Friday, 21 July 2017

The glorious kindness of strangers.

I am heroically, catastrophically hopeless at getting things done. I can write a book in three months, which I have just done, but can I return an email or put my hand on a vital document or pay my bills on time? Can I hell.

In the heroic, catastrophic prairie of hopelessness where I live, my car tax came up. Because the little disc no longer sits on the windscreen telling me when it needs to be renewed, I of course completely forgot about it. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency politely wrote to tell me, but I simply saw DVLA on the envelope and thought, rather crossly: what do they want? I assumed it was some stupid new regulation and simply tossed the brown envelop onto the Pile of Doom.

Eventually, after I got the fourth brown envelope, I thought that perhaps they really did want to tell me something and discovered, to my horror, that I had been breaking the law for a whole month.

Now, if you are as catastrophically, heroically hopeless as I am, it turns out that you have to jump through a few hoops. If you are that late with your tax, specially numbers no longer work and you have to find the vital documents that I can never find. I tried the kind man in the post office, but he could not help, so, with my heart in my boots, I rang up the DVLA. I was expecting sucking of teeth, shaking of heads, and that sliding note of judgement that the catastrophic people get. Because the missing vital document would have to be replaced, I assumed I would have to take the car off the road for six weeks and then what would I do?

The girl – and she was a girl, very young, in her early twenties I would guess – did not suck her teeth. She did not judge me. She was funny and understanding. I explained about the vital document and how it could be anywhere. ‘You sound like my mum,’ she said, laughing. I laughed too, in delighted surprise. ‘Your mum is my soul sister,’ I said.

Even more wonderful, she had a solution. Yes, she could do this clever thing and that efficient thing and this instant thing. All would be done in the blink of an eye and I would be legal again and the horrid brown envelopes would stop.

I don’t know what bureaucracy is like in the places that you live, but in Britain, this is unheard of. I often find myself doing the nasty passive-aggressive thing of saying, ‘Well, what would you do in my position?’ And the person on the other end just changes the subject. When you get into tangles like I do, often that tangle is a Gordian knot and there is no untying it and that operative on the end of the humming telephone almost seems to be taking delight in the fact that there is no way out.

Not my DVLA girl. She was happy, she was blithe, she was brilliant. She had energy and kindness and generosity in her voice. I bet she’s a really good friend, one of those ones that her nearest and dearest turn to when they want a shoulder to cry on. She had a faint Welsh lilt to her voice and I could imagine her growing up in the valleys, getting up at dawn to help with the magnificent Welsh sheep. She took something I had been dreading, something that made me feel stupid and idiotic, something that dragged at me for the last twenty-four hours and made it easy and fun. She did not appear to think I was catastrophic.

That’s a gift. One complete stranger fixed me up and brightened my day. I bet she’s the kind of person who makes everyone smile when she walks into a room. I wish I had asked her name. I was so overcome with surprise and relief that I did not have time to think straight. I would like to have rung up her supervisor and said: give that brilliant woman a raise. I’m going to post this on Facebook and I have a slight dream that among my friends and friends of friends, someone will say: hey, I know lovely Anna who works at the DVLA. And then she will know how she transformed the day of one muddly, middle-aged woman.

I think it’s unlikely. I think my stuttering thanks will have to be enough. I think she will remain unknown to me. She’s going to be one of the George Eliot people, in Middlemarch. This is one of my favourite quotes in the world, and I’m so glad to be reminded of it. There’s another gift she gave me. ‘But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’

Actually, I don’t think someone as vivid and alive as that would ever had an unvisited tomb, but I think what Eliot meant is that the history of the world is written about the big people, the ones who fought the battles and changed the law and lit up the stage. They get monuments, and parks named after them, and statues in Whitehall. What she meant was that life is made wonderfully better by those ordinary people who don’t have grand memorials, who do lie in small, quiet Norman churchyards, whose names do not echo down the years, but who made their world a beautifully better place in their own small, delightful way.


  1. Isn't it wonderful when we run into someone like that, they are rater than hen's teeth.

  2. Almost certainly works in the call centre at Swansea. They'll have the call on tape. Not at all hard to track. Why not send her some flowers. She'll be made up. Call centre staff generally do a horrid job and generally do it very well. Most Operations are desperately and deliberately underfunded and the front-line staff have to take all the flack. I did some training for the TSB call centre staff at Swansea a year or two ago. They were a great bunch.

  3. What a lovely good news story and Gary's idea is great - I'd never have thought to do that :)

  4. Indeed, Gary's idea is splendid. I'm a great believer in saying thank you, its so easy to rush off a rude complaint but its just as easy to be appreciative. And I think most people are quicker to complain, sadly. I've just written to thank my local NHS hospital, whose staff couldn't be more helpful, no tedious bureaucracy as I was expecting (I think I listen to too much radio 4 and always fear the worst!). And good to hear from you Tania, as a non-Facebook person, I've been missing you. Gill in the New Forest

  5. You did it again……. put into words what so many of us would like to express as well as you do. Fabulous! xx

  6. Truly a gift, as you said. Yay for kind people!

  7. Isn't it wonderful when we run into someone like that, they are rater than hen's teeth.



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