Brian Viner: 'Perpetrators of mobile phone crimes are to be pitied as much as reviled'

Home And Away
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The Independent Online

Mobile phones, I think we all agree, are among the scourges of our age. The man on the train whose instructions to his secretary are broadcast to the entire carriage, the youth on the bus who unaccountably doesn't answer his phone until it has played most of the Mission Impossible theme, these are people to be pitied as much as reviled, victims as much as perpetrators. Yet if Miss Marple were investigating a modern-day murder on the 4.50 from Paddington, chances are that the assailant would be someone nudged by a Nokia, swatted by a Samsung, manhandled by a Motorola, over sanity's edge.

Of course, I could make a more honest protest against our mobile-phone culture by chucking mine in a canal, but the gloomy truth is that I would be lost without it, or if not lost, decidedly disadvantaged. And I confess that we have equipped our children with them, the youngest only 11, on the basis that they all get the train to and from school and we want them to be contactable in case of delays, and the myriad other unpreventable things that can make them late getting to the station, such as dawdling.

All of which brings me to Jacob, the 11-year-old, who is still getting to grips with his new phone, and who last Friday was left in the charge of his grandparents, my parents-in-law, as Jane and I swanked off to a black-tie dinner at Blenheim Palace (apologies for the name-dropping, but our destination is relevant, as you will see).

Anyway, Jane's parting shot to her mum, Jacob's grandma Anne, was that Jacob could do with some texting practice. And so, later that evening, with Jacob having gone upstairs after a goodnight kiss, Anne sent him a text message which read: "night, night Jacob, time to get into bed and turn off your light, love grandma". A few minutes later her own phone pinged with the arrival of a message. "I'm sorry," it said, "but I'm not Jacob."

In storing his number on her phone, Anne had entered a wrong digit. So she replied to the recipient of Jacob's night-night message, apologising. "That's OK," the anonymous person texted back. "I was just worried about Jacob."

Several irresistible thoughts come to mind as a result of this innocent comedy of misdirected texts. One concerns the identity of the mystery person bidden night-night and told to get into bed. It could have been Gordon Brown, or JK Rowling, or the chairman of the Bank of England. And one also wonders what he or she thought about the quality of Jacob's childcare. Was grandma perchance in the pub, necking her third bottle of stout? Why else would she send a text?

Whatever, it all meant that Jacob was awake for a good while longer than he would have been before he had his own Nokia. This also gave him time to ring Jane from his bedroom, to say night-night, which is how this tale of mobile phones as social liabilities switches from Herefordshire to Oxfordshire, and to the glorious orangery at Blenheim, in the exalted company of the Duke of Marlborough. The dinner was the showpiece event of The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival, and the guests had fallen silent to listen to the historian Andrew Roberts telling us about the Duke's kinsman, Sir Winston Churchill. Jane thought she had turned her phone to silent and was accordingly as indignant as everyone else when, just as Churchill was contemplating disaster at Dunkirk, an insistent trilling began to echo round the orangery. We rolled our eyes at each other, but as the noise rose, suddenly her face froze in horror. "It's mine," she hissed.

Her phone was in her handbag, next to her chair, but had she opened the bag to turn the blessed thing off, the trilling would have got even louder. So with a resourcefulness that I like to think Winston and certainly Clemmie would have applauded, she instead picked up her handbag and sat on it. As the Dunkirk evacuation unfolded, so the trilling receded. And later we gave thanks that the speaker had not been the illustrious actor Richard Griffiths, who once stepped out of character on the West End stage to berate someone in the audience for a ringtone disruption. He was quite right, of course. The mobile phone is a modern curse, but worse, a curse that few of us can manage without.

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