I’ve been doing some catch up reading with Bill Bryson’s works. I do admire his writing style and content. And I found out an interesting answer to a question that has bugged me for years. I wouldn’t call it the most profound question of all time but when you’re in the supermarket and looking at that huge shelving system full of a range of exotic condiments, have you never wondered just what exactly is the difference between a herb and a spice? I imagined it was that herbs were grown locally (hence herbaceous borders?) and spices came from distant places like the East Indies and the Caribbean islands. But Bill explained that it isn’t necessarily geographical (although I suspect that in 90% of cases it is). The answer is far more locally-based; herbs exclusively come from the leaves of plants whilst spices are taken from the woodier parts or the seeds or fruits. So there you go. Did you know that?
Anyway I was thinking about something far more important in my upbringing and career that Bill had addressed – the hallway of the home. It used to be the whole home in the Middle Ages but over time it had shrunk to become nothing more than a vestibule, a place where you enter the house and take off your coat and shoes/boots, take two steps and then actually enter the heart of the home. But it seemed to me to offer one extra facility when I was growing up. It was the place home owners would place their telephone handsets. My folks did this and still do. And they were not alone. Everyone seemed to stick the phone in the cold unwelcoming hallway. Why was that? Was it the easiest place for BT engineers to stick it and nobody questioned their laziness? Was it to offer a degree of discretion from the heady conversation and tv noise in the lounge? It seems such a 1960’s thing to do and a really quaint concept now. Mobile phones are so personal and to hand and nobody cares about personal voice intimacy this days. Can you imagine walking 6 yards to answer them when ringing? On charge they are less than 4ft away and that seems like a stretch sometimes.
Here’s another thought; our first telephone was a party line with our next door neighbours (presumably it was cheaper). So far as I can remember it rarely caused an issue. But can you imagine that situation these days, 9 people across two households taking turns to make/take a call? Inconceivable. Though in reality we kids were rarely allowed to use the phone. It was for adults only and in case of emergencies because it cost an amount per minute which my folks thought was outrageous. It wasn’t the amount it was the concept; everything else was costed by the hour or day. By the minute was what punters paid to watch sleazy shows on Blackpool’s Golden Mile. So no chit chat was permitted (even for the adults).
I remember a friend of mine Tim, aged 11, came to our house for a play. His folks were more middle class than mine and he was a tad ahead of me in the girl stakes at that time. Though I caught up quickly. Anyway he told me confidentially that he’d decided that Jeanette Alexander, one of the girls in our class, had moved up from number 4 favourite in his ranking to number 3. And he casually asked if he could use our phone to call her to announce the good news. What? I think I had a slight issue with the offensiveness but mostly I was mortified at the thought of asking my folks if he could make a call to a girl over something as trivial as his ranking of her. I know how that feels (see last posting). So I said he couldn’t do that because the phone in my home was to be used for urgent issues only and he was stupefied. Even then he used his home phone for unnecessary idle chit chat and later on he became my model for the perfect consumer customer in the mobile industry – completely irresponsible and conversation-fixated.
I remember Tim getting the hump and returning home to announce the news to Jeanette over his own ‘unrestricted’ home phone. I quietly spoke with her the following week and she confided that she’d had this odd telephone call from Tim where he announced that he had moved her up to 3rd in his rankings. I hadn’t had much female interactivity to this point to help me form a judgement but I’ll never forget she said to me how do you think that makes me feel as a girl Paul? It was quite a profound question. And I admit I didn’t know how best to answer it. I think I said something like you should just like or not like people, not rate them. I think she smiled welcomely.
However I can tell you that this sympathetic approach had absolutely no apparent lasting impact on Jeanette who hardly spoke to me again whilst Tim became my best mate for at least 4 years. Strange eh. We both had our fair share of girl friends but for my part I always remembered those words and it kind of stuck. Respect women, right. And as a husband and father of 3 daughters, team player and boss that became my absolute way of living, working and believing.
I had to find a way of concluding this piece and I thought I should get it back to the home phone. I admit that I cannot remember the reg no of my last car but I can remember the number of my folks’ first home phone from 1963 – Poulton 3608. Now that’s memory magic!