In his new memoirs, I came all this way to meet you, the American novelist Jami Attenberg says he met a man who is not on any social network, and who therefore has no idea what it is like to receive a like or a retweet. Attenberg regards this state as extremely unusual, not to say bizarre; she’s all over Instagram and everything. But his astonishment is tempered by what looks like envy. “Damn beautiful unicorn,” she wrote of her. “What is it like to be fully self-validating? What’s it like waking up every day and not caring what other people think? »
I happen to have spent the last 18 years of my life with such a unicorn, even though the man I’m talking about is – or was – an even rarer beast than his. So a guy is not on social media. So what? Many people are not. Facebook is for dinosaurs. By far the most important fact about my mythical creature is that until three weeks ago it didn’t even have a mobile, in a Britain where around 87% of adults have a smartphone. Not only had he never used social media, but he had never sent, let alone received, text messages. The exquisite torture that comes from WhatsApp and its blue ticks was completely unknown to him, a man whose body is indeed very far from wired to respond to alerts. Nothing rang in his pocket as he walked around. When he got lost he must have asked a stranger, not Google Maps. When he was out late, he had to rely on his legs, not an Uber. Calls? You would be surprised. The last time he needed to contact me urgently while on the go, he walked into a hotel bar and, calling on all his David Niven-esque urbanity, casually asked a waiter s he could “use your phone for a moment”.
Unsurprisingly, friends and strangers expressed surprise at this refusal to join the program (I mean the program of being available 24/7), their manner oscillating between fun and exasperation. Do you, people would sarcastically ask, always recite your number when you answer your landline? But I always found irritation to be the most interesting response, as it evoked feelings of exclusion and hurt (“Don’t to want what am I calling you? “). Sometimes it borders on anger, low-level rage that could possibly – I’m only guessing – have been linked to a sense of injustice. While T had escaped the constant hassle, stress, and surveillance, they hadn’t and never would. (Not that they would ever admit it. Far too much – their entire existence! – was, is, at stake for this.)
What about me, though? At some point, eyes inevitably slid in my direction. Wasn’t I the long-suffering one! How did I cope? I would be lying if I said it wasn’t sometimes boring. A few months ago, I left a party before him to find that I didn’t have my keys with me; I had to wait on the doorstep for an hour. I used to roll my eyes if he asked me to use my phone, especially because then I had to explain How? ‘Or’ What to use it. “Useful, aren’t they?” I would say, jaw clenched. But, like Attenberg, I also admired. Such a refusal spoke of confidence and ease; in his stubbornness, he usefully reminded me of a past in which we all survived perfectly without being contactable at any time. Her phoneless state has also, I think, helped maintain the intimacy that is vital for a peaceful couple. Even if I wanted to watch him, I couldn’t, and he, in turn, had no interest in my phone because, well, phones weren’t something he was interested in. I saw others being harassed by – or harassed – their loved ones and found that I was relieved to have been exempted from this regime, even against my wishes at first.
But the biggest benefit of all was undoubtedly for him – and that’s where the envy sets in. All that extra time! When people asked how he managed to write so much – during the first lockdown, as I stared at my little screen he started and finished his recent memoir – the answer was blindingly obvious. Unlike the rest of the world, he never wasted a moment wondering why someone hadn’t replied to his last message; nor did he indulge in fate or any other kind of scroll. To make his time his, he needed so little discipline. Her in-between times were calm and quiet, to be used for good things like reading or listening to music. Mine were – they still are – punctuated with incoming fire that I’m apparently forbidden to ignore (“Didn’t you see my email?”). My phone has the ability to make me deeply unhappy.
But as you will have noticed, this piece is written in the past tense. At Christmas, T asked me to give him a phone and that’s what I did by slipping it into his stocking so as not to make too much of it. What had penetrated his defenses? I’d told him a hundred times – usually while printing out a new boarding pass – that he might be disenfranchised in a world where the phone is the key to everything, and yet he still wouldn’t crack not. In the end, there were two things. First, his beloved iPod was obsolete; he wanted to be able to use Spotify while he ran. Second, there was Covid, which requires so much paperwork, best kept on a cell phone.
Outwardly, I was triumphant. “It’s for the best,” I said, in the calm voice I reserve for such situations. But inside, something else was going on. My fucking beautiful unicorn was about to disappear. When the Christmas message went to the pot, and not one but two SIM cards went missing and the shiny new phone couldn’t be used, it was impossible to ignore: relief welled up inside me. A stay of execution for both of us. Shortly after, with the sim finally arriving, there came a time when I found him in an armchair, AirPods in his ears, completely engrossed in the black rectangle in his hand. How long would he remain a free man? Never again such innocence, I thought sadly.
But there is hope. Having spent his entire adult life without a phone, certain rules have been established; some habits are hard to break. T is not your typical phone user, and maybe never will be. Only me and his sister have his number, and I’m not allowed to give it to anyone else. The other night a friend begged him – the telephone is the topic of conversation in our circle; everyone wants to be the first to break the long silence/waste their life – and thumbscrews having been applied, I gave in. The friend texted, but there was no response – not then, or for the rest of the evening. “It’s probably extinct,” I said. “What?” said the friend. “Nobody turns off their phone.”
Hmm. When I got home, I asked after the text that had been sent. Did he receive it? He handed me his phone showing me his response, sent the next morning. “Automated message”, it said. “This number is no longer available.” It was very convincing; he had added dashes to the words “automated message”, and somehow it looked official. “I feel a little guilty,” he said, stuffing it into his pocket. But his face, which wore a smile, told another story – that of a phone that isn’t quite a phone. Or not yet.
Anthony Quinn: “A bus ride is now a mess of performative monologues”
People were often in disbelief that I never had a cell phone. They talked to me about it as if I was missing a limb or had a serious illness. But it really wasn’t that hard to live without. Thirty years ago, almost everyone did, and life was fine.
Why, however? I guess because I never wanted it. From the outside, looking inside, I noticed how mobiles were changing everyday behaviors. Insidiously, the sleek pocket devil has become what a pack of cigarettes was to an earlier generation: something to occupy your hand, extremely antisocial, unhealthy.
At one point, it became acceptable to interrupt a conversation by raising your finger and saying, “I just need to take this”; put your phone on a dining table and check your entries, surreptitiously or not; pacing a sidewalk, head down, eyes absorbed by your screen (so I you have to get out of the way you?). I mostly travel by bus, which used to be a good place to daydream, ride around, worry about the next chapter in my book. Solitary mooching must be the cornerstone of any civilized society. Alas, the upstairs deck is now a tumult of chatter, droners, performative monologues.
The dream was over after the pandemic. It no longer seemed viable – or fair to Rachel – for someone to babysit me with NHS apps and Covid going on a phone that wasn’t mine. Not everything is bad. No more problems with entering galleries, theaters, football stadiums. And I have Spotify when I go for a run – genius. For the rest, however, I hope to maintain a low blocking of access. I don’t intend to give out my number. Email is the saviour. Frankly, I love my friends! I just don’t want them to call me – ever.
Anthony Quinn’s most recent book is Klopp: My Liverpool Romance (Faber); his novel London, Burning is Paperback release next month (Abacus)