Clinton Cards, squeezed out of modern life | Nicholas Lezard

Thursday, May 10th 2012. | Internet News

So Clinton Cards has gone into administration. Eight thousand shop assistants could lose their jobs; and the same goes for whoever used to write their slogans, so this column will refrain from composing a supposedly amusing verse suitable for the occasion.

I think I have bought about five cards from Clinton in my life; three of them would have been during that brief period in one’s late teenage years when one considers oneself quite the satirist by sending an “In Deepest Sympathy” card to someone slightly older than oneself on their birthday. The other two Clinton cards would have been when I have dived into the shop, its presence having reminded me that I had forgotten to send a card to [insert important family member here], and I had just enough time to scrawl a line or two, get a stamp and shove it into a pillar box before the last collection.

But apart from that, the cards I send are neutral, but pleasing to look at: from the National Gallery, the revolving card stand at the British Library, or the Wallace Collection, where you can get a reproduction of Fragonard’s “Man Looking Up a Girl’s Skirt“, an image that serves one well for a surprising number of occasions – but not, perhaps, to console someone for a death.

And that really is the nub. I remember seeing those “In Deepest Sympathy” cards and feeling great sympathy not just for those who would have to receive them but those who would have to send them too. This is not to scorn the prefabricated nature of a sentiment that should come naturally; it is to pity those who have to rely on such sentiments, whether it is shyness or an inability with words which is holding them back. The window of circumstance in which it would be acceptable to send such a card for its intended purpose, then, always seemed to me to be vanishingly small.

And that’s even before the competition from the internet, or supermarkets (apparently a major factor in Clinton’s demise; which points to how precariously placed Clinton was: under threat from both those too highfalutin to use them, and those who considered them a bit posh for the likes of them), or texting. A Clinton card is not one that you keep; its rhymes, a kind of anti-poetry that conjures up nothing so much as appalled speculation about the inner lives of the people who have to produce them, do not linger in the memory. The only cards you keep hold of forever are the homemade ones from your children, or those from lovers, which can be of any old rubbish, as long as it has the beloved’s handwriting in it.

But we might as well assume it was the internet, and Facebook in particular, that delivered the coup de grâce. People moan about the impersonality of responding to Facebook’s helpful reminder that it is x‘s birthday with a brief “Happy Birthday! Thinking of you xox lol” etc. – and then go and do it themselves. I have. (Without the “lol” part, of course. There are limits.) At the very least, it is true that for the moment you were thinking of that person. That the commitment to the thought did not extend to going to the nearest Clinton Cards, thinking of something to scribble inside the card (perhaps a jokey acknowledgment of the naffness of what was already there), and then posting it, doesn’t mean that you are a soulless human being. It’s just part of the wider process that instant communication is forcing upon us, or that we are lazily, if forgivably, accepting. The future Warhol predicted, the one in which everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, is more or less upon us; but there is another aspect to that future: in it, we will think of many more people than we used to – but only for about 15 seconds.

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