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Ysenda Maxtone Graham - Joy of old phone numbers

Blog | By Ysenda Maxtone Graham | Oct 05, 2022

How romantic old phone numbers were! Ysenda Maxtone Graham still remembers them off by heart, decades after they came to an end

Do we all have, in our heads, the sound of our father or mother answering the telephone, very clearly, sometime in the mid-20th century?

I do. My father would announce the name of our local telephone exchange followed by the familiar four digits, with a slight upturn as he spoke the final digit – the cue for the person at the other end of the line to declare who he or she was.

That was the way telephone-answering was done. You didn’t just pick up the receiver and say ‘Hello’. That would have been rude. You certainly didn’t announce your own name until the other person had announced his or hers. That would have been over-chummy.

My 66-year-old brother-in-law, much to my delight, still answers the telephone in that way – ‘Oxford’ followed by six digits now – and, for that reason, I still know his number by heart.

Through our hearing our own and our relatives’ and best friends’ telephone numbers announced like that, and dialling them ourselves over many years, telephone numbers became an embodiment of a person and the house they lived in.

It’s for this reason that I still cling to telephone numbers of the past, using them as passwords and burglar-alarm codes. Every time I open the front door or log in to my mobile phone, I reach a hand deep down into childhood.

It’s a wonderful excuse to introduce a dose of nostalgia into daily life, and it keeps alive not just a pleasing set of digits, but a whole way of life.

A grandmother’s hall with its telephone table and leather address book with well-thumbed alphabetic flaps. The thrill of ringing up a school friend in another county (Bury St Edmunds! The glamour!) during the summer holidays. Dialling home from my thrifty great-aunt’s freezing-cold telephone cupboard in Edinburgh, above which there was a small notice: ‘Wouldn’t a postcard do?’

Now that we scroll down our mobile-phone contacts list to the name of the person and press ‘call’, we rarely know our friends’ or even family members’ numbers any more. I asked my 20-year-old son how many phone numbers he knew by heart and the answer was three: his own, our landline and my mobile.

He doesn’t associate his friends with collections of digits preceded by the name of a town or village, or its characterful subscriber trunk dialling (STD, introduced in 1958) code, as I do. He thinks it odd that anyone would.

Four is a particularly friendly number of digits to know by heart and love. I think we all do – so the four-digit norm for pin codes is fortunate. Anything longer than that becomes tedious and forgettable. Who knows their passport number by heart or their National Insurance number?

In the 1980s and ’90s, the old phone numbers were lengthened. In 1990, the London 01 code was replaced by 071 and 081, which in 1995 became 0171 and 0181.

Brought up on the card game cribbage, I always liked it if a four-digit telephone number made a good cribbage hand – 4556, for example. I thought it covetable if anyone had the word ‘double’ in their phone number, such as ‘three-one-double-two’. That was vastly preferable to a spiky and chaotic mixture of odd and even numbers, such as 9274.

But even those were friendly and approachable compared with today’s characterless five digits followed by six – and I’m still never sure whether to group the final six into two groups of three or three groups of two.

I was aware that it was ‘smarter’, in the olden days, to have a three-digit telephone number. It meant you were truly rural. Rather as with addresses (eg Chatsworth, Derbyshire), the shorter the telephone number, the more exalted it was.

A castle in Scotland I used to go and stay at was ‘Straiton 239’. I looked it up recently and it’s now a wedding venue. I was delighted, and moved, to see that dear little ‘239’ still nestling at the very end of its now 11-digit number. So the past is not altogether lost.

I’m delighted also that whenever you dial a London landline number, the three digits at its beginning keep alive the three letters they used to be, so 229 is BAYswater, going by the letters that were under the numbers on the dial.

My grandmother Jan Struther (the creator of Mrs Miniver) wrote a poem called Dialling Tones, illustrated by Ernest Shepard, about how those groups of three letters sent her into various daydreams.

If there had been four-digit telephone numbers in Bach’s time, he might have written a fugue on his phone number – just as he did write a fugue on B-A-C-H (in Germany, H can denote the musical note B).

Four-digit numbers are lovable things. The sad thing about using old telephone numbers as passcodes, though, is that by definition this has to be a private and secret activity. The numbers are sterilised, as it were, and will not be passed down to the next generation.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is author of The Real Mrs Miniver: The Life of Jan Struther