Melissa Kite

The mystical power of the word ‘unsafe’

The minute I uttered it, Surrey County Council sprang into action

The mystical power of the word ‘unsafe’
[Photo: Shinyfamily]
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The street light as bright as the Dog Star was fitted with a shield, and I was assigned my own personal engineer who rang and texted me.

Whether or not this was because I had threatened to throw myself out of the window, I can’t be sure. But it is certainly true that I got service with a smile after I lost my already limited supply of marbles and yelled down the phone to Surrey County Council that if they didn’t do something about the bright white LED bulb shining into my bedroom from the street lamp newly fitted with the latest ‘energy saving’ technology, then I would jump.

It was a ‘day burner’, which meant it was on all day and all night. Maddening is not the word, and even with blackout blinds I lay awake worrying that if I drew the curtains I would see there was no night time out there, just blinding brightness.

That thought kept me awake. And the thought that it was a huge waste of energy and taxpayers’ money. And the thought that the confiscation of night time was doing something to the body clocks of the owls and the foxes and all the little animals trying to exist naturally in the glare of that light — the birds, the toads, the insects… what if they couldn’t sleep? On and on it went in my head.

It felt like the only way to get them to take me seriously was to let rip and tell them how I felt. At first they offered me social services. But after a few wailing sessions, someone at Surrey County Council did take me seriously and instructed their contractors to go and look. They went to the wrong street lamp initially, prompting more wailing from me. But he calmly retasked them and eventually they turned up.

Skanska it was. Two handsome engineers arrived with a crane lift and up went one in a harness to fit a nice shield around the light. Earlier the light had been switched to a timer so it goes off at 1 a.m. But the most extraordinary thing was the attitude of the chief engineer, who, working from home, personally texted and called me to check I was happy at every stage.

I suppose Surrey County Council might have read this column, but from past experience I doubt it. I certainly didn’t tell them. I simply poured my heart out down the phone and to my utter amazement they decided to do something.

I am wondering whether this approach might have implications for all sorts of problems. On the one hand, it’s an awful kerfuffle to have to cry bitter tears of emotional pain and torment, repressed by a year of lockdown, to a stranger at your local authority to get them to do something as mundane as fix a street light. On the other hand, if emotional pain and torment are what you are feeling, you might as well let them out in order to get good service.

If I were going to produce a YouTube tutorial based on my latest experiences, I would teach people to frame their complaints by channelling all their anguish about everything and beginning: ‘This is making me feel…’

It’s no good saying ‘I demand you do something about this because it’s a huge waste of public money.’ The world has moved on. Needless to say, there is also no point asking for something to be remedied because it is ‘wrong’. There is no right or wrong. Catch up.

Unless you tell the organisation in question about your emotions they will not listen.

I’ve been vaguely aware for some time that the word ‘unsafe’ carries mystical powers. I think I may have said it to the county council about the street light. I wasn’t faking. I felt unsafe, as in I was so sleep-deprived I didn’t trust myself not to attempt suddenly to climb up a ladder to smash the light. So they stepped in. What can I say? In a world where customer service has all but collapsed, I got results.

It would be churlish not to see the many potential applications of this approach. Recently, the parish council installed four brand-new six-seater picnic benches on the green near my house. Residents complained that this broke the law. Four to six people per bench, the benches barely a metre apart… hello, is anybody in there?

The tables were duly moved around a bit and adorned with laminated notices: ‘These benches should not be used for social gatherings during current lockdown restrictions. Stay at home.’ Clearly, no one has yet contacted the parish council to say the words ‘I feel unsafe’. I bet that when somebody does, the benches will be dismantled and hacked into tiny pieces.