Harrods, is that in London?: Dial 192 and you get Scotland. The person you speak to has probably never seen London. But they care and at least one of them dreams of seeing the Finchley Road.

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In the small town of Bathgate, on the outskirts of Edinburgh where the rolling Lothian hills meet the grassy plains of Lanarkshire, some 48,000 London phone calls are answered every day. That soft Scottish burr is not some Hibernian exiled down here; it is a Scot very much at home. And this is 192, London's Directory Inquiries, one of three Scottish Directory Centres.

The move to route all the London operator centres out of the capital began about four years ago. A riotously high turnover of staff and exorbitant running costs meant the London centres were costing BT a fortune; there was also a policy to keep small, regional operations open; 60 per cent of all London calls were therefore hustled up to Scotland, and the rest to centres in Northern Ireland and Cornwall.

Only London does this. If you're searching for a number in Leeds, the chances are that you'll be served by someone sitting in Leeds.

'Local knowledge is a bonus for operators,' admits Janet Turnbull, Bathgate's Team Manager. Ms Turnbull started in directories when the service meant rows of operators sitting at a long bench armed with telephone books and speaking to callers down the road.

'But with the electronic system nowadays, if you give us the right information, you get the number you require as if it's come right off the top of the operator's head.' Which of course, it hasn't. The (mostly) women on the desks use a vast data service which cost BT pounds 140m to set up and which fields 500 million calls nationally each year.

A quick straw poll suggests that none of the 110 Bathgate operators, who each have a daily average of 800 inquiries from the capital, have ever been to London. 'I get lots of inquiries for Romford,' says inquiries operator Denise Ormiston. 'And I always wonder what it looks like. I think it must look something like Lothian.'

Ms Ormiston, who earns about pounds 10,000 a year as a senior operator, has worked at Bathgate for 17 years. Each day she comes into the operations room, an open-plan, venetian-blinded office, and records her 'Automatic Salutation'.

As anyone who has ever called 192 will know, this goes along the lines of: 'Good Morning/ Afternoon/ Evening, Directory Inquiries, what name please?' The recording saves Ms Ormiston and her colleagues repeating it 800 times a day, but does somewhat reduce the sincerity of the greeting. Still, it is freshly done by each operator every morning, midday and evening, so that it 'exactly matches' the voice of the operator that day. On high days and holidays the message is sometimes given a sense of pizzazz by adding a 'Happy New Year', or some other such timely remark.

'We always start by asking what name is required,' explains Ms Ormiston, 'because our cursor is at the top left hand corner of the screen and this is the first piece of information we have to put down.' After this, it's the name of the town, then the street. 'We don't pay much attention to door numbers,' she says, 'as callers aren't very reliable about them.'

Some people of course have no clue as to the essential need for this order of things. 'Wilson's the surname,' one request apparently went. 'They're in England. No I don't know what city, you f***ing Scottish cow.' Ms Ormiston raises her eyebrows delicately. 'Some people are very rude about us being Scots. Some London callers don't like having us helping them. Maybe they don't like the thought of us being so far away. People get irritated, for example, when they ring us for the number of Harrods, or The Ritz. We have to say: 'Is it in London?; and they get really annoyed. But we are trained to ask, and we can't assume anything is where we might think it is.'

'People have to understand you need an input, to give them an output,' says Ms Ormiston. 'Good morning, Directory Inquiries. . .' warbles her Automatic Salutation for the two hundredth time today, and we are on line to London. 'Zanussi]' demands a male voice. 'Well no, of course I don't where they are,' he protests. She finds the number and punches a button for the automatic Voice Recording to give it out. While it dictates, we are taking the next call. A harassed sounding woman is on the line. 'I need the number for Brookfield Nursery. Where is it? Oh, you know, it's down by the shops.' The shops, a good 500 miles from the patient ear of Mrs Ormiston, unfortunately have no further identification. 'Well, the nursery's in London,' continues the woman helpfully.

'We can sometimes do a nationwide search,' confesses Ms Ormiston, after eventually finding the nursery. 'I'm not really suppposed to say so, but we can look for a number even if no town is supplied. But it's a nightmare, takes ages, and I only do it if someone is very insistent.'

A woman rushes up from the front desk. 'Cardiff are on line,' she says breathily. There's a cable fault in Wales, and so the Bathgate Centre is now dealing with inquiries from Cardiff as well as London. Any calls which can't be answered here are re-routed up the road to Aberdeen or Dundee. Large television screens, one on each wall, flash up a repeated loop of information, including the news about Cardiff, a reminder of the Irish Embassy's new number, and details of a man in Surbiton who has just become ex-directory.

'People get really ratty because they think we can see ex-directory numbers on the screen,' says Denise Ormiston. 'But we can't. We just see a sign next to the address saying NC, which stands for No Calls. In life or death cases, we recommend calling the police, who have access. But I'd never recommend doing it. You'd be amazed how isolated you can become when you're ex-directory. And I've had calls from people who have just moved into a new house, become ex-directory, and then forgotten their own number. Even then, we can't give it out.'

One woman rings in every morning to find out what date and day of the week it is; one very elderly Londoner used to depend on Bathgate directory to call Meals on Wheels for her. Even geographical information can be produced.

'I know about loads of places in London, claims Moira Brown, Bathgate born and bred, and who has, like most of her colleagues, never been to the capital. 'I know where Rayners Lane is, and I know that if people ask for the King George Hospital in Ilford, it's now the New King George Hospital; and I know that Gascoigne-Rees are actually listed under Black Horse Agency, and so on. We know more than the London papers, sometimes; they say Enfield's in London, but we all know it's in Middlesex.'

She looks out at the rain-sodden fields of Lothian which surround the Directory Assistance Centre. 'When estate agent boards are shown on TV, it's great, because I know them all, the London companies, and I recognise the names of the roads. But I would like to go down to London, and see the Finchley Road. I want to know why so many people want to ring the shops in it; and I want to see how long it really is.

'I'd like to do a tourist bus around London and see all the places I deal with, says Denise Ormiston.

'But the size of London scares me. It seems such a vast area; you can tell by looking at all the areas, all the hundreds of phone numbers we have to find every day. It frightens me.

(Photograph omitted)

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