We didn’t have a telephone when I was growing up. Neither did anyone else we knew. There was a telephone box outside the shops five minutes’ walk away – one of the red cast-iron-and-glass boxes designed by Giles Gilbert Scott – but until I was seven or eight, when my grandparents got a phone, it wasn’t a factor in my life.
After that, there were evening walks up the road to the box to make calls to Scotland. It was always a bit of an adventure. Those were more innocent times, where we lived. There was a cigarette machine on the wall outside one of the shops and it was always full of cigarettes and it was never vandalised – it was that kind of place. The phone box was always clean and tidy, the handset smelled of Bakelite or whatever it was made of. It was always dark when we made the calls, and it was always cold.
Time went by. The phone box started to smell of wee. The cigarette machine was vandalised and broken into and finally it was taken down. Going to make a phone call stopped being an adventure and became a bit unpleasant.
So we got a phone of our own. I can’t remember how old I was when we did that. It might even have been after my father died, which would have made me sixteen or seventeen. It was a rotary-dial phone in two shades of apple green, and no more did we trek up the road to the increasingly-vandalised and distressed phone box.
I thought about that phone the other day while I was on a bus going into central London. Looking out of the window it seemed to me that every other person I saw was on the phone.
They weren’t, of course, rotary-dial phones in two shades of apple green. They were things that were still science fictional back in the mid-1970s when we got our phone. These were iPhones, Android phones, god only knows what else phones. These things could take photographs and play music and cruise the internet; any one of them could, with a certain amount of tweaking, have had a spirited try at running an Apollo mission.
And everyone was talking on them.
Which got me to wondering. Back in those long-ago days when we tramped up the street to phone my grandparents, I don’t remember seeing enormous queues for the phone box. I don’t remember seeing crowds of people desperate to call each other. Why are people on the bloody phone all the time these days?
I suppose it’s partly the convenience. We don’t have to use phone boxes any more – we can just take our phone out of our pocket when the spirit moves us and make that call, wherever we are. But I wonder whether that convenience hasn’t unlocked some deeper part of our collective personalities.
People are on the phone all the time. They’re on the phone while at the checkout in shops. They’re on the phone while getting on and off buses. They’re on the phone in the middle of interactions with other people. An alien observer might conclude that we really love talking to each other on the phone.
Were we always like this, but just waiting until the technology caught up sufficiently for us to enable our needs? Or is this a new behaviour, created by a mixture of tech and advertising and lifestyle aspiration?
I’m buggered if I know. I hate mobile phones. I have one of the stupidest mobiles it’s possible to possess; half the time it doesn’t work properly, and the other half I leave it turned off because it’s for me to phone other people if I have to, not for them to phone me while I’m walking down the street or doing some shopping or sitting on the toilet. I resent having to carry it around with me because it makes me feel as if I’ve been electronically tagged. When I’m out and about I don’t want people to know where I am. I like it that way.
But we live in a world where, at any one time, you can throw a brick in a busy street and be more or less certain of hitting someone who’s holding an iPhone and telling someone at the other end, “I’m on the High Street. I’m just going into Primark.” And that’s leaving aside the Location Services which allow your phone to tell the world where it is without you saying anything at all.
When I was young, you had to walk to a phone box to make a phone call, and if you wanted to tell the person you were calling where you were and what you’d done that day you had to spend quite a long time doing it. These days, it seems that people are narrating their lives to each other as they happen.
All of this has happened in a very short time. I can remember the first ‘mobile phones.’ They were about the size of a brick and had big aerials and only Yuppies could afford them. Now they’re not much bigger than a packet of ciagrettes and you can get one for less than twenty quid. We are, it seems, quite different people now than we were in the non-mobile early 1980s. Or maybe we’re the people we always wanted to be, deep down.
I’m not sure what all or any of this proves, except it’s funny how your mind wanders when you look out of the window of the bus.