I nearly called 999 the other day. Getting up early to pick my wife up from the airport, I noticed two central-casting ne'er-do-wells shuffling along the road apparently testing car door handles, while looking about them in much the way you would do if you were playing charades and had drawn the word "furtive".
It was, I have to admit, quite amusing to watch, since their attempts at inconspicuous sauntering were undermined by the fact that one of them was wearing a bright yellow shirt and a pair of enormous shin-length scarlet shorts. He looked like a children's entertainer who'd fallen on hard times and been reduced to vehicle theft to make ends meet. Then I remembered the last time I'd found one of my quarterlights in a drift of diamonds and decided that I should probably call the police.
But my fingers hesitated over the keypad before I dialled 999. One reason was a kind of semantic dithering. Did this really qualify as an "Emergency"? No person was at risk and I couldn't work myself up to feel that the contents of a parcel shelf justified a screaming siren and flashing blue lights. I also suffered a little spasm of archetypally liberal doubt. The men involved were powerfully reminiscent of The Fast Show's Crafty Cockney – the one who would blithely confess that he was "a little bit werrr, a little bit weyyy" before making off with your wallet.
But did their appearance really justify setting the police on them? My hesitation was amplified by the fact that, just a few days before, I'd seen the videos posted on YouTube by Avon and Somerset police to demonstrate the absurdity of some of the 999 calls they receive. Some members of the public clearly don't suffer from the doubts I experienced. One man, oozing outrage, turns out to be complaining about the quality of his supper: "My wife left me two salmon sandwiches which was left over from last night and I'm sat in a chair here and she went off decorating."
One woman, voice quivering with a sense of public service, asks the operator to tell animal rescue that she's found a squirrel with no hazelnut trees nearby. Do you really think that's a 999 matter, the operator asks. "Well, yes because its life is in danger... it's a grey squirrel..it's a rare species".
With those cautionary examples in mind I decided I'd better take the long way round. After a bit of fruitless searching through old telephone books, I found the number of my local police station and called them direct.
As it happened, my wife had an instructive tale about how they deal with such matters in Manhattan. One of her colleagues, arriving for a Friday meeting, came prepared for the midday exodus to the Hamptons. Unfortunately, she left her weekend bag in the cab. She braced herself for the apparently impossible task of tracking down an unknown cab firm. And then she was reminded that she could ring 311, the city's non-emergency inquiry service. Within 20 minutes she was talking to the cabbie and arranging a drop-off time, his vehicle having been identified with the help of his firm's GPS tracking system.
Apparently 311 covers everything – moans about transport, complaints about litter and, no doubt, anxieties about the vermin in Central Park.
What number should I ring, I wonder, to ask it to be set up here?
Is there nothing Dr Who can't sell?
There seems no limit to the Doctor Who effect. Freema Agyeman hosts a sell-out Proms concert which has tickets trading at huge mark-ups on eBay. Meanwhile, the RSC is obliged to bring in a "no Dr Who memorabilia" clause to limit the autograph-hunters mobbing the stage door for David Tennant. Then again, selling tickets for The Planets Suite and Hamlet isn't that much of a challenge. Perhaps this unstoppable force should now be employed on some of the less moveable objects of high culture.
What about Luigi Nono's Intolleranza, for example – a piece which loosely strings together a series of scenes illustrating aspects of intolerance and human brutality with an unremittingly atonal score. Fans of this work are not exactly glutted with opportunities to see it performed live – but on current form all you'd need to do to sell out the house is cast an unusually mellifluous Dalek in the lead role.
And perhaps Billie Piper could be persuaded to lend her famously luscious lips to a new performance of Beckett's Not I – a 20-minute monologue of inner torment performed by a disembodied mouth at a breakneck speed. I'd be impressed to see queues for that.
* The withdrawal of a passport isn't something to be recommended lightly – this being a sanction popular with totalitarian governments. It's possible that it isn't even something that would be easily achievable, given that freedom of movement is part of the European Convention on Human Rights.
But the weekend's various stories about British tourists doing their best to confirm our Continental reputation for licentiousness, obscenity and affray can't help but make you wonder whether some kind of travel restriction wouldn't be fitting for less-inhibited holidaymakers.
In the cursive script inside the front cover, Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests foreign authorities to allow the bearer "to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary". I don't think this was intended to cover standing aside as the bearer simulates oral sex for his friend's mobile camera but staying on hand to ensure that the bearer doesn't choke on his own vomit.
Perhaps an extra clause could be added to the Caution in Note No. 6, informing passport holders that their passport "may be withdrawn at any time". "Behave like a pig", it would read, "and you'll be holidaying in Britain next year".