happy talk

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You can use it to shop anywhere in the world, to conduct affairs of the heart and of business, even to have sex - no dressing up required. And your mother complains when you don't use it. In the following pages, we celebrate the telephone, one of the happier modern inventions, an instrument of intimacy. As Gilbert Adair says in our opening essay, when it comes to the telephone, two's company and three is always a crowd

I have an elderly acquaintance who is still in possession of a certain heavy, coal-black Bakelite object that was originally installed in her Chelsea maisonette half a century ago. It has a symmetrical, twin- bulbed receiver that sits mannishly astride the instrument's pyramidal base rather than demurely side-saddle, as is the case with most current models of the same species of object, and on its triangular facade there's a movable disk which you rotate by inserting a finger into any one of a sequentially numbered series of circular apertures that are distributed at regular intervals about its outer rim.

If you managed to hack your way through the grotesquely prolix thickets of that poker-faced description, you'll have gathered that what I'm referring to is a telephone. And though, as you'll also have gathered, it's something of a museum piece, it still works. I asked her if I could try it out, because I wanted to see what sort of nostalgic frisson it would give me from being obliged, after so many years, actually to dial a number!

The telephone is now in its "mannerist" or "decadent" phase. It now comes in every conceivable shape and size. Yet, even if we all have sleek touch- tone systems, sophisticated answering machines, call-waiting facilities, faxes and digitally detailed bills, even if it's white or crimson or Jacuzzi- tap gold-leaf, the telephone will forever be, as an icon, the kind of no-nonsense, old-fangled, black Bakelite object owned by my elderly acquaintance (just as the sky, though sometimes grey and sometimes red and sometimes eggshell white, will always be archetypally blue).

If a company's phone number is illustrated by a tiny graphic icon on its letter-headed writing paper, then hers is the phone that is always used. If, in one of its typically enigmatic billboards, Silk Cut teases the passer-by with the image of a white-gloved finger sinisterly tapping the cradle of a phone, then it, too, is inevitably one of the original classic black models. If there's a telephone exchange in Heaven, if God has a hotline to Satan, as Kennedy had to Kruschev, then one just knows what sort it's got to be. Nothing could better illustrate its significance in the modern world than the fact that there continues to exist, for all of us, a Platonically idealised conception of the thing, absolute and unchanging. Of how many other technological marvels could one make the same claim?

That the telephone has irreversibly changed our lives is the tritest of truisms. Yet in an era where the growth of information technology is so vertiginously boundless we can scarcely keep up with it, it's become easy to forget how true the truism is. Were it merely a question of the phone's capacity to facilitate and accelerate human contact, that would be reason enough to bless its existence. But it has also transformed the way in which we confront the world and each other in it.

The supreme convenience of the telephone is that - as Truman Capote said of masturbation - you don't have to dress up for it. You can chat to colleagues, to the boss, your mother or your lover, all the while scanning the newspaper headlines, picking your nose or scratching your crotch. If someone is beside you as you take the call, you're free to raise your eyebrows heavenwards, yawningly tap your lips or else mimic the sort of wind-up gesture that TV producers make when a talk-show guest starts to outstay his welcome - and your interlocutor is none the wiser.

For the telephone is blind. And, as I myself know from personal experience (my father lost his sight when I was a child), we are less wary, less suspicious, less watchful, when speaking to the blind than to those who have eyes to see us blush and squirm and wriggle and lie. If we knew, when we picked up the phone, that we were going to be given the once-over, we would most likely end up making far fewer calls, certainly fewer personal, non-professional ones.

Which is why, were it ever phased out altogether, if it were ever replaced by the sort of TV- or videophone whose advent has been eternally promised and eternally deferred, it would be nothing short of a catastrophe. A catastrophe for all of us, but especially for those helpline counsellors who will sometimes find themselves, like mountaineers on a precipitous slope, roped together on the phone-wire with potential suicides. The telephone offers salvation precisely because it allows things to be said that could never be said in person. And the public airing of a private call - Prince Charles's lubricious cooings to Camilla Parker-Bowles, to take the most obvious example - constitutes a form of cruel and unusual punishment to which no one should be subjected.

Like alcohol, the telephone loosens the tongue. Normally timorous souls surprise themselves by complaining - to a shop, to their local council, to their offspring's headmistress - with a candour they would be incapable of commanding if they were personally confronted by the object of their disgruntlement. It also sharpens the senses. It's a keyhole through which the ear spies on the voice. Undistracted by body language which may be calculated to deceive, it often contrives to tune into a faint signal of distress which has been concealed beneath a smooth surface of verbal reassurances that all is in order.

So, considering the telephone's ubiquity, indispensability and versatility, why has it been so strangely under-exploited by the arts? How many works of art could you cite, in any media, in which the telephone's functions are more than merely marginal? It turns up, to be sure, in countless films and novels, but seldom with any real narrative impact: it's just a prop, a handy means of imparting urgent information. And the other arts have only dallied with it.

Cocteau, for example, concocted La Voix Humaine, a brilliantly showy monologue (one much cherished by ageing actresses) which centres on a woman making a final desperate call to the lover who is about to abandon her. Menotti wrote an opera, The Telephone, a one-act love duet whose amorous developments are frustrated, to mildly comic effect, by an insistently ringing phone. And Frederick Knott devised a creaky theatrical thriller, Dial M for Murder (once famously, albeit not all that ingeniously, filmed by Hitchcock and currently revived in the West End), in which the success of a husband's scheme to murder his wife is predicated on the timing of a prearranged phone call.

More recently, the phone, has been the inspiration (if that's the word I'm looking for) for Nicholson Baker's egregious Vox - "A Novel about Telephone Sex", as its prominently displayed subtitle had it, presumably so that no impulsive book shop browser (browsing is to reading what masturbation is to copulation) would be left in the dark as to the precise nature of the juicy goodies within its pages. And Spike Lee's Girl 6 (implicit subtitle: "A Movie about Telephone Sex") was an abjectly naked attempt to restore its floundering director's commercial credibility after a string of box- office flops. A couple of other titles come to mind - the thriller Sorry Wrong Number, Spielberg's ET (with its once-universal slogan "ET, Phone Home") - and that's about it.

So why have the arts virtually ignored the telephone? I would suggest this: that at the foundation of all art is the concept of image-making, of representation, and that making a phone call is an occupation which, by its very nature, resists representation. There is nothing more amusing, after all, than endlessly chatting on the phone; nothing more exasperating than watching someone else endlessly chatting on the phone. One is frustratingly privy to only one half of the conversation. It's why, in order to bridge the gap in visual terms, filmmakers have frequently had recourse to cumbersome split-screen effects. Even more frustrating, one is barred from an intimacy which may not be accompanied by any of the usual attributes of intimacy between two people - physical contact, nudity - but is no less painfully exclusive for all that.

If the telephone is incompatible with aesthetic representation, then it's because phoning is ultimately a solitary affair. If, on the other hand, it has often proved to be in life the source of as much grief as pleasure, it's because phoning is paradoxically a solitude a deux. In short, two's company (on the telephone), three's a crowd

Elgin Crescent, Notting Hill in front of Harpers and Tom, the flower shop: "Hello?... Who's that? Joooools. Hi! Look, I just had to ring you. Guess what?" Although used to the ambient noise from mobile phone users, we dawdling shoppers couldn't help but loiter; even the flower woman froze for a fraction. We waited for the blonde (23-ish, lime-green shirt, black Nehru jacket) to find a better signal which made her dart sideways to the edge of the curb like a neurotic greyhound. "GUESS WHAT? Your car is parked next to mine!" One wanted to go up and shake her. Was that it?(ital) Apparently not. There was more. Lime-Green continued: "Yeah, yeah, the silver one. I've lost it for days."

We all know witless telephone conversations go on, but since the advent of the mobile the bizarre habits of the Ladies Who Phone are becoming increasingly revealed. But it is on their land-lines, lying in a bed or bath, with a packet of Silk Cut Ultra to provide punctuation, that the real business takes place. The most important rule is that nothing can be undertaken without in-depth consultation with the first six numbers in the speed-dial memory. It is life lived as a soap opera in which no one dare move until they have heard the next instalment.

Alice Bogarde, an interior designer and niece of Dirk, says "I spend my life on the phone usually speaking to my friend Zoe. We have to talk through every development in our lives; who's bonking who, who's been making passes at work, who'll be there, should he be dumped, whether it's sweet or sour grapes that combine with protein... we're gossipmongers. I've even got a pager which at least once a day flashes up messages like "very interesting news" and then I head for a phone." Alice says even subjects not particularly suited to the telephone come up for discussion. "Like my haircut. I could tell everyone I looked like Sid Vicious and it had been a terrible mistake and everyone could lie quite convincingly."

Ewa Lewis, the social editor of Tatler, is convinced that the telephone is best suited to gossip "because it concentrates what you are talking about. Face-to-face, a chair is knocked, someone needs sugar for their coffee, a cat howls, but the telephone heightens conversations because it is very one-dimensional." A gripping insight into a world in which people live out their inner lives over the wire was the notorious Squidgygate tape, which purported to be a conversation between the Princess of Wales and James Gilbey:

Male voice: What have you had on today.

Female voice: A pair of black jodhpur things on at the moment and a pink polo neck.

M: Really. Looking good?

F: Yes

One read on with mounting horror about "low times", acupuncture, horoscopes and HIM(ital)... (Was I the only person who worried about the expense?)

It is a common fallacy that old money is wary of new technology. After all, the upper class and the under class - the ones that undertake illegal home deliveries - were the first socio-economic groups to discover mobile phones. Both camps are united by their need for a peripatetic lifestyle, whilst keeping in touch with a wide circle of acquaintances who need to know of their every move. Indeed, crucial changes to lifestyle have been made to accommodate it. Out went the Mercedes (too thick a roof for proper reception). In with the Princess Di-style convertible.

Those who Live by the Phone are also the first to appreciate the striding advances in home telecommunications. The first to have a fax machine installed (handy for those "get of the line... something UNBELIEVABLE has happened" messages), they have signed up for all the offers: Family and Friends discount, call waiting and call minder, premium line savings and, to be really masochistic, the fully itemised bill, which acts like an aide -de- memoire as to where the day went.

In fact, call-stallers are now a substitute for a factotum. When I rang journalist Annabel Heseltine to talk telephone, I was given the electronic brush-off: "Sorry. Your call cannot be answered." Five minutes later, who should ring but Annabel. Spooky or what. "No, no," she said, "You were on 'call waiting'. I hate interrupting conversations when I hear the beeps, so when the call is over, I dial 1471 to find out who rang - only it doesn't work for Mercury, mobiles or internationals."

Annabel, who has a speed dial to her boyfriend, Carlos Mavroleon, her parents, her friend, Lucy Clive in New York and various newspaper offices, loves the telephone (and to prove it while we were talking, more calls were stacking up behind). She says it makes her much less inhibited: "When I talk to my boyfriend I can talk about personal things more easily. If you are face to face, your body language gives so much away. I think that's why one uses it so much for gossip."

Nicola Formby, who has clearly been on a time-efficiency programme, thinks it's far easier to have a boring conversation on the phone. "Then, if you are locked in, you can do something else. Like cook. I can cook and talk at the same time. I'm also famous for talking and lying in the bath. Two indulgences at once."

Sue Crewe, the editor of House & Garden, thinks the phone is merely an extension of woman's ability to chatter about "frivolity, gossip, feelings, happiness". Her 17-year-old daughter, Charity, to whom she speaks every other day and who lives in a house with five telephones, agrees: "We can talk for hours about anything... our love lives, our jobs, what we had for lunch... "

Sue recently stayed in South Africa and was very(ital) admiring of the standards of hospitality. "Not only was there a phone beside my bed, but one beside the bath. And there was a list of all the international codes typed out. Did I use it? Well, for key calls." But her most thrilling call EVER was flying back from the same trip to London. "There was a phone in my armrest. And one could phone anywhere. We were just going over the Kalahari desert, so I thought I'd call my mother because I knew she would be really thrilled. But she wasn't in."

We are, of course, just climbing out of the dead telephone season as the summer holidays have always presented a challenge to Those who Phone. It is accepted that they simply have(ital) to be away. It's the form. But, if they were being really honest, being off the radar is very frustrating. The only small comfort is that during August, there is a general understanding that hostilities, affairs and gossip are on hold, and being stoked up for a bumper issue in September. There are, of course, incorrigibles who resort to the mobile, but frankly it's too much trouble. All that looking up international dialling codes. That endless string of digits. The expense. And then, by the second week of an Italian villa holiday, calls are invariably answered by a gruff-voiced Mafiosi, who is the new owner of the phone after it was spirited out of a handbag by a scippatore in a Siennese side street.

Scotland, the other port of call for the leisured classes, presents its own problems. All those hills. In some places - surely the new definition for beyond the bounds of civilisation - the phones will never work.

But there is a solution even for this. James Lindsay, a travel consultant, discovered to his horror when he went to shoot snipe in South Uist that the Outer Hebrides really are(ital) off the map. "It isn't even on the network." Lindsay, who thinks it's a bit odd if someone doesn't have a mobile ("rather annoying actually"), has flirted with the idea of the satellite phone. "I had one for an expedition to Africa. It costs pounds 10,000 and comes in a little briefcase. Very smart. It can take calls all over the world and I'm sure it will become something everyone has eventually."

They give good phone

The mobile has forced the Ladies Who Phone into the open. But it is on their land lines, lying in a bed or bath with a cigarette for added emphasis, that these women really come alive By Lucinda Bredin

Elgin Crescent, Notting Hill, in front of Harpers and Tom, the flower shop: "Hello?... Who's that? Joooools. Hi! Look, I just had to ring you. Guess what?" Although used to the ambient noise from mobile phone users, we dawdling shoppers couldn't help but loiter; even the flower woman froze for a fraction. We waited for the blonde (23-ish, lime-green shirt, black Nehru jacket) to find a better signal which made her dart sideways to the edge of the curb like a neurotic greyhound. "Guess what? Your car is parked next to mine!" One wanted to go up and shake her. Was that it?(ital) Apparently not. There was more. Lime-Green continued: "Yeah, yeah, the silver one. I've lost it for days."

We all know witless telephone conversations go on, but since the advent of the mobile, the bizarre habits of the Ladies Who Phone are becoming increasingly revealed. But it is on their land-lines, lying in a bed or bath, with a packet of Silk Cut Ultra to provide punctuation, that the real business takes place. The most important rule is that nothing can be undertaken without in-depth consultation with the first six numbers in the speed-dial memory. It is life lived as a soap opera, in which no one dare move until they have heard the next instalment.

Alice Bogarde, an interior designer and niece of Dirk, says: "I spend my life on the phone usually speaking to my friend Zoe. We have to talk through every development in our lives; who's bonking who, who's been making passes at work, who'll be there, should he be dumped, whether it's sweet or sour grapes that combine with protein... We're gossipmongers. I've even got a pager which at least once a day flashes up messages like 'very interesting news' and then I head for a phone." Alice says even subjects not particularly suited to the telephone come up for discussion. "Like my haircut. I could tell everyone I looked like Sid Vicious and it had been a terrible mistake and everyone could lie quite convincingly."

Ewa Lewis, the social editor of Tatler, is convinced that the telephone is best suited to gossip "because it concentrates what you are talking about. Face-to-face, a chair is knocked, someone needs sugar for their coffee, a cat howls, but the telephone heightens conversations because it is very one-dimensional." A gripping insight into a world in which people live out their inner lives over the wire was the notorious Squidgygate tape, which purported to be a conversation between the Princess of Wales and James Gilbey:

Male voice: What have you had on today.

Female voice: A pair of black jodhpur things on at the moment and a pink polo neck.

M: Really. Looking good?

F: Yes

One read on with mounting horror about "low times", acupuncture, horoscopes and him... (Was I the only person who worried about the expense?)

It is a common fallacy that old money is wary of new technology. After all, the upper class and the under class - the ones that undertake illegal home deliveries - were the first socio-economic groups to discover mobile phones. Both camps are united by their need for a peripatetic lifestyle, whilst keeping in touch with a wide circle of acquaintances who need to know of their every move. Indeed, crucial changes to lifestyle have been made to accommodate it. Out went the Mercedes (too thick a roof for proper reception). In with the Princess Di-style convertible.

Those who Live by the Phone are also the first to appreciate the striding advances in home telecommunications. The first to have a fax machine installed (handy for those "get off the line... something unbelievable has happened" messages), they have signed up for all the offers: Family and Friends discount, Call Waiting and Call Minder, premium line savings and, to be really masochistic, the fully itemised bill, which acts like an aide memoire as to where the day went.

In fact, call-stallers are now a substitute for a factotum. When I rang journalist Annabel Heseltine to talk telephone, I was given the electronic brush-off: "Sorry. Your call cannot be answered." Five minutes later, who should ring but Annabel. Spooky or what. "No, no," she said, "You were on 'Call Waiting'. I hate interrupting conversations when I hear the beeps, so when the call is over, I dial 1471 to find out who rang - only it doesn't work for Mercury, mobiles or internationals."

Annabel, who has a speed dial to her boyfriend, Carlos Mavroleon, her parents, her friend Lucy Clive in New York and various newspaper offices, loves the telephone (and to prove it while we were talking, more calls were stacking up behind). She says it makes her much less inhibited: "When I talk to my boyfriend I can talk about personal things more easily. If you are face to face, your body language gives so much away. I think that's why one uses it so much for gossip."

The actress Nicola Formby, often described as The Blonde, has clearly been on a time-efficiency programme. She thinks it's far easier to have a boring conversation on the phone. "Then, if you are locked in, you can do something else. Like cook. I can cook and talk at the same time. I'm also famous for talking and lying in the bath. Two indulgences at once."

Sue Crewe, editor of House & Garden, thinks the phone is an extension of woman's ability to chatter about "frivolity, gossip, feelings, happiness". Her 17-year-old daughter, Charity, to whom she speaks every other day and who lives in a house with five telephones, agrees: "We can talk for hours about anything - our love lives, our jobs, what we had for lunch. "

Crewe recently stayed in South Africa and was admiring of the standards of hospitality. "Not only was there a phone beside my bed, but one beside the bath. And there was a list of all the international codes typed out. Did I use it? Well, for key calls." But her most thrilling call ever was flying back from the same trip to London. "There was a phone in my armrest. And one could phone anywhere. We were just going over the Kalahari desert, so I thought I'd call my mother because I knew she would be really thrilled. But she wasn't in."

We are, of course, just climbing out of the dead telephone season, as the summer holidays have always presented a challenge to Those Who Phone. It is accepted that they simply have to be away. It's the form. But, if they were being really honest, being off the radar is very frustrating. The only small comfort is that during August, there is a general understanding that hostilities, affairs and gossip are on hold, and being stoked up for a bumper issue in September. There are, of course, incorrigibles who resort to the mobile, but frankly it's too much trouble. All that looking up international dialling codes. That endless string of digits. The expense. And then, by the second week of an Italian villa holiday, calls are invariably answered by a gruff-voiced Mafiosi, who is the new owner of the phone after it was spirited out of a handbag by a scippatore in a Siennese side street.

Scotland, the other port of call for the leisured classes, presents its own problems. All those hills. In some places the phones will never work.

But there is a solution even for this. James Lindsay, a travel consultant, discovered to his horror when he went to shoot snipe in South Uist that the Outer Hebrides really are off the map. "It isn't even on the network." Lindsay, who thinks it's a bit odd if someone doesn't have a mobile ("rather annoying actually"), has flirted with the idea of the satellite phone. "I had one for an expedition to Africa. It costs pounds 10,000 and comes in a little briefcase. Very smart. It can take calls all over the world and I'm sure it will become something everyone has eventually"

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