“While she was put on hold, she morphed into a cyborg with a microwave-head and a bird-body and she danced around in circles”: A boring tale of bureaucracy
Phoebe Beckett Chingono
Editors: Nash Croker and Christie van Tinteren
“How did we end up with ‘the system’ as our model for how society ought to be run, a boring blundering system that gets your name wrong. Surely, we could have imagined something a lot, lot better?”
I am going to deal with a subject matter so boring it might just be the last thing anyone actually wants to read about. It’s a matter of boredom that compels me to write about this boring matter. The fact that it is so boring is precisely what matters. I will come back to this latter point, but for now let me bore you a little with a story about bureaucracy.
In my defence, I am not the only one who has decided to write a story about bureaucracy, other writers have bravely approached this subject. If you’re familiar with Kafka you might have had the odd pleasure of reading his debut novel ‘The Castle’. Without giving too much away, the plot pivots around ever-variable axes, consistently denying the reader the privilege of positionality. The would-be protagonist remains anonymous, it’s literally impossible to get fully invested in a character, and that thing the ‘castle’ that we suspect the plot is driving towards is that which, painstakingly, fails to arrive on the scene. This is all set in a bleak snow-on-snow abyss, which is perhaps why I struggled to settle into it. ‘Oh but that’s the joy of Kafka!’ my literary-enthusiast, German friend would be saying. That cold, alienated feeling is exactly what the author wants you to feel. I would go as far as to say it is the deliberate effect of encounters with bureaucracy.
My story, similarly, denies the emergence of a hero protagonist type to take the lead. The character’s actions do not unfold in spectacular dramatic myth, but cold alienating bureaucracy. The bureaucratic world, as opposed to the mythic one, is a place where no one can really root for a character because characters have no identity. Identities appear only in-as-much-as numbers are entered into what is colloquially called ‘the system’ which conjures corresponding files. Persons are files. ‘But surely there is still something driving the narrative?’ you might ask - narrative is necessarily the unfolding consequences of actions. So, I leave it to you to decide who the actor is then, though I promise you won’t find our beloved Greek god-like hero. But perhaps we are still in the presence of semi-divine actors, more-than-human forces are certainly at play here. Consider that term ‘the system’ that gets so lightly thrown around by various characters. It’s something constantly referred to, but which anonymous voices invariably must stand in for.
Once upon a time a girl with a gloriously multi-cultural name, Maya Clara Zvichanaka Walton Muchaka rode on public transport in London without valid proof of ticket purchase. Incidentally, she did this twice within a small amount of time. The letters about the fines were sent to the girl’s mother’s address, in Cambridge. The girl’s mother was not very well at the time, letters tended to go unopened - particularly one’s with strange names written on them like ‘Clara Walton Mucha’. When summer came, the mother was better and she opened all the letters. She rung her daughter and told her that a court called Westminster demanded a fine of £250 and a court called Lavender demanded a fine of £400. The daughter immediately rang the courts. She was put on hold. The hold music circuited around her head like that circling-birds cartoon trope. A voice finally spoke;
A Voice: What is your account number...Okay hold a moment while I get you up on the system...So how can I help you today?
The Girl: I want to halt the accounts and make a statutory declaration for both
A voice: Okay I will need to enter this all into the system hold on… Done
When she eventually peeled her cheek from the hot phone, she felt like she had cooked her head in a microwave.
The first statutory declaration took place at Westminster. There was a long form she had to fill and then she was ushered into a courtroom where she had to explain things quickly. Here, she felt words were time, and being economical meant not wasting time which meant using fewer words.
The Girl: My letters were sent to my mother... who was unwell...My proper address is in London... I’ve written it on the form
The Court: We accept, you will have to come back for a prosecution.
The Girl made a statutory declaration at Lavender court. This time she was made to sit at the back of the courtroom and wait while a line of people was called up one by one. The girl empathised for the man who spoke in broken English, he struggled with the instructions.
The Court: No! Not that box, stand in that box
Man: yes of course yes
The Court: Do you plead innocent or guilty?
Man: I didn’t know...it was my first time in London….
The Court: Innocent or guilty...Okay we order a fine of £175….You can go...No not that door the other door
Man: Yes of course yes
Then it was the girl’s turn to go up.
The Girl: My mother received my letters...she was unwell...My correct address is in London...You’ve got my name wrong its not Clara Walton Mucha its Maya Clara Zvichanaka Walton Muchaka. But Maya Walton Muchaka is also fine.
Her long name felt like it was taking up precious time. If only her parents had given her a simpler name, but that would have meant them agreeing on one name over another and given that they were separated it made more sense for them to pick the names they liked separately.
The Court: We accept... We order a fine of £132 to be paid in £20 instalments
The girl was not sent a letter of how to pay the fine. She thought how odd it was that a million letters were sent out to demand the fine but not one to explain how to pay it. She phoned Lavender court. The hold music spun round her head in dizzying bird circles and her cheek got hot.
A Voice: You can pay your fine on gov.uk using this account number: NJN&T^RR%FYGJBHUfvnkj
Following the instructions, the girl paid her first instalment of £20 to Lavender. A mysterious warrant addressed to a ‘Clara Walton Mucha’ arrived at the mother’s address from the bailiffs demanding the payment of a £450 fine. The mother told her daughter who immediately called the bailiff company.
The Girl: There must have been a mistake I have made statutory declarations…. Which court is this warrant issued from?
A Voice: We don’t know which court it’s from, we just know that it was passed to us so it’s in our hands now not the courts... Would you like to pay now or in instalments?
The Girl: But there has been a mistake
A Voice: If you don’t pay the fine then we will just come and collect it
The Girl: Are you a robot?
The girl cried. She was stood in a road by her university and didn’t really want people to see her in this state but also felt like she didn’t give a fuck. The girl then phoned Westminster court. She was sent into a mild insanity as the hold music waltzed around her microwaved-to-a-crisp brain.
A Voice: What’s your account number
The Girl: (*Y*Y*YGYHBJBJnfgnrlgtn
A Voice: OK thanks let me get you up on the system… We did not pass the case to enforcement
The Girl: So, who did?
A Voice: I don’t know. Are you aware you missed a court hearing and a prosecution decision was made in your absence. The court has fined you £322.
The Girl: Why didn’t you send me a letter to tell me when my court hearing was?
A Voice: They would have mentioned it during your statutory declaration 2 months ago, we are not under obligation to send it in writing
The Girl: But you send letters all the time, all you do is send letters
A Voice: Says here on the system you have already made a payment of £20 toward the £322 fine
The Girl: Impossible. I only just found out about this fine now... The only payment I have made was for a different account
A Voice: Says here on the system that the other Lavender account was written off entirely two days after your statutory declaration so the system reabsorbed the payment into the Westminster account
The Girl: What? it can’t be so
How very strange, the girl thought. But this does not resolve the mystery of the bailiff warrant. She decided to email the enforcement office responsible for issuing warrants to bailiffs.
The Girl: Which court passed the account to the bailiffs?
A gentleman named Mr. S Knox responded.
Mr. S Knox: Hello Miss Maya Muchaka, the account for the warrant is in a male name
The Girl: What do you mean it’s in a male name? That’s beside the point... The warrant is addressed to me under the name ‘Clara Walton Mucha’ - the exact name Lavender Court had me down as.
Mr. S Knox: But the account is in a male name I can only assume you have given me the wrong account number
The Girl: The account number I gave you is the one on the letter addressed to me. Please take this seriously the bailiffs will come to my mother’s house
At this point Mr. S Knox must have found something else to do at work that was more important than answer the girl’s emails. A few weeks later the bailiffs did show up at the mother’s house. The stress of it made the mother scream, which afterwards made her feel a little embarrassed and unsettled, her hairdresser and good friend had passed by whilst she was in a rage. The girl phoned up the London enforcement office.
A Voice: Hold on let me get you up on the system [very long pause]. Oh yeah, the bailiff warrant was from the Lavender account
The Girl: Just as I suspected
A Voice: You need to speak to Cambridge enforcement office because that’s where your London account has been sent to. The Cambridge enforcement office were supposed to check whether a statutory declaration had been made before issuing a warrant so Cambridge are at fault.
The girl phoned the Cambridge Enforcement Office. While she was put on hold, she morphed into a cyborg with a microwave-head and a bird-body and she danced around in circles, or at least she thought she had for the time that she was waiting for a voice to answer.
A Voice: What’s your account number
The Girl: **YT^%RYE%^UFYGJBHJBUKBUYIG
A Voice: Oh yeah, the system is telling me you made a statutory declaration at Lavender court... Lavender should have let us know that, they are at fault... I’ll notify the bailiffs to return the warrant now
A few days later the girl received an email from Mr. S Knox.
Mr. S Knox: Hi Maya Walton, just to say that we have taken care of the situation, seeing that a statutory declaration had been made the enforcement office notified the bailiffs to return the warrant the same day
The Girl: The same day? No, the statutory declaration had been made long before the notice was sent to the bailiffs… It was me who made the enforcement office aware of this
Mr. S Knox: As is stated above, we have taken care of your situation
A few weeks later a letter arrived at the Mother’s address that said the enforcement office demanded the payment of a fine of £132. The mother told her daughter who immediately rang the enforcement office.
A Voice: The Lavender account had been written off by mistake, so the court is re-applying the fine
The Girl: That’s a little rich considering the series of errors that have been made in the handling of this account; wrong address, not getting my letters, wrong name, wrong gender, the Bailiffs sent to my house by mistake, endless phone calls, the fact I tried to pay the fine and the payment was moved into another account...
A Voice: You can file a complaint online. Would you like to pay your fine now or in instalments?
The Girl: Instalments please
Defeated the girl opted for instalments, she is a student without a great cash flow. The Westminster account is still in process. She appealed to reopen the case, though unfortunately the form to appeal was sent to an old woman who lives down the road from her mother, and so the girl didn’t get her appeal in on time.
She is now appealing for an appeal.
As I say, this was a boring subject matter. But boring might be a thing of interest, Kafka certainly seemed to think so, though approaching the topic is not without difficulty. ‘The Castle’ was in fact his first and only novel. Earlier, I asked you to consider who you think the actor was in this boring tale of bureaucracy. I did hint that ‘the system’ was something of a semi-divine power, but I was sending you down a rabbit hole. In honesty, I wouldn’t grant ‘the system’ nearly so much agency.
Bureaucracy isn’t a heroic character, it doesn’t embark on epic missions, although those who do have to deal with it can feel like they’re in a Greek tragedy. What bureaucracy really does is preclude the possibility of a mythic hero from ever emerging. It disperses agentive power into a system that no one really gets, something we name, glimpse, but never behold in its entirety. And the way it does this is precisely by being so boring. Effectively, it makes heroic action seem impossible, it makes you feel like you have absolutely no power, and that no one else is capable of doing anything.
The world must be a pretty depressing place if the exercise of heroic power is deemed stuff of myth and fantasy because nothing that interesting ever realistically happens. How did the world get so decisively boring? What we are witnessing is the closure of imagination. A fine example of how bureaucracy closes the imagination is the fact that it’s so bloody impossible as a writer to think of an interesting story about bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is so un-imaginative, its story can’t be imaginatively told. It doesn’t lend itself to narrative. It’s a story that can’t be narrated because it can’t be imagined. And yet we did imagine it, or else it wouldn’t be here.
So, I guess the question I would like to leave you with is how did we end up with ‘the system’ as our model for how society ought to be run, a boring blundering system that gets your name wrong, surely we could have imagined something a lot, lot better? Although, I hasten to add, history can tell us that systems run by powers that more closely resemble divine gods with heroic agency are not at all preferable to the one we’ve ended up in. It wouldn’t be outrageous to presume that the bureaucratic model we’ve taken up is an historical attempt to prevent exactly that kind of power from appearing. As we know, Greek gods were never particularly sympathetic characters.