Customer Service in a Septic Isle: Part One
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A shorter version of this article was published in the Sunday Island on October 16, 2022.
During our lengthy visit to the UK from Sri Lanka, my wife and I went to the Walter Sickert exhibition at Tate Britain. I bought Matthew Sturgis’s hefty biography of the painter from the Tate shop and found it an absorbing read. Sickert was a handsome, witty and charismatic figure, friend of Degas and Whistler, with more female conquests than a rock star of today. Sturgis authoritatively dismisses crime writer Patricia Cornwell’s absurd notion that Sickert was Jack the Ripper.
In the summer of 1917, the Sickerts went to Bath. “Bath is it”, Sickert wrote. “The mellifluous amiability of west-country gaffers & maidens …” He took a studio at 10 Bladud Buildings.
Bath would indeed be a lovely city if it were not for the visitors (meself excluded). The resident gaffers and maidens are splendid and the streets and surrounding countryside are magnificent. Perhaps I am a curmudgeon (“no ‘perhaps’ about it! Was the cry”) but my experiences of Venice, Taj Mahal, Macchu Picchu and even St Paul’s Cathedral were spoiled because of the presence of other people.
My wife and I decided to celebrate our Silver Wedding anniversary by spending a week in “a luxury Regency apartment in the historic and cultural city of Bath.” I have enjoyed many visits to the city over many decades, but I had not visited Bath since I left England in 1998 and I was shocked to see what the once-elegant and sophisticated city has become.
I wondered what Jane Austen would have made of it. There is a tawdry museum in Ms Austen’s honour on Gay Street (not even her actual address) with a tasteless, tatty waxwork effigy of the great lady soliciting like a bawd on the pavement outside. (One visitor was not impressed with the visitor centre: “Expensive, not engaging, full of replicas and felt like visiting an old b&b with loads of red wallpaper where you can see what it’s like to write with a quill and some ink. Waste of time.” Another said: “The most exciting thing for me was the exit onto the street.”) Netflix has produced a determinedly anachronistic and debased version of Persuasion for these crass times.
Would the Divine Jane if she were alive today be clinically obese and be festooned with tattoos and piercings?
The “cultural city” seems to have become a venue for stag and hen parties. There were huge gangs of bizarrely attired young women roaming the streets and hordes of shouty, boozy young men endangering elderly, slow-moving pedestrians like mygoodself by whizzing along the pavements on Escooters. When I left England, pavements were safe spaces for pedestrians.
All the restaurants and pubs in Bath are jam-packed and noisy (one pub dares to misspell the name of the sainted Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan). Flann had a thing about bicycles. What would he have made of Escooters?) and some only take orders by apps and reject cash payments.
The “cultural city” seems to have become a venue for stag and hen parties. There is a website dedicated to ideas for hen parties. There were huge gangs of bizarrely attired young women roaming the streets and hordes of shouty, boozy young men whizzing recklessly around pedestrian areas on Escooters. All the restaurants and pubs in Bath are jam-packed and noisy. Boozy Brits have a pungent reputation all over the world (horrible crimes committed on stag dos in Dublin and Prague) but they also practise their thuggery in their own country. Drunk in charge of a limited vocabulary (I stole that from Alan Bleasdale).
Bath has entered the contemporary world with a vengeance and turned into a Benidorm located in boozy Britain itself.
Oxters of Maskless Strangers
I am a methodical kind of a chap, and I planned our trip meticulously in advance. Before setting off from London, I stored as much vital information as I could on my smart phone and made sure the dread gadget was fully charged. My OCD nature was no match for GWR (Great Western Railways), who were providing our transportation, or for the property rental company providing our accommodation.
My target was to check in at our Bath accommodation at 16.00. The tube trains heading for Paddington were scrunched to the gills with unmasked passengers in shorts, many of them carrying cute little dogs, (like the one which allegedly voided on Johnny Depp’s bed) which seem to be this year’s fashion accessory in Britain. We contrived to arrive at Paddington Station with plenty of time to spare to catch the 14.02 Bristol Temple Meads train which stops at Bath Spa. The passengers awaiting that train were getting cricks in their necks looking up at the information board to see which platform to go to. Screaming hyper-active infants were writhing about on the ground where the miniature dogs had micturated and humans had vomited.
It was way past 14.02 when the information board told us that the train was “preparing” but the board still did not tell us which platform to go to. The concourse was throbbing with sweating, obese, tattooed people. When the go-ahead was given to board the train, the masses wobbled forward menacingly but I did not panic, because I had reserved seats in Coach H. Except….. there was no Coach H! A stressed GWR functionary manandwoman-handled us on to the train. We were left standing in the train corridor for the entire two hour journey with our faces in the oxters (not all armpits are charm pits) of maskless strangers, buffeted by back packs.
We were glad when we arrived at Bath Spa station but the place was upheavaled because of building works. There was also an unexplained police presence, which surprised our Bath friends, who thought Bath police station had been closed because of government cuts. British police these days only investigate pronouns not real crimes. Disrupted Britain. The prime minister (at time of writing) Liz Truss celebrates disruption “move fast and break things.” She has broken the economy and the international reputation of Britain.
In days of yore, we might have been able to relax in the café of Debenhams department store just opposite the station. The store had been operating since 1813 but closed in May 2021. An elegant 1930s building remains but it is empty. We waited a long time for a taxi but it was only a short drive to our accommodation. On the taxi journey I noted that, despite the demise of Debenhams, most of the nationwide retail chains were represented – Primark, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer – and each had in their doorway their statutory homeless person with dog (or two). Food banks and street sleepers have become part of the warp and woof (pun intended) of British life (along with shuttered-up shops) even in affluent locations like Bath Spa. There is even a statue of a homeless man and dog outside one Bath store.
I had been notified by an email from the property rental company that the keys to the apartment would be in a box outside the house which could be accessed by using the code 4774. I had made a note of that number on my phone as well as on old-fashioned paper. The key box did not open in response to code 4774. I had been told to ring a mobile number at the rental company when we arrived. I did so, but nobody answered. I also sent three WhatsApp messages which were ticked as being received, but, to this day, no one has responded. Would Jane Austen be on WhatsApp, I wondered? Would she respond to messages?
We went to the Queensberry Hotel opposite the apartment and made phone calls to several of the rental company’s numbers while consuming very expensive beer. Nobody answered any of the calls. The hotel receptionist was anxious to help and gave us an address at Bladud Buildings (a few doors away from Sickert’s studio) which he said was the office of the rental company. The streets of Bath are steep and the sun was intense but we hastened to Bladud Buildings and found that there was no office there, only rented apartments. Luckily, one of the tenants at Bladud Buildings (a young man with rather fetching black nail varnish and much metal facial furniture) used his phone to call another number for us. I spoke to someone who suggested that I try the key code 1812. The tenant said that was the code he had been given to access his apartment at Bladud Buildings. We climbed back up the punishing incline to Royal Crescent. I tried 1812 and it worked.
I note that a six-bed apartment (popular with the hen-parties that roam the streets of Bath) in Bladud Buildings was available in 2017 for a rate of “From £1,277 per night”. At today’s exchange rate that is LKR 512,277 per night. The company that locked us out is clearly doing well, although there was a note in our apartment reminding us that refuse bags were expensive.
The boss of the rental company (whom I will call A) seems to have a penchant for overblown language. (Never knowingly understated.) In spite of our travails, we got a standard message on departure expressing confidence that we would have had an “amazing time.” When I first told A about our problems getting into the apartment she said she was “mortified”. She said “I feel terrible for you both. Certainly not the arrival we want any of our guests to have. Please accept my sincerest apologies.” That is fair enough, but I detect a strategy often adopted by organisations dealing with customer complaints. A said, “I don’t understand why your calls were not answered? Did you have J’s and the main office numbers?” Later, I got an email from the Office Manager, whom I will call B) who remarked in passing, “Normally we are all extremely organised so I am unsure how this has happened.” No admittance of fault. Sorry, it must be me.
An Absence of Humans
Office Manager B did clarify something for me. There was no human being actually available from the rental company when we were locked out. I had dealings with at least eight people at the rental company. A said, “I was at Lucknam Park for my anniversary so didn’t have reception.” I was also trying to celebrate my anniversary, but I am a mere paying customer, so don’t worry about me, just pardon me for interrupting your celebration. Sorry to be a nuisance.
Office manager B said, “I was actually on leave when you arrived.” B promised to contact K (who had given us the misinformation that banished us to the street) “when he returns to the office later today”. K does not work on Fridays, so why did he ask me to phone him when we arrived? B said she would speak to J (the Property & Logistics Manager who had claimed to have sent me the correct code) “when he returns to the office on Thursday”. At the time B was writing this A was “currently out of the country.” Lights on, nobody home.
More about customer service in my next article.