A twenty-eight year old rector of a traditional, rural Ulster parish needed to prove himself; new technology seemed to offer an avenue that would impress. In 1989, new technology was not abundant, but the arrival of an Amstrad computer and a Canon photocopier in the study seemed to suggest that the new incumbent was go-ahead. The autumn of that year brought a visit to the Ideal Home Exhibition in Belfast and the acquisition of the latest in answering machine technology.
The device was clever, the phone and the answering machine were integrated and there were two ultrasonic devices one could use from other phones in order to activate the answering machine and hear the messages played back. It meant it was possible to, say, drive the twenty-odd miles to Belfast to visit parishioners in hospitals on Tuesday and Friday afternoons and to go to a phonebox and call home and check the messages before driving back to where we lived in the Lecale.
Impressed by the purchase, I set it up and went out to a meeting. Returning that evening, I was delighted to see the light blinking to show a message had been left. I pressed playback, a gruff Ulster voice said,”Mr Poulton, this is Sergeant Irvine of the RUC. We understand from British Telecom that you have an answering machine with a device for remote interrogation. We have checked and you have no license for that device. Would you call me as soon as possible to discuss the matter. The number here at the barracks is . . .”
My heart sank until I realized that the Newtownards telephone number given by the voice was one that recognized as that of a friend, tipped off by my wife regarding our latest technology. I picked up the receiver and dialled the number, it answered. “Sergeant Irvine, please,” I said. There was loud laughter at the other end of the line.
“Have you a license for that machine?” asked my friend, in a deep, affected country accent.
Since that time, attempts at using answering machines or services have recalled that first machine. Recording an outgoing message was always a challenge, it had to be written down and read slowly, word by word, like a six year old with a school reading book. A friend in Dublin used to hate machines, his outgoing message said, “Hello . . . This is Paddy . . . I’m not here . . . Ah, sure you know the rest.”
Leaving messages is even more difficult, “Hello, it’s Ian here . . . I, um . . . ah, sure, I’ll call you later.”
Struggling this morning to record an outgoing message to cover a week’s absence in England, I thought that maybe licensing machines would not be such a bad idea, there could be training and a competence test, and no more mumbles that tail off into silence.