Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Hanging on the Telephone

I’ve got a little tin of 1p and 2p coins sitting on my bedside table. They haven’t been touched for several years, a throwback from when they used to be saved rather than lost in the bottom of handbags. I was first influenced by my great-grandma’s habit of collecting all her small change for my brother and me to sort out and hand in at the bank, receiving a few fat pound coins for our efforts. Now it’s a small, dusty, largely neglected collection. Maybe these brown and bronze discs are casualties of the global move towards electronic money. Or maybe I’m just extraordinarily lucky that I’m not in a position where every single penny must count.

The 2p coins also symbolize a generational shift. Take a step back to the seventies and they were currency for communication. My mum held onto every one she could find, for use in the local phone box. 10p’s worth was enough for a proper conversation. She’d arrange with her best friend for both to convene in phone boxes at the same time so that one might ring the other. At a point when the only household phone would be in the living room or hall, these small red booths provided a chance to chat privately. Coins became tokens, required for the kind of exchange that now seems unbelievably archaic.

Quizzing anyone of a different age on their past is like dipping into a museum. Details are illuminated, but still hidden behind the glass of another’s memory.  “And then, of course, the pips would go” is a logical sentence to my mum – but one requiring explanation for the daughter used to a smartphone. “Oh, when the money ran out, a series of fast beeps would sound,” she adds. “You could just about talk over them. If you had no money left then you’d have to say goodbye quickly before the line went dead. If you did have more then you had to feed in the next coin in before you were cut off.”

Compare this with packages of minutes, megabytes and texts today. The transition from physical locations to portable devices is quite extraordinary, and far removed from my mum’s teenage years where a small ledger and stopwatch sat next to the home phone. The time and type of each call had to be recorded. As she says, “You were charged by the minute. You’d watch carefully until it got to 45 seconds so that you had just enough time to say goodbye and hang up before it hit the next minute. We noted whether it was local or long distance. Long distance cost more.” Her mother (my late grandma) would work out how much had been spent each week, so that she might have the right amount ready to pay at the Post Office when the phone bill was delivered. So woe betide anyone who forgot to use the stopwatch. The only similarity you might find now is in parents discovering that their teenage child has drastically gone over the number of texts or downloads allocated monthly, yielding a large surplus charge. But it’s a poor comparison. We have possibilities at our fingertips quite alien to the 20th Century.

Smart phones are (arguably) a good safety net to encourage independence, the knowledge that others are only a phone call away allowing adventures further afield. There are maps for navigating cities, texts for spur-of-the-moment trips otherwise impossible and Google for finding out just how good the nearest cafe's flat white is. But it’s easy to get a little too complacent about how much time this phone can spend in one's hand. It’s a tool for contact, work, emails, entertainment, news, music and heavy doses of procrastination. Some of us, myself included, struggle to turn off the phone even at home, hooked in to updates and new messages. If one is plugged into the ever-shifting, ever-rolling surge of social media, it can feel odd or even daunting to pull free. But in that oddness there’s liberation. The modern reliance on being able to contact others (or be contacted) at all times can be exhilarating, but also exhausting and needlessly time-consuming.

It’s easy to idealize the past, envy my mum growing up at a time where she cycled the long journey to school by herself at an early age; took off with teenage friends for impromptu picnics without telling anyone, and only talked with others through the post box, phone box or face to face. It’s unsurprising that the value of vintage clothes and objects is still rising, emblematic of a kind of collective nostalgia for times we didn’t live through. But if presented with the choice, I’d still prefer to be a young adult now. A little more current inventiveness, openness and spontaneity wouldn’t go amiss of course; a little less emphasis on online status. But perhaps it’s a question of harnessing and actively choosing how to use our unprecedented communication opportunities, rather than passively consuming.

Many of those phone boxes are now outdated. Some still function, but the spider-webs woven across corners and doorways demonstrate the lack of use. In the countryside they are red beacons of a previous age; last chance possibilities for the desperate driver whose phone has died; objects appreciated for aesthetic rather than pragmatic reasons. I hope that they remain though. These fading boxes, once bright crimson, dot the hills near home. They are monuments to past modes of communication, ivy creeping over the glass.

These photos were taken last summer by Florence Fox. I need to find some new adjectives beyond 'fabulous' to describe her, but that one is particularly fitting. I'm wearing my maternal grandfather's 'dinner' trousers and waistcoat, with a second hand shirt, vintage silk top hat and men's brogues (that give me awful blisters). 
A few months ago the top photo was one of four winning images for Flo in the Guardian's 'Camera Club Dulux competition' - see the feature here, and the online version of the Weekend magazine write-up here

And talking of competitions, it was such a delight to be a part of the first ever green carpet catwalk event at the Observer Ethical Awards 2014. I modelled a delectable Katie Jones knit number. You can see a picture of me and the other models on Vogue's Green Style Blog

Congratulations to sustainable shoe design winners Beyond Skin (with their designs strutted down the carpet by the ever-so-charming stylist Grace Woodward). I also had the pleasure of meeting Mak Gilchrist, whose motto is: "trailblazing fashion model once considered 'difficult', now championed as 'ethical'", as well as model and (very) funny writer Rebecca Pearson, whose words have appeared online in places including The Vagenda and Sabotage Times.   


Ivana Split said...

What lovely photographs! I think the second one is my favourite, it has that air of melancholy and beauty that connections in my mind with your description of 'past times'. All this thinking about past reminded me on a passage from My Name is Red by one of the stories told by the illustrators, one of them says how an artist always paints from memory even when he is looking at the thing he is painting for it is not possible to look at something and paint at the same I think that the past is always there with us in some way. True times change very rapidly but in every time had both its challenges and advantages...and plenty choices in this world we live in. No need to be passive consumers as you point out..but I must say I'm a little worried about children and the way they get sucked up in the craziness of social media. Adults have more choices than children, but I guess that is always the case...and that is why it always make sense to pay special attention to things that might be dangerous to them and it seems to me people forget about that sometimes.

This all thinking about phones got me thinking of phone boxes in my granny's village on the island...We had to walk 20 minutes to get to one so talking with our friends was always some kind of adventure, a little trip of some kind. I must admit I feel a little nostalgia when I think about it...being available to all the time has many advantages but it is also somewhat stressful. We all have been in situation when we were annoyed by our cell suddenly ringing just as we were relaxing, walking or whatever.

Anyhow, the outfit is so chic...stripes are always so stylish! The pants are great and the shoes are adorable! I like the text and the photos immensely.... Green red carpet sounds like a brilliant event!

Melanie said...

Canada killed our pennies, 1/100th of a dollar. They always jangled in our purses. You'll never see phone boxes dappling our countryside. Even the urban relics are usually vandalized beyond function. Very sad. Your British red ones are iconic and I'm glad they survive. I can't wait until the absence of digital technology in public is considered a status symbol - "My assistants answer the phone, darling."

I love these photos by Ms. Fox and the way you wear your top hat to the back. The Vogue photos are beautiful.


What breathtaking captures of you. the second image is my favourite. You're right, sometimes we can spend countless hours on our mobiles, that's why it's great to entirely "unplug" every so often.
And, congrats to Flo with the Guardian feature, as well as yourself for modelling at the Ethical Awards.

Closet Fashionista said...

This is such a fun outfit! And woohoo for the telephone booth. An episode of Next Too Model where they posed inside one was on today, ha ha.

I always save all my change through the year and then get an amazon gift card with it at the end of the year, hehe.

It's funny thinking about how people used to have to use payphones. I used them in high school when I had to get picked up from school. Now kids just use their cell phones...

Sometimes I wish i lived in a time where we werent addicted to technology. But i does have it's benefits, like you said.

Moscow blogger by Marina Maximova said...


Anupriya DG said...

To the rest of the world, these red phone boxes are icons that connect our mind instantly to London (or rather, the Great Britain)...and I hope these icons last forever...

P.S.: LOVE the shots. Each & every one of them. Fabulous is quite a fitting word for Florence! <3

Anonymous said...

Lovely photos (fantastic, even), and a great glimpse into life in the British countryside lo these many years ago.

Thanks for the fun writing!

Sacramento Amate said...

Sooooooooooooooooo beautiful,my dear preciosa Rosalind

Izzy DM said...

This piece made me smile as I imagined explaining my old world to my daughter who, since she was born in 2013, will so firmly inhabit this brave new one. The openness and accessibility of information makes it a better world, I think, although I fear for her ability to concentrate with all the distractions available. I began struggling with that myself, but I learned that it just required a little extra discipline and then I could still easily read the long books, or, as in the case of my recent GoT 5 book marathon, a long, long story :). I know that you've got that ability to concentrate and read, so I wouldn't worry about anything you've lost out on. It was a lonelier world, I think! You don't want Facebook to supplant real friendships, but again I've been able to find that balance after some false starts, and it's so nice being able to chat with my real-life friends however far away they are whenever I feel lonely. I do love the nostalgia you evoke here though, and this piece made me think of some of the essays on language I've been reading today. One in the New York Times and one in Poetry Magazine. I'll put them on my Twitter if you care to see what I mean!

Okay, off to check out your Katie Jones dress. Sounds like it was a wonderful time! xoxo

Lally said...

What a lovely post! I too keep pennies in a tin beside my bed. In fact I have quite a few tins of change dotted around my house. It's definitely a habit from a by gone era but one that comes in handy when the milk has run out for coffee (which happens quite frequently in my house!)

My last encounter with a phone box was nearly 5 years ago when I first moved away from home to live in London. I ran out of minutes on my phone and was desperately lonely so I collected all my change and telephoned home from the red box outside my flat. I still remember the relief of hearing a friendly crackly voice at the other end and the rain splattering down outside. In some ways it seemed much for comforting than using a mobile!

Beautiful outfit too, those trousers and waistcoat are amazing. X

Pull Your Socks Up! said...

Last week I had to use a phone box for the first time in about a decade. I'd forgotten what to do and couldn't remember the cost of a local call so I ended up putting in too much money. But I did rather enjoy watching the world go by, as the box gave me plenty of camouflage to hide in. I can't say I miss things like one or two-cent coins and phone boxes, but I like the memory of them. I love your local one, with the bushes shading the box, there truly is a kind of romance about call boxes and yes they were very handy for private calls I didn't want mum to know about ;) xoxo

Vix said...

Wonderful photos and a great title, made all the more fabulous for seeing Blondie this weekend.
We oldies are often perplexed by the youth of today.
I rarely have my mobile phone with me and find them a huge intrusion into my privacy. We always carried a 2p piece with us as kids just in case we got delayed and needed to get in touch with our parents from a phone box.
We went out for hours and were actively encourage not to return before teatime. The Moors Murderers and the Yorkshire Ripper never deterred us.
I'm rather glad i had my youth when i did, these days its too open, social media and terrible photos and disastrous relationships broadcast to the world. xxxx

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