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Backwords: This Story Rings A Bell

…As a schoolboy I was always oversleeping. Still am, come to think of it. But when I was a lad even a brand new alarm clock failed to rouse me properly. So, if both my parents were out at work, my mother used the phone to make sure I was out of bed on time…

Small wonder that since then Mike Shaw has had a love-hate relationship with the phone.

Telephones can be a bit like humans at times. Invaluable one minute, infuriating the next. Indispensable, yet irritating.

My love-hate relationship with the phone spans more than half a century. Ever since the day early in the war when we had a phone put in at home.

Before that, we had to use the phone in a front-room post office down the road. It was run by a dear old lady who used to remind me of Old Mother Riley, with her grey hair tied in a bun and a shawl wrapped around her shoulders.

She was a kindly soul. Not only were we allowed to ring up people outside official opening hours, but she took phone messages for us as well.

Marsden was one of the first places around Huddersfield to have an automatic telephone exchange. So when, at last, we got our own phone we revelled in the luxury of being able to dial direct to our friends in the village.

As a schoolboy I was always oversleeping. Still am, come to think of it. But when I was a lad even a brand new alarm clock failed to rouse me properly. So, if both my parents were out at work, my mother used the phone to make sure I was out of bed on time.

While progressive Marsden was automatic, backward Slaithwaite had to make do for a long time after that with its own wonderfully ancient telephone apparatus.

To get through to the exchange, Slaithwaite folk had to turn a handle on a little wooden box alongside the phone itself. Winding the handle rang a bell in the equally quaint front-parlour exchange.

During the day a short, sharp swing was usually enough to guarantee prompt attention from the operator. But at night time, when perhaps the girls were tempted to nod off, I recall having to turn and turn the handle like cranking up an old Austin Seven.

Still, the girls at the exchange were so charming and helpful that they more than made up for almost dislocating your shoulder after the vigorous business of winding up that infuriating handle.

The Slaithwaite exchange, I remember, was in the front room of a house in Varley Road. I believe it dated back to about 1900 and it was 1961 before Slaithwaite caught up with nearly every other part of the country and did away with the boxes and handles when the village got its own automatic exchange.

Change had to come, of course, even to Slaithwaite. But it was like losing an old friend when the handles disappeared and, worse still, the girls’ voices went with them.

As a young reporter spending most of my working week in Slaithwaite, the telephone was my lifeline, without which most of my stories would not have made the editions.

There never seemed to be much vandalism of phone boxes then. In fact, sometimes the cleaning became over-zealous. On one unforgettable occasion I found the inside of a kiosk and the telephone dripping wet. A mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes, thinks I. It turned out that the woman paid by the Post Office to clean the kiosk had hit on a quick new method -- open the door and throw a bucketful of water over everything. I often wondered if she got her cards for the ingenious idea.

If her boss was anything like the Post office bureaucrat I once tangled with I don’t think she would get much mercy. My trouble started when I was asked to ring a Dublin number and transfer the charges, which I duly did.

When my next phone bill arrived, however, it included a demand for payment for the call, which, if I remember rightly, was quite expensive. When I rang the authorities and tried to explain my case, I was told there was no such thing as a transfer charge call to the Republic of Ireland and I would have to pay.

It took innumerable weeks and quite a few letters to sort things out. In the end I threatened to take up the matter with my MP and the bossy bureaucrat then replied that he was dropping the charge.

Strangest of all my strange telephone experiences began when someone rang me one evening with a red-hot piece of news. A few seconds after putting the phone down I picked it up again to ring a few people for more information.

But, instead of getting the dialling tone, all I could hear were some faint voices in the background. Several more attempts brought the same results. By now I had recognised one of the voices. It was the bloke who had rung me in the first place. He’d failed to put his phone back properly on the hook. So what I was hearing was a bit of chat between him and his wife.

Frustration gave way to horror as I realised that, as we were still technically connected, he could carry on paying for hours, if not days. And all the time, I would be unable to use my phone.

Luckily for both of us, he lived only a mile or so away. So I got in the car and arrived on his doorstep about half an hour after he made the never-ending call. He was a man with plenty of money but not noted for throwing it about. When I told him what had happened I’m sure his face blanched. I left him trying to work out just how big the bill would be.

As I said at the beginning, telephones can be both a boon and a bane.


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