Posted in Nostalgia

Stuck Inside of Moberly With the Exeter Blues Again


It squats at the foot of a hill, edged by the A377’s puffing cars and snorting buses. Giant pine trees screen it from view at first, as if nature in her kindness has thrown a veil over something profane. But crunch along the cone-strewn path and lo, there it stands. Bricky and blocky. Unlovely and unloved. Part-1960s correctional facility, part-destitute East German business park. Abandon hope all ye who enter here, for this is Moberly House, Exeter University, where student dreams go to die.

Why then, it might pardonably be asked, would anyone choose to live there? Let me tell you my survivor’s story. It begins a miniature eternity ago, in 2004, when Moberly was one of four houses that made up Duryard: the largest halls of residence on campus. Later demolished for being a superannuated shit-tip, Duryard had a very effective value proposition. It was cheap and cheerful. I mean literally cheerful. Duryard was the happy halls of residence, home to accomplished social animals, not depressed solitaries who spent their days behind drawn blinds listening to Morrissey. It was the affability rather than the affordability that sold me. I signed up.

And it was hard not to feel the excitement that September day, the sun shining and Duryard a-hum with hundreds of arriving freshers, me among them. Three years of intellectual nourishment and sexual adventurism awaited. But first, the unpacking. So, key in hand and parents in tow, I made my way up to Moberly’s first floor and my home for the next year. And this, I’m afraid, is where my story takes a darker turn.

On the outside, Moberly wasn’t and isn’t alluring. Inside, it is forever 1964. My first glimpse, twisting key in lock, made my heart go cold within me. The furniture was mean, the pillows lumpy, the lighting unmistakeably grudging. With a pang I noticed that the desk was pocked with woodworm. If ever a room could be said to resemble a prison cell, mine was that room. Tears suddenly threatened. I felt the need of something to cuddle. When my parents drove off, I did what I presume every newly deposited Moberly inmate does: sat on the bed knuckling my eyes, wandering what tides of fate had brought me to This Place.

Escape was difficult, too. To the many shortcomings of Duryard can be added the fact that it wasn’t notably close to campus. A bastard topography made things worse. Getting to lectures involved a stiff climb up ‘Cardiac Hill,’ a headlong incline that left even the fittest students flushed from exertion. You could always tell who lived in Duryard: we were the ones with sweat moustaches and brows shining like candlewax. Worse still was the fact we had to walk past our bête noire, a building the very mention of which made every Duryarder’s fists ball and eyes spit venom. I refer, of course, to Holland Hall.

Just as to understand Marxism one must first understand capitalism, so it is impossible to understand Moberly without also understanding Holland Hall. Freshly opened in 2004, Holland Hall was the anti-Duryard. Everything Duryard wasn’t, Holland Hall was. It was sleek and glassy and inviting. It had double rooms, it had heated towel rails, it had long dreamy views across the breathtaking Exe Valley. If Exeter had bright young things, Holland Hall – on its shining hilltop perch – was where to find them. Duryarders, by sharpest comparison, were the Outer Dwellers, microbes to be regarded with mingled pity and scorn. Confess to a Holland Hall resident that you lived in Moberly and you might as well have confessed you were a trilobite wallowing in the primeval slime. Since staying at Holland Hall cost a king’s ransom, we assumed each resident was a minor noble. We plebs were bidden inside, occasionally – a royal summons to scale the social steps and join the elite – but only for a day, or perhaps if we were lucky, a night.

And yet there existed a defiance among we incarcerees. True, Duryard wasn’t likely to grace the Sunday Times ‘Style’ section, and no one could deny Holland Hall boasted shinier fittings and fewer mould spores, but Moberly life wasn’t entirely without its consolations. The claims, for instance, made about its superior social life were quite true. We had the run of place: there were no locked doors to prevent inter-floor wandering, letting us schmooze and banter as the humour took us. Moberly was ‘open.’ Not so in maximum-security Holland Hall, whose security doors and institutional paranoia were a continual bitter insult to the human spirit. The much-vaunted luxury of the place? Nothing but a gilded cage. (So, tearfully, we told ourselves.)

For all that, it is hardly a surprise that thirteen years on, Holland Hall still stands. The real shock is that Moberly – raddled, rattling old Moberly – stands too. It dodged the wrecking ball during the 2007 Bonfire of Duryard thanks only to a quirk of geography: as the southernmost house, it was best able to be ‘assimilated’ by the newly built Birks Grange Village. Ever since, as the rest of campus was renovated out of recognition, it has stood firm, entirely unchanged, preserved as if in a 1960s peat bog. And it sees active service, too. Although the house fell out of use in 2012/13, Exeter dusted it down again the following year owing to a ‘high number of academic applications.’ And those students have to live somewhere, right?

In 2017, students still live in Moberly, but they won’t for much longer. Plans are afoot to replace the immortal house with, sadly, a ‘modern development.’ The only surprise here is that it took so long. You can’t knock somewhere like Moberly into shape; you can only knock it down and replace it. But it’s a shame nevertheless. I will always remember you Moberly, if not always fondly, and here’s hoping Moberly Mk II retains something of your cheerfulness and humbleness and indomitable social spirit. You can keep the mould, though.

Posted in Nostalgia, Tech

All the Mobile Phones I Have Ever Owned 2002 – 2016

Here’s an easy-to-forget fact: mobile phones are quite young. Born in 1973, as a consumer product they grew slowly, not penetrating public consciousness until the mid-eighties – as expensive exoticisms for nerds and yuppies. Even as recently as twenty years ago, they stubbornly remained more luxury than necessity. Not until 1999 did the tipping point arrive, when suddenly everyone and their mother had a mobile and you couldn’t leave the house without hearing the bleep-bloop of the Nokia theme.

Now of course, their ascent is total. We can no more live without mobiles phones than without air (they’re, geddit, our O2). But certain questions still dangle. Does their connectivity and convenience come at a cost? Are smartphones one of the great emancipating advances, or have we become subject peoples, ruled by the lump of metal and Gorilla Glass in our hand?

First thing in the morning, having dismissed our smartphone alarms, our first order of business is to read our smartphone emails, check our smartphone WhatsApp messages and scrutinise our smartphone Twitter mentions. All assuming, of course, there’s still charge in our smartphone battery. These days, we measure out our lives not in coffee spoons, but in phone contracts, twenty-four months at a time.

And if you’re anything like me, you still keep your old phones: heritage handsets gathering dust in a bedroom drawer. Laid in chronological order, they tell a tale. Not just of the warp speed of technological development (compared to my Samsung Galaxy S7, my first Nokia is a museum piece) but of something more autobiographical. Whether or boasts a camera or not, a mobile phone takes a snapshot of your life. Each one is a chronicle of your tastes, your value systems, your spending power at the time. Cue this fascinating article: a complete history of every mobile phone I have ever owned. Please turn off your mobile phones.

2002-2004: Nokia 5210

My first mobile phone came late. For my first sixteen summers, I owned neither smartphone nor dumbphone – making me one of the last holdouts in my school. In the unlikely event you wished to get in touch, your options were as follows: snail mail, landline, telegram, face time (real conversation, that is, not Apple’s videotelephony app). Suspecting – wrongly – that I was missing out on all the great parties, I resolved to be behind the times no longer. Finally, I would possess a blessed mobile phone.

It being 2002, there was no choice but to choose Nokia: they were masters of the planet. But rather than default to the 3310 like everyone else, I dared to be different, slightly. Small, sturdy and packing a built-in thermometer, the 5210 was made for the more adventuresome consumer. The battery life came in at over a week, and carapaced in a thick rubbery exoskeleton, the handset was as idiot-proof as possible. While not quite armour-plated, the 5210 was certainly thick-skinned. And it needed to be. My sister called it, with dismissive hauteur, a ‘camping phone,’ and it met with a cool reception at school for being, well, uncool.

For all that, I liked my 5210 greatly. It dragged me into the modern world, and only rarely was I frustrated by the ten-text-message limit and low-pixel monochrome screen. After all, with a mobile phone in my pocket I was supplied for every eventuality, or so I thought at the time.

2004-2007: Nokia 6610i


In 2004, university beckoned: the most vital three years of any geek’s life. And to be ready, I needed a serious makeover. A fresh wardrobe. A fresh computer. A fresh personality. And, with all the friends I’d be making, a fresh phone. Though reliable and worthy, the 5210 was more clunky than sexy. What I desired instead was something sleek, new – a phone for the student I wanted to be, not the student I was.

Sadly, no such phone existed in 2004 (and arguably still doesn’t). So I settled instead for another Nokia: the 6610i. Having ditched the rubber exoskeleton for a blue plastic onesie, it did out-cool its predecessor – just. And there were further advancements. First, the colour screen, which I gulped through my eyes in wonderment upon first pressing the ‘on’ button. Second – and here’s a real extravagance – it had a camera. It was a ‘camera phone.’ Not only would the 6610i store my new friends’ numbers, but it could prove they existed. Look at the smiling pictures – the camera never lies! Of course, in the end I used the camera barely at all. Not just because no one let me photograph them. At a piddling 0.1 megapixels (288×352), the image quality shamed a daguerreotype.

But the 6610i gave good service. It accompanied me on my undergraduate adventures and misadventures (mostly in libraries), and bears the marks of a life well-lived. I could have looked after it a bit better, in truth. By 2007, the shiny new phone of three years ago was a battered ruin, its keypad worn away, its blue plastic cover warty with spilt ink.

No longer a student but a keen-jawed graduate itching to put my stamp on the world of Work, I obviously needed a new phone. A serious phone. A corporate phone. To the Orange shop I duly went.

2007-2008: Sony Ericsson K810i


2007, also known as When The iPhone Launched, was the Year Zero of smartphones. Naturally I had no idea of that at the time. In 2007, I was still two years away from my first iPod, and anyway, as a pound-conscious recent grad, the iPhone would have been hopelessly beyond my purse.

But I was aware of certain other industry developments. I knew that (much like my old beaten-up 6610i) the shine was starting to come off Nokia at this point – that other players, chiefly Sony Ericson, were muscling in on their market share. To see why, you only need behold my shiny new handset of the time, the Sony Ericsson K810i. It had a great camera, a superior screen and – farewell, faithful Discman – an MP3 player. If, by today’s standards, my first two Nokias were phones from before the flood, this one looks recognisably twenty-first century.

But with these advancements came a pact with Beelzebub – or to be more precise, a contract with Orange. This marked the point where I ditched pay-as-you-go for something more binding. Sign here, here and here, and the phone was mine for a term of 18 months. If my first phone meant freedom, now I was just another node in the network, surveilled by Orange’s all-seeing eye.

It was a hint at things to come. The great age of the smartphone, of GPS and mobile data, was round the corner, and the K810i – 3G enabled – was a proto-smartphone. Unfortunately, and perhaps tellingly, my K810i’s internet button fell off. Perhaps society wasn’t yet ready to be Always On.

2008-2010: Sony Ericsson C905


In 2009, I didn’t just change my phone, I changed my form factor. No longer would I tolerate a ‘bar’ phone – after all, they were a bit 2002-2008. Rather, all like the best handsets of that era, the Sony Ericsson C905 was a ‘slider.’

The slider is seldom seen these days. But in 2009, it was enjoying a moment. A sliding mechanism made the handset more compact overall, and with the rise of touchscreen, physical buttons were beginning to look unsexy. The solution? Hide them away. That’s the C905 summed up – a tidy, if unspectacular presence in your pocket.

But don’t mock. While the C905 may not be the pick of my smartphone litter, it was still first-rate as dumbphones go. A phone of practicality over aesthetics, the build quality was excellent, and it took half a week to make inroads into the battery life. Even now, it would make a very decent stand-in were my Galaxy S7 to go west. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

2010-2012: HTC Desire


In July 2010, my life changed. Or at the very least my phone number did. But it was worth the administrative headache, because the HTC Desire was my very first smartphone. And not any old smartphone either. Highly touted by all the review sites, HTC’s flagship handset was prized and praised even beyond the all-conquering iPhone. The name said it all: Desire. Everyone wanted one.

I lie, of course. Everyone still wanted the iPhone (naturally; it had an Apple logo). But in a fair fight, the Desire – faster, cooler, sharper-screened – would have destroyed the competition. I bought mine on holiday, undiscouraged by rural Devon’s non-existent 3G signal. The phone felt sleek in my hand, the screen was arrestingly big and beautiful, and if it existed in the real world, the Android Market had an app for it.

But once I’d got over the hot thrill of being a smartphone user, the chinks in the Desire’s armour began to show. The biggest, undoubtedly, was the lack of internal memory: a woeful 148Mb. Installing anything new involved a delicate dance of arranging existing apps by size and removing the non-essentials, the Angry Birds, the YouTubes, to make room. And then there was the battery life – one of the running sores of our age. It was certainly a rude awakening for me. Used to phones that lived a week, now I was reaching for the charger once a day at least.

Oh HTC Desire, what could have been. You were a marvel and you were a mess.

2012-2014: Samsung Galaxy Ace 2


In October 2012, I left my HTC Desire in a Lidl supermarket. Convinced it had been stolen, I hastened back – but not before ordering a replacement. It hardly matters which one, I told the Orange operative breathlessly, so long as it’s a smartphone, and is cheap. The phone he duly offered me – the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 – placed a check mark in both boxes. Certainly I could make no complaint at the price: at a footling £11 a month, it was £25 cheaper than the HTC Desire. Which no one had stolen, by the way. I rushed back to Lidl and it was still there, unwanted, unclaimed. Undesired. But by that point I had already ordered its replacement.

Thinking on it now, perhaps I left my phone in Lidl on purpose. During my two years with the Desire, I had begun to weary of wishlist phones and trophy tablets. What was the point in forking over £35 a month for a top-end phone that was, in its essentials, no different to a low-end phone? It was just so much idle vanity.

Thus it was that I unboxed the Galaxy Ace 2 the next day – unenthusiastically. And my disappointment wasn’t disappointed. Turning it over in my hand, the design was charmless, the proportions bulky, the rear of the case pleasingly cheap looking. In fairness, the phone was not less usable for being affordable. Both the battery life and internal memory were both much improved over the HTC Desire, and there was even a front-facing camera to capture my habitually underwhelmed expression. It was exactly the phone I needed.

2014-2016: Nokia Lumia 635

2014, or as I call it, The Homecoming. After seven years in the howling wilderness – with Samsung, Sony Ericsson and HTC – I went back to where it all began. My first, my only. Nokia. Only the Nokia that greeted me in 2014 was very different to the company I knew in 2002. Having entered into a pact with Microsoft, Nokia no longer had a software platform they called their own. Now they made Windows Phones. The Lumia 635 that I carried home from Carphone Warehouse was a Windows Phone first and a Nokia phone a distant second.

I chose Windows Phone because I wanted a change. But chiefly because the Samsung Galaxy Ace 3 – my logical next upgrade – was dementedly overpriced at £21 per month. By comparison, the Lumia 635 was arithmetically cheap, and clad in a zesty lime case, colourful to boot. And at first, I liked my new phone. The Windows software was intuitive and idiot-proof, and even the battery life was good. At last, here was a smartphone I didn’t have to feed the charge lead every blessed night.

But over time, the low-res screen did nag at me. Then there were the software gremlins. Apps like the countdown timer had a whimsical tendency to restart, and twelve months in, the alarm clock stopped working. And why was the Windows store missing so many apps? Where was the front-facing camera and rear flash? These shortcomings, insignificant in themselves, added up to one big fail. Even the admittedly great podcast and music apps couldn’t begin to make up for it. Nokia, you disappointed me. Or do I need to blame Microsoft?

2016- : Samsung Galaxy S7


And so we get to now. The present day. The first phone in this list that doesn’t languish a drawer, but has life coursing through its electronic veins. And what veins. The Samsung Galaxy S7 is the culmination of all that came before it, the greatest smartphone in the annals of consumer electronics, the final word in mobile telecommunications and pocket computing. Until the Galaxy S8 or some other flagship smartphone get released next year, that is.

But until then, let’s savour the S7 awhile. It really is the most wonderful creation. I can’t get enough of the lean frame, the sensationally lovely screen, the extremely respectable battery life. But the camera is the clincher. Or maybe it’s the heart-rate sensor. No, it has to be the fact you can drop it in a toilet and – providing you don’t flush – continue your conversation as if nothing happened. Compared to the S7’s bells and whistles, my old phones are relics from the old stone age.

And I’m obliged to say that I feel pretty flash whenever I whip my S7 out in public. It was none too cheap, but – my coffers boosted from four years of budget tariffs – I reckon I can afford it. After all, phones are now auxiliary limbs, or extensions to our brain. Would you skimp on those?

Posted in Nostalgia

Underground undergrads

Old Tiverton Road, Exeter, 2006, and I am washing up in the kitchen of the student house I share with seven friends. To my right, a colony of slugs dozes unnoticed in the cutlery drawer. Behind, the cabinetry and worktops look like they haven’t seen a decorator’s hand in our lifetimes. The floor, begrimed with dirt, wants mopping. That knocking sound you can hear is the water pipes, clanking away like a furious mechanical heart.

The way of the student is, more often than not, a messy one. But so unusually foul were these students that even the mice had moved out (we never saw a single one; doubtless the slugs scared them off). The kitchen, being in the basement, was splendidly cold and cheerless, untroubled by the sun even in the heights of summer. Its every unwiped surface was a bacteriological weapon, lethal to the touch.

Faced with these adverse living conditions, only two species can survive. Students and slugs. And we came to realise that, compared to our squelchier cousins, we were maladapted to life underground. Every evening, around 11pm, we would resign ourselves to the coming of night and their slithering ascendance. In the morning they’d be gone, but evidence of mollusc merrymaking was everywhere, from the hob to the dining table to the crockery we’d been remiss enough to leave on the drying rack. It was the slugs’ world; we were just living in it.

The better news: the lounge was next door, and was officially slug-free. The worse news: it was dark, dank and we once found a snail living on one of the walls. If ever a shaft of light penetrated the gloom, there was a serious danger its ‘fittings’ might tremble into dust. The carpet, an inky brown, possessed the pizzazz of a converted coal bunker, and the furniture – two drooping sofas and a scattering of mean cushions – was crying out for a fly-tipping. It was a room fit only for waiting out the apocalypse, or watching Neighbours. Or both.

But in this house of delights, surprises and oddities, there was nothing so delightful, surprising or odd as its tendency to… wriggle about. I was lucky, so I thought, to have a room on the second floor, well away from the slug-ridden kitchen and the snail-troubled lounge. But when the blow fell, it was from an unexpected quarter. Closing my door of an evening, I suddenly found that it… wouldn’t. On closer inspection, it seemed the door frame, tilted from the vertical, had rejected geometrical order. It was warped. I was surprised, to say the least of it. Raising the issue with the landlady the next day, I received the following response.

‘The house and its walls are always on the move,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing for it but to wait awhile. Before long, it and they will move back.’

She wasn’t wrong. Only seven months of compromised privacy later, the house duly retrod its tracks, and the door frame re-aligned itself. It was, once more, possible to shut it. Just as well I hadn’t been inside when it first happened, or I’d have spent the better part of my 21st year bunkered in my room. Under house arrest, in an unusually literal sense.

But when one door shuts, another one opens. Not long afterwards, I graduated and said farewell to that peculiar old house on Old Tiverton Road, forever. But sometimes, just sometimes, when the sun’s out and the breeze whispers warmly across my neck, I miss its airless, lightless, hopeless kitchen. I miss its clanking water pipes. And I miss my old enemy, the slugs, who we did eventually notice dozing in the cutlery drawer. But that’s another story.