Idle Eye 142 : The English Straitjacket

Sometimes being English is just plain awful. The absolute pits. Yes, yes, I know we’re all terribly polite and good at pop music, being ironic and making the most of our crappy weather, but when it comes to saying what we actually mean, we are lamentably backward. How often have you apologised for someone else’s rudeness? For being in the way when you never were? Or pretended things are just fine when your internal tolerance needle has just tipped into the red?

I do it frequently. At the end of pretty much every cold-call received, over which I weakly feign surprise at that accident I never had, or the very specific amount the banks owe me for insurance I never took out, I hear myself thanking a computerised voice for its time and, on occasion, wishing it a pleasant day. Which only serves to fill mine with self-loathing and misanthropy. And, cliché though it may be, I constantly find myself drawn to queues, quite often for something I have no interest in whatsoever. Why? Why?

Because it reaffirms the quintessence of our Englishness, and that Englishness breeds deep inside us all, gnawing away at more vulgar attributes such as anger or self-confidence, until all that is left is the quivering bag of neuroses we move around inside every day. It is a curious evolutionary quirk, for if shifted over to the animal kingdom, your average Brit would be mercilessly and fatally mauled before he/she had finished blinking. Probably by something French or Polish, whose very means of survival hinges on the exact opposite.

Speaking of France, here’s another example: When I was fifteen, I was placed at a school in Toulouse for a short while. There, I came across a delightful young lady called Catherine Voisinet, who blushed when I was around and clearly wanted me to make the first move. My French was adequate enough to facilitate this, and I was not yet marred by a forthcoming volcano of acne. But did I? Of course I didn’t. I just sat around, blushing back at her in English until she got bored and started dating a Neanderthal rugby player with grazed knuckles. Who thought I was ‘un con.’  And he was probably right.

I’d love to be able to tell you that it’ll all turn out ok. That being a bit Hugh Grant isn’t such a bad thing, and that more bullish nations will sneakingly admire you for all that pent-up emotion. But I fear that would be a lie. It is and they don’t, despite what you may have been lead to believe from the inexplicable overseas success of Downton Abbey and the like. They’re just collecting ammo for the next way to shaft us rotten, based on information we willingly throw at them. Then they’ll steal our ideas, market our booze, buy up our housing stock etc… and repackage it all as their own. And we’ll probably thank them for it.

Idle Eye 123 : The Right Stuff

Someone called William rang me yesterday. Before he got through, I screened the number: Unfamiliar, but at least not one of those 08547 deals which you instantly know will come with a three second delay, over which you politely say “Hello” twice despite your better judgement, followed by an upbeat recorded message giving you just enough info on that accident you had to prevent you hanging up on the spot. Which you do anyway.

In short, William’s prefix looked legit so I took the call, thinking it might be confirmation of my bank details from a new Nigerian business partner. His opening gambit was along the lines of “How are you?” Now, as this particular question rarely arises, be it from my siblings, employer or accountant, I was already putty in his hands. Next came the introduction. Apparently he is my personal wine advisor and was making a courtesy call based on the preferences made with my online account which, you may be surprised to learn, comes in at less than £200 per annum. He accurately noted that I enjoy wines from New Zealand, bless, and proceeded to suggest a few others that may have escaped my radar. And despite all prior knowledge of the ruthlessness of marketing and cold-call grooming, I began to warm to him. And he’s from Norwich.

How we laughed at the vulgarity of your supermarket Shiraz. And how effortlessly he dropped in the buyer’s sweet spot, being that place on the quality curve when you are no longer paying off taxes, duty and whatnot. The one when you go “Hell, I’m worth £2.50” and buy a couple of blue labels, as opposed to the plebeian red. And, in case I was in any doubt whatsoever, he reminded me that I would be fully refunded if his recommendations fell at all short. Geezer! I wanted to French kiss him down the phone, or at least ask him out for a pizza. This man knew more about me than my teachers from the 1980s or, dare I say it, my parents. And in my loved-up state, I saw us enjoying a mutual glass of an astonishingly rare Pinot under a wide Andalusian sunset.

But then came the crash. I nipped round to my friend Nick’s house not long afterwards who just happens to be a marketing guru and I told him about my new love, William, and how it felt to be understood so completely. “It’s not what you think”, I protested. He gave me the skunk eye, then the lowdown on Cute Brands and Upselling. You know, the sort of thing that companies like Innocent use to get you on team. And in an instant, the wonderful man-love I had experienced but hours before evaporated like the morning mist. I felt cheated, violated, abused. I thought this was different. I thought this was special. I thought this was personal. So I bought some more wine. The right stuff.