Class conscious

Ten years ago mobile phones were regarded as a yuppie-ish affectation, and accordingly despised. I saw the evidence of this while sitting in a York-bound train occupied by two factions: some soccer fans and some executives.

Whenever one of the executives' mobiles trilled, the soccer fans started chanting "Who's that wanker with the phone?" Never have I heard more can't-talk-now-get-back-to-you-laters compressed into such a short time, and it occurred to me that those soccer fans, maintained in high spirits by suitably large supplies of Carlsberg Special Brew, should be given licence to roam the rail network.

Now, though, mobiles have become ubiquitous and, in class terms, seemingly ambiguous to the extent that when I bought my own I didn't know whether to swank or skulk. On the one hand, the toilet cleaners of Liverpool Street station all have mobile phones. On the other, their use was recently permitted at Eton, much to the disgust of Lord Hailsham, who pointed out superfluously that "it certainly wouldn't have happened in my day". Also, the fogeyish outfitters Mulberry are now marketing a mobile phone case endorsed by Derek Draper.

One thing you can say is that there are more mobiles in the South than the North. At least, I can say that, having recently spent a day in Scarborough without seeing one. (The manufacturers themselves apparently have no information on the geographical distribution of their wares: "They're mobile phones, after all," said a spokesperson for Vodafone).

This southern preponderance is fitting because, while the mobile might seem a universal phenomenon, its natural owner is the on-the-make Londoner, steeped in the capital's tradition of ducking and diving. The ducker and diver needs a mobile because he gets what he wants by talking rather than doing; and the mobile symbolises how his precarious existence can be transformed in a trice by a single call.

Sadly, the changing nature of the job market means that many of us increasingly resemble this Cockney archetype. Hence that bIasted mobile in my pocket.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world