Saturday, January 27, 2007


That's a fine show of hypocrisy we had this week from His Grace the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Catholic church in England and Wales. Seeking to scupper the government’s legislation that is designed to render illegal discrimination against homosexuals in all social and business transactions, he wrote to every member of the Cabinet to suggest that, if adoption agencies are obliged by law to accept same-sex couples as adoptive parents, the Catholic church will cease to operate an adoption service. Happily, the Cabinet has shown some spirit in rebuking this attempt to interfere with its legislation.

This of course is the same prelate who, ten years ago, sat on his hands while a child-abusing priest in his Arundel and Brighton diocese – whom Murphy-O'Connor had systematically shielded from investigation by the law – was finally convicted of attacks on a dozen boys. The Cardinal argued at the time that paedophilia was “little understood”. More objective observers felt that it was perfectly well understood by its victims.

Down the centuries and all over the world, the Catholic church has provided a safe seat of power from which countless paedophiles have abused the children they affect to help, protect and guide. The present pontiff handled the issue for his predecessor and no doubt was responsible for John Paul II's complacent statement on abuse by priests, that “grave scandal is caused with the result that a dark shadow of suspicion is cast over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and often with heroic self-sacrifice”, merely allowing a crumb of “concern for the victims”. Still today, priests fleeing from arrest on this charge are offered sanctuary in the Vatican, the abused children no succour at all.

If any evidence existed that children placed with adoptive parents of whatever sexual orientation were remotely in the kind of peril they routinely face at the hands of the Catholic church, the Cardinal might have a useful point to make. As it is, his masterful silence on the subject would become him rather better.

Seemingly gratuitously, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, weighed in to support the Catholic hierarchy’s stance. The reason for his unusually dogmatic stance is soon found. Next week, the Anglican bishops and archbishops gather in convocation. That the beanfeast takes place in Dar es Salaam will only reinforce the fact that the homophobic backlash in the Anglican church is being led by the African primates, gay sex having been tolerated even less among black communities through the ages than among whites, despite heterosexual sodomy being the preferred method of contraception among African if not West Indian men (this is why Aids is so epidemic on the African continent, unprotected anal penetration being the most perilous activity for those at risk of infection).

The African bishops are fully prepared to provoke a schism and to break up the Anglican episcopacy. They know that they have Williams on the ropes. He wants to be remembered neither as the Archbishop on whose watch the church broke up, nor as the prelate who went against his own inclusive instincts and excluded the gay community. Either stance will drive out thousands of adherents. It’s hard to see how the Church of England is anything other than done for, its only future in its native England as a harmless sect of home counties spinsters and bachelors making jam and singing ancient hymns round a domestic piano.

The matter of adoption by gay people has exposed many of the contradictions at the heart of the supernatural delusion. If the working philosophy of a movement such as a religion has discrimination at its heart – between, for instance, “good” and “evil”, “saved” and “damned”, “devout” and “profane”– it is impossible for that movement simultaneously to embrace everyone. Religion cannot be simultaneously inclusive and exclusive.

Any priest can confirm that Catholic adoption agencies will, without a moment’s hesitation, place a child with a heterosexual, atheist couple. In the most literal sense, then, its homophobia is more important to the Roman church than the very tenets on which it is founded. And yet that church has been the most systematic instrument of child abuse – mental, physical and sexual (hetero and homosexual) – in human history. It is truly a strange conundrum.

The more “liberal” traditions of the Church of England have led it to adopt the “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach, cautiously accepting gay people and even gay vicars on the dubious, barely-spoken understanding that they do not “practise” or rather, in practice, that they do not say that they practise. The Catholic church, redder in tooth and claw, formally denounces lesbians and gay men as “objectively disordered”. I can think of nothing more objectively disordered than entertaining a supernatural delusion. It’s not as if believers can’t help themselves: indulging this delusion is a conscious choice. Being gay is not. To dismiss being gay as disordered is like dismissing being deaf or tall or black or diabetic as disordered. No wonder that the naturally kindly Dr Williams finds himself in a high degree of discomfort. He has a great many disobliging allies alongside him in the battle to come.

Friday, January 26, 2007


The looters of Branscombe Beach have shamed Britain across the world. What a spectacle they made, these native Devonians and – worse – organised gangs from much farther afield. As containers washed ashore from the cargo ship grounded in the bay, locals and visitors spent Sunday night and all Monday and Tuesday scavenging the beach and smashing open the containers. They made off with clothes and furnishings, petfood in bulk and alcohol in casks, electrical goods and motorbikes.

Good luck to them, you may say. But these were not, in large part, supplies going out to retailers. These were people’s treasured possessions. One woman watched horrified on a news bulletin as a container was torn asunder before the camera and its contents – the sentimental and irreplaceable items of her family’s history that had been on their way to furnish her new life on South Africa – were scooped up by greedy and thoughtless thieves [BBC News at 6, January 22nd].

And thieves these people are. These are the British in the third millennium, a grasping, grabbing, devil-take-the-hindmost nation who care not a fig for anyone else. One looter who spoke to The Guardian gaily described herself as “a retired teacher”. I hope she never had the gall to tell her pupils about right and wrong. “We saw all this stuff here and the police told us we could help ourselves,” she said. “So we did” [report January 23rd].

So, you fall to wondering, what kind of advice is that for the police, of all people, to give? Why weren’t they arresting the looters? On Wednesday, they finally got off their arses and closed the beach. Whether they then set about rescuing the remaining goods from the weather is not recorded. Were I the owner of any goods that were stolen, I should be taking legal advice about suing the Devon constabulary for dereliction of duty. The police have let it be known that they had been unsure of maritime law regarding booty taken from beached vessels. For a police force with one of the most extensive coastlines in Britain, this is a preposterous excuse. There is plenty of video footage and photographic evidence, taken by the coastguard and by the media outlets, that can be used to bring looters to justice. I hope the retired teacher is put in the stocks.

But of course it must be a vain hope that more than a small fraction of the loot will ever be recovered. Many items will already have been sold on eBay, which is now well established as the global successor to the geezer in the pub offering you a “gold” watch. Plenty of eBay buyers are the unwitting receivers of stolen goods. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s so-called “receiver of wreck” has “written to” eBay asking that looted items be taken off sale [report in The Guardian, January 25th]. You know what these civil servants are like: she probably sent it by second class post. And how will eBay know whether a particular item has come from Branscombe Beach? It would be an idiot seller who described the goods he’s auctioning as “looted from a wreck”.

Meanwhile, why did the police allow the public to put itself at such risk? It was not known what hazardous material might come ashore from spillage or indeed among the cargo. A coastguard officer told The Guardian that he had seen “parents leave children on the beach in gale force winds so that they could wade into the surf to ransack containers” [report in The Guardian, January 24th]. We have become so mercenary, so determined to get something for nothing and everything for ourselves, that we are heedless of danger either to us or to our dependants. From each according to his vulnerabilities, to each according to his greed, as Marx certainly didn’t say. Successive waves of capitalism, marketing, Thatcherism and globalization have made looting the primary means of acquisition in our society. No wonder we are going to hell in a handcart.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

MEN of the WORLD

Gordon Brown’s positioning of himself on the Scottish question draws attention back to the hoary old issue of national characteristics. I wrote a little on this in my book Common Sense (freely downloadable from the link in the right hand sidebar), revealing myself to be reluctant to set too much store by the concept per se but accepting that traditions of behaviour, body language and social idiosyncrasy do in practice distinguish the natives of one nation from those of another.

There is a part of the internet, though, that dramatically illustrates differences of national character. I am apt to pass some of my leisure looking at photographs of naked men that I find on various websites. It is a harmless hobby, to be sure, with the great advantage that, unlike most hobbies, it costs nothing to pursue.

I emphasise the word “men”. Of course, in this field, the preferred designation is “boys”, being the exact equivalent of the term that used to be prevalent among men to describe women in general and that is still used in the field of titillation – “ten lovely girls, count ‘em, sir”. “Boys” here simply means “men”. More realistically, it means men aged between 18 and about 35 because, you will not be surprised to learn, there is not much call for models of a greater age, save on more specialised sites catering for those drawn to the hairy and beefy (“bear lovers”), the overweight (“chubby chasers”) and the senior (I have yet to discover what the favoured term is for that part of the market).

For surfers who really are interested in boys, the unattractive term employed is “twinks”. Even this is an unreliable indicator, however. To cover themselves, sites declare that all their “models” are at least 18 years old. Some of them look younger. Some of them clearly are younger. Conversely, some described as twinks are certainly past 25. I have no interest in adolescents, less still in pre-adolescents, and so do not habituate twink sites. It happens often enough, though, that what you get when you click on a sample photograph is not what you expect – you are even sometimes presented with pictures of women (!). But by and large if a photograph shows a handsome young buck in a naked state, a click on that photograph will yield a set of such photographs of the same chap.

One of the entrancing aspects of the internet is that it gives you access to all of humanity. The sites of which I am writing are set up in every part of the world and you don’t need to read a semiological treatise to see that even the apparently simple matter of posing naked is very different in differing cultures. The British sites, with a few exceptions that can be as startling as they are atypical, are drab and dull. Many of the models do not even reveal the membrum virile which, I would suggest, is the primary object of the exercise for most visitors to these sites. It may be objected that the point of such coyness is to frustrate you into paying money to “join” the site and so to see more. However, the absence is rather counter-productive on the British sites for it draws attention to the state of the model’s torso. And it is plain to see that the boys who pose for British photographs have little sense of the need to be in shape for such an undertaking, nor do the photographers evidently require it. Of course, British men are far more likely to “get their kit off” in public today than heretofore but, because the result is rarely a desirable sight, witnesses to this display are more likely to look away than to ogle.

By stunning contrast, the models on American and eastern European sites flourish fantastically chiselled bodies. I don’t mean that their template is Governor Schwarzenegger; the “muscle mary” type never attracted me (they always seem to have teeny willies and not just because they are dwarfed by over-developed limbs). Rather, the featured chaps are mostly proud owners of the swimmer’s build, sleek and toned. They tend to look unbelievably wholesome and dashing too. That they have a “college man” look is confirmed again and again by the recurrence of the logo for the popular American site, Fratmen.

The site based in the Czech republic, Bel-Ami, favours young men who are almost excessively toothsome: slim and pretty and usually blond and always supremely comfortable in their perfect bodies. Unlike the American sites, Bel-Ami favours uncircumcised models. So do the British and Latin sites, perhaps keen not to be thought to carry any taint of North America (or Arab or Jew).

For my taste, the latino collections offer the most agreeable possibilities. I’m sure this is a cultural thing. Hispanic, Italian, South American and Latin American men embody the power of that wonderful euphemism, “proud manhood”. On the latino sites, of which there are considerably more than of any other subdivision, young man after young man whips out his tumescent member and brandishes it with profane glee, even while festooned with Roman Catholic jewellery and slogans (one boy I admired had tattooed across his abdomen the immortal words “The Lord Is My Shepard” – perhaps he should have stuck to Spanish).

Among these posers, there is no reticence, apology or shirking of the kind so prevalent on the British sites. The proverbially hot-blooded guardians of macho loudly announce “here is my cock, I’m coming later”. On one or two sites, a soupçon of biography accompanies the pictures, often done as a questionnaire so as not to tax the intellects of the models. Sexual orientation is sometimes enquired after and the answer, almost invariably, is “bi top” which translates as “I will fuck anything”. What a contrast with the picky Brits who, as like as not, seem reluctant even to touch themselves in front of a photographer. Middle European boys, for their part, seem only too happy to ejaculate over the camera lens and to insert any prop that comes to hand into their rectal passages. So unlike the home life of our own dear queens.

Now, I wouldn’t want you to run away with the innocent impression that my dallying in these admittedly shallow waters is solely for the purpose of studying national characteristics. I would never claim such. The observation is but a by-product of a far baser interest. But it is, I submit, a (mildly) interesting one. And I bet it hadn’t occurred to you that such sociological nuggets lay hidden in such unpromising tilth.

For those who might wish to pursue further academic study, may I suggest both and as useful starting points.

This month's spat with a formerly nationalised industry features British Gas. We had some work done in November so, needless to relate, I am now asked to complete a questionnaire ("How do you rate the engineer's hair cut: 1) elegant, 2) adequate, 3) average, 4) bizarre, 5) what hair cut?"). Naturally, as readers of my book Common Sense will know (see free download via the link in the right margin), I did not do the questionnaire. Instead I sent the Marketing Research Manager the following letter:

Dear Mr Sutton,

I have not attempted the enclosed questionnaire because, just as with every other questionnaire that any organisation has ever asked me to complete, its questions do not cover my case nor provide for the answers I wish to give.

We have indeed had a gas appliance repaired during the last three months. I telephoned to ask for the job to be done. The officer who dealt with me, though suffering the misfortune of a heavy cold, took down the details and tried very hard to persuade me to take out an insurance policy but, as I explained to him, the cost of this visit – the first in the more than eight years that we have lived here – would be very much less than the cost of eight years of insurance.

The appointment was quickly made, the engineer arrived as arranged and he identified and repaired the fault in short order. So far so good.

Just before Christmas, an envelope arrived bearing the British Gas logo. I assumed this to be the invoice for the work done but it was addressed to “Mr Rigby”. Alfred Rigby, the previous owner of this house, sold it to us in 1998 and has not lived here since. I understand that he has moved several times since then and we no longer have any indication of his whereabouts. It is of course against the law to open mail addressed to someone else, so I returned the envelope, writing upon it: “Return to sender: not known at this address in eight years”.

Shortly after Christmas, an identical envelope arrived. I wrote the same legend on the front and, on the back, gave a short history of the case and my account number but not my name because anyone might read the message.

You evidently do not have a system that crosschecks data in your various departments, nor one that reports discrepancies when they arise. After all, you have supplied gas in my name at this address since 1998.

Soon after that, about ten days ago, a third envelope arrived. I went to the British Gas website, got a customer services telephone number and rang it. The person picking up took my details but said that he couldn’t help me as the computer system was being changed. He passed me to a woman who, in turn and to my chagrin, required all the details to be repeated. I then explained the case. She went through the file and said she could find no record of any work being done at this address. She said I should open the envelope. I explained my reluctance. If it did turn out to be an invoice, it would be inadvisable to pay it because British Gas’s computers would not know how to interpret the discrepancy. It was British Gas’s error and I knew very well that, if I tried to finesse the system, it would be me who suffered rather than British Gas.

She told me that she was sure the envelope just contained some advertising and that I should ignore it and throw it away. I said that if I was going to throw it away, there could hardly be any harm in opening it so I did so. It was a final demand, threatening bailiffs and distraint. This sent her back into the system. After a lengthy pause, she reported back to me that she had corrected the error and that a new invoice in my name would be issued in a week. She apologised in a dignified way.

I thought the apology should come from the office that made the error, so I next telephoned the number given on the invoice. I had to explain everything again to the woman who replied and she said that she too would ensure that a correct invoice was issued and that I would receive a telephone call apologising to me in a day or two. No such call has been made. When your envelope arrived today addressed to “Mr Rigby”, I naturally thought at first that it was yet a fourth issue of the erroneous invoice, probably threatening public execution. Much against my instincts, I opened it and therein found your questionnaire. It at least gives me the opportunity to air my grievance.

I have been a British Gas customer for 40 years, long before the industry was privatised. Now that competition has entered the market, it seems you can get power from the local supermarket, the shop that formerly sold videotapes and a bloke passing on a bicycle. If you want to keep your customers, you had better buck up your ideas.

I hope this is helpful. I am still awaiting a formal apology and a correct invoice.

Yours sincerely ...

I shall of course report on any developments. I have yet to hear from Ofcom (see two entries back).

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


So-called "dangerous dogs" have been in the news again. Of course the cliché that there are no dangerous dogs, only dangerous owners, is too easy and not wholly true. But the world divides roughly into three groups – those who love dogs, those who hate (or are at best indifferent to) dogs and those who use dogs as a convenience. That third group is probably the largest.

The dog-haters and their less passionate henchpeople are easily dealt with. I have a friend who detests dogs because a relation of his was savaged by a dog when they were both children. This is understandable to a degree but irrational. You might as well hate all humanity because of what the Nazis did. Those who are "scared" of dogs are just as irrational. Scratch someone made nervous by dogs and you usually reveal someone who has never been around dogs. I have lost count of the number of our friends who, hitherto not drawn to dogs, now enquire after our two before they come on to our own health and well-being. (Of course, we happen to live with the two most charming, friendly and adorable animals in the history of the world, but I would say that, wouldn't I).

There's a theory that the world divides between dog-lovers and cat-lovers but that's too reductive for me. Plenty of people love both. I would have difficulty living with a cat because of the dead birds, mice, voles and other blameless creatures it would bring me as offerings. Cats torture and kill for sport and I find that as repellent in animals as in humans. On the other hand, cats usually like me and I feel a glow of mutual pleasure when a friend's cat curls up in my lap (along with the sheer relief when it stops digging its claws through my trousers).

I once heard it suggested that cats are for people who need to give love and dogs for those who need to receive love. Too reductive again. But the uncritical approval that dogs appear to offer – I emphasize "appear to" – is clearly good for the soul. Keeping a pet – any pet – that responds to your affection is said to reduce stress levels and promote beneficial hormones (in the pet-owner and conceivably in the pet too) and I don't doubt it. Cats are probably cooler (in every sense) than dogs and their self-sufficiency has a lot to be said for it. But I'll return to the demands of dog-owning.

Those who use dogs as a convenience forget to make the rather crucial distinction between having a pet and having, say, a microwave. Dogs have a great many "uses". Their natural abilities in detecting things beyond human capacity is still being discovered. For decades, dog have had their instincts refined by humans in order to guide the blind and sight-impaired, to herd and track, to find lost or trapped people and to sniff out certain substances. We are only now beginning to discover how profound is their astonishing ability to detect incipient disease or trauma in humans and to learn complex tasks whereby they can assist the severely disabled.

That dogs are also encouraged to tap into their potential ferocity – as guard, attack and fighting dogs – is no reflection on dogs themselves. Dog-fighting is still nauseatingly wide-spread, an underground pursuit requiring animals that, without strict control, are a danger to the public. Many people, especially men, think it adds to their (imagined) macho aura to keep a dog reputed to be aggressive – a Rottweiler, a Doberman or some variety of bull terrier. These are all dogs that need skilled handling and are not suited to being cooped up in cramped households. Perhaps the least suitable for this male-vanity purpose is the most popular breed of all in this stratum of society: the German shepherd. These dogs are highly-strung and can easily become defensively fierce.

Certain kinds of dog are made popular or fashionable by chance. The demand for Dalmatians, another challenging breed, sky-rocketed after a couple of live-action movies loosely based on the Dodie Smith story The Hundred and One Dalmatians. I'll bet a distressing proportion of them had to be re-homed. The long-running Andrex lavatory paper campaign (in which, paradoxically, the puppies' anuses are digitally removed from the footage) has helped to keep golden retrievers hugely popular, especially in child-centred households. Tragically, the market for retrievers has brought in many unscrupulous dealers who have force-bred puppies to meet the demand. Professional breeders manage whelping in a way that ensures bloodlines are kept true. Puppy farmers overbreed and use sires and dams that may be unsuited to the purpose. There are now many retrievers at large that have brain and other defects. It is no longer the breed that used to be the proverbial child-friendly dog. In fact, the Andrex campaign has been the ruination of the breed.

A golden occasionally attended the dog class at which our two are regulars. He was cantankerous from an early age and would often growl at the other dogs. He is the only dog we have known in five years of attending the class to have bitten the teacher. Later we heard that his family got a spaniel puppy for their youngest child and the retriever broke its jaw. It recovered but it had to be wired up and re-homed. I hope the child is not in any danger from the retriever.

The key word in the previous paragraph is "occasionally". If the golden had rigorously attended class, it would almost certainly have had its aggressive instincts trained away. All dogs – I repeat, all dogs – need to go to regular training classes, ideally for their whole lives so that the good things that they learn are reinforced regularly and they are kept socialized with other dogs. There are many things to know about keeping a dog and unless you do the homework you are bound to make mistakes. I wonder if, when the spaniel puppy was brought into the house where the golden retriever had been previously unchallenged, the owners were careful to wrap the newcomer in a blanket impregnated with the scent of the incumbent dog. Such a simple trick leads the resident dog to believe that the intruder must be already a part of the pack and makes the process of acceptance much quicker. In a mirror gesture, the new owners should get the pup's mother and the rest of the pup's litter to scent some piece of cloth that can be placed in the pup's bed in its new home so that it has a familiar scent to reassure it. Smell is the primary sense for dogs and its importance cannot be overestimated. Nor can the pack instinct. When a dog comes into your home, it needs to establish its own place in your family, its new pack. Beware the dog who is allowed to become the dominant member of the whole pack.

Dogs are a huge responsibility. It is not simply that a dog-owner is liable for the dog's behaviour, in law as in morality. It is also that a dog is a long-term and a constant commitment. The best piece of advice about keeping a dog is very simple: don't. A dog is as dependent on its owner as a human baby but a dog never grows into an independent life. You can't send a dog out to school, tell it to go and play in the park, send it to the shop with an order and remind it to bring back the change. Dogs don't take a gap year before university. You don't need to know where your children are every minute of the day, provided you have a reasonable relationship with them based on a degree of mutual trust. But you do need to know where your dog is every minute of the day.

Of course there are exceptions. Another retriever/labrador trait is – or used to be – wandering. My headmaster's golden would be regularly seen pacing around the town alone, negotiating the roads with practised skill and never in any danger of getting lost. But that was in the 1960s and the traffic was a lot lighter and a lot more patient. Today, it might even get stolen, unthinkable then.

No one should take on a dog unless the depth of commitment is understood and can be met. My partner David and I were both brought up with dogs and we were both broody for a dog for years. But we lived in London with no garden, we had no routine, we were out a lot. There was no question of having a dog. When we moved to the country, we both worked from home and we had not only a garden but an adjacent field that came with the house. I had always imagined that, living in the country, we would be taking regular and immense walks with our dogs but, as luck would have it, the breed we chose (a Great Dane) is notable for its lack of stamina – like all big dogs, its heart is the same size as a small dog's – and half a dozen turns round the field each day is enough for him. Our second dog, a petit basset, has little legs and is able to pace himself to the big guy and still get sufficient exercise.

We never leave our dogs in the house for more than three hours at a stretch without arranging for the neighbours to call in and give them some attention and that only happens a couple of times a year. When we are away, we have regular housesitters who know and are adored by the dogs. (This is not to say that we don't have to be careful to disguise the imminence of our departure. The sight of a suitcase is enough to set the Dane howling). And both dogs have a varied diet, entirely consisting of fresh raw food and bones. They are fit, healthy, active, well-exercised, regularly trained, curious about the world and fascinated by people and other dogs. I don't think a pet deserves or should achieve anything less. No dog should be left on its own all day while the humans go off to work. A bored, lonely and ill-exercised dog will become fractious or listless or aggressive or neurotic or ill. It simply is cruelty to keep a dog that cannot be looked after. So many people get a dog "for the children" and then find that the children change and develop other interests and the dog depends on the most reliable adult in the house. If you take on a dog, you have to plan for 12 or 15 years of having a totally dependent creature. And it is much better to have two so that the dog at least has a companion when you're otherwise engaged.

So what about the dog that savages a child ... or savages anybody, even somebody else's dog? The desire to attack doesn't come from nowhere, nor is it innate unless the dog feels the need to defend itself or feed itself. Small children can be vulnerable because they do not always understand how to treat a dog and the dog does not always understand how to relate to a small person who gives it no food or exercise. No dog, even the best regulated, should ever be left alone with a baby, simply because a baby is hard for a dog to relate to. You cannot expect to take an animal into your home, one whose DNA is informed by a long ancestry of living in the wild, and expect it by its own intuition to fit into your arrangements. Dogs have to be taught and shown, chastised and praised, given their own space and kept occupied. Their owners need to learn what they require and what they must be denied for their own well-being (chocolate, for instance, and potatoes and cooked bones). They need a routine so that they can be sure that if they can be patient for a certain familiar amount of time they will be able to go outside and have a pee and a run. Dogs do have an uncanny sense of time. When my father had a shop, he closed up over lunchtime and walked home and back but on Saturdays, his busiest day, my mother drove to the shop with his lunch which he ate on the run. Our border collie would go with her in the car. Every Saturday, he would be waiting at the back door to go to the car long before my mother did anything to indicate that today was Saturday. He just knew.

Dogs are extraordinary creatures. They deserve our unstinting support and humility. No one should take on a dog unless they can unconditionally provide all of that support and humility.

Please download my book Common Sense free of all charge by clicking the link in the right margin and following the simple instructions on the website.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


A week before Christmas, we lost our on-line connection. Getting it restored took me three days devoted to making a nuisance of myself with British Telecom. Below is the text of a letter I am sending this weekend to Ofcom, the telecommunications watchdog, copied to our MP.

Dear Sir/Madam

I have been a customer, first of GPO Telephones, subsequently of BT, throughout the more-than-40 years since I left home to attend university. I have never had a choice about it because, in recent years, I have lived in areas where cable alternatives are unavailable. For the last year or two, we have been connected to BT Broadband.

On the afternoon of Monday December 18th last, à propos of nothing at all, I found that I had lost connection with the internet. The ADSL link to my wireless router (a Belkin 54g) from the BT Broadband line had spontaneously severed itself. The same problem had occurred some two months earlier when, after several days during which I spent a long time on the phone with the BT Broadband Helpline (based in Chennai, India), the problem seemed to correct itself without discernible intervention at my end.

Once again, on this occasion, my first port of call was the Chennai Helpline. As before, the patient operatives there ordered a number of tests to be made on the line, conducted without any engineers coming to our house and, as before, they found no fault. I talked to the helpline provided by the manufacturers of the Belkin router. Because it had been suggested that there might be a problem with this router, I next day purchased an alternative, a router by Netgear, at a cost of £79.90. But the disconnection remained. The ADSL light on the Netgear, as on the Belkin, did not light up and, because there was no ADSL connection, I was unable to configure the Netgear router. The Belkin carries in addition a light indicating a connection to a phone line. This too was dark.

I persisted with the BT Broadband Helpline. I asked that the sending of a BT engineer to the house be authorized. They insisted that the problem was not with the line. So I asked the computer shop that had sold me the Netgear router to send a computer engineer. They agreed to do so, at a cost to me of £129.

The computer engineer could establish no ADSL or phone line connection to my Netgear router, nor to a router of his own that he had brought with him. He agreed with the manufacturers of the Netgear router (whose helpline I had also consulted) that the problem must be with the phone line. I reported these findings to the BT Broadband Helpline. They claimed to have duplicated the line trials and that there was no fault on the line. I asked again that they send an engineer. They said that they could not authorize this.

I spent a whole day trying to take the matter further within the BT organization. One kindly woman in BT Customer Services did volunteer to refund me the cost of the computer engineer call-out and to make an adjustment to our next bill in recognition of the phone calls I had made. I subsequently received a letter over the signature of the Customer Service Director, saying that our account had been credited £149.00 on December 21st.

But the kindly woman, like everyone else I spoke to at BT, passed me on to another department that could not help me. I was attempting to locate someone who would authorize the sending of an engineer to the house so that I might ensure that I was back on line in time for Christmas. As I grew more frustrated and ragged with BT, I began to make it clear to its representatives that if my connection were not restored in time for Christmas, any engineer coming to the house thereafter would be doing so to disconnect BT Broadband. We would get by with dial-up computing and with mobile phones.

I was eventually told that the engineers would need to do two days of tests before any home visit. I gently pointed out that the line had already been tested to destruction. I asked again why I could not be connected to someone who would authorize the sending of an engineer. I was told that the engineers could only be communicated with by email. This was Alice in Wonderland. I asked to speak to someone at BT actually authorized to use the bloody telephone.

When it became clear that no one could or would help me, I asked to be put through to the Chairman’s office. This at least had the effect of connecting me to BT headquarters. I was not permitted to speak directly to the Chairman or anyone in his office as that office operates on a return-call principle. But I spoke to someone who listened to my case and who promised to call me back the next day, it now being near the end of office hours. With a short break for lunch, I had been on the phone almost continuously from 9.00am until past 5.00pm and this was the third day on which the lack of an on-line connection had dominated my waking hours. My shoulders were knotted almost beyond repair, my left ear hurt fit to burst and I had been cured of wanting to be played Mozart (especially down a phone line) ever again. I felt sceptical that I would hear any more – several BT people had previously promised to call me back and had not done so. One had even urged me several times to “trust me” and then had not come good on that earnest of trust.

The next day I was indeed phoned by something called, I think I heard right, the Office of Higher Complaints. The man who called me promised to take charge of the case and to arrange for an engineer to visit our house. He also gave me his direct number. Sure enough, he called back to give me a date for an engineer’s visit. It would not be in time for Christmas – it was by now the Thursday and I knew what was possible and what not – but I had a firm date.

That evening, the router “spontaneously” (as it seemed to me) reconnected to the phone line. I was indeed back on line for Christmas. After the holiday (but before New Year’s Eve), a BT Open Reach van duly arrived. The engineer, it turned out, was based at a depot in our town. He explained the relationship between BT and Open Reach and was frankly dismissive of the BT Broadband Helpline. He also seemed to confirm what I had begun to suspect and what other BT customers have told me: that nobody at BT wants to do anything for you if there's no obvious profit in it for BT. He said that BT are reluctant to call in Open Reach because it means a commitment to expenditure. And he, like the officer from Higher Complaints, gave me his direct number. He also found no fault in the house’s connections but he installed a new extension box so that I no longer need to use micro-filters between phone line and router.

Revealing that there was something he could try at the exchange and that there remained a possibility that our individual line to the exchange might indeed have a faulty connection at the exchange itself, he left. The Higher Complaints officer has been diligent in his attentions – indeed, I have had to explain to him that a daily phone call to ask if everything is fine is really not necessary.

My Broadband connection has not failed since and I have permitted the Higher Complaints officer to – as he put it – close the case, though I remain braced for a breakdown as unheralded as the last one. BT has, on the face of it, finally come good but not without my losing the greater part of the week before Christmas, a time when I could have been, ought to have been and would much rather have been preoccupied with other matters, let alone my work – which, as I operate from home, relies on my having reliable on-line access.

There does seem to be a culture of avoidance at BT. The recorded messages you encounter indicate that you in turn may be recorded for training purposes and you wonder what is learned from the recordings they hold of your mounting frustration. They give you a case reference number that no one ever asks to have cited. There is evidently no direct route to the solution of a customer’s problem. Operatives at Customer Services, as at the Broadband Helpline, are courteous and patient but do not appear to be provided with clear avenues down which they can guide you to someone qualified to address your problem. The franchising of Open Reach makes no sense if BT only see it as a resource of last resort.

I hope this customer’s experience is of use to you.

Thank you for bearing with me through a rather extended account.

Yours faithfully,

W.Stephen Gilbert

I shall report on Ofcom's response in due course. Meanwhile, it might be instructive to compare this experience with the correspondence reproduced as the chapter 'A Tale of a Chubb' in my book Common Sense, free to download by clicking the link in the right hand sidebar.