSE.” Waugh, believing the story to be unfounded, swiftly replied: “NURSE UNUPBLOWN.” The story was unsent. Waugh was soon unemployed.

Waugh instinctively realised the comic possibilities of the telegram. In Scoop, he subverted the genre entirely. The accidental foreign reporter William Boot receives strange volleys of newspaper telegraphese: “NEWS EXYOU UNRECEIVED.” He replies in leisurely fashion: “NOTHING MUCH HAS HAPPENED EXCEPT TO THE PRESIDENT WHO HAS BEEN IMPRISONED IN HIS OWN PALACE BY REVOLUTIONARY JUNTA HEADED BY SUPERIOR BLACK NAMED BENITO AND RUSSIAN JEW WHO BANNISTER SAYS IS UP TO NO GOOD . . . LOVELY SPRING WEATHER BUBONIC PLAGUE RAGING.”

General Sir Charles Napier was as clipped as Boot is wordy. The story goes that in 1843, after annexing the Indian province of Sind, Napier despatched a one-word telegram, “PECCAVI”, which translates as “I have sinned.” Some puns are just so good that they are worth invading entire countries for.

The telegram was also useful (like the text message) as a way of conveying information to somebody without having to talk or write to them. Peter Sellers once sent a telegram to his wife, while he was in an upstairs study and she was working in the kitchen: “BRING ME A CUP OF COFFEE. PETER.” The marriage did not last.

The pared-down style of the telegram could be used to give deliberate offence. Sometime the offence was inadvertent. “HOW OLD CARY GRANT?” a reporter once cabled to the actor. The reply came back: “OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?” It is odd to reflect how the telegram, which seems so slow and reflective compared to instant modern communication, was once a byword for brutal modernity. E. M. Forster used the telegram as a symbol for all that was rushed and dehumanised in modern life: “Personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever and not this outer life of telegrams and anger.”

Looking back, the telegram was a most versatile canvas, bringing good news and bad, expressive of love, despair and a delightfully wry species of humour, conveyed in a very few, well-chosen words.

In that spirit I suppose I should apologise for the length of this column. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.

"Peccavi", eh? That is good. Is it too good to be true?

In today's letters page, there are a few more little gems from Mr Alan Bird:

After an American President was mortally wounded, a Reuters man rejected a cable reading “MCKINLAY SHOT BUFFALO” on the grounds that hunting stories were dull.

An even more portentous telegram was sent in 1914. From the Paris office of Reuters to London, it was misrouted to the sports desk. The man on duty was expecting the results of the 2.30 from Longchamps. On reading the cable “ARCHEDUC ASSASSINE SARAJEVO” he is supposed to have grumbled “Not an English horse in the first three,” before spiking it.

Enough said stop

Update stop Rebecca in comments:

Robert Benchley to his publisher: arrived Venice stop streets filled with water stop please advise


G K Chesterton to his wife: Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?


Posted on 03/08/2006 6:50 AM by Mary Jackson
8 Mar 2006
Send an emailMarisol Seibold
I could've had a lot of fun with telegrams when they were in their heyday; I guess I was born too late. ;) It's a shame Western Union just recently stopped sending them, but I guess nostalgia doesn't pay the bills.

I would speculate that part of what doomed them was their gradual association in popular culture with strictly bad news. Bad news of a particular gravity and urgency. At least that's the connotation I sensed. Glad to know the potential for humor didn't go unexploited, though.

8 Mar 2006
Send an emailRebecca Bynum
Robert Benchley to his publisher: arrived Venice stop streets filled with water stop please advise