For many this may seem to be a very dry topic for my latest tale, but in previous memories I have shared how cars changed the way we lived, how hospitals adapted to changes of knowledge and this is an area that I feel has made some of the most profound changes to my life. I have spoken briefly about some of the things that were not even in existence, or in common usage, when I was younger. My father wrote on slates at primary school in Scotland and my older brother and I got small, iPad size slates with slate pencils one Christmas. At Harehills in the 1960s we had inkwells and dip pens for my first few years until ballpoint pens arrived. I won’t mention the challenges of logarithmic tables and slide rulers, before the arrival of calculators and scientific calculators, as many of us struggled to use and understand the books of tables and the mechanical slider.
One of these changes is the telephone and most houses relied on public telephones for communication and then later changed to home telephones. Party lines were common, where neighbours shared access to the phone system and then these disappeared and over time almost every house had a telephone. The introduction of widespread telecommunication changed the looks of streets: poles and cables were built and the wires strung across to individual houses and the building of the red painted public telephone box became a common sight. What hot blooded teenager can’t remember using the limited space to huddle with a partner, sheltering from the cold, but illuminated to the outside world? Many such episodes of passion must have been interrupted by someone knocking on the glass and asking to use the phone. Probably the greatest deterrent was the usual whiff of urine that most boxes had. I can’t really imagine why someone would choose to use the boxes in such a way, but they did.
There was something special about the old phones, though. In the boxes there was an A button that you pushed when your call was answered and a B button that had to be pushed to get change or to return your coins if no one answered. As a young child we used to go into the phone boxes and push the B button to see if anyone had forgotten their change. Home phones and telephone box phones were made of heavy black Bakelite and some home ones had a little drawer to keep address cards. They were solid and substantial and the dial was a very pleasant tactile experience. You slid the dial around with your finger in the number hole and then let it return and you did the same for each number. 999 was the emergency number and below is the explanation from the BBC.
‘In order to find the new emergency number in the dark or thick smoke it was suggested an end number was used so it could be found easily by touch. 111 was rejected because it could be triggered by faulty equipment or lines rubbing together. 222 would have connected to the Abbey local telephone exchange as numbers in the early telephone network represented the first three letters (ABBey = 222, 1 was not used due to the accidental triggering). 000 could not be used as the first 0 would have dialled the operator. 999 was deemed the sensible choice. ‘ BBC
Most telephones that I remember in my home and in friends’ houses were located near the front door in the hallway and I can only think that was to give the user some privacy. When I was a teenager and I had a girlfriend, my father used to answer the telephone before me and his great joy was to run through a list of names, ‘Is that, Susan, Jane, Mary?’ when he knew full well who it was. The list of names would become longer and more exaggerated each time, much to my annoyance. I used to stand there, whilst he would insist on this charade and think it was hilarious, as only fathers can. Of course, privacy was not a commodity afforded to me and I would walk down to the phone box near Gipton Wood, coins at the ready to have any private conversations. The most annoying aspect of pay phones was you always ran out of money at the most inappropriate times. Of course you could ring the operator to reverse charges, but that was only used in real emergencies and normally when you had to phone home.
Even when I married in the late 1970s and we bought our first house, we didn’t have a telephone in the house, but that was more unusual. As a student in London and I shared a house there was a pay telephone in the house so that landlords weren’t left with a bill if students left.
The most common form of communication is one that has almost completely disappeared and that is letters. Letter writing is an art and people would spend a lot of time making sure their spelling was correct and their handwriting was neat and legible. Primary schools taught letter writing and I remember well Mr Kelly at Harehills County Primary teaching how to set out a letter. If you knew who you were writing to, you ended it ‘Yours sincerely’ but if you didn’t you addressed it ‘Yours faithfully’. I seem to remember that letter writing was part of the Eleven Plus and I believe English Language O Level. Even when I moved to Australia in 1992 the normal means of communication with my mother was the weekly letter (aerogramme) and that would take two weeks to arrive. Of course we had the telephone, but that was expensive, about a pound per minute, and so wasn’t the first choice.
Every holiday that we ever went on as children would include my mother buying postcards and spending considerable time in the evenings writing the cards to our relatives and friends telling them we were having a lovely time. When, as a child, I went to stay with my aunt I was obliged to buy a post card to send home to let the rest of the family know that I was well, enjoying myself, behaving and having a good time. Post cards would normally be photographs of local beauty spots or places of interest. When my aunt lived in Kenilworth they would always have a picture of Kenilworth Castle, when she lived in Coventry it would be of the cathedral. Even on day trips to the seaside, or short stays, cards would be bought showing brilliant blue skies over Scarborough, Bridlington, Filey, Whitby or Hornsea. I love the Yorkshire coast, but after years of visits I know that blue skies are a rare occurrence, but I’ve never seen a card showing a grey sky. Cards were displayed on swivel racks alongside the buckets and spades, Lilos and deck chairs, and I used to love looking at the ‘naughty’ postcards that seemed to have very large matronly wives and small hen-pecked husbands, who were in trouble for looking at busty young girls, often in bikinis. These were very much in the mould of the Carry On films and there was something about them I found fascinating. I don’t think I ever bought one and I certainly wouldn’t have sent one to anyone.
Telegrams did exist, but they were old-fashioned when I was a young lad. They had specific significance for those who lived through the 1st and 2nd World Wars as they were dreaded by families whose loved ones were in the armed forces as they were a harbinger of bad news. They had the exact opposite meaning for those who were approaching 100 years. The Queen would, or at least her office, would send a telegram to anyone who was having a hundredth birthday and that was seen as a remarkable achievement. I never knew anyone who received one as my relatives were much shorter lived, but nowadays it is becoming much more common.
In the 1960s science fiction programmes such as Star Trek showed the possible future of communication, with fliptop communicators, video calling and travel off the Earth. Arthur C Clark, in one of his books, predicted geo-stationary communication satellites and, low and behold, they all came to fruition. We now think nothing of instant communication with high quality vision on Skype and can keep in contact with family and loved ones in a way that was truly the work of science fiction. How fortunate we are in these times of remaining indoors and social isolation. Imagine how much more challenging the experience would be without the internet, video streaming and Skype?