Unasked in the past?

Jan 24th, 2008 | By | Category: Cross Channel

Philip Toynbee’s A Part of a Journey: An Autobiographical Journal, 1977-1979 is bedtime reading these days: a few pages of Toynbee’s thoughts before dozing off and being woken by the alarm clock at 6.30 in what only seems to be five minutes later.

It was bought 25 years ago, on a New Year’s trip to Salisbury in Wiltshire and raises more questions now than it did a quarter of a century ago, including some daft questions.

Toynbee was living close to Monmouth, on the English-Welsh border, and writing book reviews for the English Sunday newspaper The Observer. I pondered how the reviews were sent in. No email, were there fax machines in the 1970s? He doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would have had cutting edge technology. Did he phone The Observer and dictate the review down a a crackly telephone line? Or did he type up his material and post it to London?

I drifted from the book and wondered how people did communicate. We have had email in our house since February 1997 – I still remember our first email address 106522.740 at compuserve dot com – what did we do before then? Did we write lengthy letters, or did we phone each other all the time? Phone calls were expensive and letter writing was something enforced once a week in school days. In my case, I think I simply didn’t communicate, with anyone.

I remember reading The Observer between 1977 and 1979, they were the years I spent at Sixth Form College and Sandy Buchanan, our history teacher told us it was a paper to be read. I must have read at least something of what Philip Toynbee wrote in that time, for The Observer was a paper I approached with an awestruck seriousness. Did I never ask myself during that time how people like Toynbee sent in their material? Did I imagine that writers went into the newspaper offices and typed up all their material? Perhaps it was a question that simply didn’t arise – like the mysterious workings of the television set, it simply happened.

In a generation, the world has changed and we have forgotten what went before. Were the telephones still under the GPO in 1977? Were stamps 3p, 4p or 5p? How much would it have cost to phone London? Could you be a writer for a newspaper and never go near its offices? Do any of the daft questions matter?

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  1. 1977 – In the UK. Stamps were a little more than you suggest! There were a number of special issues (as usual) and the covers are 9p, 10 and a half pence, 11p and 13p. It appears that second class was 7p – no special issue for it normally although there is a Christmas one. …those were the days when I had time/opportunity to collect stamps! As for phone calls to London? I didn’t know anyone there and don’t think we even had a telephone in the house! I love daft questions and useless information!

  2. PS – our history teacher told us to read The Guardian!

  3. Our history teacher was far to busy drumming battle dates into us to suggest reading a paper!

    In 1977 we had standard trunk dialling (STD) everywhere in Ireland and I am sure in the UK. Perhaps that is why it is hard to remember the cost. It was still GPO.

    Ten or twelve years earlier It was necessary to book calls through the operator and pips went to announce three, six, or nine minutes. Most of us tried to say as much as we could before the 3 minute pips went!

  4. Liz,

    It’s funny how the memory plays tricks. Thinking of it now, I remember paying 7 p for a stamp in 1975 to write to someone whom I email now for free. We had no phone until 1980.


    STD hadn’t reached bits of Ireland. I stayed in Belmullet in 1982 and there wasn’t even a dial on the phone – there was a button at the top that rang through to the exchange and you then asked for the number you wanted. The operator was excellent at knowing whether the person was at home or not.

    In 1983 at the Church of Ireland Theological College, there were phones with buttons A and B and to phone the North required calling the operator and having eight 10p pieces for a three minute call – the operator said when your time was up!

  5. “the operator said when your time was up!”

    I thought that was God’s job? 😀

  6. I can remember in 1977 that 50p every other day spent on petrol used to keep the tank of my moped full!!!
    Did Toynbee maybe dictate onto casette and then post it?
    EMail is great as it has put yourself and meself back in touch after 30 or so years Ian, but I think it has led to people not actually talking to each other. (Must send Helen an EMail about the washing up!!!!)

  7. Steph, The Almighty was quite amenable to negotiation compared to a P & T operator! When they said three minutes, that was it – it was Dr Hook time.

    Les, I pumped petrol at Greylake every weekend from autumn 77 until summer 78 – it was 75p a gallon. You might be right about the cassettes, that’s how Tony Benn did his diaries. I will have to read more of the book. Of course, when I read it first time, nothing would have seemed odd. I think you’re right about the email, but when your an anti-social punter like myself it does make contact easier (I’m currently trying to avoid two parties this weekend – I’m hopeless at them, never anything to say)

  8. Ian
    Just imagine that you were writing a piece for this website and you will be the star of the party.(never anything to say!!!!!!!)

  9. les,

    I’m chronically bad company! A couple of years ago Katharine and I met up with my first girlfriend (from 31 years previously) for lunch. I hadn’t seen her since I was 14 and spent much of the meeting contemplating my food while she and Katharine made conversation. I’m really hopeless.

  10. Ian
    If I get over to Ireland this year I promise I will visit you take you out for a couple of beers and make you talk to me.

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