The days when phones were phones
I can see her still – skimming across the worn congoleum, hastily wiping her hands on the ever-present apron, and reaching to lift the heavy
black bakelite handset from its cradle.
“Hello?” she would say with slight trepidation in her voice.
If the phone stopped ringing before it could be answered, she would lie awake half the night, catastrophising. What ill had befallen whom?
In those days, the telephone did not ring often and when it did, it rang for a purpose. Information needed to be conveyed, important news exchanged, or questions asked.
A telephone was a luxury that many could not afford. Calls were expensive and timed, so conversations by necessity were kept short and to the point. And if you missed a call, there was no way of tracking the caller.
Years later when phones had become ubiquitous and local calls were cheap and untimed, Mum and Dad still specialised in extraordinary telephone brevity.
Hello. Good. Yes. Right. No. Fine. Okay. Bye.
But phones were not for chit-chat in those days. That’s what letter-writing was for. Mum was an enthusiastic practitioner of the art. My father was an avowed non-letter-writer, a fact of which he seemed quite proud, though I remember his mother complaining bitterly that she “never heard from him from one year to the next”.
Dad was one of those free-thinking blokes who paid scant heed to social conventions. Three and a half years as a prisoner of war in Changi had earned him the right to pick and choose how he lived his life.
He didn’t go to funerals (“Better to see people when they’re alive”). He didn’t talk about the darkness of war (“That was then”) and he didn’t participate in commemorative events (“I’m not interested in parades”).
And he did not write letters (“Why write a letter when you can pick up the telephone?”).
Which is why, I think, we had a telephone in the days when most people were still trudging, pockets bursting with coins, to the red PMG public telephone cabinet (AKA the phone box) adjacent to the local post office to make calls.
Failing access to a phone box, another communication option was the telegram. Telegrams were speedy. Not email-speedy as we have come to expect in this age of instant gratification, but speedy nonetheless.
Telegrams were rung through to the local post office and delivered the same day, or even sooner if the sender paid a premium for an urgent (pink) telegram. Unfortunately, those simple slips of paper carried disturbing connotations for people who had lived through either or both World Wars. The fate of loved ones was generally conveyed by a pink telegram beginning with the dreaded “We regret to inform you…”.
There was no such negative association with telephones. In fact, thanks to the party line, telephones were a source of endless entertainment and gossip for sticky-beaks brazen enough to eavesdrop on the conversations of others on the shared telephone circuit.
By the time I was old enough to use the phone, the party line had given way to single subscriber lines. To make a call, one lifted the handset and waited for the switchboard operator to say, “number please”.
With a few clicks and whirs you would be connected.
But calls were still timed. After three minutes, the telephonist would interrupt with the standard question, “Are you extending for another three minutes?” Long distance calls, known as trunk calls, were very expensive and reserved for special occasions or matters of importance.
It was wise to ring beforehand and book a line, otherwise you could be up for a wait while the trunk call was placed and the connection made.
By 1970, the local exchange had become automated and soon after subscriber trunk dialling (STD) was introduced to replace operator-connected trunk calls.
Yes, in those days, a phone was a phone, a single-use communication device. But in the space of my lifetime and yours, the telephone in its mobile form has become a camera, road map, GPS, voice recorder, daily newspaper and radio.
But would our parents, who practised patience and self-reliance, have fallen for the cunning charms of the smart phone and the constant, instant, perpetual availability that goes with it?
Somehow I doubt it.