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Think the Marvelettes meet Thomas De Quincey meets net technology…

December 27, 2011

“Please mister postman, look and see, if there’s a card in your bag for me.”

Marvellettes, 1961. Big hit.  Also fourth song, side two, the Beatles’ Second Album, spring of 1964—a bouncy bit of Beatlemania. A sprig of middle of the century sunshine, youthful optimism, teenagers in love. And we waited so patiently for that card, or just a letter. A million years ago. Gas was cheap and a first class stamp cost a nickel.

So what’s all this about closing post offices or maybe even eliminating the US Mail altogether?

Roll over Beethoven, say it ain’t so, Joe, and where you going with that gun in your hand?

Yes, I am an over-the-hill boomer, indulging in some faded as your jeans nostalgia trip.  But hold the phone. May I offer a sort of literary perspective?

Two-way long haul communications—other than an expensive long distance telephone call, an innovation of the early Twentieth Century—has been paper-based since, well, forever. In the Marvelettes’ day, you’d write a letter, put a stamp on it, and a few days later, after being routed through unseen networks of central offices and invisible sorters and carriers, an agent of the Federal Government would personally hand deliver your sealed, private message to its proper destination. Mostly. That patient girlfriend or boyfriend would get the message—signed, sealed delivered like Stevie Wonder, or maybe she wrote upon it—return to sender, like poor Elvis.

Rewind two hundred years. Thomas De Quincey, early Nineteenth Century English opium junkie, writer and ahead-of-his-time founder of the romantic notion of the Artist as Strung-out Outsider, which came to be central to the ethos of Twentieth Century Beats, jazzcats and rockstars, loved the Royal Mail. So much so, that under the influence of his beloved daily opium-based tipple, a potent-sounding concoction called Kendal’s Black Drop (also favored by Byron and Coleridge), he wrote a long essay called The English Mail Coach – or the Glory of Motion. Over its fifty pages or so, it morphs and twists like a light show at the Fillmore, becomes increasingly psychedelic, almost proto-Gonzo, highlighted by a vision of a scarlet and gold-clad crocodile driving a four-in-hand mail coach (we Moderns might here see a Hunter Thompsonian riff straight out of 1970s Las Vegas and a crazy ink-splattered drawing by Ralph Steadman). But the point is, the piece, written in 1849, by which time, the railroads had formed the basis for all mail service in the British Isles (De Quincey was not impressed with the railroads). The English Mail Coach nostalgically celebrated the romance, in De Quincey’s words, of the grandeur of communications, the nobility and necessity of the Mail, qualities, he felt, were lost by the mere speed of fifty mile-an-hour rail transport.

Here’s De Quincey describing the daily departure of the mail coaches from the central post office in London;

“Imagine the mails assembled on parade in Lombard Street…the absolute perfection of all the appointments about the carriages and the harness, and the magnificence of the horses, were what might first have fixed the attention….every moment are shouted aloud by the Post-Office servants the great ancestral names of cities known to history through a thousand years – Lincoln, Winchester, Portsmouth, Gloucester, Oxford, Bristol, Manchester, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Perth, Glasgow – expressing the grandeur of the empire by the antiquity of its towns, and the grandeur of the mail establishment by the diffusive radiation of its separate missions.”

In other words, he’s talking about person-to-person long-distance communications at the horse-based, natural speed of ten miles per hour.

A charming notion.

Much as I’d like to preserve the vintage village green aspect of all this, I fear in the long run that the future of paper-based mail seems doomed to go the same way—the way of the English Mail Coach—a comforting relic of a Currier & Ives autumnal nostalgia.

Today’s communications world is bit-based. Digital, not paper, flesh and bones analog. I know it, my kids know it and perhaps the good people in line at the Elm Grove post office suspect it.

The world shifted underneath Thomas De Quincey and it is shifting under us. Our nostalgically clinging to hundred year-old post offices will seem as quaint and Masterpiece Theatre cozy to a future Thomas De Quincey as the fine steeds of Lombard Street do to us now.

You may ask yourself then, where is the beauty and grandeur in today’s communications? Is there any? Does it require a wee draft of Kendal’s Black Drop to see?

Wouldn’t hurt.  But a little x-ray vision would be handy.

Today’s communications grandeur can be found in the vast arrays of monster electronic switches, clustered in digital clouds connected by many miles of flashing fiber optics found in the world’s humming core internet exchange points—where bit and bytes stream and flow ceaselessly, day and night at terabits per second and where our “cards and letters” are sorted and very precisely delivered nearly instantaneously anywhere in the world.  Can you see it?—right next to the crocodile in all his scarlet and gold Royal Mail finery.

And the Beatles and Marvelettes can look and see and just check their email. For the umpteenth time today.

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From → Music, Scribblings

One Comment
  1. While loving the speed of electronic ‘byte the bum’ mail for it’s speed that allows umpteen messages a day between couples enamoured of each other and who can’t wait till dinner to declare their devotion, there’s no feeling quite like (in the UK) the sound of some mail hitting the mat inside the front door. And though you can send all kinds of electronic card nowadays, it’s not easy to stick them up on the mantlepiece on your birthday.
    Quaint as the idea is the physic aspect of mail still has a life although it may need a shot of oxygen here and there.Many of our village post offices have been lost but the post box still remains and stamps are still sold in village shops.And still the liveried, often shorts wearing, servant of the Royal Mail is seen on their bicycle or in their small van dashing off to make sure the Marvellette’s words come true.

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