Friday, August 14, 2020

Phone Booths and Dystopia

I took this picture when I walked to Hyde Park about a week ago. These phone booths, a slightly later iteration of the iconic red "K-series" type first designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1924, stand near Marble Arch. They might make a nice backdrop for a tourist photo, but a closer look reveals them to be pretty sad-looking. There's a phone in only one of them, and I wouldn't touch it. The others look like this:

A year ago, there were about 10,000 of these boxes still on streets in Britain, about half of them no longer functional -- they exist for purely decorative purposes. There are campaigners who fight to preserve the boxes, arguing that they're a key component of British heritage, and some are protected under historic preservation laws. Some people have repurposed defunct boxes for uses including miniature lending libraries, art galleries, coffee or phone repair stands and even the "world's smallest nightclub."

I'm all for reusing them, and if they can be maintained, I don't mind having them around. But when they become eyesores, that's another matter. We've got a couple of old phone booths in our neighborhood that are routinely filled with bags of rubbish and plastered with graffiti and fliers from prostitutes. (Ours aren't even this cool 1920s style -- they're more modern ones.)

Apparently local governments have a hard time controlling the presence of pay phones because utility companies are given wide leeway for installing and replacing them -- often with sleek modern pillars covered with digital advertising, which are arguably worse. (Personally, I'd rather have the new pillar than a filthy old disused phone box, but that's just me.) It seems to me there's a gap somewhere in the regulations. If old phone boxes are going to stay on the street for aesthetic or historic purposes, they need to be better cared for.

As I often say, the only thing people don't do in a British telephone booth is make a phone call.

(In all fairness, this is probably true of phone booths all over the world nowadays.)

This is my purple heart plant, Tradescantia pallida, a cousin of the once-common houseplant known by the dubious name "wandering jew" (Tradescantia zebrina). I haven't seen a wandering jew plant in ages -- seems like they were all the rage back in the '70s. I wonder if it's less cultivated now because of the culturally questionable name?

Anyway, when I washed down all our houseplants on Wednesday, I didn't move the purple heart outside because it's so brittle. But I belatedly realized it was pretty dusty too, so yesterday I gingerly lifted it outside the back door and gave it a good rinse. It's now back indoors unscathed and appears much happier.

We did get rain yesterday -- about five minutes in the afternoon, and a good (but only slightly longer) downpour at about 10 p.m. We're supposed to get more this evening, and temperatures are only climbing to about 76º F (24º C), thank goodness.

Dave and I binge-watched a BBC mini-series called "Years and Years" over the last two days. It's a dystopian look at the near future -- the rise of an autocratic British populist leader (played by our neighbor down the street) and the fortunes of a middle-class family who find themselves suddenly struggling to survive amid bank failures and job and personal losses. We thought it was a brilliant show, though so realistic in places that it's scary. The latter half of the last episode fell a bit flat -- there was a lot to wrap up and it seemed rushed -- but overall it's worth watching, if you have a chance.


  1. I often take pictures of our old red phone boxes. Another thing they are used for is housing community defibrilators. Even where there are working telephones, they are usually wreathed in spiders' webs or ivy. There are not many people like me around - people who are not in possession of mobile phones - and even I have not needed to use a public phone in many years. You simply cannot hang on to the past in its entirety. Gradually, all the red phone boxes must go - apart from those that remain in museums.

  2. So far as I know ours have all gone. There was a last man standing opposite South Melbourne Town Hall that I and I expect others thought was protected. Clearly it wasn't. We have none left now. Just ultra public telephones that no one uses but are advertising billboards.

  3. I agree about those old phone boxes. Great pieces of art but hideous and hazardous if not protected and maintained. Better in museums and homes. The women we bought our house from in San Diego had a British phone box (older than the ones you've pictured) in the living room.

    We've got a purple heart plant on our terrace. It's thriving and we don't know why. When we bought it we figured it was a mistake because we get much too much sun and heat out there, but it doesn't seem to mind at all. They're surprisingly popular here. And, yes, I remember calling them "wandering Jews" and hating the name. Our garden center here had it labeled Zebrina Pendula (followed by Purple Heart).

  4. I agree - it would be great to preserve at least a few phone boxes, even if only for the heritage value. They do represent a certain era of our history. And they look good (in the right place) in a photo of certain parts of the UK. I also watched Years and Years and found it frighteningly realistic. Apparently I read somewhere that everything in the mini-series was based on events that are already happening (mostly in the UK) or could conceivably happen, based on current events. Perhaps that's why the series was so frightening. Pity about Russell Tovey's character though (won't say more than that).

  5. I used to have one of those purple plants in the mid 70s. We called it the purple people eater....well the friend that gave it to me did!
    We had a terrific rain/thunder and lightening storm last night and it has rained most of the morning too. Good for the garden. The river is high this morning.

  6. What a gorgeous picture of the purple leaf!

    When we lived for a while in a bedsit in London in the early 1980s, the phone we inherited from the official occupant (an elderly man who was travelling while we acted as caretakers) was ringing all the time, always men looking for sex. I eventually asked one of them where he got this number and he told me he was calling from a phone box in Euston Station and that the number was right in front of him written on the wall. We spent several days checking all the red phone boxes in and around the station, scratching off the phone number in lots of them. The calls stopped! But I did not had the nerve to ask the elderly man when he returned from abroad about this. We found the bedsit via an add in Time Out.

  7. Thank you for reminding me of the beauty of the micro. What a gorgeous picture.
    Glad you got rain. Isn't it a blessing?
    I don't know what to say about the phone booths. Seems like they could well be used for other purposes but then who's going to tend them? Where does that money come from?
    We humans do like to hang on to things even after their purpose is served but we don't seem to want the responsibilities of preserving them.

  8. City councils could go with the flow and use the phone booths to house...
    public TRASH BINS!
    Emptied daily, or at least weekly.

  9. Just thinking about phone booths reminds me of the many times I drove across country, east to west, west to east in the 1970s. I called my parents every week from a phone booth (of course I want to write, "Where are you calling from? A booth in the midwest.."). Hard to imagine they are ancient relics already, but in many way they are.
    The show you watched sounds so much like the times we are living in. Yes, dystopian in so many ways.

  10. The phone booths look great from a distance, but the trash surely paints a different picture. I actually have a huge "wandering jew" plant. I picked up a cutting that was on the ground after a farmer's market. It must have fallen off a larger plant. I brought it home and rooted it water. And now I have this huge plant that spends its summers outdoors. And the more sun it gets, the purpler its leaves get.

  11. It's sad to see the booths looking like this. I think the cities and towns should rehab them. I used to have some beautiful wandering jew plants. I haven't seen them for quite a while either. Enjoy your day, hugs, Edna B.

  12. I haven't seen that series show up here yet but I'm going to watch for it. Sounds interesting. On my very first trip to London back in 1985, I called home from one of those phone boxes. If I remember correctly, they were plastered with ads for prostitutes back then but, the phones still worked. The ones filled with garbage are disgusting. You are so right, it would be nice to keep a few around but someone needs to make sure they are kept clean. I know there is still one across the street from Big Ben. That might be a protected one because of its location for photographs.

  13. I haven't seen a phone booth or even a pay phone for decades it seems.

    there was some purple heart growing here when we first bought the place but I haven't seen any this year at all.

  14. Sorry about your phone booths. I always liked the looks of them. Glad you liked my comment yesterday. The meter was way off but what the heck.

  15. What a beautiful shot of the purple heart leaf and those huge drops of water.

    I was liking the first photo of the phone booths but after seeing the garbage I can't disassociate the first photo from the next! What a shame. Our phone booths have all been replaced by posts with a three-sided, waist-and-up plexiglass surround. Not sure I'd want to use one at the moment but that's what a cell phone is good for :)

    Sometimes I wish I liked TV more; that sounds like a good series. Does it come in book form? lol

  16. the old phone booths should be removed when they become an eyesore.

  17. I do love a good red phone box, but is it any wonder that superman has not shown up during this crisis.
    We all had wandering jew back in the day. They just grew and grew. And spider plants, those too.

  18. Tradescantia. Do not say that word. We have it in our outside garden at the apartment and it is almost impossible to eradicate. We have a drive every so often but it needs to be ripped up from the root system.
    When everything else on the planet is dead it will still be alive.