Dad, what's a phone box? 21st century family life, with Simon Carter

'Dad, did you really go through the whole of your school life without using a computer?'

Thursday, 26th July 2018, 9:49 pm
Updated Thursday, 26th July 2018, 10:19 pm
Dad, what's a phone box?

That was the question my 14-year-old daughter, Ellen, asked recently. And she said it in an incredulous tone of voice.

'Yeah I did, and do you know why?'


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Kids, remember - some of us did not grow up with computers.

'Because they didn't have computers when I was at school.'

I'm 49, and left secondary school in 1985. At that moment, though, it felt like 1885 with my good self cast as Viz comic's Victorian Dad, but minus the handlebar moustache.

'And here's another thing '“ I couldn't take a selfie when I was your age. Reason why '“ we didn't have mobile phones when I was 14.'

My daughter pulled a face like the one in Edvard Munch's The Scream painting.

Was there really a world before selfies?

'You couldn't take selfies!!!!'

Technology has advanced at a phenomenal speed. To those of us brought up in the late '70s and '80s, it has sometimes seemed too rapidly.

With regard to technology in schools, the remarkable changes struck home a few months back when I was asked to be the guest speaker at my former secondary school in Exeter. I attended Hele's School between 1981-85 and managed to survive the whole experience without once resorting to technology. We didn't even have calculators to help us in maths lessons. My son has just finished his GCSEs and I noted, with some disgust I might add, that one of his maths exams specified calculators could be used.

'Ben, you've had it easy,' I drily told him. Not that he was listening '“ he had his headphones on and was talking to someone in Russia about a video game that seemed a slight advancement graphics-wise on the Asteroids one I used to play. It wasn't as good as Space Invaders, though. There's one good reason for that '“ nothing is.

A wedgie on an unsuspecting victim.

Anyway, I had to compile a speech for my talk; one which obviously drew heavily on my time at Hele's, an east Devon educational establishment which in all honesty I didn't want to go to because it was primarily a rugby playing school and I wasn't particularly keen on rugby. Hele's, in fairness, changed that. They made me really dislike it.

My daughter asked me what my memories were '“ 'can you remember that far back, dad?' and what sort of humorous anecdotes would I liberally pepper my speech with.

'I'll probably mention the wedgies.'

'What's a wedgie?

La beaut rude des Maures... Dartmoor.

'Thanks for asking. A wedgie is when someone's pants are grabbed by several other boys '“ and yanked up quickly and, it must be emphasised, violently.'

I went to an all boys school, so wedgies were commonplace. Especially when Hamish McGoogan was around.

'That doesn't sound like fun, dad?'

'No, it wasn't, it could be quite painful.'

'You know what I would have done, dad? I'd have called Childline.'

'We couldn't do that.'


'Childline hadn't been formed.' (Esther Rantzen would do so in 1986, the year after I left Hele's having gone through several pairs of pants in the process).

'And get this '“ we had a teacher, Mr Davies, who was so mad he used to kick our tables over if we got a question wrong. We nicknamed him Madman Davies'

'Dad, that doesn't sound like fun either.'

'Right again, it wasn't.'

Hamish McGoogan was a lad who, apart from being on the receiving end of many wedgies '“ mind you, he did deserve them '“ also had a spectacular name, and he also had a briefcase. This was 1985, this was east Devon, and teenagers did not carry briefcases to school.

Slightly changing tack, do you remember the story a few years ago about the schoolteacher who ran off to France with one of his (under-age) pupils? Suspicions were first aroused when they were spotted holding hands coming back from a school trip to America.

On reading this, I was truly horrified. On our school trips, we only went to Dartmoor. Well, it was only down the road. Geography trips, we went to Dartmoor. History trips, to Dartmoor. Art trips, to Dartmoor, to draw the rugged beauty of the moors. I'm pretty sure we even had a French trip there once ('la beauté rude des Maures' '“  'the rugged beauty of the Moors', obviously).

On one trip to Dartmoor a group of us all took off our ties, tied them together, grabbed Hamish and pushed him into a phone box, and locked him in by tying the rope of ties around the box, and then knotting it together. Even the teachers smiled.

I patiently explained this hilarious anecdote to my daughter.

All she could say was this: 'Dad, what's a phone box?'

When I was growing up, my parents didn't own a phone until I was about 10, and then it was one of those old-fashioned ones where you had to put your finger in a hole every time you dialled a number. I thought about explaining this to my kids but, frankly, couldn't be bothered as they wouldn't have understood the phone I had when I was 14 compared to the one my daughter has, let alone my son's which is virtually the same size as a paperback book.

I once, patiently, explained to my darling offspring what a typewriter was '“ an instrument used by journalists for decades, centuries even, and one my fingers used to dance merrily over for 12 months on entering the industry 30 years ago last month.

'So dad, you pressed down hard on a keyboard and metal pieces popped up from behind it and put inky letters on a piece of paper?'

My kids couldn't have looked more disgusted if I told them I'd just licked the cat's litter tray clean.

'And when we got to the end of a line, we had to push part of the typewriter back to its starting position and then type another line, and so on.'

Outlining the fundamental principles of how a typewriter worked, I felt like a relic from 1785.

'But dad, what if you made a mistake?'

'Well, then you got a bottle of Tipp-Ex out.'

'Never heard of it.'

'You wouldn't have. You smeared a bit of Tipp-Ex fluid over the mistake. Then you blew on the paper to make the fluid solidify '“ go hard, in other words '“ and then you typed your letter again over where you had dabbed the Tipp-Ex.'

'You blew on the piece of paper?'


Ben re-iterated the point (needlessly, I thought). 'You blew on the piece of paper if you made a mistake and had to Tipp-Ex it out?'

'Indeed. Be thankful you didn't go to school in the late 80s or early 90s, you'd probably have ended up using it and blowing on pieces of paper too.'

As my daughter started to open her mouth, I quickly put my finger to my own.

'And no, Ellen, before you ask, Childline wouldn't have been interested.'