John Lanchester

When I first moved to London in 1987, the phone code for the whole of the capital was 01. The number itself was seven digits long, so a London number went 01 xxx xxxx. What’s more, the London phone directory—which I think came in a total of four or five volumes, plus the yellow pages—printed the 01 code in front of every single one of its several million phone numbers. It was a spectacular piece of redundancy, one that often was featured on the Op-Ed pages of foreign newspapers whenever they needed a piece about British national decline.

A couple of years later—I remember it vividly, because my mother had just given me, as a Christmas present, some notepaper with my address and 01 phone number at the top—the codes were changed. London was divided into two zones, with the codes 071 for the center and 081 for the outer part of the city. London numbers were 071 or 081 xxx xxxx. Notice how the powers that be couldn’t resist the note of class division: They could have separated the capital into south and north of the river, or east and west of, say Marble Arch, but no. They had to go for a distinction between the posh and prole parts of town. The clear implication was that the inhabitants of 071 spent their time drinking Campari and soda while listening to Schönberg, while the denizens of 081-land preferred to pass the days in burgling each other and watching Chuck Norris videos.

A few more years passed, British Telecom was privatized, demand for phone lines continued to increase, and, oh dear, London needed new phone codes again. The area distinctions would stay the same as before, but the prefixes would now be 0171 and 0181. This was in 1995, and by now people were beginning to be irritated, so the head of Oftel, the regulatory body set up to supervise the telecommunications industry, stood up in public with his hand on his heart and promised Londoners that they would never need to change their phone codes again in their lifetimes.

Hee hee. That was a good one. Tomorrow, April 22, every single phone number in London changes yet again, with all relevant authorities promising that this is absolutely positively definitely honest-to-goodness the last time this will ever happen. The new codes are 0207 or 0208 xxx xxxx. Or at least that’s what we all thought they were, but it turns out to be more complicated than that. In fact the new pattern for London numbers is 020 7xxx xxxx. A four digit prefix becomes a three digit prefix, and a seven digit number becomes an eight digit number, the point being that people within the 020 area can now dial each other—whoopee!—without using any prefix at all.

The trouble with this, as I can already tell from early experiments in using the new system, is that it’s a much bigger change than it looks. If you’re used to seven-digit numbers, something peculiar happens inside your synapses when you try to remember or reel off an eight-digitter. It just doesn’t feel right—and if my memory serves, all the countries that regularly use eight-digit numbers tend to group them together in units of two, so that a Frenchman will say his number is 21, 32, 43, 54, rather than reciting a list of eight numerals. That doesn’t work nearly so well in English. My prediction for the new system is that it is going to be a humongously colossal screw-up. Luckily for me, the other thing that happens tomorrow is that I’m leaving for the United States on a book tour, so at least I’ll miss the early high-drama stages of the fiasco, and merely be back in time for the attritional, long-term grousing.

As for why the new numbers are needed, the answer boils down to two reasons: the Internet and mobile phones (as we call cell phones over here). There are 24 million mobile phones in use in the U.K., which in a country with a population of 60 million is one hell of a lot. That means it’s hard to walk out your front door without bumping into some moron saying, “Yeah, I’ve just walked out the front door” into a mobile phone. As for their omnipresent use in cafes, restaurants, cinemas—well, you know all about that. I’m trying to start a campaign for these places to provide ice buckets, so that if someone’s phone goes off it is considered de rigueur to leap to your feet, snatch the handset, hurl it into the water, and say: “Thank God! Your phone went off, but I think I extinguished it just in time.”