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Britons rally to save red phone booths

In the age of the cellphone, the beloved kiosks find new significance as a cultural icon.

By Brendan O’NeillCorrespondent / March 23, 2009

National symbol at risk? Tourists use a phone kiosk in London’s Parliament Square. Only 12,700 red boxes remain in Britain, a third of them under threat.

Richard Lewis/AP/File

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London

Irene Wright’s home in Llanyrafon, South Wales, looks and smells like any other home occupied by an energetic elderly couple. It is immaculately tidy. There’s a well-thumbed copy of Favourite Poems, Quotes and Hymns on the coffee table. The comforting whiff of freshly made tea emanates from the kitchen. And, this being South Wales, a rainstorm rattles the windows, causing Mrs. Wright to wrap her cardigan more tightly around her as she peers out at the “wicked weather.”

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But don’t be fooled. Behind the spick-and-span facade, this home doubles as the beating heart of a campaign to “defend Britain’s heritage.” Wright is engaged in what she calls a “small but important” battle to preserve a piece of British history: the red telephone box on the lawn outside her window.

“The paint is peeling off. I haven’t seen anyone use it for a long time,” she says, looking out through her rain-spattered windows at the forlorn-looking faded red kiosk. “But it’s been here more than 40 years, and it’s a box of memories. It’s the place where news was shared. It should be left alone.”

British Telecom (BT), which is responsible for Britain’s public phones, is planning to remove the box from Llanyrafon, and another one in nearby Llanfrechfa because upkeep of the boxes (“what upkeep?” asks Mrs. Wright, sardonically) costs more than people spend making phone calls.

But Wright has a special attachment to the box; she made the first call from it when it was placed here in 1966. “They needed someone to test it. So I volunteered and phoned one of my neighbors who had a phone.” What did she say to him? “Oh, not much. Just hello.”

The installation of the phone box had a ringing impact on local life, says Wright, allowing those without phones at home to call faraway friends and loved ones. It was through this red portal into other people’s worlds that Wright kept in touch with her sister, a “GI bride” who fell for an American soldier during World War II and has lived in Maine since the 1940s.

However, this is about more than personal memories; it’s also about “preserving British history,” says Wright. “Everyone recognizes the red phone box as British. The country won’t be the same if it goes.” Indeed, on the same February day Wright was reminiscing in dark, drenched South Wales, Royal Mail in London was preparing to unveil its new series of first-class stamps commemorating British “Design Classics” of the past hundred years ... including the red phone box.

• • •

With the advent of widespread mobile communications, public pay phones are disappearing rapidly everywhere.

In Britain, however, there’s a twist to the story: Pay phones have become cultural icons, along with red double-decker buses, black taxis, the Beatles, and cucumber sandwiches as Things That Are Oh-So-British. Hollywood movies signal London by showing a red phone box; tourists photograph one another making faux calls from the phone boxes near Big Ben; a punk-influenced clothing shop in Paris recently featured actual British phone boxes as fitting rooms.

So the demise of pay phones here has raised a host of questions: Will excising the red box from the cultural landscape erase some of Britain’s very identity? Isn’t cultural heritage worth preserving on the street corners as well as in the art museums and big country houses? Is nothing sacred anymore?

Britain has more cellphones than people. Not surprisingly, use of pay phones has dropped by more than 50 percent over the past decade. BT has removed 30,000 of them from the streets, lanes, and malls since 2002. Of the 61,700 pay phones remaining, around 12,700 are the old red kiosks so beloved of Anglophiles and actual Anglo-Saxons. And a third – 4,500 – of these boxes are under threat.

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