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To save a past that rings a bell

In the age of mobile phones, the red phone kiosks of the UK get a coat of heritage

  • By Brendan O'Neill, The Christian Science Monitor
  • Published: 22:46 April 2, 2009
  • Weekend Review

Irene Wright's home in Llanyrafon, South Wales, looks and smells like any other home occupied by an energetic elderly couple. It is immaculately tidy.

There is a well-thumbed copy of Favourite Poems, Quotes and Hymns on the coffee table. The comforting whiff of freshly made tea emanates from the kitchen.

And, this being South Wales, a rainstorm rattles the windows, causing Wright to wrap her cardigan more tightly around her as she peers out at the “wicked weather''.

But don't be fooled. Behind the spick-and-span façade, this home doubles as the beating heart of a campaign to “defend Britain's heritage''.

Wright is engaged in what she calls a “small but important'' battle to preserve a piece of British history: the red telephone box on the lawn outside her window.

“The paint is peeling off. I haven't seen anyone use it for a long time,'' she says, looking out through her rain-spattered windows at the forlorn-looking faded red kiosk.

“But it's been here more than 40 years, and it is a box of memories. It's the place where news was shared. It should be left alone.''

British Telecom (BT), which is responsible for Britain's public phones, is planning to remove the box from Llanyrafon, and another one in nearby Llanfrechfa, because upkeep of the boxes (“What upkeep?'' asks Wright, sardonically) costs more than people spend making phone calls.

But Wright has a special attachment to the box; she made the first call from it when it was placed in 1966.

“They needed someone to test it. So I volunteered and phoned one of my neighbours who had a phone.'' What did she say to him? “Oh, not much. Just hello.''

Portal of communication

The installation of the phone box had a ringing impact on local life, Wright says, allowing those without phones at home to call faraway friends and loved ones.

It was through this red portal into other people's worlds that Wright kept in touch with her sister, a “GI bride'' who fell for an American soldier during the Second World War and has lived in Maine since the 1940s.

However, this is about more than personal memories; it is also about “preserving British history'', Wright says.

“Everyone recognises the red phone box as British. The country won't be the same if it goes.''

Indeed, on the same February day Wright was reminiscing in dark, drenched South Wales, Royal Mail in London was preparing to unveil its new series of first-class stamps commemorating British “Design Classics'' of the past hundred years, including the red phone box.

With the advent of mobile phones, public pay phones are disappearing everywhere.

In Britain, however, there is a twist to the story: Pay phones have become cultural icons, along with red double-decker buses, black taxis, the Beatles and cucumber sandwiches as Things That Are Oh-So-British.

Hollywood films signal London by showing a red phone box; tourists photograph one another making faux calls from the phone boxes near Big Ben.

So the demise of pay phones here has raised a host of questions: Will excising the red box from the cultural landscape erase some of Britain's identity?

Isn't cultural heritage worth preserving on the street corners, in the art museums and big country houses? Is nothing sacred anymore?

Britain has more mobile phones than people. Not surprisingly, use of pay phones has dropped by more than 50 per cent over the past decade.

BT has removed 30,000 of them from the streets, lanes and malls since 2002. Of the 61,700 pay phones remaining, about 12,700 are the old red kiosks. And a third — 4,500 — of these boxes are under threat.

BT says 60 per cent of its pay phones are unprofitable. Yet BT spends nearly $1,400 a year maintaining each pay phone: checking the line; collecting the handful of coins that may have been deposited.

Now, recognising the red phone box as clearly “a British cultural icon'' that some communities would “very much like to keep'', BT has proposed a solution to the dilemma: Local councils can adopt-a-kiosk for $700 a year.

They can have BT maintain their local red box either as a working phone or simply as “street art''.

Local councils are paying up and those that aren't are increasingly finding themselves under pressure from local residents to “Save Our Red Kiosk!''

Not far from Wright's home in South Wales lies the town of Llanfrechfa. Local councillor Margaret Pead's living room is buzzing with conversation.

Local residents speak passionately over the clink of teacups about saving the 50-year-old phone box nearby. “It's a local landmark,'' says Pead, who wants her council to sign up for “Adopt-a-Kiosk''.

“Everything's changing. Old inns are becoming new restaurants, great oak trees are being pulled down or having their branches cut off and now old red phone boxes are being uprooted. We want to keep something that feels familiar,'' she says.

So is this a nostalgia-driven campaign, underpinned by a desire to hold back the tide of mobile phone-enabled change? “No!'' they reply in unison. “We all have mobile phones.''

“We like modern things,'' says Paul Wellington, who also works for the local council. “But why can't we preserve old iconic things, too?''

Historical bond

The red phone box is intimately bound up with modern British history. Its look and feel have changed dramatically over the years.

The first box-style public pay phone — the K1 (Kiosk 1) — was unveiled in 1921. It was white with bight red window frames.

In 1923, the General Post Office launched a competition to find a new design: The winning entry came from architect Giles Gilbert Scott, whose K2 was red with 18 small glass windows.

However, K2 was too expensive to mass-produce, so Scott designed a cheaper K3 — which was installed across Britain from 1929.

More experiments followed. Then came the most famous red phone box: the K6, also known as “the Jubilee kiosk'' because it was introduced in 1936, the year of King George V's silver jubilee.

Some of these original K6s still stand; other, recently installed ones are based on the K6 design.

It is this red phone box which, as one writer on British icons puts it, “felt like another world entirely. ... The phone box was a place.''

Maybe that explains why people are paying up to $7,000 for the decommissioned ones and turning them into mini-greenhouses or very compact offices in which to work in peace and quiet.

“The red phone box is more than a phone box,'' Pead says. “It is a little bit of Britain.''

Says Andrew Calcutt of the University of East London, an expert on British culture and iconography: “Every yearning for yesteryear says something about where we are today.''

He suggests that in an era when communication is “continuous and alienating'', it is becoming attractive to defend an era when we “only had the opportunity to communicate at specific times and in fixed spaces — as in a phone box.

That's why, he says, the red phone box is “stirring up passions''.

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