Spare a moment to consider the British phone box, the red-painted, windowpaned edifice second only to double-decker buses, or perhaps the queen, as a symbol that says England to much of the world.
No mere booth, it is a stately temple, a cast-iron kiosk that can provide shelter from the rain and conversation-enhancing warmth. Under its domed and fluted roof, it is big enough to house a small cocktail party, or admit a gentleman with a top hat.
There have been some minor changes to its basic design over the years -- a wider door, a more slight stature, the installation of push-buttons to replace dial phones. But today's box is by and large the same Georgian behemoth that won Sir Giles Gilbert Scott first prize in the 1924 competition to build a standardized kiosk for installation throughout the country. Many of those still in use date from the 1930s.
Tomorrow's box, however, is a different story. In the name of modernization, antivandalism, cleanliness and aid to the handicapped, the national phone company, British Telecom, has decided to scrap the approximately 60,000 "Scott boxes" placed around the country in favor of a bland aluminum and glass Euroversion of the standard 1980s telephone booth.
The new booths, said British Telecom spokesman David Orr, will have "no raised concrete platform, no step to get inside," and the doors will be easier to open. "Beyond that, it will be more brightly lit, which we hope will deter vandalism and the other unsavory things that people tend to do inside their British telephone boxes." Another spokesman explained that the privacy the boxes afford makes them attractive to some as roadside toilets. The nationwide transition is to be completed by 1990.
Thus it was a few weeks ago that several dozen battered and rusted red boxes found themselves lying on their sides, stacked like cases of ale in a parking lot outside Canterbury. Wires dangling forlornly from their inner walls, many with broken windows, they were here to be auctioned off by British Telecom as curios of a bygone age.
Among the buyers, there seemed little reverence. Local resident John Bowles said he wanted to use his box as a shower stall. Of his purchase, Nick Cheyney of Brighton said he "could always sleep in it, if necessary."
Keith Thomas of nearby Chillingham said he and a friend would use theirs to decorate a new discothe que they planned to open in Norway. "It's kind of a showpiece. A British telephone box in Norway."
Terry Bray, a social worker from Strood, said she just wanted hers "as an ornament. As time goes on, they're going to disappear, aren't they? . . . It was an impulse buy" at 425 British pounds about $620), the average price paid here. Her initial thought, said Bray, was that her husband might enjoy it as a birthday present.
Her husband, who had accompanied her to the sale along with their son and dog, said he appreciated the thought. "But I don't know what you do to enjoy it." He said he was worried about how they would get its 1,600-pound bulk home.
Robert J. Patton, an Essex farmer, bought four of them -- two to sit in the discothe que he operates as a sideline, and two to put around his swimming pool. "We're buying them, really, so they don't disappear," he said. "So the Yanks don't get them all."
The Yanks, however, got a number of the offerings. Chief among the foreign buyers was Marry Gormally, an American antique dealer who plans to put her prize of the day, mint-condition Lot 23 (the most expensive of the day at 700 pounds or $1,000) outside her shop in North Kingstown, R.I. Americans, Gormally said, pay up to $3,000 for a genuine kiosk. "They use them for showers or bird cages or even for telephones," she said.
Few Canterbury residents seemed particularly distressed to see their heritage loaded on flatbed trucks and driven away. "All they want are phones that work," explained a reporter for the local newspaper. "They don't care if they're red or not."
Some Britons, however, do care. A small but lively collection of traditionalists has fought British Telecom every step of the way. In some cases, they have succeeded.
Leading the preservation charge is the Thirties Society, dedicated to the preservation of "inter-war" architecture and design, memorialized in such well-known London landmarks as the Battersea Power Station (also designed by Scott) and Piccadilly Circus and the Piccadilly Circus Underground.
A Thirties Society report on the Scott boxes accuses British Telecom of "radical" proposals and the ultimate treachery of "obliterating" a "much-loved and longstanding feature of the British scene . . . in favor of flimsy, short-life booths of American design."
The Scott box "may not fit the space-age vision that the upper echelons of telephone management wish to promote," the society sniffed. "But they are still useful and practical, and furthermore, much loved by young and old. They retain an aura of more spacious days. They have a solidity lacking in today's throwaway society. Their regal livery and the crowns they bear add dignity to the concept of a public utility."
The attributes of the past are always attractive ones here. As the empire fades, industry declines and the rest of the world seems to be losing interest and even respect, the appeal of the Thirties Society and other conservation groups has successfully plucked many British heartstrings.
There are other, more mundane reasons for keeping the boxes, as one local official in the western county of Devon wrote to the society. England, he noted, is "a country where tourism is a major growth industry, largely because of those facets of our unique national identity which have so far escaped the march of progress."
In response to letter-writing campaigns and local government protests, British Telecom has said that it will leave standing a certain number of red boxes -- perhaps 3,000 or so -- in recognized "heritage locations." Most of those will be where foreign tourists congregate, primarily in central London.
Anyone else who wants to see one will have to travel to a disco in Norway, an antique shop in Rhode Island, or perhaps to Terry Bray's back yard in Strood.