Sunday, 26 February 2012

The red telephone box

     Poor old telephone boxes. Dirty, covered with stickers on the outside and prostitutes' calling cards on the inside. Who even knows if they still work. Now we've all got mobiles and you wonder who actually uses the public telephones. Men making anonymous calls to those ladies of pleasure, presumably, and perhaps tourists who'd have to pay an arm and a leg to use their own phone on the UK networks. Who else though? Those heritage phone boxes in the photo look the part, but inside is a mess: empty beer cans, unidentifiable stuff festering on the floor, and X-rated postcards, not a healthy environment.
     It wasn't always that way. Long ago, I used to slip out of the house in the morning to call friends before school. We didn't have a phone in our house so you had to walk up to the phone box, further up the village high street, and you'd have to sneak out to avoid having to explain why it was important to talk to someone who would be at the same school an hour later. In those days the telephone was a black metal box with a perspex finger dial, and it took those big pre-decimal pennies in the slot (press button A to talk when the person answered, or press button B to get your money back). Then there was the sneaky way, where you'd lift the handset and tap out the number, ten taps close together for zero and so on, with a longer pause in between numbers. That would get you through for nothing, for no reason that we could ever work out, but sometimes they would notice at the exchange, and a stern lady would come on the line and tell you to stop mucking about. Quite scary, since the exchange was right next door to this particular phone box, and if they thought to look outside they would quite likely know who you were. Don't bother trying it though, it doesn't work on the modern digital telecom system.
     Not so long ago the red telephone box was still the only way to get in touch with people if you weren't at home or work, and people didn't necessarily have a line at home either. The phone boxes were well used. The red paint was kept new and the glass got repaired if a pane was broken. The directory was just left on a shelf, the special directory shelf, and mainly it stayed there - why would anyone nick it when you could get one free from the post office? The phone boxes even had their own special smell, a mixture of damp concrete, cigarette smoke, musty paper and ozone. Just before mobile phones became common, everyone carried a phonecard, but it's difficult to remember what that was about: something to do with vandalism probably. I remember the first time I met someone who had a mobile. It had a hefty handset, like a normal handset but as thick as a brick, attached by a heavy-duty cable to a lead-acid battery, like a car battery but smaller. It was barely portable, but the owner, a building contractor, carried it up to the bare room in a derelict building that was his site office, and impressed the hell out of the rest of us.
     It's not just the hardware though. The mobile phone brought in a whole different attitude to privacy and the way we communicate. At work, people used to make the sort of calls you wouldn't dream of having in public now: to your mother, the bank manager, asking after lost property or making plans for Friday night. Everyone else in the office would listen quite openly and make comments afterwards, sometimes even while you were still on the line. Nobody wore headphones, so that and other verbal exchanges around the office were what kept everyone amused. Even at home calls weren't necessarily private, and funnily enough, most of the time they didn't need to be. They do now though.