About James

James specialises in digital literary heritage projects. He spends most of his time in front of a computer screen writing about life instead of living it. Therefore, do not trust a word he says.

Crossed Lines: An exhibition of Telephony in Literature

Photo by chepté cormani from Pexels

A recent online exhibition celebrating the telephone in literature saw references from Mark Twain to Christopher Isherwood suggested by the public. We submitted a letter from Lawrence in 1928 concerning his fears over the publication of Lady Chatterley.

‘From the receiver’s ‘black mouth’ in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) to the ‘five hundred-quid worry bead’ in Will Self’s Phone (2017), telephones repeatedly ring, buzz and ping in modern and contemporary literature’ writes Sarah Jackson, in her introduction to Crossed Lines, which explores the ways that the telephone has been conceived by writers from the 19th century onwards. The exhibition was launched in November 2020 when the telephone took on added importance as one of the main ways of communicating while the government enforced a national lockdown.

Crossed Lines explores the positive and negative possibilities of the telephone within contemporary cultures and communities. Engaging writers, artists, musicians, scientists and members of the public, it incorporates a number of innovative activities including a mobile app, a sound installation in Nottingham, a nationwide student poetry competition, writing workshops and events at the Science Museum in London.

My favourite event was Calling Across Borders, a series of voicemail poems exploring community, loss, resilience, and hope. For this, young refugees left messages for friends and family they would most like to speak to again which was then turned into a short animation which you can watch by clicking this link. This had particular resonance for me as I’ve spent the last two years interviewing Syrian refuges for Whatever People Say I Am and witnessed how What’s App has become integral to families trying to stay connected, functioning as a virtual home.

Crossed Lines explores the implications of telephony from a range of global contexts, considering how literary telecommunications can help us to find new ways of talking and listening across cultures. The exhibition features eighty works spread over 130 years with submissions selected from an open callout.

The earliest example submitted is the aptly named The Telephone (1877) by the American transcendentalist poet Jones Very who can see the utopian possibilities of this new form of global communication: ‘Beneath the ocean soon man’s voice may reach/And a new power be given to human speech’. Less than a year before, Alexander Graham Bell had been awarded his patent. More recent uses include the humorous ‘fellytone’ reference in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) to the more ominous fear of the phone as a surveillance device in Anna Burn’s Booker-winning Milkman (2018)- ‘phones weren’t trusted; indeed we only had one because it had been in the house when we moved in’.

Telephony as a form of surveillance was something Sarah Jackson uncovered at the BT Archives where she discovered two letters from Sylvia Pankhurst that revealed her concerns over ‘duplicate telephone lines’ – wiretapping – 70 years before the Government disclosed her secret surveillance by MI5 to the public.

One of my favourite entries is from Ulysses (1922) where Kinch (Stephen Dedalus) imagines the umbilicus as a telephone cord.

‘The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello! Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.’

One of the most poignant entries is the poem ‘Last Letter’ (2010) by Ted Hughes which was discovered in Hughes’s archives, twelve years after his death and includes the last lines of Hughes’s final ‘letter’ to Sylvia Plath.

I wasn’t expecting to find any kind of references to telephony in Lawrence’s writing because he was such a prolific letter writer. I just couldn’t imagine him embracing something so immediate, modern and vulgar as a telephone. But to my surprise, his letters revealed otherwise. I submitted the below entry which you can also read online. The submission format involved the relevant quote and then some brief context.

Now I’m in more trouble. A beastly firm of book-exporters ordered eighty copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover—now it turns out that they have a Wesleyan connection—they’ve read the book—and cancelled the order hastily—after Orioli has already posted to them seventy-two copies from Florence. Now unless we’re quick they’ll send the things back to Florence—may even refuse to accept them.—But I warn you, the book is shocking—though, course, perfectly honest and decent.

[…] If you feel like risking it, telephone the Jackson people and ask them if they have copies ready for you to fetch away: say Mr. D. H. Lawrence has asked me—[…] their telephone is Holborn 5824.’


This letter from D.H. Lawrence to Enid Hilton was sent on 29 July 1928 from Kesselmatter, Gstreig b. Gstaad (Bern) Switzerland. Lawrence would be dead a few years later and Lady Chatterley would be banned until 1960. Lawrence was sceptical of technology, particularly that which placed an artificial barrier between people, but here desperation overrides these sentiments. He is almost daring Enid Hilton to call William Jackson Books Ltd, but only if she follows his explicit instructions. Lawrence experienced censorship throughout his short life. This had financial and aesthetic repercussions. Therefore, the telephone has real significance. It represents immediacy, and an opportunity to salvage copies of his novel.


This post was originally published on The Digital Pilgrimage on 27 September 2021.

Further Reading

Creating Feature Ideas for a Bulletin about a Mardy Bloke from Eastwood

When I worked on a magazine, the things I loved the most were generating new features and writing headlines. Features help break up a magazine into parts and introduce a bit of order. They also function to build up audience expectations. Done well, they can be the first thing you flick to. Done badly, they can bring down the tone and feel of the magazine and put readers off picking it up again. Therefore, know thyself: Know your audience and know what you stand for. This will help direct your energies. Likewise, there’s no better satisfaction than writing an intelligent pun. This is essentially wordplay – triggering extra meanings while also focusing the attention of the reader in a cleverly condensed phrase or expression.

For the past year, I’ve been publishing a monthly bulletin for the D.H. Lawrence Society. The purpose of the bulletin is to collate any information about Nottingham’s favourite Beardo into one place. Prior to this, emails were sent out as and when the secretary was sent information which created a distorted picture of Lawrencian studies as only one person used to send in information about his blog. By collating everything into one place, the bulletin acts an archive, cuts down on emails, and gives a broader picture of how, when and where Lawrence is being discussed. He remains more popular than I’d imagined and is currently having a bit of a resurgence due to radio adaptations of his novels, Francis Wilson’s innovative biography, and his popularizing through fiction such as Annabel Abbs’ historical fiction Frieda and Rachel Cusk’s Taos-inspired Second Place.

D.H. Lawrence didn’t just write fiction. He had a vision of how life should be lived. He enthralled, provoked and annoyed in equal measures. He is taken very seriously in academia and every utterance is dissected to within an inch of its life. But I didn’t want to create an overly formal bulletin as our membership is broad and ranges from esteemed professors to the casual reader. Instead, my tone is a bit more tongue-in-cheek. To ensure nobody is offended, I make it clear that all observations are ‘that of your editor’ rather than the D.H. Lawrence Society. This is an important distinction. Lawrence had a furious temper and invariably so to do some members of the Society who like to emulate this aspect of his personality, presumably to prove their loyalty to the chosen one. Framing the bulletin as the opinions of the editor helps negate this. The bulletin takes roughly three working days to produce, most of which is taken up swearing at the infuriating interface that is Mailchimp .

Here’s a breakdown of the features and a brief explanation as to why they are included.

The bulletin header is a tweak of the opening line to Sea and Sardinia (1921). ‘Comes over one an absolute necessity to move’.

Listings are always tricky in a magazine because they’re factual and so you’re limited with what you can do with them. The most important thing is to make sure the information is logical and that readers can find what they’re looking for. This apathetic Lawrence quote strikes the tone I’m after. In terms of ordering the events, I’ve gone for a football fixtures format using Home (Eastwood events) and Away (London group and others).

Clat-farting is Eastwood dialect for gossip and so used for monthly roundups. You can’t keep having a picture of Lawrence for each feature and so I went for this still from Women in Love. It’s full of grins and smirks and feels as if someone has been clat-farting. Or possibly farting – given Alan Bates flared nostrils and Glenda Jackson’s look of disgust.

Shelfie is a play on Selfie and so instead of having one of those annoying pictures where people stare at their phone and do that ‘I’m thick as fuck’ pose with pouty lips, they’re holding up a book that fills them with delight. The books selected all have some kind of explicit or implicit link to Lawrence.

Lawrence in Academia uses a panel from Dawn of the Unread which alludes to Lawrence’s brief spell as a teacher. These usually contain the abstract of a paper and a link. These are mainly sourced from Academia.edu.

The D.H. Lawrence Dialect Alphabet is one of the artefacts in the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre, a project that Paul Fillingham and I created in 2019 to mark the centenary of Lawrence’s self imposed exile. So this feature is about repurposing content (an essential skill in journalism) as well as ensuring our project gets coverage. Quite a few of our members are from Eastwood and have as much interest in Lawrence as local culture, so this feature will appeal to them.

On the Box provides links and information to any TV broadcasts or YouTube/Vimeo uploads about Lawrence. YouTube is a wonderful bag of randomness and has recently seen uploads of talks from Raymond Williams and Anthony Burgess as well as audio recordings of Frieda Lawrence and Aldous Huxley.

Lawrence and Me is a space for members to introduce themselves. This is probably the most important feature in the bulletin as our membership is global. A lot of people are unable to attend monthly meetings because of geography or age and so this is one way that they can feel connected. I also hope that it might bring about future projects or partnerships once common interests have been identified. I often get sent terrible images through and end up messing about in photoshop for ages to create something a bit more visually stimulating, such as this ‘you looking at me?’ feature with Carolyn Melbourne from the Birthplace Museum.

From the Archives does exactly what it says on the packet and is a space to share cuttings from previous newsletters (which started in 1975). Digitising the archives was the reason I originally got involved with the Society because I wanted this information to be more accessible to the public (rather than in a filing cabinet in Breach House). The old newsletters were typed up on yellow paper and are absolutely fascinating in terms of seeing heritage develop.

The JDHLS highlights a specific issue in the journal and is usually written by a guest author selected by the journal editor, Susan Reid. Again, this highlights the importance of digitising the archives and making these superb articles available.

Torpedo the Ark contains blogposts by philosopher Stephen Alexander. I might not always agree with what he says but I certainly enjoy how he says it. These are thoughtful provocations distilled into pithy prose. It would be great to see them published in book form one day.

The bulletin was originally intended to provide links to relevant articles but instead has grown into quite a different beast. Although I have lots of ideas for other features, I’m happy with its current state. If it puts on more weight, I won’t have time to do other stuff and there is so much other stuff that needs doing. Talking of which…

Further reading