The Irritations of Modern Life: 23: directory enquiries

ANY DIRECTORY enquiries staff reading this, pay attention and listen up. The following numbers are all London ones: the Palace of Westminster (as in Westminster where Parliament is); Battersea Dogs' Home (an actually quite high-profile dogs home in Battersea); Buckingham Palace (where the Queen lives). I repeat: all these national landmarks are situated in the capital. So why do you always ask "Which town?" as though there might be another Palace of Westminster in, say, Grimsby or Penzance?

If this were the worst misdemeanour that Directory Enquiries ever committed I wouldn't even bother to mention it: as it is, it is the least offensive in a list of crimes infinitely maddening to those of us who often need a number in a hurry. I have lost count of how many completely random numbers I have been given by some chirpy little creature with only a first name. A recent example: the University of Nottingham is simply not the same as some teeny little management training centre which happens to be based in the same town. Near misses are even more aggravating than the totally off-the-wall. Call me a grumpy, reactionary old fusspot if you will but the number for an organisation that sounds a bit like the one I requested is in fact not the same as getting the number I actually need.

And why does Mark or Lynne or Sarah or David or whoever is Misinformer of the Moment keep giving out that nonsense about needing a specific town to do a search? For anyone fobbed off in their efforts to find a number by this blatant fib, stand no nonsense: if you firmly request a national search it will be done.

It is excruciating to get a charming "Sorry to keep you waiting" from your Enquiries Person because it means they are about to activate that most insulting of recorded messages: "Sarreh. The nember you requaire is net available. Sarreh." Sarreh indeed. Ha. Not as sarreh as you'd be if you were here in the room with me, trying to convince me that Asda's head office/the NSPCC/the British Library doesn't have a telephone.

The worst of all this is that you cannot win. Driven beyond endurance when Directories failed to come up with the number for my favourite local restaurant, I looked it up in the phone book and called them back. "You said it didn't exist, but it's here in front of me in black and white," I said triumphantly. "I want a refund for the call, and for this one I'm making now."

"It's not on our list," said a noticeably unapologetic Enquiries Person. "What you pay for is the search, not us finding the number."

So there you have it: possibly the only service that exists where you still have to pay even if they can't come up with the goods. Imagine the greatbusiness opportunities if we could all do the same.

"I'm afraid I can't cater for your party next week, that'll be pounds 300."

"Sorry, we don't stock the dress you want: hand in your pounds 49.99 at the till."

How do they get away with it?