8 May 2009

The telephone always rings



We recently acquired a set of new cordless phones for the house. They are sleek, jet black and look rather stylish. There is one to the right of the screen I stare at right now, plus one in the kitchen and one in the main bedroom.

I'm already annoyed with them, however, as there is a button with a big letter 'R' on them, bottom right, under the # button. To me, that screams 'redial'. But that's not what it does. Not only do I not know what the 'R' button's function is, I also do not know which of the hieroglyphically-labelled buttons really does redial a number.

Landline phones have changed quickly and substantially since my 1970s generation were born. There are people just 15 years younger than me who cannot believe that we ever had just one phone in the whole house, and that phone had to be attached to the wall, and you had to walk to a particular room to answer it - and stay there - and if you wanted to call someone you didn't push convenient buttons, but instead had to stick your index finger into the dial facility.

The first phone I recall was a grey, GPO-standard dial phone. This phone had a vibrant, very loud ring and our six-digit number stamped crudely on the small paper dial, which also had enough room to remind us of the numbers to call if we had an emergency or needed the operator. When you picked up the phone, be it to make a call or answer one, there was a very audible and satisfying click as the connection was made.

As everyone had the same kind of phone, much was made of where it was in the house. We had a small hallway next to our front door, with the stairs immediately opposite, and my mum found room for a tiny telephone table against the wall adjacent to the bottom stair, which didn't leave much room for the wire underneath. I suspect she felt that having a telephone table in the hallway was classier than keeping the phone on the floor or windowsill of the living room, although any element of decorum was lost by the fact that any reasonably long conversations meant the caller, including my mum herself, had to sit on the stairs and face out of the front door's glass panel for all the neighbours to see. On the second shelf of the table was one of those dial phone books, where you stick your finger in the appropriate letter and all the surnames of friends and family beginning with that letter would flip open.

Upon moving house in 1983, we had a slightly bigger front hall and there was room for a bigger telephone table. The old phone initially came with us, though we acquired a new number, then eventually we got an off-white push button phone. In Hull, as you may know, we have our own telephone exchange and the Telephone House issue models from Carr Lane came with a Mercury 'Push 13 for Cheaper Calls' sticker.

Push button phones were easier on your finger, but the technology hadn't progressed to make the time taken to make a call any quicker. Push a button now on a phone and the registration of the digit you've chosen is represented by a rapid beep. Push a button on a 1984 telephone and you still got that noise resembling a cat's purr, varying in length from 1 to 0. This was a bit of a problem when trying to get through to 31 Days In May.

A year or so on, the real leap in fortune seemed to come when we acquired a second phone. A two-phone family, get us! This was a handset only phone, not cordless, which was hung on the kitchen wall. The buttons were on the inside of the receiver itself and so the second bit was just a socket to slide it into upon completion of a call. It had a red light on the front which flashed when it rang, and flashed in time to the purring noises when you pressed buttons to dial out. For a good while, when the phone rang, two people would answer it at once and upon establishing who the caller needed to speak to, one would put it down. Listening in to a conversation was impossible (and, of course, not to be encouraged) as the noise of two phones vying for one conversation was obvious. This, however, didn't stop my brother often interrupting my calls with an immature remark from another room. He also worked out which two-digit number he should call to make one phone dial the other, making us answer the phone to nobody except someone in the same house as us. The joke wore thin quickly.

Then - we were really making progress now - a third phone was installed. Like the kitchen phone, it was a one-piece, corded unit which was hung on to the upstairs hall wall, and still it purred rather than beeped when dialling out. We'd got our first answering machine which was connected to the hall phone, and so an upstairs phone was needed because often a person alone and upstairs couldn't get to a ringing downstairs phone before the machine kicked in, and my maternal grandma, for one, absolutely hated answering machines, telling my mum frequently that she didn't pay her phone bill just to get an answering machine.

I like to think, also, that the upstairs phone was installed as both my brother and I were teenagers and needed to have the odd properly private conversation, although we still had to ask permission if we wanted to ring a girlfriend or friend, never mind 31 Days In May.

Cordless phones were in fashion by now, but we never had one while I lived in the family home. Ma Boswell's phone ("Hello, yes?") in Bread was probably the most famous one in popular culture, and I remember an entire episode of Fresh Fields was essentially about Hester getting a cordless phone and tricking Sonia next door by making a call, then ringing her doorbell during the call in order to be, apparently, in two places at once. How the studio audience laughed.

When I moved to Huddersfield in 1993, the office I worked in had three of the GPO-issue dial phones. In 1993! They worked fine so the chaps who'd run the news agency for nearly 40 years by this time had never felt the need to change them. The reception phone had buttons at the bottom which made a faint buzzing noise when you pressed them to put a call through. I'd never seen an interconnected phone system using GPO-issue phones before. It was great.

Not only is everything cordless now, but a hell of a lot of people don't bother with a landline at home at all. And, if everyone they need to contact has their mobile number, why should they? And at least on mobiles it's easy to do a quick redial...

3 comments:

Ishouldbeworking said...

I've still got my family's original, cream, GPO-issue bakelite phone (complete with original '01' number on paper disc) in the hall of my own grown-up house. If you ring in on it, you can hear it 'ding' as the receiver is picked up. Friends always like the 'ding'.

A Write Blog said...

My very first job was as a trainee accountant with GEC in Hartlepool.

They made the old telephone exchange equipment; STROWGER. If you google that you'll get all sorts.

They were a kind of mechanical computer I suppose. Hugely complex; great metal frames with row upon row of things that looked like the bomb in a James Bond film from the '60's and connected by a kaleidoscope of colourful wiring.

All totally obsolete now.

LF Barfe said...

Of the 4 telephones connected to the landline in our house, one is a cream GPO type 746, just like the one we had when I was growing up (Epsom 24291 - incidentally, Epsom was the home to the first Strowger exchange in the UK, and Strowger wasn't an engineer, merely an undertaker who got pissed off with operators giving all the business to rivals with surnames earlier in the alphabet. Instead of changing his name to Aaron Aardvark, he invented automatic telephone exchanges). I picked it up at a car boot sale for a fiver and it makes a satisfying ring, although it also makes an annoying ring every time my broadband connection re-syncs. I resented our old dial phone because it took so long to dial 01 811 8055, and a redial button would have been sure to get me through to call Matt Bianco a wanker. Now I'm in less of a rush, I love the dial. If only I hadn't broken the one I had in my old flat with the letters on it.