The long read: Recycling nostalgia

Prasun Sonwalkar
Filed on April 15, 2021

The iconic red phone booths in London and elsewhere in the UK were once a lifeline for communication. Symbolising Britishness and a bygone era, they are getting a new life in the digital age

The souvenir gift shop is a vibrant index of a country’s icons and soft power. Millions of tourists visiting the UK are spoilt for choice while picking up items to carry home as gifts or as reminders of their visit: key chains, postcards, mugs, coasters, fridge magnets, T-shirts or tea towels with images and mini replicas of the Big Ben, the Routemaster Bus, London black cabs and so on. Among the most popular icons they collect is the mini red telephone booth with its archaic design, a structure that has long outgrown its purpose but remains one of the most enduring symbols of British heritage.

If you walked around central London in pre-Covid times, you would see excited tourists queueing and milling around the red booths, not to make calls from the clunky analogue phones inside, but to take selfies and images with their smartphones, freezing two eras of communication technology. The booths are one of the most visible symbols of change and continuity in modern Britain. But then, when it comes to history, no one quite does it better than the British, with their unparalleled ability to stage royal events and the instinct to preserve historical artefacts, locations and symbols, even at a high cost. There is also a strong economic reason: much of tourism is Britain is driven by nostalgia and wonder (the industry is estimated to be worth £106 billion). When tourists from across the globe flock to historical sites in London and elsewhere, it is also a reflection of how British history influenced world history over the centuries.

The red phone booths rekindle memories in generations of international students and visitors, besides in the British, memories of conducting the full range of inter-personal communication through them. The booth was judged among the top ten British icons in a competition run by the BBC and the Design Museum in 2006. In Britain, obsession with the past is also driven by nostalgia about the empire.

Designed by death

Death, or an expiry date, was written into the red phone booth when it was designed in 1924 by architect Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960), but few would have then imagined that it would eventually get a life beyond. Scott created the design of the booth called K2 (Kiosk No. 2) inspired by the structure of a tomb drawn up by the 19th-century architect John Soane for his late wife Elizabeth in 1816 in St Pancras Gardens, near the King’s Cross station. Scott’s timber K2 prototype was designed for a competition launched by the Royal Fine Arts Commission to find an alternate to the unpopular concrete K1 structure which had been introduced in 1921. It was initially displayed outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square with four other designs. After it won the competition, officials declared in 1925 that the K2 was the one ‘most suitable for erection in busy thoroughfares of large towns’. Scott’s design was originally intended to be made of steel and painted silver with a blue-green interior, but the General Post Office chose to make it of cast-iron and painted red. It formed the basis of the design of subsequent models of booths across the country; for example, the ubiquitous K6 design visible across London and Britain today.

The first K2 booth was installed outside the Royal Academy, where it has been since. In December 2019, the Boris Johnson government upgraded its heritage status, which means official support to retain its original structure and maintain it in perpetuity. As Heritage Minister Helen Whately said, “The red telephone box is an internationally famous British icon and I am delighted that we are able to protect the first of its kind. In an increasingly digital world, it is important to preserve structures — like the K2 prototype phone box — that have played a part in our nation’s industrial story.” Historic England, a body sponsored by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, lists a large number of K2 booths and their locations in its database, which ensures their protected status.

The K6 booth, also designed by Scott, was introduced in 1936 to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V; it was 25 per cent lighter than K2. Tens of thousands were installed across the country, with some travelling to Bermuda, Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar and some parts of the British Empire. More designs were later developed with different colours and structures, but it is the red booth that retains the most appeal. By the 1980s, proliferation of landlines meant the public use of the phone booths dwindled; many became targets of vandalism, gathering junk, or hosting the original messengers: pigeons. In the 1990s, researchers at some universities collected sex worker cards found in many of London’s red booths for historical/sociological research. Subsequent developments in communication technology further reduced their use, while owner British Telecom (BT) was privatised.

Says Jaideep Prabhu, professor of marketing at the University of Cambridge: “I remember the iconic red phone booths very well. They were an instantly recognisable part of the British landscape for me long before I actually visited the UK. Growing up in India, they were as iconic to me as the London buses and Big Ben. When eventually I moved to the UK in the late 1990s, I was in time to still use them to make phone calls (just about). But they soon fell into disuse as mobile phones became ubiquitous.”

It costs BT millions of pounds annually to maintain the red and other phone booths, while usage has declined by over 90 per cent in the last decade. The booths still handle thousands of calls every day, mostly by the elderly and people who cannot afford mobile phones, but one-thirds of the kiosks are never used to make calls. According to BT, the booths have become a burden, expensive to repair and maintain. In 1992, before mobile phones became widely used, there were over 92,000 booths across the UK, including the red ones. BT plans to scrap thousands of them while remaining committed to provide a public payphone service. Scrapping the phone booths is subject to rules set by the communications regulator, Ofcom, which include consultation with local authorities and a public veto. If the local authority objects to removing the booths, BT cannot scrap them.

A new calling

Many still find the booths useful. Says London-based media professional Radhika Iyer: “Once at Westminster, while I was out of battery on my mobile phone, I used the red phone booth. The experience took me straight to childhood. The stench in the booth was unbearable but my job was done with the phone connection. Also during some really tough winter days whilst shooting outdoors I have often taken shelter in them for some warmth.” Adds fin-tech marketer Harjeet Singh: “I remember using the red booths as rain cover. I think they could be used for smart screens for multiple use such as local advertising, map searches, Internet surfing and even game consoles. They could also be equipped with solar panels.” India-based student Praniti Rao, who often visits London, says: “Their use has certainly reduced but that doesn’t make them redundant. They make up a huge part of the culture; almost like a trademark or the instant picture that comes to mind when one thinks of London.”

The red booths are mostly located in prime locations and tick several boxes of history, nostalgia, memory, tourism and some utility, prompting new ideas to repurpose them in the digital age. Some companies saw new opportunities as their public use dwindled, bought some of them from BT and offered them on rent to entrepreneurs, while others made replicas and put them up for sale or rent. In 2008, BT launched its innovative ‘Adopt a Kiosk’ scheme, offering to hand over the booths to communities for just £1 each. So far over 6,600 such booths have been taken on in London and elsewhere, transforming them into everything from defibrillator units and mini history museums to art galleries, book exchanges, coffee shops, mobile phone repair and charging centres — and also what is billed as the ‘world’s smallest takeaway’ offering Indian food in Uxbridge High Street in north-west London. In March, BT replugged the scheme, offering nearly 4,000 red booths for adoption.

Says James Browne, Head of Street at BT: “We’re currently rationalising our payphone estate to make it fit for the future, and the ‘Adopt a Kiosk’ scheme makes it possible for local communities across the UK to retain their local phone box, with a refreshed purpose for the community. Thousands of communities have already come up with a fantastic array of ideas to re-use their beloved local phone box.”

Installing defibrillators in the red booths has been a life-saving idea, making the devices available for use in times of emergency, particularly in rural areas where it takes a long time for ambulances to reach. The devices restore normal heartbeat by sending electric pulse to the heart, and can make all the difference between and life and death while the ambulance arrives. The Community Heartbeat Trust (CHT), a charity organisation, works with BT and encourages communities to adopt the red booths to provide access to defibrillators. BT provides free electricity for the first seven years for CHT projects.

One such defibrillator unit is in the north Yorkshire village of Patrick Brompton. Says Brian Whitehead of the local parish council: “We were really keen to adopt our red phone box and we didn’t want to see it go. It’s a fact that no-one really uses payphones anymore, but they look quite iconic, especially in rural areas like ours, so we wanted to retain it from a heritage perspective. The defibrillator we did have in the village was behind the 18th-century school room, so we’ve moved it to the phone box and think it’s a much better place for it.”

Another popular use of the red booths is as book exchange centres in communities across the UK. In the small Warwickshire village of Church Lawford, the booth opposite a popular local pub was taken on by the parish council for £1. It is now a thriving book exchange used by residents, young and old alike. People donate books and take away others to read before returning them. Jeremy James, chairman of the local parish council, says the community was inspired by a nearby village — Stretton under Fosse — where the local phone box was adopted and turned it into an information booth with details on local history, local walks and footpaths: “We wanted to add the book exchange element as the mobile library only visits briefly once a month, and this aspect has really taken over. I have been pleased by the level of support it gets. Those people that use it appreciate it, and the only real maintenance needed is periodic tidying up of the book supply.”

The market town of Settle in Yorkshire has the world’s smallest art gallery in a booth, named ‘Gallery on the Green’, showcasing exhibitions by painters and photographers. But the most known art linked to the red booth’s fate was briefly showcased on a Soho street in London in 2006 by Bansky, the legendary street artist and political activist, whose real name and identity remains unknown. His artwork showed a crooked red phone booth, crestfallen, bent in half with an axe plunged into it and red ‘blood’ staining the pavement, catching the attention of pedestrians. Observers have since debated the message Bansky was seeking to convey: the demise of the red booth or signalling a new age of communication. The artwork was soon removed by the Westminster Council, but remains a prominent symbol in the discourse over the red booth’s fate in the digital age.

Prabhu, co-author of Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough, which argues that the West must look to places like India, Brazil and China for a new approach to innovation, adds: “Now I see the red booths being put to very good and creative use all over the country: in villages, towns and cities they are being used as mini-libraries, art galleries, defibrillator centres, and other community activities. I’m delighted to see this repurposing and reuse of a ubiquitous resource. This is precisely what we would call jugaad or creative improvisation in India. I always suspected that that sort of ingenious reuse of resources wasn’t only Indian: but truly universal in fact.”

(Prasun Sonwalkar is a London-based journalist.)

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