Touch

I was talking to someone about having to complete a form. It was the first one I’d filled in by hand for some time, and returned to someone who checked it, who looked at whether I was eligible for something, who sent it back to me with a request to fill in another form, which I then returned, signed, so it could be passed to another person, to sign and stamp and return it to me, so I could post it off to its final destination, an organisation I needed to join. The first form arrived in a manilla envelope. My address was written in small, spidery letters slightly offset from where I’d normally expect to see my name and address on an envelope. As soon as I saw the envelope I wondered … what was it about the process I was getting into that started with such a trace of humanity. I could almost sense a pulse.
        I don’t like filling in forms any more than most people, but seeing that envelope, slightly mad-looking if I’m honest, cheered me up immensely. How long’s it been – perhaps fifteen years – since I began filling in forms on web pages, initiating electronic transfers and sending and receiving emails? How many hundreds of thousands of emails have I received, most of them unsolicited and unwanted? There’s no touch to these communications. Nobody touches them with their pen, held in their hand, and places them in an envelope; and they really don’t touch me. I never get to hold them unless I print them. But that’s me doing that, not the writer.
        There are other, similar things.  There’s the recorded announcement that my train is running late and which offers me an apology. Who wrote the script for the woman to speak and record that nearly empty apology which echoes down the platform most mornings? Where is that human hand now? And where is she? Is she still alive? I stand on the platform looking up at the early morning moon and think about rockets launched into deep space with information about the human race: is there anybody out there? [subscript: God knows what’s going on, back here on planet earth, but this is what we thought, a very few of us, once upon a time]. The platform announcer’s mechanical voice has a tiny trace of humanity, just a bit of it, if you listen closely; or is that something in me cringing, a kind of an apology for the many things I must have said and barely meant?
        There’s the rigmarole of – no, I can’t bare to describe it, the thing that happens when you phone a business and hear the crippling robotic voice begin to tell you which button to press to get somewhere you don’t really want to go.
        To begin with, I worked as an editor. An author would write something and post it to me to be read. I’d sometimes write a letter suggesting changes and often we’d talk on the phone. I got to know some people pretty well that way. When we were ready I’d send a typescript to a printer’s where the text would be set and the book eventually printed. All the way along the line there was a chain of human hands, each touching the thing they received and the thing they gave away. Sometimes there were mistakes (The Times Alas of the World, a caption describing a potted housewife on a windowsill) and a few books I could have done without (The Little Encyclopaedia of Cats), but nearly always there was something fond in the touch I passed on carefully (apart from the time the DIY book went missing, but would you like to read about nails for a week?).
        My father was a printer and I come from a family or printers, publishers, journalists and artists of one sort or another. Musicians, a violinist and a pianist. A conductor. On my mother’s side Grandad played the spoons, Mum went rock climbing, played tennis pretty well, held me when I was a baby. I can’t get by without touch. But how does that work here, then?

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