Harriet Walker: 'You can never escape the phone...'


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The Independent Online

In the olden days, we are told, people – specifically, girls – sat by the phone willing it to ring. Thankfully, in this era of on-the-go eterno-contact, you needn't sit at home to do this. Instead, you can do all manner of adventurous and distracting things while you will your phone to ring.

Brilliant advancements in technology and smallening since the days of those two-handed telephones Jimmy Stewart so liked to use also mean that, should you happen to find yourself sitting at home waiting for your phone to ring, you can simply switch it off and hide it under a cushion or coffee cup (depending on just how tiny and whizzy your phone is, of course) before you go insane.

But it's getting harder and harder to switch off completely. These days, you can evaluate your popularity and your social prowess by how many things you need to log into every time you open your computer or tablet, and you can bet your 10,000 Facebook friends that, during those tricky moments when your phone refuses to ring, all those many methods of mass communication will call out like sirens to fill the irksome gap created by your phone's stubborn silence.

And this is how you go from relaxing on the sofa with a book and your mobile hidden down the crack at the side to frantically checking your every other communicative portal to the outside world, hair awry and heart racing as you Facebook-stalk a stranger using all the energetic gusto and giddy stealth of a huntsman tracking a prize stag.

When the madness passes and you finally breathe again, you realise how ingrained in your head all these various things and their passwords are. You find yourself composing tweets in the shower, which you know you can never actually tweet because people will either think a) you're tweeting from the shower (which is lame) or b) you are tweeting a pensée that you fine-tuned in the shower (which is even lamer). You see the Facebook login page in your mind's eye every time you find yourself in a situation which might either make people jealous or make them think you're cool. Your moral compass becomes swayed by the GPS on your phone, which has the potential to let everyone know should you accidentally-on-purpose end up in a trendy place.

Is the solution to simply remove yourself entirely from these spheres? That doesn't work, because every so often someone else will reveal your whereabouts in a post of their own or you'll end up in the background of someone's picture, the back of your head tagged as part of the furniture of another's existence. You can't escape.

Perhaps this should be heartening. Perhaps it means you're necessary. But it all too frequently taps into something darker which means you're no longer qualified to spend time on your own without checking and re-checking that there isn't something more fun you should be doing. And it leads, in certain acute cases, to that weird state of social telekinesis, when you happen to look at your phone and it starts ringing – even though you have been willing it to for the past three hours without success.

It's the mental equivalent of those funny noises radios make when a phone nearby is about to start buzzing. Except those noises are inside your own head. When you think about it, it's terrifying. But still, at least someone is ringing you. And you can close Facebook, Twitter and all the other things you have been using to answer. "What am I up to? Nothing much... Sometimes it's just so good to have some time to yourself, right?"

I know, now it's over, that rehashing that damp squib of a Jubilee is a futile endeavour, but allow me to take a moment to praise Yorkshire spirit. It's very different from Blitz spirit, which is the other type of steel-toothed ability to endure even the unendurable often wheeled out for occasions like this. It's more smiley and less trite.

The regional news that rainy Bank Holiday featured a boy in Wakefield who had learnt how to "balance a stick" and some rather cold-looking women in Skipton who had a lovely time. "Oh yes," one of them ripsnorted. "We've had a quiche! And we're going to dance all night long!"

"Until 10 o'clock!" added her friend.

When I and what felt like the rest of the nation decided to visit Chatsworth that Sunday, I queued in torrential rain with some Americans behind me. "Honestly, this rain," one of them drizzled. "What was it Queen Victoria II used to say? 'Off with their heads!'" Clearly, they were in need of some history lessons first and foremost, but they could have learnt a lot, too, from the ladies of Skipton.