Three 15-year-old school children are on the phone, in class. No, it’s OK, they’re supposed to be; they’ve been told to, by me, with permission from their teacher. And they’re not actually on the phone, because they don’t know how to use it. It’s an old-fashioned rotary telephone, finger-in-the-dial variety. They’re tapping it, prodding at the holes. Hahahaha – they haven’t got a clue.
Loxford is an academy in Ilford, east London. I’ve come here with a suitcase stuffed full of the past, tech from my own childhood, mostly borrowed from nostalgic hoarder colleagues. Everything in the case is obsolete: it’s all been shrunk to fit into the smartphones today’s 15-year-olds almost all have. It’s a kind of social experiment, about different generations, lost skills, changing technology – what Loxford media studies teacher Mr Rushworth calls “convergence”. OK, and it’s also about having a laugh; and getting my generation’s own back for those times we’ve had to go crawling to a teenager for technical assistance, such as asking how to make the video on WhatsApp work.
My first team of year 10 time travellers is Jannugan Sasiharan (plays games on his phone; watches YouTubers – he’d rather not say which ones); Aissato Jalo (likes reading; family from Guinea-Bissau; speaks with an American accent, because she learned English by watching US TV shows such as Friends); and Rhianna Choudhury (prefect, head of year, probably should be running the country #VoteRhianna).
Aissato, Rhianna and Jannugan communicate with their friends on Snapchat and iMessage. They may actually talk, verbally, via WhatsApp and FaceTime, to their closest friends and parents. Rhianna FaceTimes family in Bangladesh.
They recognise the old phone from movies (and from watching The Sweeney in media studies – I want to go to Mr Rushworth’s media studies classes). Do you have to call the operator first, wonders Jannugan? Is the operator even still there?
Oh, it’s going to be hard to find out because we have a technical problem: Loxford is so modern there isn’t a single old-fashioned BT phone socket in the building. We can’t actually plug this phone in to surprise the operator with their first call in 20 years.
We’ll just have to simulate. So what’s the operator’s number? Hey, you know what, you don’t have to call the operator, you can just call your parents. So what’s that number? “You have to actually dial the number instead of going to contacts,” suggests Aissato.
But obviously they don’t know their numbers, although Jannugan knows his mother’s ends in 202. Hang on, he does know his landline number, amazingly, for emergencies, and there’s always someone home. So let’s dial it.
This is when the fun begins. Someone knows you have to turn the dial, but how far? They put their fingers in, then dial a teeny bit, then dial back, is that it? It’s hopeless, none of them dials right round to the stopper, then releases before moving on to the next number. And they haven’t taken the handset off the cradle, so they wouldn’t be getting through anyway. Sad, worried parents, not to mention the lonely operator, would remain unrung.
I’m afraid, Almon Brown Strowger, that your design is an unintuitive disaster. And the kids are not impressed. How long, just to dial the number? And if it’s busy, you have to go through the whole process again? On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about running out of charge.
Enjoyment: 3/10 Achievement: 4/10
Traditionally this is not an easy task for a teenager. Jannugan’s grandmother used to have one like this, he says, correctly identifying my next item, an alarm clock with bells on the top and a little hammer that jiggles between them.
“It’s not working,” he says. “I think it needs batteries… or do you wind it up?” Good work: soon there’s a reassuring ticking from the clock.
They pass it round, winding (the alarm needs winding separately), twiddling, and eventually figure out that the third hand, the red one, must set the alarm. They don’t find the little catch to release the hammer, that’s just too stone age, but once I’ve helped with that, they get it going: ding-a-ding-a-ding-ding… Jesus, remember? Like the hammer and the bells are inside your head.
“My phone’s much easier to use,” Rhianna says.
“But this wakes you up more, it’s really loud,” Jannugan says, possibly even a little impressed.
Enjoyment: 5/10 Achievement: 7/10
3 Tune in… to the wireless
So now we’re wide awake, let’s turn the radio on. “That’s a radio?” Aissato says, about the little Sony model I’ve brought along. They all say they don’t really listen to the radio, sorry @gregjames. Rhianna’s father sometimes has it on in the car, to know what’s going on.
They do figure out how to pull the aerial up. “Antenna,” Jannugan says. To catch the signal or something, Rhianna says. From radio towers, Aissato says. Hey, between them they’re practically Marconi.
But then there’s a lot of twiddling and switching, crackle and hiss, some discussion about the meaning of FM/AM/LW/SW. (Frequency modulation and amplitude modulation; I’d forgotten that.) Jannugan wonders if the towers still transmit, for radios like this. Yes! They still print newspapers, too, by the way.
Eventually, they stumble across Radio 5 Live, where the talk is about cricket. And then the knob for tuning falls off.
Enjoyment: 6/10 Achievement: 6/10
4 Look it up… in an encyclopedia
I set them a task – who won the Cricket World Cup? Easy, they say, England! No, in 1983. Ah. Ordinarily they would ask Google (they talk about Google, rather than anywhere Google might take them to). It would take two seconds. But there’s no Google here; they’re the search engines – go search.
“Maybe this has it,” Aissato says, picking up a 1991 Pears’ Cyclopaedia. “I’ve heard of an encyclopedia, but not a cyclopaedia,” she says. Hmm, me, too, if I’m honest. Here’s a fun fact about Pears: they are the same people who make the soap, and the final edition, the 126th, was published in 2017.
They’ve never seen an encyclopedia, but they get the hang of it, which is good news: books still work. They discover a contents page. Would it be in Events? Probably Sport. From there, it’s a stroll: they figure out that it’s arranged alphabetically, and have an answer in about three minutes. India won the World Cup in 1983.
Enjoyment: 5/10 Achievement: 8/10
5 Play time … with an old-school Nintendo Game Boy
“Game Boy!” Rhianna says, excitedly, pointing at one of the objects on the table. Yes, it is: a Nintendo Game Boy handheld console, circa 1990. But how does a 15-year-old schoolgirl in east London in 2019 know that? From Stranger Things, she says. Really? I thought the Netflix sci-fi horror was set in the 80s, pre-Game Boy? Maybe also from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, she says.
Turns out they’ve also played with Game Boy emulators on their phones, but never a real one, so this is exciting. “It’s original, pristine,” Jannugan says.
He’s not getting anywhere near it, though, because Rhianna has kidnapped the Game Boy. There are no problems operating it, Super Mario is loaded up and she’s away: “Do I have to grab the mushroom… oh I missed it – it gets you another life.”
I knew I’d be obsessed with Game Boy. If my parents got me one they’d never see me, it’s so addictive. I want one
“Also a good source of vitamin D,” Mr Rushworth says, injecting some nutritional education into proceedings.
Rhianna’s current favourite mobile game is a cooking simulation one called Cooking Fever. She likes Subway Surfers, too, as do Aissato and Jannugan. But there’s a desirable authenticity about the old tech. “I knew I’d be obsessed with Game Boy,” Rhianna says. “If my parents got me one they’d never see me, it’s so addictive. I want one.” It’s the only winner so far.
“Sometimes the original is better,” Rhianna admits, before loading Tetris without any problems (maybe ease of use is directly proportional to desirability). But it’s clearly the exception to the rule. “Everything here has been replaced by a smartphone,” Aissato observes, of all my gear.
“It’s quicker, more efficient, you can do all of these things on your phone,” Rhianna says. “If I was to lose [my phone] I’d be, like, so confused.”
Enjoyment: 10/10 Achievement: 10/10
Jannugan, Aissato and Rhianna have to go to an awards assembly now. I imagine they’ll be collecting loads. Time for fresh legs. Six of them, with three fresh minds, belonging to Iqra Kadri (cheeky; says she should have worn mascara for the pictures), Najaat Shahbal (shier; likes science and maths), Tanu Pathak (laid-back; cool), and five new tasks.
6 Spin class… with a turntable
“It looks like one of those spinny things,” Iqra says. It is one of those spinny things, also known as a record player. No, they’re not CDs Tanu, they’re records, seven-inch singles, some fairly desperate ones from my local charity shop (I wasn’t going to risk anyone’s precious vinyl on this lot). Iqra, Najaat and Tanu listen to music on apps and YouTube, via their phones, obviously. Pay for it? Eh? Why would anyone do that? The girls like masked UK rapper M Huncho; Tanu’s more of a rock and pop man. Well, I have here Topanga by David Soul. Yeah, pretty much the M Huncho of his day.
They manage to put the disc on the turntable, Tanu moves the arm across, and puts it down on the rotating record – gently, Tanu! We have music, of sorts, even if it’s halfway through the song.
“It sounds scary, like a horror movie,” Iqra says. She’s not wrong, but that’s because it’s on 33rpm. We talk about what changing the speed does, and needles, and how many songs you might find on a record like this – only one on each side! Then I ask them to start from the beginning of the record.
This proves tricky. Tanu picks up the arm and puts it down in the middle of the song again. “Can you rewind it?” Najaat asks. Good question: no.
We watch and listen for a while, the needle riding the groove, David Soul’s spooky howling (it really is a terrible record at any speed) echoing across the classroom. Eventually, Iqra realises that the needle is moving, slowly, towards the centre of the record. So where’s the beginning? The edge! She picks it up, and puts the needle down on the edge, the beginning. Yay!
They don’t have much good to say about the turntable – too complicated, easily broken, bad sound quality.
But then they seem to remember that record players aren’t just about lounging about listening to rubbish songs, they belong in other places. Suddenly Iqra and Najaat are pretending to be DJs – the club sort, sorry @gregjames – spinning and scratching (has David Soul ever been scratched before?). The spinny thing reclaims its credibility.
Enjoyment: 7/10 Achievement: 6/10
7 Play it again… with a Sony Walkman
Mistake number one: the teenagers fail to take the tape out of its case before trying to get it in the player. I couldn’t find an actual Walkman, but this Sony cassette player is as near as dammit. They find and open the door, eventually get the tape the right way round; this one does have rewind, which I nudge them in the direction of, then play.
There’s a really positive reaction in the room. Not from Iqra, Najaat or Tanu, sadly, but from Mr Rushworth. Turns out 7800° Fahrenheit by Bon Jovi is one of Mr Rushworth’s all-time favourite records. He used to listen to it on the way to training… yeah, all right, this isn’t about you, sir.
For the kids it’s the usual issues: too complicated, too big, too rubbish; why would you pay for it? I show them how to wind a tape back in, using a pencil, not that they’ll ever need to do that.
Enjoyment: 5/10 (Mr Rushworth: 10/10) Achievement: 4/10
8 Snap it… on a 35mm camera
“Where’s the screen? Normally there’s a screen,” Iqra says, looking at the back of the camera. “Oh, you peek through that, innit,” Tanu says, looking through the viewfinder, then pushing the button. All correct, but there’s no film.
They open the door, but loading a film proves too hard. Sophia, the Guardian’s photographer, shows us how to pull out the film this much, push the roll in, then shut the door. We hear the whirr as it winds itself on. I remember pretending my camera was an electric razor during that bit – actually, probably during the rewind when the whirr was longer. Oh it was a laugh, back in the day.
Iqra, Najaat and Tanu are soon snapping away: each other, selfies, zooming in and out, photographing the actual photographer.
Normally they take photos on their phones – family, friends – then share them. The idea of waiting to get your photos developed is quite alien to them. “Did you have to pay for it?” Najaat asks. “And you can’t check it? Imagine if you print it out and it’s ugly.”
Enjoyment: 7/10 Achievement: 7/10
9 Write home… using pen and paper
Here’s some paper, Basildon Bond, blue, found at the bottom of a drawer. Now write a letter!
“Foundation pens,” Najaat says. Near enough.
“It doesn’t work,” Iqra says. That’s because it needs this: ink (also blue, I seem to remember that it was easier to get out of clothes than black). “Didn’t they dip in feathers,” Tanu says. Don’t be cheeky, how old do you think I am?
They start by just dipping their pens into the ink pot, and that seems to work OK. They’re not cartridge pens, but rather the ones with the little rubber reservoir you squeeze to suck up the ink. It soon gets very inky. That’s why they’re called fountain pens not foundation pens, Najaat. Snapchat’s much less messy. We stick to dipping.
Dear Mother, begins Iqra. Is that what she calls her? “No, I just wrote it. I call her Mummy.” Nice neat writing, though; less so, Tanu.
And so, for the first time ever, they write letters home, about what a brilliant morning they’re having at school (I imagine). Actually, they write half-letters, because we’re running out of time and we need to send them. I have envelopes, to be addressed, which Iqra does quite eccentrically: parents’ names top left, then address top right, postcode first, then Ilford, then street. Will it ever get there? They’ll have to post them first…
Enjoyment: 3/10 Achievement: 5/10
10 Find it… on the map!
Kids these days, they can’t read maps. The minute they run out of power, or data and can’t get to Google Maps or Waze, they are hopelessly lost.
“It’s a book,” Tanu says. “A guide, a map of the whole of London, basically.”
Yes and it’s called the A-Z. Now find the school. After flicking through, marvelling at how long it must have taken to make, they find the index, and Loxford Lane, IG1. Good start. The index directs them to “5G, 71”. So they turn to page 5, where there seems to be a column called G, and here’s a boating lake, which must be the boating lake up the road, yay! Except the boating lake on the map is in Regent’s Park. A fail, then. Back to the index: 71 is the page, 5 and G the column and row, Ilford, this looks promising, where’s the school then? What do you think “sch” might stand for? I’m sure they would have found it, eventually, but we’d have been there all day.
We have been granted special permission to leave the premises – no, not to get takeaway, Iqra – but to buy stamps. And I’ve heard they can be bought on Gordon Road near the junction with Henley Road. It doesn’t go brilliantly. Where are we now? “It’s just an alleyway,” Iqra says. Well this looks like a road? After looking at the map, she says, “It’s just called ‘Road’.” That’s because the first part of the name is up the other end: Gordon Road! We pass Staines Road, Eton Road, Mortlake Road, and find it, the post office. Not because they have map-read their way here, but because they knew where we were going.
Still, they successfully purchase stamps for the first time, which involves interaction with another human being.
Now to post them: where’s the post box? Just there, Iqra says. No, that one’s broken, there’s a better one on Woodlands Road. Najaat looks at her phone, she’s only got 10%. Oi, put it away. “Oh yeah, we’re in the 80s,” she remembers. Back on page 71, Najaat finds Woodlands Road and we set off, she and Iqra recommending M Huncho tracks to me as we walk. In the right direction, as it happens, and this time I think they are actually using the A-Z. There may even be a happy ending to this story: some time in the next couple of days, on to the doormats of three surprised sets of parents in east London, three letters may drop. Half-finished, messy, splodgy… but actual hand-written letters home. Just like in the olden days.
Enjoyment: 5/10 Achievement: 5/10.
• With thanks to Loxford school and the Guardian’s Education Centre
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