|Lesson No. 14
On Not Answering The Telephone William Plomer
If, at the end of a conversation, somebody says to me, ’As soon as I know, I’ll ring you up’, he is taking too much for granted. He is proposing to attempt the impossible. So I have to say, ’I’m afraid you can’t. You see, I’m not on the telephone. I just haven’t got a telephone.’ Reactions to this are various. Some people say, ’Oh, but you must have a telephone!’ as if they thought I had mislaid or lost it somewhere, or forgotten about it. Some people say, ’Howe terribly inconvenient! How can you do without a telephone?’ And some say, `Oh, you wise man, how I envy you!’ But the usual reaction is astonishment, and although I regard myself as a quiet, conventional sort of character, I find myself being stared at as a wild or fool, especially when somebody says, ’Well’ if I can’t ring you up, perhaps you’ll ring me up’, and I reply, ’Perhaps; but I’m more likely to write to you’. Why don’t I have a telephone? Not because I pretend to be wise or pose as unusual. There are two chief reasons: because I don’t really like the telephone and because I find I can still work and play, eat, breathe and sleep without it. Why don’t I like the telephone? Because I think it is a a time-waster. It may create unnecessary suspense and anxiety, as when you wait for an expected call that doesn’t come; or irritating delay, as when you keep ringing a number that is always engaged. As for speaking in a public telephone box, that seems to me really horrible, You would not use it unless you were in a hurry, and because you are in a hurry you will find other people waiting before you. When you do’ get into the box, you are half suffocated by unventilated air, flavoured with cheap face-powder and chain smoking; and by the time you have begun your conversation your back is chilled by the cold looks of somebody who is fidgeting or restless to take your place. If you have a telephone in your own house, you will admit that it tends to ring when you least want it to ring - ring you are asleep, or in the middle of a meal or a conversation, or when you are just going out, or when you are in your bath. Are you strong minded enough to ignore it, to say to yourself, well, it will all be the same in a hundred years’ time?’ You think there may be some important news or message for you. Have you never rushed dripping from the bath, or chewing from the table, or dazed from the bed, only to be told that you are wrong number? You were told the truth. In my opinion in all telephone numbers are wrong numbers. If, of course, your telephone rings and you decide not to answer it, then you will have to listen to an idiotic bell ringing and ringing in what is supposed to be the privacy of your own house. You might as well buy a bicycle bell and ring it yourself.
Suppose you ignore the telephone when it rings, and suppose that, for once, somebody has an important message for you. I can assure you that if a message is really important it will reach you sooner or later. Think of the proverb: ’ news travels apace’. I must say good news seems to travel just as fast. And think of the saying; ’The truth will be out’. It will. But suppose you answer the telephone when it rings. If, when you take off the receiver, you say, ’Hullo!’ just think how absurd that is. Why, yol might be saying ’Hullo’ to a total stranger, a thing you would certainly think twice about before doing in public, if you were English. But perhaps, when you take off the receiver, you give your number or your ’name. But you don’t even know whom you are giving it to! Perhaps you have been indiscreet enough to have your name and number printed in the telephone directory, a book with a large circulation, a successful book so often reprinted as to make any author envious, a book more in evidence than Shakespeare or the Bible, and found at a\\ sotts of private and public places, By your self-advertisement you have enabled any stranger, bore, intruder, or criminal to engage you in conversation at a moment’s notice /n what ought to be the privacy of your own home. It serves you ring if you find it impossible to escape from some idle or inquisitive chatterbox, or from somebody who wants something or nothing, or from some reporter bent on questioning you about your own affairs or about the private life of some friend who has just eloped or met with a fatal accident. But, you will say, you need not have your name printed in the telephone directory, and you can have a telephone which is only usable for outgoing calls. Besides, you will say, isn’t it important to have a telephone in case of sudden emergency, illness, accident, or fire? Of course, you are right, but here in a thickly populated country like England one is seldom far from telephone in case of dreadful necessity. All the same, I felt an instant sympathy with a well-known actor whom I heard on the radio the other day. He was asked; ’suppose you were left alone to live on a desert island, and you were allowed to take just one luxury with you what would you choose?’ ’I would take a telephone’, he said, ’and I would push the wire into the sand’ and my greatest pleasure would be to sit and look at it, and to think: ”It will never ring and I shall never have to answer it If, like me, one without a telephone, somebody is sure to say, ’Oh, but don’t you find you have to write an awful lot of letters?’ The answer to that is, ’Yes, but I should have to write an awful lot of letters anyway’. This may bring the remark, Ah well if you don’t have a telephone, at least you must have a typewriter’. And the answer to that is `No’. ‘&Z Pd Wte 02e Z, Oe PA 7c. 9IIJ I (nn am a professional man of letters, and when I was younger I thought a typewriter would be convenient. I even thought it was necessary, and that editors and publishers would expect anything sent to them to be typewritten. So I bought myself a typewriter and taught myself to type, and for some years I typed away busily. But I did not enjoy
typing. I happen to enjoy the act of writing. I don’t enjoy typing. I enjoy forming letters or words with a pen, and I never could enjoy tapping the keys of a type-writer. There again, there was bell. And the fact is, I am not mechanically minded, and the type-writer is a machine. I have never been really drawn to machines. I don’t like oiling, cleaning or mending them. I do not enjoy making them work. To control them gives me no sense of power - or not the kind,of power that I find interesting. And machines do not like me. When I touch them they tend to break down, get jammed, catch fire, or blow up. As with telephones and typewriters, so with cars. I obtained my first driving license is South Africa at the age of seventeen, having been taught to drive in the rush hours in the middle of the busy city of Johannesburg. I needed the car for use in another part of Africa where in those days there was hardly any motor traffic. The actual process of driving soon became automatic, and my sole idea was to get from one place to another as soon as possible. I therefore drove fast, and within a week or two the speedometer was broken. I never had it mended. I was not a reckless driver, I did not lose contiol of the car, even on rocky or sandy tracks or driving with chains through deep mud. I never killed or injured anybody. But I was bored, and if circumstances had allowed I should have preferred to walk. Nowadays, living in an over-crowded country where traffic is continuously on the increase and often congested, and where driving is controlled by a great many rules and regulations, I feel no temptation whatever to drive a car. But, you may say, am I not aware that we are living in a machine age? Am I trying to put the clock back? Am I an escapist, a crank, a simple-lifer? Not at all. It is a matter of preferences, not principle, that I choose, as possible, to do without these things -- a telephone, a typewriter, and a car. If other people are willing - and they seem entirely willing and even eager to make and use these machines for my benefit, I am not less willing to let them do so. I am perfectly ready to pay to be driven about in trains, cars, or aircraft, to take lift instead of walking upstairs, and to use moving staircases instead of unmoving ones. But I do not wish to be dominated by machines. I do not want to feed a type-writer with sheets of paper, to lose the use of my legs by traveling always by car, or to be summoned, with or without warning, by the telephone.. Is there any conclusion to be drawn from my obstinacy or stubbornness and willfulness, my escapism, if you like to call it that? I think perhaps I had better try to justify myself by trying to prove that what I like is good. At least I have proved to myself that what many people think necessary is not necessary at all. I admit that in different circumstances-if I Were a tycoon or very wealthy business man, for instance, or bedridden - I might find a telephone essential. But then if I were a secretary or taxi-driver I should find a typewriter or a car essential. Let me put it another way; there are two things for which the English seem to show particular aptitude: one is mechanical invention, the other is literature. My own business happens to be with the use of words - but I see I must now stop using..them.
I have just been handed a slip of paper to say that somebody is waiting to speak to me on the telephone. I think I had better answer it. After all, one never know, it may be something important. NOTES
William Plomer is another English writer like Boothroyd, who wrote broadcast articles for The Listener. Page
57. Eccentric Pest Asphyxiated chain-smoking
58. apace very fast if you were English
59 man of letters to be drawn to rush hours Tracks to drive with chains
to put the clock back Escapist Crank simple-lifer Tycoon Bedridden Odd, whimsical Irritation Suffocated Smoking by lighting i new maitre from the finished one. Bad news spread very fast.
The English are commonly supposed to be reserved Writer To be attracted to Hours when traffic is busiest Minor roads with a rough surface. To wind chains around the wheels to prevent skidding. To try. to undo changes that have already taken place. One who wishes to run away from reality. An odd person One who believes in living simply.
Business magnate Confined to bed through illness