London - There are four contraptions of plastic and metal gathering dust around our house. There’s one on my desk, another in the kitchen, a third in the sitting room and a fourth by our bed.
We used to call them telephones, but now they are better known as landlines — and they are remarkable only in that they hardly ever ring. Actually, that’s not quite true. Young men and women with Indian accents, who introduce themselves as Sally or Craig, call four or five times a week, usually wondering whether we’ve ever been mis-sold something called a PPI.
As we’ve been heroically diddled by a bank in the past, I suspect we have, but I don’t need an unlikely Craig or Sally from Bangalore to investigate the errors of our ways or tell me about dishonest banking practices. So now whenever I hear the familiar satellite hum and am asked if I am Mr Connolly I simply reply: “No. I’m afraid Mr Connolly is in jail,” which puts paid to any further conversation.
Of course, I’m not in jail. I’m in hiding from cold-calling nuisances, and sitting here reminiscing about the great days of the landline, that window of time before the whole developed world embraced the mobile and its successor the smartphone, and before email and texting replaced the spoken word.
I’m not saying this development is bad. Far from it, as I do my work almost entirely through email. And if it means that more people are now using the written word to communicate, thus confounding the Jeremiahs who told us that children wouldn’t learn to write if they all had phones in their pockets, it certainly has a plus side.
But not many technological advances come without the odd regret. And with the continuing decline in the use of the landline, with over 85 percent of the adult population now owning a mobile, an era has almost gone for good.
Today, a mobile is considered an absolute necessity for every adult, and a vast majority of secondary school children have one. But I’m old enough to remember the days when relatively few people even had a phone in their family home, when it was something big and black that sat in the doctor’s surgery telling you how important a man he was.
We didn’t have a phone in our house until 1961, when I was 20, so if any calls had to be made it meant either cycling more than a mile to my mother’s dress shop or taking four old pennies to the red telephone box near the bus stop.
It would seem an awful chore now, especially on a wet November night.
But making those first teenage calls, with the ritual of the pennies being pushed into the slot, tremulous fingers carefully dialling the number, then the clanging of copper alloy on steel with the pressing of Button A when the receiver at the other end was picked up, was almost always exciting. You didn’t make a phone call lightly in those days.
Later, as a student, being able to speak to the object of your affection long distance, imagining her sitting in the chill of her parents’ hall — because phones always seemed to be kept in the coldest place in the house — was supreme. And, oh, the pain when the pips began and there was no more change to put in the box.
Not that romance governed everyone’s early telephone experiences.
Richard Branson has often told how, when starting out as a teenage record entrepreneur and living in an unconnected Notting Hill flat, he would take up residence in the phone box outside his window and use it as his office, requesting that customers called him there.
These days, if it were possible to find such a thing as a handy phone box, anyone monopolising it — or even waiting outside for a call at a pre-arranged time as some of us once did — would probably be arrested on suspicion of being either a drug dealer or a terrorist.
Now that our smartphones come with cameras, radio, music and TV, as well as apps for novel reading, games, shopping and news, it’s possible to forget those simpler times when the phone had but one function. Gone, too, is the relationship between caller and telephone operator.
Telephone companies still employ operators in call centres as a last resort when all recorded services have been exhausted. They’re usually functional and polite. But back then there was a mystery and romance about the person in the job — the faceless Samaritan who would make the connection for you.
Chuck Berry even gave the directory inquiries operator a main role in one of his most famous songs — Memphis, Tennessee.
“Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee, help me find the party trying to get in touch with me,” he sang, taking the voice of the father desperate to contact his six-year-old daughter, Marie, who is now living with her mother from whom he is separated. Almost every famous rock band of the Sixties used to perform it.
But could the same poignant song be written today in a world of increasingly disposable mobiles and easy, almost universal communication? It’s difficult to imagine.
Nor are songs the only part of popular culture to have changed with the digital revolution. The good old landline used to play an important role in movies, with love stories being built around missed calls. Remember? The heroine has just walked out of the door when the hero phones her — heartbreak ensues.
Then there were the thrillers. Late at night the terrified heroine, alone in the house in a semi-diaphanous nightie, picks up the phone to call the police and realises that the line is dead. It’s been cut. The killer is already inside. And he’s coming for her.
Wireless technology has wrecked all that. People communicate with each other all the time now, if only by text.
How many more times can a hero realise too late that he’s out of wireless range, or the battery in his mobile has gone inconveniently flat? None, I would say, after its overuse in the Danish TV hit The Killing. Screenwriters will have to devise new ways to stretch the suspense and keep the plot plausible. It was so much more agreeable when Alfred Hitchcock was making Dial M For Murder.
Life is obviously easier now as we use our smartphones to pay bills, check the weather forecast and text or email to impart information. But somehow it feels less friendly. Like everybody else, I used to use the telephone to chat to pals, but for some reason my shiny, clever little smartphones have always discouraged that. I don’t know why, but they do: apart from anything else, there is the fear that the radiation might do something nasty to my head.
Now, I rarely use my landline. Knowing that I’m saving time for everyone when I email or text, I’ve begun to feel as though I’m intruding when I occasionally consider making an old-fashioned phone call just for the fun of it.
So here I sit and consider the state-of-the-art landline telephone on my desk that so rarely rings, and which I so rarely pick up to call anyone.
Who could have predicted that the 21st-century digital explosion would have condemned what was once a shared centre of the family?
Or that we’d now spend more time writing to our friends and relatives with emails and texts than we do speaking to them? Sad, isn’t it? - Daily Mail