3 March 2003
It comes at your unsuspecting adversary out of the blue, sailing through the post and on to the doormat with devastating impact. One moment your plumber is cheerfully avoiding your phone messages about the state of the drains, still backing up after being unblocked, and the next he's at your front door, redfaced and furiously waving a letter threatening that, under the Negligent Drain Maintenance Act 1982, we should be obliged, unless within seven days… and so on and so forth. Actually, the plumber was a bad example, because they're making so much money at the moment that they can afford solicitors of their own, but luckily our plumber's lawyer was off skiing, so we got the drains cleared pronto.
A better example was the school, which seems to change how it works out the fees every term, and I'm forever querying why the bill has suddenly gone up £500. "Are you attending school behind my back?" I asked the girls after the latest bill arrived. "Are you sneaking in on Saturdays?" They shook their heads, dumbly, and as they still think the definite article is the one they're wearing to the next party, I can safely assume they're not getting lessons I don't know about.
There's always a resigned tone to the bursar's voice when he realises it's me on the phone, and I can hear the drumming of his fingers down the line, so imagine my satisfaction after we dispatched a solicitor's letter recently, and he rang me up whimpering that of course they would strike out the voluntary contribution to the concert hall and that the girls would be excused ski acclimatisation lessons. ("All it means, Mummy," said Subjudice, "is that we have to spend half an hour with our backs against the wall with our knees bent. At least at home I can watch Hollyoaks at the same time.")
The solicitor's letter works on the 'two lions' principle: your poor wildebeest plumber, or antelope bursar, threatened by the roaring of the letter, sets off at a run; faced, however, with the prospect of spending an appalling amount of money with another solicitor to rebut the letter (the 'second lion'), the confused animal will simply lie down and give up the ghost. It's a sort of natural symmetry of predation, and quite beautiful to watch the law in action in this way. Goodness, you can almost hear David Attenborough doing the soundtrack, can't you?
We recently tried out the solicitor's letter on a big computer company after our new PC refused to do much but growl at us through the CD-Rom slot, but in spite of sending off a real corker we heard nothing back. It's because the entire customer service function has been relocated to Bangalore, where solicitors' letters don't flush out the game so easily. It's an effective way of getting rid of irritating customers - it's hard to get insanely cross with someone on the other side of the world. And so, on the 'sleepy lions' principle, we took the thing to PC World and got it fixed ourselves. Sometimes, in the game of natural selection, the prey is not worth the effort.