I grew up in a time when bad news was hard to come by. As a child, with my education well underway, I existed in a world where, once I'd clunked my clunky way through the shiny, black gates at the end of the drive, laid my bicycle on its side (Being careful to lay it on it's left side to prevent any damage being done to the Sturmey Archer gear hub) and fastened the gate behind me so as not to be followed by the family dog, I was "off the grid". If, whilst I was busy in the park building a den, damming the stream to catch sticklebacks or booting a ball around, my granddad died or our house burnt down I would continue building, damming and booting with a snotty smile on my face until home time, my fun uninterrupted by the selfish deaths of aging relatives or the destruction of my family home. Ultimately short lived but blissful, ignorance in the age of innocence.
Of course, sooner or later the bad news got through, but by then the fun had been had, the dens and dams built and the balls booted and booted until eventually ending up stuck in a tree, popped by the guy with the garden fork on the allotment or, on one occasion following an explosion of glass and the clarion call of "LEG IT", on the rug in Naggy Harris' front room. Once fun's been had, it's had. Receiving the worst news you can possible imagine upon returning home hungry, happy and with twigs stuck in your 1970s David Essex curls can't strip you of the laughter and smiles you've already laughed and smiled, although maybe they get put to the back of your mind until the pain has faded.
It wasn't just us street urchins that had to wait for bad news either. Way back in those heady days of my youth, while my father still worked at the timber yard and before he bought the pub that ensured he was always on hand to deal out punishments, the phrase "just you wait until your dad gets home, you little bastard" was bandied about with unnerving regularity. My father would leave for work at the crack of dawn, before my sister or I were awake, spend his day toiling away by the bank's of the ship canal and then make his weary way home without once hearing of the multitude of misdemeanors his mini-me had made. Generally, what with all the overtime he was forced to do to keep the roof over our heads, he'd not get home until his kids were in bed and his wife had forgotten about the phone call from Naggy Harris or the stink bomb that had gone off in his son's pocket whilst sat at the dining table, the bad news he was due becoming, with a little distance, not worth mentioning, mainly forgotten and not imparted. The trials and tribulations of my mother's day fading into memories that, maybe one day, would become nothing more than funny stories told to embarrass her son with when introduced to every new girlfriend the poor boy would ever get. The cow.
Then the end of the age of innocence snuck up on me. My birthday falling in early September, I was one of the first of my group of friends to pass my driving test and have a car, a beautiful, beige MKII Escort. One evening I found myself in a rather swish bar on the newly developed Salford Quays. As I sat, feet dangling from the ridiculously high stool I was perched on and gazing out at the ship canal on which my father worked before the posh people had moved in, my friend Andy arrived. Unusually for Andy, he was wearing a suit. Not his own suit, it was quite apparent he'd borrowed it from his father, a man a good six inches shorter than himself, and the half mast, flapping turn-ups of the trousers revealed not only his mismatched Playboy socks but a good half inch of hairy leg. Normally, I'd have latched onto this wardrobe disaster and mercilessly taken the piss, however this evening he carried with him a curious and intriguing device. It appeared to be a car battery inside a suitcase and with a telephone handset perched atop. He was sweating profusely, having carried this portable, but bloody heavy, device from the office of the company that, as of this evening, employed him and the establishment in which we'd arranged to meet. He heaved the device onto the tall, round table, narrowly missing my pint of lime and soda in the process (I'd given up drinking as soon as I passed my driving test, preferring to wow the chicks with wheels rather than fail to impress with drunken shenanigans) and sat opposite me with a grunt.
Andy, having recently been given the boot from the chicken counter at the local Tesco, had made a dramatic career choice and was now salesman for a telecommunications company selling their space-age, and to me almost magical, mobile telephones. The device that now sat before me, in a puddle of lime and soda since, for some reason, those trendy wine bars that popped up all over the place in the 1980s refused to furnish their patrons with beer mats, hummed as it intrigued.
Andy and I spent much of the rest of that evening driving around Salford and Stretford, parking outside our friends houses, looking up our friends phone numbers in the diary I carried with me and calling them.
"Hiya Shirley, it's John. Ask me where I am."
"Hiya John, where are you?"
"Look out of your window."
We'd watch for the twitch of the net curtains, wave frantically with maniacal grins plastered across out faces, blast the horn and wheel spin away. I felt like James Bond.
A few years later, now married with children and still at the tail end of the age of innocence, I found myself working as a jobbing builder. I'd managed to get contracts with a number of care homes through "contacts" in the pub. Each night I would call in to the pub and be given a list of jobs that needed doing, but getting hold of me through the day if an emergency cropped up was difficult.
And so it came to pass that I purchased my first ever mobile phone.
Unlike Andy's miraculous device, this was a Motorola Personal Phone, a mobile phone so small it could be carried in your pocket, so long as you were wearing cargo pants and didn't mind having a bruised thigh. It had buttons rather than a dial and a skinny, plastic, retractable aerial, ideal for chewing when pensive or cleaning ears, usually also while pensive. It was the beginning of the end.
I pulled up outside my house with my new acquisition lay on the passenger seat. I picked it up and dialled.
"Hiya son, ask me where I am."
"Where are you dad?"
"Look out of the window."
I watched for the twitch of the net curtains and waved frantically at my son, peering confused from within, with a maniacal grin plastered across my face as I blasted the horn. James bloody Bond.
Now my days were busier and far more fiscally rewarding. On call, always available in an emergency and with a very reasonable call out fee, I wondered how I'd ever lived without such a device.
But there were drawbacks.
No more could my wife defer punishment for whichever misdemeanor my own mini-me had perpetrated until his dad got home, more often than not calming down before then and forgetting all about it. Now, no matter how insignificant a felony he had committed, his father could be phoned and could provide, remotely, a suitable scolding.
That phone came and that phone went, to be replaced by another phone. And another. And another. It's pushing thirty years since first I phoned a friend from a Ford, since I wondered at the brave, new world that this incredible invention seemed to be opening up, and in that time I've become more and more reliant on the little box of inedible chips that I carry with me.
No longer can the box of chips really be called a phone. Where once the pinnacle of mobile phone technology came with an alarm clock and a ridiculously basic but highly addictive game to while away potty time on it, nowadays your mobile phone is better described as a portable computer that fits in your pocket and doesn't bruise your thigh, with a phone on it. The advent of this miracle of modern day marvels has brought with it an end to the ignorance of fathers all over the world. No more brief respite from the role of the parent to be scared of, no more are we just an idle threat of a vague punishment that may or may not come to pass, now paternal admonishments are "on tap". Now, daddy can be just as angry at his offspring as their mother is, whenever their mother is. The age of innocence and of ignorance is no more.
Ever contactable by anyone we share those eleven digits with, whenever it's convenient for them to call and whether or not it's convenient to be called. On the lavatory, paying for your groceries or in mid conversation, that incessant, repetitive, relentless beep of our phones is enough to force us to answer, dropping change at the checkout, hushing the person conversing with us or desperately clenching our buttocks for fear of an audible "plop" or "ffffffffrrrt" noise being converted into digits and resonating remotely in our mothers lounge or bosses office.
And, should we refuse to answer our flashing phones, there are text messages. And emails. iMessages, KIK, twitter, facebook, a myriad of methods to make sure you can't claim "I didn't know". You have to read the messages because even if you don't the sender will still think you did, still be angry if you don't respond, still claim they told you when, technically, they bloody didn't. No more ignorance sounds like a good thing, but there's an awful lot of that shit you could do without knowing.
This week, my contract on my phone came to an end. For the first time ever I managed to get to the end of a whole contract without breaking the phone I received for signing up. No scratches on the screen, no dents in the case, no loose buttons. A perfectly serviceable iPhone 5. So off I went to the to a local branch of a major phone shop intending to walk out with the same phone in my pocket that I walked in with, but with a greatly reduced monthly charge. During negotiations it came to light that not only could I have a vastly reduced bill for a greatly improved service I could also, for no extra charge or work, walk out of the shop with a brand new, shiny, gold iPhone 6. I didn't want the new phone, but I'd have been a fool not to take it.
So I spent last night playing with the new phone, to all intents and purposes a slightly lighter and larger version of the one I already had. Downloads downloaded, updates updated and restore restored I settled down to read a book, on my phone. Something I've never done before but, given the now larger display in my pocket, I thought I'd try. It wasn't an unpleasant experience but, being a lover of actual, physical, warm, musty, papery books it's not one I'll be repeating often.
This morning I left the house. As ever, I went through the routine of checking my pockets in order and ensuring I had everything I like to have with me with me. Keys, wallet, spectacles, a can of dog deterrent to fend off the feral Staffies that roam Horwich and, most importantly, my phone. My day was already well underway before I realised that I'd picked up my perfectly good old phone rather than my perfectly similar but a little bit larger new phone. What's more, last night as I was updating the newer model I scrubbed clean the memory of the old and so I was bereft of podcast to listen too, of Twitter to while away minutes and of any way of telling the time. It felt like I'd lost a leg.
Strangely, the only thing I wasn't sorry to not have with me was the ability to be contacted by anyone.
Sitting at a bus stop I noticed that, even though I knew the phone in my hand was redundant, I couldn't help but keep glancing at it and clicking the little button on the top. I was bored, terribly bored, and I longed for my wireless connection with the world. Looking around me I noticed everyone else at the bus stop had their own phones in their own hands, staring at their own little screens and tapping away at their own little buttons, sometimes smiling, sometimes not. All stood within a few metres of each other, all conversing with people near and far, passing the time with people that were absent when all around people were present. People that they may never see again, right there, right then, available and, just like them, eager to converse with someone. Bloody ignorant, some people.
I stared out of the window of the bus as we chugged along Chorley New Road, watching the texters text and the tweeters tweet as they shuffled along the pavements, and traveled the few miles to the supermarket.
Basket in hand I weaved my way through the other shoppers, occasionally selecting an own-brand item from a shelf and doing a bit of mental arithmetic so as to ensure no embarrassment at the checkout. Suddenly, a young lady came around the corner and began making her way up the aisle in which I stood. Head down and tapping away at the keys of the phone in her hand, she was on a collision course with me. I was sandwiched between a stack of boxes on a pallet truck to my right, a pensioner with a trolley to my rear and some semi-skimmed milk to my left. The only way to avoid a collision was to leap up high, grab hold of the "This Week's Specials" sign that hung above my head and swing to safety into aisle six where, if the owner of the tinny voice on the tannoy where to be believed, there had been a spillage a little earlier.
Of course, I'm not bloody Spiderman, so I was forced to brace for impact.
She walked straight into me, phone first, and immediately muttered an apology. I was looking right at her face when the impact occurred. Not even for the briefest moment, not even whilst apologising, did her gaze leave the messages on the screen before her. She took a pace or two back and then, still without tearing her attention from her phone and plainly imagining that everyone around her knew how important her messaging was, walked into me again. Again, an apology and again no glance from the screen.
When she struck me for the third time she realised something was amiss. She looked up, an angry expression on her face, and glanced around desperately for someone to vent her fury on. She saw she couldn't get through the way she'd intended and so angrily span on her heels to find another way through. Unfortunately, another young lady, possibly engrossed in a Twitter spat, was coming up behind young lady number one. Their phones clashed together, tumbling from their respective owner's grips and falling to the floor. Both young ladies were, obviously, very upset by this unexpected turn of events and a particularly loud argument followed during which, it emerged, both thought the other to be an ignorant bastard.
The new-fangled phones that had brought an end to the age of ignorance have now, a few short decades later, brought forth a new age of ignorance.
No need to converse with, interact with or even acknowledge those around us. No need to form new, real life, flesh and blood friendships with the people we encounter every day. Now we can happily take our own little bubble of ignorance outside with us and enjoy it 24/7. That in itself is by no means the greatest gift science has bestowed upon the modern world...
...but at least now we can let our children know their granddad is dead via WhatsApp.