As we march headlong into a Brave New World of consumer shed meltdown and the human travesty that is modern telecommunication, Idle Eye deconstructs the madness so you don’t have to.
There is a certain issue that instils terror into the hearts and minds of those of us who, for whatever reason, have failed to reproduce. And it stems from that most innocuous of sources, the supermarket, where we like to believe we can conduct our business from behind the veil of relative anonymity. Which, to a point, we can. However, just when you think you’ve come through the process unscathed, an atrocious ritual humiliation lies in wait at the tills. A poison bullet with your name on it. A five word bombshell that suggests that you are pitifully lacking as a human being:
“Are you collecting School Vouchers?”
It is a question both pertinent and unspeakably cruel, for it must be answered on the fly and will be absorbed by many. Rejection of the wretched things is tantamount to saying “I do not care for children. Consequently, I shall not be providing a brighter future for them with my wine purchases.” There will also be a phalanx of affronted mothers behind you, boring fiery holes deep into your soul with the sheer force of their unbridled contempt. At which point, you have two choices:
1) Announce to the rapidly-assembling crowd that you were struck barren at birth after an unfortunate circumcision accident, and that collection of said vouchers will only add to the escalating mountain of angst you have already accrued. If you can weep a little, so much the better. Just don’t get out the goods if asked to prove it. You’re no Dustin Hoffman.
2) Take them. Take them and run out into the High Street in order to create a massive paper rick of lost hopes and dreams. Then light a match and sing ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’ in Scottish, like in the Wicker Man. No-one will like you for it but they probably don’t anyway. Sod ‘em.
When I was working in Egypt, I was asked on several occasions how many kids I had and whether they were boys or girls. Initially I tried to set the record straight, but soon found out I was on a highway to nowhere. To them I was, at best, a curio, so I decided to lie in order to get by. I invented a beautiful wife, four sons and two daughters, and by the end of the season had become quite jealous of myself. Why didn’t I have a life like that? And how would I keep my new-found family in the style which we had yet to become accustomed when I got home?
Standard existential stuff and nonsense. But in those frozen moments back in the supermarket, I often wonder how my other self would have felt, watching a middle-aged man bundling booze into a bag and denying the next generation a decent start in life. And if I’m honest, I’d probably be in the vanguard of those livid mums, silently berating myself for having taken the road less travelled.
Is it just me, or does every superstore these days feel the need to talk to us customers as if we have successfully navigated a maiden voyage to the lavatory without sullying the floor, or caking ourselves in our own oomska? If you’re not sure what I’m on about here, pop over to your nearest supermarket of choice when you’ve read this. I can guarantee that within five minutes of entering the building, an intrusive announcement, broadcast to all by a Robson Green clone imitating Mick Jagger, will suggest you make a small diversion to the bakery isle, where freshly-made, three-for-two doughnuts will help you live well. For less.
It’s not the content that bothers me particularly though. It’s the delivery. That sudden plunge, from innocuous mid-range to deeply offensive baritone, has been cynically calculated to recall in every shopper the halcyon days of their childhood, when mummy would almost come if you managed to down a forkful of fish finger. This then triggers a rush of serotonin to the brain, and has us scurrying like insects towards whichever wretched product is currently on promotion, in order to keep the high going.
And it doesn’t stop there. Why not punish yourselves further by putting in a quick call to your broadband provider? Just for the sheer hell of it. If and when you manage to get past the teenage cheerleader and her plethora of unfathomable options, you can enjoy Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at tinnitus-inducing volume, until she starts banging on about the hash key should you fancy a few more. Has anyone ever done this? Actually opted for more options? The only reason to do so I can muster is because you have been lured, as if by sirens, into a perpetual loop of doom, seduced by the prospect of discovering the magic key that will end your purgatory once and for all. At a premium call rate, naturally.
I know this makes me seem like a terrible Luddite. Or one of those Grumpy Old Men you see on the telly who have already become versions of their own disdain. But hold up! If technology really is as smart as they make out, why can’t we get to choose the voice of whichever organisation is preaching at us? Based on preferences stored up there in the Cloud and fully configurable to suit our mood? All of a sudden, that dreaded Sunday excursion to Ikea doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Just as you begin to glaze over in the BILLY bookcase department, Mariella Frostrup virtually detects your loss of will to live, and purrs something suggestive about meatballs into the headphones provided. And before you know it, you’re making a beeline for the restaurant as your family struggles to keep up.
Not bad, eh? Maybe Apple should consider something along these lines when that watch of theirs comes out next month. And maybe then I’ll consider a third doughnut.
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.
According to the internet, I may or may not have alcoholic neuropathy. Not the fully-fledged bumping into walls/khazi-bound variety, you’ll no doubt be pleased to learn, but there is some evidence of a tingly leg thing going on after an exceptionally enjoyable bottle of Pinot. Gruelling news, particularly as I am halfway through the arduous task of reducing a bottle mountain of barely palatable filth, bequeathed to me by my late father, in order to reclaim some kitchen shelf real estate. So, in the greater interest of my failing health and with a small nod to genuine altruism, I have decided to give away one of said bottles to any reader who can be arsed to ask for it. Yes, like a competition.
But which one? You are most certainly not having the 1982 Taylors port, and I wouldn’t wish a 2011 Vina Primera white rioja on anyone with a pulse, not even the ISIS vintners. I did, however, find a dusty old thing lurking at the bottom of the pile which, on closer inspection, turned out to be an ageing bottle of Merrydown cider, its blackened cork still wedged in tenaciously at the neck. A thrilling discovery by anyone’s standards, so much so I proffered this information to Merrydown themselves, along with a photograph and a discreet enquiry as to its age. And quick as a flash, I received an email from an equally excited Emma Vanderplank at customer relations, informing me that according to their archive, it probably dates from 1952. Or 1955. Or 1962. Whichever one, it’s proper old: Small wonder Dad laid it down.
So there’s the provenance, but what of the value? To this end, I delved deep into the guts of several online auction houses specialising in the sale and distribution of historic orchard fruit-based alcoholic beverages, and it turns out our little friend ticks all the boxes (matured in cellar/label still legible/stored outside mandatory fifty mile exclusion zone of anyone with a Somerset postcode etc…) And if I’ve got my sums right, it’s almost certainly worth between six and eight quid, give or take a few pennies (allowing for market variables and fluctuation thereof). Bearing in mind that you pay considerably more for the tat sold in convenience stores that doesn’t even have the patina of age, I would suggest to you this is a gift horse not worth looking into the mouth of. Not even a furtive glance from the other side of the paddock. To say nothing of its accruing potential if you so choose to lay it down for another fifty years. I must be mad, me.
Here’s the deal: I’ll post the photograph on the Idle Eye Facebook page (over there, on the right). You tell me why you want it (in the comments below). The winner will be selected by me, subject to bribes. You give me your address, I send it to you at my not inconsiderable expense, along with a picture of a hamster (UK applicants only – Not this time, Johnny Foreigner). Now, what are you waiting for?
Like Cornwall, the trouble with the Cotswolds is that they’re woefully inadequate at catering for regular folk. By which I mean that every idyllic bar and restaurant, set in local stone and staffed by enthusiastic pin-striped undergraduates, leaves in its wake a paucity of eateries affordable to the indigenous population that isn’t a flame-haired former news editor or her tit of a husband. Even your bog-standard takeaway has been usurped by Cameron’s cronies, now profiteering proudly from weak puns and an artisan prefix. So, where to fill up without spunking away your wages when buried deep in the West Country?
Good question. And if you are holed up in a country B&B, your options are drastically reduced. For you must either drive to one of these godforsaken places, or learn to enjoy the pleasure of your own company with a Waitrose 2 for 1 nuclear meal and a bottle of anything red that will stay down. A Sophie’s Choice, basically. But then I got to thinking (necessity being the mother of all invention): What if I could harness that 1987 Panasonic Destroyer of All Hopes & Dreams to my own advantage? Perhaps even rustle up something my guts wouldn’t instantly reject, and in record time? The mind began to work overtime, like it’s supposed to do during sex or at the moment of violent untimely death…
As luck would have it, I discovered a Microwave Oven Recipe Book nestled alluringly between a brace of curry menus, purposefully placed in order to offer the budget diner the illusion of opulence. For example – How about some plaice fillets in a white wine sauce? Preparation comes in at a mere 10 minutes, presumably the time it takes to leap into the Thames in Hunters waders and net a couple of the flat bastards before they hightail it off in their inherited Aqua Rover. What’s more, the end result serves four people, a salient glimpse into the lives of others as you attempt to scrape the charred remains of sliced mushroom from the duvet cover. And if you’re feeling adventurous, why not round off the evening with a pineapple upside down cake? Simultaneously conjuring up Hawaii and the 1970’s, this delightful pudding is rustled up in seconds if you happen to have a greased soufflé dish stowed away in your rucksack and can handle 100g of refined sugar before the witching hour.
Sadly I don’t and can’t, to say nothing of the potential shame involved. To fail at cookery is one thing, but to fail at fan-assisted cookery in the seat of all things cookery is quite another. So I bailed, as you’ve probably guessed by now. However, tonight acquainted me with a spectacular 2012 Sangré de Torro (a snip at £8.99) and guess what? That family bag of farm-raised, oak-smoked Gloucester Old Spot flavoured crinkly kettle chips hand-picked by Dave on 26/02/14 doesn’t seem so bad after all.
So anyway, Nibs and I are burning down the M4 at 121mph (on the way back from yet another trip to Wales), when he drops it in that we have to make a slight detour. Oh no, I’m thinking, is it a special lady friend? Or perhaps the steed needs a quick pit stop? Either of which will add a significant portion of gooseberry to my day. But, as it turns out, it was neither. As we approached Reading, the car re-orbited and we snaked our way through faceless, municipal landscaped roundabouts and grounded ourselves at the trolley park of what appeared to be yet another temple of worship to consumer greed. Every hackle that hadn’t already been irreversibly müllered by alcohol immediately rose up, but my fears were shortly to be assuaged: This was different. This was the future.
Have you ever been to one of these places? These vast cathedrals of corrugated aluminium that house your every culinary peccadillo and a few more besides? And for stupid money, as long as you’ve got an outhouse or live inside an Escher print? Well neither had I, but the minute I walked through the door they had me by the balls. For a start, right there in the foyer, they had delicious Apple stuff which had me salivating like a Cupertino campus nerd, but then as we crossed into widescreen an astonishing array of palleted goods, piled as high as the eye can feasibly take in, burst into ocular wonder. Over there on the left were thousands of discounted cases of NZ Marlborough Pinot Noir, and yet there on the right were more triple packs of Calvin Klein underpants than you could shake a stick at.
But this was just for starters: Mountains of Haribo, rivers of tequila and more snout than Strangeways all beckoned with their irresistible charms. And, in case you weren’t yet up to speed, helpful smiley staff clad in red and white were all there to assist with their immaculate speed-of-light timing of which I took full advantage:
‘Hello, could you help? I’m trying to figure out the sheet 2 wipe ratio saving I could make from your Syrian Red Cross Convenience industrial strength loo rolls?’
‘Certainly, Sir! Our statistics, based on an amalgam of the global meridian and the sheet 2 wipe average in your area suggest that you’ll be making a saving of approximately 7.2 pence per go. You have a nice day now.’
These guys were so on it I nearly wept. And, as Nibs and I swept through checkout, laden with a cargo utterly denied to those outside the club, I felt it necessary to fall to my knees and beg my own brother to sign me up. Which, bless him, he did, after making me watch him consume a hot dog and a litre of fizzy pop at £1.45 from the in-store café. Vile but necessary, as them French Resistance chicks would have said.
Has anyone noticed that toilet roll tubes are shrinking? Anyone? I’ve been giving this one some thought of late (as a former owner of thirteen gerbils, my attention to such matters is somewhat more devout than you might otherwise think) and I cannot for the life of me imagine why. You reduce the circumference of the tube, ergo the volume of tissue necessary to fill the gap increases. And surely it is more cost effective to expand the cardboard by an insignificant fraction than to manufacture the extra sheets? To say nothing of all that extra perforating and, if you’re posh, quilting. We’ve all got used to the stealth techniques employed by supermarkets and the like with their swingeing reduction in product proportion, but this is blatantly a false economy & somebody’s head should roll.
And then there’s the matter of quality. Does anyone remember back in the day when you only needed a couple of sheets to wipe the slate clean? Because they were the thickness of a small sandwich or a baby’s mattress? Or how about Izal medicated, the robust choice of municipal buildings, schools and the more progressive public conveniences? So hardy was it, in fact, it could stop a Sherman tank in full flight if lined up correctly. Well without putting too fine a point on it, nowadays you could copy the entire works of Charles Dickens onto the paper necessary for just one go. And the end user (oh stop it!) lives in permanent fear of finger pop. Don’t think we haven’t noticed, Mr Andrex! And no amount of impregnated aloe vera is gonna make up for all that chafing.
But fear not, my friends. I put in yet another narratively convenient call to Nibs earlier and he assures me that the exceptional tissue provided by the Idle Hour has maintained its triple A status for another year. And, as one of the lucky few who has stood sheet to cheek in the traps, I can vouch for the same. These bountiful beauties are organic, responsibly sourced, line caught & hand stitched by Vestal Virgins on the foothills of the Appenines for your sanitary convenience. No horse DNA, no artificial sweetners, no CFCs, no nonsense. And a free drink at the bar if you can punch a hole through the middle. Pre-application, obviously.
Finally, a word to the ladies from Nibs himself. Apparently you lot are whipping through the stuff like it’s going out of fashion, and, being a gentleman of good character, he is loath to drop by and investigate. Vast industrial-strength tubes regularly vanish into thin air, and whilst he is aware that there are many bottoms to feed, demand is seriously outstripping supply. May I suggest that you ‘make room’ before you leave the house? We are living through a time of unprecedented austerity and it’s only fair that you do your bit. And us blokes promise to wipe up the oversplash when we get in. Right lads?
I went to Sainsburys today. Not a dramatic admission, granted, but worthy of inclusion here because it got me to thinking about the fragile infrastructure that divides the connoisseur of fine beverages with significant alcohol content and your more Hogarthian consumer. And let’s be honest, it’s a pretty fine line. Let me clear this one up a bit for the benefit of any readership that may have already embarked on their own personal journey:
Of all the aisles of one’s supermarket of choice, the couple that supply the grape and the grain are surely the most well trodden. Here there exists a curiously British microclimate, quite unlike any other. Grown men dramatically slow as they approach this particular section, their velocity utterly dependent on whether they are shopping alone or with a significant other. If it is the former, you can be fairly confident that a brewers ‘vintage ale’ will slip itself into the basket and be justified at a later time. Approximately 8.5% volume and in a presentation box to boot. Sweet.
From here, you leisurely browse the higher shelves, occasionally releasing the odd bottle for closer inspection. To the untrained eye this appears to be the hallmark of experience, but to the seasoned drinker all the signs are there. A deft handspin clearly suggests that the vintner has erroneously slapped alcohol volume to the rear, whilst the inclusion of two or more bottles of the same product almost certainly signifies some kind of sordid bin end deal, from which neither distributor nor end user comes up smelling of roses.
Next up is hard liquor, always a tough one. These shimmering beauties in their idiosyncratic shapes and sizes, all vying for your attention, require more than a modicum of discipline if you are to make it through the rest of the day unscathed. Probably best to give them a wide berth but, Santa Maria, they so have your balls in a vice. Maybe just this small Italian one, distilled by monks in mountain ranges many miles from civilisation? Or perhaps this square one from Tennessee, originally conceived by a philanthropic hillbilly with a beard as long as your arm? Go on, you know you want to, and what’s the worst that can happen? And then there’s the agony of the mixer. The one that’s been around since the 70’s usually does the trick, but right next to it there’s another that says it’s organic, natural and poured over the thighs of virgins for added flavour. Probably. Screw it, it’s going in x12.
It is at this point you become aware that you are not alone. A young man with facial growth that needs a little more time has clocked your basket and is shooting you a look. Pity. His own brims full with tins of own-brand cider, total value of which is one thirtieth of yours. But here, in this sacred space, all discrepancies bleed into themselves and alcohol, just this once, becomes the great leveller.
In a plucky bid to beat the supermarkets at their own game, the Idle Hour has recently been developing its very own customer loyalty card. Using a combination of the latest nuclear, biometric and laser technologies from Iran along with simple household bleach, the SuperMacroMcSimpleDynabiolic™ (or VIP) card is set to revolutionize the entire SW13 eating and drinking experience by actually predicting what the customer will order before he/she has actually left the house, with the added benefit that it is actually organic and a full 18% recyclable:
Punter: I love my SuperMacroMcSimpleDynabiolic™ (or VIP) card. I don’t know how I ever got by without it. Really, I don’t. Sometimes I can’t even remember my own name, let alone what I’m going to have at the pub of an evening. So thank you, SuperMacroMcSimpleDynabiolic™ (or VIP), you’re the best. Now, what am I having again?
Sceptics have been quick to condemn the SuperMacroMcSimpleDynabiolic™ (or VIP) card, claiming there are legal implications infringing the rights of privacy currently enjoyed by people who haven’t got one:
Punter: I’m not having one of them SuperMacroMcSimpleDynabiolic™ (or VIP) do-dahs telling me what to have of an evening. If I want a good, honest pint of Harveys I’ll bloody well have one when I bloody well want one. And them cards can stay right out of it.
Mr Thorp was quick to dismiss such allegations, however. “The situation is still under review” he commented before leaving for a swiftly arranged Press Conference in Tehran, adding to suspicions that his relationship with Mr Aftadinahrmint is perhaps more than political:
Aftadinahrmint: Iran has, at no time in the past or future, been involved in the development of loyalty cards for diners and drinkers in the SW13 area. That is a lie, and I invite inspectors to have a look around when I’ve tidied up a bit.
“Well he would say that” retorted Mr Thorp, echoing a similar political denial of a bygone era.
Like it or not, however, it seems the SuperMacroMcSimpleDynabiolic™ (or VIP) card will be here to stay. We spoke to one of the Idle Hour barstaff about the perceivable benefits:
Barstaff: It’s brilliant, like. Sort of like Brazil crossed with The Matrix. When the punter comes in, we don’t actually have to work out what they want, like. ‘Cos it’s already there in the till. It’s aces, man! And I get more time to smoke fags.
So there’s no denying there will be a sensational switch in the way Barnes barfolk transact as the rest of London looks on with baited breath. The SuperMacroMcSimpleDynabiolic™ (or VIP) card will be big business, so get on board before the bus heads out of town. We tried to track down Mr Thorp for the final say but he was away, which we would have known if we’d read our own article:
“It’s the future”, he said. Yesterday.