020 for London doesn’t really have a ring to it. Today is the 11th anniversary of the day when 020 was foisted on us. It has been quite long-lasting compared with its hapless predecessors: 071, 081 (1990-95); 0171 and 0181 (1995-2000). But it doesn’t – can’t – do the job of the old 01, which was the capital’s worthy STD prefix from the sixties until it was absent-mindedly cast aside by British Telecom in 1990. 01 was more than just a number: it had become part of London’s brand, alongside black cabs, red buses and Big Ben. I well remember, for example, the TV programme, 01 for London. It also served the purpose of unifying all phone owners in the greater London area.
Much as I would love to pick up the earpiece, crank the handle, and request: “Mayfair 52, please, operator”, I realise this is not practical. But it would be nice if we could have at least adopted 010 + 8 digits, or even better, returned to 01 + 9 digits.
BT’s lack of foresight, thoughtlessness and, quite frankly, incompetence caused a lot of problems outside of my purely romantic concerns. The worst of it was the cost to businesses of changing all their stationery, livery and all the rest of it. Three times in ten years. On top of this there was the business of reprogramming all of their customer and contact data. The same thing had to be dealt with by individuals around the world in their address books, filofaxes and so on. Secondly, Londoners outside the new central zones (071, 0171) felt the perception as being second-tier by dint of being now considered outside of London. This affected businesses who valued of the cachet of being seen to be central London-based.
This farce ended finally, on so-called Big Number Change 11 years ago, when we were once again united. But did it? The damage had already been done and normality will not be fully restored for many years to come, if ever. Only a minority, to this day, understands that London’s code is 020. A huge proportion of stationery and signs are rendered 0207- and 0208-. And when people tell you a London number, they tend to do this too. I always give a mental thumbs-up when I see or hear 020 (pause). This possibly makes me an old fart.