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Instant era dead from the waist up

WE LIVE, so the fashionably brainless claim, in an era of instantly available knowledge and it's all thanks to the wonderful Information Superhighway.

How anyone who has tried travelling round the M25 could ever equate superhighways with speed and efficiency I can't imagine, but modish thought proclaims that he who has a cursor can know anything, any time, any place.

The book is dead, dude, so let's log on and surf.

There are, of course, problems with this blind faith in cyberspace. First, technology lags far behind the theory. In my experience, if you try to visit a website all that happens is that you tie up your telephone line for many long minutes while your word processor tries chuggingly to download a picture of the Spice Girls. This is what happened to me over a year ago when Sarah wanted to find out all the latest "goss". Our picture got up as far as Sporty's navel and then the line failed.

It took 10 minutes to build up that picture and I have never visited a website since. Instead I ring up someone. People, unlike websites, don't suddenly isappear just as you get to the waistline.

Unfortunately, many big organisations these days have worked out that re-routing your call to a helpline or fobbing you off with a website saves them money.

I recently rang the BBC with a simple enquiry: how many times has Henry James' Turn Of The Screw been dramatised? Drama Publicity and Radio 4 had their answerphones on and my call was routed automatically up to Bangor because I live near the Welsh border. "This Henry James, Welsh is he? We only have Radio Wales records here."

In desperation I allowed my call to be re-routed to BBC Information whose motto seems to be, "I'm sorry, we don't keep that kind of information any more. Let me put you back on hold." Eventually, by ringing a former colleague, I wangled the secret number of BBC Written Archives in Reading. Here, a card index was disinterred from the vaults and I got my answer, although not before the reader of the cardex tried to charge me a fiver.

The answer, by the way is, five times between 1933 and 1993. There now, wasn't that easy?

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