Telephone Calling

Telephones were exceptional items among home appointments in 1930. For people to have a phone installed required them to be affluent enough to afford one and to be assured that it was more than simply a novelty, luxury gadget.

To further the cause of the telephone service a magazine advertisement that year waxed eloquent as it tugged at the heart strings. It showed a woman holding a baby, a few medicine bottles beside her on the table and a concerned expression on her face. She is cradling the child in one arm, leaning forward to the mouthpiece of a desk telephone, with her other hand clutching the earpiece behind her immaculate hairdo. Two words are lettered in large capitals, one above and one below the drawing. The first says PROTECTION and the second proclaims TELEPHONE.

The earnest message accompanying all this is: ‘So safe…. Home dangers disappear with a telephone. The surest protection – the speediest summons for help…doctor…nurse…police…fire brigade…friends are all at the other end of the wire. You get them instantly. In every emergency the telephone is your very first aid. For this reason alone, it is worth the rental of a few pence a day.’

This breathtaking announcement makes me wonder how all previous generations had survived with only postage, pigeons and smoke signals. But leap into the 21st century, spend fifteen minutes on a bus or train, or in a shopping mall and you’ll discover a new breed of human, a being who has one wrist permanently attached to the side of its face. A visitor from another century would be puzzled to observe present day inhabitants holding sometimes loud, always mystifying one-way conversations with themselves, totally oblivious of their immediate environment. The small object pressed to the ear is no longer considered a relative of the invention of Alexander Graham Bell. It’s no longer a telephone; in deference to its freedom to travel with anyone anywhere it has become a ‘mobile’.

For the first ten years of my life I was scared of telephones, and I have to confess that for the next ten I remained warily suspicious in their presence. We didn’t have a home telephone not only, I’m sure, because even the ‘few pence a day’ would have added considerably to the financial burden of a large family, but also because my dad in his sales job spent much of his working day using a telephone either taking orders from customers or dealing with the complaints of those unhappy with quality or delay, both of which were beyond his control. His personal policy statement for all to hear at home was: ‘I come home to get away from the phone. I don’t need it to follow me.’

The first time I listened on a telephone, however, was to hear dad speak. He told me I had another sister. This was great news, but to hear it personally I had to be taken to my grandparents’ neighbourhood shop, be propped up on a chair, hold to my ear a heavy black tube from which dad’s voice emanated and talk hesitantly to a funnel poking out of the wall.

It was many years before I had the opportunity to use a telephone regularly, and quite a few more before I felt comfortable doing so. For me, through teenage years, making a call meant finding a red public phone box. And that was when I became proficient, because, after all, this was an adventure in communication, dealing with the problem of an inadequate supply of copper coins, tattered phone books that always omitted the page I needed and, most difficult of all coping with the diabolical responses of those two unpredictable objects marked Button ’A’ and Button ‘B’. Button ‘A’ connected’ your call, Button ‘B’ returned your money if the call failed. Guess which button proved less efficient?

Michael Goodwin