June 20, 2018

In Praise of the 746: When phones were phones

Old Telephone

Modern phones are, to paraphrase Blur, rubbish. Mobiles have more gadgets than any sane person would ever use, and ‘plug-in’ domestic phones are horrible plasticky lightweight things, that slide across the table when you pick up the receiver, annoy with their burbly electronic ringtone and have features (speed dial, call waiting, answering machines) which are impossible to programme, much less use.

You may have never heard of the GPO 746, but if you’re over the age of thirty, you will instantly recognise one. Until 1982, the General Post Office, then British Telecom, not only had a monopoly of all the domestic telephone lines in the UK, they also rented householders the phone itself. No choice (other than colour) – you got a GPO 746. Squat and reassuring, with its Perspex dial and dog-bone handset, it sat heavily on the side table or shelf. No carrying it round the house, you had to stand next to the phone to make a call. The dial, on a stiff spring, required a well-developed forefinger to turn, and then wound itself back with a clockwork rumble. Even the ring was in character. No bleepy nokia tune, no singing frog, the 746 ring was strident peal of bells, a self-important ring. It was the kind of ring used to scramble a flight of Spitfires. It made you jump if you were sitting next to it.

Old Telephone
My 746

I own a 746. I bought it from a junk shop for £30 (they’re getting collectable) ready and wired up to plug into the standard BT socket. I love it – it takes you back to being a kid. It even smells good- an old plastic chemically whiff from the mouthpiece. If Proust grew up in the 1970’s he’d have written about a 746, not a cake. The best thing about my 746, however, is that it’s a RED one. The rarest of all the colours, I always wanted one (my parents had a boring black – I busted it by pushing the dial both ways). Every time I use it I feel like I’m on the hotline to the Kremlin. I’m giving serious consideration to getting a huge map of Europe and Russia on my office wall and drawing in the tracks of missile launches in felt tip. When I get bored with that, I can pretend to be Jack Regan in The Sweeney, fag in one hand, paper cup of Bells in the other, bellowing down the phone against a background of coppers using electric typewriters and filing cabinets. A slice of 70’s nostalgia for a fraction of the cost of a mark 2 Ford Granada.

I offered to replace the other two phones in the house with 746’s. My wife hates them. She thinks it takes too long to dial, and the receiver, built from solid 1960’s plastic, too heavy. ‘It makes phoning difficult’. I aver she should see this not as a problem, but as an opportunity. Phones aren’t for chatting on, I say. They are for the giving and receiving of instructions, such as ‘I’ll see you in the pub at 8’, then you chat when you get there. In fact the next stage is to save up and buy a wartime bakelite number with a sticker on the top reading ‘Is your call really necessary?’ People accuse me of Luddism, but in fact I like technology, just not modern technology. Retrotech, you might say. The thing is, though, the 746 is perfectly suited to modern times. They last forever, owing to their high build quality (no recycling required). They have what might be described as a ‘user friendly interface’- you can use it intuitively. It’s also simple to use because its only function is to make phone calls, which is all a phone should be for. It’s also much more satisfying to slam down angrily when a recorded voice is trying to consolidate your debts- you get a great ‘CLUNK>ting<’ sound. Try doing that with an iPhone.

We’ve already had the slow food movement- I’m proposing the slow phone movement- say no to speed dialling! Join the retrotech revolution! Order your 746 today!

2 Comments on In Praise of the 746: When phones were phones

  1. I am the proud owner of a GPO 300 series Bakelite telephone which, has never gone out of style since its introduction in 1937. Also my parents had a red 746 which they used right up until the mid 90’s. In fact they still have it just in case their modern BT cordless job fails

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