As far as heads of multi-conglomerates go, I’ve always found Richard Branson less objectionable than most; perhaps it’s because he convincingly wore the laidback gait of the hippy entrepreneur to mask a hard-edged business nous and seemed to retain an air of the amateur even when his mail-order record service transformed into the label that gave us such eclectic money-spinning offerings as Mike Oldfield, The Sex Pistols and Culture Club. Since then, we’ve had the Virgin brand attached to everything from banks, planes, trains and even spacecraft. Whatever guise he adopts for the boardroom or the taxman, his public face is still more palatable to me than that of a certain Mr Murdoch.
But for all its lingering outsider status (however much of a facade it obviously is), Virgin is no different from any other corporation in the manner of its structure. If it were, it wouldn’t have got this far and would still be operating from a basement at Branson Towers. From the top on down, Virgin has its managers and it has its minions. It is the latter the Virgin customer deals with whenever a particular Virgin service isn’t operating as it should do, and it was the latter I had cause to call when my internet connection abruptly vanished last Friday as I had a trio of articles and a 25 Hour News video to produce and post. This was when Branson’s frontline troops informed me the key to the Open Sesame that is my broadband had been taken back because my bill was ten days overdue. Not only that, but I would no longer be entitled to make outgoing calls on my landline (I don’t own a mobile) and my TV package would be reduced to the five terrestrial channels. There had been no threat to do this, no warning, no final demand, so I was totally unprepared. I rarely pay my bills dead on time, not through choice, but through financial necessity. They’d never done this to me before.
For someone who leads a fairly isolated lifestyle (such is the fate of the writer), to be denied contact online as well as phone calls had the effect of making me feel even more cut off from an already distant outside world. I could almost be Catweazle Branson himself, marooned on his private island like a jovial Bond villain – minus helicopter for a quick getaway.
I would let down both our landlady and you, dear reader, unless this bill was paid. The only reason it wasn’t paid on time was because the money had been allocated to other outstanding bills; my finances are juggled every month, calculating which bill can be paid and which can be postponed. I had no money to pay this particular bill, so a very kind friend covered it on my behalf. I didn’t go to her cap-in-hand; she offered. Still, it’s a humiliating exercise that doesn’t exactly do much for one’s self-esteem. When I walked to Sainsbury’s with the money, I was a tad light-headed on account of having drunk half-a-bottle of wine before realising my membership of the human race had been rescinded, which seemed to detach me further from the multitudes surrounding me en route. Arriving in the store, I realised I had left my payment card at home, so I had to walk all the way back. It was turning out to be ‘one of those days’.
Anyway, bill eventually paid, I contacted Branson’s minions again and was then told normal service wouldn’t be resumed for five working days. Yes, even in the brave new world of the twenty-first century, it’s still half-day closing and rain still stops play. Wednesday at the earliest, I was informed. I had to write to ‘er upstairs to let her know because, short of dispatching a carrier pigeon to Cardiff, I had no other method of informing her. It’s amazing how one can revert from techno-head to caveman in one easy step. Come the apocalypse, we’ll be back swinging from the trees before you can say Yahoo.
The following day, having endured a night tormented by thoughts of the Raccoon Arms running out of booze and the draymen never showing with a fresh supply, confronted by the vision of regulars arriving to find the premises boarded-up, I remembered I could use the computers at the local library and emailed those with a vested interest in the business. I was still looking at a week without the world-wide web.
Before being promoted to head barman, I never had to take anyone else into consideration. I’ve nibbled the breadline loaf for most of my adult life and have been through many a moment when I could sense the walls closing in on me. What made this moment different was that now others would be affected by my incompetence, and as a childless singleton with no dependents, this development was especially demoralising.
I have learnt to budget and economise so adequately over the past twenty years that I reckon I’d make the Iron Chancellor resemble the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo. But even purchasing toiletries at a cut-price shop such as Wilkinson’s and ensuring my cat gets fed ahead of me, even denying myself luxuries that don’t fall into that category for most, even scrimping without saving, sometimes it gets on top of me and I get caught short. Usually, I’m the only casualty; now I’m not.
And yet, lo and behold, within minutes of the referee blowing the whistle on Arsenal’s Wembley demolition of Aston Villa, I discover I’m back online. So much for five working days – more like twenty-four hours of mental torture courtesy of the new sadist’s edition of the corporation/customer relations manual. Not that I should be surprised, mind. These corporate Gods make a habit of issuing letters demanding money that one phone call can confirm is actually an error on their part and it turns out the customer is right after all. He/she didn’t owe a year’s earnings to British Gas/N-Power etc. Not that this confirmation eases the anguish the said customer went through upon being delivered this horse’s head through the post.
The fact that I received no warning or final demand from Virgin is, I suppose, the price to pay for the removal of the human element from the contact between customer and corporation. An automated service may have its advantages for the company in that it can save on paying wages to people, but a computer programmed to compose, print and post a missive to a person struggling to keep afloat has no compulsion to consider his or her feelings should the calculations be incorrect. My mum says she misses the old gas showrooms on the high street when she becomes confused doing her dealings by text; I tell her it’s so much easier to do my own meter readings and post them online. Then I stop and think she’s probably got a point.
Once told I’d been given an involuntary internet vasectomy, I began stockpiling posts at a furious pace in the manner of a man anticipating a nuclear attack by clearing the shelves at the supermarket in order to ensure his fall-out shelter is supplied. At least the panic is over for now and only a delayed post on Saturday betrayed any evidence that all was not well at ‘The Arms’. Thankfully, the booze and conversation are flowing again as if last weekend never happened. But as a reminder of just how close to an abyss of its own making modern life can take us, Friday night was not one I’d care to relive. The drinks are on me.