I am not a human being, I am a number

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The Independent Online

As usual, when I got home last night I rang my BT Call Minder service to see if I had any messages. Instead of the usual cool, calm computer voice welcoming me to the service, alerting me to my seven new messages and three saved ones and telling me to press 1 if I wanted to hear them, I got a bit of a shock.

As usual, when I got home last night I rang my BT Call Minder service to see if I had any messages. Instead of the usual cool, calm computer voice welcoming me to the service, alerting me to my seven new messages and three saved ones and telling me to press 1 if I wanted to hear them, I got a bit of a shock.

"Welcome to the new Call Minder service," said a voice in which I could distinctly trace exasperation verging on contempt. Not a word about my messages. The new voice told me, in the way a teacher explains the laws of thermodynamics to a halfwit, that henceforth all London telephone numbers and various regional numbers would be changed...

"Listen," I interrupted, forgetting I was talking to a computer. "I haven't been lying comatose in a flotation tank for the last six months. I have taken heed of BT's £20m advertising campaign explaining the new numbers to their customers, so please pipe down and give me my messages."

No such luck. Call Minder was now patiently spelling out the new telephone numbers digit by digit, not just once, but twice. Just as I was despairing of ever getting a message count, my usual voice chipped in to tell me soothingly that I had one new message. It was from a friend in Wandsworth saying that she had just spent half an hour talking to the BT helpline about the new phone numbers but she still didn't understand.

Has everyone gone stark raving mad or am I, as I have often suspected, the only sane person on the planet? All they have done is to stick an extra digit on the front of London phone numbers. In my case it's seven, in my Wandsworth friend's case it is eight. Big deal. "Ah, but it isn't just the eight I have to remember," she wailed pathetically. It's the new London prefix that has changed too. And anyway, why should we be lumbered and have to remember eight digits?"

Because remembering numbers is fun, or at least I've always thought so. I've always loved numbers, ever since as a child my godfather wrote down the following rhyme. It only works if you do it numerically. "Wun-wun was a race horse, Tu-Tu was one too - Wun-wun won one race and Tu-Tu won one too."

Having a photographic memory helps, but it has its disadvantages too. My mind is clogged with irrelevant numbers I just cannot forget. My home phone number when I was five, the registration number of my first boyfriend's Ford Popular, how many steps there are to the top of the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay...

The reason I'm sure I forget important numbers like the date the children go back to school is that my mind is clogged with obsolete numbers. What it needs is the equivalent of that computer button that clears the screen, leaving me space for the important numbers - the serial number of the fridge, for one.

You don't think that's important? Try getting a replacement light without it. "But where is the serial number of the fridge?" I wailed to the girl on the phone. "In the panel at the back of the egg tray," she said. "But there are seven lines of numbers on the panel behind the egg tray," I said. "It's the one beginning ZBQ/5K," she said.

Considering the length of the numbers you have to remember these days - the roll number of my mortgage has 22 digits, six slashes, three hyphens and a bracket - it's curious how little information Big Brother requires to suss a citizen out. "What's your postcode, please?" asks the girl from Thames Water. You have rung to complain about the brown dribble coming from the cold tap. You tell her. At a stroke she knows not only your full name, address and bank account number, she also knows your mother's maiden name.

Any minute now they'll ban Christian names and, like the army, just call us by numbers. I'll be seven; at least that way I'll remember my phone number.

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