IN THE first successful speech
transmission by telephone in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, the instrumentís
inventor, told an assistant in another room: "Mr Watson, come here, I want
The French painter and sculptor, Edgar Degas,
hearing that modernity symbol tinkle in a friendís house, and seeing him
rush to answer it, re-marked to the prideful owner: "So thatís the
telephone. It rings and you run."
That peremptory "come here" note
has been constant in my dealings with phones, from a ringing, as insistent
as a bell summons to a Spanish Inquisition public burning and starting
just as foam is engulfing me in the bath and turns out to be a wrong
number, to the kind that disturbs me in the middle of polishing some
lapidary paragraph and produces a female voice, satin-and-silk-smooth with
a tulip for a tongue, that tells me I will be included in a draw for a
£20,000 world cruise if I answer questions on my household affairs first.
journalist, I have found the phone as vital to my life-support system as a
space helmet to an astronaut. All too often, nowadays, I find phoning, not
just a swift means of communication but also an unwanted deliverer of
music, a test of skill, similar in objective to assessing the intelligence
of rats, and often a sheer, nerve-straining, exquisitely-maddening
I refer to attempts to contact almost any large
company. Up comes the dread menu in electronic-voiced delivery, often
giving a list of dial number options as long as film credit titles.
By the time
you have listened to them all, you may have forgotten the one you
considered appropriate, resulting in a rehearing. When you do press a
number, you are likely to get a sub menu, sometimes with no suitable
Occasionally, a female electronic voice will become
testy, hinting that you are subnormal and that an operator will nanny you
to your objective.
Music follows - anything from mercilessly repetitive
Vivaldi to mind-battering Rock - followed by a silence suggesting that the
world has broken down. Cut off? Certainly not because the first menu is
back, again interspersed with advertisements extolling the firmís products
and efficiency. You have lost the will to live so you hang up.
I am convinced, do not want custom. I suspect - I could be wrong - that
they are part of a sinister plot by an international cartel of
unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies to make people so stress-ridden that
they will stoke themselves up with tranquillisers and painkillers.
endemic in the modern phone world and, for me - and I believe there are
like-minded millions - having to listen to people using mobile phones is a
significant source of nervous twitches and a yearning to get out of sonic
I see people walking the streets as if phones were
growing out of their ears. In an unassuageable desire to communicate, they
utter gnomic observations such as, "I am walking along Princes Street.
There is a hole in my sock. I have an itchy ear and itís raining."
people manage to restrain themselves conversationally in that non-mobile
Nirvana when phone exchanges had romantic-sounding names like Balta Sound,
Battlefield and Peggyís Mill, when human voices answered firmsí
switchboards and you did not have to listen, while travelling on trains,
to mobile phone users conducting business and drawing you unwillingly into
the intricate mesh of company affairs just when you are wanting to relax
with a coffee, macaroon and crossword puzzle?
The communication world is too
much with us; dialling and receiving, we are not the masters but the
slaves of omnipresent phones, often harassed by a constant ringing in our
Escape from such contact is becoming rare. The
latest gadget to effect a symbiotic relationship with humans is a stubby,
four-and-half inch, vibrating piece of electronic wizardry called
Blackberry, a combined e-mail and telephone device, able to update
constantly and synchronise with office IT systems.
especially useful when staff need to be permanently available to clients,
and it has become a new token of dedication to a company. Personally, I
will give Blackberry the raspberry. No slavish electronic attachment for
Another thing ... sorry, the phone wants me. Must run to answer it.
the ring of truth. Elementary, my dear Watson.