Red Phone Box

Phones and flashers: some 1970s childhood memories

Back when I was a kid, when we had phones on street corners, you really had to know what you wanted to say to the person on the other end of the line before you made the call. It was 10p a minute, after all, and you knew you couldn’t stay on there long even if it was pocket money day. That was because you knew you’d be 60 seconds into your call and there’d be this big ugly bastard banging on the phone box glass, asking, “How long you gonna be? Waiting to make an important call here!” What, and my call isn’t important? “Wait a second…,” you’d say to the person you were calling, then shout through the glass, “Two minutes!” “Two minutes? Bloody Hell!” You’d ignore that but, less than 30 seconds later, the guy would bang on the glass again. I think I ended almost every call with something along the lines of, “I’ve got to go. Some pillock insisting he’s got to use the phone. His wife’s probably having a baby, right now.” Chances were, he probably was wanting to call an ambulance…

You didn’t have many reasons to call people. My mum would have to go down to the electricity and gas showrooms, or the town hall, to discuss bills in person. She’d come home wanting a new cooker.

Then, we at least didn’t have trolls. We had dirty callers. Whatever happened to those dirty callers? As soon as you went up in the world and got a phone line installed at home, you were at risk of getting one of those calls. There was like this army of sad men before they had Twitter, they sat by their phones dialling random numbers. “Hello?” Cue heavy breathing and grunting. You had no way to get the number of who called you. If one man did repeat call, who knows why, he did risk you getting BT – there was only BT – to run a line check to find out the number and they did occasionally prosecute. But you had to pay a charge for the line check.

My mum answered one of these callers once. She sat there for a few minutes giving a monologue. “You’re a very sad man. You must be lonely. I suppose your willy is very small indeed…” Her aim was to be unfazed, cool and dismissive. “I want to put them off their stroke,” she told me. Eventually the dirty caller would hang up.

Mum had a similar approach to flashers. You don’t get those now, at least I’ve not heard of them in decades. Streaking was a 70s thing too, at sporting events. Mum was walking through the park one day and a man wearing a long coat jumped out in front of her and opened the coat wide. He was completely naked. My mum just laughed at him. “Oh, you dirty bugger,” she said.”You must be feeling the cold today. There’s not much there, is there?” He ran off.

I’ve wondered if those flashers and dirty callers were the same men who wrapped stashes of pornographic magazines in brown paper and left them next to railway lines for schoolboys to find. I mean, if they didn’t want them anymore, why do that? Why not bin them? But they did, across the whole nation. The first time I saw a picture of a naked woman was in secondary school. She had staples through her belly button, that’s what I noticed. Some other boys had found the magazine by, you guessed it, the railway line…

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