Perhaps it was an act of pity, or disbelief, which caused me to pick up a book from the castoff shelf at a store in Atlanta last week. These were the volumes that were left out on sidewalk shelves, selling for $1 - basically offered up for sacrifice to any lazy, literate thief. The faded red spine stated the title: “History of the States of Guernsey Telephone System,” by Alfred Rosling Bennett.
The idea of the book seemed patently ridiculous. At first, I thought it was some prank, some highly esoteric bit of British humor. In case you don’t know, Guernsey is an island off the coast of Normandy that is not a part of the United Kingdom but a “possession of the Crown.” It occupies about 24½ square miles and lent its name to a world famous breed of cow. Victor Hugo lived there in exile and wrote “Les Miserables,” as well as a lesser-known novel of the island, “Toilers of the Sea.” After the fall of France in 1940, Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis until the German surrender, the island and its conquerors bypassed by the Allied invasion a year earlier.
I opened the book to find it really did have words inside. A slim 136 pages with an appendix. It wasn’t some joke volume bound with blank pages, like the gag “Everything Men Know About Women” one finds in knick-knack stores. “History” was published in 1926, and its yellowed, stained pages testified to the veracity of its age. I thought maybe it was an ironic title. Maybe this was some long-forgotten romance, about a boy, a girl, and the telephones of a tiny island in the English Channel. But no. This truly was a history, like those anniversary books written by someone’s industrious grandmother whenever a church celebrates its centennial, dutifully recording the names of Sunday School superintendents gathered to their fathers. I wondered how many years had gone by since this book had been last read, if it ever had been. And for some reason, I decided I would read it.
Alfred Rosling Bennett, as I discovered, was an engineer, journalist, and pathfinder in the spread of the telegraph and telephone in the United Kingdom. He is more well-known for another book, “London and Londoners of the 1850s and 60s.” And he was absolutely instrumental in the development of the Guernsey Telephone System, as I was soon to discover.
I do not know whether Mr. Bennett was commissioned to write the island’s “telephonic” history or whether he took on the job himself. But I can assure you, he attacked it with the thoroughness, exactitude, and, yes, mirth, one would expect of a Victorian journalist/engineer. This is evident as early as the introduction, when he records the judgment of an auditor that Guernsey has “the finest telephone system in the world.” A footnote at the bottom of the page quickly adds, as though panic-stricken at some barrister’s urging, “No claim to this effect is made.”
As this narrative of 30 years spins out under his pen, Bennett’s tone veers from pioneer to proud parent, feeling no need to justify why one should want to read it. Consider this – when Bennett’s book was published, Guernsey had approximately 38,200 residents. One might expect a few of them to be curious about this book, but how many might actually buy it? And how many of those copies stood on shelves, their spines intact, taunting their purchasers? And why might someone on the other side of the planet, almost a century later in a world where phones are carried in pockets, want to read it?
There were skeptics when the idea of telephones on the island was first proposed, Bennett tells us. At a public meeting, he told the inhabitants that many cities, such as Glasgow, were seeking their own telephone systems. A skeptic in the crowd assured him that he had learned that very day that the Post Office had refused Glasgow a license. (The Post Office evidently being in charge of granting them at that time.) Bennett went to the trouble of telegraphing his contacts in Scotland to find this information erroneous. The speaker was later confronted, and stammered out apologies that he had been misinformed and had never meant to deceive. Still, there were persistent doubts. Some felt the system would only grow to perhaps 300 users at the most, and any estimate above that “would only expose the project to ridicule.”
The author also spends a great deal of the book dealing with a vicious cabal between the Post Office and the National Telephone Company to preserve their monopoly and deny the good citizens of Guernsey the telephone. This moves the book’s plot past dry columns of names and numbers and gives a sense of the island’s embattled destiny, as well as our engineer as both agent of change and historian. The battle just to string wires and erect poles actually began without permission to proceed, he tells us, and ground to a halt while the legal niceties were settled months later. Then Bennett rewards his readers, carrying us back to those heady first moments when the port’s streets were “crossed and recrossed by numbers of bright red wires, attached to creamy-white insulators, all blinking and scintillating in the sun.” The age of wonders has arrived.
Ah, the loving care that our Mr. Bennett lavished on the unsuspecting audience! He recounts how in 1897 the telephone office took up temporary residence in a barnlike building between the Royal Court and the police station. While there, he entered his office once to find a table laid out for tea with a noncomformist pastor and 12 ladies engaged in a church committee meeting. They had been using the building for years, they explained, and couldn’t find new quarters. He gladly sat down to share a cup with them.
While working in the barn, he also made friends with a Russian who was conducting radio experiments in the police building’s basement. His attention to the sensibilities of his readership is evident, as he cannot let the mention of the Russian go without this explanation:
“This Russian was of benevolent disposition – the word Bolshevik had not then been heard – for he gave a substantial sum to a family who had been burned out of their house in the Pollet, and on the occasion of a children’s party at Old Government House he lighted a Christmas tree with many variously-tinted little glow-lamps entirely at his own expense.”
In between recounting the steady gains of the telephone system, which grew far beyond those 300 hoped-for lines, Bennett also introduces us to a universe of charming characters. There is the nameless operator who ran off with a woman to France, and the operator who mistakenly disconnected calls as soon as they were placed, as she was unfamiliar with the system. There is the woman who refused telephone service because keeping the lines open on Sunday might require a switchboard operator to break the Sabbath. The wire installation foreman who fled Guernsey after getting into a fistfight with an islander. The 107-year-old customer who received a phone, which she used until her long-tardy death nearly four years later. The child who mistook the telephone wires for the Equator she had only seen on maps. The French convict who escaped from the island prison –by climbing a telephone pole – and was caught later that day attempting to steal a boat. Caught by a telephone call, of course.
There are the friends of the author, such as Major-General F.B. Mainguy, R.E., Jurat., the patron of the telephone system, who insisted on its configuration and policies in order that no calls should ever be eavesdropped upon. We hear of other remarkable personages, but we only know them through a few anecdotes, such as the 150-year-old ghost of a murder victim who haunted the switch house and drove off an Irish family living there. Bennett gives us the fate of the Dorothy Watson, the ship that delivered the 448 telephone poles Guernsey required before sinking off the coast of Cornwall, its crew surviving. And he gives us the telephone council’s action of 1913, which installed a telephone at a lighthouse for fog-stymied vessels. Bennett tells us that, as of 1925, the phone had never been used, as “some more or less unreasonable objection exists to climbing a forty-two feet perpendicular ladder in a fog, from a tossing boat, in order to get to a telephone.”
And there is a world that sadly disappears as a new one emerges, built on the telephone poles and wires that begin to shoot up into the seaside sky. Some landowners see no need to cede even a few feet of their property for poles without compensation. A few neighborhood boys have to be told not to break the pole insulators with rocks as a summer prank, and they eventually acquiesce. The old guard of the telephone council slowly retires and dies, each death recorded with endearing anguish by the author. The coming of the Great War in 1914 requires guards for the switch houses, and assurances for soldiers once employed by the telephone service that they will still have their jobs should they survive the war. And there are the country men who, upon hearing the voice of a female operator on the line, instinctively stand and remove their hats when placing a call. “It is to be feared that a quarter of a century’s familiarity has rather rubbed that polish off,” Bennett tut-tuts, giving the epitaph for a vanished epoch.
Sadly, I never found the charming love story I suspected might be hiding in the pages. Maybe that awaits some writer in search of a piece of period literary fiction, or a screenwriter with Colin Firth in tow. The author’s engineering sensibility takes over at the climax, and he closes with columns of statistics and the results of an audit showing the financial rectitude of the Guernsey Telephone System. He is so enamored by its efficiency (9 ½ telephones for every 100 Guernseymen!) and its ultimate victory over the machinations of the Post Office that we lose the picture of our dear island and its customers. He frets presciently that the party line is an inefficient mode of communication, unaware that in another two decades the island will be dotted with swastikas.
Mr. Bennett died just two years after the publication of this remarkable volume at the age of 78. I sense he had pride not only in bringing technology to Guernsey but in telling its story. And like every other author in the grip of a tale, he obviously felt it was worth telling, just as much as I, for some still mysterious reason, felt it worth reading.
But no, that isn’t quite right. It was a story worth preserving between the covers of a book, and I can testify, a story that deserved a place on a shelf, and even might travel to corners of the world far from the author’s conception. That has always been the nature of stories – that they arrive in the hands of their audience and are, in some measure, powerless to shape how they are received. But I am curious, and even longing, to know what became of the generous inventive Russian and his colorful Christmas tree, and the woman who begged off the future, as personified by a wooden, bell-decorated box, to prevent the wrath of the Almighty.
The story of Guernsey, and her telephones is like every other - a story of human connectivity, of humanity in all its mundane glory, full of unremarked-upon remarkable lives - their enthusiasms , their annoying yet healthy skepticisms, their relentless perseverance.
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