Come to the Party (Line)

My little sister reminds me, when I write about Hat’s fascination with the old phone she unearths in the house we are renovating, that we grew up with an instrument even more antiquated; on the farms where we lived as children there was nothing so sophisticated as a telephone with rotating face and numbers and holes for digits, only a weighty black object with receiver and handle.


In order to make a call we’d be obliged to crank the handle long enough to alert the local telephone operator in some distant rural Post Office. Sometimes this was an exhausting task; sometimes the operator had gone for tea and your hand grew tired before he finally shuffled back to his post to doze and you’d have crossly given up on making the call altogether.


In small communities like ours – farms and ranches and tiny towns strung across the Rift Valley – the telephone service was organized into party lines. In that happy case the energies of the apathetic operators were not required. In that case you could call up a neighbour yourself. Not by dialling a number, of course, for there were, as you recall, none, nor indeed a dial.  Besides, our telephone number was Naivasha 56Y6 which came attendant with its own characteristic ring. On a party line, each of us knew our own ring and everybody else’s: crank a long, two shorts and a long for the farmer across the lake. Everybody on the party line would hear the phone trilling, you’d have to strain your ears to distinguish whether the ringing was to alert you or somebody else.


Party lines – as the ‘party’ suggested – were open to everybody (hence the importance of your own distinctive call tone: if everybody had the same ring, like today’s incessantly permeating Nokia Tune we’d all have dived for our phones simultaneously, much, come to think of it, as we do today?). It meant that, if you were 10 years old and you and your brother had grown bored of the long summer holidays and tired of nobody calling you on your own Long Long Short to invite you out for the day, you could entertain yourself, providing your mother wasn’t around, by eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, snorting mirth into your hands as you clutched the receiver trying not to be heard by Mrs. X and Mrs. Y who were busily bitching about Mrs. W and the fact the lime peel in her marmalade wasn’t cut nearly finely enough.


We had a neighbour, an eccentric and spoiled Italian woman, descendent of a Roman Count and now famous so I shan’t libelously use her name, who was never off the party line. Perhaps before she attained minor celebrity she had too much time on her hands? Dad, when he had run out of patience and kind words of encouragement to please allow him to make his own call, would shriek into the phone, ‘M, get off the bloody line’. Sometimes M, because her farm was not far from us, would try to urge my father to be more ‘neighbourly’, assisting with the donation of fence posts or the loan of a tractor. M’s neighbourliness, though, was a one way affair. Dad – having had his generosity abused too often – was tired of trying to make her understand that No meant No. He began to ignore calls if he suspected they were from M. It didn’t dissuade her, though. She merely laid in wait until somebody else called dad, then, recognizing our ring, she would ambush the call and harangue Dad all over again whilst he tried, in vain, to conduct a conversation with the poor and usually quite embarrassed caller.


My little sister says, “I guess ‘party line’ now might refer to an  08 number where a caller can listen to a sexy man or woman’’. Considering we grew up a spit from infamous Happy Valley in a country where the joke ‘Are you married or do you live in Kenya?” prevailed, it might have meant just that back then too?




8 Responses to “Come to the Party (Line)”

  1. Potty Mummy Says:

    What a brilliant snapshot from your childhood RM! And am DESPERATE to know who the Italian lady was – though of course I admire your reticence in naming her (blast it). It certainly makes life growing up in a Cotswold village seem rather tame. Because, of course, it was.

  2. Mapesbury Mum Says:

    The gossip one attained from those party lines – they were the bush drums! As children we’d have long chats with the operator – (is that why they never connected anyone else?!) 40 years ago our number was 19Y1 and today after various expansions and technology updates our number remains the same – just lots more digits and no ‘y’!

  3. nuttycow Says:

    What a great post. I love the thought of a party line and listening to everyone else’s conversations (how nosey am I?). It scares me a little to think that my children will never know life without the internet, computers or mobile phones. I don’t suppose they’ll understand how we all lived without them!

  4. R. Sherman Says:

    Party lines went out here in the early sixties, the last ones being in rural areas such as you describe. There were always the sneaky old bats who wanted to spy on a person’s calls.


  5. carol Says:

    Just to remind you big sis that when we moved to Gilgil (so no longer on the party line) our phone number was 200 and we used to get calls to the operator (number 100). I remember us answering the phone and when we realised the person wanted the operator (e.g. they would say can you put me through to Number…. ) and asking them (in a very bad local accent) to HOLD ON – and then going outside to play… I feel rather guilty about that now!!

  6. daisyfae Says:

    barely remember the party lines… these days to listen in on a conversation, or at least half a conversation, just sit in a restaurant, bar, airport, train station… it’s hard to avoid!

  7. Expatmum Says:

    My grandparents in England had a party line (albeit with only one other family) in the late 60’s. North east so they might have been a bit behind the times – :-). We knew who the party family was and could hear the “click” when the other people pretended to put the phone down and kept on listening! If I hadn’t been so little I swear I would have made up scandals!!!

  8. Mom de Plume Says:

    I remember the party lines and the exchange, we were not allowed to answer the phone due to so many confusions on the lines, and in fact making a phonecall was always a big event in my life… what a difference nowadays!

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