Christina Patterson: The night a thief stole more than just a handbag

I’ve pressed more numbers, in more ‘menus’, than a code breaker at Bletchley
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The Independent Online

To the person who nicked my handbag from the Archduke Wine Bar last Thursday night, here's what happened next. Frantic phone calls, of course, on borrowed mobile phone, to police and bank and directory enquiries, for anyone who might know the one person in the world who has my spare keys.

They, it turns out, are all ex-directory, and their mobile numbers, along with all my other mobile numbers, and a lifetime's contacts (not backed up) are in both my mobile phones, which, along with my purse, my money, my driving licence, my security pass, my Oyster card, all my membership cards, my credit card, my debit card, my notebook with notes for future articles, my tape recorder, with the interview I've just done, my dongle for my laptop, my house keys, my bike keys, and (perhaps worst of all) my make-up, I have now lost.

Luckily, the door to my block of flats has not been properly shut, so I can make it to the hallway, make it to my doorway and gaze, for the next three hours, at the number on my door. Which, by the way, is five. My dinner companion, who has felt obliged to accompany me home, gazes at it with me. His mobile is now flat, and the emergency locksmiths will not come without a mobile number, so, at midnight, I disturb a neighbour (whose name I barely know) and ask to borrow his.

Two hours later, the locksmith comes, and starts to drill. And drill. And drill. It's the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and neighbours are emerging wide-eyed in Y-fronts, but that door isn't giving way; that door is Fort Knox. The drill parts are blunt and the battery runs out, but finally, blessedly, after more than an hour, the door is open. It's wrecked, with a giant hole, not covered by the metal thing he has told me to stick on, and it costs my companion (no, they won't take a cheque, or a bank transfer, or a day's delay) £400, on top of dinner. And all, Mr or Mrs Archduke Thief, for 40 quid.

This, however, is nothing to the week I've had in customer services hell. I've pressed more numbers, in more "menus", than a code breaker at Bletchley Park. I've heard more Muzak than a lift attendant. I've had my name repeated (in a range of international accents) more times than the most ardent lover. And I've got practically nowhere.

"Welcome to Virgin Media!" said a perky voice yesterday. "So we can help you faster, please enter your phone number, including your area code." Faster? You're 'avin' a larf. After a succession of recorded perky teenagers, one saying "hi there!" and another saying something about a match in Ukraine not being available on my telly (my telly? my telly was the one thing that wasn't nicked!), I was then invited to select "the following options". There wasn't an option for "if you're feeling near-suicidal because you've spent all week trying to speak to a human being, which doesn't appear to be possible", so instead, after descending into the first five circles of Dante's hell, I was put through to a person in what I assumed, from the crackly line, to be a shed in Siberia, but was, apparently, Johannesburg. After lots of shouting (neither of us could hear a word the other said) and 10 minutes of crackly pop music, I was put through to a woman in Wiltshire. After five more minutes of fighting the Wiltshire-via-Jo'burg crackle, she heroically called me back. All she needed was the number of my credit card. Which, of course, I didn't have.

In the middle of all this, I got an email saying "It's National Customer Service Week". Did I want to speak to someone called Derek Williams for "comments"? Well, I don't mind, to be honest. I've spoken to practically everyone else, and at least he's got a name. But the real question is, would Derek Williams want to speak to me?

At the moment, I doubt it. Because "customer service", it seems to me, is one of the greatest blights on our nation. In fact, it was precisely at the moment that people doing the stuff of ordinary life – having a phone, electricity, gas, internet, a bank account – started being called "customers" that the rot set in. If the customer was ever (in a quaint, haberdashery shop kind of way) king, he or she is now more like the beaten, bruised, begging partner in an abusive relationship, pathetically grateful for any crumb of human contact thrown their way.

Whoever decided that the best way to treat a loyal "customer" was to lob them a phone number (which is always "experiencing an exceptionally high call volume"), submit them to a series of numerical tests, designed to catch them out and, ideally, lose them, ensure that, between protracted bursts of tinny music, they speak to five people, none of whom is able to help them, and then put them through to someone in India, or Johannesburg, who has been taught a bit about British soap opera and David Beckham, but whose understanding of your culture, and problem, is otherwise a tiny bit vague, and ensure that they can't do anything at all), apart from what's in the script in front of them, really should be slowly tortured and then shot. Or perhaps they should just have dinner at the Archduke.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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