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The Long Night Of The Phone Booths

May 17, 2019
by William Taylor

William Taylor introduces Marcus Duran‘s fascinating photography of nocturnal phone booths

020 7702 3424, Aldgate 2019

Occupied, Aldgate 2019

The City of London may be the richest Square Mile in the world and mostly comprising office blocks, but the people who actually live there still need their rubbish cleared and their children educated. When I was a councillor in Portsoken ward in Aldgate, I was asked to assist residents with a whole motley of matters.

Sometimes I could help, but sometimes I could not. I was most likely to be effective where the request for help involved a combination of three factors. First, if it was possible to isolate the cause of the problem. Second, if everyone wanted the same outcome and was prepared to act together to achieve it. And third, if I knew who to talk to about it.

The Aldgate phone booth above in Marcus Duran’s photographic series of the disappearing KX100 BT booths is a case in point. The flats in the background behind the wall along Mansell St were in my ward and a number of the residents asked if I could help get rid of the booth in the photograph. I would say this particular request met two of my three criteria.

Maybe not everyone hated it, but no-one from the estate ever actually used it. In fact, the only people who used it were those calling in for a chemical fix in the middle of the night, turning the nicotine light of the phone box blue with toxic agitation and, typically, also waking up the entire neighbourhood.

In the second photograph, a woman is burying her head into the receiver, her knees flexing as she leans into the bargain she is striking. You can see her midriff revealed but you cannot see her face. The lights of passing traffic are traced across the image like road markings that have drifted from the highway, as though the camera itself is under the influence of an hallucinogen. Speed may be in the air but the body of the person in the phone booth is inert and collapsing. It is both a compelling and a sad image.

Marcus Duran’s photographs of the 1985 KX100 phone booths from Whitechapel to Wembley evoke the solitary world of backstreet London at night. There is in some an indication of the seasons. In one, the shadow of a tree falls across the pavement and, in another, snow has all but melted. Yet the overall effect is artificial and lunar – the booths possess an extra-terrestrial quality, as if they just materialised

One reason Marcus Duran photographed these booths is because they are about to disappear. Superseded by the ubiquitous mobile phone, they have become redundant and BT wants to get rid of them. They are a manifestation of the moment when BT re-launched itself after the privatisation of 1984. In the eighties, speed was definitely in the air as our economy became cybernetic. Stranded between the disappearing world of public subsidy and the new world of highly-leveraged private profit, the KX100 phone booth was a harbinger of this transformation, rendering the red phone box obsolete.

This was not the reason my constituents asked me to help get rid of the booth on Mansell St but, since they were certainly united in their request, I gave it a go. However when I tried to speak with someone was responsible, I was put through to BT’s Customer Services and provided with hypnotic music. It may be good to talk but it is not great to be put indefinitely on hold and, soon enough, I gave up. Yet I suspect that a modernising purge will accomplish what my feeble intervention never managed and sweep them all away before too long.

Disconnected & deleted # 1, Commercial Rd, February 2017

020 7702942, Bermondsey 2017

Disconnected & deleted # 2, Harrow 2019

Disconnected & deleted # 3, Finchley 2018

020 8986 4037, Hackney Central 2019

020 8902 4594, Wembley 2017

020 7247 9369, Underwood Rd, Whitechapel 2018

Disconnected & deleted # 4, Essex Rd, Islington 2017

020 8902 4594, Wembley 2017

Photographs copyright © Marcus Duran

Marcus Duran’s exhibition NOCTURNAL CALLING runs at the Dialogue Cafe, 130 Upper Clapton Rd, E5 9JY until the end of June

You may also like to take a look at

The Inescapable Loneliness of Phone Boxes

Toilets At Dawn

4 Responses leave one →
  1. May 17, 2019

    Proof ,if ever we needed it that the removal of the red phone box, specially with the phone which had buttons A and B which returned your money , was about the greatest mistake ever made in human history. Change is not always for the best

  2. Dave R permalink
    May 17, 2019

    Yeah, the KX series was definitely a backward step aesthetically, but I find that the years have given these disliked 80s boxes a poignancy of their own. Maybe it’s just those windows into a past that’s recent but utterly gone – phonecards for heaven’s sake – or maybe it’s just the plangent quality of these beautifully composed shots. Love a bit of melancholy, me. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Gary Arber permalink
    May 17, 2019

    The old telephone boxes provided a vital service when emergencies occurred.They had the emergency button which put you through when pressed, without having to fumble for cash, an instant 999. Also the mobile phone has become too complicated for old people with gnarled stiff hands and failing eyesight.

  4. May 17, 2019

    I miss phone booth. Spanish phone booths had nothing to with the KX series, but they weren’t very different. By the way, great pictures.

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