Phone Boxes (Good Weekend – 2017)
They hover by doorways in clubs, hospitals and bingo halls. They lurk on street corners, vacant and ignored. They gaze forlorn over coastal foreshores, reflecting the smeary glint of yesteryear. Unlike Big M flavoured milk and AM radio, these ungainly icons are not yet being mythologised. Collectors haven’t racked up bids for this kind of memorabilia. Parents aren’t riffing wistfully about prank calls made with a found phonecard. Yet along with video arcades and photo developers, these stoic drones are being forced off their lot.
It’s official. Public telephone boxes are on the way out. The number of these coin-fed relics has more than halved in the past decade, such that there are now only 24,573 of them around the country. Some have been reassigned as Wi-Fi hotspots, meaning they now operate like a very low-budget Tardis. But while the federal government has signed a 20-year deal with Telstra to maintain the remaining fleet, this year the Productivity Commission declared public phone boxes “past their use-by date”.
It’s no surprise, given all this, that call use has plummeted. In 2014, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, only 9 per cent of Australians reported having used a public phone. I bet they were backpackers or schoolkids hiding from the rain.
To the metro dweller, the phone box has become a cultural oddity. Really, who still uses them? Desperadoes making shady deals in hushed tones. By their very design, public phone users appear shifty, their backs turned, isolated from the mob. Members of the mobile community, by contrast, have nothing to hide. They walk with their heads held low, conversations broadcast for all to ignore.
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1980s and ’90s, the phone was an appliance. A means to an end. The phone box held the social neutrality of other amenities: the toilet, the barbecue. You were as likely to see a business woman struggling out of the inward sliding door as a skater in a hoodie. Through the 2000s, the phone outgrew its station. It teamed up with the computer and they schemed a way to take over the world.
Today, the smartphone is an extension of our person. An emotional floatation device. jukebox, dating agency, GPS – anything but an actual phone. Professor Richard Buckland of the University of NSW said it best, telling the ABC that, “These days our phone is our castle.”
Public phones still have their supporters, of course. While a ringing booth is an ominous device in movies, it’s often a welcome communiqué in Australian indigenous communities. A quarter of senior Australians don’t have a mobile and, while the homeless are big mobile users, not everyone has charge or credit on the go.
For me, public phones are fused with memories of my Uncle Nigel. As an only child growing up with my mum in Burnie, Tasmania, I was most taken with this witty, sporty relative from Sydney. After an action-packed visit from Nigel when I was in year 7, our only contact with him was on the blower. Nigel lived alone and had a drink-dialling problem. He’d racked up so many bills from late-night calls to old school friends that his landline was permanently disconnected. For as long as I can remember, all contact with Nigel came via a phone box.
This gave him a certain edge. He was off the grid – not even in the phonebook! Occasionally there was talk of us “ringing the golf club” to get him, or the mobile phone of his glass-fitter boss. But mostly a call from Nigel, the youngest of Nan and Pop’s four kids, was a special occasion.
“Hurry up you fellas, his money’s running out!” was the rallying cry from Nan. Pop would spring out of his seat, lest he waste valuable seconds plodding to the landline. As the youngster, I was lucky last. A few words about school and footy were punctuated with the clank of Nigel’s last dollar. We never said goodbye. We just talked until the credit ran out. “Put some spuds in the post…” Click. When he was gone, he was gone.
In 1999 I left Tasmania to go to uni in Canberra. I lived on campus, in a dorm where the phones in our rooms were privately run and charged exorbitant STD rates. So every Sunday night I’d traipse down to the university village public telephone, which was perched between the soft-drink machine and the letterboxes. I’d been shown a hack where you jimmied and jiggled a straw above the coin return flap and it made the money drop down. Sorry Telecom, I used the same $2 for a whole year.
This year, when I visited my old dorms in Canberra, the first thing I did was see if my phone was there. What I found was a phone-shaped shadow against the wood. I felt melancholy at my physical history erased.
After uni I moved to Sydney, where Nigel and I built a proper friendship. When I visited him in his unit in Seven Hills, he proudly pointed out “his phone” on the corner of the street. When eventually I settled in Melbourne, it wasn’t long until I got a call on my new mobile from Mum. Uncle Nigel had died after being hit by a freight train in the middle of the night. We’d never got to say goodbye.