Periodically throughout my working day the retro-Bakelite phone in my writing room starts into life with a loud drrring-drrrring! Which is strange: the number is unlisted, the line has a call-blocker on it, hardly any of my friends or even family has the number, and over the years I have done my level best to discourage anyone who does from dialling it.
I’ve had cause before to remark on the oddity of the phone era, when, between roughly 1960 and 2000, anyone in the country felt a perfect entitlement to start whispering into anyone else’s ear unannounced while the other person felt duty-bound to listen. The mobile phone may be a scourge, but thank God it put paid to that mind-bending mandatory intimacy with the masses.
Anyway, the phone rings and because it has no answerphone attached – another of my anti-communication devices – I am forced to answer it, whereupon I hear either the transoceanic witter of a long-distance call from an Asian call centre, or the hesitant click of a machine preprogrammed to say things such as: “Barclays, HSBC and NatWest have all been found guilty of passing excessive charges on to their depositors. If you have an account with any of these banks you may be eligible . . .” and so on. I shan’t trouble you with more because the odds are that if you’re sentient and domiciled in the UK you, too, have heard this tens of times, along with tapes trying to persuade you to have your will made out for you, presumably by a computer.
These automated calls hardly deserve the prefix “cold” – they are beyond cold: they are frigid, sub-zero calls, calls stretched out in the great frozen morgue of marketing, so unlikely are they to turn into a sale. They are to proper cold calls what email spam is to a hand-delivered sheet of vellum suggesting you might like to buy a Fabergé Easter egg – and illuminated by Fabergé himself! They are annoying but easy to deal with. You simply replace the bone on the dog and get on with whatever it was you were doing.
The first kind of call is more problematic. Being a child of the Phone Age, I have difficulty when I’m called by a human being in not practising at least basic politeness. That, far from sitting around watching DVDs of EastEnders in order better to mimic mockney (or listening tapes of The Archers so they can do RP), these callers seem to have acquired only the most rudimentary English is, I am afraid, besides the point. There is a pathos in their garbled queries (“Please am I now talking of the owner of this placing?”) that never fails to pull me up short. Who am I, I think to myself, who sits in warmth and comfort and – relatively speaking – indolence, to so cruelly use these poor slaves of the speed-dial and the headset? I listen to the hubbub in the background and picture some crowded steel shed full of starvelings chained to their desks, and then I’m lost.
Yet even if I do begin speaking with a degree of humanity, I’ve been reduced to a maddened arrogance within seconds by the sheer dreadfulness of the pitch for double-glazing or any of the other thousand things I neither want nor need. Crashing back down the handset, I am gripped by a sense of the futility of all endeavour and the grotesque manner in which global capitalism runs its spiked harrow across the psyches of the seven billion that won’t leave me for minutes. I shake with the ague of alienation. I think to myself: I hate it, hate it, hate it – but what must it be like for the elderly who’re more in thrall to civility, and who may have had to hobble for some time before learning that it isn’t an adored grandchild on the phone but Ponnambalam Ramanathan trying to flog them a hot tub.
I think despairingly of the deranging nexus that all of us are plugged into: a humungous exchange, the purpose of which is only to connect crazed impoverishment with loony entitlement, so that nation may flog unto nation. I don’t deny that at least some of my extreme sensitivity to these marketing exercises may be the result of my own six months working in the early 1980s for the computer giant IBM as a cold-caller. True,
I was calling businesses rather than private individuals, but it was still a dirty, intrusive and mind-bogglingly tedious occupation. It’s probably not the responsible thing to say, but it was the one time in my life when I’ve been grateful for being a heroin addict.