Gone Is The Personal Touch Under A Cloud Of Numbers (13 April 1973)
Recently the Post Office lumbered us all with a set of six letters and figures to remember. They represent part of our new postal address. And thus, as far as the Post Office are concerned, we no longer live in Bucks. We live in MK something or other.
I don’t like it. Not that I blame the Post Office. In course of time it might help them to deliver the post quicker. But it does seem yet another sinister portent of the time when we shall all be reduced to mere ciphers in the control of the Grand Computer. Like something out of Star Trek and similar entertainments which I enjoy mainly because I shall not live to see them come true.
EASIER TO REMEMBER
I find letters easier to remember than numbers because mnemonics can be used. Some of you may be old enough to remember the cricketer J.W.H.T. Douglas and how you got his initials the right way round by calling him Johnny Won’t Hit Today Douglas. That was using mnemonics.
Similarly, and coming up-to-date, two officers of Bletchley Council are Mr. Ray and Mr. Chambers. One has the initials N.C. and the other has the initials E.C. But which is which?
Easy. Mr. Chambers is the Treasurer. So in my mind he has become Mr. No Credit Chambers, which leaves Mr. Ray as the E.C. And all my other friends can now guess as they like about how I remember theirs!
By the same means I can at last remember my postal address. It is Milton Keynes 35 Elizabeth Regina, with a space between the three and the five. But I am afraid that other people outside my own little square will have to keep their old addresses as far as I am concerned.
THE MAJOR CULPRITS
What I do need is a similar means of remembering a succession of mere figures. Here again the Post Office are the major culprits. Their automation has turned my telephone world upside down by doing away with local operators.
In my early days in Bletchley some important local numbers were still the same single or double figures they had been when the local exchange was first set up in a back room in Aylesbury Street. Bletchley Council Offices, 27; Bletchley Police, 32; Bletchley Co-op 8; and so on. All easy to remember. And if you did sometimes happen to forget, you told the operator who you wanted and she or he got them for you.
It was all so personal and homely. I had only to say “Hullo” into a telephone at any call box and a familiar voice would say “Number please, Mr. Hepworth?” There are still some operators of private switchboards who recognise me after just one word like that.
There were times when that personal touch was of enormous value to me as a reporter. For instance, the fire engine would rush past me in the street. I would call the part-time fire station in Church Street. There might be no reply. The operator would tell me so. Then she might add, “But I shouldn’t worry, Mr. Hepworth – it’s nothing much.”
Nor was that extra-personal touch confined to Bletchley. Sometimes I would want somebody in a neighbouring town. The operator would tell me there was no reply. Then she would volunteer the information that “Mr. A usually goes down to Mr. B’s office for coffee at this time of a morning, if you’d like me to ring there.”
I knew the several Bletchley operators, of course. In fact, I had watched them at work once or twice. But I never sought to identify them when making a call. Best both for you and probably for them that you should not know. I would not be telling these things now if I thought it could any longer be doing anybody any harm.
Many people used to get cross and rude with operators and talk about reporting them to the supervisor. How silly! If you want to get any kind of service out of anybody you must begin by establishing friendly relations and then you will get not only the service but maybe the kind of bonus I have indicated above besides.
But now in large part those friendly people the operators are no more. They have disappeared under a cloud of numbers along with many other similar people in our modern, cold, computerised de-personalised world.
Nowadays, except for some service numbers, you have to twiddle a dial at least four times for the town and up to ten times for the next village and then you can only sit back and hope.
In one respect there also seems to have been a drop in the efficiency of the instruments, too, if I am not mistaken.
COVERED THE MOUTHPIECE
Probably everybody at some time or other while using the telephone has needed to speak to someone in the same room as himself without wishing the subscriber at the other end to hear. You have probably covered the mouthpiece with your hand and disregarded the possibility that the earpiece might transmit. I do not know whether this is still the case or not.
The point is that the old telephone handsets had a component which you released if you did not want the other subscriber to hear what you were saying and yet you still remained connected.
Progress is as you see it and nothing more.