The modern world is wonderfully convenient in certain respects, but it has its absurdities. The other day, for example, I went to a bank to open a separate business account. The young man who dealt with me, of French West African descent, though of North London diction—Tottenham, probably, though I admit that I am no Professor Higgins—was charming and efficient. How splendid that you can go, in a generation or two, from peasant farming in Senegal to banking in a fashionable area of London!
When I returned home, I realized that I no longer had my cellphone with me. Perhaps, I thought, I had left it in the bank. Aha, I thought, I’ll just phone them and find out, this being an honest part of London, superficially at least.
I looked up the telephone number of the bank on the wi-fi Internet—almost instantaneous—and made the call.
It was then that the world suddenly began to seem slightly less convenient. “Thank you for calling xxxx Bank,” a recording of a woman with an uncultured voice said. “We are worldwide leaders of . . .” Yes, yes, I know all that, I thought to myself (in fact I may have said it out loud, though no one else was in my apartment at the time), but all I want is my telephone back. Eventually, having heard that for security and training reasons—“Which is it?,” I thought—that my call could be monitored and recorded, I was asked to choose among several options, none corresponding exactly with what I wanted.
“Thank you for calling xxxx Bank today,” came a voice. “How may I help you?”
It was clear that I was through not to the bank, but to India, where levels of pay, unlike those of good manners, not to say obsequiousness, are lower than those of local operators.
I explained what I wanted. Would I mind hanging on while India contacted the bank? Not at all, I said, eager to sound, if not to be, entirely reasonable. Some vile rock music played in my ear, far worse even than Vivaldi, which seems to be the alternative in these circumstances, and then the lady got back to me.
“They are not answering the telephone,” she said.
“That’s all right,” I said, dissembling, “Just give me the number and I’ll call them myself later.”
“I’m sorry, that is impossible,” she said. “All calls come through our centralized system.”
“You mean there’s no way I can call the bank direct?”
“Yes, but please try again in ten or 15 minutes.”
“Thank you,” I said, not feeling particularly grateful.
Then I had a brilliant idea. The charming young man at the bank had given me his personal card with a telephone number. I called it.
“Thank you for calling xxxx Bank,” said the same woman. “Please listen carefully to the following options, since they may have changed . . .”
What, in the last 30 seconds?
I decided to phone the cellphone company instead. Once I had input my cellphone number into the computerized system, there was no delay at all in speaking to an “advisor,” thanks to the phenomenal size of my bills. There proved to be no difficulty suspending my number for the time being, and yes, a new phone would come to me tomorrow by courier, without fail.
The bank, incidentally, was about 600 yards from where I live, five minutes’ walk away at most. As the Flanders and Swan song put it half a century ago, “Oh, it all makes work for the working man to do.”