What a Difference a Dial Makes

New telephone area codes have relegated some Londoners to the `provinces' and lifted phone snobbery to an art - a letter from London

LONDON will never be the same again. Suddenly it is a city of ``ins'' and ``outs.'' Since May 6, when British Telecom abolished the capital's ``01'' phone code, and replaced it with ``071'' for inner London and ``081'' for outer London, millions of lives have been altered.

Londoners feared confusion as they tried to work out who lived where, and what prefix you had to dial to get said person. Some confusion there has been, but it is nothing compared with the social shock that has come with the change. Entire suburbs feel that at a stroke they have been relegated to the provinces. From their ``08'' bivouacs they gaze out at the ``07s'' who can (and increasingly do) claim that they are part of the ``real'' London.

Harold Brooks Baker, publishing editor of Burke's Peerage, says many of his clients assigned ``08'' codes are ``shattered'' by the change.

``The new rich, especially, care a lot about this sort of thing,'' he says.

Londoners have always been snobbish about addresses and, since Alexander Graham Bell came along, about phone numbers, too. A ``W1'' address in the heart of the West End is still considered vastly more desirable than ``W2,'' which classes you as an inhabitant of Bayswater, just down the road.

Some years ago, before Telecom did away with local suburban telephone prefixes, a phone number was thought to say a lot about you. KNI 2323 put you smack in the middle of fashionable Knightsbridge. A HAM prefix marked you out as a denizen of desirable Hampstead. Other, by-now-forgotten, prefixes put you nowhere except on the outer rim of social acceptability.

Now phone snobbery is back. I live in ``08'' London, and I don't feel much different, but ``07'' friends now smile tolerantly when I reveal the shameful truth.

Real estate agents have been quick to rub salt into wounded pride.

If you are in ``outer London'' and have to dial the special prefix for ``inner London,'' the value of your house is down by as much as 2,000 ($3,380). If the roles are reversed, you can be certain you are a member of the ``inner'' elite, clustered happily together in the West End and the City of London from where pity is the only feeling you need to entertain for those poor folks who live beyond the urban horizon.

Telecom made the change because they were running out of ``01'' numbers. By splitting London up, they doubled the number of available phone lines to 10 million.

But they were naughty when they spent 30 million to tell us what was happening. They hired a well-known actress, Maureen Lipmann, to play the role of ``Beaty'' (BT - get it?) in a series of TV advertisements that hammered home the social distinction between being ``in'' and being ``out.''

Viewers, who realized that they were about to be thrust into telephonic darkness, reacted angrily, but by then the damage had been done. London had been split in twain.

So had entire streets. There is one street in Highgate in north London (not far from Karl Marx's grave, but quite respectable nonetheless) where houses on one side are ``08'' and on the other side are ``07.''

The values of villas opposite each other in Swains Lane now differ considerably, and ``08'' neighbors shuffle to the shops, not knowing whether to congratulate the ``07s'' for their new-found social cachet or avert envious eyes.

Hope is not lost for those so wounded by relegation to ``08'' that they cannot bear it. Telecom tells me that for 2,000, plus value-added tax at 15 percent, I can become a ``special,'' with an ``07'' number in the midst of my ``08'' desert.

Things have been made no more bearable by Telecom hiring another actress to advise erring telephone users in a recorded message that they have forgotten to dial the right prefix. Julie Berry has even been accused of sounding complacent and smug as she delivers free advice on 50,000 lines installed to remind phone users of the new dialing requirements.

One curious aspect of the switch is that Greenwich, famous for its time signal, has been assigned an ``08'' prefix. ``But isn't Greenwich supposed to be the center of the world?'' I asked a Telecom spokesman.

``It may well be,'' came the reply, ``but it is no longer in the center of London.''

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