When You Really, Really Need the State, Will It Still Be Able to Save You?

At my uncle’s holiday apartment in Salcombe, Devon, is a tiny service lift so cramped and claustrophobic that you only use it in extremis: when you have heavy bags to carry up from the car, say, or a pile of sodden wetsuits which need drying on the balcony. Otherwise, it’s best avoided. Even the 40 seconds or so it takes to get from the bottom floor to the top are enough to give you the heebie-jeebies. You find yourself glancing at the emergency phone next to the floor buttons and thinking: ‘Jesus, I hope that works. Imagine if this thing ever broke down. It would be like the Black Hole of Calcutta.’

So we’re back from a day’s surfing at Bantham beach, the Fawn, Boy, Girl and I, and we’ve bought our cream tea, which we’ve got just enough time to eat before heading off to Kingsbridge to watch Super 8. Everything has gone smoothly, like a pre-Basra military operation. We’re squashed into the lift, wetsuits, heavy shopping, family of four, we’re whirring slowly upwards, when ‘Clunk!’, the lift stops.

‘Oh really,’ says the Fawn, mildly irritated, to the kids. ‘Did one of you knock a button?’ But I can see that they didn’t and that the button lights have all gone out. ‘No, I think it’s broken,’ I say, trying to keep the dread out of my voice and grabbing for the phone.

I dial the number. It is a recorded message, clearly designed for lift service engineers. It isn’t interested in the predicament of people like us, trapped in lifts. All it wants to know is the engineer’s job number or fault code or some such blithering irrelevance. Great. It’s like crash-landing in the sea and suddenly discovering that there isn’t, after all, a life vest under your seat.

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