Give me the old time bakelite phone

I still have my stick shaped telephone land-line. It seems easier to have it sitting there rather than carrying a mobile around which was designed for a man’s hand, and has to be constantly charged. Just before Christmas the trusty old phone rang out and took messages, but no one could phone me. I bought another and set it up. No result, leading to a fearful conclusion; the line not the phone was faulty.

Fearful, not on the same scale as the death of a parent or a cancer scare, but any middle-aged woman will tell you it means at least one very difficult day when tears will probably be shed if not screams screamed because the ‘provider’ will have to be contacted.

I can still remember when God was regarded as the great provider, contacted without too much stress every Sunday via the vicar. Now I approach Virgin with fear and trepidation, totally in their hands, fearing dire punishment; and punishment I received: a list of options, followed by an automatic voice needing my password. I change it each time I have to go through this, but the following time it is never recognised. My passwords are proliferating like sins.

After ten futile minutes of not keying the correct numbers into my phone I reached a real human. To ascertain my validity, she needed answers to some security questions. They seemed to have changed too. My late mother seemed to have changed her maiden name. The voice finally accepted proof of my identity from my bank sort code and put me through to India, the second stage on this journey into hell.

He seemed to be a chirpy, forgiving type, believed I was who I said I was but that was too easy; ‘Just checking your phone line now,’ came the fluting voice, and he was gone. After half an hour I had to begin the whole thing again.

Desperate swear words began forming in my mind. A blithe recorded voice said they would check my line and if I called back in ten minutes put me back to where I was in the enquiry. I didn’t believe it for one minute, perspiring and giving up any idea that I might go out, or do some other activity that day, and sure enough when I called back, I had to begin the whole thing again. Sometime later a voice gave me a special phone number but said it so quickly I couldn’t catch it and it was not repeated.  

Sobbing now, an hour gone by, I began once more and eventually like a weary Victorian traveller, reached India for a second time. The young woman was extremely kind, an angel voice to me as I shook and sobbed to myself. As we tried the passwords and my mother’s maiden name, it was obvious that she believed she was dealing with someone very old and mentally incapacitated, which by then I was.

‘I will give you a new password now’ she said, firmly but kindly. ‘Write it down. It’s only temporary as I will have to ask you to put your phone down and will call you back on your mobile.’

With nausea and moans, I put my old phone down and scrambled off to find my mobile almost certain that I would never hear her celestial voice again. We have a poor mobile signal so I stood outside in the cold like someone on the verge of dementia, but by some special miracle from the old provider on high, after many tortuous moments, her call came through. She also forgot to ask for the new password.

Such was my joy that this ordeal was nearly over that I was tempted to ask for her address in Delhi so that I could send her a thankyou letter. An engineer was booked but it was hard to sleep with the thought that he wouldn’t turn up, meaning another call to the vengeful digital god, but three days later a cheerful looking lad rang my door.

‘We fixed it for you last night. Your card was warped,’ he said inexplicably but with the assurance of a doctor who’d just performed a miracle cure. ‘The local exchange around the corner did it. I’ve just come from there to check it’s working.’

 He did so and went away after refusing my grateful offer of tea as he’d just had one around the corner. Again, I was struck with insomnia. His words haunted me. ‘Local exchange.’ I grew up in a village where our phone, the size of an Ionic temple capstone, which lived out in the dark hall, a shared party line, operated from a telephone exchange just up the road. That was run by one woman and people talked of how she would sometimes tell them if the people they were calling were at home or gone out, based on simply looking out of her window.

I tweeted Virgin the omniscient provider, the modern way of sending poison-pen letters, asking why is it that I can’t just contact my local exchange around the corner if I have a problem. Why do I have to talk to Asia? 

‘When you call you are automatically transferred to the next available agent,’ they replied.  

He or she didn’t even understand my question; it belonged to an age when most of us were locals to somewhere and that world has vanished.

Subscribe to the paper magazine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

3 Comments on Give me the old time bakelite phone

  1. One of the many pleasures of being in Asia is that because most of our languages are not world languages (essentially, English), on-line assistance is given by native speakers of our own languages from places within our national borders. For instance, nobody outside Japan speaks Japanese well enough to be able to give technical assistance in Japanese, so the Japanese are served by call centers within their country and by native speakers of Japanese, which reduces the risk of miscommunication. Moreover, they live in the same legal jurisdiction, which means that, should they misuse our personal data, they can be convicted under our own same laws AND, crucially, the penalties can be enforced.
    Most people don’t realize how difficult it is to enforce a court judgment (for, say, data theft) in a foreign jurisdiction.
    Trust me, globalization sometimes sucks! Thanks to the globalization of English-speaking call centers, the personal data (bank account details, credit card details, utility bill details, addresses, medical details) of millions of people in the UK has been spread all round the world. It would be foolish to think that none of this would ever be misused (it could be even within the UK by unscrupulous UK people, but at least you have recourse.

  2. and that world has vanished.
    Hasn’t it just.
    I have a wife that was born thousands of miles away from this country so don’t start telling me I’m a racist.
    What I’m going to say is something that my local newspaper totally refuses to comment on because of the journalistic code but dial after day week after week there is one common theme among the criminals being reported from court cases, they are black , Or Eastern European.
    There are hardly any English names in the court cases, just people who don’t belong here and shouldn’t be here, we have more than enough of our own criminals we don’t want criminals from all over the world adding to our courts prisons probation services rehabilitation services who pays for all this, but I think we know the answer to that don’t we.

  3. Changing my server company – SFR – to Orange (formally France Telecome) took more than two months to get back a phone line. My phone number was changed for no apparent reason and I expended many exasperated calls on a borrowed mobile phone to get a response. Code numbers and pass words add to one’s misery and frustrations and, although I have no wish to return to the dreadful time of the U.K. Post Office telephone ‘service’ of the 1950s/’60s, it is the lack of local personnel to serve the industry that makes a small problem into an almost insurmountable problem. Terry Gilliam’s satire (Brazil) on George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four nicely highlights the absurdities and tyranny of failing technocracy.