The Telephone Box War


Not Letting the Bastards Grind Them Down
Over the past two-hundred years citizens have been increasingly dominated by technocrats and managerial bureaucrats trained in the art of ignoring both common sense and the public outrage caused by their insensitive bullying.There is an increasing feeling of impotence amongst the general public whose carefully organised and legal protests are diffused in a storm of legalities and paper work until they give up out of sheer exhaustion.Occasionally a well designed and carefully organised protest which also captures the attention of the mass media can change the behaviour and the policy of the characterless technocratic- bureaucratic elites.

The Telephone Box War, which broke out in Christchurch in October 1988, is a remarkable example of a successful “David versus Goliath” struggle. On one side; the Wizard and a few members of Alfs Imperial Army , on the other; Telecom New Zealand. This massive organisation had recently taken over the telephone operations of the dismantled Government Post Office.

The casus belli was the astonishing appearance of pale blue, wooden telephone boxes, which up to then had been painted the traditional red.

Wherever The Wizard went he heard shocked comments about the completely pointless and disturbing nature of the change to pale blue. “But what can you do?” everyone was saying.

Avoiding Morality and Reason
The Wizard does not like claiming the “high moral ground” nor giving jargon-loaded philosophical or economic reasons for what he does. He will only ever say that ultimately he does it all “for fun”. Even more unusual, he is a radical who does not intimidate others or even break the law, though he does bend it into some rather surprising shapes.

It is not often that an opportunity comes along to oppose managerial madness and malevolence without making a moral issue out of it. This nearly always makes things worse and is usually some other bastard’s power trip disguised as a “good cause”.

Professional experts and administrators, are like modern architects and art gallery administrators, they can churn out goobledegook by the ton to demonstrate the philosophical and/or economic rationality of whatever idiotic thing they are doing at the time. Reasoning with them is a complete waste of intellectual effort.

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum
Thus it was that a controversy over a purely aesthetic issue, like the preferred colour of public phone boxes in New Zealand, was an ideal opportunity for the Wizard to go into action.

At the time Telecom first vandalised the old Post Office phone boxes by painting them what became known as “poofy blue”, he was writing a weekly column for The Weekend Star. He was therefore able to use his column on October 8th 1988 to announce his intention to carry out historical restoration by direct action in which he would personally paint the phone boxes red again.

Painting the Town Red
Of Christchurch’s 565 phone boxes only 90 had been painted pale blue.phonebox3On Monday morning the Wizard dutifully tackled the most offensive and most prominent example of “corporate vandalism” – the phone box beside Captain Scott’s statue opposite the Christchurch visitor’s Centre.

He informed the media, who recorded him on Monday morning carefully restoring the phone box to its original beauty, which took about two hours. In a moving ceremony he dedicated his mission to God, Queen and the Red Cross of St. George.

That same afternoon the henchmen of Telecom repainted it pale blue.

Before nightfall The Wizard “restored” the box again.

The Red Army is Called to the Colour
The following morning officers of the local regiment of Alfs Imperial Army leapt into action and repainted the only really beautiful phone box in the South Island, the design classic “K7”, imported from England. This was in Victoria Square and had just been “blue-slimed” by Telecom.


The Alfs’ magnificent red tunics, now abandoned by regular army efficiency experts in favour of khaki, were a glowing tribute to the colour symbolism linking New Zealand culture with its ancestors and founders.

The People Feel Blue and The Wizard Sees Red
Red fire-engines, red buses, red post-boxes, and red phone boxes are all integral parts of the well known and well loved cityscape heritage introduced throughout the world during the ascendancy of the glorious and colourful British Empire. Alas the outburst of resentful anti-imperialism which destroyed it is not only far more violent but also far more ugly.

In Christchurch the popular “big red” buses have been “progressively” transformed into hideous, multi-coloured, advertising hoardings which no-one can spot approaching the bus stops. The red post boxes have been carefully camouflaged in trendy, ever-changing, Telecom “corporate colours”, presumably so that no-one could find them and notice how many had been withdrawn. At least the fire engines are still fiery red!

Wizard has a Brush with The Law
Both daily newspapers joined in the fun on Wednesday as Telecom executives began threatening the Wizard and Alfs Imperial Army with the dire legal consequences of their persistence in opposing the mighty organisational muscle of Telecom!

After one of his daily free speeches in Cathedral Square, the police approached him to warn him that, if he continued, he faced a possible fine as high as 150 dollars for vandalism. The Wizard observed that he was looking forward to defending himself in a court case in which restoring a phone box to its previous colour was regarded as the same sort of offence as smashing phone box windows, cutting the wires or spraying graffiti.

Editorials appeared in The Press and The Christchurch Star which were very critical of the actions and attitudes of Telecom, a newly formed State Owned Enterprise preparing the way for complete privatisation.

Meanwhile in Bangkok
The same day residents of Bangkok could read all about it on the front page of The Bangkok Post under the heading “Seeing Red”. The Wizard did not have the resources to employ a press-cuttings service and may have missed many other press stories in the “global village”. He wonders if Telecom ever made such a collection and, if so, what happened to it.

City Council Enters the Fray
To the Wizard’s delight and surprise, on the same eventful day came a report that Councillor John Burn, head of the inner city working party, was highly supportive of the campaign to bring life and colour to the city. He even said he would bring the matter up at Monday’s council meeting in order to propose that the Christchurch City Council should provide the Wizard and his army with free red paint!

Late on Wednesday the Wizard was informed that Telecom would hold a survey of public opinion on their colour preferences for phone boxes. They would use hundreds of pupils from the two longest established private schools in the city, Christ’s College and St Margaret’s, to survey 10,000 people. The Wizard and his army declared a truce and promised to cease painting until the results were published in three days time.

Meanwhile the Rudolf Steiner School, true to their beliefs in the spiritual importance of colour, conducted their own survey of 385 people. They found only 13% wanted the boxes to be blue, 10% didn’t like or use phone boxes, and didn’t care what colour they were, and the rest were emphatic in their preference for recognisable and traditional red. However Telecom would not accept these results and waited for their own.

Colour-blind Vandals Strike During Cease Fire
On Thursday night vandals painted two phone boxes in the Riccarton suburb a ghastly purple. Realising that, given the Jesuitical cunning of Telecom managers, they would seize on this as an example of impending civic chaos, the Wizard quickly mobilised Alfs Imperial Army, rushed over to Riccarton and repainted them red.

Desperately Seeking Solutions
Desperately seeking solutions, Telecom managers brought in a consultant “colour psychologist” in an attempt to vindicate their choice of pale blue paint. Mr Brian Finn, the corporation’s district manager for Christchurch, stated in The Christchurch Star on Friday that he personally believed that red made people angry and caused them to vandalise the phone boxes. Blue, he claimed, would have a soothing effect.

Comment continued on national television and in the papers over the weekend with The Weekend Star’s displaying a front page cartoon of an angry Wizard on top of a phone box brandishing a paint brush under the headline WIZ: NEXT STOP THE BUSES!

Telecom Admits Defeat
The Telecom survey was finally published on Monday October 17th.The results showed that 88% preferred red, 6% preferred blue, 1% yellow, 1% green, and 4% didn’t care. They took out a large advert in the local papers to announce the results of the survey and concluded with the following message to the people of Christchurch;

“While we have enjoyed the issue and are pleased to be able to respond to the wishes of the community, they are Telecom’s phone boxes. The service is an expensive one to provide and maintain and we issue a warning now that the matter is closed.”

Telecom reluctantly admitted defeat but insisted that the 80 or so phone boxes that had been painted blue should remain so until completely new “safe and functional” pay-phones, they planned to install the following year, were in place. This was something of a surprise to everyone.

War Breaks Out Again
Waiting to receive a bill for several hundred dollars for the cost of repainting the “restored” boxes blue again, The Wizard was not pleased to learn that the whole blue paint campaign had been a complete waste of money since all the boxes were about to be torn out and replaced by unlit, invisible, noisy and cheerless “plastic fantastics” anyway.

He gave Telecom an ultimatum; either they immediately repaint the blue boxes red, or war would recommence. He swore the paint brush would never sleep in his hand until all the Christchurch phone boxes had returned to the colour the public clearly loved.

City Council Supplies Free Ammunition
At their monthly meeting on Monday night, to almost everyone’s amazement and delight, the Christchurch City Council decided, by a vote of 15 to 3, that since Telecom was refusing to repaint the blue boxes, they would supply the Wizard and Alfs Imperial Army with free red paint from their stores.

After his customary speech on Wednesday, the Wizard and “The Red Army” leading his customary crowd of tourists, marched to the phone box behind the Cathedral. Trumpets were sounded and the repaint was on again.

The Red Army marched through town, with the Wizard preceding them carrying a large red flag, painting phone boxes in prominent sites. Cars hooted approval, crowds cheered and clapped the heroes. No-one had ever experienced anything like it before.

Council Bureaucrats Resist Councillors’ Decision
However when the Red Army marched smartly into the council’s stores to collect the red paint allocated to them by the democratically elected Christchurch City Council they met with ill-concealed hostility and a refusal to supply the paint. The simple ordered lives of the council’s minions were being disrupted by forces beyond their comprehension. Eventually they gritted their teeth and supplied one small pot of red paint.

Putting in the Boot
On Thursday The Press reported Councillor Burn as warning Telecom that, if they persisted in their arrogant and stupid attitude and crude threats to the Wizard, he would recommend that they should start charging rent for the city council land the boxes sat on.

Then the adjoining Waimari Council passed a resolution at their meeting informing Telecom that if they did not immediately repaint the boxes on their land red, they would definitely start charging them rent.

Meanwhile the newspapers were full of letters most of which were making fun of Telecom and the affair grew from being the talk of the town to being the talk of the nation. A Japanese current affairs program sent a camera team to New Zealand just to film him painting a phonebox. They simply could not believe that any sane man would dare take on a multinational corporation almost single-handed, let alone succeed?

Telecom Surrenders Unconditionally
On Friday October 21st, surrounded on all sides by determined enemies of their “poofy blue” phone boxes, Telecom caved in. The war, like all successful wars, was short and decisive. It had lasted 12 days.

Magnanimous in victory as he had been courageous in adversity, the Wizard made up with Telecom and accepted “tribute” of one of the two remaining old-fashioned wooden boxes with a pointed roof whose friendly light across the road he could see from his bedroom window at his previous residence. This was to be delivered when the new plastic horrors were installed.

War Looms Again in the South
Convinced that Telecom had learned a costly lesson, in February the next year, the Wizard was surprised to find half a dozencanary yellow phone boxes during a visit to Invercargill, the Southernmost city in New Zealand. He remembered, that in the Telecom Survey, yellow had received only 1%support. With the help of the Invercargill Dragoons Regiment of Alfs Imperial army, he conducted some “historical restoration” by painting the most conspicuous of the offensive objects red again.
The same day, February 16th, 1989, six members of the Dunedin Regiment, the Waitati Militia, led by their local wizard, repainted one of the “yellow perils” that had appeared in their town. They were all arrested and charged with “malicious damage” by the Dunedin police at the instigation of the Dunedin branch of Telecom!

The Dunedin district manager Mr Jim Williamson said, in The Otago Daily Times, that he was “not about to be drawn into the Wizard’s publicity games”. However this was exactly what the poor fellow was doing by throwing his weight about and pushing for the arrests of Alfs Imperial Army heroes.

Within a few days tempers had cooled and the Militia and Telecom reached an agreement whereby the charges were dropped and the Militia agreed to halt their “restoration” plans since the new plastic booths were about to be installed throughout New Zealand.

Wizard Calls His Mum
With the new peace treaty firmly in place, in late March the Wizard publicly symbolised the new era of love and harmony by making the first “card-phone” telephone call in Christchurch, to his Mum.

Finally, in July 1990, in the presence of the Wizard and “The Red Army”, the design classic “K7” iron phone kiosk came back from maintenance and repair and was restored to Victoria Square where to this day it delights the eye of locals and tourists alike.

Catastrophe Narrowly Averted
In June 1991 an act of cultural barbarism was committed by Telecom when they erected one of their new hideous “plastic fantastics” right in the middle of the City Council’s pride and joy, the tastefully redesigned Worcester Boulevard, which runs through the Victorian gothic Arts Centre.

The Wizard was alerted by the manager of the Arts Centre and he prepared for action. Telecom top management, like most large organisations, were completely out of touch with what was going on at “the cutting edge” of their own organisation. As soon as they heard there was a storm brewing they wisely invited the Wizard up to the top floor for tea and bikkies with the chiefs.

Common sense and mutual respect won the day. Telecom management found out that they had sold all their old wooden phone boxes to the public whose passion for them was insatiable. They couldn’t replace the plastic abomination in the new boulevard with an old box! There were none left!

They asked The Wizard very nicely if he was prepared to donate his “tribute” (the old phone box they had promised to give him and which was currently being restored) to the people of Christchurch for erection in Worcester Boulevard. The Wizard, who had been dreaming of having the old box, complete with friendly light, in his garden, choked back his tears of disappointment and agreed.

Unique Memorial
Any visitor to Christchurch who has been touched by this moving finale to a ripping story may go inside the little old phone box near the tram stop in Worcester Boulevard, and they will find there a commemorative plaque informing the world that the phone box was donated by The Wizard and Telecom to the people of Christchurch.

mtcook5Details of why the wizards are carrying the egg are to be found in “The Stolen Image”.

Telephone Box War Gallery