We’re On The Phone Now

For most of my childhood we weren’t “On the phone”, in fact for all of my childhood we weren’t “On the phone”, if I wanted to ring any of my friends to ask if they were playing out I just couldn’t because most of them weren’t “On the phone” either, so we just walked around to their house, knocked on their door and asked them to their face, yes, its a novel concept I admit but you try telling your kids to walk around to their friends house, knock on their door and ask them to their face and see if they don’t look at you as if you are quite mad.

Our next door neighbour was “On the phone” but thats because she was a production assistant at Yorkshire TV and they’d call her at any hour of the day to go into work, I always equated being a production assistant at Yorkshire TV as being an obedient dog so that when your master snaps his fingers at 3am in the morning to go for a walk you just do and you’d bloody well better wag your tail and look happy too.

So if we needed to use a phone we’d let ourselves into her house – we had a key because thats what neighbours did in those days, we’d feed her dog and cat while she was off filming on some glamorous location in urban Yorkshire – and we’d use her phone and sometimes we’d even put ten pence in a small box by the side of the phone located there for the purpose of saving up to pay the phone bill, which in the 1960s was usually larger than your mortgage.

Our posh Auntie Phyllis was “On the phone” but she lived a twenty minute walk away so we rarely popped around to her house to use it and in any case she was on a “party line”.

“What on earth is he on about now, party line?” I hear you all exclaim, well let me explain.

In the 1960s when suburbs like this one were still being developed the GPO (GPO ? – General Post Office, in charge of telephones) looked at the map of this proposed new suburb of Leeds, scratched their chins for a while, hummed and harr’ed, had another cup of tea and then pronounced that five telephone lines would be sufficient for this new suburb of two thousand homes.

So if you wanted to be “On the phone” like my posh Auntie Phyllis did, and may I add for no other reason than to tell everyone you met that you were “On the phone”, she’d meet total strangers on the street and say “Hello my name is Phyllis Robinson and I’m on the phone you know”, if you wanted to be “On the phone” in this suburb, you had to share the line with the rest of your street.

Think about it, your house sharing its phone line with every other house in your street so that if someone in the street was using the phone already then you couldn’t, you had to wait for them to finish and then hope that when you picked up your phone then no other bastard in the street had beaten you to it – can you imagine the internet working that way these days ?

But the best thing about having a party line was that when you picked up your phone, if someone else in your street was using the line, you could sit there and listen to their conversation, in fact you had to because when you put your phone down they’d hear a click on the line and they’d know that someone had been listening to them, so you had to stay on the line and eavesdrop – well that was the excuse my posh Auntie Phyllis told me and I believed her, for almost every time I’d go around to their house my Uncle Tommy would be sat in the kitchen ready to “shush” you and tell you to keep your voice down as our posh Auntie Phyllis was sat on the step at the bottom of the stairs “On the phone” listening to her neighbours gossip, sometimes forgetting herself and inadvertently joining in.

My fathers boss at his workplace had offered to pay the cost of having a phone line installed into our house, £100 it cost to be put “On the phone”, you could buy a car for £100, thats how expensive it was to be “On the phone” even with a party line that was so rubbish as to be not worth £100 but with only one provider they could afford to shrug their shoulders and say “Fook you then”.

My father wouldn’t have any of it, “They’ll be ringing me up all hours of the day and night, AND at bloody weekends” he’d say, and he was right, looking back with hindsight he was right, how many of us now are tied to a phone and jump when the boss rings on a weekend ?  Yes I’ve got my hand in the air too.

But eventually, after I’d grown up and moved away from home he acquiesced and the house became “On the phone”, and here is the weird bit.

When you became “On the phone” the GPO came and fitted the phone exactly where they said it should go, you didn’t get a choice and it was always in the hall because they could bring the wire in through the door frame and that was nice and easy for them, and they gave you a little card which explained how to answer the phone when it rang.

The card explained that to answer the phone it was a legal requirement to say either “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” or if you were common to just use “Hello” but then to state your phone number and so as a result, every day until their dying breath my mother and father would pick the phone up and say “Good morning or afternoon, 610631” but in a very posh voice, followed pretty quickly by “Oh its you”.

The fact that I can still remember my parents phone number, 15 years after I last heard either of them answer their phone speaks volumes for itself, but it wasn’t just them, it was everyone in the country, at work or at home, every time you dialled a number the person who answered always started the conversation by explaining to you the number that you had just dialled and yet no-one ever said back to them “I know the bloody number, I’ve just dialled the bloody number from the notebook I’ve got written in front of me”.

There are old people today who will still answer the phone with their telephone number, the number that their caller has just dialled, as if to confirm that they haven’t pressed a wrong button somewhere and I for one regret the passing of those more gentle, more polite times when there was only one place to rent your telephone line from and that place could command to you the manner in which you should answer their equipment when it rang, on pain of having it removed if you were too impolite.

Now, at some point I really must find out what my mobile phone number is, I’ve only had it for four years and only assume that it starts with a zero but would genuinely have to guess the rest, I think there’s a seven in there too.

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