If you asked me to sit down and produce a list of the things that can potentially annoy me about the modern world, or that have annoyed me all my life (I don’t wish to blame everything on the 21st Century), then contractors, workmen or even private postal delivery men would be right at the top and would probably be first to be consigned to my version of Room 101. No ifs, no buts, no need for any consideration of the arguments pro or con and no burden of proof required, I’d reach for the proverbial black cap the moment said category of individual came up.
I endured an exquisite example of which I complain yesterday.
Never mind Nancy Mitford, who in the 1950s, through her article The English Aristocracy – picking up on work first published by Birmingham University academic Alan Ross – in Encounter magazine and subsequent book Noblesse Oblige, made ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ English language pronunciation and usage a cause célèbre [supposedly proving a guide to identifying whether an individual was ‘upper class’ or just a member of the aspiring ‘middle classes’] by providing a whole new layer of snobbery and inverted snobbery to the traditional British tribal sport of delineating each other into different society groupings via behaviour, dress, speech and outlook upon life.
A source of similar diversion and amusement in our family, and for middle classes everywhere, was Jilly Cooper’s book Class – A View From Middle England (1979) in which in one theme she pointed out the irony of the extent to which the upper and working classes had confluent interests and approaches.
They both loved the ‘sport of kings’ (horse racing), boxing, pigeon-fancying and gambling. The manners of the aristocrat in his castle and the working man in his council house – not least at the food table – were often equally lax and sloven (and therefore frowned upon by the aspiring middle classes who were keen to behave in what they often erroneously regarded as the proper, i.e. upper class, way).
The aristocrat cared nothing for e.g. the supposed appropriate mode of dress at a particular function, or indeed his table manners, because – having been born to, or having reached – his elevated position, he couldn’t give a stuff what anybody else thought about anything. Meanwhile his working class compatriot acted similarly via a combination of basic instinct and not knowing, or having been taught, any different.
Be the above as it may, my specific family upbringing was probably archetypal ‘aspiring middle class’. My mother in particular led the way in minding her social ‘ps’ and ‘qs’.
I well remember one time when, by prior arrangement, a peer of the realm and his wife came round to our house for a light early-evening meal at about 6.00pm on their way to see a play at the local theatre.
The following day at breakfast my mother was still huffing and puffing with indignation at the fact said peer, a rather large and grand gent with much presence, had turned up still wearing his trousers, smock-top and salt-stained sailing shoes from his afternoon endeavours racing in the local estuary, together with his towelling sailing (pork-pie-type) hat on his head which – he had explained – was there to protect his badly sun-burned balding pate.
I roundly teased my parent, who was waxing lyrical about breaches of manners and etiquette and how she felt things should be done, by defending her eminent guest – with whom I felt a strong degree of empathy at the time because, then still in my ‘let it all hang out’ youth, I saw much to admire in anyone systematically defying social conventions.
But let me return to the subject at hand.
One of the things my parents taught me – possibly regarded as an interesting but irrelevant quirk or fetish by some even to this day – was the importance of punctuality. In many respects it has defined my life. Something really wrong (or possibly disastrous) will have to have occurred if I am not where I had arranged to be by the chosen time.
I’m aware that not everyone has my punctuality standards. My general rule, whenever I’d arrived on time for a meet-up of whatever description, was to wait ten minutes for a man and fifteen for a woman and – if by then they had still not appeared – regard myself as released from any obligation to them … and either go home or go off and do something else.
That also translates to tradesmen whom you have hired to come to attend to something at your home, or – worse – some public utility who has contacted you for the purpose of attending to some data to be retrieved from, or ‘work to be done’ to, a meter or equivalent.
When someone has agreed an arrival time with you on the phone, or – as happened to me in the run-up to yesterday – a utility has been pursuing you for more than a fortnight in order to come to your home in order to replace your existing meter with an upgraded version on a date and at a time some three weeks hence, far too often it becomes a hostage to fortune.
Firstly – I use the utility as a typical ‘for instance’ – they don’t give you a specific time they’re coming. Oh no. It’s always “on this date, somewhere between 0800 and noon”. So that means you have to block out your entire morning as being ‘confined to barracks’. You can think of one hundred things you could be doing ‘out and about’ but unfortunately – for a task they want to carry out at your home and which you neither wanted nor indeed had any interest in whatsoever – you have to stay in.
Then, nine times out of ten (well in my case anyway, or so it seems), THEY NEVER TURN UP AT ALL – OR, IF THEY DO, IT IS CERTAINLY NEVER WITHIN THE TIME SLOT THEY THEMSELVES FIRST OFFERED AND WAS THEN MUTUALLY AGREED AND ACCEPTED.
That is exactly what happened to me yesterday … as, with great foreboding, I had anticipated it would.
I wouldn’t mind so much but for the fact that, in the week preceding yesterday’s agreed appointment period, I received no fewer than two emails and two texts from the utility company reminding me about the appointment – and how vital it was that I was going to be there and available to let their contractor in as per our arrangement.
Finally yesterday – at approximately 1320 hours, 80 minutes after the ‘agreed period for coming’ had expired – I eventually located an 0800 customer services line and spend ten minutes waiting to speak to someone at my own cost in order to register a protest at what had happened and also that there was now nothing to be gained in the contractor coming any longer as I now regarded myself released from any obligation to him. I was now going out, in a very bad mood indeed, to do the shopping and errands that I could have done five hours previously if I hadn’t been wasting my time waiting at home for Godot to come and replace my meter.