‘I’m in the book’ – Alison Healy on the phone book

An Irishwoman’s Diary

 Roddy Doyle: inspiration from the phone book. Photograph: Alan Betson

Roddy Doyle: inspiration from the phone book. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Now that the humble telephone directory is no longer a staple in every Irish household, we shouldn’t forget its role in kickstarting the career of a bestselling author and Booker prize winner.

Without the phone book, Joey “The Lips” Fagan might never have arrived into Roddy Doyle’s mind, fully-formed and tootling a trumpet. Doyle was living in a Dublin bedsit in 1986 when he started to write his first book, The Commitments.

Whenever he needed a name for a character, he would run downstairs and take the phone book from its perch beside the communal payphone in the hall. Jimmy Rabbitte’s name came from the 01 phone book, as did most of the band members.

But Roddy Doyle believed the naming of Joey “The Lips” Fagan unlocked something that propelled the story forward.

“I remember the moment when I came up with the name for the older trumpet player, Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan; it felt like a good night’s work,” he wrote in the Guardian last year. “Fagan came out of the Dublin area phonebook, and The Lips came out of my head . . . The closed door - the plot - started to open in front of me. With a name like that, I’d have enough to keep me writing for months.”

While the phone book may have helped Roddy Doyle, it did Thomas E Dewey no favours at all. The twice-failed US presidential candidate was bedevilled by the telephone book, according to writer Ammon Shea. And Mr Shea knows more than most about this subject as he is author of The Phone Book – the Curious History of the Book that Everyone Uses but No One Reads. (He has a slight obsession with books that everyone uses but no one reads, having previously written a book on reading the Oxford English Dictionary. All 21,730 pages of it.)

In The Phone Book, Shea recalls that when Thomas Dewey first ran for election in 1944, Life magazine interviewed him. The Republican governor of New York state needed all the help he could get as he was running against incumbent Franklin D Roosevelt who was seeking his fourth term.

The Life feature was a favourable piece, accompanied by a photo spread in the governor’s mansion in Albany. However, the last photograph may have been his undoing. It showed him seated at a giant desk, with a caption explaining that he had to sit on two telephone books because the desk and chair were so large.

When it was published, The New Yorker speculated that the photo of “little Tom Dewey on two telephone books” probably put an end to his chances for the presidency. And indeed, he did not win the race.

Shea writes that Dewey was again betrayed by the telephone book, four years later.

He was up against Harry Truman this time and throughout the campaign the polls and political analysts had consistently put him ahead of Truman. On election night, the Chicago Daily Tribune editorial team took a huge chance when they put the early edition to bed with the caption “Dewey Defeats Truman”. But he didn’t, and Truman secured 303 electoral college votes to Dewey’s 189.

According to Shea, while there were many reasons why everyone got the results wrong, one of them was due to an over-reliance on the phone book.

Pollsters called random numbers plucked from telephone books across the country, in what they thought was a representative sample.

But this was 1948 and telephones were mostly the preserve of the wealthy, so the results were skewed. Dewey was lulled into a false sense of security from early in the campaign and once again, the treacherous telephone book had an invisible hand in his undoing.

Ammon Shea’s book also introduces us to the delightfully unconventional Cairo phone book of the 1970s. For reasons best known to the telephone company, its phone book listed people alphabetically by their first name.

And so, the 1977 directory had listings for more than 18,000 Mohammeds in a row. Over several hundred pages. Each category was further alphabetised based on the third and fourth names.

The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed one Mohammed who was quite delighted to be lost in the sea of Mohammeds. The Cairo Casanova had acquired several ex-wives and girlfriends and while he did not want to be seen trying to avoid them, the telephone book helped him hide in plain sight. Anyone trying to track him down had to thumb through 226 pages of Mohammeds to find his number.

Reflecting on the help the Dublin area phone book had given him, Roddy Doyle wished he had kept it, instead of dutifully returning it to its perch in the hall. It might be worth something today. Just look at how valuable a first edition of The Commitments is. This week, an online bookseller was offering one for more than €1,465. Every phone-owning Fagan who lived in Dublin in 1986 can take a small piece of credit for that.

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