Wednesday, December 30, 2020

It's been a tough year. Let's give ourselves a clap.

If something didn’t smell right about the UK handling of the pandemic, the British public was never going to notice. But they knew that if they couldn’t smell something, they really ought to get a Covid test sent to them in the post.

There has been something incredibly British about the DIY swabs and their delivery via the gig-economy workers of Amazon, hasn’t there? Touch of corona? I’ll pop something in the post to you. Should be with you tomorrow.

I suppose it was inevitable that we’d need some new kind of system. After all, the coronavirus outbreak was the first thing in the history of the NHS that couldn’t be cured by paracetamol, rest and plenty of fluids. This understandably left GPs flummoxed and anxious.

The UK decided pretty early on that if you were ill with a novel pathogen – which proved deadly in maybe 1% of cases – you really shouldn’t go to the doctor. You should STAY AT HOME and spread it quickly to your flatmates or family members. And because they were now at risk, they should STAY AT HOME too.

In fact, as cases started to mount, we said f*** it. Everyone should STAY AT HOME.

We did venture out once a day for some exercise, without any of the paperwork and bureaucracy required by the officious French across the Channel. But it was just the once. Woe betide anyone caught by a neighbour heading off for a second outing. No one likes a grass, but really the authorities should get to hear about that kind of thing.

In the affluent suburbs of London, anyone claiming to be heading to Waitrose could easily be challenged if they didn’t have their canvas bags for life with them.  Dead giveaway, that. Tell it to the judge, mate.

At least in London, we adapted well to social distancing. Genome sequencing in the Covid labs showed that distance genes were hard-wired into the DNA profile of every resident in the capital from birth. What’s one stage better than blanking everyone on the tube? Not having to go on the freaking tube in the first place and blanking them on Teams!

Much harder for Londoners was the clapping business. This involved standing on a doorstep in full view of your neighbours and making a sentimental declaration of support for people who were living a much more worthy and dangerous life than you. It didn’t come easy. And once you started, how did anyone know when to stop? I mean, it must be two minutes by now, surely?

Where’s number 172? Trust them not to care about the doctors, the miserable bastards.

The messaging surrounding the pandemic has, of course, been Orwellian – not only in its hands-face-space sloganising, but also in its 180-degree about-turns. Useless masks were for wimps. Until they weren’t. Pubs and restaurants were places to be avoided. Until they were Covid-secure and we could Eat Out to Help Out.

The UK is the kind of country where we believe that if someone puts a sticker on the door of a building, it must be safe. A bit like with those food hygiene ratings. 5 means you can eat off the floor, 4 means you won’t get food poisoning and 3 means the owner didn’t check what rating they got before they slapped the thing in the window.

‘Is that a rat running around, Anna?’

‘No darling, it can’t be. This place is a five.’

I am genuinely surprised we haven’t seen Covid ratings yet. My suggestion is bronze, silver, gold and platinum.

If a bar is in the platinum category, the workers will be in full PPE and tequila shots will be fed to you inside a plastic tent. In bronze, people sign a book at the door and promise to cover their mouth when they cough.

If you visited the Covid-secure bar, you might of course be in a bubble. Or a household. Or you might be a household mixing with a bubble. Or maybe a special Christmas bubble, unless you were unfortunate enough to be re-tiered at the last minute.

Keir Starmer made a classic British observation before the festivities, in which he said the tiers clearly weren’t working because so many people were in the higher ones. Honestly, Sir Keir, that really isn’t a problem in England, as we can quickly create tiers that are even higher. And then more people are in the lower ones again! Michael Gove will no doubt approve of the logic, having once remarked that he wanted every school in the country to be above average.

Of course, there is a drawback. Once we have a Tier 5, you can bet Nicola Sturgeon will want a Tier 6 to prevent the spread of the English variant.

Nope, nothing about 2020 has smelled right.

Let’s hope for a complete reset in 2021. Olfactory settings.







Monday, November 11, 2019

We've lost that loving feline

If you exclude Caractacus - a small fish given to me as a present in my early 20s (complete with bowl) - I'd never had a pet before Lil.

This rescue cat was a lovely little creature, but never one for sitting in someone's lap. Perhaps her early experiences had taught her to be wary around humans. But over time, there was plenty of affectionate marking, nudging and purring, as she grew to know and love the members of the family.

A poisoning incident affected her kidneys back in 2016. We still don't know what it was she ate or drank, but ultimately it's led to a very hard decision today. We agreed that to stop her suffering - and because of a fairly obvious deterioration - that it was better for the vet to put her to sleep. She died very peacefully. I cried a lot more than I anticipated.

Earlier this year, Lil had benefited from a couple of days on a drip and then seemed to get a new lease of life. But just over a month ago, she had to spend a whole week as an in-patient to achieve the same effect. And unfortunately, on this occasion, the recovery was very short-lived. Her kidneys were getting progressively worse and what was described to me as a 'poor man's dialysis' was no longer going to do the trick.

So, Lil, here are a few of the things I'll particularly remember about you:

(1) The weird noise you made when you sighted avian prey. A sort of slightly manic clicking sound, which you never made in any other context.

(2) The way you sat with me while I worked on the desktop computer in my bedroom, often purring contentedly on a window ledge or occasionally jumping up to encourage me to feed you.

(3) The fact you never realised your cat flap and the front door led to the same location. You could never understand how two exits at 90 degrees to one another could arrive in the same place, could you?

(4) The weird noise you made when you brought in mice. A kind of demented yeooowwling sound which made my heart sink.

(5) The fact that you once followed me half a mile to a parade of shops, waited patiently outside while I did my errands and then followed me home.

(6) The time you made me jump out of my skin by carrying in a magpie.

(7) The trick you performed when we first brought you home and you were confined to a particular room. Do you remember lying on the floor on your back and sticking your paw under the door to lever it open? Inventive.

(8) The weird noise frogs made when you brought them in. They screeched. And they were harder for me to deal with than birds or mice, because they moved in every conceivable direction on multiple planes. Up, down, left, right. You never ate them, but liked to lick them.

(9) The way you used to follow Mrs W to work and end up a kilometre away from home. Eventually, you'd stop, go no further and howl. We'd find you later in the day in the same place. You always thought it was better to wait there for us to come back, didn't you?

(10) The effect you had on everyone at the vet's and the fact that they referred to me as your dad.

RIP, little girl. You're now scratching where the carpets are plush velour.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

'No, Trump is writing this one himself. It will be the best letter...'

The letter from Donald Trump to Kim Jong-Un, which cancels the leaders’ proposed summit in Singapore, will certainly go down in the political annals.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that commentators will remember it as a prelude to some catastrophic conflict on the Korean peninsula. If we’re honest, it may signal the end of a brief window, early in 2018, when people naively thought that war might be averted.

I sincerely hope it doesn’t have such grave historic significance.

But as a copywriter, I can weep a thousand tears without a single shot being fired in anger.

What’s extraordinary about the text is that it’s clear Trump actually played a major part in writing it. We can tell because it is so atrociously and bizarrely constructed.

There can be few jurisdictions in the modern world where Presidents and Prime Ministers still draft their own correspondence. And if your President was one Donald J Trump, you’d sure as hell keep him the f*** away from Microsoft Word. I mean Twitter’s bad enough.

The guy can’t even get the left-hand justification right in the address at the top.

If only he could afford a secretary. I’m sure Vladimir Putin would happily supply some candidates.

Anyway, there are two fundamental levels of critique that I would offer in relation to this bizarre letter.

The first would be about the weird oscillation between fawning praise for the tubby Korean dictator and vehement criticism.

The letter starts by generously congratulating Kim for the ‘time, patience and effort’ that he’s put into negotiations.

Within a couple of sentences, Trump is denouncing him for the ‘tremendous anger and open hostility’ of his recent statements.

In the next paragraph, the 45th US President is waxing sentimentally about the ‘wonderful dialogue’ that had been built up with his North Korean counterpart and the ‘beautiful gesture’ of releasing hostages. But this comes after Trump has prayed that he’d never have to use his ‘massive and powerful’ nuclear arsenal on his erstwhile pal in Pyongyang.

The letter from Washington reveals a love-hate relationship. It veers faster than one of Kim’s rockets between the nauseatingly sycophantic and obsequious through to the downright deranged.

My second concern is over just how badly written it is.

That second sentence.

‘We were informed that the meeting was requested by North Korea, but that to us is totally irrelevant.’


What the hell is he talking about?

That sentence is totally irrelevant, Donald.

‘Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent, that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place.’

Let’s leave aside the fact that the construction of this sentence is both pathetically grandiose and clumsy as hell. How can something which is to the detriment of the whole world be to the benefit of the US and North Korea?

‘If you do change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.’


I’m going to let the ‘change-your-mind-having-to-do-with’ stuff wash over me, as I don’t want to up my blood pressure meds.

But Trump is cancelling the meeting, not Kim. So what exactly is Kim supposed to be changing his mind about?

The casual tone of this sign-off paragraph gives the impression that an old buddy has cried off on a golfing tournament. Trump is a bit annoyed that his mate now claims to be too busy for 18 holes at Mar-a-Lago. But he’s magnanimous about it.

‘Ok, well if you change your mind, give me a call…’

Perhaps Kim will drop a message in the deranged dictators’ group chat in the next day or two?

I’m certainly eagerly anticipating Kim’s reply. And I’ll bet you 10 bucks it’s in better English.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Nerve agents? No sweat. Get the baby wipes out.

There is something so bizarrely British about the health response to the assassination attempt in Salisbury on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. A week after the event, everyone who was in the vicinity of the deadly nerve agent has been urged to wash their personal possessions.

Now, let’s think this through.

This chemical was so toxic that it left two people fighting for their lives. A police officer involved in the early response was also hospitalised and made severely ill by it. The table in the restaurant visited by Sergei and Julia was reportedly so contaminated that it had to be destroyed.

But if you happened to be nearby – perhaps even dining in the same part of the restaurant sometime after the unfortunate victims departed – no need to worry.

Run a baby wipe over your phone.

A week later.

What about clothes? The Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies recommends washing them. In a washing machine preferably, she says. Err… as opposed to the old-fashioned handwash and mangle still favoured by the backward denizens of this sleepy cathedral town?

Dry clean only? No problem. Just stick a couple of layers of plastic around the clothes and await further instructions.

It’s astonishing to contrast the military personnel in biohazard suits wandering around Salisbury with the barmy and utterly useless advice being given to members of the general public. But it sums up the whole weird relationship of the NHS to pathogens, toxins and other deadly threats.

The British response is always not to worry.

A touch of Ebola? I remember my local surgery advising patients who thought they might have been affected while travelling overseas to inform the staff at reception and get them to call some helpline on their behalf. And try to avoid touching anything.

Remember Pauline Cafferkey, the British nurse who contracted the killer disease? When she had a relapse, she went to an out-of-hours clinic in Glasgow and was told to return home, as she probably just had some regular virus.

It’s hard to imagine that conversation, isn’t it? Someone arrives saying that she’s the nurse who caught Ebola recently and has been all over the news, but she’s told her current condition is probably nothing to worry about. A bit of bed rest and paracetamol and she’ll be fine in a day or two.

To some, this extraordinarily British approach to medical matters is perhaps one of the things that gives the UK its endearing charm. But I suspect it’s small comfort to restaurant-goers in Salisbury.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Pret and Brexit. It's all about attitude.

At one level, the woman on BBC Question Time who expressed concerns about who was going to make her post-Brexit coffee at Pret was rather silly. She should have realised that her comment was going to paint her as a pampered and affluent London Remoaner.

It’s an easy trap to fall into.

I remember being in the audience 25 years ago for one of those terrible daytime TV discussion shows – Kilroy or The Time The Place or similar – and we were discussing childcare. Some lady started prattling on about nannies and I had to remind her that this wasn’t actually most people’s experience of childcare arrangements.

So the message is clear: think before you open your mouth.

On the other hand, you can’t help feeling the Pret lady had a pretty valid point.

Virtually no one, as far as I can tell, who works in frontline hospitality in London comes from the UK. Many will be citizens of other EU countries and have the name badges with the flags to prove it. These are indeed the people who serve us coffees and sandwiches, wait at tables in restaurants and staff the reception desks in hotels.

So at an economic and practical level, she is right on the money. And that money is probably Euros rather than pounds sterling.

But the reaction to her comments also revealed something about the Brexit divide in the UK. It’s not just about class and age and location, although all those factors are important. It’s about attitude.

Remainers go to Pret to get their snacks and caffeine fix. Brexiters believe in packed lunches and Swiss Nescafé. And I would stress this is not necessarily because they are poorer. I mean even the wealthier, middle-class Brexiters would eschew a lot of the modern coffee shops and sandwich bars.

They would say they were too expensive and a waste of money, but they’d happily pay for membership of their local golf club or have a splurge at the DIY store at the weekend. They’d shell out hundreds a month so that they could have a better car than their neighbours.

Middle-class Brexiters have a different attitude to life. They have different priorities. If they had money, they wouldn’t spend it on exotic-sounding coffees in fashionable parts of London or care about the people who served them. They’d put the money away for that cruise they had their eye on.

Before the referendum, I remember having an argument with an older Leave supporter, who lives in an affluent middle-class London suburb. I told him that I had applied for an Irish passport to retain my right to live and work in Europe. His blank expression told me that he couldn’t understand why anyone would want such a right.

I reckon he doesn’t go to Pret.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Extra Texture

It's difficult to know what to make of this claim from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. He adds greater texture to his pasta so that it 'holds more sauce'. 

This begs a number of questions:

Does more sauce really cling to his enhanced pasta?

Is sauce being clingy really such a good thingy?

And if the sauce weren't 'held' by the pasta, what disaster would befall the diner? 

Surely they could just spoon it up from the plate or lick their bowl clean?


Sunday, November 06, 2016

Which way to the Athlete's Foot powder? Only answer if you can pass a psychometric test.

If you were a retail store, how fussy would you be about who worked as an assistant on the shop floor?

I reckon you're entitled to be choosy. After all, you probably have quite a few applicants. And these people are going to be ambassadors for your business and have direct contact with your customers.

So would you be interested in a personable young woman, who's just started in the Sixth Form and is looking for a Saturday job? Someone who got eight A*s at GCSE, is currently studying for A-Levels and is bright and ambitious? A person who has already gained shop experience on a voluntary basis with a charity and has direct experience of retail customer service?

Given that she'd be working for minimum wage, I'd say this was a pretty good deal, wouldn't you?

But when one of my daughters recently applied for a part-time role advertised at Boots, she couldn't even get an interview. Why? She was rejected on the basis of bizarre online tests.

The first set of questions were built around particular scenarios in store and how someone might react. The way my daughter describes them, the multiple-choice answers were often weird and pre-supposed some kind of knowledge of the protocols of the store. Whether you would leave a till, for instance, in order to help a customer find something they needed. Or whether you would call across the store to colleagues in other situations.

It seems to me that in the abstract, there are no 'right' or 'wrong' answers in situations such as this. It might depend on a variety of factors: the agreed policies of the shop; the number of people employed; the number of customers in the store at the time; and the proximity of the things shoppers are looking for.

And then there were a load of the psychometric-style questions beloved of HR people and headshrinks. You know the kind of thing. 'Which of these statements best describes you?'

Usually these tests result in some kind of blanket profile, such as 'resistant to change' or 'eager to please others'. Maybe there's something in this type of test if an applicant is about to embark on a graduate career at multinational bank or local council, but - forgive me - they are entirely irrelevant when your job is telling people they can get a free packet of crisps as part of a Meal Deal.

Apparently, my daughter cannot reapply to Boots within the next year. She tells me that she wouldn't bother anyway. More interestingly, she tells me that she might not shop there any more. Which I would argue is food for thought for the Marketing Department as well as Personnel.