Thinking allowed — 26 October 2010

Foyles

For 100-odd years Foyle’s the eponymous bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road employed a system of book purchase that only served – if that is the correct word- to waste customers time and add another two layers of bureaucracy to the simple act of purchasing an item.

Once you’d selected the book you wanted, you had to queue to hand it to an assistant, who would put your book into a bag, place the bag under the counter and give you a chit to take to the cashier.

Next you’d have to queue at the cashier’s kiosk, where after paying you’d be given a receipt to take back to the first assistant.

Then you’d have to queue a third time to hand over your receipt and collect your book, simply because sales staff were not allowed to handle cash.

Foyle’s proprietor Christina Foyle, daughter of founder William, allowed the shop to stagnate, with little investment and poorly paid staff that could be fired on a whim.

She also refused to install any modern conveniences such as electronic tills or calculators; nor would orders be taken by phone. Equally mystifying to customers was a shelving arrangement that categorized books by publisher, rather than by topic or author. In the 1980s, rival bookshop, Dillons, placed an advertisement saying “Foyled again? Try Dillons” in a bus shelter opposite Foyle’s. After the death of Christina Foyle in 1999 and the passing of control to her nephew Christopher Foyle, he has now brought the bookshop into the 21st century and in the last 10 years Foyle’s have been the recipient of many awards.

Continuing this fine tradition of multi-layer bureaucracy and distrust of their customers the national census is due to take place on 27th March 2011 but it could be the last of its kind.

The census as we would understand it has been conducted every 10 years since 1801, apart from during World War II, and it has proved to be a valuable resource for historians, genealogists and planners. But now the government is examining other ways of measuring population and other statistics than the compulsory survey of all homes every 10 years.

The 2001 census was the first year in which the government asked about religion and perhaps because this was seen as too intrusive 390,000 people entered their religion as Jedi, hardly surprising after the Nazi occupation and genocide of minority religions in Europe, they just felt it was none of the authorities business.

Next year’s census, sent to every household, will cost an estimated £482 million and again the bureaucrats are going way beyond what is reasonable to ask in a survey. They will ask for detailed information including nationality, religious faith and marital status, including new ones about citizenship and how well people can speak English? . . . Very well, well, not well or not at all. They will demand to know the date overseas nationals have entered the UK and the length of time they intend to stay. Citizens will no longer be asked if they have access to a bath or shower but will be asked how many bedrooms their property has and types of central heating in homes. According to a specimen 2011 census on the Office for National Statistics website, they will also ask about ‘same sex civil partnership status’ for the first time. The specimen census also asks ‘how would you describe your national identity?’ offering English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, British or ‘other’, with space to write in. The section on ethnic groups has also been expanded from 2001, with separate categories for ‘Gypsy or Irish Traveller’ and ‘Arab’ for the first time.

Those who do not complete the census risk being prosecuted.

Not trusting our honesty and finding that many people only partially fill in the census or do not return the form, the Government have said it was ‘examining’ whether changes could be made but no decision had yet been reached.

One suggestion is that in future the bureaucrats could gather the data from records held by the Post Office, local government and credit checking agencies – thought to be more effective- and of course far more intrusive.

The Office for National Statistics claims to have carried out extensive consultations and testing over a number of years to ensure that the questions are justified, both in terms of the need for the information and public acceptability. Well, we shall see next year, I predict there will again be protests about the degree of intrusion into our daily lives.

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Gibson

(3) Readers Comments

  1. When I was a lecturer in a London polytechnic I used Foyles a lot. The computing section was particularly good because the assistant knew his stuff and could always tell you where all the books were on a particular topic, even though they were dotted about under the names of publishers.
     
    New books tended to be shelved in front of old ones and once, looking at a book on photography, I found the prices decreased as one went further back on the shelf! I bought the cheapest one, right at the back.
     
    I well remember the payment booths and having to go back with the receipt to collect the book. Despite these perceived annoyances, Foyles did a roaring trade because of its unparalleled range of books. I recall the late lamented Books etc opening across the road from Foyles and I used to go there first in the hope of finding the book I wanted to save braving the eccentricities of Foyles. Dillons may have been a much loved rival to Foyles but Foyles has had the last laugh.
     
    The census is one of those things that people hate at the time, regarding it as “intrusive” etc., but love later on when it proves a valuable source of historical and social information. We don’t mind peering into the lives of others but resent others peering into our lives. Isn’t that a little inconsistent?
     
    I remember one protest against the census some years ago when a group invited people to gather with sandwiches and flasks of hot drinks to spend the night outside. The idea was that as they were not at home at midnight on the date in question, they needn’t fill in the census form as this was required to be filled in by people resident at a particular address. I somehow doubt whether they got away with that but it was an interesting attempt.
     
    I don’t think people stated their religion as Jedi in order to draw attention to the absurdity or intrusiveness of asking people about their religion. Just before the census was issued, a rumour went around that if a certain number of people stated a particular religious affiliation, the government would have to accept this as an established religion and a movement gathered to fool the government into accepting Jedi as a real religion. In fact, the proposition in the rumour was incorrect and Jedi was never established as a real religion but a lot of people claimed it as their faith in the census. I don’t doubt that many will do so again this time.
     

    • The more intrusive the questions on the census the less likely are people to return their forms, thereby reducing the value of this resource to historians and researchers.

  2. I had never heard of this shop before but it does sound fairly scary! It seems like an incredibly long winded process just to buy a book!

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