A British Staple Retains Its Charm

The connection was irresistible.

Here was I inside this lone, 1930s-classical, post-office red, cast-iron telephone box in a small village in the remotest, hilliest northwest tip of Scotland, phoning America....

Irresistible: How could I not think of Bill Forsyth's film ''Local Hero''? And of Mac, the negotiator from ''Knox Oil,'' Houston, who steams up the window panels of the phone box in the tiny fictional Scottish village of ''Ferness,'' as he pumps 10 pences into the archaic and greedy coin slot and reports to the head office in Texas. And of Mac, again in the phone box, as he gives a blow-by-blow account of the entrancing spectacle of the northern lights, the aurora borealis, to his starry-eyed boss Burt Lancaster, at the other end of the line, who barks: ''Be specific, MacIntyre! You are my eyes and ears there! Give me details!'' And of the same phone box at the end of the film - after Mac has been dispatched back home - empty, the bell ringing, unanswered, ringing and ringing as the credits roll.

My box was in Durness, not Ferness, but same difference.

As in the film, it's like a place in another universe up there. Particularly so, I suspect, in winter: a primevally rocky landscape that seemed to me as near to moonscape as I have come (my ambition to visit Iceland still unfulfilled); the sea a subtle melding of inconceivable blues; the white beaches sparkling in the low morning sunlight - dream beaches without a human footprint upon them; and silence.

The endless if sociable traffic hum of cities makes you forget how breathtaking the silence of relatively uninhabited country places can be. Here, on a windless day, the local salmon farmer informed me as we gazed down over a sea loch, that the faintest sound spans miles: the incessant plip plap plip plip of the leaping salmon, for instance, way below in the nets. I didn't imagine I could hear that, did I?

Nobody has ever given me a satisfactory answer to the question: Who, precisely, is the local hero in that delightful film?

Presumably, it is either Gordon Urquhart, hotelier and canny entrepreneur, or (better still) the beachcomber-in-residence Ben Knox, who is so very difficult about selling his beach to the oil company.

But has anyone considered the possibility that the real local hero is the phone box? (It's just a thought.)

One of the points about that phone box is that it is a symbol: of Britain, of tradition, of stability, of authenticity, of all that's right with the world, tra-la. And it is good design. It has such inevitability about it that to imagine a time when it did not exist seems impossible.

It is, of course, a K6. It had to be.

So was the one in which I was ensconced at Durness.

The ''Kiosk 6,'' or ''Jubilee Kiosk,'' came into service in 1936. It was a modified version of the K2, an earlier design by the same architect, Giles Gilbert Scott. The K6 became the archetypal British telephone box - bright red, sturdy, reliably permanent-looking, a kind of beacon, an icon, ubiquitously recognizable, whether in the thickest city slum or on the most isolated rural peninsula.

Remember how the one in ''Local Hero'' stood so prominently on the quay, with its red glazing bars (it was actually being repainted in one sequence), the lighted opal glass panel just below the low dome, and the word ''TELEPHONE'' in measured classical capitals? Remember the peculiar muffled echo of Mac's urgent voice in the claustrophobic interior of this small building?

Gavin Stamp, architectural historian and lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art, called the K2 - and by extension the K6, which derived from it - a ''miniature building,'' the ''carefully considered form'' of which was ''as a complete, monumental object.''

Until 1968, there was no move to supersede the K6. But ''modernization'' started to agitate and threaten. New kinds of kiosk appeared. Then in 1985 what Stamp (an avid supporter of the K6) called ''a holocaust of almost all of Britain's existing telephone kiosks'' was launched by British Telecom (BT): ''All the old kiosks would be replaced within a decade.''

Well, that modernization program has now been finished a couple years since. And there are still some 15,000 K6s dotted around Britain (out of a total 131,000 BT boxes).

According to Les King, BT's current authority on pay phones, these old boxes will remain ''as long as we can repair them.'' But no new ones are being manufactured. And every time one becomes beyond economic repair, it is replaced by one of the serviceable but characterless modern boxes.

It should be (but is not always) admitted by the nostalgia advocates of the K6 that it did have some serious disadvantages: a step at the threshold; an incredibly stiff and weighty door with an awkward ''cup handle''; rather poor lighting; a floor not easily cleaned; and ventilation so lacking that it may possibly have been meant as a method of containing odors rather than allowing them some means of escape.

Nevertheless, a gladsome thing it is that some of these solid old sentinels of the telecommunications industry still grace our British scene. They are a pleasure to behold.

* A slim but informative history of British telephone boxes is published by Shire Publications Ltd.: ''Telephone Boxes,'' by Neil Johannessen. Paperback. ISBN 0-7478-0250-5. Any established bookseller will be able to supply it.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.