STEVE CANAVAN: Time to rediscover that box of strange delights

Just a rectangular red box in the centre of town which smelt faintly of urine

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 26th January 2017, 4:33 pm
Updated Thursday, 26th January 2017, 4:38 pm
A kind of quaint thing of the past, like dinosaurs, a pint of bitter for less than £2.50, and David Cameron
A kind of quaint thing of the past, like dinosaurs, a pint of bitter for less than £2.50, and David Cameron

Because everyone in the world is now surgically attached to a mobile, phone boxes are on the verge of extinction, a kind of quaint thing of the past, like dinosaurs, a pint of bitter for less than £2.50, and David Cameron.

It is a shame because the phone box is a wonderful, exciting thing.

In my university days I had to queue to use one behind about 20 other students in the centre of Oxford (well, Preston if I’m being truthful; I applied for Oxford but they explained you needed better A-levels than D in Media Studies and an E in Home Economics).

Back then, a pay-phone was the only way to contact the outside world.

There was no email, internet, text message, or Skype – just a rectangular red box in the centre of town which smelt faintly of urine.

When using one, even the most mundane of conversations were exciting because you never quite knew when the pips would sound. The moment they did, you’d shout ‘hang on, I just need to shove another 10 pence in’ and then frantically scrabble in your pocket in a race to locate the appropriate coin before being unceremoniously cut off. If that happened there was no way you could phone the person back otherwise those queueing outside the box would go berserk, so the only option was to sheepishly open the door and trudge to the back of the queue, this time making sure you had plenty of 10ps in your hand before making your next call.

Gosh, they were exciting times…

The mobile phone has, of course, destroyed all that, but on Sunday mine broke down (when I say broke down, I mean I dropped it on the kitchen floor while making cheese on toast and it smashed into at least five different pieces). Needing to ring my mother to tell her I’d ordered the new varicose vein reducing tights that she’d wanted – and without any other form of immediate communication – I laced my shoes, loaded up on 10ps, and headed out to locate the nearest phone box.

This wasn’t easy. In the end I walked 3.7 miles (I know this because I’ve got one of those fancy watches that tells you exactly how unfit you are) before stumbling upon one.

As phone boxes go, it wasn’t the best specimen. One of the panels of glass had been smashed and there was a strange substance on the handle of the phone that, at best, was margarine.

After recovering from the shock of discovering that the minimum spend is now 60p, I dialled my mum’s home number and felt a surge of excitement when she answered. I had trudged miles to make this call – it felt so much better than simply leaning to my left on the couch and picking up my mobile.

However, then something odd happened. Just as my mother was describing how purple and bulging the vein in her left leg was, a car pulled up outside the phone box and a man got out and wandered towards it.

He stopped right outside and just stared at me, in quite unnerving fashion, as if he was mulling over just exactly how dispose of my body after killing me.

I couldn’t believe it.

I had not seen a phone box in use since late 1997, yet on this one occasion I needed to use one, there was someone else on the planet also wanting to make a call.

The man, who, I noted, looked uncannily like the chap from the old Maxwell House coffee adverts, then put one hand on the glass on the outside of the box and leant against it, whistling the theme tune to what I think was Grandstand.

If this was meant to intimidate, he had picked the wrong guy. I took a pound coin from my pocket and - after hesitating slightly because I realised I was about to spend an entire pound just to make a point - popped it in.

I stared triumphantly at him, slightly annoyed that I didn’t also have on my person a fold-up chair and perhaps some sandwiches too, to really send out a clear message: I’m going nowhere sunshine, you’ve really picked the wrong phone box here, pal.

The Maxwell House man began pacing the pavement and when my call ended a couple of minutes later - ‘Love you too mum, the swelling should go down when you get the tights on’ – he tutted and shook his head as I stepped from the box.

You just don’t get that kind of animosity, bitterness and resentment when you use a mobile - very satisfying indeed.