Monday, September 9, 2013


Does one actually ‘need’ a cell phone? Probably not – we (society) managed without them until very recently, and I didn’t have one until 1999. However, working on the assumption that in this day and age a cell phone is, if not essential, certainly very useful, then I will say I ‘need’ a new one.

My current cell phone isn’t broken entirely, but while I admit that I use it mainly for texting, I would like to be able to use it as an actual telephone. Which I can do if I am in my car, or if I put it on loudspeaker so all around can hear what the person on the other end is saying, although s/he may not realise that. The speakers have given up the ghost you see, although whether that is out of spite or because of physical damage, either way it is from dropping it too many times.  It is annoying both to me and to people calling me, to have me answer the phone with, “Hi, my speakers are broken, please call me on my land line or text me.”

It got me thinking though, about how much has changed since I was a child. As a small child I didn’t use the phone – I couldn’t reach it. As an eleven – twelve year old I spent many hours talking to my friend Jan on the phone, but there was no privacy, nor comfort: I stood next to the phone, or sat on the wooden floor by it. The phone was in a large square-ish entrance way, with doors opening to outside, the bathroom, a bedroom, and into the large sunroom / enclosed verandah which acted as a hallway to the rest of the house.

Our phone looked very like this one.

The phone hung high on the wall, at adult level. It had no dial, just a receiver, a handle and bells. We were on a party line, which meant there were four phones in four household that all used the same line to connect to the exchange. We each had our own number: the Lloyds were 14S, the Churches were 14D, we were 14K and the Kearneys were 14 something, but nobody called them and they didn’t call us. To call someone, you used Morse code, so to call the Lloyds you used the handle to make the bells ring three short rings. The Churches, being D, were long-short-short, and we being K, were long-short-long. When you heard the phone ring, you could tell by the code if it was for you. To get the operator to put you through to someone on another line you did a single long – but if you made it too long, she would growl at you. It was like having four phones in a house these days – if you picked up a phone when someone was already using it, you could hear the conversation, as could the operator in the exchange.

One day Mum was a little bemused as Mrs Kearny rang and asked if Mum would bring something from the village for her. It was odd as the Kearnys kept to themselves and had hardly ever spoken to Mum before, but Mum wasn’t one to be rude, so agreed.  When we got there, Mrs Kearny asked us in, and chatted awkwardly for a couple of minutes, then asked me if I liked ice cream. I said that of course I did, where upon she asked if I would like one. I was confused as in those days, fridges had a small ice box only, domestic freezers had yet to be introduced. She led us to the other end of the house, through a door onto an enclosed verandah, warning us to be careful of where we stepped: looking down, we saw that the floor boards were rotted, there were holes and splintered wood, so we had to pick our way along, stepping only on the beams. At the end of the verandah stood a second hand shop freezer, and inside there were ice cream shop sized packets – four different flavours! The whole request to Mum had been contrived simply to show off the new acquisition.  Even at that age, about eight, I remember being shocked to the core, and asking Mum on the way home, “why would they spend that money on a deep freeze instead of fixing the floor?”

Mrs Kearny might not have talked to anyone much, but she knew all about everyone, because she was an avid listener to other people’s conversations. When you wanted to make a phone call, before starting to ring, you lifted the receiver and queried, “Working?” and if someone else was already using it, they would say ‘sorry,” and you would hang up again. But when we rang there would often be double pick up clicks and then Mum would say, “Sorry working,” and then start talking to the person she rang. But often you would have been talking a while before you heard a noise and realised someone was listening in.

The operator was also an avid listener, but she was pretty open about it. “You want to talk to Mrs X? Sorry, she’s in Hamilton today seeing her gynaecologist, won’t be home until about 3, I heard her telling Mrs Z.”  Obviously, we all tried to avoid personal conversations as much as possible!

However, we didn’t have much choice in how to communicate: physically face to face, phone attached to a wall (no cordless, or long cords even, back then), or mail. The mail went as it went – no fast post or couriers. Overseas mail went airmail or surface mail – as in, it went on a ship. No texting, no internet, no emails, no Skype.

When Mac and I went to England and Europe in 1975 for 18 months, we wrote letters to our parents, and an occasional letter to a friend. We rang our parents on Christmas Day, and that constituted our Christmas presents to them, so expensive it was. The calls were made from a phone box outside the local pub, because we didn’t have a phone in our flat.

I love today’s variety of ways of contacting and connecting with people. I love my friends all over the world who I have met via the internet – the unschoolers and beekeepers and homesteaders and book binders who I would never have met in ‘real’ life. I love the ease of re-connecting with old friends with whom I have lost touch. I love being able to text one of my sons with a quick comment about something I have seen or heard that they might be interested in, especially when I don’t know what they are doing and don’t want to bother them with a phone call about something trivial. I love being able to call someone when I’m lost (though the GPS unit in the car takes care of most of that now) or broken down or at A&E, or whatever.

So, yeah, I need a new phone, and it seems silly to get a simple basic $49 phone when there are smart phones available with internet and cameras and bells and whistles, but there are so many phones and so many plans and so many providers and I’m scared I won’t be able to learn how to use one. Life was so much simpler back in the day, if you broke down, you walked. If you were admitted to hospital, they called someone. Maybe. If you were lost, you stopped and asked people the way, and if you were lucky you got the right directions, if not, you asked someone else. But that was all hard work too.

A new phone. Time to buy one, and time to book one or two of the sons in to give me tutorials, I think.

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