Girl Without A Phone by @AuthorKatherine

No, not the title of my next bestseller, although you never know... it could be the Next Big Thing. A recent report by media regulator Ofcom that half of 10 year olds now own a smartphone, rising to 83% of teenagers, makes me wonder how on earth I survived my childhood without one.

Telephone box
by McKay Savage from London, CC
When I was 10, I did not have a phone of any sort. Nor did my mum and dad. There were no mobiles on sale in the UK (it would be another year before Motorola launched its huge handheld prototype). They would not have been much use, since there were no phone masts and no wi-fi, just landlines... and even they were seen as a bit of a luxury. If I wanted to phone a friend, I walked five minutes from my house and up the hill to the red telephone box on the corner, where I listened to the "pips" and forced coins into a slot before it would connect me to my best friend's landline. The value of that conversation was high. In fact, it was only another ten minutes' walk to my friend's house, so usually I didn't bother phoning first - I simply called round to see if she was in, and she did the same. Weird as it may seem, neither my friend nor I found this a problem. We did not feel the need to call each other every minute and let the other know what we were having for breakfast. Nor, I guess, did my mum and dad with their friends. As a consequence, our friendship was strong and the time we spent together was quality time.

Eight years later, when I left home and headed off to University, my mum insisted on having a landline installed so I could call her once a week and let her know I was still alive. That meant my brother, who was four years younger than me and still living at home, had a landline for his teenage years... not that it changed his life all that much, since Dad would only let him use it in an emergency - the home phone bill was a new expense and in definite luxury territory still. Didn't they worry about us when we were out and about? I assume so, but not so much that they needed us to call home every hour. My brother disappeared off sailing every weekend with the Scouts, and I cycled off to the local riding stables with my friend where we spent the weekend helping out with the ponies. We turned up, wet and muddy, for a meal when it got dark - I assume that's when Mum would have sent out the search parties if we did not appear. She never had to.

Motorola's prototype 1973 mobile phone
(by Rico Shen, CC) 
Following university, I got a proper job (one that paid enough to secure a 95% mortgage) and bought my first house. It was a new build and this was the early eighties, but it did not come with a phone line - you had to pay BT to get one installed. Never having had a phone at home as a child, I didn't bother...  there was still a trusty red telephone box in the village should I want to phone home, and there was always the office phone for emergencies (Think Whoopi Goldberg in Jumpin' Jack Flash - only without the Russian fitness video on my terminal, since we had no internet back then.)

I changed jobs and worked in software during the late eighties - still without the word wide web. Then I got made redundant, moved to the country and ended up working with racehorses. Meanwhile, strange masts began appearing on hills, and the rest of the world got itself connected. The big prototype mobiles became smaller, and my husband got himself one so he could work from his lorry, since by then he was running his own racehorse transport business.
2G Nokia 1100 - still going strong

Around the time I was trying to find someone to publish my first novel Song Quest, mobile phones took off big time. My other half upgraded his phone and gave me his old handset. It was a nifty little Nokia 1100 2G (text and speech only), and I still have it. I use it on pay-as-you-go for emergencies such as meeting an editor from London who thinks everyone was born with a phone in their pocket. It costs me about £10 per year, which even a struggling author could afford. It doesn't do Facebook or share photos of every detail of my life, but it keeps its charge for an entire week should I forget to take my charger on holiday. And it has a surprisingly addictive retro-game called Snake.

But I'm not a mobile convert, and I do not use a smartphone. I tried one a couple of years ago but couldn't get on with the touchscreen, and it ate data even when I didn't think it was using any (I had it on pay-as-you-go like my old Nokia, so a data-hungry smartphone came as rather a shock.) Then - and I'm not blaming the phone, since my symptoms started several months after I'd stopped using it - I developed an intolerance to wireless radiation and had to store it away in a metal box for the sake of my health and sanity, where it has stayed ever since. I have broadband via my home landline (using cable instead of wi-fi these days, obviously) so I can do all the usual internetty things like post this blog and pick up my e-fanmail. There are people I've met online who have since become friends, but I still don't get the smartphone thing.

I go to my local park for some nature therapy and watch in bemusement as everyone else walks around with their noses buried in their phones. Dog walkers, school kids, younger people, older people, pretty much everyone except the blind man with the guide dog who lets it off the harness while he walks slowly around his familiar circuit, and a baby in a pram staring in awe at the magpies and squirrels... though even some babies have plastic tablet-things in their prams these days, which I only hope for their sake are not smart (Google "wi-fi and neurological problems" if you're a mother of small children). It's great material for an author, since I can listen to fragments of people's conversations and imagine entire stories based around them, but what is the point of going out to enjoy nature if you're going to spend half the time staring at your phone? It used to seem weird, but now I'm the odd one out because I look where I'm going rather than down at a screen. Quite apart from the obvious dangers (I've lost count of the times someone looking at a phone has walked straight into me, or stepped out into the road in front of my bicycle), it worries me that I can't remember when it no longer became rude to take out your phone and use it while chatting to a friend in a cafe. Facebook friends are fine, but a face-to-face friend is priceless.

There may well come a time when nobody can survive in this world without a smartphone, and judging by recent addiction research, which claims their use can physically change your brain, that time might come sooner than you think... and what happens when we move into Orwell's "1984" territory with 5G, where we can't turn off our devices even if we want to? I'm pretty certain the 10 year olds of today would complain loudly and genuinely suffer if you confiscated their phones - as I am equally certain that, after four more decades of phone use, they will suffer even more from having used one for so long. Am I the only one who is deeply uncomfortable about the way we have all, young and old, come to rely on a technology that is still too new to understand its long term effects on us and our environment?

So will I be in the queue for the latest 5G phone? I think you know the answer to that one... here's my style guru Andrea in the final scene of The Devil Wears Prada:

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers. This week, fans of speculative fiction who enjoy reading on their smartphones 😁 can sample two of her short story collections FREE for Kindle:

Mythic & Magical - short fantasy stories.

Weird & Wonderful - short science fiction.

More details on Katherine's website at


Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks bringing back personal techno-history memories. I remember all these devices, each of which changed our reality in steath, one-by-one, starting when I as a boy and my communications device consisted of two empty ten cans and a length of string.
Love it! (And the comment above - my Mother told me her brother and his friends had those...way, way back...)
We had a land line as far back as I can remember (if for nothing else, Grandpa wanted to ring us and demand things, and my Dad and his far-flung brothers kept in touch by phone- note males!) So, when we moved into our first, college-owned, flat, I was surprised there wasn't one! The college secretary seemed taken-aback: 'What do you need one for? There's a telephone box...' We paid to have one...
Fast forwards: daughter would jump up from meals and take her plate along with her to natter with school friends (done, but not 'allowed') and then her techie twin brother was the first of us to acquire a mobile...
Oh yes! I also remember making a version of the tin cans with string, and then sending my little brother (aged 4) upstairs with one end so I could "call" him from downstairs. It worked surprisingly well, until the cat thought the vibrating string wrapped around the stairs was a game...

5G will kill the pollinating insects, it's said. So ultimately, it could destroy us all...
Something is certainly responsible for the decline in species, and apparently when bees are extinct we are only five years behind... but presumably those in charge of our wireless infrastructure are aware of this, and will act accordingly before it is too late. Could be other things, too, killing off bees.
Enid Richemont said…
I grew up without a phone, too. If you needed to talk to someone, you used the public one. When I was a student, one of my landladies installed a paying phone in the hall, like the public ones, but more expensive, and for all of them, you had to have the proper coins. Eventually I married,and because we could suddenly afford it, we rented a proper apartment with a phone, so paid our first phone bills. Decades later, David, my husband, came home with two mobile phones, one each, Samsungs. Larger than today's phones but very streamlined and elegant. I was forced to give up on mine only about three years ago, as it was no longer supported. Bought myself the smallest and cheapest mobile, and now in the process of learning to use an iphone because with the Corona virus rampant, it's going to be the only way I can 'see' my family, and some of its apps are going to be invaluable.

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