It was round about 4pm and night had virtually fallen over Islington. The rain was coursing down the window panes and your columnist was flat on his back, riffling the leaves of the paper with his snores. The phone went, and in spite of my indignation – who calls at 4pm on a Saturday, when a chap is fast asleep? – I answered it.
It was a mellow Scottish voice, with an undertone of menace. In fact, he sounded bit like Andrew Neil -and he seemed to have something urgent to say about gas. Gas! Quick! An ecstasy of fumbling. Had there been a gas attack? An explosion at a refinery? Another traffic-paralysing leak on the Marylebone Road?
No, it turned out my caller was from British Gas, and he was on a mission. Perhaps it was because I was half-fogged with sleep; perhaps I was just naïve – but I am afraid that I let him talk on.
He had some splendid new rates for electricity, he said, and he wanted to share them with me. Yes, I know I should have been strong. I should have put down the phone as firmly and politely as I could. But he had reminded me of something, an act of folly for which I had never fully atoned.
It was the cricket ball, the one I got at Old Trafford in the summer of 2006. There we were, me and a couple of kids, wandering around during the tea interval when we came to a stand with a pile of lovely new half-red, half-white cricket balls. And behind the cricket balls were some beaming young men and women in red and green uniforms that proclaimed them to be emissaries of npower.
They spotted the kids, and their beams went up a gigawatt. Would the kids like a cricket ball? You betcha, said the kids, and held out their joyful hands.
Hang on a mo, I said; there must be some sort of catch. No, no, said the npower people: no catch at all. It was just a question of giving my name and address, and agreeing, in principle, to change my electricity supply to npower.
Oh I see, I said: you mean, I just fill out the form, and in exchange we get the cricket ball? That’s it, said the young people in blazers.
I looked at the form, and at the back of my mind I detected some kind of trap; but then I looked at the expectant children, and of course I was hooked like a flounder.
There then followed all sorts of unbelievable hassle as we were persuaded to cancel one standing order to British Gas and give to npower the privilege of supplying the juice that fires the Johnson toaster.
By the end of the procedure the cricket ball had been long since lost in the brambles, and more and more letters from npower were landing on the mat; and in the ensuing interrogations I am afraid I could not give a more convincing account of my actions than to say that the npower people had been very nice and persuasive, initially, and that the cricket ball had seemed lovely and shiny in the brief period we had possessed it.
The episode, all in, has not gone down as one of my domestic triumphs. So when I realised that Brian from British Gas was willing to help me make amends, I was all ears. I poured out my heart. I told him about the cricket ball.
He was scandalised. “I don’t know if you can tell from my voice,” said Brian, “that I am actually pretty annoyed that they have done this to you.” Well, I said, it was really my own foolishness, and after all, no very great harm had come of it.
But Brian wasn’t having a word of it. “These guys keep on doing this. They don’t realise that their shareholders are going to get affected by this. There was a thing on Watchdog last week, about how they ring you up.”
Golly, I said. What can we do about it, then? Have you got a better deal? “You have been a customer for a long time,” said Brian in accents of deep emotion. “You have been a good customer and not an inconsiderate customer,” he said.
I preened, as I thought of all those standing order payments, of ever greater magnitude, that we had made over the years to British Gas. “If you were to come back to us, it would make me feel good, and make you feel good, that things that have been wrong have been righted. You have been inconvenienced enough!” he cried, in the tones of one about to launch a war on child poverty.
Hear hear, I said. We had been inconvenienced enough! But what did I have to do to end the inconvenience? It was incredibly simple, said Brian. All I had to do was give a verbal agreement, over the phone, and he would do the rest.
I am afraid at this point I had a spasm of déjà vu. What is the deal? I asked? Why should I go for British Gas? Well, said Brian, “Eon and npower are both German, Scottish power is Spanish, and EDF is 80 per cent owned by the French government. You could even say that British Gas is the patriotic option!”
Brian, I said, I am going to have to call you back, and after 35 minutes I at last succeeded in getting him off the line.
There is a positive side to all this, of course, and that is the real choice that is available at a time when gas and electricity prices have been going through the roof. There are jobs being created for hard-working people like Brian.
The downside is that there are plenty of people out there who are considerably more vulnerable than me, and who are being talked into all kinds of deals at all times of the day or night, and my strong advice to everyone – unless and until you can be bothered to go to one of the energy price comparison websites – is to agree to nothing on the phone and turn down all offers of cricket balls, no matter how shiny.
[Ed: This article was first posted in the Daily Telegraph on 11 November 2008 under the heading: “Be it npower or British Gas, beware of power companies bearing shiny cricket balls.”