Monday, September 21, 2009

Phone books fall like dinosaurs

The new phone books were delivered this morning. And reminded me how long it has been since I used one. Or, to be precise, that I can't remember the last time I did.

How quickly things change. A decade ago we didn't all have mobile phones, with our personal phone directories on them. We didn't have the Internet, which is where I get most of my phone numbers now, thanks to the on-line Eircom phone book. Or I might even Google the company I want, if it is a business I'm looking for. Very occasionally, if I'm out and about, I might have to resort to calling up one of the number enquiry services, though I'm never quite sure of which one to use, despite the crazy twins antics of one company which advertises a lot on TV.

Anyhow, thinking about all this brought me back much further, as far back as my childhood, actually. I guess we were one of the lucky families of the time to have a phone at home. A wind up model, the number Kilcullen 22. The bar, the family business, was Kilcullen 4, reflecting that my grandfather was what would today be called an 'early adopter' of technology (the Garda Station and the Presbytery, I think, had a couple of the numbers before his).

We wound the handle on the instrument to alert the postmistress, Miss Buckley. When she answered, we gave her the number we wanted, and in a complex plugging and unplugging of wires with brass ends on the switchboard against the back wall behind her counter she would eventually put us through. When we finished our call, we spun the phone handle again to alert her to disconnect, though there was always the suspicion that she knew anyhow.

Over the years the system developed, and eventually we got direct dial phones, and longer numbers. There were more people to ring, too, as the service expanded, although slowly enough. A year's waiting on the list to get a line wasn't unusual, and when the demand really got going, that extended to three and more years in some parts of the country. When I moved into my house four decades ago, I ran an extension line from my parents' home so we had a phone link while we were waiting for our own line.

Even into the early 90s, it was still something of a marathon run to get a phone for one's business. I remember, involved with a new Naas-based company at that time, we resorted to buying one of the new 'mobile' phones, the fondly-remembered 'Motorola brick' so we could be in touch with our clients while we waited for a landline. Fortunately, the then infant mobile phone service, limited to the cities of Dublin and Cork, had coverage just down to Naas.

Many years ago I had occasion to write an article on Timahoe Graveyard, some 10 years after President Richard Nixon had visited to see where his forebears were buried. I talked to some local people who were still very grateful to the President, because he had 'brought them the phone'. It seemed that ten new lines had been run into the little rural backwater for the American Secret Service, and when the visit was over ten local families had phones about five years earlier than they might have hoped.

There was a time not so long ago when phone boxes were lifelines for those without 'the phone' at home, or away from home. With an 'A' button pressed to drop the coins through if a connection was made, and a 'B' one to get the money back if there wasn't an answer. In hotels and pubs, the 'coin-box' phone was an essential for commercial travellers who needed to get orders in, during or at the end of their working day. When the new-fangled 'card' phones came along, obviating the need for change in one's pocket, it was considered progress tantamount to that of landing a man on the moon.

But then the mobile revolution came to Ireland. It was actually a second time around from the days of the Motorola brick, and really only came about when competition arrived in the form of Esat Digifone, Denis O'Brien's alternative mobile phone network. Never mind the cloud that hangs over that business now, it began the process of providing everyone with their own personal communications device. A process that is now not just complete, but has moved up a couple of notches by offering so many other services in conjunction with the Internet.

So, my current iPhone keeps me in touch with all my favourite news sources, my email, even radio stations and TV if I want. It permits me to update my own websites from four thousand metres up in the Andes or just down in the pub. I can keep my online calendar updated, send photographs home or to the 'net, write messages and even longer articles. I use it to interview people, for later broadcast, and I have broadcast on radio from it. Oh, and it makes ordinary phone calls too. With a built-in 'phone book' of all my contacts.

So when I heard the 'thud' of the latest 045 phone book on my doorstep this morning, shrinkwrapped with its Golden Pages companion, was I hearing another dinosaur finally biting the dust? Gone the way of Miss Buckley, the rotary dialler, buttons 'A' and 'B', and the phonecard? And our recently removed last street phone boxes?

I think so. I haven't been tempted to cut open the shrinkwrap yet ...