Monday, June 28, 2010

Now, where did I leave my teeth?

When the Woodfords are on the move in the motor, Radio Jackie is our station of choice. The Sound of South-West London not only plays a fine selection of tunes - ranging from the contemporary to the classic - but it also has some of the most entertaining commercials around.

Mini-W1 had me in stitches the other day when she picked up on the rather unfortunate script for a local dental surgery. There's a monologue in which a character tells us what a terrible state his teeth were in until he decided to 'put them in the hands of Sutton Orthodontic Practice'. One can only hope that the patient cleaned them and wrapped them up before delivery. (The double meaning reminds me of the old ad for the £9.99 shoes that used to appear in catalogues and magazines. 'We dare you to wear them out!')

An ad the kids can almost recite verbatim is for a place called Lynwood Aquatics. If we're to believe the spiel, this self-styled Aladdin's cave is the biggest centre of its kind in the south of England and perfect for the 'fish fan' in your life. All 'hard goods' - your guess is as good as mine - are fully guaranteed. They stress in the commercial that it's 'Lynwood with a y' in case you might confuse it with another marine-related Aladdin's cave off Hook Rise South, near Tolworth.

Whenever I think tiles, I now think Versatile of Chessington. This is because I have been hypnotised by a tagline which is whispered in the manner of the Garnier 'Take Care' slogan. Think tiles. Think Versatile. While the Garnier line is known throughout the UK and continental Europe as a reassuring reinforcement of the health benefits of a major brand, Versatile's message might, on a good day, travel as far as New Addington. Think crap ad. Think Radio Jackie.

Perhaps my favourite is one that begins with a character delivering the following memorable line: 'I have very high standards, which is why it's taken me so long to find a natural stone paving company.' I know the feeling, mate. Unfortunately, your high standards didn't extend to radio production budgets. Never mind. Your patio has come up a treat.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fancy a massage? Have an ice cream instead.

Ever since parlours disappeared from homes, they've only really been associated with massages, tattoos and poodles. As a respectable kind of guy without a dog, I don't have much reason to frequent these establishments. So imagine my delight at the opening of a new outlet close to Woodford Towers selling posh Italian ice cream. If I'm not mistaken, this will qualify officially as a parlour too. And Mrs W won't mind if I pay the occasional visit.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mais oui, je travaille a Tescoses.

I don't know whether you've noticed, but staff on the Tesco check-out are required to wear large badges which tell you when they joined the company and some interesting fact about themselves. This might be that they like football, for instance, or enjoy gardening.

Yesterday, as I packed up my family shop, I read that the lady on the till spoke French. This didn't strike me as hugely surprising, as she had a French name. My first instinct was that English would be more useful in the outer reaches of south-west London, but I've been reflecting. Most of the customers at my local store probably buy the Finest range, where the items are prepared au jus or à gratin.

"Sebastian! Run down to the lady at the check-out, there's a good boy. Ask her if the bouillon in the bisque is vegetarian, would you?"

Why have they given us a door-knocker, Mum?

Thumbing through the Christmas edition of Good Housekeeping for 1954 - or the Christmas 'number' as the publishers quaintly describe it - I chanced upon an article by Julia Coppard, who has some fine suggestions for yuletide gifts.

The author identifies a number of categories of potential recipient, starting with the elderly. Grandmother might want a lorgnette or a 'lacy woolen stole in a gay colour', but you'd be on very safe ground if you gave her a canary in a 'fancy cage of gilt or wicker'. Granddad meanwhile would be delighted to receive some red or yellow 'cad's braces' or a sun-ray lamp.

Having dealt with the older generation, Miss Coppard really starts to get into her stride. Abyssinian kittens for people who live alone. Russian tea glasses for a hostess. Or how about giving a teen-age (sic) boy a subscription to jazz club or a course of lessons in ballroom dancing, if he's 'approaching the social stage'.

Housewives might welcome a weekly char for six months, while a tough little boy could benefit from boxing tuition.

My favourites are the old door-knocker or box of Cox's Orange Pippins for a family. Or maybe the old snuff box for a 'gay young man'.

1954 was certainly another world and there are plenty of other treasures in my bumper festive edition of Good Housekeeping. Naturally, I'll keep WARTE readers posted as I explore further.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Open up Oxbridge? Why not close it down?

There seems to a growing tide of opinion in favour of granting more egalitarian entry to those bastions of educational privilege, Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The latest person to throw his weight behind the idea is the historian, David Kynaston, who's written some interesting books on Britain in the period after Workd War II.

These well-meaning individuals recognise that large swathes of the political, financial and media elite are Oxbridge educated and know that it's virtually impossible for ordinary folk to get there. Their misguided solution is to 'open up' the elitist university colleges to the masses through quotas. I say misguided because this obsession with Oxford and Cambridge perpetuates the idea that they are the only places where it's possible to get a decent education and entrenches the very privilege that we're seeking to eliminate. Much better, imho, to reconstruct these antiquated institutions entirely or set a quota for the number of Oxbridge graduates that an employer can take on.

I suspect the only reason this is never suggested by the critics is that they too are products of the very system they criticise.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Get your head around this

A story that deserved a little more coverage last week was the discovery of 60 human heads at an airport in Arkansas. The grisly cargo was contained in plastic containers sealed with duct tape and was on its way to neurosurgeons.

Apparently all this is perfectly normal. Heads - and odd bits and bobs like ears - are regularly whizzing their way across the skies, with eager medics anxiously awaiting their arrival.

I don't know about you, but I think it would be nice to let passengers know when their luggage is sharing space in the hold with poorly-packed body parts. Not that I'm squeamish or anything. It's just I might like to do a double check on the carousel when I reach my destination.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Déjà vu all over again

England hardly ever perform well in the opening games of major football tournaments, yet time and time again we delude ourselves that they will. Drawing against the likes of USA and Algeria is just the kind of psychological toughening up we need to prepare for the challenges that lie ahead. Next week, Washed and Ready will sample the atmosphere of a London boozer as our lads take on the soccer stars of Slovenia. My prediction: 2-0 to Gerrard's brave warriors and a ticket to the next round.

Thrills and spills on the tube

The other day, in a spectacularly idle moment as I waited for a tube train, I was looking at a 'licence' posted on the door of a London Underground storage cupboard. It basicallly listed all the stuff the station cleaner was allowed to keep there. Alongside toilet rolls, mops and so on, there was a reference to Titan Sanitiser Body Spill Disinfectant. I must investigate this further. Instinctively, I recoil at the idea that special 'body spill' products are needed. But I guess there are times when Dettol just won't cut it.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Cholera, sir? Why, I must inject you subcutaneously with turpentine.

I’ve just finished a book about the cholera outbreaks in nineteenth century London. Always good to have a light beach read on the go in the summer months. The overwhelming conclusion I’d draw is that I’d never have wanted to visit any medical practitioner prior to about 1970. Ok, maybe that’s pushing it a bit. Once Louis Pasteur discovered milk back in the 1860s, things improved a little. So maybe we should say 1870. Prior to this era though, everything was complete quackery and likely to do far more harm than good.

One astonishing fact to come out of this particular book was that you were much better off in London’s Homeopathic Hospital in the 1850s than you were in the nearby Middlesex. During the cholera outbreak in Soho, the mortality rate with the homeopaths was 16%, while it climbed to a frightening 53% with the regular medics. The author – a journalist called Sandra Hempel – is no cheerleader for alternative medicine and makes clear that the discrepancy had nothing to do with the efficacy of homeopathy. The fact was that the medical establishment actively killed its patients – usually through blood-letting and associated infections – while the homeopaths just left the unfortunate cholera victims alone and prescribed stuff that wouldn’t do them any harm. (For the scientific pedants out there, I’d also concede that the worst cases may have ended up at the main infirmary, but at the end of the day, cholera is cholera.)

Fast forward to the 1860s and the remedies on offer at the Whitechapel 'orspital in East London included steam inhalation, castor oil, saline lemonade and a substance called podophyllin, which is now used to treat gential warts. When all else failed, patients were injected with opium. All died. If you had the energy, you could have schlepped over to Guy’s where nitrous oxide was prescribed or made a trip to Southampton where they favoured arsenic and injections of turpentine.

It really makes you grateful, doesn’t it, for the common sense of our modern family doctors. “I think you have a touch of the cholera. I’d go home, drink plenty of fluids and take paracetamol. If you’re not better in a week, come back and see us.”

The Medical Detective: John Snow, Cholera and the Mystery of the Broad Street Pump by Sandra Hempel is published by Granta Books.

Interesting installation outside the LCC, Elephant & Castle.

Friday, June 04, 2010

How to lose the plot with lost luggage

Time to return to one of WARTE's featured books - Ronald Pelham's 1948 classic, How shall I word it?

Regular readers will recall that Mr Pelham provides standard correspondence for all situations, however unlikely or specific. What, for instance, would you do if you discovered you'd left your large portmanteau on a train? Well, naturally you'd write to the Superintendent of the Lost-Luggage Department.


I travelled yesterday from ____________ to London by the 12.30 train, and on arrival at the terminus found that a large portmanteau of mine was missing.

I saw all my luggage labelled at _______________, and gave it in charge of a porter who undertook to see it placed in the luggage van. I must, therefore, complain of negligence on his part. The portmanteau, which bears my full name and address, contains property of great value, and I must ask you to make immediate inquiries into the matter.

It's interesting that although the station of departure is left blank in Pelham's book, the author is 100% certain of his reader's destination. The negligence of the porter in this instance sounds simply frightful. One wonders whether he might be bent as the proverbial nine-bob bit and flogging the passenger's property down the local boozer.

Next time on WARTE: you're a tailor seeking business between seasons and want to impress your customer with a special offer in a letter. But how do you word it?

Where's Esther Rantzen when you need her?

Stayed with Mrs W and the minis in the Hallmark Hotel, Bournemouth for a few days earlier this week. The website says four-star but, believe me, the actual establishment is struggling to manage a three. The changing facilities by the swimming pool were on a par with the local council baths, service in the restaurant and bar was agonisingly slow and the shower unit in my room needed chucking on the skip that sat outside in the car park.

My complaint is not necessarily that I have some God-given right to live in the lap of luxury. More that they were charging four-star prices on the basis of a cosmetic makeover in the reception and bar. When I challenged staff about the status, I was told they were 'self-certifying'. I was like 'do wot?' Self-certifying? What are they talking about? Does this mean that anyone has the right to describe themselves as a four-star or five-star hotel, regardless of the standard of facilities or service they provide? Last year, I took Premier Inn to the Advertising Standards Authority for their similar claims and won. Unfortunately, the case took a few months, by which time they'd stopped running the ads concerned.

Without wishing to get all nanny state about it, shouldn't there be some proper legal framework that stops people making claims about their hotels that simply aren't true? And shouldn't there be some objective criteria - publicly available to everyone - that allows us to distinguish between one grade another? It would certainly be good for UK plc and its tourist industry.

WARTE has jumped on the consumer rights bandwagon. And will probably jump right off again very soon.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

No such thing as a free lunch?

News reaches me from the antipodes of a man who has developed an ingenious method of feeding himself for free. He's simply been turning up at funerals - several a week according to Radio New Zealand - and filling up doggy bags with the grub generously provided at the wake. Although his behaviour is recognised to be anti-social and a little extreme, the 'grim eater' is apparently not unique. According to the RNZ reporter, 'funeral directors say serial funeral-goers and fake mourners are not uncommon'. I have images of Steve Coogan's beautifully observed character Alan Partridge in a Castrol GTX jacket.

The story has got me wondering how easy it would be to blag breakfast at a top hotel. Just stroll in, smile at the staff and help yourself to the buffet. (One thing I've observed over the years is that the trashier the hotel, the more officious they are in checking you off their list and making sure you're bona fide. The posher the gaff, the less they worry. It's an insult to their wealthy guests to be conducting too many inquiries into a diner's legitimacy.)

Anyway, must dash. Just getting dressed up for a wedding reception. Even though I don't know the bride and groom, I don't want to keep them waiting.