Class conscious

I'm not asking for sympathy, but quite often the only people I speak to in a working day are the telephone directory inquiry staff. Usually they're women, and Scottish ones, at that, because all inquiries from London are, for some reason best-known to BT, routed up to call centres outside Edinburgh.

I sometimes entertain vaguely erotic thoughts about these women. I imagine them as being like the crofter's wife who, in the film of The Thirty-Nine Steps, flirts with Richard Hannay when he pitches up at her cottage, even though she's constantly watched over by her glowering husband. My fantasy, in other words, is that they are drawn, despite - or because of - the Calvanistic rigour of their upbringing, to a slightly posh young Englishman, in which role I caddishly cast myself whenever I call them. I'm encouraged in this pretence of being a metropolitan sophisticate by having read an interview with one of the women, who said that she'd never been to London but longed to see the bright lights of the Finchley Road on account of the amount of people who ask for the numbers of its shops.

I will, then, call up and crisply ask for "The Royal Festival Hall", and if the directory woman says - which they can be relied on to do - "Which town is that in?", I feel a small surge of superiority. But I don't always get the upper hand in these social skirmishes. Once I rang up and asked for "The RAC Club", and the woman said: "Do you realise that's a tautology? Because what you're really saying is the Royal Automobile Club, Club." I accepted the number in a very chastened frame of mind indeed.

It is very easy to underestimate these Caledonian telephonists. When requesting a number for, say, the restaurant Pont de la Tour, I might spell it out without being asked. Sometimes the BT woman is grateful, but occasionally you catch one who's waging her own little class war. "I know, I know," she'll say, when I've only got as far as the second letter, and then she'll dismissively press the button that triggers the automated kiss-off: "The number you require is . . ." In such cases, the subtext is always clear and bracing: "Get stuffed, you snob."