What is really modern? How do we decide? My life is littered with dead or dying technologies which once seemed to me to be thrillingly pioneering and clever. Who bothers now with a short-wave radio? Mine was for years one of my most carefully-tended possessions, carried everywhere from Mogadishu to Moscow. Once I had discovered its mysteries, I could conjure the B.B.C. World Service out of the night air almost anywhere, invariably relieved and heartened to hear an educated, grown-up voice proclaim: “This is London,” and the old call-sign, that subversive, haunting tune, “Lilliburlero.” All gone now. The World Service is on the Internet, calls itself “The World’s Radio Station”, and is even more stuffed with cultural revolutionary sentiments than its domestic sibling stations.
What was modern is now obsolete. I experience this a lot. Several of the shabby rented homes we lived in during my father’s last years in the Navy had these strange boxes in the kitchen, high on the wall. They were shiny and very dark brown in color and had several little round windows behind which there were red and white discs. Under each window was the name of a room in the house. In one of these houses, the box still worked. When my brother pushed a button in his bedroom, a bell would ring and one of the discs (marked “Bedroom 3” in this case) would start to swing and carry on doing so for several seconds. The maid, if she had existed, would in this way have known where she was required, for some time after the shrilling of the bell.
These were not huge or grand houses. They were the sort of place in which I imagine William Brown, of the Just William stories, living. Until before the recent war, even modest professionals expected to employ at least one servant, and this was how she was summoned. The boxes were a modern invention, powered by electricity. Yet it must be fifty years since I have seen one, even a derelict and dead one. Well-off professionals in my country now once again employ servants (generally migrants from foreign lands), though they do not think of them as such. They would not dream of summoning them in this peremptory, mechanical way. They seek to be their friends instead. The world has switched on to a different track and what was so recently new and up-to-date is now a relic. In the same category were the speaking tubes by which the owners of expensive cars gave instructions to their chauffeurs. My father, back in the late 1950s, once borrowed a handsome vintage Alvis for a few days, and it featured this amusing device, which gave us children hours of harmless fun.
But there are much more recent instances of paths our civilization only took for a brief while. Many of them were based on the miraculous telephone, the sort that was wired into the wall and had a dial. While recovering from a motorcycle accident in the Cronshaw ward of Oxford’s old Radcliffe Infirmary in 1969, I was captivated by the telephone on the chief nurse’s desk, which at night did not ring but had a small light embedded in its receiver which flashed red when anyone called. I wanted such a thing for years afterwards and did eventually obtain one. At home, in those days we had a sort of mobile phone—rare in the Britain of the time, where a state monopoly came in green vans to connect your instrument, which was government property and not to be tampered with. But ours could be unplugged and moved from room to room, saving the need for expensive multiple extensions. In the end my mother found another more urgent use for this, thanks to my brother’s habit of slipping home from nearby Balliol College, while she was out, to make long, costly calls to faraway places. She did not just unplug the device, but actually took it with her when she went shopping. It was quite heavy to cart it about, but she reckoned that she saved a lot of money by doing so.