If I want to use my mobile phone, why do I have to run around threatening murder?
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit. Recent television programmes such as Jesus the Jew and Creation have also been widely admired.
Saturday 06 November 1999
My dark night of the mobile began last year in Perth, Western Australia, when my wife bought me a nifty Vodaphone-speaking Nokia in a leather case, partly as a birthday present, partly so that I shouldn't be afeared driving her and her mother two thousand miles across the Great Australian Desert in the dry season. With a mobile we'd never be far from help, would we? I still recall the moment, half an hour out of Perth, when the phone first showed the no-coverage sign that it was to go on showing, without so much as a crystalline flicker of apology or hope, for the next 11 days.
Not to worry, though, because on the Nokia you can always play memory games while you're waiting for the flying doctor to find you. Also good for jamming between the teeth of 18-ft crocodiles should you still be there in the wet season, the Nokia.
Then came global roaming. Global roaming is what you do when you take your Australian mobile overseas. I have always seen myself as a bit of a global roamer. A telephonic cowboy, going where the coverage takes me, brave but existentially lonely. Just me and the old palomino, Nokia. Problem is, take a call from a neighbour in Clapham when you're global roaming and it's coming via Australia. And you're paying for the thrill.
When one of my monthly bills came to pounds 500 I began to think twice about the way I was living. I tried arguing, but in order to argue with your Australian bill you have to ring Australia - Sydney via Melbourne, Clapham, the planet Uranus and Melbourne again - as a consequence of which your next monthly bill comes to pounds 700. It was then that I decided to roam no more. I'm here, Vodaphone is here - I just switch my account, right?
Wrong. Vodaphone here doesn't speak to Vodaphone there. In the mobile talk business, I have discovered, no one talks to no one. Not the manufacturer of your phone to the seller of your phone; not the itemiser of your calls to the facilitator of your calls. One little pie, many fat little fingers in it. So who do you go to with a problem? Aha! Who you go to when you have a problem is the Devil.
Two weeks into my new flip-top Ericsson I am barred. Literally. "You are barred," a voice says. Paperwork problem. Whose paperwork? Aha! What you need to do, DX tells me, is take it up with 4U. "But I bought it from you." "Yeah, but we're not the supplier of the service." "If you're not the supplier, how come you supplied me with it." "Nah, we only supply the phone. 4U provides the service."
4U is three blocks down Oxford Street from DX. Handy. Except that 4U won't acknowledge the problem as theirs. "Your agreement is with Singlepoint." "It says on my form that 4U is Singlepoint." "Yeah, but this is just a shop." "So where do I find Singlepoint qua Singlepoint?" "Stoke-on-Trent." "Then please ring them for me." "We can only ring Singlepoint about our customers." "I am your customer." "Nah, you're DX's customer." "So how come I have an agreement with Singlepoint?" "Because you've subscribed to Singlepoint." "Then I am their customer." "No, you bought your phone from DX." "But it's a subscription problem I am having." "Yeah, but we don't deal with subscriptions." "So who does?" "Singlepoint."
It is now I make my address to the other customers, the verdant couples signing up to their first mobiles like expectant parents putting down a deposit on a pram. "A word from the wise!" I shout. "Don't! Buy a mobile phone and you'll wonder what became of that sweet sleep thou owed'st yesterday." Whereupon the staff turn hurt. "That's completely out of order," they complain. Now, I too sometimes watch EastEnders, so I know that "out of order" - art av ordah - is the highest expression of moral outrage available to a Londoner. If I've acted art av ordah I'll either have my house burned or my problem solved. On this occasion I have my problem solved. But not until I've been sent back down Oxford Street to DX with a message from 4U to the effect that they'll be hearing from Reggie in the morning.
And no sooner is the bar lifted than my phone decides to call it a day. It is suffering taedium vitae. Every time I put it down, it turns itself off. Mobile suicide.
"What you want to do," someone at DX tells me, "is take it down to the Carphone Warehouse..."
"The Carphone Warehouse!!"
He doesn't like my repeating what he says. "If you're going to talk to me like that -"
They are sensitive in the matter of how they are talked to, sellers of mobile phones. But not as sensitive as I am in the matter of having been sold a depressed one.
This time I don't shout. This time I do the glare. The one in which my eyes assume the colour and calefaction of Vesuvius, which is the temperature at which mobile phones melt. As a boy I employed this stare to interest girls in me erotically, but it only made them cry. It has the same effect on the staff of DX. Finally I get service. But should one have to spend one's life running up and down Oxford Street, endangering oneself and others, threatening mayhem and murder, merely to enjoy one small advantage of technology?
Don't ask me. I just write the column.
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