One of the small ironies of our peculiar age is that telephone companies are less communicative than just about any other kind of enterprise. Phone them up and it feels like a minor miracle when eventually you find yourself in dialogue with a human being after all the automated nonsense of pressing 1 if you want this, or 2 if you want that. If only the next option was, press 3 if you'd like to interact with somebody real, but it never is.
Still, I was given a useful tip the other day, namely that the surefire way of getting to talk to someone at T-Mobile is to press the buttons indicating that you want to take your account away from them. Pretty sharpish you get the undivided attention of a human being.
The most incommunicative blighters of all, in my experience, are TalkTalk. We gave them our landline business a year or so ago, seduced by the promise that they were cheaper than BT. Then, a week ago, our line went dead. I won't even begin to detail the number of calls made, the number of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and star buttons pushed, over the subsequent few days. Eventually, the job of fixing the fault was passed on to BT Open Reach, yet TalkTalk couldn't put us directly in touch with the BT engineers, and clearly had no idea themselves of the repairs schedule. All rather maddening.
Several more days passed, in the course of which we had a call from "Bernard" in India, who knew nothing of our frustrations, telling us how we could improve our TalkTalk plan. I don't know when it was introduced, this policy in Indian call centres of foisting British names on their ever-obliging operatives, but we've also heard from "William" and "Derek" in recent weeks. If the TV sketch show Goodness Gracious Me was still going, they could turn it on its head as neatly as they did with the gang of inebriated Pakistanis going for a late-night "English" and abusing the waiters. Flaxen-haired Englishmen would sit at a call centre in Melton Mowbray, phoning householders in Mumbai and introducing themselves as Sanjay.
Anyway, with the fault still not sorted, my wife, Jane, got a text message from TalkTalk on her mobile, asking her to reply FIXED or NOT FIXED. At first she replied NOT FIXED!, but they couldn't make head or tail of the exclamation mark. The texts kept coming; she kept replying. Finally, five days after we'd reported the fault, a BT engineer turned up and took half an hour to sort out the problem. Then came another text from TalkTalk. FIXED or NOT FIXED?
Resisting the temptation to preface her reply with even a single expletive, Jane replied FIXED. A minute or two later her phone pinged. "Sorry, we do not understand your response." Had we found a computer with a sense of humour? Or a telephone company too in thrall to technology to realise the time-saving value of a simple phone conversation? Either way, if TalkTalk can't talk the talk, we'll have to walk the walk back to BT.
Churchill gets far more credit than he deserves
Last week in this column I questioned the attribution of two well-known sporting quotations, yielding a splendid email from a reader, Gordon Elliot, who wrote to me some time ago after I'd cited the advice usually credited to the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, that one should try everything in life at least once, except folk dancing and incest. According to Mr Elliot, there is a line in the memoirs of the composer Sir Arnold Bax attributing the quip to the much lesser-known conductor Guy Warrack.
It is the regrettable lot of the lesser-known to have their witticisms put in the mouths of others, while, conversely, the better-known have the usually posthumous pleasure of seeming sharper than they are, or were. Sir Thomas Beecham is a good example. He also tends to get the credit for the celebrated admonition of a female cellist: "Madam, you have between your legs a beautiful instrument capable of bringing pleasure to thousands, yet all you can do is scratch it." That, I'm reliably told, was actually uttered by Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Promenade concerts.
Whatever, Mr Elliot informs me that the phenomenon of sayings being reattributed to more famous people is known as "Churchillian Drift". Apparently, Churchill's biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, has failed to find any evidence of Churchill saying lots of things he is popularly supposed to have said. In some cases, Mr Elliot writes, they may have been said by his great friend F E Smith, a noted wit in his time but now largely forgotten.
He believes a similar process has occurred in cricket, "where the pithy lines of the Yorkshire fast bowler Emmott Robinson have sometimes been reassigned to Fred Trueman". If so, it's a bloody disgrace, as Trueman, and doubtless Robinson too, would have said.
The consolations of an annual catalogue
One could be forgiven for thinking that Lark, Swift and Sunrise are a pop star's daughters. Or that Saladin, Fatum, Ilas and Euphya are the children of the Turkish Prime Minister. But if, like me, you have just received the endlessly fascinating Marshalls Kitchen Garden Catalogue 2011, you will know that Lark, Swift and Sunrise are varieties of sweetcorn, while Saladin, Fatum, Ilas and Euphya are joined by Burpless Tasty Green, who couldn't possibly be the son of the Turkish Prime Minister, as varieties of cucumber.
Anyway, I always greet the arrival of the Marshalls catalogue as a sign that spring isn't too far away, and my rising excitement as I pore through its pages as proof that I have become irretrievably middle-aged.