Number's up: The end of the little black book

Mobile technology has transformed journalism – and besides enabling phone hacking, it has also erased the status of that once-prized possession, the contacts book

Simon O'Hagan
Saturday 30 July 2011 00:00
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I don't keep a diary, but I realised when rooting around for a phone number the other day that I may have the next best thing – a pile of contacts books dating back a quarter of a century. These battered volumes – the pages torn, the ink faded, the covers hanging off – don't just mark the passing of the years. They fill in gaps in my memory. They evoke people and places. They are tangible reminders of long-forgotten stories I was once involved in.

Do I feel the same way about the numbers in the directory in my mobile phone? No, I don't. But do I still write phone numbers down into a contacts book? The answer to that is no, too.

A tour of the editorial floor of The Independent confirms the demise of these old-fashioned repositories of vital information. They are mostly stuffed into bottom drawers – abandoned artefacts whose time has gone, now nestling amid gym kit. One colleague showed me his most recent contacts book, opened for the last time about 10 years ago – an imposing, pillar-box red A4 edifice that bristled with newsroom vigour and reeked of an era of copytakers and clattering typewriters.

Contacts books are, of course, a generational thing. You have to be of a certain age – 'pre-mobile', one might call it – ever to have had one. And when I look back through my books, what I see are not just hundreds of names and numbers, many of which mean absolutely nothing to me now, but a way of journalistic life which has also to a great extent disappeared.

Nothing symbolises this change quite like The News of the World phone-hacking saga. Once, in my possibly rose-tinted memory, phone numbers had to be prised out of assiduously cultivated contacts, the cultivating probably done over a pint or two or in a dusty council chamber at the end of an epically boring planning meeting. Now, it seemed, all you had to do was sit at your computer all day, mobile to hand, and track down what you wanted using pin numbers and passwords, no communication with another human required. I liked the story I read recently of the reporter whose desk-inhabiting diligence in this regard earnt him the nickname 'The Olympic Flame' – he never went out.

Technology transformed things in other ways. There was a time, not long after the dinosaurs were wiped out, when people only had landlines. They had a landline in their office, and they had a landline at home. And when they weren't at either place, that was it. You couldn't get hold of them.

Getting a contact's office number wasn't generally a problem. Getting their home number was different. It required trust. Even then they might not be very keen to be phoned up at home. And let's say you'd acquired the home number through a third party. That call became trickier still. Another member of the household might answer. The person you wanted might be in the middle of their supper. In those days, there weren't answer machines to screen calls.

Then came the mobile phone. It was an amazing thing, and suddenly life became easier. People were much less bothered about giving out a mobile number. Receiving a call on a mobile wasn't an imposition like receiving a call to a home phone was. Mobiles took messages. They didn't give away your location. They could be switched off. My contacts book soon filled up with mobile phone numbers.

The internet and e-mail were the really giant leaps forward. Now people you wanted to get hold of could be Googled. They might even have their own website. Journalists witnessed the rise of the mass group e-mail that began with the words, "Anybody got a number for...?". Contacts ceased to be personal. They could belong to anybody. The other day there was a writer I wanted to get hold of I'd had no previous dealings with. She had a website with an e-mail address. I e-mailed her and within an hour we were speaking. I could probably have achieved the same result via Twitter. And as e-mail and tweeting become the predominant means of communication, phone calls and phone numbers are needed less.

This, to me, is the biggest difference between a newspaper office today and a newspaper office of 30 years ago. It's not that typewriters have been replaced by computers, it's that offices are so much quieter. Conversations that could only ever have happened using a phone are now conducted in e-mails. It used to be a lot of fun, indeed educational, to hear editing going on, interviews being conducted. Now these are mostly silent, hidden skills.

Even the terror of losing all your contacts is not what it was, given that phone data can be backed up. I never did lose a contacts book – never for more than a few panic-stricken minutes anyway – and I also got into the habit of periodically photocopying it (a much quicker process – 20 minutes or so – than you might imagine).

In an age when all the information we could ever need has no physical dimension, the contacts book is the vinyl record of the data world. I can imagine getting pleasure from leafing through a contacts book that you could never get scrolling through a mobile directory. And a glimpse inside a contacts book is actually quite a thrill – not just the sight of the names but because these objects speak of the journalist's life in all its chaotic glory. My colleague, the political reporter Andy McSmith, has a nice story about opening his contacts book at the letter 'T' when he was in the company of a Labour MP. At the time, Andy was quite closely involved with Labour and the MP looked down in horror and exclaimed: "How dare you have Margaret Thatcher's phone number!".

I haven't got Margaret Thatcher's phone number. I've got a mish-mash of other people, and when I look through my old books I quite like the juxtapositions. Here's a quartet that would make a good mixed doubles: Joan Bakewell, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Mike Brearley and Billy Bragg. My friends and family are also in there, rubbing up alongside names that others might think are more notable, and of course there are an increasing number of names of people who are no longer with us.

Here, for example, is a mobile number for Mo Mowlam. When she fell critically ill, in August 2005, we had the idea of asking Robin Cook to write about her in the event of what turned out to be her quite imminent death. I had Cook's number and called him. "I'm terribly sorry but I'm halfway up a mountain in Scotland," came the answer. The next day, Robin Cook died, and the death of Mo Mowlam followed a fortnight later. That was a month of metaphorical crossings-out in my contacts book.

I reckon I'm on to my last contacts book now. It's a sturdy black number I bought last year in Italy where they know how to do a good binding. But the chore of transferring the numbers from its fallen-apart predecessor is proving too much. I've only put in a few numbers, and most of the new details I get just go straight into my phone. My contacts books are relics, but they are treasured relics.

Oscar Wilde's instruction was to keep a diary in order to always have something sensational to read on the train. In the absence of a diary, my contacts books will have to do. So, here we go. Tariq Ali, Kriss Akabusi, Simon Armitage, the Alzheimer's Disease Society...

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