Bing bong

I’m sitting in the departure lounge at Stansted airport, waiting for a flight to Cork. And every 10 minutes, I hear a digital jingle.

Then her voice – smooth, cool, unemotional.

“This is a security announcement,” she purrs. “To reduce the number of security announcements, please do not leave your baggage unattended.”

Plain sailing

As I’m browsing a website, a window pops up.

‘CONGRATULATIONS!!!!’ it screams at me. Lights flash and letters dance in a psychedelic box. ‘YOU HAVE WON A **FREE** CRUISE!!! CALL THIS NUMBER NOW!!!’

Could it be true? Of course not. But it’s a toll-free number, and I’m in the mood for fun.

“Hey there!” says a voice brimming over with excitement. “My name is Debbie. How can I help you today?”

I’m through to the Sunshine State, and Debbie’s doin’ her best to make me feel special. So I explain about the box, the delirious message, the free cruise, the unique code. I strike just the right note of disbelief, nervousness and excitement.

She swallows it.

“Well, contratulations, Kevin!” she says breathlessly. “I’m just so excited. Aren’t you excited? This is just so exciting!”

Yes, Debbie, I’m excited. No, really.

She explains my prize: I’ll be whisked from London to Miami, where I’ll board the cruise ship. Then it’ll be five-star luxury all the way. Dancing girls, casinos (with chips worth ‘500 of your British pounds’), shore visits, gourmet cuisine, and endless pampering.

But there’s more, she tells me. Back on dry land, I’ll be heading for Disneyworld. Isn’t that just great?

“Golly, Debbie,” I gush. “This is wonderful.”

“Isn’t it though?” she says. “I’m just so excited!”

And she continues. I’ll have express passes for all the rides, privileges here, treats there, and five-star, extra-special, VIP treatment.

But wait. There’s even more. At this point, Debbie is getting dangerously close to losing control. I feel like Billy Crystal to her Meg Ryan. Any minute now.

But she holds back long enough to tell me about the side-trip to Nassau, in the Bahamas. She squeals with pleasure, and asks if I’m excited.

Whoa, Debbie. Easy girl.

I’m waiting for the catch. There’s always a catch. And now that she’s come down to earth, here it is. Usually, she says, this wonderful trip would cost 1,800 of my British pounds. But for me – just for me! – it’s £1,200 . So to get my free trip, all I have to pay is £600.

“Come again?” I say to Debbie. There’s a moment’s hesitation, as my words hover round her head, then pass directly over it.

So she explains a second time. And then, I go in for the kill.

“So it’s not really free, is it Debbie?”

“Yes it is.”

“But I have to pay 600 of my British pounds, Debbie.”

“That’s correct. ”

“Debbie?”

“Yes, Kevin?”

“I think you know what you can do with your cruise. Y’all have a nice day now.”

There’s an audible gasp. As I put the receiver down, I hear a tinny voice forming the start of a word that will never be completed.

Virtual reality

Whenever I received a present as a child, I always wrote a thank-you note. It wasn’t instinctive, of course. Like most good manners, it was learned, or imposed.

And in our house, we had stationery specifically for the task. I didn’t write a note, but a ‘notelet’. How old-fashioned that sounds nowadays. Very Jane Austen.

It was never a long communication. Just a few words of thanks, with perhaps a line or two about what was happening in my largely uneventful young life. If the present was money, I wrote about how I might spend my gift (and yes, of course I lied).

I loved writing and receiving notes and cards, so I took to the task with relish. Of course it also gave me the opportunity to show off my latest handwriting style (chunky, copperplate, arty) and add some panache to my notelet.

How things have changed. Largely responsible is the arrival of the internet, email and mobile devices, and the decline of handwriting.

In the old days, everybody wrote copperplate, nobody had a computer and lots of people (mainly women) touch-typed. Nowadays, nobody writes copperplate, everybody has a computer an nobody (including women) touch-types.

So though we’re all connected, we’re less able to communicate. Writing longhand isn’t practical, but typing is a chore.

Our messages, when we do send them, are delivered immediately. And we’ve come to expect immediate responses. Email delivery receipts add to the problem: we know the instant our message is opened, and just how long the recipient waits before replying.

In my notelet days, things took longer. A day or two to be delivered, and a day or two for contemplation and composition, then the same for a return letter to arrive. There was no rush, and this decent interval was a welcome pause for digestion and reflection.

I adored writing, and when my best friend at school introduced me to penpals (this was the 70s, and they were all the rage) I was in heaven. I had a string of US penpals from coast to coast.

Everything about it was appealing: the red-and-blue bordered envelopes, the exotic stamps, the thin crinkly paper and the faint smell of bubblegum every time I opened a letter. To Liz in Ohio and Sherry in Honolulu, I wrote pages of teenage prose.

Now, it’s all gone. And with it, old-fashioned thoughtfulness and courtesy. In our always-on world, our attention span has shrunk, under constant attack from emails, texts and instant messaging.

Our standards of acceptable behaviour have also dropped. Physical distance has brought with it emotional detachment. People do things they’d be ashamed of face to face. But in the virtual world, virtual rudeness somehow slips under the radar. It’s become acceptable.

An acquaintance of mine dumped his lover by email. He wasn’t a twenty-something product of the digital age. He was a sixty-something grandfather, a late convert to the guilt-free world of email. Impeccably spoken and faultlessly behaved in other respects, he saw an opportunity to end an affair painlessly (for him, at any rate) and grabbed it with both hands.

Another friend told me, in outraged tones, that somebody had cancelled a dinner arrangement on the day ‘by text message!’ At first, I was sympathetic. Then, I found out that my friend had texted to confirm in the first place.

She’d unwittingly given her guest the perfect escape route.

And yet, and yet. Maybe I’m not comparing like with like. If in the good old notelet days I’d received 20 letters a day and the phone rang constantly, I’d probably have offended somebody through neglect.

Perhaps it’s the sheer number of conduits that overwhelms us: too many demands on our time and attention, causing us to spread our manners wafer-thin across the surface of society.

It’s the end of an era. We’ve unwittingly allowed technology to redraw the boundaries of personal behaviour, and that’s a great pity. Nowadays, I seize the rare opportunity to write a thank-you note – or indeed any type of note.

But the days of crinkly paper, loopy handwriting and bubblegum are gone forever.

The moment of truth

“Are you married?” she says.

She’s verging on middle age, with a severe fringe and a fake tan. Her sparkly LBD has a neckline that would be risky at any age, but positively reckless at hers. A teardrop pendant pends in her cleavage. Her eyes dazzle with predatory glee. A woman on the prowl.

She’s not talking to me, but my neighbour, P2.

P and I are at a wedding reception. It’s Johannesburg, in the early 90s. An upmarket Italian restaurant overlooking rolling koppies just north of the city. Through the open window, candles dance in the inky darkness by perfectly clipped lawns.

On the face of it, P2 is the perfect prey: witty, well dressed and apparently single. I also happen to know that he’s independently wealthy. There’s just one catch, as Tan Woman’s about to find out.

P2 smiles, and his steely blue eyes twinkle naughtily. She thinks her luck’s in.

“I’m gay,” he says.

Tan Woman stares, transfixed. Autopilot pulls her mouth into a forced smile.

“Anyone special?” she asks weakly.

Inspired by Maggi

To the Fitzwilliam Museum to see a small but perfectly formed exhibition, No Straight Lines by Maggi Hambling. There are portraits (including an enormous one of Stephen Fry), seascapes and a drawing of her pet terrier.

I am particularly struck by how tight her sketches were as an 18 year-old, way back in 1963. Since then, her drawing has become looser and less controlled – and infinitely better, I think. A blizzard of lines that resolves itself beautifully.

And if it’s good enough for Maggi, it’s good enough for me. Head a-swirl, I rush home and give the line free rein.