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Uncle Phil's Anecdotes

Laid on with a trowel.

I was sitting in the office the other day, designing a spreadsheet, playing Minesweeper or whatever, when the door opened and Norman Lamont breezed in.

Which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with today’s offering, but it’s true, and it makes a good attention-grabber. I need all the help I can get, even from politicians, in the unlikely event that their aid isn’t going to cost me.

So let’s put Norman on hold for a while, and cut to the chase.

I’m very partial to Junk Mail. I’m fascinated by the myriad different approaches, cunning disguises, purple prose, subtle blandishments, and all the other ploys that marketing industry wonks manage to conjure up, pussyfooting around from one euphemism to another to avoid employment, at all costs, of that age-old cry - ‘give us yer money, sucker!’

I assiduously fill in any customer surveys that drop through the letterbox, each of which indelibly marks one’s personal details onto a couple of dozen mailing lists, which each in their turn beget other lists, who beget further lists, and so on ad infinitum, like a cell culture in a Petri dish. Even the surveys themselves seem to be gathering their forces – once upon a time I’d get one a year, maybe – now it’s two or three a week. I may have to employ a secretary. if I find this exponential growth rate sustainable.

However, while I may appear industrious, survey-wise, I have to confess to a teensy-weensy tendency toward inaccuracy. It‘s not a question of being economical with the truth exactly, it’s that in order to carry out this exercise in marketing obfuscation in an efficient manner I have modestly hidden my own light under a bushel and hand-crafted a discrete persona dedicated to the task. I call him Abie Wan.

Abie, who in reality (or rather virtual reality) is an unemployed demograph who inhabits the uncharted wastes of my computer’s hard disc (Heere bee Bugges!) is the kind of chap that I might turn out to be, given intravenous loadsamoney. He would seem to earn about 350K, reside in most-of-a-million quid’s worth of Queen Anne country manor house, sup only the best booze, smoke only the smartest fags (or the occasional very large Cuban cigar) dine at the most salubrious or fashionable watering holes, hop onto Concorde at the drop of a snoot, peruse only the top peoples’ reading-matter, play Golf and Polo (but not usually at the same time) and glide around Town in the kind of wheels that I can only get near to by bussing it up to Berkeley Square and pressing my nose up against Jack Barclay’s window.

Abie acts as my filter. With his help, it’s only the finest quality bespoke Junk Mail that hits my doormat. This saves me wading through all the crap destined for catalogue-shopping housewives in Wembley or first-time house buyers in Milton Keynes, and gives me an insight into how the other half lives, ideas above my station, and a desk-drawer full of expensively produced Marketing Aids. If you happen to need half-a-dozen virginal diaries for 1998, expensively bound in the finest fake leathers and emblazoned in faux gold leaf with the logo of some blue chip firm, I’m your man.

In addition, I’m favoured with enough financial advice to enable me to run the economy of a small Balkan country. Except that the offerings from expert #1 are diametrically opposed to that of pundit #2, which are at odds with my soi-disant ‘personal financial adviser’ #3, and so on, depending on who’s trying to flog me what. Confused? Moi? No matter - if ever I did find myself with a small Balkan economy to manage, I could ask my mate Norman’s advice. (And do the opposite, methinks.)

I get the occasional free sample, usually small vials of expensively noisome Designer Toiletries that I wouldn’t be smelt dead in. But they make good Christmas presents for those middle-management glorified sales reps that inflict themselves on me throughout the year. As do the diaries, except that the pushy buggers tend to get in first and plonk their own firm’s annual offering on my desk.

Anyhow - so it was that I came to be reading this mailshot by and on behalf of Mumm Champagne. Not a drink that I personally care for, Champagne. Even allowing for the gentil M. Mumm’s save-a-quid-on-a-bottle voucher. (So generous, the French, I find.) But was it not mere months ago that a panic-stricken media were threatening us that come Millennium-tide we wouldn’t be able to locate an un-spoken-for bottle of bubbly anywhere in the Western World or Oddbins, so Buy!-Buy!-Buy! while stocks last? And here, with only three weeks to go to Doomsday, we have Mumm, hardly an inconsequential name in the milieu champagnoise, slaughtering their prices like market traders at the end of a wet day to try and get shot of their particular variety of acid, headache-inducing brew. On me, they shouldn’t rely. But back to the mailshot.

“Dear Mr James.”

At least they got the name right. You’d be surprised by the number of different ways the average computer can mangle a simple handle like ‘Phil James’. ‘Paul Jones’ is the front-runner – and I do so object to being confused with a dance. And if in a rash moment I fill in the name of my company, (Aristocat Antiques) the sky’s the limit. I’ve been written to as just about every permutation of ‘Mr/Mrs/Ms/P/J/A/Antiques’ that you could think of, and greeted as ‘Dear Aristocat’ (first name terms already, and we’ve barely been introduced ,) the even more familiar ‘Dear Ari’ (do they think I’m a Greek shipowner or what?) or the more respectful ‘Dear Mr Antiques’, which I quite like – it makes me sound like Eric Knowles or Arthur Negus.)

Anyway – “Dear Mr James.

It’s not every day we get to celebrate a Millennium………………..”

Isn’t it ? Well bugger me!

Surely a contender in the 20th-Century’s-Most-Trite-Statement-Of-The-Obvious stakes. Who writes this stuff? Probably the same bloke responsible for the marketing blurb put out by one of the Book Clubs at the time Lizzie Bennett and Mr D’Arcy were gracing our screens of a Sunday night (…….and I fancy that delicious Jennifer Ehle something rotten, but never mind…..) The impression given was that “for a ‘mere’ £29.99 you can enjoy! In your own home! The Complete Works of Jane Austen! (and then, in dayglo ink, writ large) INCLUDING PRIDE AND PREJUDICE!.

Oh – Right – That Jane Austen.

Just occasionally, thank heavens, the adpersons become so enmired in their own pretentious bullshit that without noticing, they get things spectacularly wrong. Then we can all have a belly laugh. There was a famous example some years ago, concerning a magazine advert for Cathay Pacific Airways. It informed us proudly that CPA was “the only airline to fly to Hong Kong and back, non-stop.”

Fine. Admirable, even. Unless one had a yen to go to Hong Kong.

There is, out there, a whole Industry-full of Marketing Zombies who have programmed into their victims the assumption that the rest of the population (you and me, folks) are gibbering morons, totally incapable of thinking for themselves, and that everything and anything, if they are to stand any chance at all of flogging it to us. has to be served as a pre-digested pap. Add to this a succession of Governmental nannies who are determined to legislate all the risk out of everything for everybody, and the simplest transaction ends up wrapped in more verbiage than a VAT guide, and festooned with more caveats than a Trade Union policy document.

Take packaging. Brushing aside the more obvious annoyances in that (for instance) if you have something that needs a battery, you won’t be able to buy a pack of less than two, but if it takes two, or worse, four, you’ll find that in that size they only come in threes. (Likewise, I’ve never been able to find out where the little plastic thingies full of eleven unused lighter flints disappear to once you’ve deployed the first one. I must have hundreds of the buggers, somewhere, and I still have to buy a new box of 12 every time my lighter dies.) There’s also the physical problem, in that if the movers and shakers in the packaging industry really had our interests at heart, they’d design their product so that we don’t need a JCB to force our way into it.

But why should they address these genuine annoyances, when they’re on a far more vital mission. The main function of packaging is not to protect the product, or even, as often appears, to drive the consumer doolally. It is to act as the carrier of a comprehensive Manufacturers Cover-Your-Arse document, usually including:

· A list of ingredients (often, and rightly, a legal requirement, but you’d need to be a Regius Professor of Chemistry to grasp the finer (and thus the more salient) points)

· A chart, in the case of comestibles, giving details of calories and stuff (ditto – but Physics.)

· Various disclaimers covering recycled materials. ‘All our packaging is made from secondhand loo paper’ ‘This can was made from replenishable trees.’ ‘Our bottles are 100% biodegradable.’

· More disclaimers, mostly concerning animal testing, and touching on Whales, Dolphins and other denizens of the deep perceived to be either cute or intelligent. And Pandas, for some reason. But if Medical Research found a use for, say, cockroaches, you wouldn’t hear a peep out of the Animal Rights nutters. Maybe I ought to set up a Leech Liberation Fund. Bloodsuckers Anonymous.

· Genetic purity or the lack of same. But isn’t the familiar hybrid Tomato a genetically modified food?

· Peanuts, (I’ve forgotten – am I supposed to be for or against peanuts?)

· Disposal of the used product and/or packaging. If it’s any shape other than flat, and any part of it is made of metal, don’t sling it on the fire. If it’s shaped like a pineapple and made of metal, just pull the little pin out. That’ll dispose of it nicely. And of course eschewing the local Bottle Bank, or worse, putting the wrong colour bottles into the wrong compartment thereof, is a black cap long drop sharp jerk and into the quicklime job.

· A sell-by date (understandable for perishable foods, but can somebody out there tell me why I need a sell-by date on a bottle of blue-black ink?)

· A hot line, in case you have a problem. And if you try to ring it, you sure will have a problem. It’ll take you three hours to get through while your call is held in a queue and some snotty voice reminds you of that fact every thirty seconds whilst begging you not to hang up because they value your custom; half-an-hour punching digits, star buttons and hashes into your handset at the behest of a disembodied vaguely female recording; and then you’ll then be kept hanging on for an hour at a premium rate quid-a-minute listening to the most expensive and least accomplished performance of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik you’ve ever heard, while the tracey on the other end of the phone files her nails and rabbits to her girlfriend, before informing you that she can’t possibly help you with your problem, no matter what it is, and that you should ring Head Office in Manchester (and thus go through the whole rigmarole again.) Enjoy.

· Pronouncements from Brussels on the subject of how bad for you the product you’re buying is. Does being admonished with every packet that Smoking Is A Short Cut To Hell really inhibit the sale of one single solitary fag? Of course it doesn’t.

· And last but not least, a List Of Instructions. In seven languages, more often than not.

I can understand anyone needing a manual to operate a computer, or a video, or a Hi-fi system – I occasionally need one myself, which is why I get so infuriated when I find that the aide-toi for the appliance in question has been written by a robot, and a Japanese robot, at that, and thus is totally incomprehensible. One knows what each individual word ought to mean, but they don’t seem to be strung together in any recognisable pattern.

But forget the techno-goodies for a moment. Let’s take the most simple household products. In fact, let’s do just that. I’ll go round the house and pick a few real examples at random. Bear with me.

Right. Aerosol can of Sainsbury’s Shaving Foam. Regular, if that makes any difference. ‘Directions’, it says on the back.

‘Wash face and leave skin wet.’ Believe it or not, girls, us blokes just don’t need to be told that a shave is more effective and more comfortable if one starts with a wet phizog.

‘Shake can before use’. Valid enough, except can you honestly say that you know anybody who doesn’t shake an aerosol before pressing the tit?

‘Hold container upright’. Puhleeeze!

‘Press button gently to release a small amount of foam onto fingertips’ They’re slipping up, here. They forgot to tell us to locate said fingertips (presumably those attached to the hand that isn’t grimly holding the container upright as per) within foam-squirting distance of the nozzle. You could be in trouble, here. So could the cat, if he’s anything like mine – rubbing himself around my ankles when I’m shaving of a morning.

‘Smooth evenly onto face’ (they obviously haven’t seen my face – evenly is impossible) ’and shave.’ I’m surprised that they don’t tell me at this point to be sure and use a blade rather than an electric razor.

Rinse with water. As I tend not to keep the gin in the bathroom, water is exactly what I normally use for rinsing purposes. Am I alone in this?

Example 2. The other extreme. A thing of Araldite Rapid. Here, and rightly, they give simple advice re children, skin, eyes, and other damageable and non-replaceable elements. So far, so good, although they don’t actually warn you against spreading the stuff on the loo seat.

But then they go into orbit.

WARNING. Reaction product. Bisphenol A (epichlorhydrin); epoxy resin (number average molecular weight s700. 1, 4-butanedial diglycidyl ether N(3-dimethylaminopropy)0-1, 3-propylenediamine. (The Author will not be held responsible for any errors or omissions in the above transcript.)

Who are they warning? And against what? Like the poor old judge on the wrong end of F.E. Smith’s celebrated witticism, I’m none the wiser. (….but far better informed, m’lud….) But it sounds all high-tech and impressive. And it’s a well-known fact that gloop with an average molecular weight of s700 is inclined to be a bit iffy. Add a dollop of that hooligan 3-propylenediamine to the stew, and you could be in serious shit.

A box of Johnsons cotton buds. “Never insert into inner ear or nose.” But what else does anyone buy the buggers for? They might as well put a warning on a Black and Decker – “Do not use for de-waxing lugholes.”

A bar of NEW Mint Aero. (Question – is it still “new” when it’s past its sell-by date?) The usual parade of e-numbers, and a list of chemicals which sound exactly the same to me as those used in the Araldite. A note from the ever-caring Nestle Consumer Services Department to inform us that ‘they welcome comments or questions,’ and a PO box number to address same to. At least you don’t have to ring the sods up. And then, proudly emblazoned in a fancy border. “The light minty bubbles are part of Nestle’s proud Chocolate Heritage”.

Wot? Come again? Shall we dissect and discuss? The ‘light minty bubbles’ are, by and large, air. This tends to be the norm, with bubbles. The substance surrounding and thus containing said air is green, not chocolate. It sure is minty, though. The outer carapace of this confection is chocolate, but they don’t mention that component – so can we presume that it isn’t ‘part of Nestle’s proud Chocolate Heritage’? So have I gotta question for you, Nestle Consumer Services! Is this chockie Grade 1 listed, or what ? May I eat (sorry – ‘consume’ – let’s get the jargon right) it without ending up with an English Heritage halberd up my backside? Should I throw it open to the public on alternate summer Saturday afternoons? Give us a clue. And give us a break – do you really think that anybody falls for such prolix bullshit?

Even the stalwart jar of Marmite is guilty. “Spread thinly on toast,” it says on the back. Surely – anybody who didn’t know that, (Americans, notably) wouldn’t be buying the stuff anyway. “Shucks, Mizz Ellie – Ah jest done gotten me dis heyah thanga Marmite. Muddah come all de way from LunnonEngerlayund. You de one wid de eddicashun an de glayusses – y’all look on de back dere and tellus what it foah.”

Stop Press: My TV is on in the background as I write, and I’ve just heard a woman, vaguely famous, from her accent transatlantic, but not unnattractive for all that, extolling the virtues of [trying to flog] some nostrum, no doubt expensive, which is, she tells us, shit-hot at de-wrinkling ladies of a certain age. Not that she put it quite like that. She described this cosmetic Philosopher’s Stone as being, and I quote, “A Fresh Sensation in Moisturising Power.”

Madam – please – I beg of you - learn to speak English. Because You’re Worth It.

Stop press 2: I’ve just pulled this little gem out of this Sunday’s Times.It concerned a chap who had bought a deodorant stick. The instructions thereon read:

“Remove lid, and holding container firmly, push up bottom”

To my mind, this raises several questions:

1 Are you supposed to leave it in situ, or will a momentary application suffice?

2 If so, how do you perform natural bodily functions (or for that matter, arcane sexual practices?)

3 Do you need to buy a new stick every day, or

4 Can you just take the old one out and wash it?

5 If (3) how do you tell when the deodorant has run out ? Or must you wait for your best friend to tell you?

6 Does it come in different sizes?

7 Does it work for household pets?

8 Should one buy a separate stick for armpits?

And finally….. what about Norman Lamont, you’re almost certainly asking. It would appear that he was meeting somebody at a house in the square where our office is, and had got the wrong address - or rather no address at all – so much for his forward planning – no wonder the national economy got cocked up - and thought that our building looked familiar. I pointed him in the right direction and sent him on his way, but not before he insisted on being given a tour of the building in case I was lying to him about its occupancy. Now would I do a thing like that to a poor honest MP going about his daily round?

But afterwards it occurred to me that things have come to a pretty pass when I get accused of telling porkies by a Tory politician.

© Phil James


Further Anecdotes

A Cynic's Philosophy
Scripture for His Purpose
All Greek to Me
Beef and Mustard
The Day the Music Died
Unconsidered Trifles
For Such is the Kingom of Heaven
Laid on with a Trowel
De minimis curat lex.


©Uncle Phil's Books 2004