The Phone and Phone Booth Assemblage Considered as Mise en abyme

Will Self is an award-winning British novelist, journalist and broadcaster. His books include the trilogy Umbrella (2012), Shark (2014) and Phone (2017), which explore the dialectical relationship between technology, war and psychopathology in the industrial and post-industrial eras. His most recent book is the memoir Will and he holds the Chair in Contemporary Thought at Brunel University.

In this original essay for ‘The Exchange’ – a collaboration between Crossed Lines and the Science Museum – Self places telecommunication systems within the context of a collective human phenomenology which is increasingly typified by technological mediation. Exploring the impact of human-technological interaction on our reflective self-consciousness – the thinking, phone-calling I – Self moves between considerations of the public booth and the private phone in his comparison with today’s ever-present telecommunications technology.

The essay was written and recorded during the COVID-19 lockdown, and is inspired by a Post Office Telephone Kiosk No 6 (K6) and 706L Modern Phone in the Science Museum Group’s collections.

Photo credit: Don McCullin

Listen to the essay here or read the full text below

The K6 telephone box, Giles Gilbert Scott’s modification of his original K2 box, was designed to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935. By 1940, the number of phone boxes in Britain had been almost doubled by the introduction of the K6—and more than tripled by 1970 when the K8 box was brought into service. Thus, it is not only by cause of its particular merits—aesthetic, functional, cultural-political—but also its sheer ubiquity, that the K6 became synonymous with the act of making a phone call in public, and a strange sort of metonym for the nation itself. Bulbous black cabs, breast-shaped policemen’s helmets—and the bright red phone box; together these constitute fragments shored up against the ruin of British national pride.

The K6 took its place in the emergent suburban landscapes of the 1930s and early 40s as a sort of miniature cottage ornée: its neat encapsulation of space in counterpoint with the expansiveness of the industrial and public built environment at this time. No wonder thousands of the boxes remain—and no wonder, either, that they have been converted to all manner of uses, from book exchanges to housing defibrillators. I recall, in the 1980s, a number of films that employed the K2 booth, isolate in some bucolic setting, as a spatial trope to emphasise the pathetic confinement of the caller as against the wide open spaces.[1] And while the eponymous space-time-travelling hero of the BBC’s long-running sci-fi soap, Dr Who, uses a still more obsolete, purpose-designed police phone box for his space-time-ship, the K6 has partaken of its strange topological involution: it, too, seems to be far bigger on the inside than it appears from without.[2]       

The 706L telephone, by contrast, is always exactly the same size. Its transpositions—for me, at least—are imagistic rather than spatial: ‘I saw a telephone on a bed, looking like a severed head…’ a line of my own jejune poetry that stayed with me the forty years since I did, indeed, momentarily glimpse a black 706L on a bed, its rotary dial grinning toothily at me. Designed by the General Post Office (GPO), in conjunction with Ericsson Telephones, and introduced as the so-called ‘Modern Telephone’ in 1959, the 706L went on to become the standard issue phone for British subscribers to the service until 1967. It was then replaced by the slightly modified type 746, which continued in service until the 1980s. Between them, these two objects: the public booth and the private phone, represent not only the person-to-person sonic communications of my childhood and youth, but also bring back to me—burring and clunking, straining and coughing—their entire phenomenology: the way these artefacts shaped my perceptual apprehension of the world, and hence my consciousness.  

The word ‘iconic’ is much abused in our seeming-secular age—abused, not least, because we’re unable to acknowledge the full extent to which we fetishise the commodities we make and buy and use. While the original sense of the word is, if you like, transcendentally neutral—merely meaning ‘portrait’; yet the adjectival sense partakes shamelessly of the sacerdotal status imputed to certain images by the Orthodox churches. But for me—and I’m sure many others—the K6 and the 706L (for ‘lettered’ a reference to a dial equipped with such as well as numerals), are iconic in the strongest sense: for in contemplating them, we are indeed placed vis-à-vis with either God, gods, or their absence. It may be that the ideal hagioscope, through which to regard the lifting of the 706L’s holy receiver, would in fact be the K6 itself.[3] Equipped with a new glazing pattern—and while similar, markedly smaller than its forerunner, the K2—the K6 echoed the Streamline Moderne architecture of the 1930s, while remaining true to Scott’s original Neoclassical and Arts and Crafts influences. (And isn’t this another fitting place to observe, once again, that all architectural styles are essentially quasi-composite typologies, created by the appropriation of details from other eras—and hence postmodernist avant la lettre.)

The K6 has the same curious quasi-domed roof as the K2, which Scott modelled on that of Sir John Soane’s mausoleum in the churchyard of Old St Pancras. Constructed by bolting cast iron sections together, the K6 nonetheless has an overpoweringly woody and craftsman-like feel to it—and this despite its glazing pattern, which is so familiar from the Crittall windows of flats and factories built during the interwar period. Tilt a K6 to the horizontal and put some wheels under it, and it would resemble nothing so much as the Morris Traveller car, with its half-timbered bodywork. Both designs seem to me to be redolent of that tendency in British culture towards the uchronic—by which I mean the evocation not of an idealised place, but an idealised time: a Merrie England in which technology was fully apprehensible, while social relations were concomitantly transparent and happily organic.  

There’s this influence on the K6—and there’s also its similarity to the pre-existent bright red post-boxes that had been cluttering up British pavements since the 1880s. All periods of wholesale technological transformation are marked by skeuomorphs: examples of the formerly utile repurposed purely as design elements[4]; but the relationship between these two boxes seems more a sublation of any possibility of real political change: embossed with the royal crown, and initiated by a government monopoly, both mail and phone boxes overtly encouraged those who used them to view private communication as an inherently public affair—and what could be more happily organic than that?

It was said of the British that up until 1914, a subject of the Crown could live out his or her entire life, having no more contact with the state than the occasional visit to a post office to buy a stamp—or trip to the post box to deposit the letter. As a child—and then a young man—the connection between my own and the body politic took this form: a trip to the phone box, where, my thumb pressed against the milled edge of a ten pence piece, I’d wait for the pips that would indicate the receiver had been lifted at the other end, so that the slot would be unlocked and I’d be able to insert the coin into the wall-mounted callbox. I could feel the resistance of the mechanism and this—via a poorly visualised assemblage of rockers, springs, cogs, gears and levers – seemed to incorporate me as well into a sort of man-machine matrix.

That Romantic Tory, Thomas De Quincey, in his essay ‘The English Mail-Coach’, figures the assemblage of such coaches, and the correspondence they brought to the furthest reaches of the realm, as constitutive of the national spirit—but for me, the GPO was no longer a going concern; rather, the years of my majority were ushered in by its bastard offspring: British Telecom, a dystopian corporation for the age of Neoliberalism, whose phone boxes—all clear glass and dirtily dimpled steel—were, in retrospect, quite obviously Dr Whoesque capsules within which we should’ve escaped the bounds of this earth and its poisonous, gossipy atmosphere.

For the age of the phone call—as once understood—was clearly coming to an end. Throughout my childhood the 706L had squatted on the purpose-built phone table in the permanently crepuscular hall. Laminated with burled walnut, the table featured a small upper compartment for a personal phone book, and a larger one beneath it in which sat the London directories: A to D, E to K (which I couldn’t help hearing in my inner ear as ‘Eek!’), and so on. From this wireless era it’s difficult to recapture the sense we all had of being tethered to the domestic phone. The 706L was the first model to feature the plasticised curly-wurly flex, which, if the handset was employed to stretch to its fullest extent would then spring back. Obviously the force was insufficient to pull you—head and hand—with it; yet nonetheless: it felt that way; not least because the spiralling flex so closely resembled another popular gewgaw of the era, the Slinky toy, the steely spring-coils of which flowed ineluctably down staircases, thereby confirming Newton’s laws of motion at the domestic level, even as Einstein’s were being globally affirmed by the space race. 

Whether awaiting a call from NASA or not, in the 1960s and 70s[5] whatever you were doing when the phone rang—you moved to answer it. Or, if there were a number of family members in the house, there would either be a stampede or a Mexican standoff, depending on whether a particular call was desired or very much not. In this way we were all tethered to the phone by a curly-wurly umbilicus. And yet, this was a peculiarly impersonal gestation—while each one was potentially the prelude to a virgin birth; for, while a particular caller might be expected, there was no way of guaranteeing they would be on the line. Caught at stool, or otherwise bodily engaged, the insistent Drrring-drrring! Drrring-drrring! of the 706L would reel you in to this: a womb-like and shell-like confinement, in which the pulses-that-were-sounds and the sounds-that-were-pulses comingled. Then, transecting the hiss and echo would be the voice; so close the mouth responsible for it might have been nibbling your earlobe, or running its tongue around the whorls of your auricle.

Yes, the transgressive intimacy of a domestic phone call lay in precisely this oddity: you might find yourself tête-à-tête (if not vis-à-vis) with an utter stranger. By contrast, the oddity of the call from a public phone box was that you might find yourself engaged in the most intimate conversation imaginable – and understandably, we often sought out such environs for such calls, rather than making them at home, where you might be overheard—while being observed by complete strangers. The box was a confessional one, quite as much as communicative; and the fact that calls were in a sense semi-public, only made this more so. The invisible booths erected near-instantaneously around the prone, upright or hurrying bodies of contemporary mobile phone-callers are peculiarly analogous to this—if you like, they are K6s of the mind, since their presence is solely a function of social convention: the mobile phone call retains the sacrosanct character of its tethered predecessor, and thus is itself rendered skeuomorphic.

Never more so than when the ringtone mandated by its users is precisely this: the sound of an old 706L, ringing in the sort of stagnant, dust-mote-revolving, beeswax-smelling, parquet-floored hallway that my parental home had, in one of the most lavishly dull of the London suburbs. Drrring-drrring! Drrring-drrring! I hear the phone ringing down the decades – and my first instinct, my eyes starting hither and yon, is to gain entrance to that man’s pocket, or this woman’s handbag. Receptacles that, in turn, would be by this fact alone repurposed as miniature phone booths—because there were indeed those dizzying occasions when you would take rather than make a phone call in a K6. Such a shocking reversal in the communications networks of the mid-20th century can be figured now as an anticipation of the bi-directional digital one to come. And I felt that way at the time – as well as suspecting that when I lifted the receiver from the cradle, I might wink out of existence, as the dreamy caller at the other end awoke to the shocking intimacy of my ‘hello’.                

‘Dial First—pay on answer’ was inscribed, white-out-of-black on the information panel affixed immediately below that slot, the mechanism of which I’m still—in some strange sense—struggling with. We admire the great grace of the prima ballerina assoluta, her body held in constant equipoise between the coiled levity of her limbs and the earth’s surly gravity—and we reverence as well these moments, no matter how quotidian, when we are similarly poised: ‘Answer on pay—first dial.’ Since the 706Ls have retreated to pockets and handbags, the multiple metrics which together comprise the matrix of human-technological interaction have taken to the air—but when my mother lifted the phone’s handset she’d intone, ‘Hampstead one-oh-four-six…’ a reference to that L, which allowed for junior code-breakers to transpose the letters into the numbers on the dial, so discovering the numerical prefix: four-two-six for H-A-M. Thus the assemblage of phone books and dial was indeed a case for an ‘Eek!’ that reverberates down the decades—a shocked recognition of the existence of something Marshall McLuhan termed ‘the unified electrical field’, an inchoate assemblage of communication systems and attendant feedback loops, which, as I fed more and more 10p pieces into the ravening maw of the K6, began to shimmer into the worldwide web: a numinous realm, our location within which has become far more significant than that of the phone box, the telephone, or indeed our own embodied selves.

[1] Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero was most conspicuous in this regard: the American oil executive, gone native in the Scots Highlands, calls his HQ from one such picturesque box.

[2] Dubbed the ‘TARDIS’ – an acronym of Time and Relative Dimensions in Space – by Dr Who’s creator, Terry Nation.

[3] The hagioscope is also called a ‘squint’: a gap or hole in an internal wall of a church that allows someone partially concealed to observe the altar, and hence the Elevation of the Host.

[4] The phone icon on your mobile phone is a good example of this – there’s no need for it to resemble an old domestic telephone.

[5] These decades being the ones in which domestic phone ownership reached effective saturation.