Tuesday 26 August 2008

The power of words on paper

Like most people, I hardly ever write letters these days. And when I do, the recipients nearly always ring me up to ask what I was hoping to convey, as my handwriting has deteriorated into an indecipherable scrawl through lack of practice.

I have long been handicapped by shyness on the telephone, so communicate mainly by email and text message. I was saddened when a recent computer crash wiped out all the emails I had sent and received over the last four years; the ones I had not deleted because they contained something amusing, and which I hoped to enjoy reading again in my old age (probably next month).

This is the fourth such hardware failure I have experienced in the last decade, and each time I have been told that it would be hopelessly uneconomic to retrieve my data. Apparently my only hope of seeing any of it again is to strike up a friendship with Gary Glitter, and await the inevitable police search.

All of which underlines the evanescence of anything preserved electronically, compared with the amazing endurance of paper. It seems such flimsy stuff. Yet I have a cache of correspondence from previous generations of my family which looks as fresh as ever, while the big, solid people who wrote it have long since returned to dust.

Fortunately, there are some people sensible enough to adhere to the old ways. Like Councillor Mick Henry, leader of the Association of North East Councils (ANEC), who last month fired off a “strongly worded letter” to President Mugabe, telling him in no uncertain terms to step down. Where the UN and virtually every government on the planet had failed, ANEC succeeded and Mugabe soon opened talks with Morgan Tsvangirai.

This continues a well-established pattern. Documents recently released by the National Archives of Japan revealed that their war leader General Tojo was eager to continue the fight even after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Apparently the country only surrendered when Emperor Hirohito received a blunt postcard from the chairman of Norham and Islandshires Rural District Council.

I hope Councillor Henry has not taken a summer holiday, or the crisis in South Ossetia could drag on for months until the Russians and Georgians receive the authoritative guidance they require.

The thing I find surprising is that our local authorities have time to fret about Zimbabwe, but so little to communicate with their own residents. In fairness, Northumberland County Council does send me an infuriating glossy magazine from time to time, but that naturally goes straight into the recycling bin. I thought it was precisely what they had in mind when the blue bin recycling scheme was launched, with instructions to include “leaflets, junk mail and envelopes”.

I have been following those rules for years. Now a comprehensively revised set of instructions has finally turned up, warning that one of the main contaminants jeopardising the success of the whole recycling scheme is “window envelopes”. What, like the ones all the junk mail comes in?

Heaven knows what you can do with these instead. I keep being told that I could be fined £2,500 for chucking a window envelope on the fire, under some EU directive about the disposal of plastics.

So here is an idea for a way forward. Instead of writing pointless letters to foreign heads of state, why do our evidently under-employed local representatives not make themselves useful by campaigning for a complete ban on non-recyclable window envelopes, and tighter controls on junk mail?

Oh, and maybe they could drop us all a pithy line every now and then to keep us abreast of things like changes to the recycling rules? They might find most of us more inclined than Robert Mugabe to take a polite hint.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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