The lost art of making a phone call

Privacy was vital, so of course we couldn’t have what was called a “party line” that you shared with neighbors (iStock/The Independent)

When I was about 16 I was just starting to try to organize anything approaching a social life and working up the courage to ask someone out on a date (singular: I’m not greedy and my school was all boys, which I won’t help you). My mission, however delicate it would have been today, was immediately made more difficult because we didn’t have a telephone.

No, “we didn’t have the latest iPhone. Not, “we couldn’t get one of those new Nokia cell phones.” No. We didn’t have a telephone in the house at all.

We were deprived of any means of telephone communication. It’s hard to know what we would have done if there had been a 999 medical emergency. They knocked on a neighbor’s door, if we suspected they were bold enough to have one.

Otherwise (and for the purpose of meeting friends in the pub or girls at the cinema) making a phone call required collecting sufficient coins (2p and 10p), trudging to the nearest telephone box, hoping that the mechanism was not jammed or that the apparatus destroyed by yobs, she finally makes it through and then is told “she just went out with her friends”. And no, her mother didn’t want to tell where Susan had gone.

Then he was at home and one night in front of the telly – ATV Today, Coronation Street, Porridge, Nine O’Clock News, Play for Today, Bilko. Not so bad, actually.

More frustrated with my lack of social life than even my acne, I finally pestered Mom about getting our dedicated line. Privacy was vital so obviously we couldn’t have what was called a ‘party line’.

Those were times when you shared with neighbors and that meant you had to wait for them to finish chatting before you made a phone call. (It was also less interesting than you might think having to listen to the gossip winding its way around the Co-Op Shoe Factory). There was no way sensitive aspects of my love life were going to be eavesdropped on from next door.

In 1979, not long after Mrs Thatcher got in – but before she reformed the economy – it still had to wait a couple of months for a state-owned company, Post Office Telecommunications (that’s right, about eight weeks late) to arrive and set up the thing.

The lightweight wedge-shaped “Trimphone” cost an extra 25 cents a month or something to rent (you never bought and owned “your” phone), so we settled for the familiar, traditional black smart model. Leicester 702903. So proud.

I have to admit that in the first overexcited phase of ownership I was never off the phone: friends, family overseas, directory inquiries, anyone really. I also tried some random numbers to try and have a chat, comparing the weather in Leicester with that of whoever answered – cold in Peterhead, rainy in Todmorden – and so on.

A telephone meeting with someone he recently lost ended my jolly little experiment of contacting strangers across the British Isles.

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I was so enamored with the new toy in our lives that I even paid a bill for the Dial-a-Disc service, where one could select, via the dial (not the buttons), one of the day’s chart toppers. What I remember listening to non-stop was Booker T. & the MGs’ re-release of “Green Onions,” which (via the modern miracle of the web) I can date to around January 1980.

I might as well have been Alexander Graham Bell who made the first telephone call in 1876, such was my enthusiasm.

I don’t listen to much pop on the phone these days, apart from YouTube (I add casually, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world). The landline sits in the corner, unused, somewhat neglected, like a now-redundant addition to the broadband connection. But the smartphone is still my primary means of communication, and during lockdown, it was less bogus than Zoom and more immediate and understandable for long conversations than texts or emails.

On the phone, you can be sarcastic without *additional* punctuation or be misunderstood, and you can just wander around the house and make tea as you catch up and set up a meeting – sometimes in the same café we did in 1979.

Unlike Twitter, you don’t get death threats (well, not many). This is still how I stay connected. Just like when I first discovered this, I don’t know what I would do without the phone.

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