Another victim of bureaucratic sludge

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Kafka - The Trial'Someone must have told lies about Josef K. for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.' So begins Franz Kafka's extraordinary novel, The Trial. The ordeal of Joseph K. has become embedded in western consciousness and has spawned an adjective: 'Kafkaesque'.

Things are Kafkaesque when you are caught in a labyrinth of unmanageable and inexplicable circumstances. Short of great personal catastrophe, this kind of experience occurs for most of us when we encounter some echelon of bureaucracy. It is then that we feel close to Josef K. and can re-live his desperation.

Well, someone must have it in for Brian M. for without having done anything wrong he was comprehensively buggered up one fine morning. As with Josef K., it was a complicated business, but let's start with the storm water pipes.

Months of storm waterless drought had concealed the fact that they had splintered. This should not have happened. I inherited this pipe system and was unaware that what lay beneath the surface was what Shane the plumber called 'cheapskate 90 ml shit' instead of the sturdy 100 ml.

When heavy rain finally fell, water bubbled up from the collapsed storm water plumbing forming a lake at the back door and beyond. Foreseeing that I would have neither the time nor the equipment — like a casual jack hammer, for instance — to deal with another 50 metres of disaster, I conceded and called Shane.

A mere five days after he incredulously inspected the site, two of his workers, Jake and Dave, turned up to start their investigations. It rained, however — the trenches filled with water and they had to delay for another couple of days.

When, after three days, there was still too much water around to locate the damage, they went back to base to get a sludge pump. This took only a day and a half ...

Meanwhile, I had my own sludge to contend with, and no pump. At about the time I first approached Shane with my water problems, I had initiated an uncharacteristically intense series of encounters with the bureaucracy. These involved the renewal of my venerable and expiring Victorian Driving Licence with a South Australian equivalent, a request for a copy of my birth certificate, and a complicated application to a government agency.

These communications were accompanied by a battery of documentary proofs — photo ID, paid-up bills, bank statements, my Flinders University Library Card with a photo of Che Guevara (well, me actually, but unrecognisably me), and so on.

Various of these documents had to be certified and to accomplish this I took them to the local police station where, finding not a gendarme in sight, I was confronted by a stern-looking woman whom I took to be the cleaner but who revealed that she was a JP.

Reproving me roundly for not having already photocopied my material, she vigorously stamped and illegibly signed the documents, and I gratefully posted everything off.

On the morning that Jake and Dave finally wheeled in the sludge pump, I rang Births Deaths and Marriages to ask about the four-week hiatus since I'd sent in my details, and learned from a man who appeared to be operating just north of induced coma that his department did not accept certification by JPs.

Within the same hour, I received a letter from the government agency rejecting my application because there was no birth certificate (I'd said it was on its way) and another letter, from the Registrar of Motor Vehicles, reporting that I had not included the requisite documents.

I sprang to the phone, knowing that I had absolutely indubitably included the requisite bloody documents. A pleasant, unflustered and robotic female voice told me how valuable I was and that I was sixth in the queue.

When, quite a long time later, she told me I was third in the queue, there was a thunderous knock on the back door. Jake, gumbooted and mudstreaked wanted me to 'take a look at this if you've got a minute'. With the phone at my ear, I gestured I'd be along soon.

When I was second in the queue — amazing how sexy her voice became with each promotion — I saw through the kitchen window Jake and Dave pacing up and down, looking impatient, so I ended the call.

'Some silly bugger's put a third pipe under these two,' Jake said, vibrant with disbelief. 'What about we replace the whole lot with 100 ml?' I left them to it and rang the sexy woman. I was seventh in the queue but my call was important to them. I gave up.

What I plan to do is go back to the police station, find that JP and get her to certify me. Move over Josef K., another victim's coming in.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG.


Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Franz Kafka, The Trial, Josef K, kafkaesque, bureaucracy



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Existing comments

Brian, Bureaucracy is a disease, nay a virus! First hatched by government, when private enterprise arose in the 1990s it transfered to such entities as telecom companies, insurance companies, business services et al. Try phoning up one of these as I had to last 8-10 June 2007 in Newcastle. No power, trees across the lines, no news except for local ABC on battery radio, roof leaking, we were lucky! Rescued by local SES & police. Then spent three days convincing comtels, insurance etc. that it did happen.

John McQualter | 19 June 2008  

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