Mark Cantrell, Author

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Blog: Trapped In A Glass Box With No Dial Tone

Posted by Mark Cantrell on September 18, 2017 at 3:40 PM

BT phones home


When Mark Cantrell learned that BT is planning to scrap half of its national network of public telephone boxes, it brought back memories of the time he found himself stuck in one…


SO there I was, trapped in a glass box.


Some joker had kicked the door to the phone booth; jamming the thing in its frame in such a way that this poor sap was never going to get it open. I’d only just picked up the handset to discover the phone was out of order. When, bam!


Yeah, I jumped. But losing a cool composure turned out to be the least of my worries.


No phone; no way out. My little pile of coins stacked on the callbox mocked me in their redundancy. The sun was blazing through the glass, and there was nobody around. The guy with the hefty boot was nowhere in sight. I was on my own.


This was late summer in 1994 – back in the days when the season tended to live up to its name. The street was somewhere in London, I forget exactly where, but I was flat hunting ahead of starting a postgraduate training course.


A few weeks later, I was due to start a journalism course at The City University, so I was pounding the pavements, copy of Loot in hand, and keeping the payphones fed with coin. Obviously, I was going to need somewhere to stay – just preferably not in a phone box.


My rueful thought, as I came to terms with my situation: this wouldn’t have happened in a traditional red phone box. Those things were sturdily built; not like this (then) modern glass and steel contraption, barely able to muffle the sounds of bustling life beyond the glass. That’s why I’d picked one that was off the main thoroughfares; so I’d be able to hear myself speak, as much listen to what my prospective landlord had to say.


Up until then, I’d never imagined it was possible to find yourself jammed in a phone box. Sure, we can blame the kick-artist, but it was the design that really did me in. The door had a couple of tough rubber ‘feet’ that cushioned it against the jamb and established a seal. The force of the kick had pushed these feet clean through to the other side, effectively wedging the door closed.


Try as I might, I couldn’t shift the door. Back against the wall, feet pressed against the door, pushing with all my might – those rubber feet weren’t shifting. There was no room to brace myself and gain full leverage to force it open again. This was going to be a long call…


Well, that’s pretty much my abiding memory of the era of public phone boxes. Sure, there were plenty of occasions, pre-mobile, when I made use of them, but the mundane fades and this remains my stand-out reminiscence.


It was an article on the Guardian website (15 August 2017) that brought this little anecdote back from the fringes of amnesia. Public phone boxes, it seems, are destined to join troughs for watering horses as rare curiosities left over from a bygone area; the advent of smartphone technology has made them increasingly – if not yet completely – obsolete.


The Guardian reported that BT is planning to scrap 20,000 public phone boxes – half its remaining portfolio – across the country as usage declines.


Apparently, the number of calls has been dropping 20% a year. Some 33,000 calls a day are still made from public phone boxes, but a third of BT's booths are used only once a month, and many are never used at all.


Even so, they need to be kept clean and maintained; an ongoing cost with diminishing returns. So I guess you can understand why the company might want to start scrapping a few.


A spokesperson for the company told the Guardian: “BT is committed to providing a public payphone service, but with usage declining by over 90% in the last decade, we continue to review and remove payphones which are no longer used.”


Ironically, it’s those traditional red phone boxes that are most likely to survive the cull; 2,400 are actually Grade II listed buildings. In the end perhaps that’s rather fitting that the relics of the bygone age of phone booths should themselves be remnants of an earlier age of public telephony. At least, you might say, history will linger on in style.


Therein lies another irony. An 1816 tomb built in St Pancras’ Old Churchyard provided the inspiration for Giles Gilbert Scott’s original ‘K2’ phone box design in the 1920s. This provided the essential features of the more familiar cast-iron K6 design, which was introduced in 1935.


Somehow it seems rather fitting that a design based on a tomb should become what amounts to a mausoleum to its modern descendents. But that’s enough of that: back to my unfortunate situation. The sun glaring through the glass is getting rather warm.


I’m happy to say that in the end I didn’t spend too long trapped in that phone box. After a few minutes somebody came walking past and noticed my predicament. This anonymous stranger took it all in his stride. He just reached into his pocket, pulled out a coin and hurled it at the glass edgewise until the pane frosted.


Okay. I admit, I felt a tad guilty at the vandalism, but I maintain to this day that it was in a good cause. I pushed a boot through the glass and cleared my escape route. By the time I’d clambered through and stood back up I was alone on the street. My benefactor had gone.


Now, I can guess what you’re thinking; no, I wouldn’t be surprised if my rescuer was the guy who locked me in that box in the first place. But, hey, after all these years, let bygones be bygones and give the guy the benefit of the doubt.


After all, I was just glad to be out of that glass box...


MC


Image courtesy of Wikipedia



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