WHEN you make a phone call from a public call box you either use cash or a Phonecard. If you use cash, you never see it again. If you use a Phonecard, it keeps coming back until the thing has used up all its magical magnetic powers and is then a dead card. Then you put it (if you are a tidy citizen) into the disposal point provided, marked 'For your used cards, please'. If you are an untidy citizen, you throw it on the ground. If you are a tidy and extremely organised citizen, you put the dead card in your wallet; it can still be recycled in all sorts of ways - as an ice-scraper on your frozen windscreen, for instance, or as a way of opening Yale locks . . .
I wonder if anyone can spot a mistake in the above paragraph? Yes? Yes] That's right. The message on the disposal point 'For your used cards, please'. It should read, 'Keep your old cards, for God's sake, and one day you'll be able to auction them at Sotheby's . . .' Because recently it has turned out that, even though Phonecards are of recent origin, the early ones are now collector's items, and those people who were careful enough to hang on to their early Phonecards instead of using them will now be coining it in. Whereas those of us who just use the things and throw them away are clenching our fists and hitting ourselves on the temple, saying: 'Another fortune down the drain, you loony . . .'
I suppose mankind has always been divided into those who hang on to collectibles and those who just discard them or use them. In 1841, when the first stamps came out, the vast majority of the handful of literate people in England must have said: 'Hey, these things are really going to be useful for sending a letter to Auntie Flo in Edinburgh] Instead of having to be personally acquainted with a member of the House of Lords, and being able to avail ourselves of his franking concessions, we can now just stick this picture of pretty young Queen Victoria on our envelope and send it through the post]' But just a few canny ones must have said: 'I think I'll buy a sheet of these things and hang on to them. Something tells me that they're going to be rare and valuable.'
Well, stamp collecting has become such a lucrative business, of course, that long ago stamps were being designed to collect. Indeed, some small countries only applied for membership of the United Nations in order to be able to issue their own postage stamps with decorative sets like 'Under-rated British Novelists of the 1950s, 12 denier, John Wain, 15 denier, Henry Green', and so on, stamps that you can never imagine even being on sale in their homeland. And Phonecards are going the same way. I have here in my wallet a new BT Phonecard with a picture on the front of some stolid British types on a ship, calmly letting the water rise above them. On the back of this mysterious image it says: 'True-Brit BT Phonecards . . . The Queue. One queues because it is fairer for everybody. When others barge their way forward, they receive the ultimate British insult - a withering glare]' No. 2 in a series of six. Collecting Phonecards? Ring 0800 838 775.'
It is far too late for me to think of collecting Phonecards. All the valuable ones have gone by now. In fact, I threw all the valuable ones away years ago. I weep when I think of the valuable Phonecards I have thrown away. The only one I never threw away was one I bought at Belfast airport and which, although it promised to service me for 40 units, pegged out at about the 15 mark. I was so incensed by this that I actually got hold of the complaints address, or Customer Mollification and Smarmily Chatting Up Care Unit, as they are now called, and demanded a replacement. I got it. At the time I was pleasantly surprised, and almost wrote to say thank you. Now, looking back, I realise that I passed up the great chance to own a rare Phonecard. 'Lot 52, property of M Kington Esq, an Irish card which is genuinely Irish in that it only works when it feels like it.' Ah, I could have been rich . . .
The more I think about it, the more things I realise I could have been collecting over the years. Matchboxes with jokes on them (and better, I may say, than the BT queue joke). Things that you scratch to reveal an unlucky number. Pink stamps and Green Shield stamps, beer mats, cigarette cards, tea cards, railway platform tickets, betting slips, casino chips, cocktail swizzle sticks . . . and when I think of what I did actually collect, I weep again, because I have a complete set of train-spotter books from the late 1940s, with all the trains I spotted underlined in ballpoint pen, thus effectively ruining the value of the books.
Excuse me while I wipe my tears. Unlike the man who empties those BT Phonecard disposal boxes and keeps the good, valuable ones and has probably made a fortune by now . . .
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