Alec BruceOne morning in the late 1980s in the middle of Nowheresville, a young woman, prompted by a profound sense of neighbourliness, impressed a couple of city girls by introducing them to her new pony, all of 12 hands tall.

At the sight of the hoofed beast loping down the stone path towards our family homestead, my eldest daughter (who was eight at the time) exclaimed: “Yikes, get me outta here; there’s a camel comin’! I need to make a call.”

As I remember, so did I – but not about a horse.

Some weeks earlier, I had yanked my young family from the cacophony and congestion of Toronto and determined to live more convivially, though never impecuniously, in rural Nova Scotia.

So, as my kid marvelled at the free-range livestock, I was on the phone attempting to explain to an editor in Ontario’s biggest metropolis why a paying gig in Yarmouth, about 600 km away on country roads, did not entail a mere 20-minute jaunt down the highway, a quick turnaround and a 5 p.m. deadline. I was about to give up when a disembodied voice joined the discussion.

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“Look,” the grumbling male baritone said, “it’ll take him the whole day just to get there from here. Then, he has to do the work, jump in the car and spend another day driving all the way back. When do expect him to write the thing?”

To which I responded: “Uh, yeah … what he said.”

I didn’t know then (and I don’t know now) who that fellow sharing the telephone connection with me was, but I was reminded of his ghostly presence all those years ago when, just the other day, I encountered an entirely different type of party line.

“Hi, it’s Sarah,” the unbidden text message on my super nifty iPhone read. “Can the Conservative Party count on your support in the next federal election? Reply: Yes/No.”

Apparently, I’m supposed to be freaked out about this. According to a piece in last week, “This isn’t the first time random mass-texts have been sent out. Ontarians (recently) found their phones blowing up with texts from ‘Sue from Ontario Strong’ asking whether people agreed with the Liberal’s environmental policies.”

What’s more, the report concludes, “These two rounds of mass texts likely won’t be the last. While some people are angered, there is not much you can do about it. Under Canadian anti-spam laws, recipients must subscribe to commercial messages, but since messages from political parties aren’t commercial they aren’t regulated at all.”

Then again, neither are most politicians.

Nowadays, of course, we shrink in terror at the passing thought that somebody could be listening in on us or harvesting our online behaviour to feed hungry AI programs. Shadowy hackers are always ready to steal our identities and the Deep State is perpetually out for our hides.

Still, it’s worthwhile remembering that before the Internet, instant messaging, social media and meme merchandising, depending on where you lived, almost nothing was private. In the days when two or more families shared a telephone connection, you could be sure someone – a stranger, an acquaintance, a neighbour – always knew at least a morsel of your business. Twitter didn’t invent the grapevine.

I recall hearing part of an exchange between two people that, for sheer raciness, could easily compete with anything Kim Kardashian now chooses to post on Instagram. Of course, as prolonged eavesdropping wasn’t, and isn’t, my thing, I quietly cradled the receiver and went back to my episode of Coronation Street. (Oh, Percy Sugden … you’re such a busy body.)

As it happened, days after my daughter’s equine awakening, she breathlessly shared her experience in a telephone call to a chum in Toronto. Some time later, she received a happy little welcome-to-the-neighbourhood note, signed “Sarah.”

My only question is now: Why is Sarah shilling for the federal Tories and whatever happened to the horse?

Troy Media columnist Alec Bruce is a Halifax journalist who writes about business, politics and social issues.

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