Pad Life: Cyber Tranche
I must not write about Boris Johnson I must not write about Donald Trump I must not write about the state of the nation I had a rant last time they’ll think I’m just fixated on stupid politicians.
The refurbishment of the Pad is proceeding apace. Awalkingpace maybe, but we’re getting there. The radiator that was falling off the wall has been replaced, the new flooring is ordered, the chap coming to box in the pipes for the new boiler arranged. The old radiator was put out beside the communal bins, to await a bulky waste collection from the council.
‘You have to pay up front,’ the lady from Waste and Recycling told me when I phoned on the Friday to arrange it. ‘But don’t worry. You’ll get your refund.’
‘When it grows legs.’
Sunday morning, it had vanished without a trace. Our communal bins are well off the beaten track, and I’ve never seen anyone scrutinising the premises for scrap, as we used to get around my old address. Perhaps the pigeons are paid to keep an eye out, a sort of Communal Bin Irregulars, and perhaps I should offer this observation to whoever keeps putting bulky items actually in the bins. Or perhaps it’s something else.
A couple of months ago I found a hand-written, unstamped envelope addressed to 'The Occupant' in my mailbox, containing an invitation to join the Neighbourhood Net. It would put me in touch with my neighbours, enable me to exchange useful information, foster a sense of community and combat isolation. I immediately Googled ‘Neighbourhood Net scam’ but it turned out to be genuine, a nationwide organisation with different groups for different areas. I signed up.
I’m not an overly communal sort of person. I’m not unfriendly, people talk to me on buses, dogs wag their tails at me. I served my time on nursery committees, PTAs and activity club parents’ forums when my kids were little. I did my bit of voluntary work, I fetched out for work do’s, and even took part in sodding Secret Santa, the most diabolical workplace perversion ever devised. I even, even, baked my annual cake for the school fete, and ran Hook A Duck several years on the trot. But all of this was, you understand, due to peer and offspring pressure. ‘You can’t be the only Mummy who doesn’t bake a cake.’ (It was a quite a few years ago – welcome, woke Daddies, to the wonderful world of baking fascism.)
Now I’m old, and I’ve earned my right to be anti-social. But still the guilty niggle remains – one ought to maintain contact with one’s fellow human beings, particularly those in one’s own communal bin area and surrounds. So I signed up for the Neighbourhood Net thing.
I do now know an awful lot more about what’s going on. I know whose front room is desperately in need of a Reliable, Reasonable Decorator; who’s having a clear out of their wardrobe, All Immaculate Condition, Hardly Worn (have they been going around nude?); who was looking out of their window and saw Warning Unknown Men Ringing Doorbells; and who’s lost their New Mountain Bike, Only Left Unattended and Unlocked For A Minute. You have to use your own name if you post, presumably to deter people from being abusive. This isn’t entirely successful, as the poster of Student Wanted To Help Decorate, £30 Per Day found when the response was, mainly, exploitative capitalist scum taking money from legitimate tradespeople, your house should fall on the heads of you and your entire family including pets, cheers, Fred Bloggs. It’s like the village pump, but you never have to leave your sofa.
I don’t think the Neighbourhood Net had anything to do with my departing radiator, though. I don’t recall seeing a post about Tatty Old Radiator Lurking Around Communal Bins. Unless there’s a dark version dealing radiators in return for strange exotic cybercurrency. SPECTREbay.
A few years ago the local police came round to my old address on a crime prevention exercise. After they’d told me off about the height of my hedge, which would have sheltered a reasonably sized squad of SAS seeking unauthorised entry to the premises, they signed me up for North Yorkshire Police Community Emails. These are often useful, occasionally heartbreaking when it’s missing persons, and sometimes not conducive to relaxation. The info also turns up on my Facebook newsfeed. I don’t recall doing anything to link me to the North Yorkshire Police page, but I suppose I must have. I mean, they can’t just have the means to track down every citizen’s digital footprint, can they?
I am also on the list for email flood alerts. I personally think these are far too restrained. ‘Increased risk of flooding in the area’ would have much more effect as ‘Get them wellies on, pack the cat, we’ve already run out of sandbags.’ A few years ago we had massive flooding on Boxing Day, and I knew several people whose homes were inundated and who had to be rescued. A lot of TV crews set up quite near where I lived, and you could feel the psychic vibes as they all closed their eyes and wished that something really spectacular would happen and the whole city would disappear under the water. As indeed it would have done, if it had rained for one more day and all the flood defences had failed, rather than just a goodly chunk of them. One hapless reporter shoved a microphone at a friend of mine as she was being helped out of a rescue boat, in tears, clutching a single bag of belongings. ‘How do you feel about this situation?’ They managed to retrieve him from the water, but his microphone was never found.
I am grateful for all this cyber communication. Who wouldn’t want to know about flood alerts or, indeed, Unknown Men Ringing Doorbells, or Jane Doe, 82 years, last seen wandering near the river, please contact this number if any information? I do wonder, though, about how all these important details reach other members of the community, who can’t or won’t just sign up for them. People like my late mum, who felt about a computer the way some cultures feel about a camera: it will steal your soul. Closely followed by your bank details.
I had to change GP surgeries when I moved, because I was now The Other Side Of The River. My old surgery was a small, old fashioned, independent set-up, in a shabby converted town house, with a single receptionist who came and put the fire on in the waiting room if it got chilly. Despite there being only one of her, you could always get through on the phone to make an appointment. The new surgery is part of a big city-wide group, with bright, shiny premises and over-effective central heating. There are several call-handlers, but you will sit through half a dozen songs of the sixties before you get through, and then you are not allowed to make an appointment over the phone unless you are certifiably unable to use a computer. You have to go on the Patient Services Page at stupid o’clock on Wednesday morning, when they release a new tranche of appointments.
‘A new what?’ I asked, bewildered, when I initially and ignorantly phoned up.
‘Isn’t that something to do with finance?’
The first tranche offered nothing for my surgery. I could have gone for another one in the group, but I would have had to get two buses or paid a fortune for a taxi. Next time, I was hunched over that Patient Services Page at the crack of dawn, and I got one of only two available appointments. I punched the air, shrieked ‘In your face, rest of the population!’ and went back to bed.
That doesn’t sound very community-spirited.
I recently watched Russell T Davies’s Years and Years, a wonderful, funny, frightening, heart-wrenching series about a very plausible future. He makes the point that the technology is not the problem, we are. The tech can provide us with wonderful ways to communicate and share information, but it’s not enough. Communities can obviously be fostered online - ABC Tales is resounding proof of that. But ABC enables people to share more than just information. It’s about sharing bits of ourselves through our writing, and developing, I feel, an engagement with other members. It’s a chance to share in what they’re doing and offer them a chance to do likewise. It asks us to make an effort and a commitment. As you do when you actually meet someone.
There’s nothing wrong with forums that just pass on information – an emailed flood alert is much more effective than just hoping it gets round by word of mouth, and the internet means that a lot more people were looking out for Jane Doe. But it’s what we do with the information that counts. Just passing it on doesn’t form communities, or combat isolation. You have to do more than tut, giggle, shiver, delete. Sometimes it feels like we are confusing the building blocks with the finished structure. Like a crowded room, a keyboard can be the loneliest of places.
Oh sod it, I can’t help it. I now live in a country where Boris Johnson is Prime Minister. Our new Prime Minister’s first act was to say he isn’t a DUD, he’s a DUDE. We’re all DUDES. For disrespect to the great Jeff Bridges, and in the words of your friend across the pond, you’re bloody fired, Johnson.