Notes from Underground

I have received a letter from a financial institution which contains the following mysterious sentence:

I am writing to inform you that, unfortunately, we have had to cancel your Payment Protection cover.  Within the Terms and Conditions of the policy there are certain eligibility criteria, and while these criteria were met previously, due to a recent change in circumstances, you are no longer eligible for cover. 

I can’t imagine what my change of circumstances might be.  But it would appear to be “unfortunate”.  Has a misfortune befallen me?  If so, I would rather my financial institution spelled it out.  I don’t care for “certain eligibility criteria”.  I can’t imagine what these are, but I have a notion it would be quicker, easier, and more cogent, to delineate them.

I rang them up.

“Welcome to ***.  You will now hear 4 options.  If you have lost your credit card or had it stolen… to make a payment with a debit card… to hear about your points… or for anything else…”

I pressed 4.

“You will now hear 5 options…”

I pressed 5.

Wonder of wonders!  A human voice.  I asked for an interpretation of the arcane rune I had received.  He hadn’t a clue.  I don’t hold it against him.  Darker powers are operating behind him.  The critical thing to understand about these call menus (“You now have 27 options…”) is that they are not for the benefit of the caller, but merely for the convenience of their designers who are unaware that every conundrum is unique, and cannot be understood, let alone solved, by a piece of software.

Meanwhile HMRC has been trying to contact my doppelganger.  Both he and I have been getting mail from the Inland Revenue.  It has come to their notice that I’m not who I say I am.  I’m under cover.  I have a notion they are suspicious of my Jekyll and Hyde existence.  But it’s not unusual for doctors who write to use a nom de plume.  I would not wish my patients to read me and imagine they recognise themselves.  But I’m not really trying to trick anybody.  I think it’s more subtle than that.  Writing under another name is a way of signalling that the two endeavours, medicine and writing, are entirely separate.  When I took a medical history I like to think I was entirely focused on my patient and on the task of making him whole.  The last thing I was doing was looking for copy.

Anyway I braced myself, took a deep breath, and phoned HMRC up.  Once again I negotiated the “if this, press that; if that, press this” menu but went for the wrong option.  I had to start again and go for “a change in my circumstances” – that mysterious phrase recurring like a leitmotiv or idee fixe.  What a relief finally to speak to a human being.  Not only that – and I’m not even sure if it is permissible nowadays to own up to this – I was greatly encouraged that she had a Scottish accent.  It may not be PC to admit it, but it’s just a fact; I knew communication was going to get a whole lot easier.  Why?  Because we would share a culture, an identity, and a history.  In particular, we would have a common understanding of what it is to battle against a bureaucratic machine that is operating from a remote location.  My confidence wasn’t even dented when she said at the end of the call, “Don’t worry, I’ll sort that out for you, Dr Campbell.”

I’ve just read His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband, an imprint of Saraband, 2015).  It has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  No wonder.  It is an utterly compelling piece of writing.  It concerns a gruesome triple murder, committed in a dismal hamlet just south of Applecross in the mid nineteenth century, by a 17 year old boy who, in modern parlance, I venture to say was “on the spectrum”.  He and his family eke out a miserable existence in a hovel, growing crops in poor soil, and paying rent to the landed gentry, under the watchful eye of the constable, and the factor.  In an atmosphere of relentless bullying and persecution, the boy’s father approaches the factor and asks that he may see the “regulations” governing his life, so that he may avoid transgression.  The impudence of the man.

It’s unremittingly bleak.  His Bloody Project reminded me a little of Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby, which concerned another murder, and another young man on the spectrum.  But mostly, in the depiction of a struggle of a helpless individual against an impersonal and inimical authority, I was reminded of Kafka.  The first time I read The Trial I thought it was the weirdest book, but increasingly it’s looking to me to be a straight and unembellished narrative of the way life is.  You only have to look at the annual ordeal of submitting a tax return.  Our tax gathering arrangements are labyrinthine.  They are incomprehensible.  When I contact HMRC to seek elucidation, I feel as if I am approaching the factor to ask for sight of the “regulations”.  It would appear that the lowlier your circumstances, the more likely you are to come a cropper.  If you happen to be a billionaire you have developed the knack of tax avoidance. If you are a huge multinational conglomerate you have the knack of keeping your corporation tax to a minimum.  It’s the little guy who makes a mistake and gets it in the neck.  I suppose it was ever thus.  Look at the tax gatherers in the New Testament.  Despicable lot.

I wonder if this sense of helplessness in the face of Power’s bureaucratic juggernaut is what is driving the wave of volatility and uncertainty currently sweeping across the western democracies.  People feel disenfranchised and helpless.  In Scotland, Westminster is remote.  In London, Brussels is remote.  In Florida, the White House is remote.  So vote for change.  Vote for Brexit, vote for Trump.  Anything’s got to be better than the status quo.  Messrs Johnson, Davis, and Fox say, “I want my country back.”  (Funnily enough, they don’t think much of Ms Sturgeon for saying the same thing.)  When the European Union begins to creak round the edges, Mr Farage looks on with undisguised schadenfreude.

And yet, it seem to me there’s another sense in which, without any protest at all, the entire population of the world is sleep-walking into a dystopia that is Kafkaesque, perhaps even Orwellian.  I’m thinking of the uncritical idolatry, particularly amongst young people, of information technology and the digital world.  Is there any sight more disheartening than that of a group of teenagers walking along the road all staring individually at their own mobile phones and tablets?  Nothing is more isolating and alienating than being connected.  I see that the BBC want us all to sign in to iPlayer, not, apparently, so they can get our post codes and check we have a licence, but so that they can enhance our consuming experience and give us a bespoke broadcast menu.

We all have to rail against this.  Don’t allow yourself to be put in a box.  Every time you fill in a form, seek out the “free text” option and say something different from what’s on the menu.  After all, we are all unique.  Was it Evelyn Waugh who pointed out that there is no such thing as the man in the street?  But that we are all immortal souls who, from time to time, need to use streets.

This is a joint letter of protest.

Truly yours,


HMCM (my cover is brulee.)

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