Telephones in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart


In Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart (2001), the narrator K reflects on Sumire’s call from ‘a totally semiotic telephone box’, and wonders if ‘the phone itself is some vital message, its very shape and colour containing hidden meaning’.

For more on telephones in Sputnik Sweetheart, watch this excellent short film by Victoria Callus, an MRes student at Nottingham Trent University.  Victoria made this film as part of her BA English with Creative Writing degree.

Sylvia Pankhurst on Listening-In: Correspondence found at BT Archives

In December 2018, I found letters in the BT Archives from suffragette and activist Sylvia Pankhurst to the Postmaster General regarding her concerns about phone tapping. My discovery was covered widely in the national press, including features in the Guardian, on the BBC and on Radio 4’s Today Programme (from 47.26).  Below, you can read my account of the correspondence.


Sylvia Pankhurst c.1910

On 29th November 2018, it was widely reported that Brexiteer MP Steve Baker keeps his mobile phone in a microwave overnight to prevent it from being bugged. While this may not be the easiest method of ensuring personal privacy, Baker is certainly not the first to express unease over electronic surveillance. From the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking to allegations that GCHQ helped Obama tap Trump’s private line, the wiretap has become common parlance in popular culture as in politics. But such concerns are, of course, nothing new, and last week, on my second day as an AHRC Leadership Fellows researcher in the BT Archives, I discovered a letter about telephone tapping written more than eighty years ago by suffragette and anti-fascist campaigner Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst.


AHRC / Courtesy of BT Heritage and Archives

Pankhurst’s letter to the Post Office, previously unknown to archivists, concerns a legal case against a Harley Street gynaecologist. On 27th November 1932, The Daily Mail reported that Dr Harold Burt-White had been struck off the Medical Register for his ‘friendship’ with his patient ‘Mrs B’. The paper chronicles the particulars of the alleged affair between Burt-White and Mrs B (also referred to as ‘Boo Boo’) including the details of intimate evenings with ‘oysters, champagne, duck and sherry’. Evidence for the affair, it transpires, came from intercepted telephone calls. The reporter explains that the husband of Mrs B, a solicitor by the name of Bevir, made ‘arrangements with the Post Office to have a duplicate telephone line from his flat to another house’, and that ‘the line was so arranged that every time a call was made to or from the flat a buzzer sounded and the woman at the end of the duplicate line took a short-hand note of the conversation.’ Reading from the transcript in court, Mr Slade, acting on behalf of Bevir, observed that the woman hired to listen-in claimed to hear a man’s voice say, ‘I will ring you later, my beautiful.’ Bevir – who was by then separated from his wife – won his case, and Burt-White, a highly-regarded and award-winning doctor, was struck from the Medical Register.


AHRC / Courtesy of BT Heritage and Archives

Over a year later, Sylvia Pankhurst came across the story and wrote to the Postmaster General about her alarm, which concerned not the behaviour of Burt-White, but rather the conduct of the Post Office which, at the time, ran the national telephone service. In particular, she notes her horror at the ‘extraordinary conditions’ under which the Post Office appeared to have authorised a duplicate telephone line enabling a subscriber to intercept conversations between his wife and the offender. Writing from her property in Woodford Green on 6th February 1934, Pankhurst remarks that it was alleged that the plaintiff had ‘obtained from the Telephone Service a duplicate telephone line’ and that ‘the installation of a line so arranged obviously opens the door to improper use by unscrupulous persons’. She asks the Postmaster General ‘whether such a line was ever installed, and if so, whether the installation was effected with your knowledge and whether you propose to allow such lines to be installed in the future for undoubtedly they are opposed to the best interests of the community and contrary to public policy’.

Two draft responses written on behalf of the Postmaster General and dated 13th February 1934 exist on file; it was clearly a matter that demanded some care. These drafts set out to inform Pankhurst that the Post Office ‘provides extension lines for telephone subscribers in the ordinary course of its business. Any subscriber may rent one or more extension lines from his main telephone to another room or rooms in the same premises or to other premises in his own occupation and control.’ The letter goes on to state that when a subscriber applies for such extension lines, ‘he is not asked for what purpose he requires it; and the Postmaster General does not think that such enquiry could properly be made by the Post Office.’ Despite this claim, however, further documentation in the archives suggests that the Post Office was in fact fully aware of the very personal reasons for the subscriber’s request. A letter dated 31st March from the Controller in the London Test Section to the engineering department, for example, explains that Mr Bevir required the installation of ‘facilities which will enable him to “listen-in” to conversations over the exchange line, and an indicator, if possible, to show when the main circuit is engaged.’ The letter also confirms that this was due to ‘very urgent domestic reasons’. Further correspondence admits that this required ‘non standard apparatus’, and that the Post Office granted permission to install a duplicate line to another property. None of this, naturally, was relayed to Pankhurst.


AHRC / Courtesy of BT Heritage and Archives

Pankhurst’s concerns, however, were not so easily allayed. The following day she wrote again, insisting that the line in this case ‘does not appear to have been an ordinary extension line’: ‘I had an extension in my own house and used it in order that I did not have to go down to my office to use the telephone, but I never received notification on my extension when the people in the office were using the telephone for an outgoing call.’ ‘Therefore,’ she concludes, ‘the telephone line described in the case of Bevir v Burt-White in the High Court must have been something quite special.’


AHRC / Courtesy of BT Heritage and Archives

There is a further draft letter from the Post Office to Sylvia Pankhurst in the BT files, along with several handwritten notes, which remark: ‘Miss Pankhurst’s letter of the 14th does not in fact call for a reply. I think we might leave it unanswered’. An additional scrawled note, dated 22nd February, reads: ‘I think that we must “stonewall”, little as I like that game’. There is no further correspondence on file from Pankhurst or the Post Office regarding this case, and the scribbled reference to ‘stonewalling’ might mark the end of the story except for the fact that the release of secret MI5 files on Sylvia Pankhurst in 2004 reveal that her concerns about surveillance were not entirely unfounded.

Pankhurst was monitored by MI5 from the 1930s to 1948, and although the files largely concern the launch of the New Times and Ethiopian News, which Pankhurst established from her Woodford Green address in 1936, it is clear that the government had information on her involvement with the Workers’ Suffrage Federation dating as far back as 1914. Described as ‘tiresome’ in a 1948 report, the Foreign Office admits in a letter to H. L. Farquhar written the previous year that ‘We agree wholeheartedly with you in your evident wish that this horrid old Harridan should be choked to death with her own pamphlets’. In addition to monitoring Pankhurst’s movements and intercepting her letters, however, there are several references on file to ‘telephone checks’ taking place in the 1930s, as well as a monitored phone conversation between the Communist Party Headquarters and Pankhurst ten years later. Pankhurst’s letters to the Post Office concerning individual privacy suggest that she was in fact on to something all along.

Since Pankhurst’s letters to the Post Office in 1934, espionage has gone digital, and current media reports of electronic surveillance, for some, are conducive to hysteria. In 2017, for instance, WikiLeaks claimed that both MI5 and the CIA had created a ‘fake off’ mode for a Samsung television that allowed them to secretly record viewers. Steve Baker should perhaps keep his TV in a microwave too. As we celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage, it is worth noting, however, that although espionage is nothing new – it is often cited as the second oldest profession in the world – the means by which we listen-in seem to grow ever more elaborate. What would Sylvia Pankhurst have to say about mobiles in microwaves and televisions that watch back? Whatever you think, you might want to keep it to yourself: someone’s probably listening now…. or perhaps you are the mole.



AHRC Leadership Fellows Award

Today marks theWires Are Crossed start my 20-month project Crossed Wires: Literature and Telephony funded by an AHRC Leadership Fellows award, in partnership with the BT Archives and the Science Museum.

Huge thanks to the AHRC, to the BT Archives, to the Science Museum, and to Nottingham Trent University for all their support.

Derrida on the Line

My article ‘Derrida on the Line‘ has been published in Derrida Today 10.2 (2017), pp.142-159.

By offering us a voice that is both at a distance and inside one’s own head, the telephone causes interference in thinking and writing. But despite the multiple telephones that echo in and across Jacques Derrida’s work, and specifically his writing to and with Hélène Cixous, it is only since Derrida’s death that critical interest in the phone has fully emerged, with work by Nicholas Royle (2006), Eric Prenowitz (2008), Geoffrey Bennington (2013) and Lynn Turner (2015) stressing the value of staying on the line. Engaging with Derrida, however, is not simply a matter of picking up the receiver. For the telephone is also, Derrida insists in H.C. for Life (2006), a ‘poetico-technical invention’, that is, the telephone is ‘thought itself’. This paper is about how the telephone ‘thinks’ Derrida, about how it remembers Derrida, and about how it offers us a line for re-imagining his voice. Bound up with the uncanny mechanisms of the telephone, it invites readers to participate in long-distance calling – listening across species, texts and worlds.


Daisy Bell: The Voice and the Machine


Artist’s rendering of HAL 9000’s noted camera eye

Listen to my documentary feature ‘Daisy Bell: The Voice and the Machine’ on BBC Radio 3, complete with interviews with beatboxer Danny Ladwa, Professor Simon King (Director of the Centre for Speech Technology at the University of Edinburgh), Dr Jonathan Fishman (a consultant at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital), the inspirational Andrew Beaumont, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and ‘Mr Phone’.

Many thanks to producer Simon Elmes, to Aoife Radburn who sang so beautifully for us, and to everyone who helped with the making of this feature.

Losing your voice

My three ‘Switchboard’ events for the Being Human Festival 2017 have been selected as a ‘Festival Highlight’! Hear me talk about the cultural history of the answer machine with Shahidha Bari and Lawrence Scott for a BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Special.

Being Human Blog

In 1877, The Times reported: ‘A time is coming when everybody, we presume, will carry his own Telephone about with him’. Now, over a century later, there are more telephones in the world than people. For some, the phone is a lifeline; the vital role of mobile connectivity for refugees and migrants, for instance, has been widely documented. But for others, the loss of face-to-face contact, the huge environmental impact, and increasing reports of ‘nomophobia’ (or ‘no-mobile-phone-phobia’ where symptoms include ringing ears and phantom vibrations), mean that – as Mark Twain told telephone engineers in 1877 – ‘if Bell had invented a muffler or a gag, he would have done us a real service’. But despite our increasing preoccupation with the benefits and dangers of the smartphone, our understanding of the aesthetics of telephony remain neglected.

Working with the BT Archives and the Science Museum, my research currently focuses on the ways that the telephone has been conceived by writers from the nineteenth century to the present day. How has the telephone – from Bell’s needle vibrating in water to the iPhone X – changed the ways that we read and write? In particular, I’m interested in the telephone’s capacity to destabilise relations of presence and absence in art and literature; this means thinking about interruption and disconnection as well as communication and contact. What happens, for example, when calls are intercepted or when meaning goes astray? What kinds of voices and what kinds of messages get lost and found down the line? As G. K. Chesterton once remarked, ‘There is only one way of getting through on the telephone: but there are an infinite number of ways of not getting through’.

Reflecting on the telephone in A Lover’s Discourse (1979), the French philosopher Roland Barthes highlights the disruptive capacity of electric speech, suggesting that ‘the telephone is always a cacophony, and that what it transmits is the wrong voice’. Certainly, the power of the telephone to challenge our understanding of what it means to communicate recurs with uncanny frequency in books and films, where calling someone up often means crossing the wires or talking to the dead.

Exploring the different voices that have been lost or found down the line, ‘Switchboard’ is a three-part series of events for Being Human 2017 exploring the cultural legacy of the telephone. ‘Switchboard I‘, the first event in the series, is a workshop at Nottingham Industrial Museum on 19 November that will inspire and support writers of all levels in the production of new creative work. Building on Nottingham’s own telephonic history, participants will have the chance to try their hand on the old exchange, reminisce over the Mickey Mouse character phone, or listen out for ghostly voices down the wires as they develop and share new writing inspired by the telephone and its many voices.

The second event of the series, ‘Switchboard II‘, will take place on 21 November in a telephone box next to ‘Dialling In’, a phone-booth cafe in Nottingham, reported to be the smallest coffee shop in the United Kingdom. Members of the public will be invited to enter the phone box to leave their own messages on our answer-machine, reflecting on the significance of the telephone in their lives or imagining calls yet to be made. Selected extracts from these recordings will be used with the authors’ permission during the third event of the series, ‘Switchboard III‘, a live literary event on 23 November at ‘Wired’ cafe in Nottingham where we will celebrate the aesthetics of the phone through poetry and music.

See the Being Human blog.

Sherlock’s Smartphone

My article on the use of telecommunication technologies in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries and the BBC series Sherlock is now online at Huffington Post.

Book Illustration Depicting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a Train Cabin

Illustration by Sidney Paget published in ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze’ in The Strand Magazine (December 1892)


Telephone Terrors

On Saturday 24th September 2016, I presented my research to an audience at the Royal Festival Hall as part of BBC Radio 3’s residency at the Southbank. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 5th October. To find out why both Freud and Kafka were afraid of the phone, listen to my essay ‘Telephone Terrors‘!