Sunday, April 26, 2009


For my readers' edification and diversion, here is a letter I intend to post tomorrow to the Chairman of Royal Mail, with a copy to my MP:

Dear Mr Brydon,

I was referred to your office by a member of the Royal Mail Customer Services team, from whom I have received no satisfaction whatsoever in pursuit of a complaint.

This is the burden of my experience. On March 30th last, I took a letter to the local post office. I wished to ensure that the letter reached its London destination the next day and was advised that the so-called Special Delivery Next Day service was the appropriate route. I duly paid £4.60 and was assured that the letter would be delivered the following day before 1.00 pm.

The letter was to a man working in a London pub as a barman. He owes me rather a large sum of money. The letter set out my final terms for the repayment and enclosed a stamped envelope addressed to me so that he could have no excuse for not replying (in confirmation of his understanding of the terms) by the deadline that I stipulated: the end of business on the following Friday. Hence the full amount I had spent on the exercise was £4.96.

When no reply from him was forthcoming, I began to set in train a number of sanctions against him. This produced from him a flurry of pained emails, in one of which (sent on the evening of April 15th), he swore that he had never received my letter of March 30th.

Though I felt disinclined to believe him, I went to the website indicated on the receipt I had received for my “guaranteed delivery” – so described on the receipt. I entered the code for the item – ZW119511162GB – and read that the Chiswick Delivery Office had tried to deliver the item “before 12.34” on March 31st and had left a while-you-were-out card. (This information has since been changed to read that the item is being returned to the sender. It has yet to arrive).

I mused on the meaning of the phrase “guaranteed delivery”. It seemed to be succinct and clear and to allow of no controversy over its interpretation. If the language is to have any meaning at all, then being “guaranteed” is an absolute, not a matter of degree. The Oxford English Dictionary gives these four definitions for the verb guarantee:
1. trans. To be a guarantee, warrant, or surety for; spec. to undertake with respect to (a contract, the performance of a legal act, etc.) that it shall be duly carried out; to make oneself responsible for the genuineness of (an article); hence, to assure the existence or persistence of; to set on a secure basis.
b. with inf. or obj. clause: To engage to do something; to warrant or ensure that something will happen or has happened.
2. To secure the possession of (something) to a person, etc.
3. To secure (a person or thing) against or from (risk, injury, etc.); to secure in (the possession of anything)”.

Not much wriggle room there, I feel.

Next morning, I telephoned 0845 272100, the number given on the receipt. I will not divert myself here with a disquisition on the prerecorded hoops through which a caller must navigate to reach a human voice: you must be tired of hearing customer complaints about that particular aspect of trying to contact Royal Mail. When I did get to speak to somebody and put it to her that I had not received a service that, according to my receipt, was “guaranteed”, she began to argue with me, seeming to suggest that no such guarantee was possible and that the attempt to deliver which had been made constituted a guarantee of service and therefore fulfilled the company’s obligation.

She had a little more intelligence than I had gleaned from the website, namely that an attempted delivery had been made some time after 10.00 am (I forget the precise time) and another at 12.34. I told her that, as it happened, I had been in the pub to which my letter was addressed the Friday before it was sent. I observed then that the pub opened at noon. I also saw a postman enter the pub and place a bundle of mail on the pub bar some time between 12.20 and 12.30. This would seem to be in accordance with the delivery time of 12.34 given on the website. There seemed to be no reason why the Special Delivery Next Day letter could not have been delivered and signed for at 12.34. She argued with me again about the guarantee in exactly the same terms as before, at which point I understood that she must be reading from a prepared script. I asked to be put through to Customer Services. She agreed to do this. As soon as Customer Services replied, I was cut off.

I took some time to collect myself and then called again and, when I reached a point in the process where I was permitted to speak to someone, I asked to be put through to Customer Services. This time I got through and described my case to a woman whose job, I imagined, was to listen to my case and to help. On the contrary, she argued with me quite as vehemently as her predecessor had done. I was careful to keep my temper, knowing from previous experience that sweet reason plays better than undisguised frustration. If, as your recorded voice informs us, my call was recorded “for training purposes”, you will be able to confirm this.

I did note an interesting variation on the previous conversation, however. When the Customer Services woman consulted the file on my case, she said that only one attempt was made to deliver the letter – the earlier of those mentioned before – and that 12.34 pm referred to the time that the postman/woman had signed off the round. A card would therefore have been left on the mid-morning delivery and the onus was thereafter on someone at the pub to collect the letter. This timetable did not of course square with what I had observed myself on the Friday. I once again argued that “guaranteed delivery” did not so much imply as state categorically that delivery was guaranteed. If, as I now understood it, delivery was not guaranteed, the service should, at the very least level of candour, be called “guaranteed attempted delivery”.

When it seemed to me that the Customer Services woman was repeating herself to the extent that she too was reading from a script, I asked to speak to her supervisor. She agreed to put me through and I was promptly cut off again. To be cut off once is unfortunate, twice looked malicious.

I walked the dogs round the field to give myself an opportunity to prepare for a further attempt to get the Royal Mail to admit that some fault in this case must attach to itself, then called Customer Services and asked to speak to a supervisor. The man to whom I was put through gave his name as Ben Ferguson. He was the first person I spoke to who did not argue with me and who took my complaint seriously, which I appreciated. After listening to my account and examining the entry on the website, he told me that the postman/woman whose round was in question would be interviewed and that he would call me back within 48 hours. I told him that, because we both work from home, our answering machine is permanently switched on and that he would need to leave a message – if I were in a position to hear him speak, I would pick up immediately. I understood that he had made a note of this on the file. He also gave me what he said was a direct line number (08457 740740).

Having heard nothing after eight days, I called the number. It proved to be very far from a direct line and I had to wade through the usual lists of options, none of which applies to one’s case. When I eventually got through, the woman I spoke to said that Mr Ferguson was away. She called up the file and reported that Mr Ferguson had telephoned but we had not picked up. I pointed out that he had noted our use of the answering machine, the message of which immediately declares that it is always switched on. There was a curious parallel here with my undelivered letter: Mr Ferguson clearly felt that he had tried and need not do so again. His note said that the postman had been interviewed and claimed to have left a “we-called-but-you-were-out” card. I told her that I had since spoken to the person to whom the letter was addressed and he had said that nobody else who worked at the pub knew anything of such a card. I again argued for a different title for a service that could not in reality “guarantee” delivery and in response she uttered the line that no Customer Services representative should dream of uttering: “No one’s ever complained about it before”.

I said that at the very least I would be applying for a refund and she said that I was not entitled to a refund because an attempt to deliver the envelope had been made. I was taken aback at this. I remarked that this would seem to depend entirely on the word of the postman as no such card was known to exist. At this point, I observed that I would be taking up the matter with my MP and she volunteered the chairman's office as a suitable target for my complaint.

The barman duly sent me a cheque for £5,000, which, however, is only a first instalment of his debt to me. I paid this cheque into my bank along with another for £1. As it happens, this second cheque was from the Royal Mail. As a philatelist of several decades’ standing, I have occasion to order items from Tallents House. Recently, Royal Mail sent me two unitemised invoices, the sums involved differing by £1. I wrote several times enquiring as to the discrepancy but received no reply that resolved the matter. Eventually, a little exasperated, I sent Royal Mail a cheque for the higher amount. With no accompanying explanation, I received the cheque for a £1 refund some weeks later. When I paid in the two cheques, the bank teller was amused by the contrast in the two amounts. I decided not to bother to explain to her how the cheques were in fact united in their respective relationship to Royal Mail incompetence.

In sum, there are two aspects of the matter of the guaranteed delivery item that ought to merit your attention. The first is the shadowy nature of the system’s operation at ground level, where the details of the story change according to what must seem most expedient in fending off a dissatisfied customer and Customer Services interpret their role not as a soothing balm for such a customer but as a first line of defence against complaint.

The wider point concerns the face that Royal Mail shows to the public. Calling a service “guaranteed” is a large and clear statement that does not admit of failure. The promotional material on your website urges customers to “take advantage of Special Delivery Next Day for guaranteed delivery of your urgent or valuable items before 1.00pm the next working day” and also undertakes that “if your item is not delivered on time we’ll refund your money providing you have proof of posting and claim within 14 days of posting”.

By searching around the site, I eventually found what even the site accounts “the small print”: “Attempted delivery shall constitute delivery for purposes of our guarantee”. To post there a piece of careful legalese that in effect entirely negates the claim made in the promotion of the service is to act wholly in bad faith. That small print was not available to me when I walked into my local post office with my letter and, in good faith, accepted the assurance of the woman behind the counter that Special Delivery Next Day would achieve what I wanted to achieve, guaranteed.

And here is the final absurdity of this whole sorry experience: had I simply posted the letter at the normal first class rate, it would certainly have been delivered to the pub, even if only by means of being dropped through the letterbox, and the recipient would have received it. Instead, I spent nearly fourteen times as much as the first class letter rate and the letter never arrived. A cynic would suggest that the service be renamed “guaranteed non-delivery”. I am no cynic. But some indication that you intend to rectify this poor service would be very acceptable.

I have always been a fierce opponent of the privatization of any part of Royal Mail and/or the Post Office. At the very least, this experience has made me think again.

Yours sincerely,

W Stephen Gilbert

Thursday, April 23, 2009


An old friend was recently describing to me how, in his view, one of the delights of having a tiny iPod video is that he can sit on the tube and watch programmes he’s “nicked” (as he put it) from the BBC iPlayer. Apart from the deplorable illegality of his actions, I can think of few prospects more uninviting than the notion of watching anything on a screen the size of a postage stamp and presumably listening through those tiny earphones that no one under 30 can move without wearing, while surrounded by fellow travellers some of whom will certainly be attempting to peer over your shoulder to see what it might be that you are squinting at. Why doesn’t he read a book?

It is very curious that while the size of the cinema screen has grown until it has reached IMAX proportions, a high proportion of viewers has settled for a more and more restricted view. I don’t suppose it would rob Newsnight of much of its visual appeal if one were to watch it on a screen rather smaller than most of Elizabeth Taylor’s diamonds (and indeed the smaller the image of Mark Lawson on Newsnight Review the better). But I certainly wouldn’t want to watch, say, Abel Gance’s Napoléon in any conditions other than its three-projector Polyvision version which is the width of three academy-frame screens.

As a boy I was taken to see the first commercial movie made in a new process: This Is Cinerama. We all duly ducked as the train hurtled towards us and generally were bowled over by … well, by the sheer size of the images. Sadly, very little worthwhile work is ever executed in these mammoth aspect ratios. Several features were released in Cinerama; only How the West Was Won and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey have much merit. But modern movies are routinely released in widescreen dimensions and compromises must be made if these are to be televised or shown anywhere where the screen’s aspect ratio differs from that of the movie.

When I lived in London, I endeavoured to see the great majority of films that I wanted to see on the big screen first. This was especially true of large-scale roadshows like Pirates of the Caribbean where the scale of the cinema screen dictates the look of the entertainment. Subsequent viewings on television would be referable in my memory to the earlier ‘proper’ cinema-going experience. Since we moved to the country and my visits to the city have dwindled in regularity, I have drifted more and more out of touch with contemporary film-making. This year was the first since I originally came to London to attend university that I had not seen a single one of the Oscar-nominated movies or performances by the time of the ceremony. There is no cinema within easy striking distance of where we live.

I record a great many movies from television but I get around to watching dishearteningly few of them (I claim to possess the largest collection of unseen movies in the world; I know – it’s a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). As I write I am downloading a commercially released documentary saved on Sky + last night, removing the adverts as I store it. Despite the fact that I may never watch this or most of the rest of my collection, I am acutely aware of the treatment that television metes out to film.

When we moved to our present home, there was a Sky aerial already in place. As it was remarkably discreet – on so many dwellings the satellite dish is the first feature you notice – and as we quite fancied the movie package that was then one of the main options for Sky customers, we decided to ignore our dislike of all things Murdochian and go with it.

To my great surprise, Sky Movies has proved to be the best source for films on the box, not least because so very many movies from all levels of commerciality come onto Sky eighteen months or so after their theatrical release. Already movies dated 2008 are beginning to air. On Sky’s ‘free’ channels – which is to say those that make up the package which we pay for monthly rather than those so-called Box Office movies for which a premium must be paid at each viewing – most of the boxes that I require get ticked. There are no ad breaks during the film. There is no channel ID in the corner of the screen. With very few exceptions, movies made in widescreen ratio are broadcast in letterbox format. (Most channels both satellite and terrestrial now respect the aspect ratio, though not Five which transmits all its movies panned and scanned).

Subsequent Sky transmissions are never given on-screen trails while the movie is still playing. End credits are always shown complete and at the correct speed and, while it sometimes happens that a linkperson speaks briefly over them and very occasionally that the dimensions of the movie image are squeezed to allow a visual trail, these intrusions are very much the exception rather than the rule. In the great majority of cases, the print of the movie is the longest available (an exception is Sky’s version of the Tarantino-scripted True Romance of which Channel 4 has a fuller print). It sometimes happens that venerable British movies are shown by Sky in US television prints that have either been savaged to fill programme slots or copied from release prints that were shortened to serve as supporting features in movie houses. Sky Movies is not apt to screen signed versions of films or dubbed versions of foreign works.

The one drawback to Sky’s policy is that it assumes that all viewing households are largely peopled by small children who do nothing but stare at the domestic screen all day. Consequently, most of the movies I want to see (or record) first have to be accessed using my PIN number, a dull undertaking. One day when I was tired I confused the PIN number with a similar code for a channel I often use and entered the code wrongly three times. As a consequence, I was “locked out” of the movie for ten minutes so that by the time I could access it again it was already under way. Grown-up households ought not to have to put up with this. (It is a measure of the extraordinary over-sensitivity of Sky to parental controls that the movie title The Bitch appears in all Sky promotional material as The B***h). Generally, though, this is about as good as movies on television get.

By contrast, the BBC long ago gave up being scrupulous about screening movies. Unless a picture is so old that its ending amounts to little more than the words ‘The End’, end credits are routinely interfered with, even on BBC4, and always rendered illegible for the duration of an on-screen programme promotion. Either all the craft credits are simply excised or the roller is dizzyingly speeded up or, often enough, both forms of butchery are employed simultaneously. The result is that it becomes impossible to know whether any other violence has been done to the print.

Let me explain. Film traditionally projects at the rate of 24 frames per second. For some reason too arcane for me to go into (even were I to understand it), film transferred to tape for showing on television (or selling on DVD) runs at 25 frames per second. This means that a movie timed at 100 minutes in the cinema will play for 96 minutes (4 percent faster) on the box. When planning to copy movies from transmission, I check the official length and then subtract 4 percent so that I know what to expect. But once the broadcasters have edited the end credits, the calculation is thrown out and then the integrity of the movie cannot be relied upon.

A certain discrepancy may be anticipated for a film shown on the BBC or ITV (Channel 4 and its satellite channels are usually more reliable for film timings though they perpetrate other impositions) but there are times when the difference between what length a movie should broadcast at and what it does broadcast at cannot be explained simply by credit cutting. Not long ago, the BBC showed a feature that it had made itself – Starter for 10 – and, even though this appeared to have a complete credit roller (perhaps because of the very fact that it was a BBC-financed production), the broadcast version was still light by three minutes. Another of its own features, A Cock and Bull Story, ran four minutes short, too much to be spoken for by trimming the end credits. This cutting does happen on C4 channels from time to time. Zoo, the documentary I recorded on More4 last night played six minutes shorter than it should (and anyway its release print was only 80 minutes long).

The same documentary revealed a problem that continues to bug More4 three-and-a-half years after its launch. Whenever the presentation microphone is switched on, the broadcast sound breaks up so, if the duty announcer’s mike is not switched off immediately a programme starts, the introductory music becomes unstable – this happened to last night’s documentary. Why nobody at the channel appears to be aware of this is peculiar: doesn’t anyone monitor the output off air?

Meanwhile, there was a curious incident on More4’s sister channel Film4 this afternoon. A vintage British movie, A Cottage to Let, was going out for the umpteenth time in recent years but in an “audio described” version, so that, fitfully, a woman’s disembodied voice chimed in to describe physical action on screen. I have no idea how often such versions are transmitted, never knowingly having encountered one before. The Sky on-screen guide indeed has the code AD against the broadcast but one rarely notices such detail and there is nothing about it in Radio Times. It surely ought to be possible to confine such intrusions to the coloured buttons on the remote and spare those who are able to see all the action for themselves.

Signed screenings are another bugbear. Given the development of interactive television services, the signer ought also to be consigned to a place from which he or she may be summoned by those that require them. I would have no complaint if C4 in particular did not pursue a curious policy of broadcasting its signed movies late at night and frequently using for the purpose films that are rarely screened. I have several times been caught out setting Sky + for a long hoped-for movie transmitted while I sleep, only to discover next day that it is unwatchable because some over-actor in the corner of the screen is gesticulating for the hearing-impaired. One such screening neglected to slot in the signer until the movie was more than an hour into its duration.

A satellite movie channel I discovered a few months ago is Simply Movies. The channel belongs to a DVD marketing outfit, called Simply, which promotes itself on the channel and transmits there a package of movies acquired from the Sony Corporation, which means that all the movies were first made and/or released by Columbia Pictures. Many of the films are long unseen -– there is a preponderance of titles from the 1960s – and some are pretty obscure. But all without exception are shown distorted out of their true ratio so that faces are elongated. It is bewildering that no one at the channel attends to this yet they must be aware of it. One of the channel’s true plums – Von Sternberg’s dazzling and perverse 1935 traversal of Crime and Punishment with Peter Lorre sliming along as Rashkolnikov – even went out with every ad break caption card bearing the movie’s title superimposed on the phrase “wrong format”. How weird is that?

Of course there is no real substitute for settling down in a proper cinema to see a film on the big screen. Not that this experience is always unalloyed pleasure. Ignorant people will talk through the screening, as if watching at home. The last feature that I saw in a movie house was Gus Van Sant’s wholly admirable Milk. But the print was severely scratched for a considerable portion of the opening reel and that ought not to be the case when one is being charged a West End price. Nowadays, when cinema staff have been rationalised to a minimum squad, you go off to look for someone to complain to and miss twenty minutes of the movie because, especially in a multiplex, there is no one to be found. The projectionists tend to be unaware if the sound has dropped out or the focus has slipped because they’re simultaneously dealing with projectors feeding several different screens. The cinema’s greatest effort now goes into the most lucrative part of its business: the sale of popcorn, snacks and hot and soft drinks.

The only answer is clearly to make a lot of money, build you own private screening facility, employ a seasoned projectionist, have pristine prints of new movies flown in and watch at your leisure with whatever guests and libations suit your taste. Better by far than an iPod on the tube.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


The Prime Minister appears wholly to have mislaid his hitherto well-attuned political instincts over the affair of the smear-mails. It has been an object lesson in how to make a bad situation much worse. The danger is that people like me who are naturally well-disposed towards Gordon Brown begin to suspect that he has lost his appetite for the fight as well as his tactical acumen. A kind of death wish seems to be settling over Downing Street, much as it did in the dog days of the Major, Callaghan and Macmillan/Douglas Home premierships.

When Brown delayed a much-demanded decision about an early election, David Cameron tried to tar him as a “ditherer”, for no better reason than that it worked for Blair against John Major – of course, it worked against Major because it was a well-landed punch. Now the opposition has a much better founded claim: that the PM is behaving like a loser.

The conventional wisdom, established now for more than eighteen months, is that the Tories will easily carry the next general election and David Cameron will be prime minister. JK Galbraith, who coined the term, noted inter alia that conventional wisdom “reserves its scorn for what it is likely to term a purely destructive or negative position”. And he went on: “In this, as so often, it manifests a sound instinct for self-preservation” [The Affluent Society 1958]. It’s hard to imagine anything more destructive or negative than the emailed falsehoods that Brown’s close associate Damian McBride proposed to circulate in the hope of undermining Cameron and his front bench (with the possible exception of those newspapers, led by Murdoch’s Sunday Times, that condemned the tactic while gleefully reproducing the gist of the smears).

The Tories’ outrage at this disclosure indeed manifests self-preservation. They have plenty of black propagandists of their own who could be unmasked in dastardly deeds. There but for the grace of political bloggers, Cameron will be muttering, goes my close team of advisors (one of whom, who bears the unlikely name of Stephen Gilbert, is obviously a wrong ’un).

Brown has made two obvious mistakes, one reactive the other systematic. The former was to let the opposition seize the initiative. As soon as McBride’s emails were in the public domain, the PM should have taken responsibility. It may stick in his craw as much as it would in mine to indulge the gesture politics of apologising, but it would have been obvious to the Number 10 advisors that those libelled in the emails would be demanding a full apology and that fair-minded people would perfectly well understand why they would do so. Brown ought to have had the nous to anticipate such a demand by pre-empting it, not painting himself into a corner wherein to apologise late looks weak and to continue to refuse to apologise looks churlish and ungracious. Brown doesn’t do gracious, even at the best of times. All the more important, then, that he avoid situations in which good grace is naturally called for.

Damian Omen 2 or McBride of Frankenstein?
pic courtesy of BBC News website

The broader mistake lies in both Brown’s and Tony Blair’s historic reliance on advisors who appear to have emerged from the mulm at the bottom of a particularly stagnant aquarium. Looking at Damian McBride, you feel that no one with any sense would trust him with the care of a boiled sweet, let alone far-reaching matters at the heart of government. Many of the others have been little better: Derek Draper, Charlie Whelan, Wilf Stevenson, Lord Levy, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser (this last also famous for ill-advised emails) – you would have thought giving any of them positions of trust was something of a gamble. It becomes increasingly clear that people like these have persistently briefed against the imagined rivals of Blair/Brown within the Labour Party quite as extensively as against the official opposition. Apologists for Blair and Brown argue – with no great conviction – that these attack dogs were not licensed by their masters and hence those masters should not be blamed for their dogs’ bad behaviour. As a dog owner, I know full well that any breach of law, peace or etiquette committed by a dog of mine is my own responsibility. This whole sorry/not sorry business does raise vexing questions about both Blair and Brown and their skill at reading character and at understanding what is appropriate.

In Gordon Brown’s case, another resonance comes into play. Not since Aneurin Bevan, who once described the Tory front bench as “scum”, has a senior Labour politician evinced such gut distaste for the party opposite. This tends to breed the suspicion that Brown will not desist from low tactics if they will do Mr Cameron a piece of no-good, even just for the hell of it. This is a perilous instinct. The British still have a finely tuned nose for fair play and recoil from politicians, however exulted, who appear to be stooping to try to conquer. Only a few days ago, the Prime Minister was justly basking in the glow of a good G20. If he has frittered away that good will in a gruesome and demeaning domestic disaster, he really has only himself to blame.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


A young friend whose opinion I usually trust and respect reckons that I should persevere with Charlie Brooker. I watched most of one of his programmes once and feel no inclination to submit myself to a similar ordeal. Brooker is just another of those snidey types who, as his “celebrity” grows, will modulate his asperity to accommodate a broader following: I’m not wrong, am I? I don’t disagree with the thrust of his assaults on the media, just the tenor of them. He does it for notoriety, the sake of the joke and amour propre. I hold my own view because I believe that the media is a significant force in the world and needs to be regulated and curbed. He wants to be embraced by the media itself; I don’t. I am the true maverick; he’s just feinting. (Guess which of us is in work).

The commentocracy is stuffed with snidey types. Here is the two-pennyworth of Dominic Sandbrook – not an economist himself – uttered at the invitation of The Guardian on the G20 summit in London: “Somehow I doubt that the G20 will take its place among the great summits of history. Yes, it represents a personal high point for Gordon Brown, whose seriousness and statesmanship are never less than impressive – although it was not exactly hard to shine beside Silvio Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy and the increasingly empty pieties of St Barack. But will it make a difference to the worldwide recession? I don’t think so. A million dollars sounds like a lot, but in global terms it’s not nearly enough to make a difference. Despite all the hype, my gut feeling is that governments have far less influence over the business cycle than they like to think. I do wish though that Gordon had done away with the razzamatazz that accompanies these events. Did we really need the spectacle of the WAGs having dinner with Naomi Campbell?”

Sandbrook is allegedly a 35 year-old historian (though he looks fifteen years older). If his books are rated by future academics (rather than newspaper reviewers) alongside those of, say, GM Trevelyan, JH Plumb and AJP Taylor, I will eat my hat. In fact I will eat his hat. What irresistible solution to the global recession, I wonder, would Sandbrook offer the leaders of the world? Would he even have a coherent question to put to the Prime Minister? Oh, and wasn’t it a trillion dollars? Perhaps he wasn’t paying attention.

Meanwhile, the significant activities pursued by Mrs Sandbrook – if there is a Mrs Sandbrook – are not disclosed. Presumably Mr Sandbrook would prefer wives to sit quietly at the back and foreswear meals.

You can knock politicians all you like – and most of us do – but you can’t pretend that they don’t work hard. I don’t imagine Gordon Brown spent much of last week catching up with The Wire on BBC2 or even playing with his young children. In the week before the G20 began, he visited more countries than many of us do in a lifetime but I doubt he did much sightseeing or sampling the local cuisine. People like Brown and Obama have their lives mapped out for them by officials and only get time to kick back if they throw a wobbly and insist. In any case, you can’t powwow with all these world leaders and chair all these high-powered meetings without doing your homework and if you screw it up, you screw it up big time. The pressure is unimaginable. Then opposition members, most of whom have nothing more important to do than nurse their seats, jib because Brown wasn’t there for some vote that they thought important. I don’t suggest for one moment that government should not be accountable to parliament, but running the country, especially in a long-drawn-out crisis, really is a full-time job. No wonder ministers frequently make do on four or five hours’ sleep per night.

Most of us – journalists especially (and Brooker and Sandbrook are just jumped-up journalists) – don’t work all that hard. I know from thirty years on and off of being a journalist that most of them would never get anything done if they weren’t given deadlines to meet. I do not except myself. A friend and I, spending far too much time emailing each other, josh ourselves about “displacement activities”, anything rather than buckle down to the task in hand. This very blog is a sort of displacement activity, something to do instead of getting on. I have lists of things to do, some of them dating from last year, that still do not bear a single check mark. Then I find myself wondering what the hell I managed to get done last week. Where does the time go?

Chronicles of Wasted Time was the title of Malcolm Muggeridge’s autobiography. “St Mug”, as he was known to Private Eye magazine, was a founder member of the modern commentocracy, becoming a pundit on the box at a time when members of his class still found it difficult to take the medium seriously and reckoned that they only had a television “for the children”. At the time he published it, I thought the title a harsh and rather jaundiced self-criticism, especially coming from a man whose religious belief was in the process of becoming positively missionary. Now that I am only seven years shy of the age at which he wrote it, I sympathize more readily with what he felt. “The days dwindle down to a precious few”, as Maxwell Anderson hauntingly wrote in that most poignant of American standards September Song and the sense of options closing out becomes more palpable as one’s 60s advance. Let’s face it, at my age, I simply don’t have time to try again with Charlie Brooker.