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The Bumbling Bureaucracy Battling Gene

Wednesday, 2nd May, 2001

Heredity is a strange thing understandable most easily to the fairer sex, for reasons beyond mere guesswork.

They can see things that we mere males can't - it's as simple as that. It's not a matter of better observation as my observation is fine and healthy, thank you very much. I keep it fed and watered every day. It's just that when it comes to this particular sort of pattern spotting, there's a gene inherent in all men that makes the job impossible.

Here's the proof. Go fetch six babies of similar age, let's say four months old. No, not literally or five mothers would instantly have the police on you and the other one would be thanking you from the bottom of her heart and how much ransom money does she have to pay for you to keep the damn thing? Line them up as if they were auditioning for 'The Usual Rugrat Suspects' and let any guy take a long hard look.

Yes, as I thought. It might technically be six different babies, but it looks like one baby cloned five times. I could point out that baby number three is black, but my sensitivity would be under attack. Otherwise I couldn't show you a single difference. Short. Fat. Ugly. What other adjectives do I need?

I thought for years that women just made it all up. 'He has his father's teeth! He has his mother's hairlip! His little finger curls just like the milkman's!' How come they can see this stuff when I can't? Simple explanation: they can't either, they're just pretending to fit in with centuries of stereotyping that requires it of them. But no, when the babies grow up, if indeed some ever do, and turn into human beings, suddenly the similarities become apparent to us guys too.

And why would I bring this up? Well, I think we've finally discovered after thirty years of searching just what attribute I inherited from my late father. We've known for years just what attribute I didn't inherit: what are technically known in the medical profession as sticky out ears. My ears are fine creatures, happy to sit relatively snug to the skin. My sister followed my dad, and three of her kids followed her, with ears so sticky out that the poor kids full frontal look like the FA Cup.

Here's what I seem to have inherited: the 'take no nonsense from bureaucrats' gene.

His bouts are, of course, the stuff of legend. He was a master at this sort of thing, and he enjoyed his work.

As headmaster of Barkisland School he had runins galore with the local council and their education department, populated by what the anthropologists label as 'morons', here aided and abetted by the good Dr Robert Lomas, another veteran in bureaucrat battling. Rather than spend his time in the classroom, which is why he became a teacher in the first place, he was required by the council to spend his time drafting policy documents, including, of course, a policy document on how to draft policy documents. This was naturally the start of a beautiful friendship...

I vividly remember the legal saga that raged around our house in Krumlin, as the mill next door was demolished to make way for numerous houses. The mill owner, a local resident, wanted to construct an access road that would trail behind our house, behind the disused Methodist chapel next door on the other side and out onto the road. What he hadn't checked, but merely assumed, was whether he actually owned the land that this road would use to reach the road. My dad checked, and then promptly bought the thing, turned up at the planning meeting and asked why this guy was daring to build on land that didn't belong to him. The story goes on and on, with many intriguing twists and turns, and is too long to note here.

The all time classic was the molecatchers story, that became so famous that it was mentioned in the eulogy at his funeral. At Krumlin, soon before my parents moved out, a couple of moles came to visit us, setting up home in the lawn. We weren't particularly unhappy to see them, but the lawns nearly rioted. Ignoring Jasper Carrott's advice sage advice that the only way to get rid of a mole is to 'blow it's bloody head off!', he ordered a couple of molecatching devices from the Innovations catalogue.

By the time they arrived, my parents had put the house on the market, spent a year haggling with prospective buyers, sold up, moved out and settled somewhere else. My dad merely enjoyed his dealings with customer service departments who don't talk to customers, managers who don't exist, the need to teach people who run innovations catalogues just how to use a fax machine.

To follow in his shoes would be nigh on heresy. There is no formal training in this sort of endeavour, just experience, though that experience seems to be queuing up for my attention over the last couple of years.

My first real experience of any depth came with my court battle with Barclays Bank, which I'm happy to say I won. Hooray for David! A pox on Goliath! Perhaps more telling is that when the saga rolled round to another potential court case, they didn't want to take me on again.

It worked this way. I have a Barclayloan which I've been paying happily without fail for quite some years. When I left Barclays, I cancelled my accounts and standing orders and set up again at the Abbey National. For some reason, Barclays wouldn't play along with me paying the same thing as normal. This degraded into my being passed to their debt recovery arm, with whom I finally managed to agree the relevant details. I was to pay this amount on this day of the month as of this month. Fine.

When I returned from three months in the USA, ready to set up payment number one, I find that I've been taken to court in my absence, castigated for not attending, and a county court judgement awarded against me for non payment. This was all quite strange and unexpected, especially as the first payment wasn't even due yet.

It turned out that while I'd been told to pay from 30th September, they were working on my paying from 30th May. So the fight began. Seconds out, round one. I'm not sure which round was the winning one, but in the end Barclays settled with me. They accepted all costs, had the judgement removed, and reimbursed me for my outgoings in the matter.

I had, of course, continued to pay as of the correct starting date, so my good faith was assured. I cheekily used this as an excuse to pressure them into a three month break in payment while I toured the States in 2000. They would recommence taking payment on my return. They agreed to all of this and it saved my financial bacon for the summer, but they never took another payment.

Eventually I brought this to their attention and asked them to look into the matter. I received in response a letter from no less than the head of the solicitor's firm who represent Barclays' debt recovery wing. She wasn't happy with the situation at all and demanded this, that and the other, trusting that it was all acceptable to me or she'd take me back to court. I enjoyed my response to her as much as I think my dad enjoyed his carefully crafted responses. In essence I told her to get lost and trusted this it was acceptable for her to do so. The situation is now resolved once more, on my terms.

The latest saga has finally been resolved, as of a thirty minute phone conversation with the top dog last night. This one is with no less a body than Her Majesty's Inland Revenue and really deserves its own write up. I won't be able to do it justice here. Essentially, we've now worked out a method by which I can pay a bill that should have been paid well over a year ago. The Inland Revenue did a wonderful job of ignoring me and sending me on wild goose chases for a long while, until the point I turned round and started working out my own solutions to the problem.

It seems that I'm someone that the system doesn't understand. They try to categorise me as a square peg and then file me away in a round hole. It doesn't work and they can't see why. As far as I can tell, the system is now designed to deal with two types of people. Type one is the customer who never causes any trouble, who pays all their bills instantly and in full, who who gladly does whatever is asked of them. Type two is the criminal, who refuses to pay anything, and requires the bailiffs round every Friday night.

I'm type three of two, which is the source of the problem. I am an honest citizen who is happy to pay bills that are owed. If I am treated with courtesy, honest and respect, I will give the same back and there are no problems. If I am played around and treated with inconsistent logic, incompetence and downright rudeness, my stubborn and perverse nature decrees that I should do the same in return.

It leads to quirky situations where I am taken to court for non-payment of loan repayments while I'm actually paying them in accordance with all agreements. It leads to the taxman consistently threatening to take me to court for non-payment of tax, while equally consistently refusing to take my money.

I don't pretend to understand official systems, though I'm finding them more and more intriguing. I'm beginning to thoroughly enjoy being a square peg in a round hole, and I'm also beginning to understand how much officialdom gets away with in their attempts to screw around their customers.

But I have my secret weapon here: my father's genetic code containing the 'take no nonsense from bureaucrats' gene. So, bungling bureaucrats and denizens of incompetent officialdom, bring it on...

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