The Person in the Phone Booth

David Trotter

Anyone old enough to have made use of public phone booths on a regular basis will know that they were more often than not damp, cold, filthy and foul-smelling, and while amply supplied with the phone numbers of prostitutes, practically impossible to make any sort of call from. So folk memory insists, at any rate. So literature insists too. Urban phone booths in particular have become indelibly associated in the literary imagination with urine. What invariably greets the protagonists of genre fiction as they open the door of a booth to make some life or death call is the stickiness left behind by a previous user. Expecting to speak and to listen, they instead inhale the anonymous yet fiercely intimate odour of the crowd.

The protagonist of Howard Simpson’s Vietnam spy novel, Someone Else’s War (2003), has information to gather. He makes a call. ‘The phone booth smelled of urine; someone had spat generously on the floor and a loud argument in Cantonese was going on at the stamp counter.’ Booths should keep sound both out and in. They should be secretive. But Simpson, like many other novelists, has felt it necessary to compound secrets with secretions; not just urine, but phlegm too. Simpson wants us to understand that all the spilling in spying is a dirty business. The implication he draws on, the implication of the folk memory endlessly recycled in genre fiction, is that we don’t fully recognise a phone booth as a phone booth until we’ve felt just a little bit sick at the sight and smell of it. The disgust is the recognition. But what exactly is being recognised?

Of course, better things do happen in phone booths, at least in fiction. Clark Kent and Dr Who regularly disappear into booths maintained to high standards of hygiene in order to pick up where they left off as extra-terrestrials. The time-travelling booth that launched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) had a curious retractable tripod fizzing with static on top, but no sign of insanitary behaviour below. The star of that film, Keanu Reeves, also appears in The Matrix (1999) as Thomas Anderson, a.k.a. Neo, a company man turned hacker turned messiah. At the film’s conclusion, Neo phones in a proclamation of defiance from a booth on a busy street in the virtual world into which the bulk of the human species has been absorbed, before stepping outside, donning dark glasses and ascending to heaven, while Rage Against the Machine break out their heavy-metal anthem ‘Wake Up’. But it isn’t all CGI, yet, at reality’s interface with illusion. Harry Potter, for example, nips into a sanctuary of rather more traditional design to place a call to the Ministry of Magic. J.K. Rowling has enough respect for folk memory to register his surprise that the phone actually works.

A lot depends on genre. ‘Don’t go there,’ would be sound advice to characters in most kinds of Hollywood movie. They invariably do. Why, when Hitchcock’s homicidal birds swoop down on the main drag in Bodega Bay, does Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) rush out of the diner from which she’s been watching and headlong into what is about to become the most famous phone booth in the history of cinema? If she wanted to make a call, there’s a perfectly good phone inside the diner, which she’s just used to tell her father about an earlier attack on the local school, and then to summon her boyfriend and the police. Hitchcock, of course, knows why. What he gets from Melanie’s mistake is an image of isolation and exposure, as she twists and turns in torment in her transparent cubicle, and the glass shatters. Psychoanalytic critics have led one to suppose that the danger stems from inside rather than outside the psyche; the Bodega Bay cubicle was the first to serve as a lightning-conductor for the unconscious. After that, it was only a matter of time before someone made Phone Booth (2002), in which a sniper armed with a high-velocity rifle traps publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) behind glass on a street in New York, forbidding him to put the receiver down until he has agreed to confess his sins (that is, his desire); or Run Lola Run (1998), in which Man communicates despair and self-hatred from the Berlin equivalent, while Woman does something about it, in postmodern fashion, three times over.

As these examples demonstrate, phone boxes have led an exciting imaginary life, and not always in big cities. A good deal of folklore attaches to the booth that once stood on the Aiken Mine Road in the Mojave Desert in California, about 15 miles from the nearest highway. It even earned a cameo in an episode of The X-Files. Technology’s far-flung outposts in the wilderness have fulfilled a variety of tasks, up to and including the reconfiguration of traditional communities by international capital. In Bill Forsyth’s comic-utopian Local Hero (1983), the young executive sent to Scotland to buy a fishing village on behalf of Knox Oil and Gas has no other means of communicating with his boss in Houston, Texas, than from a public phone box on the quayside across the road from the hotel. The locals have a whip-round to supply him with 10p coins, and thereafter attend assiduously on each visit to the box, wiping the receiver for him or supplying a glass of whisky. On one occasion, the outside of the cubicle is repainted while he frets inside; on another, a previous user, who has fallen asleep in situ, bolt upright, emerges to relay an important message. The phone box is the place where a traditional community forms and re-forms in mildly carnivalesque fashion around the connection to modernity which once made will never be unmade. At the end of the film, as the executive gazes out at Houston from the penthouse apartment to which he has reluctantly returned, Forsyth cuts to a long shot of the quayside portal – the phone is ringing.

In cities, by contrast, we enter phone boxes on the street in order to be private in public. That is, we once did, before we all had mobiles. Nowadays you don’t go somewhere special to make a call unless your mobile’s broken, or you’ve left it at home. The new urban spectacle consists of people apparently in earnest conversation with themselves, whom we might once have crossed the road to avoid, or broadcasting the gory details of a personal fiasco to a train carriage full of strangers. It is in fact the prospect of the phone box’s complete supersession by the mobile which has most effectively laid bare its original purpose. For each of these mobile-users is engaged, as we once were when we stepped into a phone box, in constructing privacy in public. The difference is that they rely on an understanding of the distance between themselves and the next person whose expression is social and cultural, rather than physical. That understanding has not yet quite become a consensus, but it is already powerful enough to have altered urban experience. The history of the urban phone box, which is also the history of the city since electrification, is the history of the construction of privacy in public.

The history is a complicated one, and its complication reveals that public privacy – call it living in a city – is always under construction. In a phone box, we are impersonally personal, in that we communicate with someone we know well or at least can identify, but not in person; and personally impersonal, in that previous users, whom we do not know and cannot identify, have been there in person, have left us themselves to touch, taste, smell, while those yet to come gaze at us from outside. In Britain, there is a further complication to this long history, in the fact that ownership of the booths in which we once learned to be personally impersonal and impersonally personal has passed during the last hundred years from private into public hands and back again.

The telephone was invented in March 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell. Queen Victoria witnessed a demonstration of the new device on 14 January 1878. On 7 April 1882, the Aberdeen Weekly Journal reported that the establishment of a rudimentary telephone system in London had ‘justified the most sanguine expectations of its proprietors’. By the turn of the century the telephone had become a necessary basis for the proper organisation of middle-class social, economic and cultural life in major cities around the world. Using the device was one way to be modern, in public and in private.

‘In Berlin, Zurich and Hamburg, telephonic kiosks have been established, so that anyone walking along and desirous of sending a communication by telephone, or asking a question, or giving an order, or making a correction overlooked in recent conversation, may do so, and the charge is twopence halfpenny.’ The directors of the London Telephone Company were hoping to provide a similar service. The term ‘kiosk’ drew at once on a faint association with the Turkish pavilion or summerhouse, and more palpably on the familiar stands selling newspapers, or tea and buns.

‘Today,’ the Daily News trumpeted on 1 April 1891, ‘the new Telephone line between London and Paris is open to the public.’ A person with eight shillings to spare could gossip with anyone in Paris she or he could find to gossip with for a period of three minutes. What most preoccupied the Daily News, however, was not the science behind this technological triumph, but the material construction of the ‘chamber’ in which calls were to be made. The marvel lay as much in the raising of a social and cultural barrier between one person and another in London as in the lowering of the physical barrier between one person in London and another in Paris. For the person in London wishing to call Paris ‘steps into a little sort of padded sentry-box, the door of which is edged with india-rubber’.

When this closes upon him he is hermetically sealed, and might rave himself hoarse without conveying the faintest sound to anyone outside. There is a pane of glass in the door, so that the officer in charge could see the inmate of the box, though unable to hear him. On stepping in, the interior of the little cupboard is in darkness, but the telephoner by sitting down on the seat establishes connection, and an arc light instantly blazes out until he again rises, when it goes out till the next comer takes his seat. The telephone box is a wonderfully compact and all but perfect little institution, the only drawback being that it is entirely unventilated, and the person sitting in it is literally hermetically sealed up.

As the repetition of the phrase ‘hermetically sealed’ makes clear, the emphasis in this early assessment of the new method of telecommunication was on enclosure. The guarantees concerning privacy had literally to be iron-clad.

On 1 January 1912, the General Post Office became to all intents and purposes the monopoly supplier of telephone services in the United Kingdom, and remained so until the creation of British Telecom in 1981. In 1912, phone boxes entered public service. They had thereafter to be ubiquitous, and uniform in design. The first kiosk satisfactorily to combine form and function, the K2, built out of cast iron to a neoclassical design by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and painted a glossy Post Office red all over, came into service in 1927. It was as much emblem as shelter: ventilation came from holes pierced through the top fascia in the shape of a crown. The smaller and more durable K6, also designed by Scott, and erected in villages across Britain to celebrate George V’s Jubilee in 1935, became an institution. In August 1986, a K2 phone box in London Zoo’s parrot house was made a listed building. By that time, British Telecom had become British Telecom plc, flagship of the Thatcher government’s ambitious privatisation programme. In 1987, BT’s phone box monopoly ended. So began the conversion memorably described by Patrick Wright in A Journey through Ruins (1991), of the only remaining ‘public’ element of a now otherwise privately owned service into a (privately owned) heritage industry. Boxes began to come in different shapes and sizes. Respectable neighbourhoods could hope for a bit of roof, and two or three walls. ‘The new and growing underclass, meanwhile, would have to settle for a sawn-off metal stump with an armoured cardphone bolted onto it.’ Scott’s totemic cubicles disappeared from the streets. Many of them have found their way to the United States, where they do duty as interior or exterior decoration. There is one at Twitter HQ in San Francisco, its sole content a plastic chair.

The K6 was supposed to be an amenity as well as an emblem and shelter. According to an article in the Post Office Electrical Engineers’ Journal in October 1936, a ‘modernistic touch’ had been supplied by the ‘horizontal glazing scheme’, which ‘furnishes a remarkably free view from the inside of the kiosk’. The interior surfaces were of bakelite-faced plywood, and the stainless steel fittings included a pipe or cigarette-rack and a hook for umbrellas. Lavishly furnished or not, however, the phone booth was at once an enclosure and a facility accessible to all and sundry; that is, a health hazard. In August 1906, a ‘call office attendant’ wrote to the Lancet to complain about ‘the growing danger arising from the use of the common mouthpiece by promiscuous callers at public telephones’. Cleaning up after a caller with a particularly violent cough, the hapless attendant had found the instrument still damp with ‘congealed breath’. A year later, the journal returned to the theme, remarking that the telephone call station should rather be described as ‘a bacteriological box in which pathogenic and other organisms are carefully nourished’. In March 1908, a correspondent reported on a wide variety of London booths in which ‘the condition of the apparatus was unsatisfactory, the vulcanite mouthpieces frequently containing debris with a more or less bad odour.’ In June, Dr Francis Allan, a medical officer of the City of Westminster, reported the results of tests done on swabs taken from the mouthpieces of transmitters in public call boxes. One had attached to it a ‘mass of whitish-grey viscid substance’. The viscid substance was injected into two guinea pigs; one died after 23 days, the other after 27.

The phone box is the place where one kind of communication – one way to be in contact – intersects another. The disgust provoked by the debris, odour and viscid substances did not diminish. Indeed, it strengthened. It took shape as a common perception of the phone box as phobic object or site. Penelope Gilliatt’s plague novel, One by One (1965), begins with an abortive call from a public booth so hot that the caller’s hand leaves a mark on the receiver ‘as though he were covered in mutton grease’.

Few things give greater pause for thought to the amnesiac ex-commando in John Lodwick’s ambitiously daft Peal of Ordnance (1947) than the state of the box from which he rings the BBC to tell them he has planted a bomb in one of their studios.

The booth smelt of urine and spittle gouts. He opened the directory; obsolete, tatty and well thumbed … signatures into the bargain (Jack H. Rossbach; USN Yonkers, NY), and here and there addresses underlined with words of advice: ‘Call her up any time. She’ll be there.’

The nausea anchors and provides some kind of justification for a free-floating anxiety which is also about sex and foreigners. Phone boxes have always been ‘obscene’. One of the accusations levelled against Leopold Bloom in the Nighttown episode of Ulysses is that he telephoned ‘unspeakable messages … mentally to Miss Dunn at an address in D’Olier Street while he presented himself indecently to the instrument in the callbox’. In Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), the homosexual Baron Kuno von Pregnitz, pursued by the police on charges of political corruption, locks himself in panic into a cubicle in a public lavatory. Next day, the newspapers uniformly report him as having been run to ground in a telephone box. By the end of the 1990s, it was costing Westminster City Council’s Street Enforcement Department around £250,000 a year to remove prostitutes’ cards from booths in central London. On 1 September 2001, Sections 46 and 47 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act came into force, making it an offence to place such advertisements on, or in the immediate vicinity of, a phone booth. According to Jonathan Glancey, in London: Bread and Circuses (2001), what’s wrong with the new deregulated metropolis is too much instant availability: ‘Unprotected sex with Eastern Europeans on the make for a few quid just a piss-streaked telephone kiosk’s call away.’

It is possible, however, for disgust to express a sense if not of community, then of a construction of privacy in public which includes rather than excludes the acknowledgment of strangers. Tony Harrison’s ‘Changing at York’ takes place in a phone booth in York railway station, where he has gone to inform his son that his train has been delayed. The booth is replete with phobic objects and sensations: a vandalised directory, the smell of alcohol and dossers’ pee, and (a touch the Lancet would have appreciated) ‘saliva in the mouthpiece’. Harrison thinks himself away from phobia into a sorrowing account of the deceptions interactivity at a distance has enabled him to inflict on those he loves. He concludes the poem by returning to the son he now has to call, and remembering him

in this same kiosk with the stale, sour breath
of queuing callers, drunk, cajoling, lying,
consoling his grampa for his granny’s death,
how I heard him, for the first time ever, crying.

To bring the material remnant back in is to think with phobia, rather than away from it. Phobia replaces Harrison in the company of strangers. For the chronicle of the activities undertaken by previous callers – cajoling, lying – carries straight over the line-break into the son’s tearful consolation, which has been bound further into them by rhyme (crying/lying) and half-rhyme (cajoling/ consoling). The consolation the poem itself finds could be said to lie in phobia’s bittersweet acknowledgment of our intimacy with people unknown to us who do as we do.

The key to these experiences was inadvertency. You went into a booth in search of one kind of privacy in public and ended up with another; and the experience made you think. For smell, touch and taste were not the only kinds of inadvertency you might find yourself shut in with. During the public payphone’s belle époque you would after all have been as likely to witness somebody else using one as you would have been to use one yourself. Shutting themselves in in order to speak and listen, these people were also there to be seen, if you wished to see them. A view of a person in a phone booth works wonders, in literature and film; and because sight, unlike taste, touch and smell, has distance built into it, the sensations provoked are often gentler. The experience has to do with stimulation by fellow-feeling rather than with stimulation by threat.

George Harvey Bone, the protagonist of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941), suffers from psychotic episodes, begun and concluded with a curious click, which separate him off from ordinary existence, and eventually induce him to murder Netta, the woman of his obsessions. The closest he gets to understanding the nature and scope of these episodes is when he calls Netta from a public payphone in Earl’s Court station.

In the line of telephone booths there were a few other people locked and lit up in glass, like waxed fruit, or Crown jewels, or footballers in a slot machine on a pier, and he went in and became like them – a different sort of person in a different sort of world – a muffled, urgent, anxious, private, ghostly world, composed not of human beings but of voices, disembodied communications – a world not unlike, so far as he could remember, the one he entered when he had one of his ‘dead’ moods.

The ‘ghostly world’ Bone inspects, of people ‘locked and lit up in glass’, is like his dead moods in being separated off from ordinary existence, but unlike them in that its inhabitants enter and leave it at will. What he sees, perhaps, is an alternative version of those moods, in which his own anxiety, though scarcely diminished, at least resembles everyone else’s. Entry into the booth is the only occasion in his adult life when he can be said to have become like a ‘few other people’. The likeness is too fleeting to mature into liking. But Bone’s awareness of a shared experience of spectatorship – he could be a tourist in the Tower of London, or a slot-machine addict – has drawn him momentarily out of obsession. He has been touched into that awareness by the pathos of strangers.

Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen (1974) is a novel about the early phases of London’s gradual, uneven and incomplete postwar transition to a multi-ethnic metropolis. Adah leaves Lagos to join her husband, Francis, in London, where he has taken and continues to take interminable accountancy exams. She works as a librarian, gives birth, is beaten up and humiliated, and keeps going. The crucial narrative development concerns her exchange of second-class citizenship as a wife under Ibo patriarchy for the same second-class status as an immigrant under institutionalised racism. Emecheta manages this indirectly, by telling the story of Adah’s friend Janet, a white girl married to another Nigerian student, Babalola. Babalola first met Janet while standing outside a phone booth waiting for her to finish a call. ‘It started to drizzle and he was getting soaked to the skin, so he banged on the kiosk door, and shook his fist at the girl to frighten her. Then he looked closer, and saw that the girl was not phoning anybody, she was asleep, standing up.’ Janet had at that time been 16, and pregnant. Babalola had taken her home, lent her to his friends, then fallen in love with her, and married her. Janet does not feature extensively in Adah’s story; she is there primarily as an image of a person in a phone box. Her introduction into it opens that story out: to new dangers, but also to the potential for change, in Adah and in others.

Such images seem in an obvious sense cinematic, and there are indeed phone booth virtuosos among directors: Hitchcock, for example. Phone booths encourage us to think about one city in relation to another, one film in relation to another. André Bazin once chose a scene in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) to exemplify the long-take deep-focus style he regarded as a ‘liberal and democratic’ alternative to the standard manipulation of point of view through rapid-fire editing. The scene, set in a bar in Boone City, involves three variously damaged ex-servicemen who have become friends on the flight home. Homer (Harold Russell) plays piano in the near foreground, while Al (Fredric March) looks on, and Fred (Dana Andrews) makes a call he would rather not make from a booth in the distant background. Wyler filmed the scene in long shot, with both planes of action in sharp focus. Homer’s playing (he has hooks for hands) absorbs our interest and admiration, and Al’s. But the ‘true drama’, Bazin suggests, may be taking place in the ‘little aquarium’ at the far end of the room, where Fred renounces his love for Al’s daughter, who has offered him a way out of a miserable marriage. Wyler cut in two close-ups of Al looking over towards the booth. The final look Al gives Fred, as he stands rigid in the booth after putting the phone down, could easily be construed as tenderness. It is indeed a look given.

One person who may have noticed it was a young Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s tenth film as director, Stray Dog (1949), is a Simenon-like thriller about a young detective, Murukami (Toshiro Mifune), whose gun goes missing. With some help from the older and wiser Sato (Takashi Shimura), Murukami eventually tracks the culprit down in Tokyo’s seamy criminal underworld. Towards the end of the film, Sato, arriving at the hotel where the culprit has holed up, calls Murukami from a booth in the lobby. There is confusion and delay at the other end. Kurosawa almost literally suspends Sato in the booth, in a long shot held for 25 seconds, while the hotel manager flirts clumsily with the receptionist in the foreground. The thief escapes. As Sato leaves the booth in pursuit, the receiver dangles. He is shot down outside. Kurosawa, unlike Wyler, does not provide an intermediary gaze. But we don’t need help to feel for the haunted Sato. We know that the balance of power and responsibility between veteran and novice, such an important theme in Kurosawa, has just tilted towards the novice, as the veteran’s vulnerability is laid bare.

Such is the hauntedness of telephone booths that they can distract attention from foreground drama even when empty. Towards the end of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), Anna (Alida Valli) and Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) wait for Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in the Café Marc Aurel. An empty booth glows faintly behind Anna, in the depth of the shot, as she paces restlessly up and down. In Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), fantasist Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), on a first date with barmaid Rita (Diahnne Abbott), hopes to impress her by leafing through his autograph album. It’s not long before our attention drifts away from his dismal performance to the restaurant behind him, where two illuminated booths stand empty. This is not someone we want to feel sorry for. Another patron, who has witnessed the performance at close range, withdraws into the nearest booth, apparently to report on it in amazement. A waiter enters the booth behind him. Pupkin has been out-magnetised by less than zero. Scorsese said that his aim was to make The King of Comedy in ‘1903 style’, without close-ups and virtuoso camera movements. Here, the phone booths, a featureless feature in the depth of the shot, enabled him to isolate his anti-hero without moving his camera an inch. Usually, though, in cinema, it’s people we know who make the calls, and in so doing appear to us in a different light.

In all these examples, the phone box is understood primarily as an object in space rather than in time. That this cannot long remain the case is amply demonstrated by the first series of The Wire (2002), in which a public payphone outside the low-rises in and around which the bulk of the drug dealing is done features prominently. The dealers resupply by means of a system involving pagers and public payphones, which one of the detectives refers to as a ‘throwback’. The Wire is insistently elegiac. It dreams of ‘back in the day’: the day of trade unions and investigative reporting, of policing before arrest statistics (‘I love this job’), of gangsters who obey a code. No wonder it sometimes resembles a western. And no wonder there’s a phone booth in there somewhere. A middle-management gangster alerts his boss to the whereabouts of a rival scheduled for kidnap, torture and elimination. The camera aligns one ‘throwback’ with another, conscience-stricken thug with public payphone: the booth glows coolly in the night, a blue-green aquarium against the warm red brick behind it.

So what is to be done with phone boxes? Or, increasingly, without them? Some will no doubt survive, merged imperceptibly into the general fuzz of urban information. Others may enjoy an afterlife as tourist attraction, temporary internet office or excuse for performance art. The rest will vanish. But the question these cubicles have posed for more than a century is as pertinent now as it ever was. How are we to go on being private in public? The lesson to be learned from the history of the phone box is that the construction of privacy in public by physical rather than social and cultural means always tends to excess. The physical structure (box, booth or kiosk) brought about experiences which, although they did not concern telecommunication, became indelibly associated with it. The lesson to be learned from the representation of the phone box in folk memory, and in literature and film, is that we remember the piss and the phlegm, and the hauntedness. There is knowledge in that remembering, knowledge we wouldn’t otherwise have, of what ordinary coexistence in dense populations might actually amount to. We’ll miss out on a lot of inadvertency, both good and bad, if we give up constructing privacy in public by physical means. We may find ourselves in a world in which the boundary between public and private is either non-existent or policed by surveillance and legal constraint. That doesn’t sound to me like much of an improvement on those anxious, savoury minutes spent locked and lit up in the toxic aquarium.