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Phoneboxes, Holly Valance & 0800-REVERSE

This week’s column from Ben Harvey (look away if you react negatively to the word whorebox) makes a call from a telephone box whilst lost at midnight in deepest Hampshire.

And thus, we begin.

The Horror

phonebox, banksy

Time, or, rather, the way we feel it pass, is a funny thing. Once something is more than a few weeks old it’s almost as if it might never have happened, becoming as irrelevant as black & white movies, or the English Civil War, or that era of time, long-lost in the mists of history, when people went round saying “Whaaazzzuuup”.

And, in the same way that some things are always as fluid as quicksand – like fashion, or slang, or Orange price-plans – some are always the same, such as the fact that your Grandparents have always been old, or that Cadburys Creme Eggs used to be bigger, or that payphones have always been a hideous embarrassment that you’d rather shower in hippo-wee than actually use.

Phonebooths are admittedly much-maligned. In fact, there are only a few thing held in such universal contempt; Gary Glitter. George Bush. The Health & Safety Directorate. Speed Cameras. It’s the rate of decline that’s shocking, though – ten years ago the sight of a traditional, solid, old-school phonebooth on a Village Green would be listed, in terms of Nice British Icons, right up there with Handel and Cricket and Tea and Teaching Johnny Foreigner Some F*cking Manners. The inner-city ones, though, the glass & steel rectangles, were always – rightly – hated as being nothing more than notice-boards for prostitutes. When the mobile, in the 90s, became as ubiquitous as Facebook it was the beginning of the end for them.

You can still see them, lurking in the hubbub of towns and villages, sat there, sadly, as unused and unloved as the one condom stowed hopefully in your dodgy uncle’s wallet. Ask yourself; with the exception of orchestrating drug-deals, when was the last time you used one? Or when was the last time that you even got a call from someone in one, the conversation punctuated by the distant pumping of 20p pieces into the clunky maw of that stupidly large silver box? It’s a humiliation just to be forced to use one.

So, in a desperate attempt to stop haemorrhaging cash by having to maintain this disparate, desperate network, BT have tried various tactics, all of them feckless, ranging from installing Playschool-style web-access points to plastering their glass sides with adverts, which at least gave the denizens of our cities a little privacy when jetting their veins full of skag. It’s an oft repeated question, why BT don’t ditch every single one of these useless cubicles, and the only possible answer is that it’s a lingering hangover from the terms & conditions of their privatisation. Either that or they like the skag as much as the next man.

Anyway, it is with great regret that I have to admit that, this week, I had to use one. It was a moment of madness and I hope that this frank admission will draw a line under this unfortunate episode in my life. I hope that the media respects the privacy of my family during this difficult time.

My god! My god. It happened three days ago and I still feel unclean. I keep having visions of a dented, scratched receiver, caked with spittle and earwax, dangling like a bedraggled pendulum through the pool of tramp-piss that covered the loveless concrete floor of that firebombed whorebox. It was, though, a matter of life and death; I’d gone out for a bit of a run, you see, and had gotten lost.

“Gotten lost” is a bit of an understatement, actually. Not since Columbus pitched up in America, expecting elephants & Biryani, has a human being been so woefully misnavigated. Training for the Great South Run this weekend meant that I was putting in my last jaunt of seven miles. One missed turn was all it took to guide me down a series of moonlit country lanes, frost forming on my gloves and bleak despair forming in my exhausted, flailing heart. And so it was that the stage was set for my moment of true disgrace.

I left the house at about 8:45pm. At 10:30pm, ten confused miles later, I stumbled across a village called – rather improbably – Ashley. The village of Ashley consists of three houses, a well, a noticeboard stating the historical importance of the well, a sign warning drivers not to reverse into the noticeboard and, saving my life, a phone-box. This being rural Hampshire, there were of course no little postcards advertising local prostitutes, but that’s only because the prostitutes around here can’t read or write.

I will just digress for a moment and state that I’ve always been surprised when the police & judiciary spend so much time, money and effort on vice-squads, arrests, trials, judges etc., when all they really need to do to stamp out the sex-trade in this country would be to eliminate those colourful, collectable, gynaecologically-educational little cards by just banning blu-tack.

Anyway, where was I. Ah yes, I was in the middle of nowhere. I would have knocked on the door of one of the few houses but people who deliberately choose to live as far away as possible from other humans often object to having sweaty, panting men hammer them awake in the middle of the night, and often shoot first, saw your body up in a hay-baler, feed the lumps to the pigs and then ask questions later. As such my one hope was the disgusting, grubby, crappy, retardedly-primitive payphone sat squatting there like a little red toad. Given the state that I was in, brain fogged with insipient hypothermia, it should really have shone out like some holy miracle, glowing with hope, and I’m sure it would have done, had the light not been kicked out by some shithead kid, it being a bloody phonebox.

Anyway, there I was, lit only by the stars, the frozen breath from my wheezing lungs painting frost on the few panes of glass that hadn’t been broken – it being an old-style whorebox, one of the few original red ones that hadn’t been uprooted to make shower-cubicles for Americans- and it was then that the deepest of shames took me; it wasn’t the booth that saved me; it was Holly Valance.

Yes. It’s true. The only reason I could actually call my brother (who guided me home, via Google Maps) was because I remembered the number for 0800-REVERSE, the reverse-charges service that let me make the call in the first place, cross-country runners not being known for taking much coinage out with them. And the only reason that number stuck in my head was because of a dim memory of an argument over whether or not Holly Valance was fit or not. So there we have it. I owe my life to an crapped-out Australian in a crapped-out whorebox. Torrents of shame. Gushing, withering torrents of shame.

I just hope I can serve as a warning to the rest of you all – if you can keep your battery charged, and if you can remember to take your mobile with you whenever you leave the house then you can live a life that’s totally, completely, blissfully whorebox free. For I was like you, once. The only thing that’s keeping me from dying of humiliation is the simple fact that each of those vandalised little lavatories is a monument, a testament to how the mobile-phone industry has totally owned personal calls in recent history. To borrow a phrase: ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US!


  1. God bless the phonebox in Arundel last weekend. That’ll teach me to go out for half a day with a charged N95. Maybe BT should fit them all with WiFi and Espresso machines?


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