Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: A nostalgic yearning for the (non-digital) garden fence

Phone-texting enjoyed its 20th birthday recently. Last week I saw a photo in this newspaper of snow-bound passengers at Stansted airport. There were seven people in the picture. Four of them were fiddling with their mobile phones. What ever did we all do before mobile phones came along?

Whilst reading Sketches By Boz, a collection of Dickens essays, I found Early Coaches, an account of travellers on an icy winter morning 180 years ago.

As a court reporter in the 1830s, young Dickens regularly had to travel by coach to Ipswich. Passing through our county, he developed an admiration of Chigwell as well as an unaccountable hatred of Chelmsford. What he never encountered, however, was the sight and sound of his fellow passengers frantically texting or bellowing into their mobile telephones.

I’m no sociologist but I do fear that mobile phones, the internet and their many combinations may be changing us as a nation more profoundly than we’ve yet realised.

The newspaper world, which despite all its recent travails I still feel proud to belong to, has had to adapt itself rather quickly in order to accommodate the feral properties of the new digital frontier. Public responses to events and statements are now instant, with tweeting, blogging and e-mails all common media currency. What bothers me is that I don’t believe an instant response is always the best response.

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Examining many of Joe Public’s lightning reactions, a picture emerges of poor literacy skills, self-righteousness, bigotry masquerading as common sense, and an anger-to-go on almost any subject.

Much of this comment and opinion would be absolutely fine – a safety valve in life’s overheated engine, in fact – if it could all be confined to a pub table, the garden fence or, in my case, a rant at the radio whilst shaving. For these were once the provinces of the privately splenetic but publicly self-controlled English. Yes, we can be punchy at times, but we don’t tend towards tearing up paving stones – not often, anyway. Nor do we storm palaces, or hang our unpopular leaders and their mistresses from lamp-posts.

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If we can have a bit of a shout-up in the pub, a grumble at the shaving mirror or an airing of our prejudices over the garden fence, the job seems done. The problem is, as my very clever tamer recently pointed out, “The garden fence is now online.”

When you put ill-informed gut reactions online, not only can the rest of the world see them, there’s a good chance they’ll be retrievable and re-readable forever.

I previously thought most people didn’t realise the dangers of posting ill-considered statements online. Now, I’m not even sure whether they care or not. My small town, for instance, during the past 18 months has acquired its own internet forum. Here can be found pedantism, self-righteous anger, misunderstandings and sense-of-humour failures. The forum is also a holding area for greengrocer apostrophes, triple exclamation marks, people who “should of”’ paid more attention at school and, increasingly, those who are “loosing” their ability to spell the simplest words.

Some got together recently to badger our town council about an unpopular choice of location for the new health centre.

I’ve now heard that one fed-up council member will step down next year, with a second considering doing so. I don’t blame them. They are hard-working and unpaid, yet without any of the powers wielded by their counterparts on Colchester Borough Council. Why should councillors be subjected to online attacks by people whom we might once have dismissed as busybodies, acting like parish-pump Paxmans?

The objectors’ chief contention seemed to be that politics and big business had been keeping secret the proposed location of the much-needed new health centre. The reality, I suspect, was probably far more mundane.

An internet forum is not necessarily an evil thing. But it just might be a mirror held up to a community, which, having seen its own reflection, finds that it doesn’t like itself much. Thanks to our self-appointed online guardians, the town’s health centre contretemps soon ratcheted up. It culminated in a hooded mob holding flaming brands and all murmuring “rhubarb rhubarb” outside a nearby castle on a hill. I’m sorry, that should have read: “There was a packed public meeting in our local hall which concluded with someone saying, “Yeah, alright then. Message understood. We’ll try and sort it out. Okay?”

The whole shebang, over five tortuous weeks, had triggered something in the order of 1,200 posts on the Online Garden Fence. Many of the posts were fizzing with pompous anger and tenuous conspiracy theories. It was the Middle English doing what they’re best at: whining.

Other posts were merely tedious, filled, as they were, with needless facts, regurgitated documents and redundant maps. Quite honestly, I don’t know where these people all find the time. Perhaps by economising on basic logic and good grammar. What I do know is that I’ll be quite cross if any of our perfectly good town councillors feel they need to resign, simply because our garden fence has gone digital.

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