October 16

I’ll call you by Craig Deeley

I have a problem. Or so I’m told. Over the last year or two, my nearest and dearest have been telling me that I’m addicted to my mobile phone. Or at least I think that’s what they said; I was on Twitter at the time and didn’t really hear what they said during their intervention. When mobiles really took off in the mid-90s, I was determined not to follow the crowd by getting one. I was always adamant that if people really wanted to get hold of me, they could leave a message on my answerphone. It reminded me of a simpler time: a time when, if you were meeting someone, and they were late, you had no way of knowing what the reason was for their delay or how long they would be, so you could legitimately leave after 20 minutes. When I say ‘you’ I actually mean ‘I’.

Phone 1

In the late 1970s, my parents’ landline phone (or as it was known in those days ‘the phone’) had a party-line. This was a system of sharing a line with someone else in your street. I’m not sure whether this was to make the bill cheaper or to help the exchange handling calls, but I do remember you could often pick up the phone and hear the conversation of the neighbours you shared a party-line with. If they didn’t detect your presence and hear your giggling, you could sit and listen to the whole conversation like some kind of radio soap opera. These were also the days when you would answer the phone with the last digits of your phone number. “Double-eight two one” was probably the most commonly heard phrase in our house.

The other day I was thinking about Dial-A-Disc, a concept that would dumbfound the younger generation when they hear that by dialling 160, you could hear a song from the charts on the phone. I don’t think I ever got through a whole song before my parents told me to hang up and that I thought they must be made of money. I also immediately associate retro phones with little plastic phone air-fresheners that you could stick into the mouthpiece; I suppose dental hygiene wasn’t a priority for many people in those days.

Phone 2

In the mid-90s I shared a house with two friends, and we had an answer-phone: one of those that had a tiny cassette in it. Invariably, one of my housemates and I would spend Sunday evenings sampling a few bottles of finest European blended red wine and then recording new answerphone greetings. We would include music, characters, impressions, sound effects. Scooby Doo and Carry On are two of the themes that immediately spring to mind. We’d be so proud (and drunk) that we couldn’t wait for people to call just so we could ignore the call and the answer-phone would kick in. We would even phone friends, say “CALL US” and hang up. Of course all this would have to be done before our third housemate came home from his weekends away. He was a barrister and would always warn us not to make stupid answerphone messages, “in case a judge called.”

In 2003, my then partner and I had moved in together and bought a vintage 1970s telephone; we thought it would be so cool to hear the RIIING-RIIIING sound, and to actually dial a number on the round…well, dial. No buttons or speed-dialling for us, just the whirring sound of the dial spinning back, echoing from our youth. This novelty lasted about a week. We had forgotten how hard dialling was in the old days; having to put your finger in the hole of the plastic dial and drag it ALL the way round until the little metal stopper prevents your finger going any further. Sometimes your finger would slip out, or you’d forget which number you’d actually dialled and miss it out, or dial it twice. No wonder people didn’t make as many 999 calls in those days. You really had to work for that emergency service. Anyway, within a fortnight that phone was gathering dust in a charity shop.

And now so here we are in 2015. I have my smartphone, which I use for social media, checking public transport times, getting a cartoon cat to repeat what I say in a silly voice. Over the years, I seem to have spent a lot of money on an appliance that I rarely, if ever, use for its intended purpose. It’s a phone, primarily, but I never speak on it. Even when the child in the shop who is selling me the phone contract mentions ‘talk time’ I just think, “what’s that?” Part of the reason, I think, is that I find speaking on the telephone – not just mobiles – very stressful. I get so easily distracted. Any sort of peripheral, background noise will cause me to lose the thread of the conversation. I can usually disguise this with the usual casual responses such as, “yeah”, “mm-hm” and “oh right” but inwardly I’m praying that the other person doesn’t ask me a question or test me on the previous minute of the conversation. If you meet someone you like and ask for their number, if they give you their landline number, you know you’re not on to a winner. Phone boxes are being made into coffee-shops and modern generations will never know the meaning of “the pips are going”, marking the end of a conversation. I love modern technology; I love my phone and what I can do with it. It makes the time spent on bus journeys and in doctor’s waiting rooms pass more quickly. I can watch TV or listen to music on it. But do I think technology has ruined the art of conversation? Well, I am a bit worried that my speech in the future will have a 140-character limit. But what does the future hold with phone technology? I’m not sure. I’ll ask Siri.