When should mobile phones be seen but not heard in public?
Opera lovers at Covent Garden were subjected to two chirps from mobile phones during a performance recently and, as might be expected, they reacted with the horror of a latter-day Bateman cartoon. But with the British mobile phone population about to top eight million - up from one million in 1991 - the march of this very public kind of private communication seems unstoppable. Naturally, opposition to what many regard as a menace has grown along with the phone population and an increasing number of establishments are banning the mobile from their premises.
Escape from the ubiquitous talking machines is available in the UK on Great Western Trains which, following a successful three-month trial period - prompted by complaints - has decided to introduce two carriages, one each for first and second class, where people can escape the gadgets.
'This is a quiet environment,' says the notice. 'Please refrain from using mobile phones, personal stereos and holding loud meetings.' However, you still see motorists nattering away as they navigate traffic with one hand, although the police can stop drivers using phones. The charge is careless driving.
Naturally, polite society shuns mobiles. At London's exclusive clubs they are seen as ruining the atmosphere of quiet sociability. The Garrick forbids their use anywhere. 'They are non-things, along with cameras, business papers and laptops,' concurs Graham Snell, secretary of Brooks's.
One club, he reports, dealt with the nuisance by asking members to pile their phones into a tea chest by the front door, leading to chaos when departing members tried to locate their own instrument. At the Ritz in London, those using the restaurant are asked to leave their phones at reception.
Just why is mobile mania so irritating? Because it is unnatural, claims Gill Mackenzie of The Polite Society. She despairs of the trivial nature of many calls, citing a businessman on a train journey who 'spent the final 15 minutes before his stop phoning everyone to tell them he was about to arrive on time'. Dr Sidney Crown, a consultant psychotherapist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Psychiatrists, is similarly scathing.
'Properly used, mobile phones are a benefit to those who need to send and receive urgent messages,' he says. 'But the majority in the age group 25-30 use them as an expression of their aggressiveness.' A number of British sporting institutions echo this, instructing members to hand their phones in at the door. At Lord's, the MCC forbids their use in the stands and in the members and friends enclosure. The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield forbids their use both in the clubhouse and out on the course. Quite right too - who would want to play with a bounder whose mobile goes off just as you are about to hit the winning putt?