Paul Vallely: Will no one rid me of these knaves?

Share

There are dark forces out there, trying to get me. This is not paranoia. Well, perhaps it is, but - as those plaques people buy in sea-front arcades to take back to jolly up their offices remind us - just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. I got another threatening letter, you see, yesterday morning.

There are dark forces out there, trying to get me. This is not paranoia. Well, perhaps it is, but - as those plaques people buy in sea-front arcades to take back to jolly up their offices remind us - just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. I got another threatening letter, you see, yesterday morning.

By which I don't mean the kind of thing you get from the underlined capital letters brigade promising eternal damnation whenever you write anything vaguely sensible about religion. Nor do I mean the spittle-flecked communications which come from so-called animal lovers if you have the temerity to suggest that the needs of our furry friends should come second to those of people. No I'm talking about something much more Kafkaesque.

It was from someone called Commercial Credit Services, threatening legal proceedings over a bill for a defunct phoneline, plus court fees, solicitors' costs and statutory interest. It was the word statutory which added the sinister touch.

I phoned BT. The bill had been paid three weeks before so what was all this about? "There is no record of the bill having been paid," the BT woman said. But the cheque was sent along with two others for other BT lines and these payments had been registered. "Well, there is no record of the bill having been paid," the BT woman said in a tone suggestingshe was hoping to audition for the job of Speaking Clock next time it became vacant.

It took about half a dozen phone calls before a man at the debt collectors agreed there had been a mistake. He would, he suggested, "launch an investigation" and assured me that I was not to be included on any blacklist passed to other "credit referral agencies" - a weasel term if ever I heard one.

What was striking about all this - apart from the amount of time it wasted - was the blind faith people have in the infallibility of the computer to which they are chained. It is the new enslavement of our time. "Postcode?" asked the girl at the check-out in PC World. Why do you need my postcode, I asked, when all I am doing is buying a £4.99 printer cable. "The computer needs it," she said.

I had heard the same phrase only a few days before. At Comet in Altrincham, a part of the world to which feminism is evidently a late arrival, I overheard a woman objecting to being asked whether she was a Miss or Mrs. "Why do you want to know whether I am married?" she inquired of the spotty young manager. "Wot?" he said, uncomprehending. The exchange continued for some time - there is apparently no room for Ms on the Comet pro-forma - before he came up with the clincher: "The computer needs it."

This is not all. A few weeks ago I had my Visa card snaffled by the attendant at a petrol station. "The computer says I've got to retain it," he told me and the rest of the queue. Requests that we phone the credit card company were to no avail. "The computer says I've got to retain it," he said. End of argument.

Of course the computers do not make the mistakes in the first place. (When I got home and phoned the Co-Op Bank Visa department I discovered that, when I had rung the day before to report my change of address, one of their computer operators had pressed the wrong button and put me down as a Lost Card.) But if the computer does not make the initial mistake it does endow it with an authority that is as unshakeable as it is bogus. I have had to blame the ensnared operatives. Originally I had written something rude here about computers themselves but just as I typed it my machine inexplicably crashed losing the original ending. So though apologies usually appear sometime after the original article, I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to my Dell for any upset or embarrassment caused. Send.

Mea culpa, as the smart-alec barrister said to a judge in Leeds Crown Court when reprimanded for using some Latin epigram. I should have known better than to tackle lawyers last time I occupied this space. I had retold a bar-room tale about a pompous judge and the young barrister representing a handler of stolen goods from Barnsley. "I trust," said the judge, "that your client is familiar with the principle: Nemo dat quod non habet." ("Indeed, m'lud," was the response. "In Barnsley they speak of little else."). My legal readers, focusing as is the legal wont on the irrelevant detail, have taken me to task over the classical tag Nemo dat quod non habet - the Latin for "you can't give what you don't own" - was not the phrase used in court, several correspondents tell me. The trouble is they all had different views on what it ought to have been.

One lawyer suggested the phrase originally used in the Barnsley put-down was Nemo me impune laccesit (no one provokes me with impunity). But that is the motto of the kings of Scotland rather than a legal principle. Res ipsa loquitur (the facts speak for themselves) suggested another, which I suppose is dull enough to be true. But the best offering is not the most likely. One veteran of the Vic (the pub behind the Crown Court) insisted that the infamous anti-Barnsley jibe was the Latin for: "The law does not concern itself with trifles". I was unconvinced, chiefly because the tag is otherwise known as the last line to a legal limerick:

There was a young lawyer called Rex

Who had minute organs of sex

When charged with exposure

He replied with composure

De minimis non curat lex

In Barnsley, one suspects, they may have put it somewhat differently.

I have been trying to renegotiate my relationship with magpies. For years I have nursed the notion that Britain needs a cull of them. When I was a boy they were a delightful rarity which conjured tales of magic and mischief. Now they dominate our gardens in their dozens with their evil cawing and gangster gait.

No one who has seen a magpie systematically work a hedgerow, plundering the nests of songbirds and eating their eggs, could possibly object to their eradication, I suggested to a chap from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds whom I met recently. Unfortunately there is no evidence that the decline of songbirds is linked to the growth in the magpie population, he told me. Can anyone else think of an acceptable reason for ridding us of these troublesome birds? Spittle-flecked animal lovers need not reply.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
Harvey Proctor's home was raided by the Met under a warrant investigating historical child sexual abuse  

Harvey Proctor: A gay sex ring in Westminster? I don't believe it

Harvey Proctor
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk