Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Hurry up, the pips are going

The Great British telephone box is under threat. Once a widely used item of street furniture and a familiar part of our landscape, they're disappearing fast and heading towards oblivion. There's no prize for guessing why - the proliferation of mobile telephones has triggered a revolution in inter-personal communication.

Let's crunch some numbers. As recently as 2002, Britain had 95,000 phone boxes - an all-time high. By mid-2008, that figure had decreased by well over 30,000, and more seem certain to be lost. Of the 61,000 or so kiosks that remain, close to 60 per cent are unprofitable. BT says payphone usage has dipped by just over 50 per cent since 2006, and the number of calls made from phone boxes are declining by 20 per cent year-on-year. On average, 6000 public telephones are used to make less than one call a month. Grim sums.

Faced with diminishing call revenue from kiosks and the ongoing expense of keeping them clean and in good working order - well, they are something of a vandal magnet, aren't they? - BT recently announced plans to remove yet more under-used phone boxes from our streets. 8,700 are currently lined up to be decommissioned, including many iconic red telephone boxes, a symbol of Britain recognised throughout the world. Sad, innit?

Phone boxes have many other uses apart from facilitating phone calls though. They can act as handy public toilets - venture inside one and have a sniff for some eyewatering proof - and they have long been used to tout for business as well.

Kiosks can also double as venues for impromptu get-togethers for the homeless and dispossessed during spells on inclement weather, as demonstrated by the post-party debris in the image at the top of this posting, taken on East Crosscauseway in Edinburgh city centre. That same picture also shows how the interior of phone boxes offer an ideal canvas for imaginative street artists to indulge in some high-profile creativity. Here's another example, taken outside the Pleasance in Edinburgh:

Other artists prefer to subtly amend adverts on the exterior of kiosks, elevating bland ads into something more interesting, as illustrated in the following examples. The first was spotted on North High Street in Musselburgh:

Attention should be drawn here to the use of an unusual method. Bold scratching like this is rarely seen.

The artist responsible for our final example has chosen to make a bombshell allegation about an all-American icon, the late Colonel Sanders:

Oh dear. Let's tactfully ignore the contentious and unsubstantiated claim made in that one.

It would be tragic if these public canvasses were to disappear from the streets of Britain completely, but there is a glimmer of hope for the future. BT recently announced plans for a scheme that would allow councils to sponsor local phone boxes for a nominal fee, so they can be retained for posterity. If the plan goes ahead, kiosks would stand as permanent reminders of a bygone age - the pre-mobile era. Better still, they could continue to be utilised by aspiring artists for generations to come.

If that's not an incentive to save them, what is?


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