If I had put to more constructive use all the hours I have spent in my life filling in forms, I could have learnt Cantonese or walked the Appalachian trail. In the last few months, I have applied for a new passport and completed my last will and testament – two documents not unrelated in the precarious new world of international travel – and the effort has been immense, so you can imagine how I girded my loins when Jane and I decided that we really ought to take advantage of falling interest rates by remortgaging our house.
"The forms, the forms!" I wailed, in the manner of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But a few days later, Jane, the Esmeralda to my Quasimodo, patted my metaphorical hump and assured me that all would be well. She had found a company called Hanley Mortgages, based near Malvern and run by a couple called Richard and Tracey Turner, who, for a flat fee of £199, would not only find the best deal for us but would also make all the necessary phone calls and – could this really be true? – shoulder the terrible form-filling burden.
The Turners duly found us a deal that will save us several hundred pounds a month, and although I'd never heard of Reykjavik Consolidated, I'm sure our home will be safe in their hands. (That's a cheap joke, by the way.) In fact, the Abbey National is favourite to land our highly lucrative business, with me scarcely having put pen to paper. I still haven't met or even talked to Richard and Tracey – Jane has done all the communicating – but I feel the same affection for them as I do for my dearest friends. I would write them into my will, perhaps even leaving them my valuable collection of 1970s football annuals, if it didn't require the completion of another bloody form.
What is so awful, some readers might wonder, about form-filling? Where do I start? Firstly, there's the anxiety of not knowing whether you have abided by the rules – be it the black-ink rule, the block-capital rule, or the rule insisting that, for scanning purposes, you contain your signature entirely within a box the size of a baby's thumbnail – followed by the horror of discovering, when the forms are returned a week later, that you got all those things right but omitted to initial page eight.
Secondly, there's the challenge of having to attach your birth certificate when all you can find in the drawer where you keep vital documents is your 1972 cycling-proficiency test certificate. And if you happen to be filling in these forms with your spouse, then the tension intensifies because domestic politics come inexorably into play.
For example, the last time Jane and I confronted a set of forms, her pen paused over the box marked occupation. Jane feeds, ferries, and in some cases mucks out, a husband, three children, two dogs, a cat, seven chickens, two turtles, a goldfish and assorted holiday-cottage guests, so I could understand her hesitation. The word "housewife" seems inadequate, while "home-maker" is just too damned American, and "wife and mother" unfairly defines her in terms of other people. "What are you going to write?" I asked. "I don't know," she said. "I was thinking of 'house elf and sex slave'."
Those of you familiar with the Harry Potter books will understand the "house elf" reference. A house elf, as embodied by a sad little character called Dobby, is a domestic drudge, and since I was 67 per cent sure that Jane was joking, I decided to risk a conversational tangent, raising J K Rowling's impact on popular culture, which led me to Daniel Radcliffe's recent turn on the West End stage in Equus.
Radcliffe plays Harry in the films, of course, and if you've seen this story in print before, I apologise. But in my view it cannot be printed too often. It concerns an eminent writer who, halfway back in the dress circle shortly before a performance of Equus, was pleased to observe that the audience seemed to comprise intelligent, theatre-going types who were plainly there to appreciate Peter Shaffer's celebrated play, not to see Harry Potter naked. But just as the lights went down, three teenage girls settled into the row behind, and one loudly complained: "How are we going to see his todger from here?"
I hope they filled in a complaint form, in triplicate.Reuse content