I'd completely stopped noticing red phone boxes. When I moved to London a dozen years ago, I suppose I must have called people from them then, but then we all got mobile phones and that was that.
They're still there, though, on street corners, waiting for occasional use or repurposed as cashpoints, internet connection points, collections of call girl photos, and impromptu urinals. They're street furniture.
But if you're not from around here, London's red phone boxes can be magical. Which is what writer/editor Salome Jones found when she moved over from the US a few years ago. Salome explains: "We don't have phone boxes where I'm from - even the drab clear phone booths are long gone. Public phones are attached to walls with maybe a little shelf over them to protect them from the weather. The first time I saw one of those beautifully designed red telephone boxes I had to get inside it. It was like a shiny, red building for one."
Salome's interest, combined with the enormous number of writers she knows, has resulted in an unusual writing project which launched last weekend. Red Phone Box, a 'story cycle' or collaborative novel, was written by 28 writers - one of them Warren Ellis - and edited by Salome and games writer Tim Dedopulos. It started as a series of linked stories on a website, and was then edited into a single story - although the short-story structure is still intriguingly visible underneath the novel structure. As Salome said in an interview with Bleeding Cool, "You can think of it as two things: its original pieces, and the novel we made out of them." The process of turning the one into the other was helped by Tim's experience as a puzzle creator - he was behind 2011's The Great Global Treasure Hunt on Google Earth.
So what's the book about? It's based around the idea that phone boxes are essentially small enchanted places where almost anything can happen. You pick up a ringing phone and your life changes. And God help you if you get trapped in one. Some of the plot revolves around the Anglesey Deer, an amulet dating from AD 60, which is sought after and found and lost. Some of the many characters include Amber, whose life-changing midnight walk opens the book, a sinister lion-headed lord, occultist Croften Wingwalker, black cat Max, magician-on-the-take Maz, storyteller (and other things) Safran, and Jon, "who has lived and died and lived again". One of my stories is outside all the main storylines and features a tragic goddess worshipped by a gang of feral children.
Getting involved in Red Phone Box has given me a whole new outlook on London. At the launch party on Saturday I shut myself into a phone box for a photo, and found a shudder running down my back. I'd better make sure I never lose my mobile, because I'm not sure I can bring myself to call anyone from a red phone box again. But I can't wait to write for the sequel.