Some of my favourite things were invented quite recently: the fountain pen, for instance, and the steam railway network, though the latter has lowered its aesthetic standards and gone to diesel. I regard the telephone in many of its manifestations with suspicion. They’ve taken away the human touch. You pick up the receiver and there’s no one there any more to ask “Number, please.” You cannot wiggle the holder impatiently for attention. (The first phone I encountered, at my grandparents’ house, had no dial. Things have gone downhill since then.) But when the human touch is too much, late at night for example, it is useful to have an answering machine to act as your surrogate butler. In fact if we analyse the matter, we discover that when “high-tech” is a blessing, it’s usually by virtue of defending us against the intrusion of other high-tech devices; just as guided missiles generate an appetite for anti-missile-missiles.
Take the motor-car, or as you may call it, the automobile: an excellent idea, it’s definitely caught on, but too much, self-defeatingly so. They say that the average speed crossing central London hasn’t changed since the days of horse-drawn traffic. So they invented a congestion charge, now that they can recognise your number plate and send you a fine if you don’t pay it. A few weeks ago, I had to go through London myself, on a Saturday when the charge fortunately doesn’t apply. We were on our way to K’s mother’s 80th birthday party, in Forest Hill, in the southern suburbs, and were due to stay overnight at a bed-and-breakfast in Upper Norwood, near Crystal Palace (originally constructed for the Great Exhibition of 1851, before it was moved to its new site, where it was destroyed by fire as recently as 1936). I do not like driving—did I say that already?—but armed myself with a route from the Automobile Association, and printed the instructions to help K in her navigator role. We went wrong quite early, in Hammersmith, where the famous flyover is partly closed for roadworks. I thought we recovered well from that, but then we crossed the Thames via the wrong bridge, and wallowed rather aimlessly thereafter. I asked K to look out for landmarks, and suggest how we could get back to the prescribed route. She kept saying we should turn left just after the Duke of York pub. London is big. Such advice would be helpful if we were already on the prescribed route and pointing in the right direction. I asked for a more general direction, like Kingston, Croydon or perhaps The South. I was not aware of the sarcastic tone creeping into my voice, nor its loudness, which some might describe as hysterical shouting. K told me she was getting severe chest pains from the stress. I was too, but we technophobes take that for granted, for such is modern life. Later, she said “Never again—we must buy a SatNav”.
I could have furiously rejected this suggestion that she desired some technical gismo to compensate for my inadequacies: that, in short, I was not man enough for her. But I knew she was right. It was time to me to face my demons, to use that infelicitous modern phrase. High on my list of demons is the persistent nagging of pre-recorded females, as in the “self-checkout” of a modern supermarket. Unexpected
I was full of these grateful thoughts, on the homeward leg of our first long journey. Then suddenly the box which speaks his voice switched itself off. I knew the way home but felt a little bereft. In the next few days I fussed with the box, vaguely disconsolate. It’s a good thing there’s no way to open it, otherwise I would have taken it to pieces to try and make it work. It was only after I’d sent it back to Amazon for a replacement that it dawned on me that I ought to have read the instructions, which say that when switching on you may have to hold down the button (it only has one button, what can go wrong?) for up to 15 seconds, something I had been too impatient to do. And I may have let the battery go flat.
Amazon, that brilliant exemplar of modern technology and service, sent the replacement without waiting to receive the “faulty” one. It was easy to switch on—hurrah. But it never got past the message “waiting for a valid GPS signal”. I read the instructions till they made me sick. I restored the factory settings, I downloaded all the updates from the website. I kept taking it out into the rain because the instructions said that it might not get a signal inside a tall building (even though this cottage is hardly tall). I took it in my knapsack whilst we went on a cross-country walk, away from all houses, and indeed all roads. Still no signal. I replaced it in the original packaging and arranged a refund with Amazon, whose automated system refrained from sneering at me, didn’t warn me that they could not go on sending me Satnavs when it’s plain I am too technophobic to own one. No, their system said that because it was “their fault” they would even refund the return postage.
It was then I discovered that a store down the road, specialising in car accessories, sells these devices at a discount; will even install them in your car and show you how to use them. Clearly, I’m not the only technophobe in this town. I bet none of the others have worked 47 years in the computer industry, but I was not going to reveal this guilty secret to the friendly salesman. Let him think me an old fool who knows nothing. I told him of the problem I’d been having. He said it was a software bug on the model I’d been using, and there was a fix. I had downloaded it already, but being experienced, angry and impatient, I’d skimmed through the instructions & said “Yeah, yeah …” without following them to the letter. “Ok, never mind that,” I said. “I’d like a new one, from your shop, so that you can help me install it.”
The model I chose was cheaper: an older version by the same manufacturer. A little awkwardly, I asked the salesman if it had James, and his Australian voice, because if not it would be of no use to me. He didn’t roll his eyes or anything, but assured me it would have a full range of voices. Relieved at his non-judgmental style, almost Jamesian, I found myself explaining that I was born in Australia myself, though you couldn’t tell from my accent now, and so found James’ voice soothing. And then I blushed. We couldn’t find James within the box, only another Australian called Ken. Oh, what the hell, I thought, he’ll do. I can’t back out now. I tested him on the way home, whilst ignoring his actual instructions, as I know quicker routes through town. Ken is grave and humourless, where James makes every trip a holiday outing. When you set out, he starts with “Turn right after a hundred yards. No worries!” for all the world like a young Crocodile Dundee. And ends with “You have reached your destination. Windows up, grab those sunnies, and don’t let the seagulls steal your chips.”
Back home, I surfed the Net, discovered I could buy and download the voices of Darth Vader, Homer Simpson, or even John Cleese. I would have paid any price. “James, old mate, where are you?” But he was free! His full name is James Gauci, and he won A$ 10,000 in the manufacturer’s competition to find the “Voice of Australia”. Meet him here (or here)!
“Home, James, and don’t spare the horses!”