Sixteen 62-word Sestudes on a Phone-Box

By J. A. Sutherland


I’ll bang a drum, a trunk,

a hollowed oak, a plank,

a bole with a parchment skin;

or stretch a wire or knotted string –

attach at either end a baked-bean tin;

tap in a Morse-code, wave a flag,

transmit semaphore from a tower;

send a smoke-signal, carrier pigeon,

a marathon runner, a telegram, fax,

or – hold on: what’s in this red box?


It was not just milk that Margaret Thatcher snatched. She stole the phone-box from our street. Not personally, or at least, I didn’t see her do it, but I blame her. British Telecom removed this cultural symbol of communication, and that was all her fault. They replaced it with Perspex; characterless and supposedly vandal-proof. Ripped the red heart out of our country.

Standing in the National Museum of Scotland, by the Jubilee Phone-Box, there’s a cacophony of beeps & bangs, dots & dashes, children calling through coloured pipes: the general buzz & hum of people making connections. It sounds like some kind of Sci-fi movie, or an episode of Doctor Who. But the most alien sound is this: a text-alert on a mobile phone.



I looked for rhymes to chime with your design

‘Phone-box’ foxed me, boxed me in

– it had a hollow ring I couldn’t answer

‘Kiosk’ I could only match with ‘mosque’

‘Booth’ was both uncouth and smooth

‘Beacon’ rhymed, aptly, with ‘icon’

‘K2’ to ‘K6’ (the ‘Jubilee’) seemed clinical or silly

Only one alliteration resonated with a deeper truth

‘Red’ – assonant with ‘Dead.’


“Was this the same as the one on your street?” she asked me. No. “The big one in the lower gallery?” I told her, the ‘K2’ was mainly found in London. “Or museums,” she cheekily grinned. Touché. We lived on a council estate: ours was one of those plain-glass, flat-top jobs. “So BT did you a favour…?” I chose to ignore this.

Seeing buttons A-and-B, she thought: I’m not that old. “When I was young,” she told me, “The slots were 5p and tuppence. They went up to 10p and 5p; then, the smaller slot was sealed with a slice of steel.” She remembered how her mother gave her an ‘emergency ten pence piece’ in case she missed the bus. It didn’t last long.



Notelets, postcards, greetings-cards;

wrapping-paper, toilet-paper, writing paper;

gift-tags, paper-bags, puzzles, buttons, badges;

expanding sponges, woodcraft models;

pillows, cushions, face-cloths, flannels;

key-rings, earrings, fridge-magnets, money-box tins;

pencil-cases with sharpeners, erasers, rulers, pens;

tea-towels, tea-pots, ceramic salt-&-pepper pots;

candles, ornaments, novelty clocks;

models of all sizes, shapes;

boxes, mugs, dishes, plates;

tobacco-tins, ash-trays, CD racks,

cufflinks, ties, socks:

Oh yes, I’ve had the lot!


Who’d have thought they’d put all the phone-boxes in a phone-box museum. Thatcher would have privatised the trees, the sky, the air we breathe. Competition always ends in Monopoly. She sold us what we already owned; then charged us a dollar-and-a-half for landing on her square. There’s no such thing as free parking. All Public Treasures – museums, libraries, galleries – should be FREE.

“Everyone’s got a favourite phone-box story,” Jim told us. Then he held up a photo. “That’s me, next to the most famous phone-box in the World!” It was from a film: Local Hero.  “There are schemes,” he said: “Schemes, where you can keep your phone-box if you can put it to a good use.” From that point, Jim became our local hero.





It went from being a lavatory to a local lending-library.

Others got turned into Art Galleries;

A greenhouse, outhouse, lighthouse, conservatory;

Shelving units for a thousand DVDs;

kennels, coops, doocots, multi-storey hutches,

First-Aid units with fitted defibrillator;

Storage rooms for sacks of potatoes!

Garden-shed, tool-shed, beauty parlour;

Shower cubicle, cocktail cabinet, mini-bar;

But of all uses, the most bizarre:

A phone booth.


I saw someone using a phone-box once. The door was missing, they weren’t exactly talking quietly, so I stood a while, eavesdropping. It’s rare to see a public phone in use, and I was curious. Was it an emergency, or a casual conversation? Someone having an affair! Turned out they were calling BT’s helpline. “A hundred-and-ten pounds to plug in a wire!”

“When did you last use a phone-box,” she asked me, as if I was part of the problem, or even the cause. When my mobile battery had run out, I said: from taking too many photographs. “Of phone-boxes?” Probably. “Do you own a real one?” I told her, no: I couldn’t afford one. “They’re a collector’s item, you know?” My point, exactly.



What’ll we do without the phone-box?

Nowhere for Superman to change in,

for teenagers to snog in,

for beggars to check for loose change,

or jakeys to urinate in;

nowhere for prostitutes to leave their calling-cards in,

for stalkers to spy in,

for children to hide from escaped tigers or lions,

or maybe – just maybe –

to make an emergency telephone call in.


When I was a child, I trapped my fingers in the door of a phone-box. I suspect my mother would have slapped my hand to prevent it, but had instead to kiss my poor blue fingers as I yelped. It seems I’ve spent my life obsessed with this bright red devil, with its heavy doors and foosty smell. Trauma’s a funny thing.

“Can all that’s ‘Great’ about ‘British’ be also ‘Scottish?’” We share the Phone-Box, but if – or when – the Union Flag is reduced to a saltire, what will the phone-box boast? Even our own phone-boxes were decorated with a crown, although in 1953, to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth I, the crown was Scottish. “So let it wear its perforated crown – with pride.”


All things come to an end; even endless photographs.

From friends who visit foreign lands and find them;

posters, picture-books, mementos, postcards;

now-you-see-it, now-you-don’ts; before-and-afters;

chucked aside in phone-box-cemetery junk-yards;

curiosities – green and purple, tartan, black and white.

I made a one-picture-per-box rule that I couldn’t keep,

nor stuck to Gilbert Scott kiosks only.

Here today, gone tomorrow: it’s time. Press delete.