By Donald Walker
As if we didn’t have enough to do, there were endless problems with the phones. Well, actually we didn’t have enough to do, that was the real problem. There were some fifteen or twenty of us in the same room on the fourth floor of the Mirror building in Holborn.
All of us were skilled writers at the top of our game or had been at the top of some game or other before a heady mixture of drink, the old ennui, and raging expenses fever had shredded our nerves.
Now here we were in the 1970s dumped by unfeeling and soulless gods into room 404 to wait… for what? Nobody knew. We’d mostly been drafted into Daily Mirror editorial in better times when Cudlipp had had a bright idea called Mirrorscope.
This pull-out section, launched in the 60s, was supposed to be the Mirror ‘going serious’ in its attempt to ‘educate’ the public, to find its soul. A faint imitation of the far more erudite Sunday Times.
But then the unfeeling, soulless Murdoch had happened along, prised the Sun from Cudlipp’s reluctant (huh!) fingers and shown that the public was more interested in locating its G-spot than some ephemeral inner avatar.
Come to think of it, it was phrases like ‘ephemeral inner avatar’ that got us here in the first place. Ephemeral inner avatars could get right to the back of the queue behind the Sun‘s brazen Essex girls, their tits and bingo…as the Mirror‘s rapidly dwindling circulation proved.
But at least we in the Colditz of room 404 had the distraction of the telephones. No longer needed for our in-depth reporting and profound, learned research, we could distract ourselves with darts, poker, lunchtime drinking – and the weirdness of Holborn’s underwiring.
For some reason never fully or satisfactorily explained the telephone system in the old Mirror building in Holborn had become inextricably entwined and fused with all the other systems in the area, perhaps in the country.
The phones in room 404 would ring briefly and then stop. Pick up the receiver: silence. Or a distant, ghostly voice would say: ‘Sheila?’ or ‘Hello, this is Pearl Insurance’ or ‘Is that Gamages?’ Incoming? Outgoing? Who knew?
Worse, contacts (few) or angry wives (too many) or girlfriends (too few) would get through and say: ‘Where have you been? I’ve been ringing you all day!’ when the phone had been silent for hours.
The Bank of England was the much-sought-after target of many callers. They became quite apoplectic, as well they might, when told they had managed to get through to some distant outpost of Daily Mirror editorial and we couldn’t help them with their fiduciary concerns.
‘What the bloody hell is going on?’ they would frequently and understandably ask. As if we had any idea. We didn’t know what was going on in the editorial floor below us let alone in the grand, sweeping markets of hedge funds and gilts.
There was, of course, fun to be had, especially by the sharp-witted. Colin Dunne, often to be found in the taxing throes of teaching me poker, had the flexion to switch with ease from full houses and busted flushes to Spensely’s Nuts And Bolts Manufacturers.
Let me explain.
If I received a call through the neurotic and weird world web of wires that was the Holborn telephone exchange asking for Spensely’s Nuts And Bolts Manufacturers, I would politely say: ‘Sorry, you have a wrong number’ and replace the receiver. After lunch it might be: ‘Oh, piss off!’ or ‘Do I sound like a nuts and bolts manufacturer, you prick?’
But Colin, thus accosted, would never turn aside. The conversation would proceed in the following fashion:
Well-meaning Caller: Is that Spensely’s Nuts And Bolts Manufacturers, please?
Colin Dunne: Yes it is.
WMC: Can I speak to the stockroom?
WMC: Oh. That was quick.
CD: Yes, we aim to give satisfaction with every nut and bolt.
WMC: Oh…Um, well, I’d like to order a hundred gross of number 9 nuts.
CD: No, we haven’t got any.
WMC (really alarmed): You haven’t got any!?
CD: Nope. Ran out yesterday.
WMC: Ran out?! But I been ordering number 9s from you for years.
CD: Yup. Demand has finally overtaken supply. How about number 15s?
WMC: 15s? I didn’t know you did a 15!
CD: Brand new in today. Want some?
WMC (now very concerned): I shall have to speak to my gov’nor. We need them 9s urgently.
CD: How about 8s? Can do you hundredweight of 8s.
One day, when the wires were crossed beyond all recognition, I was forced to listen to a whole telephonic conversation between a husband and wife who were unaware of my presence. I kept rattling my phone buttons constantly but nothing would dislodge them or even make them aware of me.
Soon I stoppped pressing buttons and listened. The conversation was itself a primer in how not to get pissed at the station bar and explain yourself to the wife.
The conversation was between…let’s call them Harry and Muriel. They were a couple in their late 50s; Harry was a piss artist and Muriel had heard every excuse known to housewife kind.
Harry had stayed too long at the bar in Waterloo Station but, carefully readied by his drunken mates, had his story down pat. He was set to deal with Muriel. This was in the days of IRA bomb threats and subsequent road and rail delays.
Harry (carefully sober): Hello, my darling.
Muriel: Who is this?
Harry (losing it a little): Who is…it’s me, Harry, your husband!
Muriel (without emotion): Yes.
Harry (still manages to sound sober, or thinks he does): I’m afraid the train’s been cancelled and I’ve been delayed. I’m still at Waterloo. The queue is terrible.
Muriel (even less emotion): Really. Why?
Harry (slurring very slightly): There’s been a bomb threat.
Muriel: A bomb threat? What do you mean a bomb threat?
Now, this was beyond the point Harry’s training at Have Another One HQ had taken him. Despite vast experience in such domestic matters, his operations IMBYR (It Must Be Your Round) team had not anticipated direct, probing questions such as this. Mind you, as they could barely speak properly and had to close one eye to see the barman, this was not surprising.
Harry (totally losing it): W’d I mean? W’d I mean? You silly cow it’s a bomb! Don’ you know wh’d a fucking bomb is, you daft bint…Mus’ I ‘splain everyfuckingthin’?
Muriel (grimly): Goodbye.
When, many years later, we finally got to Canary Wharf, the telephone system worked perfectly. No crossed lines, no confusions, no desperate calls for a hundred gross of number 9 nuts. And the Stab was miles away. Life had lost something of its lustre.