Hi ho, hi ho

Sitting with the pinstripe BlackBerry brigade on the train to London yesterday, my attention was caught by a notice between the windows.

Somebody had vandalised it – no surprise there. But I looked again and chuckled to myself. A red-faced City gent looked at me, at the notice, then at me again. Not a flicker of comprehension.

Here’s what the sign would originally have looked like:

And here’s what it looked like yesterday at 6.37am:

Ironic, post-modern vandal, don’t you think?

Points failure

Off to London tomorrow very early. Shirt ironed, shoes polished, laptop ready. But wait a moment – what about my ticket? Will there be a queue at 6am? What if I’m stuck behind a gaggle of Italian students who haven’t quite mastered the meaning of ‘day return’?

Better get online, I tell myself. It’ll be quicker and easier. Then, I’ll just swipe my card at the station, and hey presto! Ticket.

It looks easy enough. Departure station? Cambridge. Which one – Gloucestershire or Cambridgeshire? Time, date of departure, railcard? Click, click, click.

Then things start to go wrong.

‘Have you already registered?’ it asks cheerily. Yes, I have. So I enter my details. ‘Sorry,’ it says, ‘we have no record of this email address.’

But I have the confirmation email from them. Never mind, I think wearily. I’ll register again.

‘This email address is already registered!’ it shouts in red. ‘Have you forgotten your password?’ Maybe. So I ask it to email my password.

‘We have no record of this email address,’ it says again, with the unarguable logic of a system you can’t argue with. Back a screen, forward a screen. Now, inexplicably, my email and password work.

I’m almost there. I select the ‘I would like to use the FastTicket machine’ option. Now all I have to do is find Cambridge station. Let’s see: Bristol Parkway, Bristol Temple Meads, Broxbourne, Carlisle, Chelmsford…

Hang on. Broxbourne, Carlisle – isn’t something missing? Oh yes, Cambridge.

I swear quietly. Actually, no, that’s not true. I swear out loud, and swear again, just for good measure. Maybe I should telephone them. Or maybe not – there’s no number. Just an email form that will drop into the bit bucket and be lost in cyberspace forever.

So I resort to plan B. No mice, no forms, no drop-down lists. One bike, furious pedalling, and a brief encounter with a chubby girl behind plexiglass with greasy hair and no manners.

20 minutes later, I have my tickets.

So much for technology.

First sign of madness

“Face it, Kevin,” I said as I cycled back from the shops, “you’re probably not going to be a professional artist. After all…”

I froze. Slowly, gingerly, I turned my head to the right. Please, no. Let me be wrong.

But I knew I wasn’t.

She was about 25, with a multicoloured woolly hat with a jaunty bobble. Red-cheeked, smiling, expectant. And exactly level with me, her bike freewheeling down the gentle slope.

“After all?” she said.

I smiled weakly and braked a little – enough to let her pull ahead. The setting sun caught her red anorak as she rounded the corner and disappeared.

Damn. Double damn.

Thanks a bunch

Several months ago, I ordered flowers online.

I read and re-read the small print, to make sure I ticked all the right boxes.

‘We’d like to get our hooks into you,’ it said. ‘We’ll plague you with special offers, inappropriate sales pitches and cheesy free* gifts for the rest of your life. You’ll rue the day you bought these flowers, because you’ll be trapped in database hell – forever. If you’d prefer not to do this, please tick this box.’

So I did. But there was more.

‘We’d like to pass your name on to anybody who pays us huge amounts of money for qualified sales leads (or ‘carefully selected companies’, as we prefer to call them). Once you’ve crossed that line, there’s no going back. Your details will be spawned from one list to another, and you’ll have mountains of junk mail on your welcome mat. If you’d prefer not to avail of these wonderful opportunites, please don’t tick here.’

So I didn’t.

A month later, a catalogue arrived. ‘Flowers for every occasion!’ it gushed. I ripped off the plastic cover and looked for a contact number.

“Hello,” rasped a smoker’s voice, “this is Joyce speaking. How can I help you today?”

So I told her. In fact, I brought up my account details online, and sure enough, the box that I had ticked was still ticked, and the one I hadn’t wasn’t. So why had I got the catalogue?

“Unfortunately,” said Joyce, rolling catarrh from one side of her throat to another, “I can’t see those details.”

What, her own database?

“Yes,” she deadpanned. “That is correct.”

So how could she explain it? She couldn’t. And what could be done about it? She wasn’t sure.

“All I can do is apologise,” she said in a take-it-or-leave-it voice. “Can you give me your details?”

What about the reference number on the catalogue, I wondered. Wouldn’t that bring up my record?

“Unfortunately…” and she was off. Different systems, not integrated, no idea what the web people were doing, not her department. Could I spell my surname? And what was the name of my road? And was that a B or a V in the postcode? And yes, certainly, she’d pass on the details to the mailing department.

“But it could take up to six weeks,” she said, “for you to be taken off the list.”

But it only takes an instant for me to be put on. Just a tick, really.

“Can I help you with anything else today?” she cut across me.

Well, actually, Joycey, you haven’t really helped me at all, I thought. It was pointless saying it. So I said it anyway.

One morning eight weeks later, I came down the stairs to pick up the post. And there it was. ‘Flowers for every occasion!’ it declared brightly.

I took a deep breath.