Put me through to a real person

In Jessica Rudd’s feisty and funny new novel, Ruby Blues, about Gen Y political apparatchiks in Canberra, there is a scene which should resonate with third agers.

In Jessica Rudd’s feisty and funny new novel, Ruby Blues, about Gen Y political apparatchiks in Canberra, there is a scene which should resonate with third agers. The fictional PM’s adviser, Ruby Stanhope (she will be remembered from Jessica’s first novel, Campaign Ruby), under pressure as always, desperately rings for a taxi. “Welcome to Capital Cabs. Would you like to book a taxi?” “Yes.” “If so, say yes, if – “ “Yes.” “I’m sorry. I’m having trouble understanding.” “I said yes.” “Please wait for me to run through the options. If you would like to book a taxi, please say yes. If you have a lost property enquiry, please say lost property.” “Yes.” “Transferring you to our lost property desk now.” “No, I said yes.” “I’m sorry, did you say yes?…” “Welcome to Capital Cabs. Our lost and found desk is now closed. Please call back during business hours…” When did… why did, we allow this atrocious, inhuman and frustrating way of non-communication take over from humans at a switchboard? Having been passed from one robot voice to another when my mobile wouldn’t work a few weeks ago, I cheered when I read Ruby’s succinct, very rude, response to this treatment. The hand which held the obdurate mobile become sweatier by the minute, as I endured an hour of boiling frustration before I picked myself up and went to see lovely James at the Telstra shop who fixed my phone in a minute. He must have wondered at my degree of pathetic gratitude when he did not say: “Is it something to do with your PIN? If so, say yes. If it’s something else, say…. What is your date of birth? Please say your first name followed by…” Instead, real-life James chatted amiably as he got my phone in shape, and smiled, and made me laugh. Recorded voices expressing limited options save no one time because of the confusion involved, but presumably they save telephone, cab and other companies money. The rebellion against them, led chiefly by people with imperfect hearing, began in the 80s. It got nowhere. Now everyone is suffering from a surfeit of those smarmy, unresponsive, mechanical voices. Jessica Rudd is a light fiction writer for our age. Don’t be snobby about her well-written books. I loved it when Ruby’s PA Bettina, a fascinating character, corrects Ruby’s grammar (a little matter of case). The young will enjoy reading about their lives; the old get a chance to catch up with what we have in common with them, to explore their language and get a sense of the frenetic pace of young high flyers today. Lots of laughs, too, as in her first novel. I had to go out and buy Cheezels for reasons readers of the book will discover. Why didn’t the ABC serialise this book instead of At Home with Julia? (Ruby Blues is published by Text Publishing, Melbourne). *** Living in the present is advisable, but not always possible. Since my last milestone birthday, my nose follows a scent to the past as eagerly as a sniffer dog on task. Sometimes it is an imagined scent, no obvious prompting at all. The other day the remembered smell of Evening in Paris took me immediately to my godmother’s bedroom where this scent was decanted into cut crystal bottles. I was about four when she died. I am often overwhelmed by a powdery smell of the hot, boring afternoons of my childhood, when my imaginary friend, Malvern, was often my only companion. Do any kids have childhoods like that anymore, when a knee scab is a full afternoon’s entertainment, cicadas a treat and fantasies become almost real? The smell of a gas mask from WW2 school drills. The stinky girl in the class no one wanted to sit near. The musty, abandoned old house where the Brownies used to meet on Saturdays. Big, white, warm peaches on the tree, some with worms in them. Persimmons when perfectly ripe, tart little striped Christmas apples, the comforting smell of my spaniel’s blue roan coat, the pine-and-lead pencil-and-uneaten-sandwich smell of my clunky wooden school case (homemade). Bunches of violets smelling of paradise, worn on the shoulder (the last time I saw this was when a social reporter presented a tiny wearable bunch to actor Joyce Grenfell – in the foyer of Her Majesty’s, I think). I have to say that these sensations hardly make up for loss of synaesthesia, which fades with age. I greatly miss it because it was a tremendous aide-memoire. Names were easier to remember when they and their owners were associated with colours, but synaesthesia offered great pleasures too, almost another dimension. I was nearly a teenager when I discovered that not everyone saw words – days of the week and months, names, anything – and music as colours. Elgar was silver, Chopin blue. It was many years more before I knew that this quirky phenomenon had a name. And now it’s gone missing from my perception of all but a few people and concepts. Wednesday will always be magenta and Saturday yellow. Youth has a greenish-yellow aura too, but, alas, old age has none. Sadly missed. My colourful past is behind me.  

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