In 1927, 30,000 people demonstrated in London on behalf of two Italian anarchists. In Boston, 200,000 people gathered for the funeral of Sacco and Vanzetti. These would be large crowds even by today's standards, but at that time, people had to leave their houses to hear the news, whether about their neighbors or the world. And news traveled at a slower pace. At my Scottish school, I learned the poem, “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.”
Then came the train and the telegraph and, in the 1930s, that wonderful invention: the wireless. I grew up with one. It occupied a large wooden box, and on the dial were the names of foreign cities: Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna. We could sit in our living room and, once a day, hear a man with a grave voice tell us what was happening in the world, which at that time meant Europe, America and the Commonwealth (remember the Commonwealth?). The BBC World Service carried the news to more distant places, but only in one direction.
I thought of all this a few weeks ago when, one night after dinner, I went to my computer meaning to read the work of my students and found an email from a local bookshop. A poetry group was giving a reading from a friend’s first book. We had lost touch. I hadn’t known about the book, but I was thrilled. I knew how long and hard she had worked at her poems. I didn’t register the slight oddity of the group — rather than the poet — giving the reading.
It’s a truism of our time that news can travel around the globe in an instant, but, sitting there alone on that chilly night, I longed for the older rituals – a phone call, a letter, a conversation.
It was 9:30 on a winter night. I googled her, hoping to learn more. The first item was an article about the death eight years ago of her husband. Then came a listing for the business she’d retired from two years ago. Several more items followed. And then, on the next screen, I found an obituary; she had died two days before. I sat there reading over the few lines again and again.
It’s a truism of our time that news can travel around the globe in an instant, but, sitting there alone on that chilly night, I longed for the older rituals -- a phone call, a letter, a conversation: a moment of human rather than virtual connection. Perhaps one day soon there’ll be an invention that allows us to get difficult news only when we’re in the company of friends.