Brian Viner: Pressing all the wrong buttons

Alexander Graham Bell would turn in his grave if he knew how many people have come to regard his great invention as the enemy

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Basingstoke, Guildford and Winchester have reached the front of the queue of shame, as the railway stations where it takes longest to buy a ticket. An organisation called Passenger Focus, surveying waiting times at different stations, has concluded that these are the places where the "industry benchmark" of a five-minute wait during peak periods, and three minutes at other times, is least likely to be met.

It is automated ticket dispensers – you know, those machines intended to make our lives easier – that are mainly responsible. The bewildering instructions and the variety of tickets available make almost any encounter with a ticket-machine longer than a ticket-related transaction with a human-being, apart from which the machine has no way of knowing whether you intend to travel now or later, and is therefore maddeningly capable of spitting out a ticket that is not actually valid on the service about to leave from platform 4.

"But I just bought it from the machine" is an argument that, I can testify from painful recent experience, holds no sway over Wanda at the barrier. Unmoved by my entreaties, unimpressed, unsmiling, she was a cold fish called Wanda.

Still, if you walk away from the machine with a ticket, you can at least congratulate yourself on a successful skirmish with the 21st century. It is all too easy either to press all the wrong buttons or, rather like Eric Morecambe attempting Grieg's piano concerto under the expert eye of Andre Previn all those years ago, to press all the right buttons, just not necessarily in the right order. And if those of us who are under the age of 50 struggle with technology, what chance the over-75s? Has there ever been an era, in fact, when the elderly have been so disenfranchised by, in more ways than one, the machinations of everyday life?

The telephone, for example, should be a tool for simplifying things. But Alexander Graham Bell would turn in his grave if he knew how many people have come to regard his great invention as the enemy. The automated answering-machine has become so dismayingly ubiquitous that it can only be a matter of time before you have to dial 1 to share some gossip with Auntie Joan, dial 2 to have a slightly forced conversation with Uncle Ronald, dial 3 to ask cousin Jasper how his A levels went, or dial 4 to tell cousin Jennifer that you saw her on Antiques Roadshow. And the chances are that if you don't get an automated answer, you'll get one from a call-centre in Mumbai and Jaipur, where the operatives are now told to adopt English names, doubtless in a bid to win over those who would greatly prefer their problem with British Telecom, for instance, to be dealt with in, let's say, Basingstoke, Guildford or Winchester.

I can't honestly claim to suffer from this aversity to Indian call-centres. On the contrary, you know that your queries will be dealt with politely, which doesn't always happen when you are routed only as far as Daventry or Durham. But it is still the damnedest thing to find yourself talking to a heavily accented Bernard, or Rupert, or Sally, and it can be frustrating when the language barrier becomes insurmountable, as it did the other day when I called 118118 for the number for publishers called Sphere, and spelt it out slowly, only to be texted the number for publishers called Spear.

As so often in circumstances like that, I found my thoughts turning to my late father, who died in 1976. If he were magicked back into my life, where would I begin to explain the workings of a world that would look so familiar to him, and yet would be so overwhelmingly alien? As it happens, my dad died on a train. These days, he'd never have made it beyond the ticket hall.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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