109. Answers on a Postcard


Photo by Wherda Arsianto on Unsplash

I went to a small college in a small town, in the early 90s, with about 500 other students. Education was free then, I was given a modest grant to live on, and cheap basic, accommodation. My weekly food bill was more than my room. Everyone was there to learn the modern Business Studies methods of the day, conveniently with our tutors’ own published books as set texts. We had optimistically enrolled on a handful of randomly specialist, semi-practical courses, to find out about the future of electronic mail and networks of personal computers that were not yet part of our working environment. However, less than a decade later, that knowledge was obsolete.

There were 24 six inch wire cubes (aka pigeonholes) fitted to the wall outside of the Student Union office. A ritual daily gathering for the latest gossip coinciding with regulation mid-morning coffee break. The arrival of the mail was a big deal, so we’d hang around for our fix of letters from home, whilst desperately trying to not look overeager. It was clearly an inefficient method of distribution by Surname, as some of the cubes, (H, S, B) could barely hold a day’s delivery, yet others, (U or Q) were nearly always empty. If we wanted to leave a message for a tutor, we’d pop a note into their personal wooden pigeonhole in the Secretary’s office.

This was pre-internet, pre-mobile phone times. I’d ring home once, possibly twice a fortnight from one of the payphones dotted around campus, using a prepaid phone card. I was glad my room wasn’t located near to the phone in my halls of residence. The perk of having the convenience of a phone so close by, would quickly dissolve, as most of the calls were for other people. You were damned if you took a message, as whatever you did next was bound to be wrong. Do you leave the message on the pinboard next to the phone, push a note under their door (if you knew where they lived) or hold onto it until you found them? Were you supposed to go looking for them? If you saw their friend first, do you tell them what the caller said? Living closest to the phone also meant that no-one else would ever answer it, including during the night. You were fair game to be scolded if someone’s boyfriend had called and they’d missed them, because you couldn’t be “bothered to get out of bed” at midnight to answer the phone.

Whenever an essay or assignment was set, I’d go straight to the library after class, to check out the recommended research books, and get first reserve on the others that had to be ordered in from other libraries. On the first Monday of every month, new magazines went on display, so I’d spend many a glorious afternoon reading the latest issues for free. With hindsight, it would have been better with a grande latte and a granola bar on the table, but we were years away from food and drink coexisting in a public space with books. We didn’t know we had to carry our own water with us at all times back then, and only our grannies had a thermos. Staying hydrated was reserved for hot days or hangovers.

Information about the outside world arrived in the form of giant newspapers attached to long, wooden rods. These were apparently required to deter theft of the biblepaper-thin sheets. I figured that if something important happened, I was bound to find out eventually (people would be talking about it and I would hear or they would tell me!). Hence, my knowledge of history from that period is sparse. We felt no responsibility (or addiction) to stay up-to-date with current affairs.

Music magazines, flyers on record shop counters, photocopied fanzines made by dedicated sixth-formers, and postcards from that place in Leamington Spa, provided all we ever needed to know about what was happening in our own music bubble.

We weren’t missing out if it hadn’t yet been invented.

In a decade from now, will facial recognition, spyware, satellite surveillance, contactless payments, automatic numberplate recognition technology and body microchip nano implants be the norm? Will it even be possible to go off-grid? Will it seem an incredible waste to cut down trees for paper, when they’re needed for much more important things like clean air?


Photo by Hannes Wolf on Unsplash

21 thoughts on “109. Answers on a Postcard

  1. Wow I’ve read a lot of posts that talked about saving our trees but the way you approached it was wow. Being a millennial myself it’s true that the things you mentioned are only things I’ve heard of from my parents and grandparents who lived in that era. But I really enjoyed reading your post. I hope to read more!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting indeed,infact your writing reminded me of my childhood days.I know my son won’t believe the kind of life I had lived ,with minimum comfort and sheer hard work enabled me to grow up as an interesting person for many beautiful people of that time.Thanks for sharing. 🙏🌹

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had left school by 1969, but I loved the line ‘pre-Internet, pre-mobile phones’. I hark back to those days often, and wonder if they were better times. (Often convincing myself that they were)
    But then I remember that with no Internet, there would be no entertaining blog posts like this one.
    Best wishes, Pete. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You took me back in time, I remember this well. Things were much more simple in those days. I was not interested in current affairs and this still remains with me today. Though I did not live away from home but journeyed in daily. No water drinking addicts like today, yes only Grannies with thermos. How did we manage to survive without all the nonsense of today?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love this piece – you’ve captured the atmosphere well. 🙂 In my dorm, people were assigned chunks of time for answering the phone and running messages – everyone had a turn. After 10 p.m. though, no dice – no one would answer unless someone happened by and took it upon themselves. Those with near rooms were off the hook. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I attended college (the University of Washington had over 34k students and I paid the tuition from my minimum wage job) beginning in 1970. I paid attention and “We felt no responsibility (or addiction) to stay up-to-date with current affairs” was nothing like how I approached the world from age 17 into my early 20s. I still feel responsibility to stay up-to-date in current affairs.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Oh yes, those were the days ……….

    The pony express coming through town and rushing on ………..

    Then that telegraph and Morse Code, such a high speed drag ………

    Tubularsock is a bit older than you.

    And the information tsunami we now experience.

    And for what?

    Society’s insanity is still insane.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes, yes, yes. I remember it all – and more. My memories go back even further to the late fifties and sixties when a phone call to France had to be booked well in advance (forget about the USA, that could take up to 3 days to get organized), there were friendly telephone operators in London to whom one could speak at any hour of the day or night, just ring and say could you have a chat and you had their undivided attention. Looking back it all seems such a lovely period in which to grow up but I’m sure if I delved deeper I would find the other side to this idyllic scene. Ah yes, I remember one now, not having enough money to have my shoes soled, the rain getting in, stuffing them with papers and covering up the cracks with black ink!

    Liked by 4 people

  9. You told my story exactly. Early eighties, not nineties, but things wouldn’t change until 1995. Except we had individual mailboxes with combination locks. So important was my mail that 35 years later, I still remember my combination.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Your words take me back to my university days in the mid to late ’70s. I can picture the slower pace to life on campus.

    Newspapers and magazines at the library were secure just as you mentioned. Communication was by telephone (perhaps you had one in your dorm room) and snail mail.

    Today’s students couldn’t survive under these conditions. Being retired now, I enjoy the quietness and peacefulness of life.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Loved this. As someone else who attended college/university in those days you described the aura perfectly.

    I could only add the fairly frequent false fire alarms that would empty our dorms at 2 am, leading to the lifelong habit of never emptying my pants pockets at night for an optimal combination of speed and equippage in getting dressed.

    Liked by 3 people

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