Watch out, the licence man’s about

Those quiet moments of reflection that come to us all invariably find your correspondent yearning for a more caring, compassionate society.

In common with a forgotten former prime minister, I too have a vision of an England in which old maids peddle bicycles through sun dappled fields of swaying corn, to country pubs with roses round the door where rubicund, whiskered landlords serve warm beer to the cheerful juke-boxed, mega-wattaged accompaniment of Led Zeppelin.

The Britain of my dreams is a land of full employment, smiling children, and good-natured neighbourliness. A land of unselfconscious emotion where, in moments of national stress, the fields are strewn with cellophaned bunches of flowers and soft toys and the citizens lean on each other and openly weep big salty tears.

So why does this day find me, a deeply caring person, longing for Mr Richard Woolford to be cast out on to the street, his wife and bairns huddled pitiable and hopeless in a bitterly freezing gale, his future behind him?

Let me explain. I have a share in a small second home in Hertfordshire where there is, blissfully, no television, just gallons of warm beer and the occasional glimpse of a passing old maid on wheels. Twice over the past two years I have written to the organisation that calls itself TV Licensing, explaining that we do not have a television. They will not, however, let the matter drop.

Plainly, the finks and prodnoses who toil at TV Licensing somewhere in Bristol, cannot believe that anyone could be so eccentric as to forsake the pleasures of the telly, least of all in this glorious year of the World Cup, when the nation will as one gaze moodily at the flickering screen for endless hour upon hour, united in the desire to spread flowers and weep.

Hence my letter from Richard Woolford. “Dear Occupier,” he writes, “We have no record of a TV licence at this address. If you watch TV programmes and don’t have a licence, you are breaking the law and you could face prosecution and a fine of up to 1000.

“TV Licence Enquiry Officers will be making visits in your area over the next few weeks. If you still don’t have a valid licence, it is likely they will be knocking on your door. I would therefore strongly advise you to get a licence immediately.

“Yours faithfully, Richard Woolford customer services. PS: We have recently prosecuted 848 people in your area. Our Enquiry Officers are about to visit the area.”

For sheer bloody effrontery, that takes some beating. It’s difficult to decide which is most objectionable: the threatening tone of the letter or the sickening whiff of petty officialdom that seeps from every line.

Leaving aside the question of whether it is fair or justifiable to finance a national broadcasting organisation by means of a poll tax, there are civilised ways to approach people from whom you wish to extract money, and using the language of the protection racketeer is not among them. Threats of heavies knocking on doors and the sinister “advice” to get a licence, and be quick about it, smack of “nice leetle place you gotta here. Pity if the windows fell in.” And then there’s the postscript: “848 windows have already fallen in round the neighbourhood. Don’t be a wise guy or you’ll feel the draught.”

And how about Woolford’s title – customer services? In what possible sense of the word can TV Licensing be said to have “customers”? (Except the ironical sense: prison officers have been known to refer to the inmates as customers.) And what do you suppose Woolford understands by the term “services”? It cannot be the accepted meaning of “providing something needed by the public” since no one needs, still less wants, to pay Esther Rantzen’s wages on pain of prosecution and a hefty fine.

Sadly, in this England, for every cycling old maid there are scores of creeping Woolfords. People who are given an atom of power and discover that, by some mysterious process, it puffs them up into a ridiculous parody of themselves. They are to be found everywhere: in the law, in the teaching profession, in local government, in Whitehall, in the streets, where they dress up as traffic wardens, and in pubs, where they masquerade as customers before revealing themselves as Environmental Health Officers with capital letters.

How do you become a prodnose? Well, you could start as a child by pulling the wings off flies. You can graduate to playground sneak. After that, it’s just a question of working your way up. While you are waiting for the crumb of power that is your destiny to be handed to you, you could practise your skills by reporting smokers who light up on trains and informing on neighbours who use water sprinklers during a hose ban.

I imagine Woolford was himself once an Enquiry Officer with capital letters, who cut his teeth knocking on doors and exercising his tiny fragment of power until fate smiled upon him and made him Customer Services with capital letters, from which exalted position he showers the land with impudent threats. However, as the estimable Montaigne said: “No matter how high the chair you sit in, you still sit only upon your own arse.”

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