My Dear Americans,
many a long year ago and about three times as many shorter ones, long before I started doing these essays, indeed long before I came to America, I lived in London and worked for a company called Mullard Ltd1. and from my third floor office in their headquarters I had a fine view of Tottenham Court Road. In the historical ways of that great and ancient city, Tottenham Court was a mediæval manor owned by the church, that by the seventeenth century had gone down in the world to become a fashionable meeting place--or maybe it was up in the world it’d gone. And then it was merely gone. And this was the road to it---when it was, that is....
...and still needed one.
Central to this view were twin telephone booths ...or telephone kiosks ... or telephone boxes or whatever you want to call them. These were, not unsurprisingly for the time and place, of the old British pattern---red with lots of small panes of glass (the bottom ones of course kicked out, as was the tradition).
To be honest we were not ...completely... over-employed by Mullard Ltd., and on a day, being rather bored, I chose to visit these scenic kiosks during my lunch hour-or-so and took note of their numbers; and that afternoon we amused ourselves by abusing the GPO’s fine telephone system2, not to mention the odd passer-by and possibly ourselves (as that old French proverb has it qui s'abuse, s'amuse‡) by phoning one or other of the boxes until someone, hearing the ring and becoming curious or even potentially helpful, would enter and answer, and then, claiming to be part of a double-blind experiment in telepathy under the auspices of that august, and possibly non-existant, body the British Psychical Society, one of us would announce that the phone number had been dialed at random by the BPS, and then would put them through to what was claimed to be a psychic in a sealed room, though of course actually to me (now I should admit before we go any further that I am not a psychic, though I have played one on the telephone). With the others listening on a muted speaker phone, I would then proceeded to pretend to guess where they were or what they were wearing---outer garments only, of course, we did have our standards. And so we whiled away that long and weary après-midi d’un fou with the likes of “I’m getting a feeling of red here---are you by any chance wearing a red coat or a red hat” when we could see full well that she was wearing red shoes, eventually building up to such obviously stupid items as “Are you perhaps down at heel?”---the large and famous furniture store ‘Heal's’ being right next to us we considered that hysterically funny3. Thus we would string the poor fish out as long as we could as we watched them from across the street trying politely, vainly, desperately to writhe off our hook, reeling them in to a final "Are you, are you ... perhaps in a ... a ... telephone box ... on Tottenham Court Road?
All this went swimmingly until the Australian.
Now I should point out that most of the people we ...um... involved actually were polite and helpful and cooperative, even as they started to feel that things were not entirely as we were representing them, in that bemused sort of way that the English have with strangers in even stranger situations. Then this young man entered the left-most kiosk intent no doubt on using it in the manner Nature and the GPO had intended, just (and quite by chance) as we were dialling its number, with the result that he picked up the phone as it rang, to be syrup-ily greeted with our standard BPS spiel. He was, without preamble, or in our opinion much cause, immediately extremely rude to us, informing us in no uncertain language that he wanted to “make a bleedin’ phone call” and hung up on us. Affronted, we quickly redialed the number before he could make his call (which was no doubt to someone called Bruce or Sheila back in Alice Springs or Sydney). After we had performed this phonus interruptus a couple of times, and he was, as they used to say, ‘effing and blinding4’ for all he was worth, and all sorts of other ing-ing too, with antipodeal5 and impotent rage, he had the sudden realisation and the bright idea that he could give up on the left-hand kiosk, and start a new life in the right-hand one.
Looking back over all the years I almost feel sorry for the poor chap, because of course in the time it took him to exit booth left and walk round to enter booth right we had done the obvious and dialled that number.
I have a strange feeling that that phone never ever worked again.
and, of course,
Cheerio for now
1 The head office at the time was Mullard House (with its main entrance in Torrington Place) which building is now part of University College London and home to UCL's Department of Electronics & Electrical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering
2 GPO: In Britain at that time the Post Office (the General Post Office) ran the phones. Indeed a few streets over from us the Post Office Tower was a major communications hub (not to mention being the tallest building in London, famously referred to as the Post Master General’s latest erection. I’m not sure why*)
‡ Or was the saying "qui s'excuse s'accuse"?†
3 In a name-droppy aside, the humour of this for me being intensified by my having dated one of the numerous Heal offspring for a time.
4 To eff and blind, to use strong expletives, to swear continuously
1943 M. HARRISON Reported Safe Arrival 31 They'd eff and blind till yer ear-'oles started ter frizzle.
1963 P. WEST Mod. Novel II. i. 142 On it goes, the livid effing-and-blinding.
Eff, variant of EF, name of the letter F, euphemistically representing FUCK v. 2, 3.]
(Used as an expletive on its own account, as a milder alternative to the full form of the word fuck, or else as a euphemistic report of an actual use of the full word.)
1950 HEMINGWAY Across River & into Trees ix. 78 ‘Eff Florence,’ the Colonel said.
Blind, used in vulgar imprecations, as blind me! Cf. BLIMEY int.
1890 FARMER Slang I. 230/1 Blimey, a corruption of ‘blind me!’; an expression little enough understood by those who constantly have it in their mouths. 1923 E. O'NEILL Hairy Ape v. 47 There's a 'ole mob of 'em like 'er, Gawd blind 'em!
1922 JOYCE Ulysses 305 God blimey if she aint a clinker... Blimey it makes me kind of bleeding cry.
---culled from the OED
5 I know that the OED says this is an erroneous form of 'Antipodal'---but I say sod them, and sod the alternative form of 'Antipodean'---which anyway ought to be 'Antipodian' ([Antipodean irreg. f. ANTIPODE-S + -AN; perh. after European, but not analogous, a better form being the obs. ANTIPODIAN.]) so there!!
* Though this might help explain it... and then again, when you start looking around London at, say, the so-called Gherkin you begin to suspect that there is a certain amount of skyscraper envy going on here
† That note isn't numbered because I suddenly thought that not all people would get the reference, and was too lazy to go through and renumber.
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