I agreed to meet the new Today presenter last week in the foyer of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he was about to present a live broadcast for Radio 3. I arrived on time, and waited. And waited, and waited. Eventually the photographer and I were picked up on security cameras, a telephone started ringing, and a voice at the other end demanded: 'Are you intruders?' No, I said, we were hoping to interview James Naughtie. The voice replied - rather crabbily, we felt - that the Royal Opera House was not offering a press facility (whatever that is) and we shouldn't be there because they had to 'prepare the nooks and crannies'. After a number of increasingly agitated telephone calls, Jim and I finally met. He had been waiting on the pavement.
This escapade does not, I am afraid, reflect well on the journalistic skills of either of us. I think he must have been in his domestic mode: he is famously disorganised, and on trips to the opera with his wife is not allowed to carry the tickets, even for the Tube. But Mr Naughtie is so nice, and was so good about putting himself out to meet me the next day, that I am prepared to say it was my fault.
DURING my dismal attempt to track down James Naughtie, I found myself going round and round a telephone message system, trapped in what Americans call 'voice mail jail'. A BBC answering machine, complete with an irritating smoothie telephone voice, invited me to leave a message, press star (I didn't have a star), or stay on the line for further options. I stayed on the line, but all I got was a message replay. When you are already tense, this kind of thing makes you want to stamp on the phone. I am afraid, however, that it is on the increase. I spent the best part of an hour trying to get through to Guy's Hospital last week. 'Thank you for calling,' the robotic, dreamy voice said, rather unnecessarily. 'If you have a tone-dialling telephone and know the extension you are calling, you may dial it now. If not, please hold, and you will be transferred to the operator.' I held. Nothing happened. After minutes of mounting frustration and chewed pens, the line cut out.
Voice mail is expected soon to spread like a fog across the country. In America, many people rarely talk to their colleagues on the phone, preferring to leave messages in each other's voice mail boxes. How charmingly efficient] - unless perhaps, you are a General Motors employee in Missouri and late for work, in which case you must wade through three sets of voice mail choices until you reach the right recording: 'Please indicate the reason for being late or absent. Press 'one' for personal illness; press 'two' if this is a family-related illness; 'three' for car trouble; 'four' for personal business; 'five' if you've overslept; 'six' if this is court-related; 'seven' if death-related; 'eight' if weather- related.' What though, if it's plumber-related? And what's wrong with just telling someone? Anyway, by the time you've listened to the options and got confused and had to start the whole process again, you could have got to work.
WHEN I WAS a child, it was only possible to make phone calls from the hall, because that was where the phone was. I could only listen to music in my bedroom, because that was where the record player was. If we wanted to eat out, we had to go to a restaurant; if someone wanted access to a typewriter, they had to go to an office. Now all these things can be done in a railway carriage, and usually are. The other day I was on a train surrounded by people who were talking into mobile phones, listening to portable CD players (tinkly-
tinkly sounds escaping from their headphones), and eating British Rail fragrant Thai curries. I was using my computer. No one was watching television, but it would have been perfectly possible.
Public spaces have been overrun by activities which were once confined to rooms set aside for them. My children expect to be able to listen to music not just in their bedrooms, but in the car, and when they're out on their roller- skates. Personal calls used to be made only in the evening, when the hall was warmer, and the rates cheaper; now there's no escape from the phone. The result is that people feel guilty if they're not doing three things at once, and there are no times for wallowing. This is increasing stress, and no doubt adding to the crime figures. If trains can have no-smoking carriages on the grounds that smoking is bad for health, then the time has come for microprocessor-free zones. There is not nearly enough staring out of the window.
'THEY may not have won gold like those foreign people, but in a way, a bronze medal is better than a gold medal,' observed Alan Partridge, The Day Today sports commentator last week: 'It says, 'We're good, but we don't want to show off'.' We were good, and the decision to give the top medals to the foreigners was confirmation that ice dancing should not be an Olympic sport. You might as well have Olympic elocution, or Olympic marrow-growing. They could hardly have more eccentric rules. Why, for example, are ice dancers allowed to separate only five times in four minutes? And why is almost any manoeuvre which is likely to make a routine interesting banned? These spurious rules are part of a doomed attempt to differentiate ice dancing from the more athletic and adventurous pairs competition. The ice dance authorities can't even make up their minds: the rules have changed so much since Jayne and Chris last competed that Bolero would no longer be allowed. There is little left for ice dancers to do now except whizz about and thrash their arms around. And that, more or less, is what those winning foreigners did.
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