Telephony and Flexibility

After a family party, a meeting of people who may not get together that frequently, it is perhaps inevitable that stories from the past bubble up for retelling with an edge of spin.

After lunch I sat in a group of cousins, each of us with our mobile telephones in hand, checking we had each others numbers so that a preliminary plan for the following day could be crystallised on the hoof.  Calling briefly, across the room, to check the accuracy of short sighted typing with fat fingers on tiny keys.

We looked like the teenagers we might have been if born 40 years later than we actually were.

It made us reflect that it is the arrival of mobile telephony that allowed us the flexibility to change our plans at the very last minute, if we wanted.  Twenty years ago social plans were much more concrete, earlier.  Organised people like me, still tend to make a plan and keep to it, but I can see how the apparent flakiness of some people is now supported by technological advancement.

But all these phones inevitably set us reminiscing about times when party lines were commonplace and when the phone was a fixture in the hallway and only a long lead permitted any privacy for a call (although now, in the times of shouting intimate secrets into a handset on the bus, maybe the desire for a private conversation marks me as part of an outmoded generation.)

When I was having my year in France at the University in Limoges, and living in a student hall of residence I had to teach my father to say ‘Allo, cent cinqant cinq’ (my room number was 155 – a fact I can still remember only because of having to write it out phonetically for him) for when he called me.

The calls would be initially received at the concierge’s office, and then he would transfer it to the appropriate corridor phone which would ring until someone came out of their room to answer it.  The called would have to repeat the number, and then the person who had picked up the phone would come and bang on the door.

If I wanted to call my parents, I had to go up to the shopping centre, with a purse full of change, to one of the public phones there that were capable of making international calls.

In my final year of University in Birmingham, my parents were living in Ireland and had an 18 month wait to get a phone in their home.  Consequently we had an arrangement that on a Sunday morning I would go to a public call box 5 minutes walk from my flat and would call the factory where my father worked, and reverse the charges.  My parents would both go to the factory and wait for the call.  The weekend security man, who had already been briefed, would answer the switchboard, agree to accept the charges, would have a little chat with me, usually about the weather, and would transfer me to my father’s office phone.

When the regular security man went on holiday, his stand in would hear about me as part of the briefing on the duties he was required to perform.

My niece is due to spend the next academic year at a university in Spain; somehow the debate about whether she should use her UK mobile phone or get a Spanish pay as you go SIM card there, lacks the same level of drama, precision timing and community involvement.  But then in another 30 years that conversation may seem unbelievably quaint too.

Leave a comment


  1. oh goodness, Room 155! perish the thought. I don’t recall ever getting a phone call in that block from anyone. I think I limited myself to snail mail at all times.

    How on earth DID we manage?

    mind you, just finished reading the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel pie Society. A book based on the exchange of letters. Some of the social arrangements in that book in the 1940s)( arranged by letter must have relied on two deliveries a day and a number of couriers

    • I think we planned more, and yes, relied on snail mail, but also we didn’t have such an expectation of an immediate response, nor of being in constant touch.

  2. margaret nickels

     /  July 12, 2011

    I sense a whiff of nostalgia ….. surely not possible !


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