A fault on the line – carpets, cables and invisible things

carpet

“…the ordinary course of life demands nearly constant efforts to maintain or salvage situations that are falling into disarray by restoring them to order. In everyday life, people never completely suppress their anxieties, and, like scientists, ordinary people never stop suspecting, wondering, and submitting the world to tests.”

Boltanski, L. and Thévenot, L. (2006) On Justification, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p37.

His phone rings

as he’s standing by the sink. With attention abruptly turned from cleaning to talking – suds dripping as he reaches across the floor – he picks up the handset.

“Hello.”

“I’m really sorry to bother you, but my phone’s stopped working and I don’t know what to do.”

“So how are you calling me then?” he feels compelled to ask, and then instantly regrets its surly impression.

“I’m on a mobile. My son gave it to me, but I barely know how to use it. My proper phone has gone dead.”

In the ensuing conversation the talk maps out the arrangement of this elderly lady’s hallway, the telephone ‘table’ under the stairs, the ‘old style’ composure of this device as a caller, a visitor from outside to be kept at bay, waiting uncertainly in the hallway, not invited properly into the depth of the home. To make phone calls she climbs into the space under the stairs, adjusts the register of her voice. And here is where she is most comfortable calling from, huddled in the cavity, hunched over a rickety G-Plan assembly, amidst a pile of long superseded telephone directories, and a frayed and heavily annotated contacts directory: the sedimented strata of evolved and lost acquaintance.

He suggests she checks the phone socket. Carpet fitters visited her hallway yesterday. Perhaps they tugged the cable loose.

“Take the cover off and look inside.”

From the silence at the other end it is clear that he might as well have said “fire up the warp drive and set course for the heart of the sun”.

Eventually she replies: “No, I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that.”

From the onward conversation it’s clear that she holds the telephone in some reverence, it’s a magical device that provides a service, but it is not hers to tinker with. The whole assembly is other. She owns a screw driver, a wooden handled one from the last century. It’s lain in a box for years, only ever used for opening cans of paint. It won’t get wielded here. She will call the telephone company instead. She hangs up.

The next day she calls again.

“I’m in a call box” she announces, with some distress. Apparently her mobile has now stopped working too. He asks a few questions to try and ascertain the symptoms of this fatality, but soon realises that this is not what she wants to talk about. Earlier that day she stood in that draughty call box for 40 minutes, eventually getting through to the phone company but getting little sense out of them. There was muzak, there was continual ringing, there was referral between different departments and eventually an undertaking to send out an engineer within the next five days.

He phones the company on her behalf to try and get things expedited. He too waits in an auditory limbo land, marvelling at just how crap the service is (and the irony that you need a phone to report a broken phone). Eventually there’s a connection. Yes, an engineer call is booked, no they can’t (or won’t) expedite for an elderly lady living on her own (unless she declared her ‘special needs’ at the time of signing up with them).

A couple of days later, she calls him again. This time from her home phone, now happily huddled back under the stairs. Her phone problem has been fixed. An engineer called yesterday. He pulled up the freshly laid carpet and carefully traced the phone cable from the socket towards its point of entry to the house.  Eventually he found it, the break in the connection:  the cable was cleanly and fully severed – cleaved by a carpet fitter’s Stanley Knife blade moving at speed and with force. The engineer held up the two ends, some shock on his face. This wasn’t a knick; this was a full cut through.

“Could they have chopped it without realising?” she asked the engineer – the forensic instinct suddenly to the fore in the hallway, all attention and thought focussed on the moment at which that cable switched from one length to two.

“Oh, they would have known” he replied with theatrical gravity.

Back in the call her spoken thoughts turn to minutiae of the fitters’ moment by moment afternoon residence in her house.  She recalls a moment – that seemed odd at the time, but which only now tumbled back to thought because of its emergent significance, when the fitters suddenly went outside to the van, but brought nothing back from that trip. She remembers the abruptness of their departure at the end of the job. In conversation with the engineer (who by then had ascended to a gallant ‘white knight’ in her narrative, contrasting with the opposing figuration of the fitters, now hunched, ruddy and vaguely Neanderthal in the imagery of the story) matters of fault and blame are mapped out. She returns to civilisation both through the restoration of her phone line and in the validation of her anger, vulnerability and sense of having been assailed. No, she didn’t imagine it. This event was real and her feeling of distress and inconvenience proportionate. She felt that she had returned to the world.

Hunting invisible things

In the above event, we find – if we choose to look – an entanglement of the personhood, matter and abstract notions of service. Whilst we do need to pay more attention to (physical) things themselves, we must not ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. To talk of a telephone ceasing to work is as much as social situation as it is a technical one. Yes, the existence of the telephone system (and our dependency upon it) is revealed in the moment of its failure, but exploring the thing that is revealed requires more than tracing the cable to the point of its severance. Many things flow from that cut, and many of them are invisible.

As a lawyer my gut response to that telephone call would be a flurry of sentences floating into mind, hovering before my eyes like subtitles to the event and situation beyond. I’d see section 13 of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982:

“In a contract for the supply of a service where the supplier is acting in the course of a business, there is an implied term that the supplier will carry out the service with reasonable care and skill.”

I’d see paperwork, a pathway to effective arguments – all so many words marshalled as ammunition for a campaign against the carpet fitter. But, that’s me. She didn’t read the situation that way. Perhaps at some vague level she realises that she has some form of contractual connection (and attendant rights) in her relationship with the carpet fitters – but if she does this element is far from mind. Her reaction is more instinctive and driven by an embedded sense of what is right and wrong, what is appropriate and not appropriate and what order and disorder look and feel like. What restores the balance is the reconnection of the phone (an important part of her identity and sense of security) and the confirmation by others (the engineer, the carpet shop) that her dislocation caused by the event was significant to others, not just her.

In her reflection upon the event – in its becalming aftermath – she also sees paper. But she does not reach for the law-makers’ vellum, the call handler’s laminated flow chart or the crinkled job-sheet of the carpet fitter. No, she reaches for her Basildon Bond and her Parker Pen. Such situations – for her – call for a stiff letter, written on her luscious watermarked cream pad. This is her way of completing the stabilisation of the situation, to commit umbrage to paper; to send off a missive. This is what the situation calls for. She invests careful thought in her letter, these things must be said for their own sake. For her they are part of the resolution of this situation.

She directs her volley to: “To whom it may concern” and awaits its return service. But she is doomed to be disappointed. For neither the carpet fitter nor the telephone company are playing the same game as her. For them the situational framing and the modes of engagement are so different, an anonymous instance of generic processes. There will be no parley. This cable, this carpet, this space under the stairs – so much to some, so little to others.

Image source: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/business/industries/retailing/article3886403.ece (NB: generic image, no aspersions intended on the fitter pictured or the carpet co featured in the source article)

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Call for Papers – for Law and Geography session at the 2014 RGS Annual Conference, London 26-29 August 2014

smoking-gallery2

Session title: Legal Geography: Moving Forward with Methods & Materialities

“Our relationships, social bonds, would be airy as clouds were there only contracts between subjects… the object… stabilizes our relationships… makes our history slow.” (Michel Serres, 1995: 87)

This legal geography stream proceeds from the assumption (which appears to be widely accepted, though critiques are always welcome) that space, society and law are at a nexus, that they are co-constituted. Legal geography has, in other words, been ‘born’. Given this assumption, the stream aims to consider how the cross-discipline is being applied and extended, presenting papers that identify new and ongoing lines of spatio-legal inquiry, research and theory.

In particular we are interested in the following questions:

· Engaging with the RGS IBG 2014 Conference theme, how does legal geography engage with practices and theories of co-production? How are places and spaces legally and socio-spatially co-produced?

· What is the role here for imagination? Can spatio-legal imaginations underpin decision-making, even if they are often out of view? How do ‘imaginative geographies’ mesh with legal provisions and practices? How does ‘space talk’ work in legal decision-making?

· What are the relationships between legal understandings of representation and geographical theories of non-representation? How do legal orderings depend on affective attitudes (Weber) or embodiment? How can non-representative understandings operate in legal processes, which have their own formulations of ‘representation’?

· How is the spatio-legal implicated in processes of managing objects – of ‘how matter is made to matter’ (Barad 2003)? How does it frame and marshal the arrangement of things in space? How is the spatio-materiality of law experienced by human (and other) subjects? How is law translated (Latour, 2005) into flows of matter and the resulting assemblages of materials that form buildings, streets and the urban landscape?

· How do legal discourse and practices contribute to the making and controlling of spaces at multiple scales? What are the relationships between scale and jurisdiction or between territory, jurisdiction and sovereignty?

· How do legal discourses or practices operate to create ‘geographies of (in)justice’? How can legal processes of place-making be critiqued through the lenses of critical geography and progressive urbanism or rurality?

· Are gender, heteronormativity or race embedded in legal geographical processes? How do relationships of power take legal geographical form?

· What are the dangers of conflating law and geography? What methodological problems will be encountered? What claims to knowledge and validity can such hybrid analysis of law and geography claim?

In each of the above we welcome analyses that consider prospective, contemporary and/or historical experiences of legal geography, bringing hybrid law/geography tools and techniques to bear on past, present or future events or understandings.

We hope these questions stimulate debate but they are not intended to be exclusionary in any way. Any paper that engages, critiques or dismisses legal geography would be very welcome.

Please send a proposed abstract of 200-300 words, together with a title to the paper to Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University, l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) or Antonia Layard (University of Bristol, from 1st January 2014, antonia.layard@gmail.com) by 20th February, 2014.

 

Image source: http://www.south-ayrshire.gov.uk/images/smoking-gallery2.jpg

‘I dream of wires’ or, how I never became a telephone engineer

van

         I am the final silence

                                The last electrician alive

                                                And they called me the sparkle

                                                                I was the best, I worked them all

                                                                                                New ways, new ways

                                                                                                                I dream of wires … the old days

                                                                                                                Gary Numan (1980) I Dream Of Wires

New ways, new ways

The mist hanging low in the valley was a familiar sight. But it was the dampness of the air that struck me that morning as we stepped out of the car. The air hung around us, poking tendrils into any building open to its reach. We’d travelled up from the coast, along the valley’s ample, empty dual carriageway and its ridgeline dense with bracken and monolithic spruce plantations. The Japanese were coming…

Gwent – a county now without an official name – typified that post-industrial landscape I’d worked amidst in South Wales in the 1990s. The roads, the low grey ‘business park’ sheds parachuted in by the Welsh Development Agency as the vanguard of hoped for inward investment, like signal flares scattered across this troubled landscape.

I’d first been in this valley in 1992, to visit the Ebbw Vale garden festival. A former steel works site, temporarily tweaked to ornamental gardens in celebration of resurgence yet to come. It had taken two early morning bus rides on that occasion to be standing, in the soon to be familiar mist. And on yet another occasion, this time in the dark, another bus ride – this time a chartered one, taking the creative class out from Cardiff (the imperial enclave) for the evening. The destination then: another abandoned Ebbw Vale steel works but this time a night of experimental theatre, celebrating (or mourning) the death of hot metal in this valley, and a memory of a man – Prometheus – hanging from a gantry crane as it sped overhead during Brith Gof’s performance. Then yet another  day in this valley, civic dignitaries assembled for a visit to the valley’s hazardous waste incinerator, huddled amidst a sea of still amply stocked superscale scrap yards. That plant, a strangely low key assembly for all the local notoriety. Like a few tubes welded together and a big chimney, but all outdoors amidst that mist.

But the destination for my mid 1990s early morning mist enveloped car journey back up this valley road was a nondescript factory unit. Standing at the door of the vast industrial shed, all I could see were conveyor belts and stacks of stock, lines receding into the dark distance. Then, as I walked those lines, women sat, their arms moving in uniform motion – an epitome of the valley’s new working class. But observed up close their actions ran backwards. They were de-manufacturing, taking old telephones apart and throwing the salvaged components into coloured bins. These were disassembly lines. And the stock?:  the nation’s heap of discarded telephones, principally the Series 700 (introduced in 1959) and the Trimphone (released 1966). In 1984 the privatisation of Post Office Telephones had opened the flood gates to an influx of new models, an international direct-to-user explosion of choice.  This heap of phones was testament to the old days – the days of limited model choice, and patient waiting in line. The plant was slowly working through the heap. Once it was gone, they would be gone too.

As I wandered the plant, amidst hundreds of thousands of waiting dead phones, there was no sudden stir in unison, no throwing out of one last resistant death-ring cacophony.

A lineman for the county

                I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road

                                                Searchin’ in the sun for another overload

                                                                I hear you singin’ in the wire, I can hear you through the whine

                                                                                                And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

                                                                                                                Jimmy Webb (1968) Wichita Lineman

In the early 1980s, as a young teenager, I’d wanted to be a telephone engineer. I’d written off to the GPO and received a manila envelope (possibly my first) in reply. Inside was a collection of leaflets telling me about the training programme for line engineers – and featuring photographs of the General Post Office Engineering Department Central Training school at Yarnfield near Stone, Staffs.  I saw happy mustachioed young men in flares and open necked shirts playing pool, eating and happily learning about multicoloured wires amidst the campus’ 1960s style wood and metal institutional architecture. The flares put me off a bit, but at the time it looked like a possible career that would set me up with a job for life.

And there was something romantic in it too. That problem solving, service restoring ethic, the mission and tasking, the promise of camaderie, of accumulated skill, of machine/human entanglement. But it was the prospect of a van, copious tools, an open road and a fakir like opportunity to escape the world by clambering up telegraph poles that did it for me the most.   On my way to school my heart would skip a beat as I saw convoys of vans setting off each day from their depot, with cable reels in tow, mounted ladders- a medley of big, small and irregular vehicles each with their own purpose, like a break-out from a toyshop. A Tonka rebellion.

Actually the convoy wasn’t telephonic. The vehicles belonged to the South West Electricity Board, their livery a municipal grey and green giving the whole despatch a vague military hew.  But that daily parade served as a nice proxy.

Somehow the idea faded though. Books took over. I never got a yellow van.  The privatisation of British Telecom in 1984 took something from the romance of being a telephone engineer. It no longer seemed like a public service, an institution, a job for life. Thereafter phones, and phone services were just commodities. My mind turned to other things.

Many of my school friends followed the lure of the van, but into the military rather than BT. Thus in the 1990s whilst I played my small – ambivalent – part in the deindustrialisation of South Wales my friends variously soaked up tank churned mud in Catterick, cheap beer in Rhineland pubs, gamma rays in the bowels of Nuclear Submarines or deadly bullets in ‘small wars’.

Hey baby, I’m your telephone man

But there was another thing that put me off. Being a telephone engineer was a fantasy of escape, of independence and yet it posed (to an innocent 13 year old boy’s mind) the scary prospect of oppressive human encounters within warm homes. I was genuinely fearful of what my customers might demand of me as ‘extras’. Remember, this was the early 1980s, Benny Hill and Robin Askwith (the Confessions of a Window Cleaner etc films) still fed the then still dominant image of the predatory desires of bored housewives and those calling upon them. It all sounded too complex, all this human stuff. There was even a song in testimony to what I feared…

                “I got it in the bedroom, and I got it in the hall

                                And I got it in the bathroom, and he hung it on the wall

                                                I got it with a buzz, and I got it with a ring

                                                                And when he told me what my number was I got a ding-a-ling”

                                                                                                                Meri Wilson (1977) Telephone Man

 

 

References

http://www.britishtelephones.com/histuk.htm

Image source

GPO Telephone pole man – http://www.dennishanna.com/street%20scene.jpg