A telephone was a serious matter: waiting lists for installation might extend for months, even years; the cost of a connection was beyond the pocket of many ordinary people; and the cost of calls was greater than it is now. Typical telephone design conveyed a sense of gravitas, sober, black, serious. Telephones were treated with respect, accorded a place of prominence in a house. A typical telephone might sit on a hallstand in a draughty corridor, or hung on a kitchen wall. There would usually be no chair for sitting, for who would spend so long talking on a telephone that they might need to sit?
The old farmer’s telephone sat on a table in the hall of his single storey farmhouse; it had about it a stern and forbidding air worthy of the man himself. We sat on wooden chairs at the kitchen table, on a summer’s day, the door opened onto the hall to allow air to circulate through the house. “Do you see that phone?” he said, staring through the door. “It rings and by the time I get up from this chair and have walked down to pick it up, people have rung off. Do they think I have the phone in my pocket?”
It had seemed unwise to suggest to him that cordless telephones had been around for a decade or more and that even then (the mid 1990s) mobile phones were commonplace; he would have undoubtedly regarded such innovations as representing just one more step in the decline of civilised society. In retrospect, maybe such an objection would not have been so absurd.
Perhaps resistance to the notion of carrying a phone in one’s pocket might have enhanced the quality of life for many of us. There is now an expectation that one will have a mobile phone, and that, even if not answering a call immediately, one will return a call at the earliest opportunity – times, days, locations, have all become almost an irrelevance in a culture of expectancy of an instant response. Long gone is any widespread notion that only in an emergency would one make a call at an irregular hour, or on a Sunday.
Not so long ago, people wrote letters and would make telephone calls only when necessary. The first mobile phone in our house appeared in 1995 and cost £50-£60 a month, most of which was a standing charge; it was only bought because Katharine, my wife, was working in a parish forty-five miles from home and spent much of her time on the road. Calls were around £1 a minute and were brief and essential, and human civilisation did not fragment.
Cheap phones and free calls would have seemed a great boon in 1995, the notion that they might bring any disadvantage would have seemed absurd. The old farmer was untroubled by the thought of not reaching the hall table in time to lift the receiver; what annoyed him was the expectation of callers that there should be an instant answer. Assuming the farmer’s attitude would mean having the courage to leave calls unanswered (either that, or insist that answers will only be given to callers speaking from draughty halls).