Monday, August 27, 2007


I’ve been queuing at Costcutter. You nearly always have to queue there because, although there are two tills, it’s rare that both are open, even when (as just now) there are people waiting to pay.

I was only in for a paper and I had the correct change. In years gone by, I could have waved my paper, called to the woman on the till that I had the correct money and left it on the counter. You can’t do that now because they get in a panic if they can’t swipe the barcode. How would they know what to enter on the till?

Costcutter is a chain of small general stores. In my childhood, most such shops were independent businesses and you saw the same proprietor and/or his wife and/or an employee at the till every day. They knew you and of course they let you owe them a few pennies until the next time if you didn’t have the right money. That’s impossible now because the shop staff leave so frequently and none of them has the power of such a profound executive decision. The branch manager is too important to work the till.

What’s more, if you had to wait even a moment or two, the old-style shopkeepers would be profuse with their apologies. At Cocksuckers (as we call it), the staff are blithely unaware of the customers. They are wholly absorbed by the challenging business of swiping barcodes, haphazardly loading plastic bags and picking out the correct coins to make up the change that the till tells them to give.

I can’t abide standing uselessly in a queue, forced to listen to the extruded plastic that passes for musical entertainment on the chain’s ringmain. It’s made worse by the stupidity of so many of the customers who, like the woman in front of me just now, pay a £3.47 bill with a credit card (“would you like Cashback?”). I don’t anyway approve of chain stores selling a small selection of newspapers and downmarket magazines, thereby taking custom from the newsagents who try to keep a good range of publications (“Plays International? Oh, I don’t think we stock that”). But my need for more exercise is not so keen that I want to spend a good half-hour strolling to the nearest newsagent and back when I can get a paper at Cocksuckers in a few moments (not including the couple of hours of queuing).

Why I still patronize the bloody place I begin to wonder. Recently, they opened a new stand for the sale of reheated food. I don’t know how low an IQ you would need to register in order to trust a chicken portion microwaved by one of the inadequately trained temporary staff at Cocksuckers. Certainly the smell given off by their warmed-over pies would not disgrace an abandoned abattoir.

The other week, I called in there for a carton of milk. As usual, I had to wait in line. Behind the hot food stand, an assistant was extracting frozen chickens from a freezer and freeing them from their plastic encasements. After watching her for a while, I asked her whether she couldn’t open the other till so that those of us with purchases to pay for could cut our waiting time in half. “Not just now, no” she said. I listened for a “sorry” in vain. “Very well, then. I’ll go somewhere else,” I said. And leaving the milk carton on the counter, I stalked out. I imagined the other shoppers shaking their heads and tutting at my graceless impatience. I was tempted to stride back in again and ask the offending chit what the point of her being there was if it weren’t to look after the customers, this emporium being a shop for the retailing of goods to people whose patronage paid her wages. But I decided the moment had passed. It would have to stand as an esprit de l’escalier.

Of course, this kind of imperious gesture is a cutting off of the nose to spite one’s own face. I now had no milk and the aforementioned half-hour would have been necessary to devote to finding it elsewhere. So, conscious of the pitiful emptiness of the sequence of behaviours I was manifesting, I eked out what little milk was left at home for a few hours and then crept back to Cocksuckers, hoping against hope that the same useless assistant was not on duty to serve me (or not). Happily her shift had ended. I picked up the same carton of milk from the chill cabinet – the only one of skimmed milk left in the shop on both this and the previous occasion – and waited obediently in the queue, wondering idly how long the milk had stood meantime deteriorating on the counter.

Costcutter’s merchandizing policy has changed over the years that we have lived here. There is now a whole shelf of wines on sale. On those occasions when the queue stretches back along the shelves, I look wonderingly at these wines. A woman behind me clocked me looking at them one day and said pleasantly “makes you thirsty, doesn’t it”. Of course I should have agreed nicely with her and left it at that. But surveying the ranks of Australian Chadonnay and Chilean Rioja with their garish labels and their suspiciously low prices, I could only reply (no doubt rather unpleasantly) “there’s really nothing here I’d want to drink”. “No, I suppose not” she said, mentally putting me down as a snob, I feel sure.

Frankly, I trust Costcutter for very little that I would want to ingest. Their brands of prepared food are cheap and dubious, their supposedly fresh items look unappetising and their range of comestibles is dictated by the nature of the clientele, which seems to consist heavily of people who scoff rubbish in front of the telly. The old corner shop tradition of good wholesome fare from local suppliers has died and Cocksuckers, with its emphasis on snacks and knickknacks, does not fill the void.

At least there has been one welcome development at our branch (and so I suppose uniformly at branches all over the land). In recent weeks, a card has been standing on the counter displaying badges with flashing lights. All the badges have been functioning, creating an entirely oppressive spectacle turned towards the waiting queue. Had it not been for the injunction on the card not to touch, I should long ago have torn the card from its moorings and pitched it into the street. Now however the lights are off. Perhaps, as I have long predicted in my mind, some customer has suffered an epileptic fit. If so, I hope a writ is in the post. I know that I shall collapse with a fit at Cocksuckers one of these days: a fit of impatience and boredom.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


A good question came up on this week’s Any Questions?: “Has our society lost its grip on anti-social behaviour?” Fortunately it’s August so there were no MPs on the panel. David Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons suggested that Tony Blair’s famed undertaking to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” would have been just dandy if he hadn’t got diverted into attending to the causers of crime instead of the causes. “What worries me,” concluded Lord Ramsbotham, “is that we seem to have lost our grip on the way of developing people so that they concentrate on a social, a lawful and a useful life”.

The writer Bonnie Greer pointed out that “cities have always been violent”. None of the panel was in any mood to propose a means of containing the anti-social behaviour. But the questioner wasn’t talking about people shouting and throwing up in the street at night. She was talking about the rash of murders in several urban centres these last few weeks. Since Any Questions? went out there have been more. These murders are often but not always gang-related; they sometimes claim as their victims householders who try to protect their property or upbraid the miscreants. It’s all very well for Greer, who was brought up in Chicago, to comfort herself with the thought that cities are innately violent places: cities – in Britain at least – have not before been home to teenagers armed with guns and lethal blades.

I’m all in favour of our tackling the causes of crime, just as long as we’re prepared to face up to what those causes are. First, we have evolved into an inordinately acquisitive society. This has been the inevitable by-product of the triumph of capitalism. Everybody wants to have money and goods and health and sex and the time and space to feast on treats. Fifty years of advertising pumped into our homes through television, radio and now computers and mobile phones has persuaded us to accept marketing as part of our lives rather than as a gross intrusion. We want to be told what we want and we want to be able to have what we’re told we want as fast as possible. If that means knifing somebody in the street to get it, why would anybody be surprised?

Then we have a culture that heroicizes people who behave boorishly, selfishly and crudely. Paris Hilton is apparently a major celebrity because her home sex videos got onto the internet and she went to jail briefly for driving offences. Sportspeople are noticed if they throw tantrums and cheat. Self-publicists become television stars. “Celebrities” who get caught and punished are paid insane amounts of money for their “stories”, usually written by somebody else. We don’t have a culture that rewards diligence, loyalty, kindness, straight dealing and plain speaking. We canonize those who put two fingers up to the camera.

And our popular culture, so much of it churned out by America, pretends that real men carry guns and don’t flinch at killing “the bad guy” in a way that seems to leave no consequence. George W Bush must have bought into that myth when he defied Iraqi rebels to “bring it on”. Well, he got his wish. In the real world, dying hurts and the “bad guys” are not so easily identified as in the wild west and defeat is a good deal easier to stumble into than victory is to achieve.

But there’s time for all that later. Earnest discussions about how to tackle the malaise that breeds shooting and knifing on the streets can be indulged at leisure when we have it. The urgent need now is to stop the mayhem before it spirals into an unprecedented crisis. The government needs to act decisively, comprehensively and immediately. Putting more bobbies on the beat is just a sticking plaster on an amputation. The only result will be more police officers killed.

Here’s my solution: entirely rewrite penal policy. Only those convicted of a crime that may be categorized as constituting a danger to the public should go to prison. All other convicts should be punished in other ways, either by community service or by one-off or long-term financial penalties or by restriction of movement while remaining based at home. There are far too many people who should not be in prison. No white-collar crime, no drugs offence, no petty theft or vandalism or affray or refusal to pay a fine is appropriately met with incarceration. The government’s advisors should bend their minds to devising much more constructive treatment that both benefits the community (not least the victims) and keeps the offenders away from the dangerous (and dangerously influential) types they will otherwise meet in those breeding-grounds of serious crime that are our overcrowded prisons.

The prison places thus freed up should be reserved for those who are demonstrably a danger to the public. Murderers, rapists, muggers, violent hoodlums, sexual predators and anyone convicted of torture, assault, kidnap, stalking and threatening behaviour should go to jail. So should anyone who kills or maims through drunken, dangerous or reckless driving. And so should anyone, of whatever age, who is found to be carrying a gun or any other weapon that is palpably offensive. What is more, I would make these sentences profoundly punitive, both so as to remove dangerous individuals from the streets and so as to have a deterrent effect on those who might think of emulating them. I would make it a presumption that anyone found guilty on any of these counts would be held until they have passed the age of 60, at whatever age they committed the offence. There would be no parole and no remission in my scheme. A teenager might think twice about packing heat if the prospect of some 45 years in jail was the price of being caught. A mugger might baulk at trying to wrest someone’s mobile phone if she remembered that she will pass more than half of the rest of her days in Holloway if she has left her image on a CCTV camera.

Of course there would need to be some leeway. No nine year-old would go to Strangeways for half a century for having a penknife in his pocket. Social workers could be permitted to make a case that some people might need self-protection – what in some of the United States they call “armed response” – in some neighbourhoods. I do not advocate that everyone against whom a corrupt cop or two could concoct a “public danger” case would automatically be put away until they draw their pension. But I do believe that, in the face of a real urban crisis, drastic remedies are needed to bring some order. However young the current generation of violent offenders, they have to understand that they must take responsibility for their own actions. Long-term measures to make their prospects more enticing, their choices wider and their support systems more clued-up must follow. But as things stand, yes, our society has lost its grip on anti-social behaviour. And having remade our penal system so that it affords us all much greater protection, we do need a serious national debate on what sort of society we want to live in.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


You’re not supposed to say this kind of thing and yet of course many of us think it. The trouble with the National Lottery is the random nature of its largesse. To put it crudely, the jackpot so often goes to people on whom it is simply wasted. Now you and I, gentle reader, we know exactly what we’d do with £35.5 million. We would use it wisely and well. But the Scottish postal worker, at whom the fickle finger of fate pointed last Friday, had evidently never given the matter a moment’s thought.

That she still hasn’t given it any thought is clear from her public statements and demeanour since. The first thing she should have done – as you and I are sophisticated enough to know – was to say very firmly to Camelot “no publicity”. Camelot are not permitted to release the names of winners if those winners do not wish it and, were they to do so, they would find themselves with publicity a good deal more unwelcome than the innocent Scottish postal worker is giving them just now.

Instead, the life of this Euromillions winner will be made a misery. Now that she is identified, she will be inundated with pleas for financial support, some of them really quite plausible in their heart-wrenching detail: “my daughter, who has won a place at university, needs an urgent operation to save her sight; it can only be performed in the United States and we simply do not have the funds …”, “my little boy will never walk again unless …”, “my business and the livelihoods of the 250 people I employ can only be saved by a modest input of capital …”, “pay me now or your kid gets it …”

It ought too to have crossed her mind that her relationship with her family, friends and work colleagues will never be the same. Today, they claim with ever so slightly set faces that they are delighted for her. Tomorrow, when the gas bill arrives, they will reflect how it wouldn’t be any problem for her to settle. She will of course move away and she will find herself in a neighbourhood where she has no friends and a society where she has no place. Already she is cast adrift from her moorings, separated from all that is familiar by the extraordinary thing that has happened to her.

And what do you do with £35.5 million? She went out and had a manicure, the first of her life, and she told the press about it in terms suggesting that it never occurred to her that any of the reporters, even the female ones, had the remotest notion of what a manicure was like. And she bought a new dress, not a very expensive one if that was it on the news bulletins. She really has no idea how wealthy she is. The press kindly put it in perspective for her. She’s better off than Wayne Rooney. She’s better off than Prince William or Prince Harry. They didn’t add that she’s not remotely as wealthy as Tiger Woods or Madonna or JK Rowling or the Duke of Westminster but she probably hasn’t considered moving in their circles. What would she have to say to them if she did? “Oh, sorry, I think my son’s read one of your books”? So what in god’s name is she going to do with her wealth? Take up polo? Have a box for the season at Covent Garden?

Divorced as she is, she won’t want for male suitors for long, that’s for sure. Indeed, there will be attention from all sorts of quarters and, before many weeks have gone by, very little of it will be welcome. “You’re not interested in me” she will find herself saying. “You’re only interested in my money”. Just as well Anna Nicole Smith is no longer with us.

In short, this win may be the worst thing that ever happened to her unless she can become canny enough to handle it, which means considerably more canny than she has been so far. It has already priced her out of her natural market and cast her into a world of wealth that she doesn’t know or understand. Many kids, newly enriched by fame in sport or music or acting, go badly off the rails but at least all of them have access to professional advisors, support systems and contemporaries in a similar situation. And they clearly wanted wealth and fame or they wouldn’t have set off into those worlds. This poor cow just did the lottery, much like the rest of us, not really considering what sort of an impact unimagined riches would have on her life. She couldn’t even have kept quiet and then pretended that she made a windfall on investments (without disclosing to anyone the extent of her new income) because the bull market is over for the time being.

The best thing for her, candidly, would be for her to give the great majority of the money to a charity. Those of her family and friends (old and new) feeling some entitlement would be hard put to argue with such a gesture. Now, it so happens that I have a charity that I can strongly commend to her …