When did ‘bear with me’ sweep the nation? And what the hell does it mean? This week, long hours that I will never get back have crawled past as I attempt to get a real live human being to speak to me at a utility company. Hence my exposure to, and time to dwell upon, ‘bear with me’, which is just edging it as The Most Mindlessly Irritating Aspect of Modern (so-called) Communication over ‘your call IS important to us (despite every evidence to the contrary) and being addressed (often in a low murmur I can only just catch) by my first name by an obvious six-year old. Oh, that and the appalling music. Who in the name of all that is merciful chooses the stuff? My favourite to date was definitely the young woman warbling away for the time it would take to plan and execute a manned mission to Jupiter while I tried to speak to someone – anyone – at Virgin Media. ‘Better try Sky,’ I could swear she was singing, and, do you know, it almost felt like good advice (note to executors/those with power of attorney: the day I embroil myself with the Murdoch empire you can officially take over control of my every thought, word and deed).
It was Michael Frayn who first made me notice that maddening habit of the inane to emphasise the wrong word in a sentence. If his Speak After the Beep has so far unaccountably passed you by, rush out and get it now. I will know when you have done so by the little cries of ‘Yes! Absolutely!’ that I will hear from you. Frayn is such a fabulous and witty writer, whether of essays, novels or plays – like all the best wits, he has deeply serious matter for us to contemplate; his verbal pastry-cheffing makes us swallow it and come back for more. And he is married to Claire Tomalin, best of biographers. That’s quite some breakfast table.
But back to our wondering survey of the bastardisation of language. In the late fourteenth century, when I was at school, we did an exam called The Use of English. At my bleakest, faced with Corporation-Speak, I ponder the Uselessness of English. I still like the nursing-home slogan invented by Niles in Frasier: ‘We Care, So You Don’t Have To’ – full marks for honesty, and wouldn’t you rather see that than all the acres of faff about enriched environments that you know perfectly well are cynical overcoats for lucrative exploitation of a need and a guilt? All aspects of the service and retail industries are now liberally smeared with the cloying oil of Useless English. BT – as the organisation formerly known as British Telecom likes to call itself (and how right Private Eye was to date the decline of a once-adequate public service to the advent of the Prancing Pervert, as they rather charmingly christened a misguided if short-lived corporate logo) – recently reduced the NorthernReader household to incandescent rage by its cheerful repetition of ‘I’m glad your issue is fixed’ (we had no internet connection. This is not an issue. Issue is either a periodical or a child. And no, they hadn’t fixed anything). Considerably more sweetly, we have just had this from a retailer for whom, we suspect, English is not a first language:
Pleasingly reminiscent of Bisy Backson. But at least I can tell from this little note that the intention is to please, rather than just to annoy, to fob off and to treat with contempt. Which brings us back to ‘bear with me’. ‘Bear with me’ means ‘I am going to put you on hold now, and switch on some of the most annoying pop music ever recorded, while I go and have a coffee or paint my nails. Some time in the future, I will check the line again. I am hoping you will have lost the will to live by then and will have hung up. If for some unfathomable reason I find you are still grimly hanging on, I will say ‘sorry to have kept you’ very fast and, without giving you the chance to reply, I will switch on the recorded ‘your call is in a queue’ message complete with more mind-numbing music. And I will do all this on your phone-call, at your expense. So please don’t for one moment think I actually care whether you live or die, let alone whether you are happy with our service or product, which I strongly suspect you are not, because no-one in their right mind would be. Thank you (and I didn’t mean that, either).’
So imagine my surprise and delight, gentle reader, when I phoned a Freephone number to talk to someone about my electricity bill and found myself talking to a human being. A nice, warm, good-humoured human being, who called me Mrs NorthernReader (almost right), did not put me on hold, did not play any music to me – didn’t even offer to whistle or hum a tune to fill in any awkward gaps in our conversation – and (almost incidental to my surprise and pleasure) sorted out the problem. I feel like playing music to you myself at this point – some sort of trumpet fanfare or perhaps Handel’s Zadok the Priest – to celebrate this staggering reclamation of the art of conversation in English. The company, I think you should be told, is EDF. And their call centre is – of course – here in the North East of England. Ah, that would explain it.