Time Specific

When did you first use the internet?  Have a mobile telephone? Send a text message? Have your own computer at home?

Technology moves on so quickly these days it’s often hard to remember when things arrived.  Hasn’t it always been there?

Of course not.  But I need other milestones to allow me to remember.  When I was writing my novel about Rose Fleming I set it very specifically in the mid 1990s, the period in which I lived in Moscow, because so many things have changed so dramatically in the 15 years since that I wouldn’t know how to describe it now, and I wanted to avoid anachronisms.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of Moscow's 'Seven Sisters'

I remember very specifically the technology that was available to me then.  I didn’t have internet access, I didn’t have a mobile phone; I watched VHS videos and listened to the BBC World Service on a short wave radio.  When I made occasional visits to London I used pay phones as, if pay as you go mobile phones existed then, I didn’t know about them.

In the office we had a satellite phone system because the local lines were poor quality and like speaking through a rustling crisp packet, and international calls were automatically terminated at 20 minutes.  We communicated with clients outside Moscow by fax, and those in the city by hand delivered letter.

Just before I left the was the beginnings of a debate over whether or not it was possible to send a client technical advice on which they might rely, by email, and how the boiler plate caveats could be enforced if they’d only been sent electronically.  How could formal signature be digitally affixed?  Email simply wasn’t quite serious enough to be professional.

I raise these points because some of the feedback raised and questions I have been asked about my novel have been querying the absence of technology – why didn’t she call?  Is she really that cut off?  And all I can answer is that these are the things I actually had at my disposal during those years.

Awareness of language was another point that caught me up in a lot of discussion.  Before I went to Moscow I don’t think I had ever heard anyone speak Russian other than in ‘B’ type espionage thrillers: evil spymasters who shouted harshly.  I certainly hadn’t appreciated what a sibilant language it is, nor how softly many people speak it.

And I had most definitely never heard anyone speaking it in the street in London.  I remember being in Marks and Spencer in Paris during a short holiday trip away from Moscow, and hearing two women speaking Russian behind me.  I was so surprised I turned to look at them.  This reaction is hard to imagine now that it is commonplace to hear both Russian and the multitude of other eastern European languages spoken by many London residents now.

So when I wrote a scene in which Rose, on a short trip back to London, is afraid when she hears men she thinks may be following her speak Russian, I had to remind readers that in 1995 in Tottenham Court Road,  the sound of this language was an unusual occurrence.

I’d still be hard pressed to tell you when I first had a mobile phone, although I know it was much later than most people.  It was even later before I left it switched on other than when I wanted to use it to make a call.

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