Winter’s Discontent

Welcome to XXX Insurance.  Please be aware that your call may be recorded for training and monitoring purposes.  You will now hear five options.  You can make your selection at any time.  If you would like to renew or cancel your policy press one.  If you would like to take out a new policy it’s two.  If you would like to make a claim on an existing policy it’s three. If you would like to declare a change of circumstances relating to an existing policy it’s four.  For all other enquiries please press five. 


Please have your policy number ready.  Our call handlers are currently experiencing a very high level of demand.  Please hold, as your call is important to us.  Alternatively you can contact us on line at www…

I held.

Suddenly, a blizzard of strings.  Winter, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  Now, like an Airbus A380 pilot orbiting in the stack above Heathrow, I was truly in a holding pattern.  Like Pachelbel’s Canon or Mozart 40, the Vivaldi is a telephonic cliché.  How apposite that I should be on hold to the strain of Winter, the season when nature hunkers down, lies dormant, and waits.  Other wintry scenes are available, and might have been evoked.  Schubert’s Winterreise.  But that would never do.  That blighted, unrequited individual looking up with longing at the window of his lost love would make “hold” a miserable, even a desperate experience. 

Fremd bin ich eingezogen

Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus…

I came here as a stranger, and I will depart as a stranger…

But I get impatient with these fragile Schubertian Werther-like figurers who wander off into the winter snow, to seek accommodation in a cemetery.  So she chucked you, mate.  Get over it.  Don’t adopt the mantle of victimhood. 

On the other hand, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is as effervescent as champagne, music that will be contemporary for ever.  Sempiternal.  These thickly textured falling cadences in this first movement sound so modern, and evergreen.  Even in winter.

Thank you for holding.  Your call will be answered shortly…

When I was a child, I would lift the receiver of the black Bakelite telephone, and immediately, immediately, the rich contralto voice of Kathleen Ferrier would ask me, “Number, please?”  I remember the numbers of my childhood.  Kelvin 4994.  West 3018.  Bell 3500.  Pennsylvania six five thousand…

Customer satisfaction is our highest priority…

Why do we put up with this?  It is self-evident that any automated system of such clunky design is not there for the benefit of the user.  It is there for the benefit of the Masters of XXX.  It is there to promote “efficiency”.  If you are “efficient”, you can make staff redundant and close High Street branches.  Have you noticed, if you transact your affairs via internet banking, that the banks have made you your own (unpaid) teller?  Not only that, they flag up dire warnings of scams that may look awfully authentic, and expect you to be able to detect them.  Not only are you your own teller, you are your own self-funded security officer, guarding the vaults.  

Winter, second movement.  A clip-clop sleigh ride, with a beguiling melody for the solo violin, lulling you into a false sense of security.  If the person who finally takes your call is a scammer, your guard will certainly be down.  But see, the thing is, you have been scammed already.  And this is the subtle point.  The said financial institution is the scam.  Why do we accept that the money men, the merchants and the hedgers and the masters of the universe, should earn eye-watering sums of money – our money – topped up by eye-watering bonuses, while offering us this pitiful apology for a service?  Friends, we are being had.    

Thank you for holding.  Your call…

It is incredible to me that anybody should think this is a rightful way, not just to conduct business, or any form of societal interchange or social intercourse, but to lead one’s life, far less to consider that it might be “efficient”.  Life, real life, just isn’t like that.  Nearly always, your enquiry will not fall under options 1, 2, 3, or 4.  Your enquiry will be 3.14159….  Life cannot be reduced to an algorithm.  Every caller, every enquirer, is unique.  “Efficiency” is the quantification of human souls. 

We took a catastrophic wrong turn when we tried to run all our community services – banks, post offices, health, social care, police, education, by computer algorithms.  The people who devise these systems – how far removed they are from the interface between service provider and customer.  But all the transactions that really matter in life are one-on-one, be they in the banks, the doctor’s surgery, the care home, in the local shop and at the supermarket check-out, Citizen’s Advice, the police station or the lawyer’s office.  We need to dump all the digitised menus, come straight to the point, and simply ask, “What can I do for you?  How may I help you?”

Third movement.  A subdued opening, as of nature holding her breath.  A violinistic recitative.

At the moment, by the time you reach the bottom of the algorithm and press five, you might be put through to a call handler situated anywhere on the planet.  One thing they won’t have is local knowledge.  What a dystopia we have created.  Is there any way back, any way out of this labyrinth we have wilfully constructed and now lost ourselves in? 

Another blizzard of violins, a final dazzling flourish, a momentary, barely perceptible pause, and the last, emphatic chord.


Should I stay on hold?  If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?                                   

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