Mike Rowbottom's Column: Dial M for murder where mobile phones intrude

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The Independent Online
I HAVE this urge to... never mind. No doubt it will pass. It's just that I remember the crack of plastic and the crunching of glass under my heel and I want to do the same thing again. Only this time not to the pager of an American journalist celebrating the end of the 1996 Olympic games, but to my own mobile.

I suppose I ought to fight this thing. It's not entirely rational, I know that. It's just another variation on wanting to shout out rude words when a hymn draws to a close, or to tell a train load of Newcastle United fans that they'll never win anything because their team is rubbish. Do you hear! Rubbish!

Train load. We were pulling out of Tottenham Hale station when it happened, and my initial reaction was one of smug contempt. The William Tell Overture, if you please. So which sad person was responsible?

The inane warbling grew louder as it reached the third bar but, throughout the carriage, hands remained inert. And suddenly my own hand was struggling to wrest the source of the ghastliness from my jacket pocket, fingers stabbing at the buttons so urgently that the incoming call was lost. Around me, set faces. But I knew what they were thinking. God knows, I agreed.

May I take this opportunity to thank the person in my office who programmed my new mobile phone? Thank you so much.

This week I travelled to London, supposedly to attend the British Olympic Association's annual meeting, but in actuality, as things turned out, for an intensive course on current mobile phone usage and, if there is such a word, abusage.

Eric Clapton admitted recently that he had been encouraged to start smoking - although not, as far as I can tell, to start taking drugs and drinking to the point where he preferred to live life seeing double because it confirmed he was properly drunk - by the old Strand cigarettes image. Their advertisement featured a solitary man exhaling pensively with the accompanying message: you're never alone with a Strand.

How much truer is that of a mobile phone. As I stepped off the train at Liverpool Street Station, the concourse was alive with men in suits pacing abstractedly, their technological comfort blankets cradled in the crooks of their neck. Chiropractors the length and breadth of the country must love the mobile.

In the streets, the distracted businessmen are complemented by young people in Kappa tracksuits and Yves St Laurent T-shirts, gesticulating to their unseen interlocutors as they stride along the pavement.

It seems to be a social code now that anyone engaged in such a conversation has privileged status. One of the attractions of this activity when it is conducted in a public place is to establish the pre-eminence of the user. They are thus excused the normal restraints that apply to pedestrians, or passengers. They have the right to barge into you. They can force you to listen to their tedious business dealings on rail journeys.

Returning from London on my phone-centric day, there was a restrained, very English row between two businessmen. A particularly suave mobile performance was cut brutally short when the man sitting opposite began: "I am very sorry, but you seem to think that this train carriage is your office..." I will cherish that lethal combination of politeness and scorn.

I can recall a similar exchange during the squash tournament at last year's Commonwealth Games, when one of the players was asked to wind up a conversation on his mobile because it was holding up his own medal ceremony.

It cannot be long, I fear, before we witness the first podium call: "Hello? Mum? It's me. Listen, they're giving me my medal now... yeah, I'm actually up there..."

The persistent, self-absorbed, mobile user is clearly a menace. But at least you can see them coming. The ones who catch you off guard now are those having animated conversations with themselves - poor souls - until a slim lead reveals they are merely availing themselves of the latest mobile phone adjuncts of an ear piece and detached microphone. This may prevent them frying their own brains with microwaves, but it has the collateral effect of doing my head in.

The problem seems to have got to Princess Anne, too, judging by her reaction to the trill of a mobile as she rose to address the British Olympic Association meeting in the week. As one of my colleagues started to thrust his hand into his pocket, regal tones rang out across the Cafe Royal: "If anybody answers that they can go. They can turn it off, or someone can confiscate it." The message could hardly have been clearer had she screamed: "Off with his head!"

So there we are - an effective way of dealing with the mobile menace. The only problem is that you have to be a royal for it to carry any force...

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