Mary Dejevsky: Why is useful information still so elusive?

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The Independent Online

In the tech world they are called "early adopters", and I am definitely not one of them – save in three respects. As a foreign correspondent through the late 1980s and 1990s, I and my tribe were at the leading edge of telecoms, as we advanced from tape-punching telexes to laptops with modems, then to wireless. Back then, you had to make the stuff work, even if it meant taking a screwdriver to the hotel phone socket. If you couldn't transmit your story, you might as well not have been there at all.

My second claim to early adoption is the dishwasher. We put one in the washing-machine space in our first flat, on the grounds that you could take clothes to the laundrette, but you couldn't do the same with the crockery. We were the first in the family to have one, and I remain amazed that they are still not standard in every new house or flat.

My third claim to pioneer status is internet grocery shopping. Based in the US in the 1990s, I watched in frustration the stuttering progress of Peapod.com, as it tried to develop an online grocery service. I couldn't wait for it to save me the car-trek to Freshfields and the cut-throat trolley-steering contest that awaited with the city's self-satisfied elite (and their nannies).

Alas, I had left Washington before Peapod arrived. Back in the UK, it was a joy to find that the main supermarkets had the whole operation already up and running. And, despite a few hit and miss experiences – a 30 per cent error rate with one company, and an occasion when we received half of our order and half of someone else's, including several jumbo cans of baked beans – it remains a minor pleasure, once you have compiled your initial list.

Which may be why it's so frustrating when your chosen supermarket tells you that it has "improved" its website "for your convenience". Oh yes? Earlier this week, I almost transferred my patronage, having spent an inordinate amount of time just trying to start shopping. Behind layers of new promotions, new groups and new lists, I could find neither goods nor my master list. I wonder if the person responsible for these "improvements" ever put himself – and I bet it's a himself – in the place of your actual shopper.

Mind you, online commerce is relatively simple: the company wants to show what is available, make it easy for you to buy it, then coax you to buy some more. But woe betide you, if what you want is basic information, especially if you want it from the public sector.

In the past week I have searched a certain hospital site in the hope of reading and contributing to patients' comments. I have looked for a list of cases to be heard at a certain magistrates' court (eventually finding a note saying that no such list exists, as the schedule is finalised too late). And I have searched in vain for phone numbers for press officers at government departments. You can find verbose mission statements galore and impenetrable accounts of how they organise their work, but the obvious information that a member of the public might expect to find is either deeply buried or just not there.

An old affair that penalises her, but not him

Oh dear, oh dear. So it's still one law for us and one law for them. Elizabeth Truss, one of those on David Cameron's contentious "A" list and currently a councillor in Greenwich, was selected to stand for the safe seat of South West Norfolk. Within days, however, the local party voted to hold a ballot on her de-selection. Because of an old affair she had not mentioned.

Now the fact of the affair is one thing – the unseemly details are on the internet. The far more salient point is that it takes two to have an affair, and the other party was a certain Mark Field, MP for the even cushier seat of the Cities of Westminster and London and a member of the Tory front bench at the time.

The affair, as Mr Field admits, cost him his marriage. What it did not cost him was his parliamentary seat. And, as one of his constituents, I'm pretty sure there was no talk of deselecting Mr Field, who is 10 years Ms Truss's senior and was her boss at the time of the liaison. Should South West Norfolk turn her down, maybe Mr Field could do the decent thing and vacate his seat in favour of his former mistress?

They're not all oligarchs

Well-meaning liberals (is there any other kind?) should perhaps skip to the last paragraph. Not all Russians living in London are the super-rich shopping variety. On a bus the other day, a trio of young-ish men, audibly the worse for wear (at 10am), were loudly extolling the delights of British prisons.

Muses one: "There's only two to a cell, and you have your own toilet... If you say something hurts, they give you tablets... They hand out methadone with no questions asked. There's no prisoner hierarchy and no bullying; they have cameras." "Does anyone watch the cameras?" interjects another. "Don't know," came back the reply. "So what if I steal something?" "No, you'd have to do something worse than that to get in."

At this point, the third one, who has his foot in plaster and a walking stick, suddenly realises that the bus had diverted from its route past St Thomas's hospital. They hobble off at the next stop in pursuit of, what I can only assume, will be some nice free treatment on the NHS.

Fortunately, for my own – by then fading – liberal sympathies, I was on my way to a hair salon, which is staffed by four or five fanatically diligent Russians, who have built up a devoted clientele in just a few years. The business has grown to incorporate a food shop, with a range of East European delicacies which is augmented each time I go. It is gratifying to find that, between oligarchs and would-be prisoners, there are many other Russians who are working hard and doing well.

A card for all seasons

I sometimes take a short cut through St James's Church, Piccadilly – taking care to close the doors very quietly.

Last week, though, I was horrified to discover that the charity Christmas card sale had already begun – a good month before the start of Advent. Such premature enterprise is bad enough in ordinary shops, but in churches, where the year is still divided into proper seasons, it seems completely out of order. The Royal Mail is apparently worried that the postal strikes could deter people from sending Christmas cards. Perhaps they will. To my mind, though, a far greater threat to the Christmas card habit is banality. Like hot cross buns, Christmas cards lose their charm when they are available more or less around the year.

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