Joys of Modern Life

4. THE MOBILE PHONE BY CLIVE ASLET, JOURNALIST
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The Independent Culture
I AM a paid-up member of a mobile phone fan club. For too long it has been an unthinking assumption of polite society that this device, which facilitates conversation where conversation could never otherwise take place, is a work of Satan. Norman Lamont tried to tax it. Notices on railway trains require passengers to trudge into the no-man's land between carriages before using it. To produce one in a restaurant would be regarded as worse solecism than ordering red wine with fish. And yet every day I find myself offering a hymn of thanks to a benign Providence for creating mobile phones.

Of course, once one saved my life. (I exaggerate, but only for dramatic effect.) I had fallen from a horse in a field somewhere while out hunting, and it was a mobile phone carried by the Master of the hunt, by which the ambulance was summoned. But enough of personal reminiscences; let's start with the big picture. As the world becomes more lonely, we need to talk more. The whole trend of modern life is towards isolation. Anything which promotes human contact must be celebrated. Only the undemonstrative English and dour Scots fail to realise this. In Italy, where to live is to speak, the mobile phone has grown into being a kind of extra limb, which could only be removed by surgery. In bustling Hong Kong it seems to form a vital, semi-permanent connection between mouth and ear. As we sit down for lunch in the South China Club, its proprietor, that uomo universalis David Tang puts his mobile on the table and declares the convention of the club: "here mobile phones are de rigueur."

In traditionalist Britain, the mobile phone user is made to feel a pariah. Elsewhere, the mobile is a symbol of personal success. Here, that may be its downfall. We are not comfortable with material success. Take the House of Lords: it is full of high-achieving people, but they seem to undergo a process of beatification when they enter this establishment heaven. The taint of commercial endeavour vanishes, and so do mobile phones. The doorkeepers interrogate visitors who, if found to be carrying them, must switch them off. Instead they use neo-Gothic oak telephone cabins, such as Pugin would have designed if telephones had been invented in the 1830s.

To me, the joys of the mobile are unending. Take one in a taxi: even the most hardened cabbie will realise he cannot continue to inflict his opinions on you once you have started to talk into it. Time that would otherwise have been wasted is transformed by the opportunity to dispose of all those calls you didn't quite have time to make before you left. Barriers of space dissolve. With a mobile, you do not need to be in the office: you could just as well be in a garden, or by a swimming pool, or in a Turkish bath. The quilt of travel, which used to come from knowledge that almost any voyage, however modest, put you beyond the reach of colleagues, family and bank manager, is gone forever.

That is part of the problem. Gone so completely that it is difficult to remember what it used to be like. The halt on the country road. The exasperation of finding that the telephone box was either occupied or not working. The infuriating discovery that the person to whom you absolutely had to speak was engaged. The tears of frustration when, at the next telephone box, you realised that it was after half past five and the person concerned had gone home. Yes, all those apparently medieval horrors are behind us and forgotten. Remember the builder who was never there? Now you just dial his mobile.

Imagine: the mobile phone is single-handedly responsible for one of life's greatest entertainments. Without it, we could no longer listen to all those intimate conversations - one half of them anyway - broadcast as though the person speaking was on the stage. Just think of how many dull moments have been enlivened by trying to picture what sort of person the mobile used is talking to. What is his wife like? Is it really his wife? What strange manufactured item is the basis of that fellow's business? If it were not for the mobile, the pageant of life would pass before you with half its characters silent and unobserved. And you could never get the other half on the phone.

Clive Aslet

Clive Aslet is Editor of `Country Life'

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