`I want to be alone'

Fat chance with a mobile phone. Nigel Williams remembers the lost art of escape

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One of the worst moments of every year occurs, without fail, round about now in the second half of November. Either my brother, or his wife or my wife or her brother or her mother or my mother or her brother's wife - someone, anyway, who isn't me or any of my children, asks where everyone is going to be on December the twenty-fifth. Is my mother going to my brother's? Is my brother going to my mother's? Is my wife going to her mother's? Is her mother going to her brother's? What is going to happen to my brother's wife's mother? After they have all been to all or some of these, or other venues, are they all going to get together in a large shed and hurl abuse at each other?

For years, I thought that the agony I experienced each Christmas was something to do with my failure to come to terms with my extended family. I have just realised that something much more sinister is going on. There is nothing wrong, per se, with my brother's wife's mother or, indeed, with my wife's brother's mother. The real problem is that I do not want to know where they all are three months before they are going to be there.

Anyone who has read Matt Ridley's excellent book The Origins of Virtue will remember that the reason that a man's wife or mother or wife's mother or son's girlfriend is more likely to know where the marmalade is kept, is that hundreds of thousands of years ago, when our ancestors were hunter gatherers on the great plains of Africa, the men were out hunting, while the women hung around the camp digging up roots and berries and arranging them into neat piles. Ridley makes the important point that most of our primal sources of gratification are closely related to this fact. Meat, for example, is offered to a chosen female in return for sex, whether you are a Homo erectus, a chimpanzee or a salesman with a table for two in a local restaurant.

But one of the key motives that sent our ancestor, armed with the first spear, out after the last mammoth was, I would argue, not simply the desire for food or the urge to gain status within his peer group. It was that when he was out hunting nobody knew where he was. It is true that, to begin with anyway, Homo erectus may have gone out in groups, but the driving principle behind his expeditions was, initially, to get away from the women and, later on, to get away from all the other men as well. Ask any of your acquaintances who hunt (there must be some of them) and you are almost bound to get some vague, Wordsworthian guff about the beauties of solitude and how, when they are out with their twelve-bore, they experience unmediated Nature.

The mobile phone has changed all this. Hundreds of thousands of years after we loomed over the savannah chucking spears at, say, the tapir, we have invented a machine that means we are always in touch with the thing we have been trying to get away from, other people. It is very significant that, at almost the same time, we evolved a device that is designed to allow people to get in touch with you even if you are not there - the answerphone. These two items of technological change have worked a kind of pincer movement, not unlike the combined effect of the postcode and the police computer. Initially, there were those who imagined they could use these machines for their own purposes. Answerphone users did not respond to messages left for them. They left humorous announcements to try and make it look as if this business of being "in contact" was something they could pick up and put down as and when they needed it.

But at some point - and not enough work has been done, yet, to pinpoint the moment exactly - late-20th-century man allowed himself to record a message on the answerphone that went: "I am not here at the moment, but you can reach me on my mobile". It probably seemed to him, at the time, that he was doing this for one very good reason, and that, when he had picked up the important message he was expecting, he would be able to go back to the state, so important to Homo erectus, of being somewhere that no one could, for the moment, quite place.

But of course it did not work like that. There is an important principle at work in the world, not unlike the maxim elaborated to Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams by the mysterious and persuasive voice that suggested he build a baseball stadium in his back garden - if you build it, they will come. Let us describe our principle as - if you buy it, you will use it. And - if you have used it once, you will use it twice. People began, as a matter of course, to leave their mobile numbers on their answerphones.

It was now possible, and, therefore, desirable, and, therefore, essential for good middle-class citizens to let everyone know where they were at all hours of every day, and, very soon, the technology to enforce this principle was developed. Mobile phones developed answerphones. Switching the machine off was, now, no defence against people who demanded to know where you were. And, of course, attempts to abuse or defuse the system were no longer tolerated. Communication had become a duty.

In the early days of mobile phones, for example, I can recall an incident in which travellers on an InterCity train to Bristol Temple Meads openly sneered at a man who picked up his mobile and said "Hullo. This is Kevin. I am on the train to Bristol. Are there any messages for me?" I can recall a similar occasion when, under the eyes of a similar group, (this time on the Kings Cross to Edinburgh service) I was forced, by static, to abandon a conversation on my mobile no less than three times. "Hullo? Roger? Can you hear me? You're breaking up, Roger." In the end, when my fourth attempt to get through foundered, I was forced to pretend to have a satisfactory conversation in order to satisfy the group. "Roger! Hi!" I said in the firm, decisive tones affected by people leaving messages on answering machines. "Just Nigel here checking in at 15.34. I shall call you back later!"

So it is now Christmas all the year round and no one, anywhere, is able to slip away from people and have a little fun. Fun, after all, depends very heavily on the unexpected. No present is enjoyable if you know you are going to get it. No kiss is miraculous if asked for, in writing, three weeks before it is delivered. And our network of communications systems has meant that one has to lie in order to secure that most necessary of pleasures - spontaneity.

Only a few, really important, people are, now, of sufficient status to be allowed not to let people know where they are. Like those who are too rich and too clever, as opposed to too poor and clumsy, to drive, this emerging species of Homo sapiens has managed to let everyone in the world know that they do not wish to be contacted, and millions of man hours are, therefore, spent in trying to get hold of the telephone numbers attached to the machines that they are, almost certainly, nowhere near. I am talking, of course, about Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, and I think it significant that both my wife, her mother, her brother's wife's mother and my brother's wife all seem to think that spending Christmas with either, or both, of these individuals would be a lot more fun than spending it with me.

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