Can I call you a cab?

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The Independent Online
Miss Marghanita Laski once got very annoyed on Radio 4's Any Questions when one of her fellow panelists, whom she had not met before, kept calling her "Marghanita". Finally, she said to him, "I am not Marghanita to you - I am Miss Laski!"

The boss of Leeds Council environmental department got very annoyed the other day because his telephone receptionists kept saying "Hello, love" to callers they had never met before, so he told them to stop.

I get annoyed every time I ring up a company and, when the phone is finally answered, I hear a girl saying: "Hello-Ulysses-Rent-a-car-this-is-Pam-speaking-how-may-I-help-you?"

At first sight, it looks as if the three of us - Miss Laski, me and the man from Leeds - are united in our distress at familiarity. In fact, if you examine it more carefully, you will see we are distressed by different things.

Miss Laski didn't like a stranger handling her first name without permission. The man from Leeds didn't like his switchboard to sound homespun and regional. I didn't like the Ulysses car rental woman talking so fast like a robot, because her message had become entirely mechanical and expressionless, and also because she spoke so fast that I couldn't quite make out her name, so that if I did want to ring back and talk to the same person, I wouldn't know who to speak to.

If Miss Laski were here today, she would be depressed by the spread of what used to be called Christian names. In her day, first names were a private piece of property which you allowed friends to use after a period of probation, just as you might ask them to your house by and by. But today, total strangers are introduced by their Christian names and are expected to get on with it, without ever going through the intermediary stage of Mister this and Miss that. Innocent young girls at car rental companies are ordered to give out their first names to total strangers on the phone.

(The result has been that first names are now devalued, which explains the proliferation of nicknames and familiar forms of address, such as Del boy, Tel, Bazza and Kenny. If your first name is everyone's property, at least your familiar nickname is not,and has to be earned. The nickname now plays the role that the first name used to play. It may also explain the return of initials as a way of warding off intimacy. If you meet a P. J. O'Rourke or A. S. Byatt at a party, you are less likely to get on first name terms with them, if only because you are not sure what their first name is.)

What seems to be happening is that we are losing natural warmth and spontaneity, at least in Leeds, and these are being replaced by trained and coached warmth and spontaneity.

The expression "Have a nice day" arose, I believe, because American telephonists on the Bell Company were trained to say it. It is just possible that one might say it naturally without coaching. But I do not think it is possible to say: "Hello-Ulysses-Rent-a-car-this-is-Pam-speaking-how-may-I-help-you?" naturally and easily.

I mean, when I approach a taxi in the street, I do not expect the driver to wind down his window and say: "Hi, this is the Call-a-Cab Company, I'm Sidney, how may I help you?" If he said that, I would think he was either drunk or taking the mickey. What I hope he will say is one of the following:- Where to, guv?

Where to, sir?

Where to, squire?

Jump in, young man.

All these have been said to me, and I like them all, especially the last, though that is getting increasingly rare these days. It does happen occasionally, usually when older taxi drivers are involved. Very much older. I try to hail only very much older taxi drivers, actually to increase the odds on my being called "young man". What most drivers actually say when they pick me up is: "Mind my roof with that thing."

This is because I am generally carrying a double bass, and a double bass will only just fit in a London taxi, thus putting the ceiling lining at risk. This ceiling lining costs a lot to replace. I have had this conversation with almost every London taxi driver who has picked me up. When I first got into a taxi with a bass, it cost about £35 to replace. Now, it costs something in the hundreds. And that is why, when I approach a London taxi, I say: "Hi, this is Kington Cab Passengers here, my name is Miles and I'd like to travel with you, and yes I do know how much your bloody ceiling lining costs, love."

Then I get in. They very rarely try to strike up a conversation after that.

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