Christopher Isherwood, ‘Snail’
in One Ought to Know
(London: Macmillan, 1982)
First published: 1926

The snail has a telephone and a bell
Fitted up inside his shell.
He says the thing’s a perfect pest:
‘When I come to digest
For forty seconds in the sun,
The bell rings, and in I run.
But usually, it’s just a call,
Or: “Is that Harrods?”, “Is that Alice?”,
“Is that George at Buckingham Palace?”
I never have a wink of slumber—
Somebody always gets my number?’

‘Snail’ is one of a series of whimsical poems written by Christopher Isherwood in the 1920s to accompany anthropomorphic cartoons drawn by Sylvain Mangeot, the son of his employer, Belgian violinist André Mangeot. Isherwood’s poem is strangely prescient. Like the snail, whose telephone is fitted inside its shell, we too are attached to the phone. By call and text, through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, our Smartphones make us forever reachable, and always knowable. Isherwood’s snail is kept from the sun, drawn back inside his shell by constant calls. Some are ‘just’ calls – nothing important; some are wrong numbers, callers wanting Harrods, perhaps Alice in Wonderland, even the King. Similarly, our ‘perfect pest’ interrupts us with calls from everybody and anybody, advertisers, loved ones and friends. We are endlessly in touch with others. Never alone.

As we retreat inside our digital devices, living our lives through the phones fitted into our pockets, maybe we should heed the snail’s warning.

by Jo Dixon