Switchboard Operators

Carol Lake, Switchboard Operators
(London: Bloomsbury, 1994)

Lord Ripley, a particular Exchange bugbear because of his utter rudeness—he probably regarded us as glorified forms of housemaid, infuriatingly not under his control—had his line put straight into the Waterworks. This meant he couldn’t dial out, and if he picked up his receiver there was a horrid clanking bashing noise on the line. ‘Can’t reach the bookies for fifteen minutes—serve the nasty old bat right.’ Sweets were handed about along the boards for the only time all week, and general Misrule held sway. The Howler was put on numbers that had particularly peeved us that week: Dish of the Day was connected to the Cricket Scores, and chirped brightly of crêpes Suzette or spicy beefbake at the dry male voice uttering numbers, and listening in to them was eerie—maybe the pair of them had as much contact as many another couple, each existing in their own little worlds.

Before the UK’s telephone exchanges became fully automatic, subscribers often relied on operators to connect their calls, and were reminded in the process that a phone call was not simply a two-way exchange. In Carol Lake’s novel, the telephone recedes into the background, eclipsed by a crackling switchboard of plugs, dials and blinking lights on which operators constantly create new patterns, new connections. These women are proficient and anarchic by turns; it is late 1960s Derby and, though their voices and bodies are highly drilled, the impulse to intervene in a call can prove impossible to resist. Inviting us to view the telephone at a distance, from the highly ordered space of the Exchange in which unruly hands harass rude callers with the off-hook tone, and eager ears eavesdrop on the sublime and ridiculous, the text reminds us of the overlooked forces that unexpectedly shape a story.

by Annabel Williams