Number's up: The end of the little black book - Features - Gadgets and Tech - The Independent

Number's up: The end of the little black book

Mobile technology has transformed journalism – and besides enabling phone hacking, it has also erased the status of that once-prized possession, the contacts book

I don't keep a diary, but I realised when rooting around for a phone number the other day that I may have the next best thing – a pile of contacts books dating back a quarter of a century. These battered volumes – the pages torn, the ink faded, the covers hanging off – don't just mark the passing of the years. They fill in gaps in my memory. They evoke people and places. They are tangible reminders of long-forgotten stories I was once involved in.

Do I feel the same way about the numbers in the directory in my mobile phone? No, I don't. But do I still write phone numbers down into a contacts book? The answer to that is no, too.

A tour of the editorial floor of The Independent confirms the demise of these old-fashioned repositories of vital information. They are mostly stuffed into bottom drawers – abandoned artefacts whose time has gone, now nestling amid gym kit. One colleague showed me his most recent contacts book, opened for the last time about 10 years ago – an imposing, pillar-box red A4 edifice that bristled with newsroom vigour and reeked of an era of copytakers and clattering typewriters.

Contacts books are, of course, a generational thing. You have to be of a certain age – 'pre-mobile', one might call it – ever to have had one. And when I look back through my books, what I see are not just hundreds of names and numbers, many of which mean absolutely nothing to me now, but a way of journalistic life which has also to a great extent disappeared.

Nothing symbolises this change quite like The News of the World phone-hacking saga. Once, in my possibly rose-tinted memory, phone numbers had to be prised out of assiduously cultivated contacts, the cultivating probably done over a pint or two or in a dusty council chamber at the end of an epically boring planning meeting. Now, it seemed, all you had to do was sit at your computer all day, mobile to hand, and track down what you wanted using pin numbers and passwords, no communication with another human required. I liked the story I read recently of the reporter whose desk-inhabiting diligence in this regard earnt him the nickname 'The Olympic Flame' – he never went out.

Technology transformed things in other ways. There was a time, not long after the dinosaurs were wiped out, when people only had landlines. They had a landline in their office, and they had a landline at home. And when they weren't at either place, that was it. You couldn't get hold of them.

Getting a contact's office number wasn't generally a problem. Getting their home number was different. It required trust. Even then they might not be very keen to be phoned up at home. And let's say you'd acquired the home number through a third party. That call became trickier still. Another member of the household might answer. The person you wanted might be in the middle of their supper. In those days, there weren't answer machines to screen calls.

Then came the mobile phone. It was an amazing thing, and suddenly life became easier. People were much less bothered about giving out a mobile number. Receiving a call on a mobile wasn't an imposition like receiving a call to a home phone was. Mobiles took messages. They didn't give away your location. They could be switched off. My contacts book soon filled up with mobile phone numbers.

The internet and e-mail were the really giant leaps forward. Now people you wanted to get hold of could be Googled. They might even have their own website. Journalists witnessed the rise of the mass group e-mail that began with the words, "Anybody got a number for...?". Contacts ceased to be personal. They could belong to anybody. The other day there was a writer I wanted to get hold of I'd had no previous dealings with. She had a website with an e-mail address. I e-mailed her and within an hour we were speaking. I could probably have achieved the same result via Twitter. And as e-mail and tweeting become the predominant means of communication, phone calls and phone numbers are needed less.

This, to me, is the biggest difference between a newspaper office today and a newspaper office of 30 years ago. It's not that typewriters have been replaced by computers, it's that offices are so much quieter. Conversations that could only ever have happened using a phone are now conducted in e-mails. It used to be a lot of fun, indeed educational, to hear editing going on, interviews being conducted. Now these are mostly silent, hidden skills.

Even the terror of losing all your contacts is not what it was, given that phone data can be backed up. I never did lose a contacts book – never for more than a few panic-stricken minutes anyway – and I also got into the habit of periodically photocopying it (a much quicker process – 20 minutes or so – than you might imagine).

In an age when all the information we could ever need has no physical dimension, the contacts book is the vinyl record of the data world. I can imagine getting pleasure from leafing through a contacts book that you could never get scrolling through a mobile directory. And a glimpse inside a contacts book is actually quite a thrill – not just the sight of the names but because these objects speak of the journalist's life in all its chaotic glory. My colleague, the political reporter Andy McSmith, has a nice story about opening his contacts book at the letter 'T' when he was in the company of a Labour MP. At the time, Andy was quite closely involved with Labour and the MP looked down in horror and exclaimed: "How dare you have Margaret Thatcher's phone number!".

I haven't got Margaret Thatcher's phone number. I've got a mish-mash of other people, and when I look through my old books I quite like the juxtapositions. Here's a quartet that would make a good mixed doubles: Joan Bakewell, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Mike Brearley and Billy Bragg. My friends and family are also in there, rubbing up alongside names that others might think are more notable, and of course there are an increasing number of names of people who are no longer with us.

Here, for example, is a mobile number for Mo Mowlam. When she fell critically ill, in August 2005, we had the idea of asking Robin Cook to write about her in the event of what turned out to be her quite imminent death. I had Cook's number and called him. "I'm terribly sorry but I'm halfway up a mountain in Scotland," came the answer. The next day, Robin Cook died, and the death of Mo Mowlam followed a fortnight later. That was a month of metaphorical crossings-out in my contacts book.

I reckon I'm on to my last contacts book now. It's a sturdy black number I bought last year in Italy where they know how to do a good binding. But the chore of transferring the numbers from its fallen-apart predecessor is proving too much. I've only put in a few numbers, and most of the new details I get just go straight into my phone. My contacts books are relics, but they are treasured relics.

Oscar Wilde's instruction was to keep a diary in order to always have something sensational to read on the train. In the absence of a diary, my contacts books will have to do. So, here we go. Tariq Ali, Kriss Akabusi, Simon Armitage, the Alzheimer's Disease Society...

Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
Kenny G
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

    Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

    IT Support Manager - Staffordshire - £35,000

    £30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Manager - Near...

    Senior Project Manager / Team Leader (Management, Digital, Websites)

    £55000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Senior ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week