“Sorry Wrong Number..”: Box and Cox.


Deconstructing those half-forgotten smells last week put me in mind of  telephone boxes, iconic like still-living flies in amber, though long past their glory days. Who now, I wonder, remembers the origins of The Tardis? I sat in the kitchen and watched the inaugural episode of DR WHO¤ : that first police box was a very crummy affair. I was enthralled, though I now understand that viewing figures were disappointingly low on that dark and far off Saturday afternoon. Everyone was still in shock from the Kennedy assassination the previous day.

Once an essential lifeline and a refuge, phone boxes have become quaint oddities: something for the tourist, a fragment of not so olde England. The Household Cavalry, pillar boxes, double decker buses and phone booths: they all fit the same vividly scarlet picture post card – preferably a ‘Salmon’, ‘J. Arthur Dixon’ or ‘Dennis’ imprint.

In the old days a phone box was almost like a elongated doll’s house: one had fleeting fantasies of living in one. The occasional eccentric did just that. (Sometimes the synonym ‘kiosk’ was used, evoking visions of a Turkish love pavilion on the shores of the Bosphorous). You pulled hard on the heavy padded insulated door and stepped up into a muffled intimacy, hauling your shopping and often a companion with you: “my friend would like a word”. The mysteries of the jutting Buttons A and B are famous, but there were many other accessories to explore. Once upon a time – before the age of the vandals returned –  a small vanity mirror was mounted on the wall above the telephone. In this you could reassemble your features after an upsetting conversation; apply make up before a chat with your demon lover; or watch yourself pulling extraordinary faces as you told porkie pies – “making excuses for absence”. The mirror might also reflect the impatient, angry or mocking faces of those to come after you, restlessly and loosely queuing outside. There was an awful lot of intimidation at phone boxes: tapping on the panes and even “mouthing”.

Under the looking glass was a kind of open cabinet. The top shelf was useful for your bag and the stack of coins with which to feed the machine. Pennies – those old pennies¤¤ the approximate size of a cocktail cracker – had a very particular smell, maybe slightly eggy, sulphurously metallic, caked in decades of DNA. (Writing about her war work, the novelist Monica Dickens used to say she’d turned down the chance of being a clippie on account of everything you eat ever after tastes of money). The telephone apparatus also smelled. What  would now be called “dedicated hygienists” used to come round to clean and disinfect the receiver and the dial. They used to make private visits too, to homes and businesses. I well remember the excitement a visit from the cleaner used to arouse in the office where I had an early job. An entire day was planned around it. But, even in a natural state, phones then – plastic, bakelite or whatever – seemed to have a warm faintly comforting redolence. Maybe it was just the odour of animal communication, the lingering traces of human hands.

So, then, the lower shelf was full of telephone directories. Remember those? Geeks used to tear them in half as an amusing act on the halls. They were printed on coarse rag paper and had a very particular smell; apparently – fascinatingly – old printing ink used to oxidise on paper and secrete its own vanillin. And this explains the sweetish-spicy scent not only of phone books but also of old libraries. My mouth always used to drool over those old volumes “produced in complete conformity with authorised wartime standards”. I sometimes even licked the pages.

There were other smells too, not so nice; reeks that all too often blotted out the delicate papery fragrance and the faint trails of countless callers’ perfumes. Do you remember the brimming ashtray below the mirror? It WAS a little tray, too, quite literally; vaguely shell-shaped, like those then screwed to the backs of theatre and cinema seats. Talking on the telephone promotes the yen for a cigarette almost as much as does alcohol, and people smoked their heads off in phone boxes. Sometimes, as you waited outside, you could hardly see the caller – “Go ahead, caller!” – wreathed in fumes. Once the smoker left, you had to fan that heavy door like a punkah before you dared step inside. Or you held the door open with an extended foot while you chatted; as was essential in hot weather when you feared being cooked alive like an ant under glass. People passed out – or were otherwise ill – in phone boxes.

So that, talking of feet, you needed to be careful of where and how you stood, as telephone boxes were notoriously and frequently used as impromptu public lavatories. Courting couples were fond of them too. All human life was here. No wonder that boxes have so often memorably and spectacularly featured – even starred – in movies of varying degrees of nastiness. The phone booth as a focal point of imprisonment, betrayal, entrapment, threat, abduction and panic. We may have to return to this theme on another occasion. Consider the role of the telephone box in ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE SERVANT, THE BIRDS, DON’T TALK TO STRANGE MEN, LA CABINA etc. The phone itself is an instrument pregnant with menace. When combined with stuffy claustrophobia and public exhibition in a glass cage it personifies our worst recurring nightmares.

¤ as incarnated by William “Billy” Hartnell – “literally impossible to work with”: what a sad epitaph!

¤¤ when I was a tot “bun pennies” minted with the image of the young Queen Victoria were still current. I wish I had a handful now.


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