‘What Do You Want?’ – ‘Information!’

In which The Author encounters a telephone ‘help’line

Back in the old days when dinosaurs and Conservative governments walked the earth, it used to be easy to find information about public transport. You looked in the phone book, found the number of the bus company serving the area you were intending to travel in, and spoke to someone who lived in that area and knew the routes in the way that a local person would be expected to.
If you were really lucky, and lived in a fairly large town, there would be a bus station with an information office. Timetables and booklets were freely available, listing all the services in a particular area.
Then the services were ‘degulated’ (privatisation by any other name) back in October 1986 – and it all went to shit.
I first experienced difficulties with the new system while trying to get to Llandough Hospital in May. I tried the Traveline Cymru website, expecting a straightforward ‘from’ and ‘to’ expert system which would take me instantly to the relevant timetable. Instead, I was expected to decide which bay in Cardiff Bus Station the bus would be departing from, and whether I wanted to travel via Barry, Penarth or Dinas Powis. Eventually I gave in and phoned the helpline. Fortunately, the rain held off on the day so I was able to walk from the railway station.
On a previous visit there, back in March, Mother and I had met a young student who hadn’t even bothered going through the Traveline Cymru hoops before travelling out to the hospital. She’d taken a taxi from the city centre, and consequently had no money for the return journey. She had no idea how to get back, so we walked to the station with her and gave her a couple of quid for train fare.
I’m planning a trip to Avebury shortly, so this morning I tried (for the third time) to find out about bus services in the Swindon area. After trying (and failing) to access the Wilts & Dorset Bus Company website in work, and again on Thursday evening, I spent several minutes this morning getting nowhere, mainly by trying to follow broken links from the BBC’s Wiltshire mini-site. There didn’t appear to be any buses running from Swindon to Devizes, either operated by Wilts & Dorset or Thamesdown, except for a school service which the latter runs on Mondays to Fridays in term time. Eventually, I gave up and tried the National Traveline number, quoted on the BBC’s site.
I was met by a recorded message, advising me that the number had changed, and giving me a second number to try. I dialled this new number, and was put through to Traveline Cymru. Since I was phoning from an Aberdare number, the system had assumed that I wanted information about buses in Wales. How parochial and narrow-minded is that? The girl on the phone was very friendly, so I explained that I was after some information about services in Wiltshire.
However, when she couldn’t spell the word ‘Wiltshire’ I realized that I was on a hiding to nothing.
I said, ‘Try “Swindon” instead’; after a few moments I was put through to Traveline South-West.
I told the chap there that I was travelling from Swindon to Avebury.
He keyed something into his computer, and then said, ‘The only Aylesbury I’ve got is in Buckinghamshire.’
I said, ‘No – Avebury,’ and started to spell it out for him.
He found it on the second attempt. It turns out that the Swindon – Devizes bus is operated by Stagecoach.
Back in the old days, it used to be so easy to get from A to B. Now, you spend ages going up your own arse on websites which are less than useless, and then even longer on the phone to someone in a call centre who has no knowledge of geography, and who is simply reading off a screen.
And woe betide you if the bus doesn’t make the connection. I remember travelling from Ross-on-Wye to Abergavenny, many years ago, and the connecting bus was actually held back to allow the late-running service to arrive. Now, it’s a fair bet that they wouldn’t even be operated by the same company, never mind waiting for the incoming service to arrive. Returning from Hereford one day, I had to travel into Cardiff, and then on to Aberdare by train, as there was no way the bus was going to make it to Merthyr before the last bus over the mountain departed.
This is supposed to be the Information Age, and we’re supposed to be making everything easier for ourselves. Coupled to that, the government and the chattering classes keep telling everyone to ‘leave their cars at home’. Fat chance of that, when half the bus drivers don’t even speak English and the guy at the information desk hasn’t heard of one the most important archaeological sites in England!
Maybe, instead of ‘hold’ muzak when you’re trying to get through, these companies should just play a tape loop of voices from the cult 1960s TV show The Prisoner:
‘What do you want? What do you want? What do you want?’
‘Information!’ followed by Number Two’s ruthless laughter as the caller hangs up the phone …

More on the ‘Exciting’ Survey at the Surgery

In which The Author has cause to question
his life expectancy

I had an appointment at the surgery this morning. I was approached in the waiting room by a postgrad student from Cardiff University, who asked me if I’d be interested in helping with a research project. It was the ‘exciting’ project I told you about in about ‘I Want Some ‘Excitement’ in My Life‘.
Well, I had to go for it, didn’t I? After all, I’m always keen to help medical students out. I’ve been doing it for years. (Bless ’em, some of them can’t even write their own names without adult supervision, or use the telephone, or speak to strangers without their parents acting as intermediaries.) So I agreed to take part.
She explained that the object of the exercise was to enable GPs to better communicate health promotion and lifestyle changes to their patients. There’d be a short questionnaire about drinking, smoking, diet and so forth, to fill in before my consultation, and a more detailed questionnaire afterwards. There’d be a follow-up questionnaire sent to me in three months’ time, and then another meeting in a year’s time, to see what lifestyle changes I’ve adopted since signing up for the project. I was in no rush, so I agreed to take part.
The questionnaire itself was pretty straightforward. There was the usual ‘Have you ever had any of the diseases on this list?’ question – I swear I must have ignored every box on this list at least half a dozen times in the last year, on meeting every single nurse and doctor at orthopaedics clinics at Llandough Hospital and elsewhere.
There was a page about my smoking habits. I was able to ignore this as well – never have, never been tempted. Peer pressure? Piffle! Then there was a question about alcohol – also not applicable for the time being (although we’ll have to see what happens once the academic season and Christmas are upon us) – and a section about diet and exercise.
Since the operation on my shoulder I haven’t been able to do any heavy lifting, but in work I do a fair bit of fetching and carrying. I also cover a fair few miles in the course of a working week. (Jeff and I often say it would be fun to wear pedometers for a day and see how far we walk by the time we knock off.) I can run up a flight of steps without gasping for breath, and I can walk for ages without feeling any ill-effects. I also spend a fair proportion of the day sitting (at least two hours a day, just on the train to and from work), so I gave a fair approximation for these figures. I know I don’t get anywhere close to five a day, and I do like chips, but I don’t eat meat or much saturated fat.
I would have thought I’d be an ideal subject for the survey – if only to make up part of a truly representative sample. One of the other blokes waiting in the surgery was a chronic alcoholic of my acquaintance – he must be one of the unhealthiest specimens still in circulation in Aberdare. He and I would obviously lie towards opposite ends of the chart; if he was in, I wanted in as well.
My doctor had to countersign the forms. He took one glance at them, ticked a box, stamped and dated it, and gave them back to the researcher.
I’d been rated as ‘Eligible, but not appropriate.’
What does that mean?
I’m forty-two years old, I’ve been off the beer for six weeks, I’ve always been tobacco- and drug-free, and I don’t have any life-threatening conditions.
Not that I know of, anyway …
It’s a longitudinal survey. That means that they track the subjects over time. Does ‘Eligible, but not appropriate’ mean that my number’s going to be up before the twelve months elapse?
As if I wasn’t already losing sleep …