Morphine makes the world white and furry – or at least that’s my experience. Things take on the texture and colour of polar bear and crazy ideas seem sensible. So it was, that in 2014, when I was diagnosed with three incurable diseases (hence the morphine) and thought I was going to die, I bought a British red telephone box from Ebay, installed it outside my house and moved in.
Of course, ‘I’ didn’t really move in but a version of me did, and this version may not have ever had cancer and isn’t 64, wasn’t a theatre director, now an academic or married with two grown up children and a feral cat.
I was too ill even to get out of bed. I live in North Yorkshire in England where it’s cold and foggy, think ‘Wuthering Heights’ – occupying a cast-iron box would have hastened, what at the time, seemed inevitable. You see, to those of us transported overnight to ‘Cancer Space’ where every foolish belief that stops us going crazy – looking forward to things, getting better from illnesses, being one of the lucky ones, beliefs that have comforted us since we were six years old and found Smokie our cat under a bush in the garden stiff and cold with blood pouring from his ears and were told he didn’t suffer so that was fine, these beliefs get stripped away by the daily routine of serving as a living chemistry set, perusing the shape of blood result graphs (in my case slopes down – good, slopes up bad) or trying not to worry when some new body part suddenly hurts. For us buying a phone box and moving in may seem like a reasonable thing to do.
The family stood by and watched. When someone is seriously ill more than anything you want them to get better, next you want them to do something positive like a marathon, eat seeds instead of burgers, do a degree or plant a tree. “If buying a phone box means he is doing something positive” they agreed, “it was worth it.”
I could afford it because my aunt, who I hadn’t seen fifty years (yes, I do feel guiltyish) died and left me a small windfall, enough to put some examples of unrestored K6 phone boxes within my financial reach. To those unfamiliar with these British design icons, they appear in most of the BBC classic series set at any time between 1930 and 1970. The occupants often wear fedoras, smoke cigarettes and are on missions to resolve mysteries – oh and its usually raining and dark.
My relationship with phone boxes pre E-Bay and illness was intimate and intense. As a teenager I had slept in one while on holiday with two friends called Stephen after we deliberately contrived to be locked out of our Youth Hostel. We sat on the floor adding to the discarded dog ends fantasising about an acne infested blond called Carol until our backs gave out and we had to crawl back to the hostel and beg for access to our bunks. We had a phone box in the village where I was born, near the railway station at the bottom of our road. It stank variously of trains, paint, disinfectant, and piss and was often out of order but when it was working it served as gateway to more lurid teenage conversations. These were peppered with newly adopted ‘F’ and ‘C‘ words and booze, petty theft and Carol (poor Carol she didn’t deserve this). As advancing confidence caused reality to overrun fantasy my more worldly friends snogged Carol in the box while I stood guard outside trying to interpret the muffled sounds of fumbling into images for subsequent recycling.
The delivery from eBay was due any day. The foundations looked like a tomb and the prospect of being interred beneath along with my aunts wedding ring (another bequest) had a momentary appeal, but my plan was for a different type of eternal presence one more fitting for a phone box, namely my voice.
I was leaving behind a loving wife and loving children – that was fine but what about the other stuff I had spent so much of my life trying to do. All the theatre and opera I had made, not very successfully for sure, but certainly enthusiastically. Once I had a voice and a space, a stage to shout from, and now I had a bed and a telephone box.
The vision was for a public telephone from which my voice would be broadcast forever. New material could be added before and after death even if I hadn’t recorded it because the voice would be computer generated requiring only text in a word processor to produce the speech. ‘Kit’ as my voice was called would be able to say the things that ‘Chris’ real me, would never dare say. If anyone was offended, then just blame Kit. Passers-by would pick up the telephone handset and Kit (computer generated), sometime Chris (recordings of me) and just for fun and subject to being alive, ‘Christopher’ (unseen me broadcasting live to the box from my house) would be heard seemingly from the “Realms Beyond.” (Thomas Edison supposedly built a machine to hear the voices of the dead from a place he entitled ‘The Realms Beyond’). Construction called upon my modest digital expertise as well as my passion for jumble sale bits and bobs. As a child I loved old radios, cameras and any old machines or broken electrical items and were I to have ever found one at the local village hall, while rummaging among the prams, mangles, bed frames and broken lawn mowers, my passion for vintage technology would have surely included old telephones. Now as an adult I had indulged my love of old technology with an academic career researching computer generated speech (voices like Stephen Hawking). Research that was notionally computer science but included a lot of of theatre and opera and old phones, bells, and switchboards.
Progress was slow. It required the creation, or was it recreation of my voice, something well beyond by technical capabilities so I asked my colleagues at Cereproc to do it. The result sounds just like me, but this ‘me’ is emotionally, well let’s say ‘disconnected’ perhaps fitting for someone dead. It allows for a good deal of tweaking to get it to sound better but I grew fond of its ‘vanilla’ voice, tweak free, its rather desperate attempts to communicate when it clearly has no idea whatsoever of what its saying. Best of all are its attempts to be funny which are funny but for all the wrong reasons. Along with the voice the box had to be restored and adapted. I wanted it to continue to look like regular 1937 phone box, but I had no interest in creating a museum exhibit and besides it needed a means of hiding the technology facilitating its hidden purpose, so authenticity went out the window (much to the distress of the telephone box heritage community). In addition, it required Bakelite and copper technology from the 1930’s to work seamlessly with digital technology from the 2020’s. No one appeared to have attempted anything comparable, so I had to make this bit up as I went along which resulted in lots of wasted effort, blind alleys and frustrated visitors who would complain that they heard nothing but crackling and some boring bloke talking. It required the physical wiring and a video link from my house so that I could control events and see and hear what was going on. It needed a lot of metal primer and a very special red paint. I fell off while painting the roof which put me back in hospital (I crawled to the cat flap and stuck my head in to call for help). On the way I significantly extended my knowledge of vintage telephone technology through a plethora of dusty manuals and vintage telephony forums peopled by similarly aged and nerdy enthusiasts and reached the absolute limits of my rudimentary and very messy interactive technology programming skills derived from years of tinkering and teaching digital art – but after 5 years in 2020 ‘The Red Telephone Box that Talks a bit like Me’ was ready to speak and more importantly I was still alive and I was ‘doing something positive.’
Then Covid struck.
I doubt that a better incubator for the virus exists than a confined space that requires the participant to speak into a seventy-year-old plastic funnel held inches from mouth and nose for just sufficient time to get a serious and well targeted dose from the last person to have done the same thing moments before.
So I closed the box and lost my audience just as I was ready for my/his first performance.
And now my theatre, opera house, platform and performance space, my ‘doing something positive,’ restored by me, engineered by me, programmed by me, directed by me and starring me has just one audience member, me.
And that’s just fine.
‘The Red Telephone Box that Talks a bit like Me’ is a space from which I can be myself while at the same time being somebody else. Maybe that ‘Me’ doesn’t have cancer. Isn’t 64 years old and running out of time. As someone held in check by illness, who sometimes feels incapacitated and useless I can run riot from my box, reinvent myself as young and rebellious, vulgar and outspoken, poetic and funny, be anybody I like, and say what I like, at least for the duration of a telephone call.
Because of COVID the only person listening to me is me. It’s turned out even better than I planned because I really couldn’t give a toss what I say to myself. Afterall I can just blame Kit.
The Red Telephone Box that Talks a Bit like Me is here