Image by foxypar4 via Flickr
Communications have advanced so much in my lifetime that I still marvel at what I am able to do by telephone, fax and e mail. When I was a child, we did not have a telephone in the house and would use the public call box some distance away if a call was necessary. The family communicated by letter and postcard, officialdom contented itself with letters, and there was always the telegram service for emergencies. I have lost count of how many times my father was summoned by telegram to the bedside of his dying mother, only to find that she was on her feet again and deploring the expense...not of his long anxious journey by train....but of the telegram sent to summon him! In these days of mobile 'phones, it would have sufficed for him to telephone her, announcing, as seems to be obligatory,
'I'm on the train...'
to have him abandon his journey at Crewe and return to base with a maternal flea in the ear.
Now I have the luxury of e mail, although, recalling a prophetic Giles cartoon, I eschew the delights of web cams in the interests of preserving the eyesight of the correspondent rash enough to call me on Skype at some unearthly hour of the day. Come to that...Skype! Even my parsimonious grandmother might have been tempted to install a computer to have free calls to her brood across several continents, but I suspect she would have worked out that if they were to install Skype on their computers they could ring her cheaply on her landline without her having to pay a monthly rent to the computer service provider. Mony a mickle maks a muckle. Especially if it was your mickle and her muckle.
However, all this is fine while everything works. We have recently suffered a breakdown of communications which has affected the whole hamlet, except, mysteriously, one telephone, and which has brought home to all of us how much we now rely on instant communication. I could not ring the Post Office to ask for some forms to be sent out by the postlady, but had to wait for her to arrive and give the message verbally. Monsieur Chose could not contact the man who buys his wife's rabbits, to say that they were ready. Trivial, but things could have been more serious. There are two extremely ill elderly gentlemen in the hamlet, living some distance away from the one working telephone thus giving rise to problems if their wives have to gallop there in the case of an emergency, leaving their husbands unattended. They do not have mobile 'phones, being of a certain age and being reluctant to pay for a second 'phone service that they would never use. Anyway, France Telecom, who own the lines, nomatter which private supplier of telecommunications you favour, claim to repair any line fault within twenty four hours. So there should not be a problem. But there was.
On day one of the problem, everyone used the one working telephone to complain of lack of service, and in the process discovered that
a) a France Telecom van was working the line between us and the next village and
b) everyone whose line was out of order was using a private supplier while the working telephone owner had remained loyal to France Telecom.
On day two, the France Telecom help line did not answer anyone's call from the working telephone, so the lady with the mobile contacted them and explained the particular risk to the two elderly gentlemen. The matter was in hand, she was told.
On day three, worry was setting in. The weekend was upon us, and, more to the point, there was a public holiday on the Tuesday, which meant that no one would be working on the Saturday and Sunday anyway and it was more than likely that no one would be working on the Monday as it is customary to make the 'pont', the bridge, between the weekend and the holiday on Tuesday. Why go into work for one day, after all? Why not go away for the long weekend?
The lady with the mobile tried again. The help line would not answer her call. She telephoned her cousin in the nearby town, where France Telecom maintains an office. The cousin reported back in due course. The office was just for selling telephones...it had nothing to do with repairs to the line. Madame Chose reported that the France Telecom van was still working the road between us and the village. Monsieur Chose went off to investigate. Monsieur Chose returned, indignant. The saucy young devil with the van had told him that if he was one of those who had deserted France Telecom for other operators, it served him right to be without a line! One of the elderly gentlemen with health problems started wheezing. Another victim revealed himself....the big German biker who lives in a farm way out in the wilds, but apparently also on our system. It was lunchtime on Friday, and time was getting short. The German said that he would try to get in touch with France Telecom. He disappeared on his motorbike, while the lady with the mobile phone tried to find relatives in the town where the telecommunications repair centre was situated. She was having no luck and we were all resigned to a further four, or more likely five, days without communications when lo and behold, the telephones started ringing! Madame Chose was calling everyone to see if the lines were back all over the hamlet, and, mirabile dictu, they were! France Telecom had come through after all!
On the Saturday, I ran into the German guy in the supermarket.
'Phone all right now?' he asked. I said that it was.
'Yes, I thought I could sort it out.'
'Did you manage to get through to France Telecom, then, from someone else's line?'
'Yes, I got through, all right. I went home, took the car I was repairing for a mate, went back down the road to where the guy was working the lines and took his ladder away while he was up the telegraph pole. He bawled and shouted and threatened me with the police, but I told him that if he wanted to make the 'pont' stuck up a telegraph pole for four days, that was fine with me. Eventually he rang someone on his mobile and said it was all working again, so I rang my wife on my mobile to check he wasn't lying and gave him his ladder back.'
'Aren't you worried he will report you anyway?'
'No chance. If they check the car's number plate they'll find it belongs to the maire's son.'
The Germans haven't lost their touch where it comes to France.
France Telecom and its operatives are still sore, after all these years, about losing their monopoly over the nation's communications, but they have only themselves to blame for losing clients to their competitors as the service and the prices during the monopoly period were both abysmal.
Friends live even further out in the country than I do, and their internet was on dial up......expensive and slow. They, and plenty of others in the commune, had been asking their maire for ages to intervene with France Telecom to have broadband made available, but he wasn't interested until one of the local notaires bought a big house in the commune. At that point, things moved fast. France Telecom announced that broadband would be available and held a meeting to sign up clients and try to sell them all sorts of equipment. My friends attended and said it was like a British reunion...every expat in the commune was there, with a scattering of French! They duly signed up for a 2 megabyte service and were told that the equipment would be delivered and installed free of charge in the next fortnight. The fortnight passed, and the next and finally they received a call from France Telecom to say that nothing would be delivered or installed...they were to go to the local office to collect the modem and all the bits and bobs that went with it. The local office was miles away, but they duly went on the next market day, eager to get started.
Their reception was not warm. The staff were busy putting up posters about the benefits of broadband and were too busy to deal with customers. Finally cornering the 'stagiaire'...the kid on work experience....they gave their names and asked for their equipment. She looked at her list and told them that they were not on it. The woman she was shadowing tore herself away from her posters and asked why they were being difficult with the work experience kid. They asked her for the equipment. She too looked at the list, told them they were not on it and turned back to her posters. Spotting a computer, they decided to see if it would be more communicative, and entered their names on the screen. Spotting them, the woman started shouting that the computer was for staff use only and turned it off...but not before they had seen that they were indeed on some list...the computer's presumably...not for the 2 megabyte service for which they had contracted, but for a slower service...which should have been considerably cheaper!
This was too much. They told the woman, reasonably politely in the circumstances, that they were cancelling the contract with France Telecom as they considered they would have had better service in Africa, whence they had come. The reply?
'If you don't like it, clear off back there!'
Happy with their private supplier, some years later they were cold called by France Telecom, which now calls itself Orange. It can call itself what it likes...it's still France Telecom to me. Would they consider changing back to Orange?
No they would not. They quoted their experience. There was a sigh at the other end. There was no more to be said.
Well, there is, in fact. Quite a lot of it and none of it good, but my blood pressure is rising and sufficient unto the day is the evil therof.