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On finding new uses for outdated telephone kiosks

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martin pawley

As avid readers of this column will know, its author has, in the past, spent the odd paragraph mocking the efforts of those who, having succeeded in slapping a preservation order on all cast-iron Gilbert Scott telephone boxes, have now turned their attention to the telecommunications industry by campaigning against cellular-telephone base stations, satellite dishes, electricity pylons, television transmission masts and so on.

Perhaps the most comical episode so far in this war against progress has been the Orange competition for the redesign of mobile-phone base stations. This scheme, enhanced by that other stroke of genius - the Prince of Wales' Institute - looked at one time as though it was going to enable the forces of reaction to corner the market in backward-looking art-historical antennae. But alas, it turned out that the 13,000 offending base stations - many of them incidentally manufactured in Swindon in an award-winning high-tech factory opened by the Queen - were already on their way to the dustbin of history, courtesy of a cigarette packet-sized, low-radiation transmitter developed at Leeds University. This wee device can be invisibly fixed to the side of a building, a lamp-post or a tree in place of a mast.

Curses! Once again, it seemed that the forces of reaction had been thrown off balance by the rapidity of research and development in the electronics industry. No sooner had they got the mobile-communications companies in their sights and issued the code word for attack to their crack teams of planning officers, than the target dodged away. One could sense the bitter disappointment of the spokesman for the Council for the Protection of Rural England: 'On the face of it, any technology that replaced masts would be very welcome. For years we have suffered the consequences of a planning system biased in favour of telecommunications companies. You need planning permission to put up a porch at your house but not to erect an enormous mast in open countryside,' he said.

Still, no use crying over electronically digitised milk. The telecommunications companies don't have everything their own way. There is always the matter of prostitutes' cards in telephone boxes. This is, of course, rather a sordid matter that might not appeal to the kind of people who think themselves bold when they say satellite dishes are 'horrid', but it illustrates yet another facet of the battle between the forces of reaction and the new world of universal communications.

For instance, even though mobile phones have taken over from public telephones, the forces of reaction still insist on preventing the removal of public telephones from our streets - an inappropriate policy on their part incidentally, given that our streets would look far more comfortingly Dickensian with no public telephones at all. In any case, it must be better that these obsolete communications devices serve a useful purpose as public information centres for the sex industry than that they should just stand there, serving no legitimate purpose at all.

Apparently not. For lately the forces of reaction inside the government have been threatening £1,000 fines and two years in prison for the lads on mountain bikes who wage the war of the 'tart cards' with the tight- lipped telecommunications 'cleaning teams'. Fourteen million cards a year are lost in this silent battle of wits, but, like the cellular base station, the information centre for the sex industry is about to go cardless. A tiny solar-powered microchip hidden close to the public telephone will soon replace the expendable card. The ceaseless battle of wits between past and future will continue.

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