Icouldn't help myself from making the call; though I knew it would end badly, I simply had to talk to someone. I say "someone" because the staff at my bank are anonymous to me, apart from one persistent chap who gives his name when he rings my mobile to hard-sell me an expensive personal loan. So I dialled the number, listened to the hard, bright fembot voice ask for my security codes, and was connected to a living customer service agent with a friendly, apologetic manner who introduced himself as Jamie.
There's been a mistake, I say. The bank has fined me £75 in unplanned overdraft charges for an oversight that lasted 24 hours. A single day! Tension creeps up my neck as Jamie reads his scripted responses. A black, blank chasm of corporate indifference opens up. So, that's it? You just take the money? There's nothing he can do, he says, gently. He's powerless to help. All I can do is write a letter to a PO Box address, and someone will reply within four weeks.
Well, any other poor sod who keeps their money with Lloyds TSB can guess what happened next; the coruscating letter of complaint pounded out that afternoon; the detached, junkmail-style reply telling me I'd soon get a proper reply; a week later, another computer-generated letter that concluded "the charge you refer to has been applied correctly in accordance with our published tariff"; in short, to borrow the catchphrase, computer says no.
I haven't given up, though, and like a minor crim I've now been assigned a "case handler", but since that person is anonymous to me, and will only communicate by letter, within eight weeks, I sense that there can only be one victor in this war of attrition. And it is not the customer.
Of course, the bank has the wretched 2009 Supreme Court ruling on unplanned overdraft charges on its side and I'll be lucky to get any money back. (Those charges are one of the banks' biggest revenue streams.) But I might be more sanguine if I felt my complaint had actually been read by a pair of human eyes. It's the cut-and-paste letters that really kill me.
When the Financial Services Authority this week severely criticised five high-street banks for their poor handling of complaints, they were referring to exactly this type of brazen indifference. Bigger and more monopolising than ever, with less reason to be competitive or treat customers well, bailed-out banks have all but given up on any notion of service. This week, Lloyds and RBS, the banks saved by taxpayers' cash in January 2009, both soared back into the black. If business is booming, there is no excuse for a deficit in customer service. While it's important for the slippery, mendacious ways of the investment banks to be scrutinised, it's also time to tackle the crimes being committed by their villainous younger brothers on the high street.
Some goals aren't worth attaining, Allison
Although the Independent shares a building with the Daily Mail, I've not always been convinced that the newspaper's columnists actually exist, so preternaturally negative is their world view. But now it appears that Allison Pearson, who inherited the serpent-tongued-broad slot from Lynda Lee-Potter, is very much a real person, and vulnerable to human frailties.
She has been suffering from depression, she wrote yesterday, and as such would have to give up writing her column. Mostly, it was a moving piece of writing, more sensitively put than the average Mail confessional, which described her struggle to simultaneously raise children, maintain a marriage, earn money, cope with bad health and care for ageing parents. Inevitably, though, Pearson described her illness as a generational malaise, one that particularly strikes women intent on "Having It All".
Does raising children and caring for ailing parents, as she puts it, make women "mad"? Perhaps no more than any other stressful set of circumstances. I think Pearson's perfectionism is more telling. She always wanted to be the "best kind of girl to be", she writes. This is a most dangerous desire. To want to be brilliant and beautiful in the eyes of others is an unattainable goal, and setting oneself such goals is perilous to mental health. Occasional laziness or lateness, not giving in to guilt, accepting that you look a bit rough in the morning, letting yourself go when it really doesn't matter – in small doses these are the medicines that keep us sane.
Service is a chef who doubles up as a waiter
Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant in which chef Rene Redzepi uses Scandinavian ingredients like cloudberries, musk ox and perch, has knocked El Bulli off the top spot of the San Pellegrino "Best Restaurants" list. I am desperate to go. Not in pursuit of new-found passion for smoked elk and lingonberry, but because I love any place where the chefs themselves bring the food to your table. A white linen napkin fluttered into your lap is lovely, and a detailed discussion with a friendly sommelier a treat, but the personal attention of the person who cooked your dinner is the ultimate dining pleasure.
Last year I went to a restaurant in Antwerp at which patrons sit at a marble-topped counter and are served whatever dish the chef-proprietor and his son want to make that day. There is no menu at Gin Fish, but the chef is happy to slightly adjust a dish to your taste, or even offer second helpings, making the diner feel spoiled; in return, the gratitude of those eating flowed back directly to the men and women who cooked it. By the end of the meal, everybody – customers and chefs alike – was smiling.