One of the things I love about The Crown – and it’s my favourite TV drama since The West Wing – is the complete absence of mobile phones. Perhaps that is why I feel particularly irritable when my wife begins texting in the middle of it.
During a dinner party to celebrate Princess Margaret’s birthday, no one says, “Yes you were, look!” and gets out their phone to google “Princess Floosy Mustique”. It’s safe to say the absence of tech makes for a much more satisfying scene. We meanwhile can barely get through breakfast without settling a dispute online.
There was a subtle moment in one episode when the Queen realises the electric servant buzzer won’t work because of Mr Heath’s power cuts, and so she has to ring an actual bell, by hand – perhaps for the last time. I remember thinking, that is when the rot set in. Bring Back Real Bells.
Everything has gone downhill in the second half of Elizabeth’s reign – no offence, your Majesty– but the mobile phone is surely the most pernicious innovation. It is a pox on civilisation and on human discourse. A tempting enough convenience, of course – they always are, the conveniences, that open the gates to the barbarians from within. A whispering, insinuating, but ultimately sterile pleasure.
I am not a Puritan. Calls must sometimes be taken on trains, of course and we have all adjusted to this reality. But while we can put up with people taking calls, making them is worse, if not quite unforgiveable. What is really infuriating, is trying to enlist the sympathy of your fellow passengers when the signal drops and you lose the call. Muttering “Bloody tunnels!” or making eye contact to communicate exasperation – as if the rest of the passengers might be expected to share in your impatience, rather than warm their hands at the embers of your defeat. We want your call to be dropped. We want you to be forever foiled.
If anyone calls me on the train my stage whisper is a stern “I’m on the train” for the benefit of the other passengers, in a voice that unmistakably tells the caller to hurry up. I then look around the carriage to make sure that this behavioural template has been, and will be, observed.
But trains are liminal spaces and one must roll with the swell. In social situations, we can and should cultivate our environment. The flow of conversation should be nurtured above all else. The smartphone works on it like acid.
We all know it’s wrong, of course. But sadly, consulting your phone in company is like murder, or leaving a dog turd unbagged. The first time is the hardest. When you realise that few people will actually admonish you for it, it is tempting to do it all the time. Don’t. They do hate you, even if they don’t say so. I do, even if I am not there.
Incredibly, iPhones have only been around for just over a decade. Yet already the battle feels lost. But as with gardens, and the countryside, you would be astonished how swift nature’s return can be, if left to its own devices, so to speak – which is to say no effing devices at all.
Rewilding your dinner parties, furthermore, is every bit as satisfying as reintroducing wolves into Kent. Be brutal. Put a bowl by the door – of the kind once used for car keys – and ask people to put their phones in it. Have one unit if you must, that controls your Sonos, but that aside, eliminate them.
There will be small practical irritations, yes. And there will be massive, disproportionate tantrums (tantra?). But once people begin to adapt, the psychological boost is huge. Really huge.
Once people realise for instance that they cannot consult their phones to remind them of a certain name, fact, or face, they will be forced to reach a bit further up to the higher shelves of their memory. They may misremember, which is a creative act in and of itself, and can be one of the most amusing and telling glimpses into private filing systems and taxonomies of thought. They may have to interrupt other conversations, which can be enormously welcome by at least one party to that conversation, very often both.
And if all else fails they force one to make shift, to devise a work around, a paraphrase, to coin a metaphor, to forge a new approximation – all of which is the very essence of language and communication. These are the toys of the mind. This is where the fun is.
By all means have pen and paper available on the table. If people want to give one another phone numbers or suggest plumbers, these suffice, and also allow people to doodle, and even sketch, or map out or enhance their conversation in a hundred other ways. I have from time to time got into the habit of taking a small note pad to pubs and cafes. People are briefly surprised, and I’m sure regard it as pretentious, but then they see the advantage of jotting down things one wants to investigate – a book, a TV show, a paint colour – on paper, rather than searching it on Amazon and being instantly blasted by the thousand shocks the 21st century brain is heir to.
The effects of rewilding may catch you by surprise. At first, there is anxiety. But before you know it, conversation is spreading in all sorts of unexpected directions, now meandering, now surging with great power and passion, like the rivers in Yellowstone after they reintroduced the apex predators, the wolves, and reduced the herbivores who stood nibbling uselessly at everything in the bog, uncannily like we chewers of the digital cud. Fires spring up to burn back the underbrush of received, social media wisdom. The landscape reshapes you. And you become, as the therapists say, truly present.
‘Live like a Mighty River’, advised Ted Hughes, in perhaps the greatest letter ever written by a poet to his son. The first decisive action is to cast aside your phone whenever flesh and blood present you with the real thing.