‘I dream of wires’ or, how I never became a telephone engineer
December 11, 2013 Leave a comment
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
GPO Telephone pole man – http://www.dennishanna.com/street%20scene.jpg