Ma said, ‘Okay son I agree about the book-walking but as it is, she’s still nearly dead so I’m keeping her in bed yet,’ after which they said goodbye which took another five minutes because kind people here, not used to phones, not trustful of them either, didn’t want to be rude or abrasive by hanging up after one goodbye in case the other’s leave-taking was still travelling its way, with a delay, over the airwaves towards them. Therefore, owing to phone etiquette, there was lots of ‘’Bye’, ‘Bye’, ‘Goodbye, son-in-law’, ‘Goodbye, mother-in-law’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘’Bye’, ‘’Bye’ with each person’s ear still at the earpiece as they bent their body over, inching the receiver ever and ever closer on each goodbye to the rest of the phone. Eventually it would end up back on the receiver with the human ear removed from it.
Telephones didn’t feature for me, nor had I thought they featured much for maybe-boyfriend. One reason I had nineteenth-century literature as back-up was so I wouldn’t have to get into any modern-day, fraught, involved stuff like that. Our arrangements were such that we made them at the end of our last meeting and stuck to them. This was the case, partly because of phones being generally distrusted – as technological objects, as abnormal communication objects. Mainly, though, they were not trusted because of ‘dirty tricks’, unofficial-party-line, state-surveillance campaigns. This meant ordinary people didn’t use them for things, meaning vulnerable romance things [. . .] phones weren’t trusted; indeed we only had one because it had been in the house when we moved in and ma was wary to have it removed in case the people who came to remove it weren’t really telephone wiremen but instead state spymaster-infiltrators in disguise.
Clare Hutton (2019) describes the recurrent appearance of the telephone in Milkman as ‘part of a leitmotif in the novel which comments on the culture of phone use in the 1970s’. She looks at the first passage above as an instance of the relative reverence with which this mode of communication was treated by those uncertain of its mediating potential in matters of personal communication. In the second passage, however, the true import of the telephone is revealed. An instrument of surveillance in which private expression is rendered public through both the possibility of state surveillance (in ‘Troubles’-era Northern Ireland) and the very possibility it produces of speaking things which would otherwise remain unsaid, the telephone is the very tool of modernity, even in a place as ‘outside’ of history as conflict-ridden 1970s Belfast. The telephone is an instrument of an intimacy unthinkable in the uncertain times of Burns’ novel; now, perhaps, we’ve come full circle, with self-expression through emoji a safer bet than the vulnerability of speaking out loud words that cannot be recalled or modified. Burns’ novel relies on voice and emphasises its possibilities. The old BT slogan used to run, ‘It’s good to talk,’ but here, as elsewhere in life, the greatest gift may be in listening.
by Tricia Malone