Tom Hodgkinson: In the face of no-phone situation my rage turned into a Buddhist detachment


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The Independent Online

hen our phone went down in early February, we emailed our provider, the Phone Co-op, to ask them to fix it pronto. We live in a remote corner of Exmoor with no mobile reception, work from home and use the phone quite a lot. Now, the Phone Co-op is a lovely, friendly, ethical family company. There is some sort of co-operative element to it which I don't fully understand but which gives it an aura of non-exploitation. And you can communicate with them directly. Which is all great. But of course they don't fix the phones. That is down to another company: BT Openreach.

BT Openreach is not a co-operative, but is part of BT, a publicly listed company, meaning it is owned by shareholders and its first priority is share price. Its slogan is the winning "Keeping the Nation Connected", which is not proper grammar but which probably cost them £100,000 in fees to an ad agency. Actually it's a bit more than that: trendy London agency St Luke's was paid £70m in 2005 to launch the brand.

Maybe the kindly folk at the Phone Co-op do not have the requisite backbone when it comes to dealing with BT Openreach, but every time the Phone Co-op told us that a BT Openreach engineer would be coming, none such ever turned up. Having been trapped at home for some days waiting for the engineer, we eventually risked leaving the house. That day I had an email from the Phone Co-op saying that the engineer was coming.

Then they said that the line had been fixed. We got home to find that it had not. I started to feel like Jonathan Pryce in Terry Gilliam's Brazil: helpless and bewildered by the authorities and their staff. I sent increasingly angry emails to the Phone Co-op. I could only speculate as to the conversations between the meek co-operative workers at the Phone Co-op and the hardcore capitalists at BT Openreach. Should we swap suppliers and go with BT after all, because they are tough?

Days and then weeks went by. Following the impotent rage of the early days, I entered a new realm of Buddhist detachment about the whole thing. I stopped minding. After all, the internet just about worked so we could make calls via Skype. We just couldn't be called. It was sometimes dangerous: we had a sick child at school and the school could not let us know, so had to keep the child all day and send it home on the bus. But on the whole, it was nice. The phone never rang any more.

I went on to the BT Openreach website and complained. I was not the only one. There were loads of heart-wrenching stories about long delays in repairs. The reply came back that I needed to complain to my service provider. However, I suspected my service provider of spending more time tending their organic tomatoes than playing hardball with BT.

After four weeks of this I despaired and sat down to write to the chief executive of BT Openreach. Her name is Olivia Garfield and I discovered that she is 10 years younger than me. She went to Cambridge University, joined BT from management consultants Accenture, and while I admire her success in the corporate world, I couldn't help experiencing a twinge of peasant-like resentment at her presumably enormous monthly salary and share options, while I sit in my draughty farmhouse with no telephone, wondering how I am going to pay my heating bill, let alone my income tax.

I reflected that maybe I had made a mistake in following the bohemian path. Maybe I would have been better off joining Accenture after leaving university, rather than working in a skateboard shop before going on the dole and starting a magazine for people who hate working. And then opening a small independent bookshop and running courses in Latin and Vedic maths. Yes, I should have embraced the system rather than rejecting it. I should have tramped into work every day at the corporation. There's simply no money in bohemianism any more.

I composed what I hoped was a temperately worded letter of complaint, put it in an envelope, stamped it and walked through the rain up to the postbox. As I neared the postbox, I looked up. There, in front of me, was a vision. Was it real? I saw before me, clear as day, a BT Openreach van. Its back doors were open, and an engineer was standing by them. I approached him.

"Are you going to mend my phone?" I asked.

"Are you Mr Hodgkinson? It should be done in about an hour."

I decided not to post the letter after all. 1

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

Illustration by Mark Long