If you ever grumble about the quality of mobile phone signals where you live, a trip to the Pembrokeshire coastline will give you a new appreciation and sense of perspective of modern communications technology.
I recently accompanied a school party on a week-long residential trip to an adventure park there. In that beautiful rural setting, the only way I could get reception on my mobile was by standing at the top of the mountain-biking course, holding my phone aloft. Semaphore signals would have been more effective.
Feeling conspicuous, I eventually gave up and took an enforced week-long holiday from the internet. The closest I came to tweeting all week was when I chased a seagull that had snatched a child’s bag of sweets on the beach.
To be cut off from the world-wide web was a culture shock at first. Used to accessing the global village 24/7 on my smartphone, I suddenly found my social network limited to those within shouting distance.
So was I relieved when my phone buzzed back into life on the coach journey home? To my surprise, I was not. I realised I’d actually enjoyed going cold turkey. For several days after I got home, I barely glanced at my PC or my mobile.
I felt the same as I do when we have a power cut midwinter – initial annoyance, followed by the simple pleasure of spending an evening by candlelight. Knowing that the crisis won’t last renders the experience liberating rather than scary, especially as I always keep a few candles where I can find them in the dark.
And now I realise I’d overlooked an easy solution: next time, I’ll just pack a couple of semaphore flags. Problem solved!
(This post was originally written for the August 2013 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News)
If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read more of my thoughts on mobile phones (that’s cellphones to you, my American friends!)
Against my better judgement, I’ve allowed my eight year old daughter her own mobile phone. Well, my old mobile phone, actually. In a moment of weakness I gave it to her when I upgraded to a smartphone. I don’t approve of mobiles for children – I don’t think they have the emotional maturity to manage them – but now that she’s having sleepovers, it gives us both peace of mind to know she can call me if she needs me, day or night. (Her type 1 diabetes can quickly escalate into a medical emergency.)
Of course, my own childhood provides no precedent to help me judge what an eight year old might do with a mobile phone. Not only were there no mobile phones when I was a child, there weren’t even landlines in many homes.
I remember well the telephone from the house I grew up in. It was a classic, heavy, black bakelite number with a clicky, cold metal dial. By contrast, my grandmother’s new Trimphone, circa 1970, was considered revolutionary. Like her new bathroom, it was in fashionable avocado green. It didn’t last long, though. A bird in the garden learnt to mimic its shrill ringing so she never knew when a call was coming in.
My other grandmother had a neighbour who subscribed to a party line. This arrangement allowed two households to share a single number across two hard-wired handsets when there weren’t enough lines available to go around. These days, the idea seems an unthinkable invasion of privacy – though it would have made phone-tapping a lot easier, saving certain journalists a lot of trouble.
Many people got by without a phone at all. There were alternative communications systems available. One university friend’s local MP was happy to relay urgent messages from his home phone to constituents. It must have been a great vote-catcher. (I don’t think “I’m on the train” would have counted.)
The fact of my husband’s birth was relayed to his father, just home from his shift down a Scottish coalmine, by a knock on the door from the local policeman. “Mr Young, you’ve got another laddie,” he announced.
Even so, I was astonished when my boyfriend at university would go home for weekends without heralding his arrival with an advance phone call. But he had no option. His parents weren’t connected to British Telecom (the only, nationalised service provider.) His father was holding out against installing a phone for as long as he could, fearful of the bill his garrulous wife would run up. A few years later, he gave in and his worst fears were realised. She used the phone during the day when he was at work so as not to incur his wrath about the bill, with the net result that the bills were even higher. She made up for years of being incommunicado with endless, pointless calls to her sister in Liverpool. “What are you having for your tea tonight, then? Oh? Will you have peas with it?” Ironically that boyfriend’s first job on leaving university was with British Telecom, about to be shaken out of the dark ages by privatisation.
I still don’t like making phone calls, always thinking of the phone bill as I dial. My fear is misplaced. All calls from home are now free after 7pm and my mobile package offers me more free calls in a month than I am likely to use in a lifetime.
Not so my daughter’s phone: she’s only allowed Pay As You Go, a small balance provided for emergencies only. I am therefore annoyed when in my study this evening, working just a room away from her, a text message from her pops up on my mobile. I grab the phone crossly, rehearsing a diatribe against inappropriate use of her phone credit. But my wrath is shortlived when I read it: “I love you, lovely mummy, even though you work so hard.” A message like that is worth 10p any day.
Sending a text on my mobile as I jogged past Hawkesbury Monument the other day, it occurred to me that I was only a stone’s throw from writing my blog on the run. So many of my friends update their Facebook status from iPhones and Blackberries that I’d been thinking about investing in a smart phone myself, so that I could post to my online blog while away on holiday.
It’s not the first time I’ve hankered after equipment to help me write while travelling. Years ago, long before the rise of the internet or the miniatiurisation of the mobile phone, there was a clever little gadget on the market. A bit like a miniature version of the shorthand machines used by courtroom stenographers, it was like a tiny typewriter but with just four keys, one for each finger of one hand. You tapped the keys in a different combination for each letter of the alphabet. Even in a shaky commuter train, you’d be able to write legibly, because when you got home, the machine would spool out what you’d typed in normal letters. One of these devices would have made my daily commute across London suburbia more productive, but my salary as a lowly editorial assistant wouldn’t stretch to one.
Another reason I wanted it is that I’d never learned shorthand. Several times in my teens I had bought teach-yourself books, but even with daily practice, I knew that it would take a long time to master. With the short-termism of the typical teenager, I couldn’t make the commitment. Every year or two after, I would think to myself “If only I’d stuck at it, my shorthand would be fluent by now”.
So if I do write my column on the run, I’ll have to use an even more old-fashioned device to record it – my brain. I just wish my head had a USB port so that I could back it up with a memory stick.
(This article originally appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish Magazine, May 2011.)