A couple of months ago, our youngest daughter was informed by her school that she had been awarded a prize in recognition of her achievements during the previous academic year. It would take the form of a book to be presented to her at the forthcoming annual prizegiving evening. In keeping with the increasingly DIY nature of state education these days, she was handed a National Book Tokens gift card (with a face value insufficient to purchase anything worthy of the occasion unless parentally augmented), and told to go and buy her own book. This was to be handed in prior to the ceremony so that somebody could write an uplifting sentence or two in it, thus creating the appearance that the school had done all the hard work.
With the prizegiving rapidly approaching and our daughter showing a teenagery lack of interest in doing anything about it, I stepped in. Having already decided that she could do with a German dictionary more portable than the breeze block we have at home, I wandered yesterday into our local branch of W H Smith and located a Pocket Oxford German Dictionary, which – along with a couple of magazines and a large padded envelope – I deposited at the only open checkout. Having handed my debit card and the book token to the woman behind the till, I couldn’t help but notice the failure of the customary flurry of scanning and beeping to materialise. Nothing. I looked at Checkout Woman with polite anticipation. She looked at me as though I’d slapped her in the face with the Christmas edition of the Radio Times.
“You can’t pay with that.”
“It’s for books only.”
“That’s fine,” I said, “it’s just for the dictionary.”
“No, you can’t use it. It’s only for books.”
I became aware of my tendency to assume that the fault in any miscommunication is mine kicking in. I was on the verge of allowing Checkout Woman to make me consider the possibility that my lifelong understanding of ‘book’ was fatally flawed when I gave myself a mental slap and shot back a withering response, “That IS a book.”
“No, it isn’t, it’s educational materials. You can only buy books with that gift card.” Searching for the smallest sign that she recognised the irony implicit in what had just emerged from her mouth, I looked deeply into eyes long since deadened by countless shifts spent handling Hello and the Daily Mail. Nope, nothing.
“That’s for books,” she repeated, making it clear that, as far as she was concerned, it was the end of the matter.
I plowed on regardless. “Are you serious? Of course it’s a book. It’s a reference book. How does being educational stop it being a book?”
“Because it’s educational materials. You can only pay for actual books with that card. Like novels and autobiographies.”
The penny dropped. I was dealing with a woman who was able to dress herself, operate a till, and talk at the same time as handling money, but who couldn’t tell the difference between a dictionary and a protractor. Someone who could only recognise objects by the name of the department in which they were stored. I think it was at this point in the exchange that I stuffed both hands in my pockets in order to minimise the chances of my being arrested before completing the transaction. Resisting an overwhelming urge to shout, I said, as politely as I could under the circumstances, “Could you get a supervisor or manager please?”
“No, there’s a queue.” I was now in an episode of Little Britain.
“I’m sorry about that,” I replied, not risking a glance behind at the retail mayhem I was apparently causing, “but I want to speak to someone senior.”
Bestowing a look on me that was part exasperation, part pity, Checkout Woman walked off, returning less than half a minute later with a supervisor in tow.
“He wants to pay for this with that. He can’t can he? Educational materials.”
There was a pause while the supervisor, who clearly approaches her job with commendable seriousness, carefully examined the dictionary. Eventually, having weighed the myriad possibilities, she was ready to pronounce. “It’s a book.” I looked for the white smoke.
“Not educational materials then?” Checkout Woman’s disappointment was palpable.
“No, it’s a book.” Having confirmed beyond doubt the dictionary’s essential bookness, the supervisor moved to an adjacent till in an attempt to preempt the acts of civil disobedience that were threatening to break out in the burgeoning queue behind me. Checkout Woman looked at me blankly and said, “Alright then. This once.”
As one of the UK’s largest book retailers, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect W H Smith to provide its staff with adequate training in its core product. How to recognise it would be a good place to start. In any event, there is an important lesson to be learned from all this. If you have a book token burning a hole in your pocket and you are in the market for the latest Dan Brown, or want to know how Katie Price was inflated until she turned into Jordan, then Smith’s is the place for you. If, however, you are looking for a book from which there is a real danger that you might learn something useful, then Waterstones will probably offer an experience less likely to make you want to return at a later date in camouflage gear and carrying an AK-47. Either way, I’m only accepting Amazon vouchers from now on.