Thursday 5 December 2019

Scenes from Another World

On this day in 1958, two momentous events occurred – the kind of events that make a person of my vintage realise how long he's been around.
  Before this date, it was not possible to make a telephone call of any distance at all without going via 'the operator', who would connect you (if you were lucky) to the number you wanted. Then came STD (subscriber trunk dialling) and it became possible to dial direct to relatively far flung parts of the country. The maximum distance achievable was roughly that from Bristol to Edinburgh. And so it was that, on this date in 1958, the Queen (with Postmaster General Ernest Marples at her right hand) made the first STD call from Bristol's central telephone exchange to the Lord Provost's residence in Edinburgh. Happily it worked, and the Queen was able to speak the historic words, 'This is the Queen speaking from Bristol. Good afternoon, my Lord Provost.'
 On the same day, elsewhere in England, prime minister Harold Macmillan was opening Britain's first motorway – the Preston bypass, all eight and a quarter miles of it (long since subsumed into the M6). A large and enthusiastic crowd had gathered at the Samlesbury interchange to watch the historic ceremony, such as it was. Macmillan, in an Austin Sheerline limousine, then became the first person to drive (or, rather, be driven) on an English motorway, travelling the length of the bypass at a sensible speed.
  It's fair to say that Britain's first motorway was not an instant success. Many cautious drivers stayed away for fear of being overtaken by maniacs risking speeds of 70mph – or more! Traffic levels (and speeds, which averaged 38mph) were initially low, and it was to be some years before, driven by sheer necessity, British drivers got the hang of motorways. Now a Britain without motorways, and with telephone operators, is inconceivable – and yet that is exactly what we had in my own living memory. Truly it was another world.


  1. Here in Brazil the long distance calls without operator came a bit later,in 1972. From Elvis to exile on main Street.

  2. Coventry 514. It must have been circa 1952 when three 'engineers' came around to our house to install what appeared to be the only telephone in our avenue. What I remember is that for quite a while nobody used it, as we knew nobody who owned a telephone to receive our calls. People we knew would come around and use it and, amazingly, my mother often took calls from complete strangers, who wanted to speak to 'Doris at number 38', and she would go and fetch Doris. It was much the same a year or so later when a Bush 14" TV, bought on tick, arrived in our front room in time for the Coronation. By the time the crown was lowered, half the neighbourhood was huddled around the tiny screen, and my 'Gran' had started on the Gin & Tonics (Gordons and, of course, Schweppes).

  3. Lovely stuff, MM. What a distant, and rather wonderful, world it was. I was one of the crowd of neighbours huddled round next door's telly to watch the Coronation (and grab a glug of champagne – a precocious gesture at three and a half). Amazing that the same Queen is still on the throne. The changes she's seen...

  4. A PS to the above - a year or two after the Coronation, word got around that a previously unknown 'food' had arrived at our local Co-operative store; something called Yoghurt. A trip afoot was organized after I had been collected from Bash Street. I would not be exaggerating if I said that my mother's excitement was palpable - but this was a woman who was convinced, whilst boiling a kettle, that if you left it on 'a little bit longer' after the water had boiled, it would, by some mysterious by-product of solid-state physics, get even hotter than boiling. The 'Yoghurt Trip' as it became known, was not the damp-squib of my imagination, and when my mother timidly inquired whether they had any 'in stock' a besuited manager-type emerged from the back office, introduced himself, and guided us to the rear coldroom where the little pots in colourful tubs were on display. My mother bought 'just the one' in order to 'give it a try'but, it is fair to say, that tasting as it did, like slightly-off top-of-the-milk it was not an instant hit.