Over the phone I told my Australian sister that I planned to attend the ceremony at which our brother-in-law - a recently retired civil servant - was to be awarded the Imperial Service Medal. "It's for a lifetime of work," I explained.
"So he gets a medal for going to work?" she asked, her tone rising at the end of the sentence in that way which makes Australians sound incredulous even when they’re not.
"Err, yes," I said.
Recognition in the form of a gong is all very well, but an enhanced pension would be preferable - if you ask me. But in these times of miserly public spending, those few who remain in public service must make do with decorations and expressions of gratitude.
Our local Council has made determined efforts to divest itself of employees in order to save money. It has put its faith in a brand new, interactive website instead. Here is an example of how it works. Someone has abandoned a big wheelie bin on our street. It is overflowing with rubbish and attracting more each day. Since it is no longer possible to phone the Council I place a request via the website to have it removed. After a few days the anonymous response comes back that it is "not the Council's responsibility". I place another request, hopefully ticking some alternative boxes (there is no facility for free-text). A few days later the response comes back "The rubbish has been removed," even though it has not. I give them a couple of days for the bin men to catch up with the web-response team then I go online a third time to request its removal (each time I must start a new procedure because, of course, the system thinks the matter has been dealt with). A few days later the response comes back "The rubbish has been removed". It hasn't.
On passing the Town Hall, part of which has undergone an expensive and extensive three-year refurbishment programme, I decide to drop into the swish new customer service centre to see if I can make some progress. (I always thought customers were defined as those who buy goods. But language evolves, and nowadays a tax-payer is called a customer). I was directed to a line of phone booths from which I could contact the Environmental Health people without coming face-to-face with them. Could it be that they are in fear of physical assault from disgruntled customers/tax-payers? The lady whose misfortune it was to answer my call listened with practised patience to my tale and promised to put it through on a Q37 to a colleague. Having waited so long on hold - without music - I was past caring what she did.
Two days later I took a call from a mobile number; it was Carl calling from Environmental Health. He had been to our street, verified the presence of the bin and the small mountain of garbage that has accumulated around it and subsequently instructed contractors to come and remove it.
"They might come in two days - or it might be five," he said "if nothing happens you can call me on this number".
He didn't sound very confident. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he had just received his redundancy notice and that call was a last, desperate attempt at customer conciliation before he ceases to be a tax-payer and becomes an unemployed beneficiary of the diminishing public funds, sitting pointlessly at home and staring out of the window on to his rubbish-strewn, rat-infested street – without so much as a medal for consolation.
In a week when London was reported to be the wealthiest city in the world, never was it more obvious that the U.K. is a poor country run for the benefit of rich people.