New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Diary
22 November 2023

The lost art of the landline call

Also this week: the ghost of Princess Di, and the end of the Caramac bar.

By Roger Alton

It’s a long time since the household telephone occupied a place of honour in the sitting room or hall, to be answered like a shot when the rings pealed out. Sadly, hardly anyone uses a landline these days. Gone also are the gentle idiosyncrasies of phone etiquette: we were so helpful, reciting our own number on answering, so the caller knew they had come to the right place, enunciating each digit slowly and clearly, as if we were speaking from the bunker of Fighter Command HQ in a vital exchange of coordinates with a Second World War pilot. We have lost the polite interaction with phone operators who would “put you through”: I think of Celia Johnson in Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter, who calls her friend Mary Norton by picking up the phone and asking for “Ketchworth Three Seven” in her immaculate accent.

When I called my late father from my mobile phone, at the end of each sentence he would very carefully say “Over…” as if he was back on the battlefields of northern Europe. Something romantic has gone now: a Debrett’s set of dos and don’ts for mobile use essentially amounts to: “Don’t call unless you text first and ideally don’t answer the phone anyway.” On the bright side we can now receive a thumbs up, or an emoji of an aubergine. Now what would Mr Coward have made of that?

The ghost of princess past

The allure of the late Princess of Wales is as powerful as ever. Superbly played by Yolanda Kettle, Princess Diana is at the centre of The Interview, a clever play about her meeting with Martin Bashir, which is showing at the Park Theatre in London. And the latest series of The Crown is entirely about the princess’s final weeks. For my money the Netflix series is beautifully acted and superbly produced, but you feel: look, I know all this stuff. The Interview is tighter, and more illuminating, too. As for the fuss about Diana coming back as a ghost in The Crown – well, it’s the same in The Interview. But a reasonably decent playwright called Shakespeare employed the dramatic device of a ghost rather effectively in no fewer than five of his plays. If it’s good enough for him…

[See also: Netflix’s The Crown turns tawdry]

Mining for gold

The death of Bobby Charlton marks the end of an era in which players from the northern mining towns were the hard core of the English game. Back then the word was you only had to whistle down a mine in Barnsley for a top centre-half – a far cry from the weekends in Dubai and Lamborghinis of players today. Bobby, who was born in Ashington, Northumberland, was never a miner, but his father and brother Jack (briefly) were. To an extent it was former miners that shaped a sport in which hard tackling (or clogging, if you will) was rated as highly as the fancy footwork of the South Americans who were starting to put the beautiful into the beautiful game. Bobby’s unshowy toughness, which underpinned his exceptional skills, was a legacy of his upbringing. Kids playing football was a big feature of life in the mining towns, and there are great black and white photos of him as a young man playing in the street. Today, the facilities for kids wanting to play are infinite, but maybe some hard-scrabble self-reliance has disappeared.

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Sweet regret

The saddest news of the year is the brutal demise of the Caramac bar. For we lovers of retro confectionery, the discovery of a convenience store that sold them was a source of prolonged joy. The chocolate bar, in its jaunty orange and yellow clothing, was always mysteriously super-tasty. Then I discovered it is not a chocolate bar at all because it doesn’t contain cocoa, but is made from sweetened condensed milk. No wonder it’s so delicious: growing up – well, some time ago – the discovery of an opened can of condensed milk in the larder was a brief moment of heaven as you shovelled a few spoonfuls into your mouth before getting caught. Nestlé have decided to do the dirty and end production. It is blaming “falling sales”. Huh! Come and see me. Apparently “multipacks”, whatever they are, will be on sale till the end of the year. Well, that’s Christmas sorted.

Nature’s lessons

Two of the most moving and heart-warming memoirs I have read this year are Sarah Sands’ The Hedgehog Diaries and Arthur Parkinson’s Chicken Boy. Sands is an eminent journalist and her beautifully written book, subtitled “A Story of Faith Hope and Bristle”, is about how nature can make us feel better about mortality and loss. Parkinson’s extraordinary book tells how keeping hens became his sanctuary, a tonic for his mental health, and a connection with the natural world again. What is it about these small and loveable creatures that is so magical? Perhaps in a world where technology is all, and where Elon Musk and Rishi Sunak can openly discuss how AI is going to cost countless jobs, it is a relief to take refuge in the company of these jolly animals who are happy to live in our gardens.

[See also: AS Byatt’s hard truths]

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style