Philip Hensher: The joy of living in a phone-free world

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The Independent Online

Three weeks ago, I lost my mobile phone. Just left it on a table in a café in Berlin. And the phone company then delivered a replacement to my neighbours, who went away themselves before I could catch up with them.

The last three weeks have been a curious, quite enjoyable return to an age when to be out of doors was to be undisturbed; a state almost unimaginable to many younger people.

And yet within living memory, our relations with telecommunications were much simpler even than that. As recently as the 1980s, many people didn’t even have answering machines, let alone mobiles or email. If you wanted to contact people, you hoped they were in the vicinity of their telephone, or wrote them a letter – in the mid-Eighties at Oxford, if you wanted to ask a friend to go to the pictures, you wrote an invitation on a piece of paper and delivered it by the internal mail service. Amazing.

Ivy Compton-Burnett was once asked what quality she valued most in her friends, and gave the famous reply “availability”. She might have loved our lives now, when we are all available and plugged in to friend, foe, employer or subordinate, any hour of the day or night. I guess that your response to the latest development in the technology of availability will, however, depend largely on your age. If you are over 30, Facebook Places will probably sound like a nightmarish submission to surveillance; under 30, and it will seem like a cool way to hook up with your friends.

Facebook Places, which has just launched in the UK, is one of a number of location-sharing services. In brief, you check in, and your location is shared with all your friends. They know where you are, and you know where they are. What use you put this information to is up to you. Since it remains voluntary, objections may seem alarmist. If you don’t want people to know where you are, you don’t have to inform the world. If you happen to be in the centre of town at lunchtime, and just wondered if anyone else was around, then why not use the service?

But if you think for a moment of the speed with which we moved from a world in which you could phone people at home and chance your luck, to one in which we all expect to be able to phone each other at any time, anywhere in the world, it becomes clear that these shifts in communication carry an element of compulsion with them. Professional contacts have told me, reproachfully, that they were unable to reach me on my mobile in the last three weeks. In the future, are employers going to complain to their employees that “they hadn’t checked in” to a location-sharing service, and that they therefore didn’t know where they were?

Surveillance of all sorts is on the increase in this country. Let’s not make it seem normal by incorporating it in to our social lives. Leave a message: wait for your friends to call back. That seems perfectly adequate.

The boring truth about modern sainthoods

Cardinal Newman has been beatified by the Pope in Birmingham. This process, even nowadays, requires a miracle to take place. Cardinal Newman’s turns out to be posthumously curing a gentleman called Jack Sullivan of back pain after an operation. Why Mr Sullivan was requesting help from someone who was, at the time, no more than a dead cardinal is a theological mystery beyond this column. However, the prayer seems to have worked, and Cardinal Newman got his beatification. Some scoffers have pointed out that a typical laminectomy, which is the procedure Mr Sullivan had, takes “about 40 minutes, and most patients...walk out happy at two days”. Mere doctors: what do they know.

The miracles performed by Catholic saints and sub-saints are not as much fun as they used to be. The rubbish miracle has always been a staple of the church. One of St Rita’s attested miracles, I am told, is that she finally persuaded a convent to let her be a nun, after years of no doubt highly irritating nagging. On the other hand, St Agnes is reported to have grown an instantaneous coat of hair to preserve her modesty after some Romans tore her clothes off. And St Christina The Astonishing was so offended by the scent of sin that she would fly 50ft into the air and stay there, hovering, if an adulterer happened to walk by her. The next time the church wants to beatify someone, can’t they arrange for something more striking? Respectable 19th-century cardinals taking up posthumous careers as chiropractors just doesn’t do it for the punters.

What can account for so many scrupulous savers?

A survey by Barclays Bank has discovered that people, on average, believe that they have £70.73 in the bank more than they actually do. Christ, is that all? Can it really be true that, asked without notice, most people can state their bank balance to within less than a hundred pounds? I can’t, and never could: whether I’m hard-up or flush, the information of the contents of my current account always comes as an interesting surprise, sometimes conveyed rather tetchily in a phone call from the bank. “Is that a credit or a debit balance?” I often find myself saying, with genuine curiosity. Once, when in paid employment, I startled a mortgage adviser by admitting that I didn’t know what my annual salary was.

Of course, a tight budget is an incentive to remain aware of your resources. But I suspect that the knowledge of how much money you have in your bank account, or indeed in your wallet, is much more a matter of temperament than of affluence. I bet Sir Fred Goodwin could tell you exactly how much money he has in his current account; I bet that many a struggling student hasn’t got a clue.

To those who know without hesitation what their daily fiscal state is, the vagueness and uninterest of people like me must seem bizarre and irresponsible. But in fact, many people have no interest whatsoever in money for its own sake, and are only alerted to it when it becomes a problem. Those people unearthed by Barclays who overestimate their savings by a mere 70 quid seem the souls of scrupulousness. What are the insides of these people’s heads like as their days go by – a steady rattling of an abacus, a ticker-tape of mental arithmetic? Unimaginable.