As long as I have known my dear Priyatelka, she has radiated great warmth and kindness. She is a charming woman who loves life, adores children, gives pennies to the poor, feeds stray cats in the street (claiming that we never know when the roles might be reversed), can always spare a moment to take in the beauty of the world around her, sings exuberantly with the voice of a sea lion, and never has a harsh word for anyone until she is out of earshot. She also reacts very well when she finds that somebody is really irritating her.
So it is with great thanks to this generous soul that I have recently become the proud owner of a magnificent new mobile telephone device. However, her prime reason for this lovely gesture had little to do with the joy of giving during the festive season. It was really because she was sick to the back teeth of hearing me moaning and groaning about the mental torture I was suffering as a consequence of the inadequacy of my dilapidated old phone.
It all happened totally by surprise when one afternoon, as we were walking through town, she marched me into a café, sat me down at a table, bought me a cup of strong coffee and a biscuit (the biscuit always means she’s in a serious mood) and told me not to move until she had returned. I sat tight, as instructed, moving only slightly when I needed to gesture to the waiter that I’d like another coffee but was too afraid to leave my seat.
I kept myself entertained by reading a text message from the people responsible for the city centre car parking charges in Veliko Tarnovo. I send them a text containing my car registration number, they charge a lev (about €0.50 or 45p) to my mobile phone account and then someone sends me a message to advise me at what time the sixty minutes of parking that I have paid for will expire. Fifty-five minutes later I get another message to say that I’ve not got very long left and if I want another hour I must part with another lev. In a world where it’s often difficult to make friends, I find it’s nice to have this level of contact with somebody that I have never met and who I have come to refer to affectionately as Lovely Rita. Should you ever find yourself feeling a bit lonely, her number is 13621.
An hour and a lev later, Priyatelka returned and smiled her best smile as she handed me a cardboard box full of android gadgetry and a carrier bag overflowing with legal documents, user manuals, glossy leaflets, a fridge magnet and a tea cosy from my new mobile phone provider. Opening the box, I was thrilled to discover my new toy; the swankiest gift that anyone had ever given me. All I had to do was cancel my old contract with Vodkafone and stop complaining. She told me this as she aimed her favourite stabbing finger of authority at my chest to cause the minor bruising that would stay long enough to remind me of what was expected of me.
The former device that had been the epicentre of the incessant complaining of which I had been accused was alright when I bought it but, as the months went by, things gradually started to go wrong. Eventually it reached the point where it was only slightly better than the phone that had been installed in my parents’ house in England in 1963 by a man from the Post Office. The way in which the tired old phone of three years ago outshone its predecessor of almost sixty years ago amounted to little more than the fact that I didn’t have to share a telephone line with nosey neighbours able to listen in to my conversations. I suppose that its alloy frame being more robust than that of its Bakelite predecessor and that it was less likely to wear a hole in my trouser pocket could also be looked upon as positive attributes.
I continued to be reasonably happy with this poor old contraption’s performance until other people with smarter smart phones than mine started making cruel comparisons. It seemed to me that the world today would grind to a halt if we didn’t all have countless apps at our fingertips. It astounds me that younger generations of my family have apps enabling them to perform such tasks as paying the milkman, feeding the baby, applying haemorrhoid preparations and listening to music (the latter of these seeming to me to be the most ludicrous of all) without even having to get out of bed.
My old mobile, I was told, had low working memory capacity. I hotly disputed this as it was far better at remembering phone numbers than I was, though I had to concede that it operated in such a way that if I fancied installing a new app I had to delete the old one first. At the point of Priyatelka’s intervention I was stuck with the app that identifies South American rodents from photographs taken of their droppings. Navigating my way around the Sofia Metro system with its Cyrillic signage and complex ticketing arrangements should have been quite straightforward for someone with the right software, but not for me, and I had to rely heavily on my ability to recognise a chinchilla from four platforms away to convince fellow passengers that I had moved on at all from the technology of the early sixties.
Other slight technical difficulties included the maximum range for telephone calls being little more than fifty metres and the piece of black cloth that I had to put over my head to eliminate stray light whilst operating its camera facility having holes in it that were way beyond darning. If only there had been a darning app!
Now, however, I have put the past behind me, admitted that my new phone is the best thing that’s ever happened to me (apart from Leeds United winning the FA Cup in 1972 and meeting Priyatelka in 2019) and consigned the old one to the drawer in the kitchen where we keep things that might come in handy again one day; such as the mobile phone before last, several old pairs of glasses that I may need in the event of my eyesight dramatically improving, batteries that may or may not have expired, an ever expanding collection of Christmas cracker toys and a shiny thing with slithering bits.
The new phone has better memory than the best ever contestant on the quiz programme University Challenge on the telly, which means I have been able to install more apps than you can shake a stick at. I have an app to help me with just about every aspect of my life. I was already a powerhouse of useless information but now my mind has synced (as people would say in the smart phone world) with my smartphone, filling it with even more amazing facts to the extent that I have become a regular smart arse (as people would say in the Turlough world). Did you know, for example, that scorpions have two pedipalps and they dance before mating, and that Stockton-on-Tees has the widest high street in Britain? Did you know that people who live in Stockton-on-Tees dance in the high street before mating? I wasn’t aware of any of this until yesterday morning when I chanced upon the information whilst trying to find the recipe for Coquille Saint-Jacques. The location setting on the old phone struggled to know whether or not I was even in the right country but the new one can not only recognise if I am at home or elsewhere but also let me know where either it is or I am whenever one of us is lost, and whether the lid is up or down when I am sitting on the toilet. At the moment it’s up.
The best feature by far of this little bundle of electronic wizardry is the camera. I have never ever before owned a phone on which I have been able to take photographs to a standard that has satisfied me, but this one has turned out to be the dog’s pedipalps. They say that a bad workman blames his tools but in my case it has been true that poor quality kit has been my downfall for a long time. Of course, I use a proper big flashy camera for most of my photography but it’s not always practical to carry that around with me so I’ve often had to rely on my Poundland own-brand phone, producing images of an inferior quality that I haven’t really been proud of.
Nevertheless, it’s not always tools that need to take the blame for a poor standard of craftsmanship. Living in the Balkans I have become a student of all things East European, making some amazing discoveries about this fascinating part of the world and its rich culture. I have learnt, for instance, that there’s an old Bulgarian proverb that goes A bad dancer blames his testicles (written as Лошият танцьор обвинява тестисите си and pronounced as Loshiyat tantsyor obeenyava testeeceetay see, should you ever find the need to use the phrase). This clearly makes sense as they could get in the way a bit during the take-off and landing stages of a flying pirouette; not that I’ve ever tried. In this respect I suppose the opposite could also apply. Russian ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, is regarded by some as the greatest of his generation and during his performances he did very little in his spandex ballet tights to conceal his gentleman’s bits from the eyes of admiring audiences. I know this much is true. So anyone who is a bad dancer these days cannot use these anatomical features as an excuse. By simply studying Nureyev in action and configuring theirs in the same way as his, they are sure to take command of any stage or dancefloor; though Anna Pavlova might have argued otherwise. I understand that there’s is an app that we can download to assist us with this, but while using it we should remember to turn off our phone cameras to reduce the risk of embarrassment and / or prosecution.
The camera on my fancy new phone is so good that I feel that it might be more accurate to write about the phone on my fancy new camera. As well as being able to capture images of great sharpness and vivid colour, it has a built-in setting enabling it to take panoramic shots. So it was regrettable that in the week following it falling into my hands the weather was mostly grey and often wet, thus reducing the normally magnificent beauty of the places and objects I wished to capture images of, whilst simultaneously increasing the likelihood of the device suffering water damage.
Deeply frustrated, I had to practice in the house. I quickly amassed more than three hundred photographs of cats, dogs, coffee cups, root vegetables, caskets of gold coins, venomous serpents, exotic dancing girls, an overflowing laundry basket and such like. But, much to my amazement, I discovered that it’s possible for me to take these so-called panoramic photographs in spaces as confined as our downstairs toilet, which is barely more than a metre wide and contains only the items of sanitary earthenware that you would expect, four plain white walls, a door and a few dead insects. You would not believe the hours I have spent sitting there to prove a point, demonstrating the unbelievable dynamism of my photographic friend, but at the same time yearning for a subject slightly more panoramic to shoot than a bottle of bleach and a Communist era lavatory brush.
A couple of days ago, noticing that the afternoon sky was clearing brought me almost as much joy as receiving the gift had done. So with due regard for anti-pandemic restrictions and muddy conditions underfoot, I dashed outside to experiment with my state of the art gadget. I found that within the confines of our garden wall I was soon able to double the size of my portfolio of pictures. As I dashed around, clicking merrily, I could tell that our neighbours were watching me in amusement and thinking that I was a bit mad. But I think the same about them for not taking photographs of their houses and gardens. I would love to do it for them because their traditional Bulgarian approach to architecture, horticulture, viticulture and whatever the word is for the culture of collecting stray cats, looks infinitely more interesting than ours. It’s hard to believe but they don’t even use apps to organise their plots of land. If I was to lean over their fences and make a suggestion in the name of both photography and preserving memories of a disappearing way of life I’m sure they would think I was very nosy and swear at me in the Cyrillic alphabet, but then having a reputation for a high degree of nosiness would probably complete my transformation into a true Bulgarian village dweller. They tend to be grandmasters in this ancient art, especially the lady ones dressed in black, each with only one tooth in their head and nothing to do but sit on a bench in the square all day, gathering information to pass on to their single-toothed, clad-in-black mates.
Stopping only momentarily to acknowledge shouted greetings from other gardens and to say ‘No thanks, we’ve already got a fridge full of tomatoes,’ I got on with the job of testing my phone and compiling a visual account of the wonderful surroundings that I live in. An accurate record that will last for ever or until the world runs out of electricity and I am unable to turn on my computer or charge the phone. I have already prepared myself for the day when such terrible circumstances might arise. I will simply mutter and grumble about it until some warm-hearted woman decides to buy me a more up-to-date gadget.
Created by myself, today. A Bakelite predecessor photographed on the snazzy wee phone that accompanies me everywhere.