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Nicky Marr: A bid farewell to the BT phone book after 150 years

By Nicky Marr

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TELEPHONE: A trusty old friend in times of need.
TELEPHONE: A trusty old friend in times of need.

If it’s not landed on your doormat yet, it soon will. 18 million copies of the last ever edition of the phone book are currently being printed and dispatched. Almost 150 years after the first slim edition was printed, BT have woken up to the fact that – if your house is anything like ours – most of us put the (slim-again) phone book straight into recycling as soon as it arrives.

But there’s something rather poignant about this final offering from BT. Probably a decade after it was last really useful, its demise marks the end of an era, rousing memories of the days when landlines were lifelines, and of that code amongst friends of “give me two rings when you get home”, to know they’d arrived safely.

After nearly 150 years, the phone book will be gone, but not forgotten. Well, certainly not forgotten by folk of my vintage, although our 20-somethings look on it with the same bemusement as they would a Banda machine. But few things chart the progress of the past 40 years better than the obsoletion of the phone book and the landline.

Alongside its business pal, the Yellow Pages (“let your fingers do the walking!”) that big, fat volume took pride of place on the telephone table in the hall, alongside a Dad-installed timer so we knew how long we’d been talking.

Anything more than a minute or two was too long, even if it was an incoming call. We had to be mindful of other people’s bills too, and to “keep the line clear” in case someone important was trying to get through. They rarely were.

During my teenage years, our phone book was a well-thumbed volume, containing not just the phone number of every crush, but their address too. Everyone was in it. Ex-directory was a bye-word for “posh” where we lived.

Current teenagers will never understand the pre-1471 adrenaline rush of dialling an illicit number, then hanging up if a parent answered.

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Or the entire activity of a summer evening being to cycle past someone’s house (now that the phone book had disclosed their address) in the hope that they might look out and see you pass.

Or the significance of putting a pencil asterisk beside a name on that wafer-thin paper, so it could quickly be found again. And later, heartbroken, rubbing that star out, or, in extremis, ripping out the whole page.

There was significance, too, in those few phone numbers we learned by heart. I still remember my childhood number, and those of my closest friends. The number we had here, for 27 years until it was removed six weeks ago, escapes me.

Millennials will never need to carry a coin in their pocket, to phone home if they are running late. Even 10p was cheaper than reversing the charges.

Compared to my unlimited calls contract today, making a call back then was a big deal. It was vital to get permission first, and in our house that wasn’t always forthcoming. Who did I want to speak to, and why? Could I not have asked them at school? Could it not wait till tomorrow? Why not just get on my bike and talk to them in person?

If permission was ever granted, inevitably I’d have to wait, first, till after 6pm when calls were cheaper, and second, till Bessie next door was off the party line. And Bessie loved to talk.

Sometimes I liked to listen – Bessie seemed oblivious to the telltale click on the line when she was in full flow.

The early ‘80s saw an episode of Tomorrow’s World which foretold the end of the landline, suggesting we’d soon each have a personal number.

That seemed as fantastical as the idea that we’d be zooming around with personal jetpacks by 2020.

But thank goodness for progress, although I still want a jetpack.

And thank you, little volume, for the memories.

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