A memoir (of sorts) today about antique phones and the sixties.
The end of the telephone line
We don’t have a home telephone anymore. The last time we had a home phone plugged in was about 10 years ago.
How time has flown, because that was pretty much the end of the line for us when it came to landlines. Even then we pretty much knew that when our phone rang it was unlikely to be one of our friends because by now they knew our mobile numbers.
It would most likely be a scam call or an unsolicited sales call and often we didn’t bother answering.
But when we did answer, and after listening to the annoying preamble of one of these calls, I would sometimes reply, tongue in cheek, something to the effect : “Thank you I’d like the Chicken Tikka Masala please. When can you deliver?” before putting the phone firmly back down, back in its cradle.
Ahh, it’s cradle.
Do you remember the early telephones which were big and imposing and bulky?
It’s hard to think that only just over 100 years ago the idea of being able to chat instantly to someone anywhere in the world seemed impossible until Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone as we know it in the 1880s.
The first phone I can remember was my grandmother’s. It was a great big black monstrosity which sat in an imposing position in the hallway.
When it rang the old Victorian house would shudder from foundation to rooftop.
“Bloody telephone,” my Grandmother would exclaim not enjoying the intrusion. “Who can it be?”
Then she would plump up her hair, smooth down her house dress (as if the person calling might be able to see her) and stride with purpose towards the hallway.
Quite slowly for she wouldn’t be in an excessive hurry to answer it, for the hallway was always freezing cold.
The phone would ring and ring. People didn’t give up easily in those days, and there were no answerphones.
My Gran would sit herself down on the heavy mahogany hall chair and take a deep breath or two.
Only then would she pick up the phone and declare, quite grandly, “Eastleigh 265” or whatever the number was.
To my grandmother a phone was good for talking, for imparting important information, and that was it. Not a particularly friendly thing, but something to be endured as a necessity, a nod to the modern world.
She didn’t live long enough to ever know the problems associated with scam calls which could empty a bank account in five minutes, not did she ever get to hold a shiny smartphone.
I wonder what she would have made of ‘my precious’, my Samsung Galaxy which is certainly more friend than foe to me.
As children we were given instruction on how to answer the telephone. To speak up, and speak clearly and it was always an event to be allowed to answer the phone and you had to do it properly – or else. The good name of the family was presumably at stake in the way you answered the phone.
Goodbye Yellow Brick (Road)
When I was a teenager the phone ruled from a small hallway table, beside which would sit a hefty great telephone book, and the big fat Yellow Pages.
Each year we would receive a free Yellow Pages, and if you had a business and you weren’t listed, well – you really weren’t up to much at all. Although as far as I remember, those in the professions, like Doctors and Lawyers, were not allowed to advertise in the yellow bible.
At the end of the year our outdated Yellow Pages would be relegated variously to a new position as doorstop, as kindling for the log fire in the sitting room in winter, or otherwise it would be handed in when the new one was delivered – I seem to remember that there was some kind of recycling process for the Yellow Pages back then.
The Yellow Pages has been a bit of an institution in England for 5 decades, and I’ve just read that the final edition was to be delivered in January 2019 in Brighton (where it all began in 1966).
For more than 50 years, the Yellow Pages sat next to landlines around Britain, solving countless domestic crises and securing tradesmen to fix everything from burst water pipes to electrical faults or finding painters and decorators to do up the family home.
But the internet finally killed it off.
The Telephone Book
Then there was The Telephone Book, another hefty thing, as thick as the Yellow Pages, just not yellow – and you could, if you wanted to remain anonymous and choose not to listed – be ‘ex-directory,’ which celebrities and some fairly ordinary folk did back then.
In those lean days, not long after the war debt, debt collectors and bailiffs were active . Also the idea of celebrity as we know it now was not sought after, but rather seen as slightly preposterous and something to be avidly avoided. I seem to remember it was considered much better to remain anonymous, not to show off, to keep yourself to yourself in those days.
Hanging on to my lifeline
As a teenager living in a remote pocket of Devon in England, the phone became like a lifeline to the outside world, and particularly to my friends.
I would chat so long that I’d get neck ache and arm ache holding the phone to my ear.
I would get proverbial ear-ache too from being told by my parents to “Get off the damn phone, it’s costing us a fortune!”
This was particularly distressing and embarrassing when it was the love of my teenage life at the end of the line. I would nervously coil the black cable which ran to the mouthpiece around my fingers, and say finally, “I have to go,” not knowing when said boyfriend might call again and knowing that I’d have to pluck up immense courage to ask my parents if I could call him back in a few days time.
For a start I would be teased, someone would be sure to say something like “Is marriage on the cards, then?” or my father would most likely add something to the effect : “Who is this young man. What does he do? Where does he live? I’ll need to have a word with him next time.” Sometimes the words “with my shotgun” might be added too.
In those days you had to ask to use the telephone. I can also remember having to list my calls, and then pay for my calls with pocket money.
There was no privacy. The phone could not be moved. There you sat in the hallway for all to hear, yakking on the blower, trying to sound normal while spilling out your innermost thoughts, discussing your outfit for the end of the year disco, or declaring undying love all the while knowing that the walls had ears.
Beware banging the phone into the handset in anger when you hung up on the mean girl from high school, because questions would be asked.
As kids around the age of about 12 I have to admit, with apology, that our great sport, at least for one short undiscovered season, to relieve boredom, was prank calling when our parents were out at the pub. When we were found out we got into terrible trouble, and that was the end of it – as well as the end of our pocket money.
Plucking up courage one of us would pick a random telephone number from the telephone book, rotate the wheel of the telephone dial to call the number (generally with a biro) and listen nervously to the ticka-ticka-ticka of the telephone dial as it sprang backwards into position as if it was a time bomb.
For we felt that there was always the possibility that we might be calling a teacher, or someone distantly related.
“Hello Madam or Sir,” so the rehearsed speech went, quite apprehensively. “I’m sorry to bother you. We’re testing phones in the area and need you to whistle please. Loud as you can. Please could you whistle into the phone immediately for testing purposes.”
Generally, after saying they couldn’t whistle, the poor person at the end of the phone would do a little whistle or wheeze of some description, and then with great difficulty through sobs of laughter we would have to reply without cracking up … “Thank you. You’ve been most helpful. We’ll send you some budgie seed at the end of the week in the mail.”
Then we would slap our thighs and roll around on the floor laughing.
Merciless, mirthful, innocent, but no doubt terribly annoying.
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What memories do you have of early telephones?