Mark Steel: Press four if you want to register your abusive opinion

'This passport gets me into war zones, but it's not enough to get my cash out of a bank in south London'
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The Independent Online

The art of businesses stopping anyone having anything has moved on to a new level. I thought the masters were car hire companies, who begin by asking, reasonably enough, for a driving license. Then, after you've filled in 11 huge forms, they ask for bills in your name and a birth certificate – until they get you eventually by asking for something like a swan with your name and address on. Then they make out they're being helpful, saying: "We'd accept it if you had a friend who could bring in their swan."

But what about this from the Abbey National? The cashpoint machine wasn't working, so I went to the local branch where I was told I couldn't take any money out without a passport.

"But you all know me," I said. "That's not the point," they insisted. Presumably, if you waited for a while at a branch of the Abbey National, you would hear a member of staff saying: "Sorry Mum, but that's the rules."

The following week I said that I wished to close the account. "You need another form of identification apart from your card," I was told. This time I was prepared and produced a passport. "That's not enough," said the manager. Now I was starting to admire her. "But this can get me in and out of war zones," I said. "I'm afraid it's not enough," she repeated.

I was getting into it by now, and countered: "This passport can get me into Macedonia but it's not sufficient to take out my own money from a bank in south London. That makes you more security conscious than a government under siege from armed rebels."

"Are you talking to me or are you performing to the rest of the queue?" she said.

But someone should perform the implications of this to the queue. For example, it's lucky that the Abbey National didn't have a branch in Casablanca or the film wouldn't have worked. Ingrid Bergman would have got the passports to enable them to escape from the Nazis, but she would still not have been able to get any money out to pay the drinks bill. So the film would have ended with a clerk saying: "It might be good enough for Hitler, darling, but I need a water bill with your name and address on."

It so happened that all this took place on a Thursday, so, reluctantly (I promise), I showed her a copy of that day's Independent with that little picture above my name. "That won't do," she said without missing a beat. "It hasn't got your signature on." And she's got a point. Because without the columnists' signatures, it is possible that this entire newspaper is published as an elaborate plot to fiddle banks 50 quid at a time.

That isn't really Michael Brown in that photo, he's actually a 19-year-old covered in nose-studs. And Natasha Walter is a Rastafarian with a glass eye. But as a result of this cunning ruse, the people in the pictures can breeze through Britain claiming to be people they're not and setting up false bank accounts. Until now, that is, as we've all been suddenly rumbled.

But all this was a mere prelude to the Indiana Jones-worthy task of trying to pay the phone bill, a route through automated voices that lasts 15 minutes, without ever an option to speak to a human.

In fact, all the options are exasperatingly vague, things like: "Press one if your query, if it were a colour, would be blue. If it is circular in its thought process, press two. If, philosophically speaking, it's a European inquiry, press three."

At the end of the 15 minutes a voice says: "Thank you for informing us that you are going to pay your bill." And then you're cut off. Like I was ringing up just for a chat. Why don't they at least do another bit that says: "I'm a bit tired but I've got a mate who's the automated voice for Connex South Central so I suppose that I shouldn't grumble. Anyway, I can't sit here all day, can I? Bye."

Maybe it's a cruel experiment, with scientists at the other end measuring people crying, screaming and gouging out chunks from their own arms with a potato peeler.

BT must be aware of how maddening this is, but their answer will probably be to include an extra set of options – "If you want to start yelling abuse, press seven." Then it will continue: "If you wish to register an opinion of us as 'idiots', press one; if you think we are 'evil sods' press two; and for 'greedy bastards', press three."

Finally, to ensure a rage that would leave St Francis of Assisi systematically smashing the phone with an ironing board, they blast songs at you, like a Burt Bacharach version of "Strangers in the Night", which you have to listen to in case you miss the next set of options and have to start all over again. There can't even be an economic justification for that, it's just sadism.

So I'd like to suggest at least they play something special, a song for Eminem that would go: "Unless you press two, guess who will depress you with my questions, deceptions, useless suggestions, screwing up your digestion, then cut you off so you never get connection with reception."