In the creepiest corner of the commodity market, among the cheapest and most embarrassing DREGS of garage sales and bargain bins and used-book stores, a new spirit is forming from the misshapen, the forgotten, the uncanny leftovers of the literary. HAGSTONE REVIEWS seek to unearth these eso-erotic atavisms for the world at large, in the inimitable and mysterious Mormyrid manner! Do you dare answer the phone for:
Rings A Bell, by Angela Griffiths (Hutchinson & Co, 1985)
Keywords: Devices, erotics, eccentrics, miscommunication, rebellion, slapstick, prize porkers
Of interest to: shut-ins, obsessive antiquarians, phone scammers, voyeurs, technophiles from the age of Verne, sex workers, sketch comedians
Lest we forget that devices too have their devices—
Conspiratorial phone booths. Disembodied ears and tongues. Organs without bodies. Feet lusting after powder. Organizations of ambiguous function. Poisoned wedding cakes. A glowing cloud of voices that whisper temptations into the ears of the local sky… Hold the line….
I was initially attuned to the surrealist potential of phone literature after reading Franklin Rosemont’s Wrong Numbers (Black Swan Press, 2002), in which the phenomena, philosophy, erotics and poetry of the telephone are expounded at great length and with much to commend them. In that book, Rosemont points out a few examples of popular romance and children’s literature in which the telephone plays a highly charged role—a conduit, in some cases, to a new amorous world.* It was with such hope and no context that I purchased an gnarly old $1 volume at the used book store in the basement of the Ottawa Public Library.
Rings A Bell brings together three short dramatic pieces that center on the use of a telephone in an undisclosed village, presumably in Britain, but then again, perhaps some kind of parallel cartoon universe or utopian socialist community of the far-flung future. The book’s exact genre is hard to discern from the 1980s functionalist design. Forlorn digits seem to indicate whole set of missing companion volumes. A few hints suggest that the volume fits into the enticingly pleonastic category of “literacy literature” (whatever that could mean). The entire series is edited by a mysterious entity known only as “Wendy Body” (Oh anybody? Where’s the body?) In short, there is every reason to believe that this is a set of secret coded training guides for trans-dimensional invaders.
Gertrude: Do you mind! I am making a very important phone call! It could very well change the course of my entire life!
In the title piece, Rings A Bell, we encounter a character who could have walked straight out of Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet. Gertrude Clump, armed with a folding chair, a stack of cigarettes and a pile of coins, marches into the village phone box one sunny Saturday afternoon. There, she has a lovely time speaking to Boris, of the shadowy Blue Lagoon Friendship Club. This occupation results in an effective communications blockade of the entire town. As any reader of Edward Lear knows, eccentric individual behavior in public will always attract the rebukes and scorn of “They”. I can happily report that despite the pressure of the townsfolk, who with a miserabilist ardour for the ordinary are not long in sabotaging Comrade Clump, she does not surrender. Her irrational re-appropriation of the town’s seemingly sole method of communication to the outside world—a tactic worthy of any situationist Frondeur—seems to disrupt the everyday life of the village at its most traumatic point.
Clump remains on the phone, doggedly pursuing her useless conversation and ceding nothing in regards to her unbridled desire to kibitz, until a reactionary local traps her by wrapping the phone cables around the phone booth. Nevertheless, during the occupational situation, she inadvertently spawns an erotic cue of people brought together by the forces of objective chance: Emma and Charles, parallel victims of jilted love and occupied phonespace, encounter each other and couple off in a pairing worthy of a narrative by Breton—a child with a lollipop inexplicably lodged in its ear is spared the disaster of medical reprisal—two lonely older eccentrics arrange a dinner—and all this under the auspices of a mysterious substance known only as “Foskins Fancy Foot Powder”.
Emma: Poor Boris was driven mad in the hot weather. He used to sit with his feet in the fridge and read the label on the tin. ‘Take the fire out of your feet with Foskins Fancy Powder,’ he’d say. It seemed to help him, saying it out loud like that.
The second play, Crossed Wires, is notable for an exciting telephonic miscommunication. The word is “wigs”, as requested by Queenie, a local thespian and something of an anti-police activist. A game of telephone is played through quite literally, including a healthy round of cop taunting, which, by means of alchemy of the verb sees the request mutate from wigs, to figs, to jigs, until the denouement finds Queenie surrounded by a horde of ravenous pigs. The staging is silent on this point but we know how hungry pigs can get. As the disgruntled farmer says, “Pigs aren’t easy on strange ground.”
Ginger: It’ll have to be prize porkers. How many does she want?
The last piece, Problem Line, depicts a local call-in radio hotline. The topic: the patriarcho-industral complex of weddings. But while radio host Rick Shaw and hymeneal propagandist Bella Bliss attempt to give their trite hetero-normative advice they are subverted by situationist-cum-bridal store owner Mr. Flint. The latter advises things like poisoning the wedding party by means of a cake filled with chicken medicine, or the appropriateness of a nuptial vehicle with a trunk full of fertilizer. “It’s just not done!” scream the chorus frustrated foils of bourgeois respectability. At the climax, he even incites a jilted bride’s mother to literally horse-whip her escaped ex-son-in-law:
Lady Portly: So, do you agree that I should track down this scoundrel and take my horse-whip to him?
Bella: No don’t.
Rick Shaw: [Alarmed] Please don’t!
Mr Flint: Just follow your instincts, Lady P.
These three plays form a twisted macromelodrama of eroticism, popular revolt, surrealist subversion, and black humour. In all, I can heartily recommend the Rings A Bell trilogy as the best Ring Cycle in town. I can only hope some daring dramaturge will take up the challenge of this lost classic and give it the staging it deserves. Five out of seven hagstones.
I’ll leave you with some enticing summaries of other volumes in this series, which I look forward to encountering in a basement or yard sale someday in the far flung future:
The Council are coming to cut down gran’s favourite tree but Gran has plans of her own. To Charlie’s horror, she climbs into the tree and refuses to come down until the Council change their plan. Charlie tells the story of Gran’s heroic battle for her tree.
Long Gone Lil
At the safari park, all the keepers have taken the day off to go to a big local wedding. Ted is left in charge of Lil, a beautiful, rare giraffe with a sense of humour. Lil gives him the slip and leads him a dance all over the local countryside, until he finally catches up with her somewhere he would rather not be.
-Reviewed by ‘Agstone ‘Arry
*Tangentially, another interesting treatment of the phone as a mechanism for disembodiment can be found in Au telephone (1901), by the great Grand Guignol playwright André de Lorde. Here, a family murder is overheard by a distant father whose impotence to intervene—really reminds one of phone sex—whatever that is…