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Motorized Ox-Carts

On an unrealized future.

What is really modern? How do we decide? My life is littered with dead or dying technologies which once seemed to me to be thrillingly pioneering and clever. Who bothers now with a short-wave radio? Mine was for years one of my most carefully-tended possessions, carried everywhere from Mogadishu to Moscow. Once I had discovered its mysteries, I could conjure the B.B.C. World Service out of the night air almost anywhere, invariably relieved and heartened to hear an educated, grown-up voice proclaim: “This is London,” and the old call-sign, that subversive, haunting tune, “Lilliburlero.” All gone now. The World Service is on the Internet, calls itself “The World’s Radio Station”, and is even more stuffed with cultural revolutionary sentiments than its domestic sibling stations.

What was modern is now obsolete. I experience this a lot. Several of the shabby rented homes we lived in during my father’s last years in the Navy had these strange boxes in the kitchen, high on the wall. They were shiny and very dark brown in color and had several little round windows behind which there were red and white discs. Under each window was the name of a room in the house. In one of these houses, the box still worked. When my brother pushed a button in his bedroom, a bell would ring and one of the discs (marked “Bedroom 3” in this case) would start to swing and carry on doing so for several seconds. The maid, if she had existed, would in this way have known where she was required, for some time after the shrilling of the bell.

These were not huge or grand houses. They were the sort of place in which I imagine William Brown, of the Just William stories, living. Until before the recent war, even modest professionals expected to employ at least one servant, and this was how she was summoned. The boxes were a modern invention, powered by electricity. Yet it must be fifty years since I have seen one, even a derelict and dead one. Well-off professionals in my country now once again employ servants (generally migrants from foreign lands), though they do not think of them as such. They would not dream of summoning them in this peremptory, mechanical way. They seek to be their friends instead. The world has switched on to a different track and what was so recently new and up-to-date is now a relic. In the same category were the speaking tubes by which the owners of expensive cars gave instructions to their chauffeurs. My father, back in the late 1950s, once borrowed a handsome vintage Alvis for a few days, and it featured this amusing device, which gave us children hours of harmless fun.

But there are much more recent instances of paths our civilization only took for a brief while. Many of them were based on the miraculous telephone, the sort that was wired into the wall and had a dial. While recovering from a motorcycle accident in the Cronshaw ward of Oxford’s old Radcliffe Infirmary in 1969, I was captivated by the telephone on the chief nurse’s desk, which at night did not ring but had a small light embedded in its receiver which flashed red when anyone called. I wanted such a thing for years afterwards and did eventually obtain one. At home, in those days we had a sort of mobile phone—rare in the Britain of the time, where a state monopoly came in green vans to connect your instrument, which was government property and not to be tampered with. But ours could be unplugged and moved from room to room, saving the need for expensive multiple extensions. In the end my mother found another more urgent use for this, thanks to my brother’s habit of slipping home from nearby Balliol College, while she was out, to make long, costly calls to faraway places. She did not just unplug the device, but actually took it with her when she went shopping. It was quite heavy to cart it about, but she reckoned that she saved a lot of money by doing so.

And then there were answering machines, those miraculous things now wholly vanished. In Moscow, I could listen to my messages from any two-kopek payphone, by the use of a little box which sent a unique electronic identifying code to the device, a vital connection and safeguard in the days before cell phones. Likewise I once had an unrivaled collection of telephone plug adaptors, in the days when there was no Wi-Fi and you had to connect directly with the system, to link your computer to the outside world. I was especially proud of the French one, typical of that nation in being conceptually utterly unlike all the others, and the Soviet one, which I had made myself after a brief course in emergency telephone engineering which for a brief period made me actually useful around the house. Now they are so much junk, but it grieves me to throw them away.

I love to think of how the world could have developed in different ways and been modern but totally old-fashioned. My boarding school headmaster, for instance, possessed an Edwardian bathtub of some magnificence, with great brass wheels and levers which could rapidly fill it four feet deep with hot water or subject the user to a bracing shower from above, behind and on either side. How boring, beside this, is the wretched Jacuzzi which expensive hotels wrongly seem to think I want. And anyway, what is modern? Have you ever seen one of those devices by which express trains could snatch mailbags from posts beside the tracks, haul them on board and sort the letters ready for onward delivery when the train arrived in London? They are wonderfully ingenious. And I still mourn that I was born too late to use a slip-coach, another wondrous railway invention. You would be summoned from your luncheon in the restaurant car to return to your seat, in time for your coach to be detached, with intricate timing, from the hurrying train. It would then roll gently into your destination station, without the rest of the express needing to stop there.

I have just begun re-reading Raymond Chandler’s books about the Los Angeles of nearly ninety years ago (which Chandler viewed and described as an ultra-modern place). I keep noticing his references to street cars and interurban railways, the highly advanced electrified system of public transport which L.A. once boasted (you can see it in the opening scenes of that superb movie Double Indemnity, which also features a remarkably early supermarket and a very cunning use of a telephone bell). To me, this sounds far more modern than today’s car-infested city, in which motorized ox-carts trundle inefficiently around crumbling tracks made of concrete slabs, and built on engineering principles so primitive that they were known to the Romans. The streetcars and interurbans Chandler wrote about allegedly had to be pulled up because they got in the way of the cars. Actually, it was the other way round. The cars got in the way of the trams. But the cars, crude as they were, were backed by stronger lobbies. And so we think cars are modern and trams are outmoded, which is more or less the reverse of the truth.

How might the world have been different? In one of his clever short stories about time (I think it is “Random Quest”) John Wyndham takes us into a modern house in a slightly different version of our own age, and describes various strange-shaped devices in it, subtly unlike the fridges and stoves we are used to. As I grew up with a refrigerator powered by kerosene, and once lived in a house with its own small plant for producing coal gas, I am used to the idea that things might be different. And I had better leave typewriters, the radiogram, and the compressed air tubes which once criss-crossed newspaper offices, to another time, before I get wholly carried away.