The Telephone Takes Us By Surprise

TOUTED long ago as a radiant possibility, then apparently abandoned, the terrible prospect of visual telephoning has once again reared its head. Some people, it seems, are already using it, pressing a button which brings the beloved's face onto a tiny screen attached to the telephone, and also, presumably, the faces of the not remotely beloved wanting to sell insurance policies or advertise holiday tours. At the thought of this further piece of technology most hearts will tremble, for one of the virtues of the telephone is the opportunity it gives for prevarication, for delaying tactics, even, sometimes, for downright lying.

Belonging to a generation which basically prefers the letter as a means of communication (were I a bit older I would send a footman round with a note) I have never liked making quick decisions, to determine there and then whether I would wish to dine with you or not.

Those of us who are temperamentally placid do not like to be taken by surprise, to be rushed into commitments which, had we been given time, we would have refused. We would be happier if we were given the chance of weighing the pros and cons of your illegible handwriting over our breakfasts. But of course this slow process of question and answer will never return, since our belief in time's brevity has made us all but illiterate, and anyway, everybody wants to know everything NOW.

THE now will be even more apparent when we are staring into each other's eyes. I suppose we shall still be able to say ``That sounds delightful but I must just check with Fred,'' but never again can we say, as we pinch our nostrils together so as to sound ``different,'' ``I'm sorry, but she won't be home till tomorrow.''

There will also be this business of permanently looking presentable or else brazenly facing your bank manager with a towel round your head. In fact, except for those who are deeply in love I can see no advantages in this new device and I hope to be the last person to have one, the last person to watch you ruffling through your address book for the name of Mary Corbett's aunt, or introducing me to your cat, or showing me a new gadget for opening cans. Let there, please, be some mystery left in life.

Possibly somebody will write or already has written a book on the evolution of the telephone, describing some of the discomforts endured by its disciples during their lives as the machine progressed from winding a handle to its present ubiquity - no public place is now safe from its cordless chirpings.

I have one particularly vivid memory of a narrow stone passage between two outside doors in a house in Scotland. The telephone was fixed high on the wall and was reached by forging a path through a forest of golf bags, fishing rods, waders, guns, and other sporting impedimenta. I have always maintained this passage was the coldest spot in Great Britain and that to telephone from there was a real test of endurance, comparable to climbing the Matterhorn.

I hope, too, the author of this book will trace the effect the telephone, with its incessant, imperious rings has had on all our lives, affecting our behavior in some degree, whether we know it or not. In youth we run to answer it, (unless, as is sometimes now the case, it is in our coat pocket) our expectation of delightful news high. Later on we learn various defensive techniques, sometimes using the ``hello'' supposed to be coming from a nonexistent au pair girl, or ``Yes?'' employed by business people to show how busy they are, or the aloof ``this is 555-7383.''

ALL these are to go by the board when we appear in our probable dishevelment on a tiny screen. Even Mr. Fortescue's secretary, who has rung to say he wants an urgent word with you, will have to fill the gap with smiles and gestures while the building is scoured for her employer who, it eventually transpires, has gone out to lunch.

``Ginnie?''

``Yes, mother.''

``Do go and have your hair done before you see Granny. You look really frightful.''

``Yes, mother.''

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