I can only express sympathy with Gillean Somerville-Arjat's
issues last week with the powers of technology and their incompetent interpreters. My own interaction with the dreaded HMRC has also ground to a halt as the promised call after three working days from an HMRC VIP has failed to materialise after two weeks. The issue at stake is the erroneous belief by HMRC that my teachers' pension had stopped, presumably as a result of my demise. Their evidence is that 'someone' had sent them a P45 to suggest this. 'No, we didn't,' said the SSPA. 'Yes you did,' responded HMRC. Both adversaries refuse to converse with the other.
I did have some doubts, but I think I am still alive, although maybe in a sort of purgatory where everyone else knows I'm dead, but I don't – I think George Mackay Brown wrote a short story along those lines. By the way, if you are an enlightened HRMC employee reading this, can you please get in touch?
Assuming I am still in the land of the living, the erroneous statements of HMRC's appalling telephone services that 'we are here to help' reminded me of my early career as a civil servant, working in a Social Security office. 'Remember: you must be both civil and a servant when you deal with the public,' said our trainer (the training in those days – the late 1970s – was actually pretty good). But this advice contrasted significantly with what the old hand I was replacing thought was the most important piece of advice: 'Always make your signature on letters to the public illegible,' he opined, 'then they won't be able to ask for your help in future'.
As with other pieces of advice I've received in my undistinguished career: 'Always do what the management tell you!' (Er, not if it's to hang trade union reps from lampposts, which was one such order only just made in jest). I set out to do the exact opposite, as believe it or not, I actually enjoyed being able to help people and was quite happy for them to ask for me. But with the triumph of technology, it seems that people who don't actually enjoy helping people solve their problems have found a new excuse to ignore those they are claiming to 'help'.
For many of these 'helpful' types, people of my era – old – are considered weak and wimpy as we prefer to talk to a named individual rather than a robot 'chat', but I suspect that young people find the process equally misery making – it's just that they have never known anything else.
Charity begins… where?
It is the time of year when every charity is bombarding me with requests for money – even the ones I fund regularly. I do support the Salvation Army, not because of their theology, which I've always found questionable at the least, but because I once worked with a delightful retired SA officer who was the epitome of practising what you preach. At least I get a thank you for doing so, a newsletter from a rather toothy gent who is a lieutenant colonel and looks like an America televangelist, but I suppose that's not his fault.
I remember at the height of the Bob Geldof LiveAid business, a couple were interviewed who announced they had just given away to the charity the several thousand pounds they had saved as a deposit to buy a house. My un-Christian thought was that Bob Geldof had not made a similar gesture, and that the couple lived in a society where home ownership was the preferred option for many. In Ethiopia, life and living conditions, even when famine was not a problem, were much simpler. And the Christian viewpoint isn't that simple either: to be sure, Jesus asked people to give away all their goods to the poor, but he also dined out with quite a few rich people who apparently supported his efforts. But was it Jane Austen who said something to the effect that 'follies and inconsistencies divert me whenever they can'?
An honest man
My reading of the Bible suggests to me that Jesus liked hanging out with authentic people, whether rich or poor. He didn't like hypocrites or phoneys, and contrary to the belief of some ministers of religion, he had a well-developed sense of humour (has anyone yet written a book called The Wit and Wisdom of Jesus Christ
He would have definitely liked to have had a pint with the lovely Graeme of the local garage in Beautiful Downtown Banchory, who has saved me a bill of what I thought might amount to hundreds of pounds to fix the brakes on my car. Graeme helpfully pointed out that it didn't need action. The heavy rain was causing the brake pads to stick and the best way to avoid the problem was to leave the car in first gear on a flat surface.
The late Mr B would have said I could have avoided the problem altogether by learning to reverse the car into the garage so that it stayed dry. Given it used to take even the great man himself something like 10 minutes to complete this manoeuvre, it being necessary to close the wing mirrors to fit through the door, I have sadly to admit that my skill set does not extend to this level of competence.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant