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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 1 (April 1, 1940)


page 52


Some men have to go to the doctor about it. They are beset with a ringing in the head and voices calling from a far distance. Their index fingers grow stiff and weave small circles in the air. If their wives call them suddenly they bark “wrong number!” and slam down their tea cups.

And while they explain their hallucinations to the doctor his telephone rings; he hurls himself across his desk and man-handles the receiver as though it were the throat of his best enemy or his worst friend. He is suddenly transformed from a benign dispenser of physic and physiology to a Samson disputing the right to bite with Leo the lion. He is a changed man. It is possible that even his wife might respect him could she see him pitting his courage and cunning against the horrors of invention.

When it is all over he sinks wearily into his chair and smiles a pathetic apology. “You see how it is,” he says. “There is no hope for you. Even I—.” He buries his head in the filing cabinet, A to J. “It goes like that all day,” he sobs.

The Why and the Wire.

So, when next you see a haggard man spring in the air like a wounded buck at the tinkle of a bicycle bell, do not jump to the conclusion that he has looked into a glass damply, not wisely but too often. When you espy a gaunt man with a haunted look in his eye and a pack on his back making for the nearest snowline, do not assume that some firm's Imprest Account is unlawfully in the red. Here is a man deserving of your sympathy rather than your blame—a refugee fleeing from the tyranny of the telephone and the baleful burr of the buzzer.

The telephone is truly the friend of man; but even a friend can grow pretty sticky if he rings bells and constantly shouts into your ear things which you would be a happier and better man if you never heard.

There is nothing wrong with telephones; it is the way they are used that gives us pain. Most people delight in conveying the worst of tidings by telephone and reserving good news for communication by the slowest methods known, even to telegraph boys. How often do you pick up the receiver and hear a voice telling you that your Uncle Tightwad has kicked the cash-register and left you a tub full of gilt-edged, platinum-plated securities? But if your house is on fire or your wife has gone on a permanent hitch-hike with a party of the third part the news will come at you over the telephone with the celerity of a homing brickbat in Ireland.

The telephone was invented with the best of intentions.
“Spend their spare time leaning on wild bulls.”

“Spend their spare time leaning on wild bulls.”

Mr. Bell figured that it would be nice to have an instrument to convey felicitations and items of mutual comfort between people of kindly instinct and humane understanding. Later, the aeroplane was perfected with something of the same idea—and look at it now!

There are many business men who insist that the telephone, to-day, is a lethal weapon rather than an instrument.

Word Without End.

Even when it is not used with malice aforethought or for the purpose of elevating the breeze in your vicinity it is an exhausting instrument. If you pass a friend in the street you can say, “How do you do?” and let it go at that without being expected to stop and thrash the matter out to the last symptom. But if you have an impulse to page 53 swap a fleeting greeting per telephone you can't say “How do you do?” and hang up. The telephone tradition demands that you lean with one elbow on the wall or both on the table and strain every nerve to be bright. Face to face with the other party you would merely be yourself and, however painful that might be, no offence would be taken. But there is something about the telephone for social purposes which causes you to behave in a manner which would brand you as “nuts” in normal circumstances. To add to the pain of social telephonetics, neither party to the ordeal is ever willing to ring off. Both keep on saying, “Yes—oh, yes,” “True, true,” “That is so,” “Quite,” while both vainly try to think up some remark that will close the song and dance without leaving a wound that the years will fail to heal.

There certainly are super-souls who do not flinch when the buzzer fires off at them, but they are people who would spend their spare time leaning against wild bulls or firing catapults at tax collectors if there were no telephones to give their daring an airing. Such people are not shaken to the suspenders even when their creditors get them hooked up and play them on the end of the wire.

All of the above explains why nice people with nice faces and usually humane instincts answer the telephone in a manner suggesting that they hate it intensely, and a voice at the other end even more. This is why ordinarily courteous men snap “Brrump!” at you through the telephone while others moan “Ye-aaaaaaa-s,” as though passing away in the most frightful agony at the other end; also why many howl at you despairingly as though bemoaning the brevity of life and the infinity of the human voice.

The Great Unseen.

Surely there must be some deficiency in an instrument that can play such
“—undeterred by the limitations of time and space.”

“—undeterred by the limitations of time and space.”

havoc with the human soul. There is. The general who advised his troops to hold their fire until they saw the whites of the enemy's eyes knew the value of the human eye as a subsidiary weapon. That is the real reason why a row over the telephone is so shattering. You can't see the whites of your adversary's eyes or his teeth; you can only hear the latter snapping. You can both shout until piebald in the face, but where's the satisfaction of shouting a face piebald if you can't see it going piebald? You can call each other all the superlative twirts and lying hounds known to unnatural history, but you both hang up feeling that a strand of copper is a poor substitute for a block of wood.

Woman and The Wire.

It must be understood that all the foregoing refers to men. Women appear to be better equipped for blind talking, undeterred by the limitations of time and space. No doubt woman, with her shattering logic which knocks spots off the man-made article, contends that speech and sight, coming from different addresses, are not necessarily interdependent. But it is more than likely that she is grateful even for a telephone, when the alternative is talking to herself. Not that women talk any more than men—they only talk longer. It was the future Mrs. Bell who hounded on poor old Bell to produce the telephone; but there must have been occasions, later, when he sat, with his face sunk in his trouser cuffs, moaning, “What have I done?” The different attitudes of the sexes towards the telephone are reflected in their respective approaches. A woman says: I want to ring up Mrs. Nonstop-Babble about her operation.” A man says: “I have to ring up old Bullswool-Blah about his gout—darn him!”

(Continued on page 15)