To cut a long story shortish: my local library, which has been run by a children’s charity since the council removed its funding in 2012, has a weekly singing group for babies and toddlers. It’s a fantastic way to get parents, carers and children out socialising (and socialising together): toddlers that can sing, toddlers that can’t sing, toddlers from big houses, toddlers from council estates, toddlers from the temporary homeless accommodation in the next street, toddlers from the secret underground oligarchs’ lairs that must be round here somewhere… all of them clapping, dancing, speculating confidently as to the stock on Old MacDonald’s farm, then staying on to look at books and catch the reading bug. It’s truly a vision of how you would want society to be. UNLESS YOU’RE EVIL.Well, must check for pointy horns then, because it's my idea of hell...
For some time, the singing group has been hosted by the librarian herself, an excellent woman with a real vocation for the task: she has natural charisma, a lovely singing voice and the children adore her. But she’s thinking she should focus on “more serious” tasks relating to the building and the charity. And that’s because she’s too modest to realise how directly her talent triggers social cohesion, making this important free space feel welcoming to all. So I decided to send her, on behalf of the neighbourhood, 50 miniature tambourines.As you, errrr, do. And in today's modern world, this should be easily accomplished, no?
The volume was meant to be dazzling and a bit silly, like when a rap star sends a thousand roses to a love interest.And provide an excuse for a column, no doubt?
I had it all planned. The huge, mysterious box would arrive; she’d open it to find 50 tambourines; she’d laugh, she’d feel slightly harassed, she’d be ultimately flattered; she’d feel a renewed enthusiasm for the group as she imagined her dozens of tiny singers banging incoherently on dozens of tiny tambourines; she’d feel loved and valued and (I told myself excitedly as I clicked eagerly on to the John Lewis website) maybe she’d remember the gesture for ever.Yes. It's all about you, Victoria.
So you can understand my frustration when, as the day dawned, I started getting a stream of automated text messages that gradually revealed the tambourines were not being delivered in one giant comic batch with my gift note, but in three different parcels, on two different vans, dropped off six hours apart.So..? Isn't the point of this to get them the tambourines?
I say you can understand my frustration. Can you? The John Lewis manager I spoke to could not. She told me that 50 tambourines could not be delivered in one go “for safety reasons” and that she agreed with this “policy”. (No such policy exists, I have subsequently established.) She disagreed with me that this should be advertised at point of sale.Probably thinking all the while 'What the hell's the problem? She's getting the damn tambourines!'...
Essentially, she was prepared to say anything at all, other than sorry. I suddenly found myself crying...Well, I hope that brightened up the John Lewis girl's morning as much as it brightened up mine!
Why cry, though, over a botched tambourine delivery? I’ve asked myself this, as I lie awake at night picturing my sobbing pleas being broadcast to a crowd of giggly new sales staff and clawing lightly at the headboard. I think the answer is: because it’s an increasingly frightening, chaotic, unknowable world and we can only control it (or make sense of it) in small, kindly, hopeful gestures. That’s what this ridiculous purchase was supposed to be. When it failed, I needed the person on the end of the phone to be kind and sympathetic and for the two of us to share a moment of fellow feeling. When that didn’t happen, it all seemed to represent something much bigger than itself.Jeez, you're making a purchase from a company, not communing in an ashram over mint tea!
We all have to interact with large corporations now; too many little shops have been pushed under by them. If we choose John Lewis or Sainsbury’s, it feels, at least, more human scale than Amazon. The big corporation can’t meaningfully care about us, but we need to persuade ourselves that an individual representative could, even if they’re just a disembodied voice on the phone. When you can’t convince us you care, that exposes the relentless grind of the emotionless, profit-hungry machine. It’s frightening and alienating.It exists to take your money in return for goods. Which it fulfilled. It's not there to hold your hand while you have an existential crisis.