Just ring out the new and ring in the old

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
Hello, is anybody there? I'm having a nervous breakdown this week. I thought about ringing a helpline, but couldn't risk being asked to leave a message. Or worse still, to press the right button: one for manic depression, two for obsessional neurosis, three for suicidal thoughts.

Is anyone else driven to distraction by the ubiquitous answering machine or voice-mailbox, tyrannised by the fax machine, tortured by on-hold muzak pinging Greensleeves or Home on the Range?

Now it's true that where schools are concerned, things weren't exactly hunky-dory before this new-fangled robotic invention. In my experience, ringing a school has usually had one of two consequences. Often, no one answers at all. If the secretary does respond, usually in a suspicious kind of tone which is aggravated when you give your name, an incredibly long wait ensues followed by the clack-clomp of returning shoes - and the news that your teacher is engaged.

Alternatively, after more noises-off and shouts of "No, I haven't seen your schoolbag", you are finally connected above the clatter of staffroom coffee cups or some appalling classroom melee. By which time you feel so guilty at disturbing them, you can only mumble like a red-faced 12-year-old, caught puffing a fag behind the toilets.

In face of this, perhaps recorded messages, at least, would not be such a bad thing. Imagine the boon to confused parents, who would know when they could interrupt teachers in peace: "Hello! Mr Squirt's free period today is at 10.20am, Miss Tigerface's is at 2.40, the deputy is tied up all day and the headteacher, as usual, is free all afternoon."

Of course, this idea is hopelessly naive. Apart from the havoc it would play with teachers' precious free periods, it assumes schools actually want to help the outside world communicate with them. In fact, the purpose of school phones - or, more often, of the single school phone - is to prevent tiresome interlopers from interrupting their staff, even to tell them the roof has collapsed in a gale.

Enough of this heresy: back to robotic new automated receptionists. Last week was a bad week. I rang one big social work organisation: "Press one for children and families, two for elderly, three for wages and salaries, four for welfare rights . . ." Finally getting through, I was told: "We cannot speak to you. You must ring our press office."

But how? It wasn't on the list of numbers, so each time we went through the whole process again.

Next I had to check a medical records centre in London, to see if someone I was investigating was registered to practise. A simple phone call? "Good morning," said a disembodied voice. "Press one for membership. Two for pensions and superannuation. Three for verification. Four for fees if you registered after l986." I tried verification, to reach an answering machine: "Sorry, we are too busy to take your call at present. Please try later."

Schools should try this ruse, I thought. They could weed out the parents from hell and intimidate the rest even more effectively than school secretaries do already. "Press one for pathetic excuses for your child's absence. Two for the headteacher - " bleep - "Sorry! At conference on parental liaison. Three if you are Mr Plumb or Mrs Bloggs again - " bleep - "Sorry! Line engaged. Four for a recording of the Trumpet Voluntary by primary 5 brass band, PAARP!" Never mind: clear out the cobwebs after work, I decided. Relax with a film. Once upon a time you could ring cinemas and ask: "Is there a film on Saturday afternoon suitable for families, and are there any seats left?" Not any more. A recorded voice gushes nauseous welcomes followed by adverts, special deals and credit card details. Then 12 films pour out in an unstoppable stream: "Men in Black, PG, 12.50 and 5.30. Eyeball of the Zombie, 18, 11pm only. For credit card bookings, press two. For Ear of Frankenstein, press four." Make a mistake and the whole cycle starts again. After 20 minutes, a long shrieking bleep signifies total system failure.

Imagine if education departments tried the same happy messages for nasty news. No chance of riposte or protest: "List of impending school closures, press one. Who's bottom of the exam tables league, press two. Failing schools, press three. Passed over for promotion; it could be you, press four."

Exhausted and defeated after the cinema calls, I had a brainwave. Quit the city for a weekend trip to a sane friend in Stirling; she would calm me down. "Come to lunch," she said cheerfully.

Now there was a time when you could ring Edinburgh Waverley or Stirling station, and ask about trains. Ridiculous, I know, but it did come in handy. These days there is one number, somewhere in England, for everywhere from Wick to Penzance.

Still, at least a human being is employed at the end of the line. "Is there a train from Edinburgh to Stirling at about 11am on Sunday?" I asked timidly. "Nine-forty leetle early for you, 1.40 getting too late for lunch, nothing in between?" asked the kindly lady in thick Polish Jamaican. "This can't be right, there should be one every hour," I protested. "Could you try Dunblane for me?" Rap, tap. This journey took seven hours, a world record. "Leave Edinburgh 10.50, get to Dunblane 5.40. You go Dun Dee. You change 2.40. Back to Dunblane. Aha! I have Perth. You want Perth? You wanna go Leen Leet Gow instead? Train 10.50,then stop, no more."

What, stop completely. At Linlithgow? "Yes but OK, connection to Stirling 5.40."

"Are you quite sure about this?" I warbled.

"Hold on, I try my other computer. No, saying same thing, my dear."

I rang my friend and packed an overnight bag. "Hold the lunch," I advised. "We may be travelling via Inverness."

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