“...by all means share a glass of wine”

09/28/2004 - 00:00 AM

  • “...by all means share a glass of wine”
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Complaints and replies in a bizarre SET document from the post-war years.

Immediately after the Second World War the efficiency of the telephone service was severely put to the test both by the destruction of lines and exchanges, and by increasing demand for phones. Telephone company exchanges were often assailed by fault reports, complaints about delayed repairs, and a huge backlog of outstanding phone line requests. A typewritten document from SET, the telephone concessionary company for Southern Italy, depicts a hypothetical conversation between an increasingly irate phone subscriber and a telephone operator. We do not know whether the text was written for the in-house organ, or if it was a bogus manual for internal use. In either case, in among the witticisms it provides an insight into the difficulties of the time, both inside and outside the company.
It was acknowledged that though service problems were often caused by arcane and complex bureaucratic procedures or compound faults, more often than not the breakdowns were directly attributable to “that blessed war that won't let us forget it!”. Sometimes reconstruction work caused new telephone problems.

Particular venom was reserved for a hypothetical worthy who claimed he had handled every request put to him in record time, except for connecting a new phone line, for which he had been kept waiting two years. “My most dear sir – this is how the reply begins in the typescript – please allow me to congratulate you on all of the wonderful things you have achieved. However, you should be aware that not even the cousin to D. Enrico – I refer to Don Enrico De Nicola [editor: the first president of the Italian Republic] – has not received his phone yet. You may wonder: how can this be such a difficult thing to do? But difficult it is, my most dear sir. Tough, tough, tough. Remember what beset your own gracious hometown of Palermo: all that war damage... In Naples, in order to build a 5,000 number telephone exchange to partially replace the one that was destroyed, we had to gather material hither and thither from minor exchanges... for cabling ties we had to comb through all of the town's market stalls and buy up all the wire we could find for sale... and if you take into account the galloping demand for telephones, it's not hard to forecast that your wait is by no means drawing to a close.”

The document also provides an insight into the widespread adoption of certain “customs” and “bad habits”. When a customer suggests offering a tip to the telephone engineer to speed things up, the hypothetical phone operator responds: “But my dear telephone subscriber, by all means, if you'd like to share a glass of wine with the engineer to celebrate the happy event, please do so, but whatever you do, don't start bandying tips around; they have been known to lead to chronic diseases, and your phone may end up suffering from a long-term intermittent illness far worse than either undulant or tertian fever.”