Are we hanging up on landlines? (text)

A little while ago, I blogged about a column I had started to write for Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly journal of BECTU.

It appears I didn’t disgrace myself totally, and the union was kind enough to invite me back to the house for a second column which has now appeared in the summer 2019 edition of the journal. So I thought it about time to post the text of the first. It’s just the text so, for the graphics and a cartoon by the wonderful Tony Kelly you’ll need to log in. Working in the media and entertainment industry – then you will be a member already, right?

Are we hanging up on landlines?

In 1998, when I first joined the staff of STE (later Connect), the union for professionals in communications, I received several industry briefings penned by Roger Darlington, then head of research at our sister organisation, the Communication Workers Union, and more recently your former columnist.

Roger’s briefings helped me get to grips with the technical issues I would be dealing with as a novice. One provided facts and figures on the shape of the industry and the growing influence of mobile and the internet. Another described the UK’s telephone numbering system, based on area codes drawn up in the 1950s from the first letters of the town where the call was placed and their location on the telephone dial (or keypad).

So it is with a sense of the circularity of things that I write my first column on… telephone numbering.

I’m no mathematician and nor, I suspect, are many of those reading this magazine. But in an increasingly digitalising world, numbers do, indeed, make the world go round.

For example, whenever you type or click on a URL – the language-based website address of somewhere you want to visit on the web – your device converts that language into a string of numbers before delivering the page you require. It’s increasingly true of telephony, too, Already, more and more people are using apps like Skype, Messenger and WhatsApp to make phone calls.

Switched Off

By the mid-2020s, it’s likely the analogue Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) will be switched off completely with the intention of you – seamlessly, of course – making all your phone calls over the internet instead (in effect, talking while using 0s and 1s).

That is, of course, if anyone is still making telephone calls by then.

Ofcom has recently published new research on the future of the UK’s telephone numbering system, realising that, over the last six years alone, our time spent on landlines has halved while our consumption of mobile data has risen exponentially. In fact, we used 10 times more mobile data in 2017 than in 2012.

There are 610 area codes in the UK; and the numbering system has facilitated the availability of 1.3bn telephone numbers – enough for nearly twenty for every man, woman and child among us.

So, does a numbering system oriented towards area codes still make sense? We live in a world in which there is no need to remember telephone numbers, since our devices do this for us. An increasing number of us, especially younger people, prefer to have our contact with the outside world based on text rather than talk.

In truth, we have been moving away from this sort of world for some time: the 01734 for Reading, for example, makes sense to an aficionado in a way in which 0118 9xx xxxx (ever since 1998) does not.

It is also possible to buy telephone numbers in a different area – a trick known to cold callers to make their origin look familiar.

Meanwhile, our devices convert that sometimes only half-familiar sequence of numbers belonging to someone on an incoming call into a recognisable system based on their name – a helpful way of allowing us to screen our calls and, thereby, exercise an element of control over the numbers that prompt our world.

Perhaps it is time, then, to say goodbye to a system based on geographical numbers – and hello to one based on a little creative abstraction.

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Corncrake on a stomp

Captured tonight, through somewhat foggy windows as a result of a salt encrustation following today’s cool and misty weather (and not because I haven’t cleaned them in absolutely ages), a corncrake in rare disco mode.

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Interspersed with moments of more classical corncrake posery (still and erect, and with as haughty a demeanour as can be managed by a bird that is pure comedy to look at), this one was engaged in somewhat odd flurries of wing flapping, throwing itself around the grass and, well, dancing in the spotlight cast by the brief moments of early evening sun. What animals get up to when they think you’re not looking, eh?

I suspect this is, in reality, a young bird that is testing out its wing power as well as its energy levels – and for very good reason too with a flight to the African savannah ahead of it in just a few weeks. No short hop, that, from the north-west tip of South Uist for a bird that you’re not sure would actually make it across to the other side of the bay without wheezing, potentially falling apart without a Tuffers-style break of some kind.

But, ahead of all that, it’s nice to see that s/he is also a bit of a chip off the old block: inhabiting her/his father’s favourite north-east triangle of the garden and, crossing through the corncrake-sized gap in the fence repeatedly, showing the same healthy disrespect for border fences. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to style and comportment (see below, passim). Other corncrakes I’ve heard recently – but ours: not a peep in the last few months. One suspects one hasn’t needed to – ours has definitely got himself sorted.

As for the imaginary soundtrack for our new, young corncrake’s Sunday night fever, well – it could be anything from cajun fiddle- and ‘tit fer-led psycho hoedown mayhem to something a little more modern. But I can’t get past the Brothers Johnson’s mighty Stomp (Everybody make it to the top…) – any excuse to refresh this one is just fine by me.

(Nicely shows off my newly-repainted fence, too 🙂 )

Book Review: Another Planet

With a highly successful memoir on the bookshelf, plus a follow-up volume about the art of singing, and her bimonthly column in The Staggers, as well as an appearance on Desert Island Discs in 2018 and the strongly-autobiographical Record (in this context, not least on ‘Smoke’) the same year, Another Planet provides a new angle in Tracey Thorn’s mining of the seam of her own life story for creative juices, now that live performances of her music are out of her life. Here, we have her reflections on growing up as a teenager in Brookmans Park, in suburban Hertfordshire, drawn from her own assiduously-written diaries, kept since she was 13, and amidst reflections sparked by two visits back there for virtually the first time since leaving home, rupturously, in 1981. My hardback copy with a personal dedication, too (thanks, Trac(e)y!).

It’s clear that Thorn writes prose as she writes songs: there are not only quotes from songs, with copyright acknowledgements, but other snippets of half-lines creep in, too – her own ‘Missing’ is there, as is some Springsteen (‘The River’). The idea of songs as prose gives us a major clue to Thorn’s approach to songwriting – her personal prose style highlights that her songs, too, are also deeply personal. Another Planet reveals that, in her case, the origins lie in her relationship with her parents and it is perhaps this, rather than the expressed boredom of growing up in Brookmans Park, which is the prompt for her long-lasting, and continually refreshed, creativity. Twas ever thus – and not only via Philip Larkin (who , interestingly, would still have been librarian at the University of Hull when Thorn was an undergraduate there) – but of all teenagers rebelling against stultifying authority, from Johnny Strabler onwards.

Another Planet‘s title is not drawn from that song by Peter Perrett or any other such reference, but is a deeply personal (and upsetting) observation which strongly resonates with her own relationship with her parents. It seems not so much that her parents did not understand her, as in their reaction to her perhaps not particularly accessible (not least to them) but strongly personal second album, Out of the Woods, but they had little appreciation for who she was or her own desire to make her own way in a world which was contrary to theirs and in the underaking of which she so demonstrably rejected their values. This leads Thorn to some interesting, if rather light, ruminations on the role of suburbia in generating creativity, not least among musicians, as well as, rather more importantly, to the less understood role (at the time) that her relationship with her parents at 18 had for her song-writing, style of singing and shy stagecraft. The book is dedicated to her siblings and, tellingly and forgivingly, to the (now deceased) parents they shared.

The diaries in this volume stop at 18 which is fair enough in the sense that, with the ‘Marine Girls’ already underway, this is enough of the prequel to the material covered in Bedsit Disco Queen. Furthermore, with her moving on from Brookmans Park, the reflections on growing up in suburbia surely ought to cease. And yet there is little clue in the diary entries mentioned here about suburbia; Thorn’s concerns are those of many teenagers – school, work, music, parents, discos and, in her case, boys – with her locational milieu providing little conscious contribution to her understanding of her life at that time. As, perhaps, it could only do in retrospect. We should also note that the diary entries are circumspect, available space being occasionally the key not only in regarding the importance of what is left out at the time (as well as regarding any other prying eyes that might have seen it), but what Thorn has also chosen to leave out, and put in, now some forty years later. We are getting the Thorn-as-teenager that Thorn herself wants us to see. This is absolutely fine, and not only from a private person, with teenagers of her own, but it does allow us to provide some reservations about her notes on the boredom and frustration of growing up in suburbia because we also know – from Desert Island Discs – that Thorn, as a child, enjoyed living where she did. Though perhaps we shouldn’t draw too many parallels between children and teenagers.

Occasionally somewhat disjointed thematically – the work has its origins in a lengthy essay on growing up in suburbia as well as various pieces of other published writing – Another Planet has a fantastically appropriate and judiciously-chosen cover from the work of Gavin Watson and I defy anyone of our age not to connect with it at some level. I say ‘ours’ deliberately as Thorn, one year older than me, was also born in the front bedroom of the house she grew up in, we both left homes in the south-east of England to go to higher education institutions in the north-east and even Thorn’s aversion to driving shares some aspects of my own. Her first solo work – A Distant Shore – proved as strongly influential on me in my twenties as the emotions she was under at the time were on her writing and singing of it.

Part-memoir, part-social history, part-conversation, this is unmissable for any fans of Tracey Thorn – and for, that matter, anyone born in the early to mid 1960s.