Nick Lezard: Who will ring the bell now to engage in pointless banter?

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It is with great sadness that I learn of British Gas's decision to abandon its practice of trying to sell its gas to customers by sending people out to ring on their doorbells.

This follows a similar decision from Scottish and Southern Energy. I am old enough to remember rag-and-bone men with horse and cart, French onion-sellers on bicycles, and knife-sharpeners. And now another aspect of the personal urban touch bites the dust. How one will miss those delightful exchanges which brought such welcome relief during those long hours spent alone in the house.

"Good morning/afternoon sir. Are you responsible for electricity bills in your household?"

"Er ... er ..." (This translates roughly as: "Well, ultimately, I pay for most of the stuff round here, because I make most of the money, but I am rather hopeless at organising this kind of thing, so the wife really takes care of that. Also, it is 11 o'clock in the morning and I am not really at my best until about three in the afternoon.")

"Have you considered changing your gas and/or electricity supplier?"

"Er ... er ..." (This translates roughly as: "Ever since gas companies started delivering electricity and electricity companies started supplying gas, I feel as though events have long since overtaken my comprehension of them, so feel somewhat ill-equipped to take part in any meaningful conversation about this kind of thing. And frankly, I don't think it'll be much better at three in the afternoon, either.")

"Did you know that you can make considerable savings by switching from [interchangeable Company A] to [interchangeable Company B]?"

"Er ..." (Translation: "I am beginning to smell a rat here, and may I say that I don't like the look of that tie.")

"Do you know which company supplies your gas/electricity/whatever?"

"Haven't the foggiest, pal."

(I always like this part of the conversation, if conversation it can be called. My favourite bit is when my interlocutor pinches the bridge of his nose, as if to marvel that someone so clueless could actually earn enough money to buy a box of matches, let alone enough gas or electricity to boil a pan of water.)

And then they say they'll come back later, and they never really do, or if they do I just stare blankly at them and drool a bit, and I pity them their cheap suits, their dreadful jobs, their confused and confusable customers.

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