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Irritations of Modern Life: 33. Ex-directory phone numbers

THE OTHER day, I lost Zoe Ball's home phone number. Damn! She'd written it on the back of a fag packet and I hadn't got round to transferring it to my address book. Then my wife threw the fag packet away. Maybe deliberately, who knows? So I rang Directory Enquiries. What address was that? Oh, Camden Town, I think. But we're really good friends, honest. "I'm sorry," said BT's robot voice, "that number is not listed."

A couple of days later, guess what? I lost Kate Moss's phone number, too! I told the person on 192 that I thought she still lived in Shepherd's Bush. I needed her number because I'd lent her a couple of chairs for a dinner party, and now I wanted them back. This didn't impress them at all. "That number is not listed," they said.

A short while after that, I was chatting with Arnie Schwarzenegger about a hot new script I'd seen that was ideal for him. I was astonishingly drunk, but he got enough of the idea to be impressed. "Ya, dat's good," he said. "Gif me your phone number und we'll talk tomorrow, ja, ven you've sobered op a bit."

"Actually," I said, "I can't quite remember my phone number right now. Just call Directory Enquiries, I'm in the book."

"Vot? You mean 192?" he asked. "You sure haf balls."

All right, all right. So none of the above exchanges really took place. But some of them almost did. Not in the matter of celebrity phone-number swapping - that's just my little joke - but in the matter of ex-directory phone numbers. Suddenly, everyone's ex-directory. Most of my friends and colleagues are. And very few of them, if any, are celebrities.

Why? Are they still anxious about being stalked? Is the pace of modern life getting too much for them? Do they have a really bad problem with unsolicited marketing calls? Or do they - and you think this when you find yourself in a strange town, recall that your old mate So-and-so lives there, call 192 to get his number only to be told that "That number..." - only do it to avoid YOU?

It's getting worse. In 1994, 25 per cent of domestic phone numbers were ex-directory. In 1998, it was 39 per cent. I can understand the desire for privacy - as a society, we're becoming increasingly more agoraphobic and paranoid. ("The mistake is to speak to people," said Samuel Beckett, and he had a point.)

It's the vanity that gets me. People should count themselves lucky that anyone wants to speak to them at all, not make it more difficult.

And then the handing over of the sacred phone number, when it happens, becomes charged with significance, an icky moment of trust and specialness. Excuse me? This is your phone number, not your PIN number.

The worst thing is that it signals the breakdown of society; it would appear that its standards are already low enough for 39 per cent of us to decide that our phone numbers should not be in the public domain.

This is bad, like covering your house with barbed wire and searchlights. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, the breakdown of society. Act like it's happening and it will happen.

So, be brave, everyone. Become communal-minded and open once more. Show society you welcome it. Shake off your Howard Hughes-type fears and get back into the telephone directory.

Because I've lost my address book again and I can't get hold of a soul.