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Rotary Telephones

Take a look at these two beauties, a pair of rotary telephones that we had stored away for many years. They were out of sight but have recently been brought back into the open.


The one on the right is the phone that we used throughout my childhood. I don’t remember any earlier ones, so it probably pre-dates me. The one on the left has been part of our lives for just under 30 years, and it still works. You can see the connection at the end: it fits into a regular landline point. It works as long as you don’t mind sounding like you’re calling from a submarine.

This newer phone was also used as a prop in the film “Peter’s Friends”. Tony Slattery, one of the stars of the film, gave it to us in the summer of 1993, along with the pre-recorded VHS cassette that you can also see in the photo above. I have covered the central part of the dial with a coin, as you can see, but underneath it is the number of Tony’s old flat in Stockwell.

Rotary telephones have been on my mind for a while, and three things have prompted me to write about them here. The first was my decision, for various reasons, to put the phones on display rather than leave them in the shed.

The second reason came a few weeks later, on reading Genevieve Fox’s excellent memoir “Milkshakes and Morphine”, one of the few books I read in the last months of 2022. She mentions rotary phones twice, as follows:

“No one ever calls on the landline, except Margaret, my mother-in-law … My cancer has given it a new lease of life. Now it is ringing, pointedly, like a rotary phone in a 1950s drama …”

“This is my first manoeuvre with a drip attached to my arm. I’m like the receiver attached to a rotary telephone.”

There is also a reference to these old-style phones in Chapter 18, and a 999 call to the police that she doesn’t complete: “I picked up the phone and dialled the first nine. Round went the dial, back it came, my index finger in the hole all the while, determined, and then all the way round again …”

The third thing that has prompted me to write this piece was a picture of a rotary phone on TV last week. It was in the 500th episode of Richard Osman’s “House of Games”, broadcast on Friday 13 January, and it looked like this:


It featured in the 4th Round, “Put your finger on it”. The contestants had to mark, using a tablet and pen, “The hole that is used to dial ‘8’”. Only one of the four, Professor Suzannah Lipscomb, got it right. It’s the hole where you can see the letters UV displayed if you zoom in. Alternatively, if you imagine the dial as a clock-face, it’s where the 8 would be.

My children knew the answer to this challenge. During the autumn, after showing them how these old telephones worked, they had a go at dialling a few numbers. (We used the older of the two phones, which can no longer be connected to a socket.) Like most people of my age I can remember some of my schoolfriends’ home numbers, the ones I dialled most often. My daughter dialled the ones that end in 4272 and 4590, just the seven digits that we needed back then. I haven’t called either number for over 30 years and don’t know who they have been assigned to since my schoolfriends moved on. If either number were still assigned to people we know, we would now have to dial 11 digits, beginning with the area code 0208.

As my children observed, it all took so long. It did of course, but it didn’t feel that way. By contrast, inserting a video cassette into the VCR and pressing Play took less time than it takes us to log into some of our streaming services. Maybe it’s time to re-connect the VHS machine that’s been boxed up for a year or two and watch this copy of “Peter’s Friends” again, although I suspect that it will make me feel rather old.


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