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Saturday, 23 March 2013

Red Letter Day

It is three weeks until the start of the cricket season. It is the time of year when you begin to think of summer and  sitting outside all day in a pleasant village green, sipping a gradually warming pint of Old Marsden's ale,  watching men in white flannel strike leather balls with willow bats. Mid afternoon you might have a snooze in the sun while butterflys flutter-by then towards evening, as swallows swoop over the field, and it eventually turns cool-ish, you slip on a light jacket, applaud the players from the field and return home, languished, pleasantly snoozy, civilised.

Toshack wakes me at five thirty as usual, mithering to be allowed out to play. Not for the first time, I curse the fetish for insulation that prevents me from installing a cat flap which would allow him a degree of autonomy, but I get up anyway, wander downstairs accompanied by a constantly miaowing cat (who seems to think that I might be in danger of forgetting exactly why he awoke me with a precisely inserted claw up the left nostril) and head for the back door. We open the door together, Tosh pawing at bottom, me using the handle and I chuck a few dentabite treats into the garden so he can forage. Three weeks before the start of the cricket season, the treats sail into the air before landing in four inches of virgin snow. It is not just cold in the UK right now, it is 'bitter' and it wasnt until we returned here six years, three months, fifteen days and seven hours ago that I truly appreciated (or perhaps remembered) what 'bitter' means. It is not cold, it is Cold.  The Cold in this part of the world, even at only minus 1 or 2C is wet, flaccid, heavy and slow. It does not make you want to go out and fool around, it makes you want to be somewhere else. If a door opens, the Cold floats in, like a bad smell, and hangs around - it is not dispelled by the warmth inside, it infects it, wetting it, cooling it and loading it. In short, it puts me in a very bad mood - Cold has a purpose, sure, but on March 22nd, that purpose is long gone. It is time for Warm.

Today though, I dont mind the bad mood, as I have some letters to write. In true British style, they are all letters of complaint and the bad mood will sharpen the words. As an aside, and in truth, I cannot remember the last time I wrote a letter that was not of complaint, although I am sure I have done so at some point. But while in the past , I would write letters of complaint at unscheduled (though hardly spontaneous) intervals, these days I tend to consider the task of  complaint letter writing a unitary activity - each letter feeds the other until the general mood reached can be described as apoplectic. It is very satisfying.

While the mood  has a unitary flavour, though, the technique for each complaint is slightly different. For example, I start with a letter addressed to a whole row of houses outside of which a driver attempted to kill me and (worse), damage the Crosstowner. The reason the letter has to be addressed to the whole row of houses is that the car that was driven (very badly) cut in front of me to access the driveway that leads to a parking area behind this row of house. In doing so, it cut across me, and the sidewalk at about twenty miles per hour, missing the front wheel of the bike by about five inches. I fell off, of course, but by the time I had regained my feet, the car had disappeared into the parking area which has residents only card access. So I could not reach the driver to talk to him or her about their idiocy. Therefore I decide on a tactic of writing to every house (about twenty) that has access to the parking area. The letter is deliberately handwritten, and (returning to a theme regular readers will recognize) will be badly photocopied - deliberately so that it will stand out from the junk mail everyone recieves. The technique here is to be angry and cold, definitely unthreatening, superior and matter of fact. Dont say "hazardous driving" when you mean "murderous stupidity". Dont say "I would advice you to consider your actions" when you mean "You should not be allowed to drive". There's no attempt at dialogue - you are just telling someone they are an idiot and expecting no return. Be offensive (as in 'this letter will offend someone's defensive sensibilities' but  not coarse and dont exagerrate) you are not trying to critique or engage in constructive criticism, you are simply pointing out that someone has irredeemably sinned because they are (objectively) a  dickhead.

The letter of complaint to the Rail company - First Hull trains in this case - needs a different approach. You want a response in the form of  compensation for their actions in cancelling every train  (without notice) one Sunday evening, effectively stranding you in London overnight. However, you dont want - because it infuriates you beyond apoplexy, beyond stratospheric,  and definitely beyond sanity - a marketing driven "Customer Services", mangled syntax (non-deliberately), mealy mouthed, insincere, meaningless...............[and yes, I know there is the occasional Philosopher, Scientist and anthropologist who read this blog and objects to the word meaningless but I would argue that meaningless - as in 'insensate and lumpen' - is entirely appropriate because  when these English customer services departments send these apologies, they may as well send a sample of laminate flooring instead, because the words bear about as much relationship to any action they may take, any emotion they may feel, any lesson they may learn or any message they wish to convey as an entirely unrelated, randomly chosen,  useless artifact would]............where was I... oh yes..... insincere, meaningless, drivel-atious, anti-poetic, generic plops of language apology, especially one that starts "We are sincerely .....".and includes the phrase "..for any inconvenience you may have ......" . I mean, of course, I was incon-fucking-venienced, I would'nt be writing if I was not. So the trick is to try to get the money and dissuade the rail company from apologising and/or thanking your for being a 'customer". So the letter here has to imply  that you will take the matter further through appropriate channels if you dont get satisfaction so thus has to have an air of authority and confidence. And it also has to be logical, evidence driven and factually correct. If it can also be sarcastic to the extent that the company doesnt want to apologise to you, that is a bonus, but  you also want to establish a dialogue - albeit a short one - in which you get some compensation. It is a fine balance and takes time but that is ok because the time it takes makes you more angry and the angrier you are, in preparation for the next letter, the better.

The next, and for today, the final letter, is a letter that addresses an issue wherein I have not been paid for work done. Not being paid for work I have done is an issue that drives me past apoplexy, beyond stratospheric anger and into the realm of searing contempt (for the non-payer), while not loosing the aforementioned apoplexy and anger. If it is not immediately obvious to a reader why non-payment for work is about the worst thing you can do to someone - outside of illegal activities like violence and murder- then you, dear reader, are probably living in the kindom of searing contempt as a contemptee, although having said that, the kingdom of searing contempt is quite big and includes provinces where contempt is also focused on people who have made others unjustifiably redundant, denied wage rises or dub themselves 'thought leaders'. Here though, it is doubly complicated, because you also want, need actually,  to work for the person on subsequent occasions (employment does not grow on trees even three weeks before the start of the cricket season), and you want/need the money. It is a horrible letter to try to write:  do you go with the  apology approach, whereby you apologize for any misunderstanding and offer to take whatever the contemptee will give you? Or do you try to draw a line in the sand: the "I'm worth something to you and this is the way its gonna be.." approach? In my experience, neither work (with any reliability) because the reason the contemptee hasnt paid you in the first place is a reflection of what they think of you ( which is not a lot) and anything you write either puts you in the position being someone who is thought of as 'not-a-lot-and-a-pushover' or 'not-a-lot-and-a-pain-in-the-ass'.  I half consdier going with apology when RHB announces she is going shopping, and can we afford to buy 'X". The anger rises "Why the F*** am I apologizing to them c***?" , so I draft a work of art full of righteous anger. The result  is beautiful, dripping with sarcasm, vague references to the legal position (actually in the UK there is nothing you can really do if someone choses not to pay you), commentary about the social contract, allusion to the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It is angry, full nostrils flared angry, rising from the sea and smiting angry, Hammer of the Gods angry. And it is contemptuous - 'how petty over such a small sum', 'doubtless their dentist bill is paid' (they have very bad  teeth), and it threatens social sanctions - 'surprised because I had heard they were good community members'. I am about to send, when RHB returns and I read it triumphantly.  "Well, that gives them every reason not to pay you doesnt  it?" she notes. I re-read, she is right - it is brilliant but it is a declaration of war. I go back to the letter and , exhausted by Cold, apoplexy, photocopying and the action of actually using a pen to write something, I draft an  'apology' for putting myself in the position (by dutifully doing work over a period of three months) where I had placed them in the very awkward position of having not to pay me for the work I had excelled in, and an apology for not understanding that they were not going to pay me, a misunderstanding (on my part) that led to me unnecessarily provoking them with requests for the money they had no intention of paying which  I had (mistakenly) thought I had earned. I press send.

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