My 96-year-old mother is in a care home in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. As you read this, I'll probably be on my weekly train journey from London to visit her, as usual torn between dread and guilt. Why don't I make time to see her more often? How can I be walking around and enjoying myself while she's stuck away there?
Though deprived of mobility and short-term memory, she is healthy and reasonably happy, and the home could not be more comfortable or caring. The only problem – as Basil Fawlty would understand – is the residents. Most of them, at least in my mother's wing, are female, suffering the dementia she has been spared. They have no idea why they're there, and are perpetually waiting for husbands or children to come and collect them. The kindest carers cannot subdue those constant piteous cries of "I want to go home".
In the day room where I sit with my mother, a mechanical electric organ plays Christmas carols and a giant plasma TV shows bright scenes of cookery or holidays. The other week, when she'd nodded off, I was desultorily watching the staff at an Australian zoo trying to propel an angry crocodile into a cage. Suddenly, I realised the melodramatic Aussie shrieks on screen were augmented by real ones from a nearby armchair.
Before my mother arrived here, she spent several months in the Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Huntingdon, receiving NHS care that I cannot praise too highly. The ward was always spotlessly clean; for much of the time, she had a private room; and one day, the nurses even found time to do her hair and doll her up in a frilly pink nightdress.
Without this centre of true excellence, the nearest hospital for Huntingdon's large rural hinterland would be in distant Cambridge or Bedford. And – can't you guess? – it was recently threatened with closure. The threat has receded but for how long, who knows?
Ah, the old days of howlers in Huntingdon
Huntingdon was the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell and the town where I began my journalistic career on the weekly Hunts Post, serving the then self-contained county of Huntingdonshire.
In my first week, I was sent to a local care home (not the one where my mother is now) to interview a woman who'd reached the age of 92 – big news to the Hunts Post. After I handed in my copy, the editor, a moody Suffolk man named F J Johnson, came up to me and growled, "Do you spell your first name with one L or two?"
"Why did Mr Johnson want to know that?" I innocently asked an older colleague. "He probably wants to give you a byline," the colleague replied. To see my name in print that next Thursday was to mainline a drug more potent than heroin. And I have to confess I'm still hooked.
Those were days before sending obscene newspaper misprints to Private Eye became a national sport. When in Hunts Post football reports, the O in shot was replaced by an I, or when in lists of wedding gifts the second l was omitted from electric clock, everyone simply pretended it hadn't happened.
The very worst example occurred in the column of Huntingdon news paragraphs I had to compile as office junior. It concerned a female youth club organiser named Molly from Kettering, Northants, who had spent a week working in Huntingdon on an exchange scheme sponsored by the town council.
The piece I wrote ended: "On Friday, Molly gave a lunch, at the conclusion of which she thanked all the Borough Councillors who had supported the exchange scheme." But when it appeared, the "th" had somehow turned into a W.
As usual, nobody said a word.
Where do they find all these voice robots?
People are always complaining about the "robotic" recorded voices that assail us at every turn, telling us what we already know ("This vehicle is reversing"), professing concern for our safety and well-being ("Customers are advised not to run and to take care everywhere on the station"), or trying to soft-soap us when services fail ("Thank you for your patience and understanding").
The worst of these robots for me are the ones meant to sound like real people interacting personally with each of their usually unwilling, frustrated listeners. Breathy female voices lend an almost sexual frisson to saying that your call may be recorded "for quality and training purposes", or that the next stop for this bus is Belsize Park.
Patient young male voices seem to understand the mental demands of booking a cinema seat by credit card, and punctuate each stage of the process with an encouraging "OK!".
I wonder whether people actually audition for these robot roles, training for weeks to bring out every last quivering nuance in "Hello – and welcome to Barclaycard!". Maybe some director will find the next Scarlett O'Hara on the King's Cross Tannoy.
At my local Tube station, the female voice in the lift has an intonation that I thought only one woman in Britain possessed. The majestic disinterest of its "Stand clear, doors closing" almost demands a curtsy or a limp handshake. I knew the Queen was under pressure to be more accessible, but surely...