Your Call Is Important To Us

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.


7 thoughts on “Your Call Is Important To Us

  1. You and I are alike in this my friend. I grew up with a phone (we lived in suburbia, so no phone boxes anywhere near), but it hung on the wall, in the kitchen, so no privacy, and it was a party line in the beginning – meaning you shared the line, and if you were really nosy, you could listen in on others, although that was bad form in Minnesota in the 1960s. That phone on the wall, white, rotary dial, from the phone company, stayed until many years later when my parents finally got a cordless phone set years after they were available, so my mom, who has artificial hips and knees didn’t have to get up to get it. And my phones were about the same, with the exception of me going cordless a little sooner. Wireless they got for emergencies when they were on the road, and I got for the fact that the technology fascinated me. But as the years went by, I found I hated the ringing on even the cordless, so I would unplug it, and let the answering machine pick up. If they really wanted to call me they would leave a message. Same with my mobile, which drives my youngest nuts. She is never without that phone, although she texts more than she talks. 3000 texts to and fro a month at least, up to 5000. Me, about 32. And all to my daughter and maybe my landlord, since I don’t like talking to people. I keep it turned off most of the time, except times when I know my daughter might want to call me. People can leave a message. If they don’t, it wasn’t that important now, was it? Or they can text me, and I will text back if I chose. I am master of my ear space.

    • Exactly that. I can see the use of a mobile if I’m out and I get in some kind of bother, but I can’t see the point of having it just to give endless updates about where I am and what I’m doing there.

      • My daughter gets so upset if I don’t have it on me and she wants to talk to me about something, usually not that important. Sometimes it’s to get something while I’m at the store, but then she should have written it down for me to take with me. Generations have grown up without instant communication, and I refuse to joins the ranks of those tied to their phones. I admit that now and then I get technology envy and want a smart phone, mostly for the apps, GPS, etc., but I get over it, since I know I probably wouldn’t use it. What I might use is a tablet, or a mini one – for reading books that are now only available in e-book, or to save bringing a stack of books somewhere, and risk running out, or reading magazines, or being able to text easier since the keys are larger, or to play games on, etc. Multi purpose. Even watch movies on it where ever I am, which is usually at home, so it’s really not something I need until such time as I travel, if ever. So my phone attached daughter will just have to get used to the fact that she can call or text and I will get back to her fairly soon. If it’s an emergency – I will be living only a mile or two away.

  2. Loved this post, Hutch. I have made nearly identical observations quite recently, and I wasn’t even on a bus! For me, I have a camera that happens to have a phone in it. My phone is my memory – both visually, through photos, but also has my reminders and calendars, and email. It is not unusual at all for me to ask my husband to hand me the phone WHILE I am editing photos on my own camera, er, phone. I forget it has that function!

    • It’s an interesting point, one that I didn’t think of – the way these handheld devices are acting as external memories for us. Good point.

  3. In my case, I held off on getting a cell phone until 2010, and the only reason why I have an iPhone right now is that I can do credit card transactions via that phone at plant shows. (These days, two-thirds of my business is done via credit card, and I know that if I expect people to go to an ATM to get cash, they’ll get distracted and never return.) As it is, I loathe the damn things, especially when I’ll be in an important meeting at the day job and friends and family will call up because they’re bored and need entertaining. My wife was particularly insistent about how I needed to have one “in case of emergency.”

    “What sort of emergency?”

    “Well, what if your bike breaks down and you need to get in touch with me?”

    “Just out of curiosity, what would you have done in that case back, say, in 1987?”

    That usually gets her. It reminds me of a Frito-Lay vice-president with whom I used to work, who constantly complained about how slow his laptop was. I had to ask “How long have you worked at Frito?”, and when he answered “25 years,” I asked instead “And how slow was the laptop you had in 1975?”

    No, what bothers me the most is the presumption that if someone is calling me on a mobile, I have to answer RIGHT THEN, and said person will keep calling until I pick up. It never occurs to anybody, any more, that I may have a very good reason for not picking up. Being armpit-deep in fresh sphagnum moss, for instance. Instead, they’ll call over and over four or five times, and then text, and then get upset with me because I didn’t call right back. “Well, I don’t need to talk to you NOW.” Yeah, and sod you, too.

    The ultimate note on the uselessness of cell phones? Last April, the Dallas area was hit by as many as 30 individual tornadoes. My day job office was in quite a state because we have lots of glass and chrome, and almost no place that’s tornado-safe, so we all crowded around in the cafeteria and hoped that the funnel clouds heading our way didn’t touch down next to the building and turn us all into a Dario Argento movie set. As soon as the last one passed by, my phone practically exploded with people wanting to know “Are you all right? Are you all right?” My first thought was “And how the hell would you know that I wasn’t okay, just because I didn’t pick up your call while I was juggling four others? ‘I apologize, but half of my corpse is in a tree and the other half was blown halfway to Oz. At the tone, please leave a message for my next of kin.”

    • Yes. That, exactly. There was a time when nobody could get in touch with me when I was out, and no one cared all that much. Now I have to carry this bloody thing, otherwise I get a stern talking-to.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s