On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: We work at the same agency and are joining together in a civil partnership in a couple of months.

Our boss is a devout Catholic and, while she's never given any indication, we're sure she disapproves. So should we invite her to the ceremony? PS. What's your view on wedding lists online?

A: Devout Catholics may also be open-minded. If you fail to invite your boss to your ceremony, you're implicitly assuming she's intolerant. So ask her. She can always be otherwise engaged.

Wedding lists, online or off, are one of the world's least-loved and most-efficient inventions. The main reason for their being unloved is that they exposed the hypocrisy of the convention they replaced. For years, at immense expense, all parties ended up dissatisfied. Everybody knew that an invitation to a wedding carried with it the unspoken obligation to come good with a gift. Guests fretted and muttered and failed to find inspiration in department stores. Utilitarian objects, of the kind that would have delighted the penniless home-makers most, were thought too utilitarian for so romantic an occasion. The result: guests spent more than they could afford on objects that had no practical value other than to occupy a parcel. And the unhappy couple, still without an ironing-board, spent the first ten days after their return from honeymoon writing insincere thank-you letters to the hundreds of people who'd given them things they neither needed nor liked, and all of them in duplicate.

At a stroke, the wedding list stripped out the pretence. What had always been a crass and commercial convention, but so disguised as to be wholly ineffective, now became a nakedly commercial convention. Bride and groom simply said what they wanted; and their guests dutifully delivered.

The online list has taken this chilling procedure to a new level of impersonal efficiency. You don't even have to go to a shop any more: wonderful. Click, click, click - and you've made your meaningful contribution to the happiest day of their lives. You know it's exactly what they wanted because it's exactly what they asked for. And you know that nobody else has bought it because a computer tells you so.

So what's been lost? Only the comfort of mass self-delusion, I suppose. But that shouldn't be underrated.

Q: Almost every day, we receive stuff through our letter-box that we have to pick up and put in the bin. Little cards with airport taxi numbers on, Indian takeaway menus with special offers, ditto pizza places, leaflets from builders, decorators, plumbers and cleaners, and letters from estate agents saying they've sold a property like ours and offering a free valuation. I can't remember ever calling any of them, so why do they keep paying to have them delivered?

A: For exactly the same reason that people cc 17 other people on every e-mail they send: there's no cost disincentive.

Free is universally regarded as good. It's not. If everything was as free as a cc on an e-mail, we'd be buried in stuff within days. Things should be more expensive.

I shake the inserts out of magazines straight into the paper bin. I feel about them as you feel about estate agents' letters and takeaway pizza flyers; but the reason they keep coming is that they're not expensive enough to deter waste. If ISPs charged 5p for the first three ccs and then an incremental 5p for every cc after that (so that the fourth cost 10p, the fifth, 15p, the tenth, 40p - until the 22nd cost a quid), our lives would be immeasurably improved.

Q: We're looking for cost-effective ways to increase the quality of working life at our agency, and someone's proposed we set up a walled garden online speed-dating club to facilitate intermingling. Their main argument is that, since lots of people hook up with workmates, why not make it easier? Was there an analogue version of this in your day and did it help?

A: You shouldn't be trying to make it easier. What you curiously call intermingling may be enjoyable - but it seldom turns out to be as enjoyable as the long-drawn-out pas de deux that preceded it: or so I'm told. Not so much the chase as grandmother's footsteps: tentative advance; stop dead; look away; hope that plunges into hopelessness; wordless encouragement that may be just wordless and not encouragement at all. At least in retrospect, that's the best bit: or so I'm told. The longer it can be sustained, the better.

Speed-dating delivers the opposite: without finesse, suspense or narrative engagement. If you want staff to enjoy life more, don't speed things up. Slow them down.

"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4919.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.