The invention that changed our world . . . for ever

HELP! My mobile only gets a signal in the kitchen sink or outside in the road

When telephones escaped their ‘curly wurly’  FLEX liFe  changed completely, says PETER MORTIMER

All this phone-hacking stuff in high places leaves me both nostalgic and baffled: while there are trillions of mobile phones in the world, most people are too busy using their ‘devices’ accessing Snapchat, Twitter, text or Grindr to actually MAKE a phone call.

What is more, when I make a call, no-one ever answers. What I get is an infuriating automated message telling me how ‘important my call is’ to the particular conglomerate of capitalist nasties to whom I am attempting to complain.

It’s SO important, in fact, that they’ll keep me hanging on for 35 minutes with the occasional snatch of Vivaldi between such oft repeated platitudinous guff.

This has led me me to pinpoint the exact moment that human civilisation went into terminal decline.

Worse than socks worn with sandals . . .

No, it wasn’t the invention of the hula-hoop or when the Birdy Song made number one. Not even when someone decided Robbie Savage would make a good football pundit, nor when the first man wore socks with sandals or someone decided to add Coca Cola to vodka.

All good suggestions, but wide of the mark.

In fact, the moment civilisation went into terminal decline was when someone unleashed the landline telephone from the boundaries imposed by its restraining flex, allowing it unfettered freedom since when it (and we) have never been the same.

Those of us of a certain age grew up safe in the knowledge that a phone lived in one small defined space, either on its cradle or within the limited area in which its curly-wurly cord allowed it to roam. The phone location was almost always on the downstairs hall table. Posh folk had an extension upstairs.

Pre-mobile phones invariably sat on a hall stand

This immobility could be bothersome when the phone rang and you were taking a bath, or when you were in full flow on the loo.

Prior to the answer-phone, if you missed the call then you missed the call: the concept of anyone going walkabout accompanied by an unattached telephone was unthinkable.

We knew where we were and, more important, we knew where the person on the other end of the phone was, too. It’s safe to say that, until the arrival of the free-as-a-bird mobile phone, never in the annals of human history was recorded a single instance of someone losing a phone. Then some clever-clogs had the idea of making phones cord-free and the rot set in.

Soon, a second clever sod (under the well-known premise that no-one can EVER leave well enough alone) took technology a stage further: phones were suddenly soon not just cordless but were free of any restrictions whatsoever.

Quickly, they were able to do everything short of mixing your Great-aunt Gertie’s nightly medicine (though there’s probably even an app for THAT by now).

After that, you could carry the phone wherever you went. Phones became rootless, belonging nowhere, released not only from the downstairs hall table but from any particular locale whatsoever.

Soon, we were rootless in our written communications, too. Emails, texts and tweets replaced handwritten letters, home addresses became irrelevant and even, in most cases, unknown. Some people were barely aware of their OWN surface addresses. Fountain pens became museum pieces. And because dialling was now merely pressing a button, no-one knew anyone’s phone number by heart, including their own.

High technology slowly rendered us ignorant; vast swathes of us on trains, buses and even on foot drifted through journeys staring empty-eyed into small screens, increasingly unaware of any other reality. We became automatons.

Staring deep into their little screens; whatever happened to romance?

Lovers sitting opposite one another no longer stared deep into each other’s eyes but remained glued to their own small, illuminated screens. No one noticed the passing seasons, the shape of clouds, dawn, dusk, falling leaves, birds in trees, nodding flowers, grass rippling in the wind, the lap of water at the lakeside.

Their ears plugged with headphones, no-one heard the wind’s sigh, the lonely cry of a seagull, the roar of a waterfall, the delivery boy’s whistle, the thrum-thrum of the passing train. Most conversation simply disappeared.

And all this, you see, because some hi-tech fool freed the phone from its curly-wurly flex.

As a sage once said, be careful what you wish for. . .


  1. Aha! Yet more words of wisdom, and if the telephone on the hall table is remembered, then the writer must be a young museum enthusiast or one of a certain age!! Thing is , i am over a certain age & I like my IPhone, camera, store of best pics of grandchildren, and Madman across the Water (ie latest download) and up to date match report, Shrewsbury v Bolton Wanderers. The hall table phone, Brentwood 580? Yep, museum!


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