No sooner had Mayor Boris invited Londoners to report protracted roadworks on a new online site than the most enormous hole appeared at the top of our road. It was a classic: hedged about with a myriad of cones, equipped with an extra-large traffic light (mostly at red), and adorned with a cheery notice to the effect that old metal pipes (boo!) were being replaced with new plastic ones (hooray!), so we should all be jolly pleased.
A week later, the hole is still there, occupying two, often three, lanes of this strategic junction, spawning queues in three directions. Now and again, the brief green light is overridden by a strange dance of what used to be called "tip-up lorries". The fear dawns: if so much earth is being removed, this does not bode well for in-filling very soon.
But a week, you might reasonably object, is a mere twinkling of an eye, in roadworks terms. There is worse, much worse, as indeed there is. On my two-mile route to and from work, there are now three significant obstructions. The one I have described; a semi-permanent construction occupying two whole lanes (of four), with a bridge-like edifice over the top. And the pièce de resistance, a vast white metal structure a good four storeys high, which has more lanes for more cars – presumably for the contractors – than are left for the traffic that actually needs to move.
Oh yes, and how could I forget? When the Candy Brothers' monstrosity at One Hyde Park was finally complete, the brief reversion to two eastward lanes through Knightsbridge was curtailed by a pesky little outcrop of cones at a point (close to junction and traffic lights) where it could cause maximum disruption. Nicely positioned, too, to afford everyone stuck in the inevitable jam a grandstand view of the sports car rotating slowly in the adjacent showroom, it's been there going on six weeks now, with no trace of work of any kind.
I imagine whoever put it there argued that it was too small to count as occupying a lane. But that's like the little-bit-pregnant argument. If your cones prevent two buses passing, you are occupying a lane. Basta!
What unites some of the most egregious offenders is that they are not utilities (arguably working for "us"), but commercial developers. Why should those building a vast new office complex, for instance, have the right to block three lanes of road and a pavement? They have acres of their own space – the site they have now razed to the ground. Are they paying? Who benefits? And how long do they intend to stay?
Observation suggests that lane-charging for roadworks – introduced a year ago – has made little difference. And how could it, when wheelbarrows and spades are the tools of trade, rather than the natty motorised kit you see on the Continent? If the contractors are being charged, it's clearly nothing like enough to convince them to speed up and get the rest of us moving.
Oh no, it's not that man again!
Surfing the television stations on Sunday evening, I was detained by a programme that asked the sort of questions about language usually confined to specialists. I came in on a discussion about whether language is innate or learnt, illustrated by the celebrated case of a "feral" child. There followed a short excursion into the Brothers Grimm (as linguists rather than authors of fairy tales); a diagram showing consonant shifts branching off a Common Indo-European root; a debate about sign language and whether it was a language at all with national distinctions (answer: Yes), and the merest flick of a sequence marvelling at the skill of a simultaneous interpreter. By then more than half an hour had passed, and I learnt that next week's programme would consider whether all languages were essentially one – which is about where my university linguistics course, dominated in those years by structuralism, had begun.
And this brings me to an admission. It was a while before I realised that the presenter of this riveting programme was Stephen Fry, and that for this reason I had intended to avoid it. Not only is Fry ubiquitous, but he personifies the trend for TV to hire celebrity presenters to pull in the punters. In this case, the celeb factor had had the opposite effect: of – quite wrongly – damning Planet Word in my eyes even before it had begun. And I bet I wasn't the only one.
Stop whingeing about fees for using foreign ATMs
It was years ago, but I vividly remember a family holiday in southern Italy where whole mornings seemed to be spent waiting around in dour branches of the Banco di Napoli while we completed the obstacle course required to change sterling traveller's cheques into lire. This, and days spent in Moscow trying to extract roubles from the one Soviet bank authorised to hold foreigners' accounts, may explain why I have scant sympathy for those who whinge about charges for using a cash machine abroad.
The same pseudo-grievance featured in one of the most infuriating television adverts ever: Mark (Little Britain) Benton's "nasty banker" justifying such charges to a woman who shrieks, "but it's my money", before fleeing into the supposedly more generous arms of Nationwide.
Anyway, the issue has just been given new impetus by a super-complaint lodged with the Office of Fair Trading. And while I'm as opposed to obfuscation as anyone, I still can't drum up much sympathy. If you can afford to go abroad, you can probably afford a modicum for the exchange service – and it is a service. It's not like taking your money out of a UK bank. Whenever I put my card into a French cash machine and it coughs up euros, or – still more – when that same card yields dinars in Turkey or roubles in Russia, I feel like kissing the ground in thanks.