Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: My grandchildren send me emojis I can’t understand

Has homo sapiens lost the power of speech? 
October 4, 2023

I worry that homo sapiens is in danger of losing the power of speech. One by one, the places where we exercise this skill are being shut down. At railway stations, there will no longer be manned or womanned ticket offices to guide us through the complexities of the system. On the train, if strikes fail, there will be no friendly guards to help or, in these angry times, protect us. 

Banks are closing their local branches, distancing us from helpful managers. “You can pay in money at the Post Office,” said a spokesman on the radio, who didn’t seem aware that many of them are closing too or have been destroyed by the Post Office scandal. 

The supermarkets are replacing those friendly checkout workers with payment machines that make the whole process take twice as long, juggling your bags while you work out what must be weighed and how to use the card system. 

In France, a visit to the boulangerie to pick up a baguette is a twice-daily, gossipy event. In Chiswick, you must ring a bell to be let in, as most of the shops are locked in an attempt to frustrate the armies of invading shoplifters—a situation that is not conducive to good conversation.

I used to get phone calls from my daughters and grandchildren—now I get incomprehensible messages written mainly by something called predictive text, which, it seems to me, mostly predicts inaccurately. If they are feeling upset, they no longer attempt to describe their feelings, but just add a crude picture of a face, called an emoji, that I must try and fathom out. Are those tears of grief or laughter?

In the old days (oh lord, have I really reached the age where I use that phrase?), the world was a talkative place. We talked loudly down the shelters to drown the noise of the raid; we talked to the conductor on the bus, and to our neighbours over the garden wall. Local pubs were meeting places, and there were lots of them. I lived in one in King’s Cross. There were usually a couple of regulars in the public bar, sitting all day at the counter chatting to the landlord, while others played darts, or shove ha’penny, or dominos. A few old biddies (who would be me now) were in the back ladies bar, sipping their port and lemons and putting the world to rights. In the saloon bar were mainly women, enjoying each other’s company and taking fizzy lemonade and crisps out to the kids sitting on the doorstep. There was a lot of boisterous talk, laughter and an occasional sing-song. Where have all those locals gone? Whom are they talking to now? 

We were opposite a police station. It was a tough pub, but if things got out of hand, one of the coppers only had to put their head round the door and shout “that’s enough lads”, and peace was restored. The local coppers were respected friends. I thought of that recently, when I lost some jewellery and had difficulty finding a police station because so many have closed down. I was told at the only one I found open, “We don’t do lost and found anymore.” 

We are alive. We will be heard. Our opportunities to communicate may be reduced, but we will find a way to get together

I was recently in St Mary’s A&E and found out the police do not do mental health problems either. They just dump people at the hospital and then the resident security guards protect the staff. The police are grossly understaffed, and the Met seems in a chaotic mess, so they have no time to get to know the public like they used to. 

In international affairs, silent isolation is no protection from mass immigration, climate change and deadly viruses. We need to confer worldwide.

There are signs that homo sapiens is seeking a way forward—that we are finding new ways to commune and communicate. Police may no longer be pursuing minor crimes, but the public have set up their own system: local WhatsApp groups report cars or bikes stolen or found abandoned. They warn of suspicious characters and various scams. Now, of course, this could be dangerous, but I am impressed by the approach of the local Hammersmith website. Some participants seem to have a good knowledge of the law; recognition of mental illness and poverty are sympathetically expressed; trolls wittily rebuked.

I think people are desperate to communicate. Watching Glastonbury on television, the joy of huge crowds, released from Covid isolation, was palpable.

I felt the same way at the Proms this year: people united in ecstasy at the magnificent sounds that human beings can make. It reached its apotheosis in the silence that followed a superb rendering of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony—over 5,000 people utterly still for half a minute, breathless with wonder, followed by deafening cheers and stamping feet. We are alive. We will not be thwarted. Our opportunities to communicate may be reduced, but we will find a way to get together and be heard. 

When future archaeologists study this era, I am fairly confident that they will not find the remains of a sad animal with overdeveloped typing fingers and no voice box.