OPINION: Recalling the thrill of using those lovely red phone boxes

Quintessential English Red Telephone Box

Is there anything more quintessentially English than an old phone box, asks Paul Barnes? - Credit: Getty Images

Pity the poor phone boxes.

Once the beacons of civilisation, proud and painted red, thousands of them stood on street corners and village greens, lifelines and links to the world beyond in days when the only phones were in the houses of the privileged few.

If you could afford a phone at home you had to wait months before the GPO (General Post Office) would get round to letting you have one and then take an age before installing it.

Even then you didn’t actually own the thing; you rented it because it remained the property of the post office and the Postmaster General.

The receiver was a hefty bit of kit, handsome in its way and made from tough Bakelite.

They did give you a choice of colour - black - although special subscribers might be granted a white one.

When you went to the pictures a mark of the status of certain characters could be a white telephone set among pricey furniture with paintings on the walls.

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In plays on the wireless you could picture well-spoken people lifting the instrument to their well-groomed head.  I can “see” them even now, Paul Temple and Mrs Dale responding to a ring with double-digit replies. (If you’re under 60 these names might mean little or nothing; but they meant the world to us when wireless ruled. Incidentally, it was the GPO that issued licences to listen.)

As well as the wires reaching out from under your gutter to the cross-barred posts in the street the outward signs that you were a cut above your neighbours included visits from the pretty little GPO vans, painted green with the announcement “Post Office Telephones” on the side and ladders on top.

Dinky Toys made a lovely model of the Post Office Telephone van, reckoned by some to be the most desirable model they ever made.

Now the telephone box is going the way of the telephone operators, the impeccably polite and patient ladies (they were mostly women though I did encounter the occasional man) who used to respond to your call with “Number please?” and push and pull the plugs on her switchboard.

It was magic she was working; those plugs and switches connected your voice to a distant ear; it might be a mile away or a hundred, even a thousand or farther still. It was a thrill to stand in that red box just down the road and talk to a distant aunt in Tufnell Park.

What was actually said was less of a thrill than the fact of having been able to say it. And when I came out of the box it was as if I had actually been whisked away.

It was a bit of a palaver, making a long-distance call. You needed the right money to put in the box marked “A” when the operator asked for it, and you needed additional coins for when your time ran out and she asked if you wished to continue the call. There was a button “B” to press if the call failed and you were entitled to have your money back. (You always pressed it to see if it would pay out anyway; it never did.)

It’s good to know that BT have a scheme to adopt a red box so that even though it no longer functions a community might save it to have it stand on the village green or the street corner, proud and prettily painted, an architectural asset.

Do I miss the red boxes? Yes and no.

They were handsome pieces of street furniture and when they’ve gone the space left is like a gap in a set of teeth. But I’m lucky. We have the classic model K6 right outside our kitchen door, rescued from its position on Norwich’s Earlham Road, vandalised but still intact.

How we got it is another story.

Suffice to say we love it and so do our cats, ready to slide in there when it rains. One day I’ll install the Button “A” and “B” boxes, might even see if we can get it re-connected.

Then we can huddle inside on a winter’s night happy to hear the cultured tones of a lady with iron-grey braided hair even if all she says is: “Sorry, number engaged.”