Image for The Chronicle 60: Ringing the changes

Don Bentley was one shave behind the world and one drink ahead of it. He sat at the bar in Mahoney’s, half listening to a conversation between a colleague, Michael Cooper, and a friend of Cooper’s who had arrived for drinks. They were talking mobile phones, and comparing their instruments and the different applications they had obtained for them.

Like the radio waves buzzing around him, it all went over Bentley’s head in the Hobart pub. Bentley had initially shown a glimmer of interest in mobiles when Cooper a month previously had produced an iPhone, and spelled out what it was capable of doing. Clearly this was not merely a device for making and receiving telephone calls.

Bentley said he didn’t give a toss about its texting and net-search functions but his ears pricked up when Cooper mentioned in passing that it was possible to hold the phone in the air and identify all the stars in the sky, even indoors, on a cloudy day.

‘’Where’s Jupiter? ’’ Bentley had asked suspiciously, knowing exactly where it was because he had viewed it the night before, to the west of his balcony in the Hobart suburbs.

“Can’t tell you,” Cooper confessed, “I didn’t get that app.  with my plan.”

Bentley’s scepticism and doubt had prompted Cooper to buy the app. the very next day and with his friend he was now identifying the night sky, reading out the names of stars and constellations arrayed across his mini-screen.

“And Jupiter is to our north-east,” he shouted, looking in Bentley’s direction, a look that carried an air of triumph about it.

Bentley merely shrugged his shoulders and ordered another round of drinks for Cooper and his friend, who was visiting from Melbourne. The friend, meanwhile, was showing Cooper an app, the face of a monkey that repeated words spoken at it.

Bentley was now thinking of phones of the past, not mobile phones but those attached to the wall at the back end of pubs, usually near the toilets. These were in journalists’ pubs, newspapermen and newspaperwomen’s watering holes, and these phones always seemed to have a reporter hanging from them, either filing stories or making excuses to wives or husbands for being late for dinner.

The notebook and heavy Bakelite phone were synonymous, they went hand in hand, and Bentley was recalling not just telephones in bars but in public places; he was dialling up memories of filing reports from railway and bus stations, from high streets, and from village greens.

Bent coins, chewing gum in earpieces, phone boxes with the faint smell of vomit or urine, the public phone was the reporter’s curse and went with the turf, like cheap pens constantly leaking or running out of ink. Every reporter of Bentley’s time had his phone horror story, and he noted reporters today did not appreciate how easy they had it. Mobile phones that picked up a signal from virtually anywhere; and BlackBerrys, iPhones and iPads that could access information, vital background for stories, at the click of a button without a search through manila cuttings files – what tools for the modern reporters and Bentley often complained that they could still manage to stuff it up.

As Bentley paid for the round, he fumbled in his pocket for change and drew out the plastic 35mm film container he always carried, which held coins.

Carrying loose change in the container was an old trick he had learned from his foreign correspondent days in South Africa: the round plastic container was big enough to hold South African sixpences – “tickies” – and ensured that a reporter out on the job, in the African townships, amid the gold mines or out in the thornveldt, would always have money for the phone.

He had taken his black plastic container with its grey lid to New York when he was posted there from South Africa and discovered that if was big enough to hold a more suitable denomination for the phones on Manhattan, the nickel. Likewise when he returned to his native Britain the container could safely store a 20 pence coin, and so it was in Australia, with 20 cents. Bentley might have outlived the sixpence and what it could buy, but his trusty plastic container could still give him change to summon a taxi from a public callbox if, after an evening in Mahoney’s, Bentley’s legs gave out on him during his customary three-kilometre walk home.

Bentley was still thinking phones, still ignoring the buzz and chatter around him and the occasional ring-tone sounding out in the bar. He racked his brain for stories of journalists coming to grief in phone boxes. One came to mind immediately. After the presses has started rolling one night in Fleet Street, a young reporter had arrived in the newsroom from an assignment, indignant and angry and with a story of his own to tell. The reporter had found a callbox from which to dictate his story, only to discover too late that someone had smeared dog excreta in the earpiece.

The smell of dog muck followed him down the street until he found a police station and felt compelled to enter and complain. As he approached a burly police sergeant behind the front desk, he said: ‘‘I’m going to tell you something and it’s not funny . . .  right?”

He then told his story to the bemused officer, who immediately burst out laughing, tears rolling down his a face as he tried to apologise for his insensitivity.

***

Bentley had a smile on his face, too, and Cooper and his friend thought he was merely laughing at the iPhone app that repeated what you said into it.

“Show us your tits,” Cooper shouted to the cartoon monkey image pictured on the screen. When the monkey repeated the words, Cooper and his friend laughed uproariously and the monkey laughed back.

The friend then turned to Bentley.

“And what phone do you use?” he inquired.

Before Bentley could answer, a voiced boomed out from behind the bar. It was the landlady. “He uses this one,” she shouted, holding up the pub phone and gesturing to Don Bentley. Mrs Bentley was on the line.