There is a very fine phone box at Grange in Co Tipperary – green and cream with “Telefón” delineated in traditional script. It is complete with a black telephone that has buttons ‘”A” and “B”, but it was disappointing to find it had a solid wooden door very securely closed with a bolt and padlock. There would be no opportunity to ask to be connected to Belmullet 30, or other such number remembered from the past.
Phone boxes will become an icon of mid-twentieth century culture. How long did they endure? Fifty or sixty years? Not much more. Eventually, like the one in Grange, each one that survives will become a collector’s piece; appearing only as curios from a past age.
It is a pity that they will disappear altogether, for they represented liberty for countless young people, they democratised instant communication, allowed a degree of personal contact that had previously not been possible for the mass of ordinary people. No postman or parent could scrutinise the call, and, once exchanges were automated, there would be no operator who might casually eavesdrop.
Phone boxes in different places became associated with different memories, sometimes happy, sometimes sad. They could be cold and harsh places if one was waiting for calls that never came; their doors as heavy as the mood that hang over one’s head. The shelf on which the directories could be placed became a leaning post when the conversation became too much to take unsupported. The concrete floor was as cold as the words that were sometimes exchanged. On other occasions, they might be a world filled with joy, the laughter and smiles all but invisible to anyone who might be passing by.
Whatever the memories, phone boxes were about freedom of expression. There would be no-one listening in on the conversation, as there might be at home, at school, in an office, or in a pub. In those days of dials, it was not possible for someone to come into the box and know what number the previous user had called. To trace a call in those times demanded a police operation of considerable complexity.
The phone box could not for a moment compare with the potential of the iPhone that lies on my desk, with its 13 gigabytes of memory and capacity to contact anywhere in the world by call, text or email, but nothing as mundane as an iPhone will ever have the resonances of that distinctive feature of countless cities, and towns, and villages in Co Tipperary.