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Donkin's World: Condemned

"This morning we awoke to the warmth of central heating, always welcome in the chilly weather we're having just now. Later this morning a man came to service the boiler. He condemned it as unsafe and we paid him 50 for the privilege,'' writes Richard Donkin.

This morning we awoke to the warmth of central heating, always welcome in the chilly weather we're having just now. Later this morning a man came to service the boiler. He condemned it as unsafe and we paid him 50 for the privilege.

"Yes, here's 50 to tell me my boiler is rubbish and unsafe. For another 50 could you haul my car off the road? How much to find an old mine working under the foundations? Three hundred quid? That's a bargain."

Life is like this when things aren't going well. I asked him if his company could quote us for a new one. Then I called British Gas on its 0800 number for a second quote. British Gas kept me on hold at least 10 minutes, their theme music running in the background, reminding me of their advert with stick people and the voice-over man who I'm sure is the same one who says "Wickes" in that funny way in an advert for the DIY chain. John, our eldest who is good at recognising voices in adverts, thinks it's Bob Hoskins. I'm not so sure. Sometimes the advertisers just rope in people who sound like someone famous - saves money.

Bob Hoskins also does Tesco and Argus ads. This is the man who as the East End gangster, Harold Shand, in The Long Good Friday said: "What I'm looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world: culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than an 'ot dog, know what I mean?"

There's time to think of these things when British Gas has you on hold. Finally the music stopped and a real person began speaking, asking me for the first line of my address and other things she didn't need to know. I said I wanted her to quote me a price for a new gas boiler. She said I could make an appointment for one of their sales people to come around. I said I didn't want to do that. I just wanted a quote.

It would be a rough quote, she said. A rough quote would do, I said. She asked me if my existing boiler was working. I said "No". By now I think she had been given enough clues to determine that I was prime customer potential. The dividing line between me here in my house and a product purchase in the gas heating sector is gossamer thin just now. Before I awoke today it had been a chasm. Companies like British Gas spend small fortunes on people like Bob Hoskins to engineer moments such as these.

"I'll put you in touch with one of our sales people straight away," said the woman and the phone reverted to British Gas music and recorded sales talk until another five minutes passed and the woman's voice returned. "I'm sorry they're all busy at the moment. Could one of them call you back?"

"Fine," I said. That was two hours ago and the people who tell us they are "looking after your world" have yet to ring. And they say we're in recession.

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