by Peter Hitchens

The old-fashioned telephone was the most disconcerting and potentially frightening object in any home. It had nothing in common with the toys we now carry about so casually. It even looked sinister, hunched silent on a shelf in a cold room. It was usually black. When I first met it, it was a heavy thing, made of Bakelite and redolent of the age of abdications, ration books, detachable collars and gasmasks. It managed to be very modern and rather old-fashioned at the same time, as if the 1930s had never stopped. Much of 1950s England was like this, especially London, at that time a very modern place by the standards of twenty or more years before. But it was not modern by modern standards, if you see what I mean. It was a little like the old-fashioned futures sometimes portrayed in 1930s films. That telephone had a little drawer in its base containing instructions on how to use it.  The sound of its bell was grating, dry, and peremptory. The English telephone, before actual bells were replaced by friendlier, trilling tones, emitted a rapid double ring, probably designed by some psychologist to make us jump with fright and hurry over to silence it. This suited an age where urgent news was usually bad, and the arrival of a telegram was a portent of disaster. 

People who were unused to the machine were afraid of it and did not like to touch it. My mother once employed a woman in her fifties from the poorer part of Portsmouth, to come and clean our house two or three days a week. The woman was a mother of several children and had come through the long and intense German bombing of that city quite undiscouraged. She was not a child or a fool. But she was not having anything to do with telephones if she could avoid it. They might get her mixed up in something. Once, my mother came home late one afternoon to find a note beside the device, with the penciled message “PHOAM WENT.” We wondered for years who it might have been. Nobody ever called later to confess, and calls were rare events in our house. Britain’s stern Post Office did not indulge us, as American phone companies did, with free local calls. Chatting was for the wealthy. Everyone else still had to write letters, or do their gossiping in person. Quite possibly the mystery call (it still haunts me) was a genuine wrong number.

As far as I can recall the telephones of the time were also frustratingly faint, almost always a slight strain to hear and so not ideal for a relaxed conversation. But above all, I felt that the telephone allowed something into your home that you might not necessarily wish to be there. Nothing else in our largely Edwardian lives had this odd power to make things which were utterly distant seem close at hand.  Anybody could call. Let your imagination run a bit through that possibility. Enemies could call. Strangers could call. Foreigners could call.  What if people could call who were no longer even alive? M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer of all time, did live in the age of the telephone but never, alas, exploited its supernatural possibilities. But this was once done with great power and fear in a short T.V. play, written by David Thomson and filmed in Dublin in the 1970s called A Child’s Voice. A vain and solitary author reads his serial stories late at night on the radio, until the telephone in his lonely flat rings in the small hours, and the voice of a small boy (or is it?) begs him to go no further with the very unpleasant tale he is telling. In this story terrible things are happening to a … small boy. When the author later tries to leave the instrument off the hook, this does not keep his caller away. Nothing now can. He has let him in. As with the great Monty James’s stories, the chief character is paid out very harshly for his lack of caution on the edge of the known world.   

It always astonished me that simple possession of a number could give you such access to others, so far away. I used to be thrilled by transatlantic calls, and even more so by getting through to a flat somewhere in Moscow. How was this even possible? It was like dialing the moon. The number of digits involved reminded me of a beautiful but worrying story by Joan Aiken, in which parents who cannot get their baby to go to sleep are given an immensely long number by a passing peddler or magician. A mysterious voice answers, and is so effective at persuading the child to sleep that it will be years before he wakes again. Calling from West Berlin to East Berlin, as I recall, involved a special protocol, an extra code. And if you got through, which was not always, the conversation sounded as if it had been routed through the Mindanao Trench or another of the uttermost depths of the sea, with roaring, echoing and gushing noises interrupting the conversation, even if it was only across half a mile. Calling from East to West, oddly enough, was harder to dial, but the line was better, presumably because the secret police were more anxious to hear what was going on. In the U.S.S.R. itself there was a special phone system for the elite, known as the “Vertushka.” The word means “dial,” even though such machines did not have dials, but red-and-gold hammer-and-sickle emblems. It was through these lines that the General Secretary of the Communist Party could reach the editor of Pravda through a reliable operator. Possession of a Vertushka phone, even if you never used it and nobody ever called you on it, was a mark of standing.  If you think this was something especially Communist, you are mistaken. Until the 1960s London had a “Federal” exchange which you could reach by dialing “333,” which performed much the same function. And if you had a desire to contact Britain’s MI6 Secret Intelligence Service, even before its existence was officially admitted, its switchboard number (listed as “Century House”) always used to be printed in the Diplomatic List, a fascinating and sometimes cryptic directory of all British envoys abroad—if you knew where to look. The problem was always what to say when you got through. But no wonder they do not publish it any more.

For many years our telephone had no dial. You picked it up and waited for a prim, disapproving presence to ask “Number, please?” If you were calling during daylight, it would be a female voice. By night it would be a man. A retired operator once explained to me that obscene callers were much more common after sunset than before. If you wished to place what was called a trunk call (this phrase led to many unfortunate jokes about elephants) to another city, the whole thing could take much longer. I remember this persisting in Ireland into the early 1980s, where you could hear the operators softly patching you through from small town to small town until you eventually got your man or woman in McGillicuddy’s Reeks, or wherever it was. I know all these things because, in a vital part of my life, I became almost wholly dependent on the telephone. The newspapers of my day wanted you to ring them up all the time to check whether they were looking for you (once, they were and thank heaven I called in time). They demanded the number of wherever you might be in case they wished to speak to you. They rang you up in the middle of the night. My colleagues and rivals knew how to disable public telephones, so that nobody else could use them to phone in urgent news. I measured out my life in telephones. When I went to live in the U.S.S.R. I became, in a mild way, a telephone engineer, hooking western devices into Stalinist circuits with varying success, and I can still tell you which wires in the socket really matter, and which do not.

I used to know how to get a telephone to ring, to make sure that it was working, and once used this, in what remains one of the saddest moments of my life. I was passing a suburban house in Oxford on a sunny Sunday afternoon when a man in his sixties called to me from his front garden, asking me plaintively if I could help him. He said he had been waiting all day for his son to telephone him as promised. Was it possible, he wondered, that his phone was in some way broken? I felt it odd that I should have been chosen for this encounter, and still do. I do not know whether he was really expecting such a call, or whether he was so hopelessly lonely that he had gone quietly mad, and would wait forever for a call that would never come. But as it happened I was able to show him, perhaps a bit briskly, that the phone was working. I was not sure afterwards whether this increased or lessened his misery, but the encounter made me think less of myself and has done ever since. Had I condemned others in my life to wait by telephones that did not ring? Had I had the faintest idea of the effect of my actions? The thought, once planted, expands almost endlessly. Years later, after my father had died and I was in the faintly deranged state which can overtake you after you have cleared out what remains of a family home, I madly telephoned his old number which had, as it happens, been the number of several flats and houses that my family had occupied as it had gradually disintegrated during my teens and early manhood.  I think that if anyone had asked me what I was doing, I would have confessed that I was trying to reach the past. But it did not answer.

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