I'm talking telephone numbers

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The Independent Culture
IT ISN'T the mobile phone that has scrambled my brain - I haven't got one. A phone or a brain, you ask wittily. Certainly not a mobile phone, and probably at this rate not much of a brain, either. It reached scrambling point yesterday when I learnt that my telephone number has changed again.

I was half-asleep when I heard the item on the radio, so missing the vital information as to what my new number has changed to. All I remember was a spokesman saying that there were now enough numbers in the kitty to provide every one of us with six telephone lines if we needed them. If we needed what? I was just about managing to keep my head above water with my credit card PIN, my BT message retrieval PIN, a dozen vital phone numbers, family anniversaries and important train times, when this latest bomb shell dropped.

OK it isn't an earth-shattering change. Instead of dialling 0171 followed by my number I now have to dial 0270, or is it 0207; damn, I can't remember, and I've just phoned directory enquiries to get it. It was a surreal conversation. "Directory enquiries, may I have the name you require?" "Yes," I said. "Mine."

There's a primitive tribe somewhere near the Gobi Desert, I understand, who have names only for the numbers up to 20, this being as much as they can count because they use only their fingers and toes. When they run out of their own fingers and toes they find someone else's. So how do they know how old they are? They just describe themselves as young, marriageable or old. We should try it. When larger numbers than 20 are required for business purposes - the head of the tribe's eldest daughter's dowry might be valued at, say, 67 yaks - they merely line up the three people whose fingers and toes they've used in the calculations and quote them in the marriage contract. Names are always easier to remember than numbers.

In the good old days telephone numbers had names as well as numbers. You dialled the first three letters of your exchange followed by a four- digit number. Thus, if you lived in Bayswater, you might dial BAY 1234. Most newspapers were FLE (Fleet Street) or LUD (Ludgate). There were some anomalies. Kensington was not KEN but WES, which stood, inexplicably, for Western. There was no Chelsea exchange. We dialled FLA for Flaxman. Heaven knows who Flaxman was; it probably harked back to the even better old days when Chelsea was farmland and the fields adjoining what is now the King's Road were full of crops. Flaxman is certainly prettier than Beetman or Rapeman. There was outrage when the letters were removed. They said they had to do it to give us new lines - nothing changes, you see. Names have to make sense, numbers don't. Overnight, instead of Flaxman, we became 352.

There were complaints, of course; people said numbers were anonymous, whereas with a name you immediately knew where someone lived. The only person who didn't complain was my snobbish friend Mirabel, whose Daddy had bought her a very expensive flat in Upper Berkeley Street in Mayfair. To her chagrin it had a Paddington telephone number. She tried to change it, but they wouldn't wear it. To be fair, Mirabel, with her plummy Cheltenham Ladies College drawl, could make Paddington sound as well- heeled as Belgravia, but, unlike the rest of us, she was delighted when the names were dropped.

I suspect that, like many people, as I grow older I find it difficult to unmemorise things. Old people get like that. I can remember the sort code of my first bank in Blackburn nearly three decades ago, and my first husband's birthday. If only I could chuck out all this useless baggage and refill my brain with vital new information my life would be so much simpler. The only way I shall remember the first four digits of my new phone number will be to turn them into sentences, like children memorising musical clefs. "All Cows Eat Grass", "Every Good Boy Deserves Favours". I've done that with my four PINs.

Instead of the number, I remember the alphabetical equivalents and turn them into words. Thus 9213 becomes "Irish Baritones Are Cads" or "Is Bigamy Any Consolation?". It's safer to have two - 3968 is now "Can I Find Happiness" or "Could I Forgive Him". Trouble is, I can't remember which sentence goes with which PIN and often have to go through the whole lot before the cashpoint gives me my money, to the discomfort of people queuing behind me. All I'm trying to say is that there must be a simpler way to contact someone than having to remember 11 random numbers. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince condensed himself into a logo. Couldn't we do the same with some sort of audio squeak?