Well, all right, they probably don't mean to but just occasionally even the execrable Daily Mail does manage to let something slip through the net that's worth reading ...
Sir Patrick Moore, who died earlier this month aged 89, is best remembered as the motor-mouthed frontman of television’s longest running show with the same presenter, The Sky At Night on BBC1. But the astronomer and entertainer had another side, as a self-appointed scourge of bureaucracy.
In 1981, under the pen-name R. T. Fishall, he published an irreverent guide to causing havoc and taking vengeance on the people who were burying Britain under paperwork and tying the country up in red tape.
The book, now sadly out of print, was called Bureaucrats: How To Annoy Them, and it was inspired by a correspondence with a man named Whitmarsh from the Southern Gas Company, who had sent Moore a final demand for £10 of repairs, despite the fact that the central heating at his cottage in Selsey, West Sussex, was oil-fired.
The great astronomer snapped. He realised that Britons everywhere were being harangued, overcharged, harassed, bullied and driven to distraction by the Whitmarshes of this world — or Twitmarshes, as he renamed them.
‘We are not ruled directly by Parliament,’ he wrote, ‘but by minor officials — bureaucrats of all descriptions, safely embraced in the arms of the civil service, with immunity from dismissal and nice, inflation-proof pensions.’
The dedication of the book made his intentions clear: ‘To all bureaucrats and civil servants, everywhere. If this book makes your lives even the tiniest bit more difficult, it will have been well worth writing.’
Here, in blistering extracts, he sets out his manifesto ...
Ten commandments for bureaucrat bashing
1. Never say anything clearly. When writing to jobsworths and timeservers, word your letter so that it could mean almost anything … or nothing.
2. Don’t be legible. Always write letters by hand, and make your verbose scrawl as impenetrable as possible.
3. Garble your opponent’s name. Misread the signature. If the correspondence is signed ‘M. Harris’, address your reply to ‘N. Hayes’ or ‘W.Hardy’. Don’t get too flippant though — the penpushers might lack a sense of humour, but if you write to ‘M. Hedgehog’, they will sense a legpull.
4. Give fake references. If you have a letter from the tax office, ref: EH/4/PNG/H8, mark your reply with some other code in the same format, such as DC/5/IMH/R9. This should ensure that the taxman wastes minutes, or hopefully hours, rooting for a file that doesn’t exist.
5. The same goes for dates. Get them slightly wrong, every time.
6. Follow up your fakes. Write to request a reply to letters that you haven’t sent, and include bogus reference numbers. This is a surefire timewaster and might even, if your Twitmarsh is of a sensitive disposition, reduce him to tears.
7. Never pay the right amount. Include a discrepancy in every envelope — never too much, but always more than a few pence. A sum between £1.20 and £2.80 is recommended. Then you can start an interminable correspondence to reclaim the overpayment (or dispute the underpayment).
8. When enclosing a cheque, staple it to the letter. With two staples. Or three. Right in the middle of the cheque. At the least, you’ll waste someone’s time — at best, you might wreck their computer.
9. As a point of honour, never give up on a correspondence before at least six pointless letters have been exchanged. Think big and aim for double figures.
10. If a postage-paid envelope is not supplied by your Twitmarsh, send off your reply without a stamp. The bureaucrats will have to pay much more at the other end.
By way of a variation on point 10, you could put the wrong postage on, in the wrong place.
One man who got into a war of letters with the Royal Mail itself persisted in sticking his stamp right in the middle of the envelope. This makes it difficult for the franking machines. This petty but effective tactic riled every official in the postal hierarchy, right up to the district chief manager. He wrote to the rebel, warning him never to stick a stamp anywhere but the top right-hand corner of the envelope.
By return came an envelope with the stamp dead centre, and a little rhyme enclosed: ‘Hey diddle diddle, the stamp’s in the middle.’
Endless invention can be employed, providing you follow the Fundamental Rules.
For example, when filling in a form, always keep a candle handy. Whenever you come to a box marked ‘For official use only — do not write in this space’, rub the candle gently over the box. A thin layer of grease will make it impossible for your Twitmarsh to write on the paper, and might muck up his ballpoint, too.
When filing in forms, do not feel obliged to use English. Why not employ that smattering of Spanish you picked up on your holidays, or the residue of schoolroom French from your third-year days? If you or a friend speak a really obscure language, so much the better — especially one that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet. Nothing makes Twitmarsh’s brow perspire more freely than the sight of a form filled out in squiggly script. Do the first page in Russian, the second in Chinese and the third in Hindi. For extra marks, find someone who speaks Klingon.
Public enemy No 1, of course, is Twitmarsh the Taxman.
The inland revenue strives to give the impression of a service staffed by kindly, conscientious, basically decent officials who are doing their jobs efficiently and who are always ready to help and advise.
Alas, this is not always the case. Sometimes one encounters a real maggot.
The tax inspector, unfortunately, occupies an unassailable position. He can persecute his victims to the point of breakdown — that’s his job.
It sometimes seems that the tax office is staffed by specially selected sadists. Take Twitmarsh of the VAT office. He has everything to gain by pursuing excessive demands, and nothing to lose. It isn’t his money at stake, and the worst that can happen is a gentle reprimand from the ombudsman, who has all the ferocity of a raspberry blancmange.
He must be fought. Have no mercy. Bombard him with convoluted enquiries, in bad handwriting and worse English. Scatter invented Latin phrases throughout — my favourite is the schoolboy motto, ‘Itisapis potitis andatino ne’ (I’m not going to translate it, but you can work out the meaning if you move the spaces around).
The reply you receive will probably be terse. Leave things for a few days, and then send a photocopy of exactly the same letter, requesting a reply. You needn’t say that it has already been answered — that will only dawn on Twitmarsh after he has wasted more time.
Another useful tip is to send the tax man, out of the blue, a small cheque (or better still, a postal order) for which he hasn’t asked. Make it a really trifling sum, say £7.86 — certainly no more than a tenner.
Enclose a grumpy letter, to the effect that you really can’t understand why this piffling sum is being demanded but that of course you will pay, as ordered.
If the cheque is returned, write back, demanding to know why the tax office requested it in the first place, and whether they have nothing better to do but waste your time. Be sure to add bogus reference numbers in the appropriate format — that really sends them running in circles.
When you pay your next genuine tax demand, be sure to hold back that £7.86, with a note reminding Twitmarsh that you have already paid.
When eventually it is decided that you still, in fact, owe that money, jumble up the numbers on the cheque – send them £6.87, or £8.76. Then send a letter querying the discrepancy. Repeat ad infinitum.
The revenue offices never stop complaining that their staff are overworked and their departments underfunded. Unless something is done to alleviate the crisis, they insist, the entire tax system could break down.
This is your goal. Never cease to dream.
Jobsworths’ jargon and what it really means
Do not be fooled by the conciliatory tone of a bureaucrat. The Twitmarsh is at his most dangerous when using bland officialese.
Study the following guide to official jargon:
Your letter has been carefully considered and its contents noted = I haven’t looked at it.
A full survey of the problem has been put in hand = nothing will be done.
I assure you that action will be taken as soon as possible = nothing will ever be done.
Urgent action will be taken in the very near future = nothing will be done until hell freezes over.
I fully appreciate the problem = I couldn’t care less.
I have every sympathy with your point of view = I’ve already forgotten your existence.
You are fully entitled to make your views known = nobody here takes the blindest bit of notice.
Your complaint is being fully investigated = your letters have been filed in the wastepaper basket.
Your complaint appears to have some validity, and will be thoroughly investigated = your letters were torn into small squares before being dropped in the wastepaper basket.
I will refer the matter to the appropriate department = your letters have been shredded, your computer file has been deleted and all future correspondence will go straight into the wastepaper basket unopened.
A full and detailed reply will be sent to you in the near future = you’ll never hear another word from us.
The possibility of an administrative/computer error is being investigated = life in this office is one foul-up after another, but you’ll never get us to admit it.
You will appreciate the complex nature of this matter = I just can’t be bothered to think about it.
The increase in our charges is, regrettably, unavoidable = you are going to pay for my bonus.
This department endeavours to process all matters outstanding with the minimum of delay = I’m playing golf this afternoon.
I will be delighted to see you to discuss the matter at your convenience = just try getting past my secretary.
I do not really feel that any useful purpose is to be served in pursuing this matter further = get stuffed.
May I assure you of our attention and consideration at all times = go and boil your head. And then get stuffed.
(The following section is largely irrelevant now, as there are no more policemen on our roads. We include it nevertheless, in the interests of historical accuracy – GOS) Special care must be taken with PC Twitmarsh. The police do a splendid job, on the whole, but most police constables go through a difficult stage, a sort of puberty, usually after being passed over for their sergeant’s stripes for the first time.
They look for someone to take out their frustrations upon, and the most convenient victim is invariably a motorist. Drunken, incompetent and reckless drivers deserve no sympathy. The menace of PC Twitmarsh is that he’s out to catch the motorist who is doing a few miles per hour too many on a safely deserted road. When he pulls you over, he will adopt one of two personae: Good Twitmarsh and Bad Twitmarsh.
GT is affable, charming, even apologetic. He’ll say: “I’m sorry to trouble you, sir, but were you aware that this is a 30mph area and you, in fact, were doing 34mph?”
BT is intimidating, blustering, even rude: “Who do we think we are, James Bond? Been drinking, have you? Martinis, was it? Come on, licence and insurance, let’s be seeing them.”
In both cases, the end result is the same — a fine and the risk of losing your licence.
About traffic wardens I will not write here, in view of the laws regulating the use of obscene language. Suffice to say that these wretched creatures, sub-human and depraved, are the worst of all manifestations of modern civilisation. Let’s leave it at that.
A good opening gambit is to write to the planning officer, putting forward some constructive comments about the local one-way system. Make them just sane enough to be taken seriously.
You will probably get a rational reply, and before Twitmarsh knows it he will be embroiled in a long and quite futile correspondence.
You could suggest, for instance, an elaborate underpass below a level crossing, and a flyover to replace the mini roundabout.
Extra marks if you can induce the planning department to enter into a discussion on the feasibility of introducing trams into a pedestrianised area. Or a monorail. Planners can never see the farcical element in monorails.
When the correspondence is well under way, leak it to the local paper. Use an assumed name, such as Mrs U.Rynall. Nothing is more calculated to make a pompous Twitmarsh grind his teeth in rage.
Stock phrases, all of which I have tried with degrees of success, when confronted by a missionary from some sect or other on my doorstep:
1. ‘I’m sorry, I’m a druid. And I’m a busy druid. I have a sacrifice to perform. Good afternoon.’
2. ‘No, I haven’t looked at the Bible lately. I really don’t have time to be delving into science fiction.’
3. ‘I happen to know that my friend Dr Alonzo Schmidt is very keen to talk to someone like you. A very probable convert, I should say. You must visit him. He lives at 52 Mulberry St …'(and then name some town at least six miles away. There probably won’t be a Mulberry Street, and there certainly won’t be a Dr Alonzo Schmidt).
The GOS says: I nice conversation-piece from a fabulous and rather endearing eccentric, but it all seems a little naïve in these days of mission statements, customer service agreements and "will not tolerate verbal abuse of any kind". I suppose the bastards have just got more sophisticated, and it behoves us to up our game accordingly.
One Daily Mail reader had something good to add ...
“When writing, always sign off with ... You are, Sir, my humble and obedient servant”
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