Rowan Pelling: Ring me if you must. But don't expect stiff upper lipgloss

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The Independent Online

It wasn't until I worked from home that I realised quite how ceaselessly my phone line was being bombarded by aggressive strangers trying to sell me the kinds of products that come lower down my list of purchasing priorities than a Peter Andre tea towel.

It wasn't until I worked from home that I realised quite how ceaselessly my phone line was being bombarded by aggressive strangers trying to sell me the kinds of products that come lower down my list of purchasing priorities than a Peter Andre tea towel.

While writing this article, I have fielded five unwanted phone calls: two touting cheaper phone "service providers", one selling discount bathrooms, another life insurance, one a taped message saying slowly with a weird transatlantic drawl, as though they had swallowed a vat of diazepam and gargled with Loyd Grossman, "Con-grat-uuuul-ations! You have won a prize in our prize draw!" Yes? And my elderly neighbour Gladys manufactures the Elixir of Life in her garden shed.

I can't take it any more - and neither, it seems, can anyone else. Cold-call merchants, perilous commuting, punishing working hours and petty bureaucracy have finally contrived to bash one noble British construct that both the Blitz and the IRA left famously undented.

The stresses of modern living, according to research unveiled this week, have pummelled the British stiff upper lip to the point where we are all becoming volatile Basil Fawltys. Ninety-two per cent of the 1,000 people questioned by advertising firm Publicis were now willing to say exactly what they thought - so stuff that in your pipe and choke on it, you cretinous little rat-fink - rather than hiding their irritation under a mask of good manners, while 70 per cent said that they are now more likely to argue just for the sake of it, and 44 per cent actively enjoyed their rant.

The fine line between the traditional British characteristics of restraint and insanity has been eroded and we are wallowing in our impotent rage. On reflection, it's apt that Gandhi's idea of peaceful protest against British imperialism has reached its acme in the shape of the Indian call centre - the rude vitality of a developing economy showing up the decline of an overdeveloped one. No wonder we Brits are barking at the moon.

Just last week, at Cambridge station, I found myself behaving like a little old mad lady left over from the last days of the Raj. I missed my train because the ticket machines were malfunctioning. I then had to queue for 10 minutes at the ticket office and asked whether they knew that the machines weren't working, "Oh yes, they've been like that since yesterday." "So why don't you put an 'out of order' notice on them? Do you enjoy watching people waste their time?" "I can't leave my position," said the man self-righteously, as if he were manning a machine-gun post on the Somme.

Then I nearly missed the next train because the tills were out of change and short-staffed at the station's M&S food store. As I went to make my purchase, the male sales assistant said, "How are you today?" Before I could repress the thought, I found myself saying, "Is that a genuine inquiry after my wellbeing or a ludicrous customer services dictate from on high? And how would you feel if I answered, 'I've got a brain tumour and the doctors say I'll be dead in a week'?" Then I noticed that there was a huge queue of fuming people preparing to duff me up in their own turn.

Despite this, I found my new belligerence hugely cathartic. I just wished I'd adopted this tactic earlier. Take the woman in the Peterborough passports office who declined to accept our respected neighbour's signature on documents vouchsafing that our baby boy was indeed our progeny on the grounds that she'd never heard of the profession of "copy writer". She added with sour glee that it would be impossible to make a fresh appointment within the week. "But we'll miss our holiday." "That's your problem."

That same afternoon another official, of human rather than reptilian extraction, swiftly arranged the documentation for us. But how much happier the ending to that story would have been had I emptied my son's potty on to the sourpuss's neat coiffure. Now I await cold-callers with the same malevolent anticipation shown by a dachshund lurking in the shrubbery. Ring ring. "You have exactly 20 seconds to state your business. If I suspect you are using a script, I will immediately terminate this call. I reserve the right to tell you why I like leaky, old sash windows."

This week there is the additional pleasure of wrong-footing political canvassers: I ask them whether they'd like to come in and kiss my baby - then change his nappy, bath him and put him to bed, while I nip down the pub.

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