Moi, Rachel and I have recently met people for the first time with whom, through writing for Yorkshire Bylines, I had been communicating online for two years or so. We had in the process become online friends, which is a phrase I never thought I would ever think, say, or write. Our real-life meeting was lovely and every bit as rewarding as I had hoped. One friend described it later as meeting distant and much-loved relatives.
This lovely meeting soon led me to realise that when I was a lad this would never happen. In my world meeting people with whom we later became friends was carried out in exactly the same way it had forever: always face to face through school, work, worship or pleasure. Only professionals had telephones at home, and the four old pence it took in the public telephone box to get through to the professional that we required didn’t last long enough to start a conversation, just long enough to arrange a visit from a doctor, builder, plumber and/or electrician.
Dealing with the (always female) ‘operator’
Dialling 999, you would be immediately put through to the switchboard operator dealing with emergency calls and this call was free. The operator would ask, “Emergency, which service please?” and with a bit of luck your panic and the lack of breath due to having to run up to a quarter of a mile to the phone box would allow you enough sense to describe what you wanted, where the particular emergency service had to go and your own name. I defy anyone outside our special forces to run a quarter of a mile in an adrenalin-filled panic and think straight at the end of it, particularly if it wasn’t obvious which service was the most appropriate or which to ask for first. Think of a fire following a collision between a car and brewery delivery wagon, petrol tank on fire, bodies lying in the street and looters nicking the beer – a nightmare.
Back to normality. If you didn’t know the number required, you could ask the switchboard operator by dialling zero, if I remember correctly, which later became 100. The operator would then ask, “Number please?” unless they wanted to brighten their drab day, and it then could be something like “Rubber knees?”, or “Lumber trees?” – hours of fun. They were always women, rightly or wrongly, for reasons that we never questioned or even considered.
Calling from a phone box: a complicated procedure
Using the phone was a little complicated for brains like mine – I would say every bit as complicated as so-called smart phones are today. On entering the phone box, you picked up the Bakelite hand piece from the Bakelite base, then had to find the slot in which to put your four old pence and then dialled the number. It was the same process up to this point if we wanted to speak to the switchboard who might ask for more money to be put in the slot depending on your number required.
If you were very lucky, the phone box would include a phone book, or if we were very, very lucky, there could be two books, one for local numbers only and the other for a nearby city. If a Barnsley, Leeds, London and/or New York number was required, then we followed the instructions from the switchboard making sure we took many more coins with us. But why anyone would want to ring London is beyond me.
Button ‘A’, button ‘B’ and posh boys’ hankies
If we knew and were able to dial the number ourselves, immediately the person at the other end picked up their receiver/handset we would hear a ‘pip, pip, pip’ sound. No conversation was possible yet until we pressed button ‘A’ at the front of the separate but magically connected money box and a short conversation could then take place. When our four pence time was running out, we would hear another ‘pip, pip, pip’ sound and we then had the panic of finding more pennies before we were cut off.
If there was no answer at the other end, then we could retrieve our four pence by pressing button ’B’ at the right-hand side of the box and our four pence would appear at the return slot. Naughty boys would periodically enter the phone box and press button ‘B’ in the hope that the previous user had forgotten to press it. This happened enough times to warrant the optimism. Very, very naughty boys would stuff a hanky up the return slot on their way to school and retrieve it and the money it had trapped on their way home. I was above that sort of thing of course. It was only posh kids who had hankies anyway.
Conducting – or ending – relationships via the phone box
Each phone box had its own number, and we could make prior arrangements to ring each other at a particular time and wait outside the box until it rang. I never used that arrangement; it was much too complicated for my tiny brain. However, this was a popular way to communicate during an ongoing relationship. It was also an easy and very cowardly way of standing someone up by just not ringing. Again I was above that sort of thing. I have only stood someone up once, which was before Moi’s time. I was only 16. I just didn’t turn up at a regular meeting place outside Rushworth’s in Huddersfield to meet a girl I had been going out with for three months. I have been ashamed of my cowardice ever since.
Strangely, I have been ashamed of very few things in my life; in fact, this is the only one I can remember. However, I have been embarrassed about many things and unfortunately I can still remember them all, and some still make me wince to this day. The ramble Love, Devotion and Embarrassment, and the most embarrassing moment described in the Puberty ramble are good examples.
The too-smart phone
As I walk over the moors and hills quite a lot, Moi insists that I take a mobile phone, which is sensible I suppose. However, I think the telephone was the worse device ever invented, it’s an intrusion and is always convenient for someone else (rant over). My phone is very simple – ring in and out and text – it possibly has a camera. It was specially chosen by Moi, and is designed for older people – not only does it allow you to phone out, but it reminds you why you have done so. All very clever stuff.
I had one of them smart phone for a very short time. It took me two weeks to work out how to answer an incoming call. Pressing the obvious green button didn’t work and after a couple of presses I lost interest. I do not exaggerate when I say it took me two weeks to realise that the green button had to be swiped across the screen. The phone had to go back from whence it came.
A story in which any resemblance to actual people is purely intentional
The following is meant as an attempt at humour. It never happened – no, really, it never has, and I’m sure never will. I would be gobsmacked if anybody believed it ever did, could or should.
A good friend of mine and his wife left Yorkshire to live in Kent of all places. I never understood why anyone would want to do that, but after a couple of years they realised the error of their ways and have now returned. During the time they lived in Kent, Moi and my mate’s wife would communicate by telephone endlessly. When our phone bills showed astronomical increases, my mate and I devised a solution. Since we both owned computers, we encouraged our wives to use electronic mail. Now they call on the phone to let each other know that an e-mail was sent, then call back to confirm that it arrived and have a conversation about the contents.