It isn’t broken so what are you trying to fix?
First published here
“Look at all these jobs we have created,” Alex Salmond said, splaying his hands far and wide across the Amazon call centre at Waverley Gate in Edinburgh.
Viewers of the BBC 6 o’clock news in November 2011 would have been greeted with an image of an open-plan office; a sea of heads, computer screens and headsets, answering Christmas calls and diligently replying to emails. Here was the workforce, working hard.
It looked good. It seemed good. First minister Alex Salmond had persuaded the giant online retailer to set up shop in Scotland’s capital city and my hometown – one of the greatest coups of his term as first minister so far – instead, I guess, of relinquishing the employer to Slough or some industrial park down South. Since opening in Edinburgh earlier that year, Amazon had worked its way up to employ around 1,000 people in its call centre alone in time for the Christmas peak season.
I was one of the first intakes at Amazon in October 2011, where I worked for three months until mid-January 2012 when I left to do a journalism course in London. Turns out I was in the nick of time. Around half of my colleagues were to follow me out the door just two weeks later, despite being desperate for a permanent contract. Many of them had families to support and mortgages to pay, had commuted in from Fife or further afield every day through a freezing winter, and would once again return to the temp agency wheel of fortune, hoping their next job would last a bit longer.
I was sitting nearby when Alex Salmond came to visit us that day, and he wasn’t happy with the first take to camera. “Let’s do that again,” he said abruptly to the cameraman.
Little did I know Salmond was cooking up a referendum on independence. I went back to talking to an angry customer in Falkirk, whose expensive Christmas presents had been chucked over a hedge by the delivery man.
The point here isn’t to state my dislike of Salmond, or to argue that Amazon employing people is a bad thing. But at the same time, don’t forget the other people I got to know who were mystifyingly not awarded permanent contracts, even though they were probably harder working, better at their jobs than me and more in need of the money.
My point is that, like Christmas workers, the Alex Salmonds of this world will come and go. In the meantime, they can twist and turn the stats to make anything turn in their favour.
I’m not qualified to talk about Trident, what makes us Scottish or British, or whether 16-year-olds should have the power to vote. I will stick to what I know – or at least claim to know best in this debate – and that’s the economy and how we are stronger together.
Let’s re-wind six Christmases. Everything was in a mess. I couldn’t even get a store card from TopShop. But for others, it was a much harsher reality. My friends’ parents went out of business, some of my friends and family were struggling for work; and our neighbours’ houses sat, stagnant, on the market – for months, years.
Today, the UK is the strongest performing economy in the G7 – ahead of the U.S., ahead of Germany, ahead of any other major developed nation in the world. Our house prices have risen again. Unemployment has fallen so fast that the Bank of England had to backtrack on using it as a benchmark to raising interest rates. Consumer spending has kept our economy afloat.
There are further positive signs for the UK. We have positive inflation that is relatively close to target, while prices in the eurozone are falling and heading to deflation. We may be the first developed nation to raise interest rates this year or in spring as we return to normal monetary conditions, rather than cut them to negative rates like in continental Europe to try and kick-start their economy.
Better Together is part of the reason for that, as well as our position in Europe. The UK has, rather amazingly, emerged from the credit crunch relatively unscathed, compared to other countries in Europe. Ireland is awash with half-finished, unused and wasted properties that it built in the boom and failed to sell in the crash. Greece, Spain and Italy still have staggeringly high youth unemployment at up to 56 percent, according to Eurostat. Greece went amok at the devastating austerity cuts imposed by its government after decades of lazy bureaucracy and corruption. And Cypriots were queuing around the block to get to the cashpoint in 2012 when they thought their country was going to be bailed out.
Ireland, Greece and Portugal were given massive loans to tide them over, thanks to being part of the European Union. Yes, they had to accept harsh austerity measures to repay their debt. Those were not good times. But who knows what the alternative would have been?
Things have been a whole lot better in the UK – despite spending cuts which have hit some of us really hard.
In the meantime, we’ve been putting our public voice to good use: we’ve wrangled over whether we want to live next door to Romanians due to UKIP’s Nazi-style open letters in the newspapers and its threats of “diseased” gypsies, we argue whether the benefit system is being abused, and we watch reality show Benefits Street and scream “I told you so!” We are always, always looking for a scapegoat for our problems.
The truth is that most of us are in work. Most of us get NHS treatment if we need it. And in Scotland, we get free prescriptions, free education, free bus passes for the elderly, we are over represented in Westminster – we even brought in the smoking ban a year before England – and we decorated our new Parliament building with hundreds of tiny Highland cows.
Scottish socialist politician Tommy Sheridan screams passionately on the Sunday Politics Scotland show about a free Scotland – but much of our budget is already in our own hands. It is not perfect now, it will not be perfect in 2016. We make decisions, for example, how to spend our NHS budget, yet Scotland is known as the sick man of Europe.
Do you think an independent Scotland means a “free” Scotland? We might be free (for a while) of the “effin Tories” as Cameron put it last week, but we won’t be free of demanding shareholders and corporations acting in their own interests and overseas buyers pushing up house prices.
An independent Scotland won’t be free from international businessmen like Donald Trump who bulldozed down the sand dunes of Aberdeen, forced people out of their homes, built massive golf courses and resorts during a recession and campaigned against renewable energy in local papers. [Watch the documentary You’ve Been Trumped].
We won’t be free of large companies who set up shop in the Channel Islands and escape corporation tax.
We won’t be free of our reliance on oil.
We won’t be free of our dependence on a stable currency – if it depreciates, that hurts our exporters, and the pound has already fallen around four percent versus the U.S. dollar since the infamous YouGov poll last Sunday showed the separatists striking ahead.
We won’t be free of politicians and their whims; we won’t magically reduce Scotland’s deficit (how much it spends compared to how much it earns) of £13.6 billion – 10.6 per cent of GDP – “including a per capita share of North Sea revenue”, it says on the Scottish government website, which is higher than the UK as a whole.
And we won’t lure the great powers of the world like China to become our favoured trading partners just because we welcomed their pandas into Edinburgh Zoo.
We might be free of UKIP – that is, of course, until our own right-wing thugs and scaremongerers raise their heads for attention, sniffing an opportunity when something goes wrong and the public is again looking for someone to blame.
No, in my view we have never been hamstrung or imprisoned by England and Westminster, despite the long-running complaints about the poll tax and a conservative government that we “didn’t vote for”. Rather, thanks to Westminster, we kept the pound and didn’t go under with the euro (which Salmond reportedly wanted), instead we were buoyed by our relationship with Europe and the UK as a whole to come through the biggest recession since the 1930s.
It is because we are part of the UK that we can try to move past the credit crunch, and become optimistic about the future, and save for that mortgage for first time homebuyers, or apply for that job.
Salmond is shoving me out the door with one hand and waving to the BBC 6 o’clock news cameraman with the other. And I don’t want any part of my future – this Christmas or the next – depending on his or on any separatist’s version of a permanent contract.
This is my opinion and does not represent the employees of ETF.com. Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
They say that every so often, you will have an epiphany. For me, that was while I was a prisoner wrapped in industrial strength cling film, slowly choking under a white duvet.
Sandra had promised me 8 inches of fat loss at my shrink wrap.
“It will come off your legs, your hips, your waist, and your arms,” she said, pencil and clipboard at the ready.
“How does it work though?” I asked doubtfully as she took my measurements. “Do you just lose water weight?”
The beauty therapist squeezed my hand and smiled.
“Trust me,” she said.
She told me to undress and revealed a roll of what looked like Tesco’s 99p sandwich wrapping, but what turned out to be a plastic sheet that was wound round and round the top of your chest, your arms, and all the way down to your ankles, until you could barely breathe.
“Can you walk over to the bed?” she asked.
I snorted with laughter, and to my horror, so did she.
Are you kidding me.
I shuffled over to the operating table, like a mummified version of John Wayne, my arms and legs at awkward triangles. I turned so my back was towards the bed and fell onto it with a loud CRUNCH.
The beauty therapist was struggling to keep a straight face.
“Just relax,” she said, her lips quivering.
I cringed at what must have been her bird’s eye view – a pasty young woman with a spoonful of spare beef, slowly cooking in plastic like a giant laminated hotdog.
I didn’t / couldn’t move a muscle. She lifted up a white duvet and spread it over me, and a little bit of the duvet fell over the table next to me and the plastic candle lights, so that I was illuminated from underneath like an overheated igloo.
The basement room was narrow, there were two white-painted bars on the window, and the operating table I was lying on was squeaking a little on its wheels.
“When are you coming back?” I choked.
“Just relax,” she said, not facing me.
“I’ll be back in about an hour,” she replied, and made a quick exit.
The blonde-haired beauty therapist was not a good liar. She was never coming back for me. When she did a few days later, I’d have long since fallen into a coma from the lack of oxygen and the relaxing background sounds of the rainforest. I’d most likely be dead and wasted away, and she would note down on her chart “8 inches of fat loss”. The flickering plastic candles would be low on battery as she started clearing up my decomposing body in time for the next customer’s treatment.
What a stupid decision. I must be a stupid person. This is why I’m not saving money, or building a pension pot – I’m a stupid, mindless moron, going for treatments, lapping up two for one vouchers and keeping the economy afloat via consumer spending. But not even the cast of Made in Chelsea would subject themselves to this.
My chest was constricting. Was this what a panic attack felt like? I couldn’t move my arms or my legs, I could only twitch my fingers and move my head from side to side. The operating table bed rocked uncertainly on its tiny plastic wheels.
I had been strapped in for an hour by now, surely.
I wanted to call out for the therapist – let me live again, Sandra!
She came back in, with my friend Jess in tow.
“Don’t do it Jess!” I cried. “I know we bought a two for one voucher but it’s not too late.”
Sandra sniggered while she unrolled the second batch of cling film and raised the scissors.
A few minutes later Jess and I were lying side by side, staring at the ceiling rather than each other, the odd nervous giggle failing to mask the awkwardness of our mutual mistake.
I realised, far too late of course, that a shrink wrap is a con. A self-respecting woman should never have a shrink wrap. But if you happen to purchase one of those pulsing, electric belts to tone your stomach muscles, I bet that would actually be quite good.
As Sandra unwrapped the plastic and I breathed my first gulp of air an hour later, vowing to use tin foil for my sandwiches from now on, Sandra diligently measured each part of my oily body and made a note in the chart.
She totted up: 0.5 inches, 0.5 inches, and 0.5 inches, – and she looked up at me and smiled.
“8 inches,” she said.
“OK,” I replied.
Surely that meant I could order the blue-cheese burger with caramelised onions and sweet potato fries for dinner.
Sandra discharged me and I slipped and slid back into my clothes, oil dripping on the laminated floor.
“Don’t leave me,” whispered Jess. She still had 20 minutes to go.
I’d been through hell and back, and I felt resentment. This was her idea, after all, the voucher and the solitary confinement and everything.
I turned around, my damp oily hair shining in the light and my eyes glinting, and I rocked her bed back and forth on its wheels – just a little bit.
“Just relax,” I told her, and flung open the door.
There are too many salads at M&S.
Indeed, I defy anyone to go into a (large) M&S and pick a sandwich and/or salad without questioning whether chief Marc Bolland has gone completely nuts.
“Ok, ok, quit harassing me Steve [Rowe, executive director, food]!” Marc cries at board meetings. “If you really want to add another five salads, and offer the consumer even more choice, we will do it!”
Well Marc, let me fill you in with my stress over fillings.
It’s Monday. As per usual, I’ve forgotten my packed lunch, and I’m pressed for time. I hurry along the road, into M&S, down the escalator and am confronted with a massive wall of salads in plastic pots.
There are the big, mayonnaise-y type salads, the always dry-looking tuna nicoise salads, some crazy new wholefood superfood nutty salad, and most of them come with pomegranate. There are hundreds more I can’t mention here.
Ok, one step at a time. I like to work by process of elimination to narrow my choice and thereby translate my efficiency in the office to being efficient in M&S.
- I instantly dismiss the layered three cheese “salad”.
- It’s not too hard to move past the old honey chicken and mustard pasta salad, or that deceptively tiny sundried tomato and feta cheese pasta salad. Here today, still here tomorrow. I think they’ve been there since about 2006 and I’m over it.
- Falafel! I never buy it – too much humus, too little of anything else – but for some reason it will always be a possibility.
I step back to survey the selection once more, while those around me tut in irritation. Yes, I took a plunge, I made a mistake – and now I am paying for my idiocy.
Oh, get out of my way, office person, with your stupid shopping basket with one apple in it. You have too much time on your hands.
It is like an overcrowded aquarium in here. We are moving slowly together, all fascinated by the shiny and strange sea of plastic, all wanting to touch and sniff, before being battered by an onslaught of equally hungry tourists.
No, scrap the aquarium. This is like a conveyor belt or a ski lift – you battle to hop on, but once you are on, you have no choice but to travel another circuit before reaching the Waldorf salad.
I am irritated now. It’s taken me almost ten minutes to get here, it will take almost ten minutes to get back, and I’ve not even eaten a crumb yet. I’ve wasted a third of my precious lunch hour with these shopping basket nincompoops, who are even worse than me at choosing a meal.
Time to concentrate and get the hell out of here, I think, as I’m forcefully nudged round to the next aisle.
I manage to pick up a new salad in each hand – one is buckwheat, goat cheese, blueberry and quinoa. The other is quinoa, beetroot, feta cheese and buckwheat.
THEY ARE THE SAME SALADS!!
My vision is blurring and my mind is whirring as I play spot the difference. I am wasting my life analysing salads, and I would much rather have a bagel.
The office worker with the apple in his basket is back. He looks like he’s concentrating very hard through his glasses, in a rush to get back, with, ideally, a salad.
We are all in a mild state of panic and regret. Marc Bolland, look what you have done to us.
I leave the shop, sustainable tuna sandwich in hand, and feel very disappointed with life, with myself, and with the lingering temptation to dash back in for a cookie.
Adventurer, free thinker, party animal, crafty. Treehugger. Princess. Poet. Professional. Music Snob. Nightowl. Animal Lover. Beach Bum. Gamer. Hedonist. Maker. Intellectual. Yuppee. Yogi. Tattood.
All interesting choices.
As I scroll down the long, long list of options to ‘describe myself’ on a dating website – let’s call it “plenty of crabs in the capital” – I discover the list is severely limited.
There is nothing on here about cynicism, sarcasm, brutal honesty, self-loathing or scrubs up nicely. Kind of amusing, vaguely talented, does alright for herself when she puts her mind to it. Eats too much cheese.
Sum yourself up in one word.
Bookworm. Brogrammer. Chef.
Party animal versus wallflower. Hmm. Depends how drunk I am, how good looking the boys are, whether I remembered my sleeping bag.
It’s never one word, though, is it? Even at corporate icebreaker events, they give you at least three words. Five words makes a sentence, complete with verb. You can show off, then.
What about this: “coffee snob”.
I press “submit” and “save changes” to my profile.
Perfect. It makes me sound like I’m too good for this online stuff. It makes me sound haughty, like I have an angular chin, and morals, and that I read the Daily Telegraph.
It makes me sound like I’m a yuppie-wannabe and I use hashtags – only in an ironic way, of course. I might be in the lower tax bracket but I have aspirations. I eat at stylish chain restaurants, like Bill’s and Wahacas.
I look down at my polystyrene Costa Coffee cup. The white plastic is stained from my dribbling.
Oh dear. I’m not fooling anyone. I pick up my soya latte and slurp continuously.
You see, there is no word here to sum me up. Yes, I am unique! I am!
I have hugged a tree, but only once, when I got a Groupon voucher for a combat class and that was how we relaxed at the end. I’d love to describe myself a starving artist but I definitely have a bit of spare beef. And despite being extremely picky, I’m not a vegetarian.
The coffee is cold. But I still drink, determined to digest my £2.35 worth. If I saved £2.35 every day, I could go to Vietnam for three months and discover myself properly, because I only half-discovered myself after that long weekend in Leeds.
I need to get this right. Otherwise I’ll never go on a date ever again. Apparently ‘everyone’ is on here, and thankfully I’ve bumped into no one.
I wonder how they’ve described themselves?
My coffee breath is rank. The alpro soya milk is curdling in my stomach. I’m kind of nervous, and my hand shakes.
I decide against “coffee snob”; I scroll down, I press ‘rock star’.
It shows I have a sense of humour.
It’s a funny thing, when there are a group of twenty somethings in a living room, debating whether or not to go out. Like, out out. Not just out.
If you go out, you will probably regret it as it could well be rubbish. If you don’t go, you will feel old. If you decide to go but then back out, you’re a loser. But if you say you won’t go and change your mind at the last minute, you are the true hero.
I don’t have the energy to go out. In fact, I’m going out out less and less. I start shaking if I don’t eat every four hours, sometimes I hold onto the banister when I go upstairs, and I often feel like I’ve gone to the moon when I’ve had an espresso.
Every time I catch my reflection in the dark window opposite me in the tube, I get a shock at the haggard white face looking back at me. When I stand still on the moving escalator, I spot the “Tired of being tired?” advert and start to nod vigorously.
I kind of wish I had a doctor’s note for this. It might give me a more plausible excuse to not go to the pub. Or even worse, clubbing.
I don’t have FOMO – the fear of missing out. I have FOMOO8HS – fear of missing out on 8 hours sleep.
But I don’t want to tell this to the group of assembled youths. They still think I’m one of them, and we’re trying to have a nice time.
If it had been just for a quick diet coke I might have joined. I tell the group this.
“If we were just going for one diet coke I might have joined you,” I say.
“Diet coke has a lot of carcinogenics,” says Bill.
Bill is the glue of this group in some ways, with bright red hair, a passion for milky drinks and a feisty spirit on the badminton court. Bill has no qualms with not going out. He plays to his strengths and bows humbly in the face of his weaknesses.
“A normal coke, then,” I say.
Laura, the cool cousin who has just jetted in from Oz, has a work visa for the next two years and is definitely going out. Out all the way. I feel old next to her with my carcinogenic coke.
“I’m much betta,” she says. “I’m on a second wind. Let’s go out now, before I lose my second wind and before I stop feeling betta.”
I look at the clock. 10.30pm. Bloody hell.
Calm down, there’s still a solid eight hours left, if you can hop into bed, I tell myself. And we’ve had such a nice day, with the boat trip, the blankets, the fireworks and the cheese smorgasbord.
I’m pretty sure there’s still a healthy chunk of cambozola in the fridge.
“Can’t we just quit when we’re ahead?” I whisper. The quest for constant self-fulfillment is useless and degrading.
Jimbo is another youth in the group. He is much taller and broader than Bill, and he is going out out. The problem is he is sharing a room with Bill.
Bill sidles up to Jimbo, with an-almost-nervous air about him.
“Can you try not to be loud when you come back?” he asks.
Jimbo shrugs. “I’ll try, man.”
“I mean,” Bill continues. “Can you not switch the light on?”
Jimbo laughs. “I have to switch the light on to find my stuff.”
“You can lay out your stuff on your bed before you go out, then,” Bill says.
The image of Jimbo laying out his tartan PJs, washcloth and toothbrush on the bed doesn’t quite sit right.
Jimbo laughs heartily and slaps Bill’s shoulder. But Bill doesn’t laugh.
“You just need to wash your face and brush your teeth, right?” persists Bill.
“Oh fuck off, you’re annoying me now,” says Jimbo. “What I’m going to do, Bill, is I’m going to take off my clothes and slowly, gently spoon you.”
“I think that’s enough of that,” says Bill. “Good night everyone.”
Bill leaves, turning off the hall light as he goes.
Madeleine has also loped off to her quarters with jet lag due to a return flight from Asia. My train here only lasted 50 minutes or so from London, so no get-out clause for me there.
Hmm. I’m pretty sure there is also a hunk of smoked applewood cheddar on that smorgasbord. And some oatcakes on the counter. I know where the cutlery drawer is now, as the weekend is drawing to a close and I’ve got pretty comfortable in Richard’s parents home.
Richard starts talking about getting a round of Jaeger bombs and red bull – “I’ve never felt betta,” piped up Laura – and I start to feel palpitations, thinking of my last experience with a Jaeger bomb.
FOMOO8HS is really kicking in. We could end up talking about something and sit here for at least another hour. I know what Tim and John are like on the subject of the subtle influence of neo-Nazism in children’s song lyrics and the Golden Dawn party. Laura would be on her sixth wind before they got out the door.
Plus, I haven’t been at all productive this weekend therefore I should not go out. I’ve barely read a chapter of my book. I didn’t even finish the date page in the Guardian weekend magazine.
“Night, kids,” I say hastily, jumping up. I get head rush and sit back down for a second.
I head upstairs, past the kitchen, with a cheeky slice of brie in my fist, undiscovered.
“You kids have fun,” I call down the stairs.
My nightgown and cap, face cloth and toothbrush are neatly laid out on my bed.
I finish the Guardian date page. He ranks her 7.5 and would “gladly see her again”. She ranks him 6 and would maybe “bump into him as friends”.
Life can be cruel.
I hear the door slam and the troupe of youths pass under Bill’s window, cooing like wood pigeons and giggling. Bill lies determinedly in the dark, wearing his ear plugs.
It’s 10.50 pm. I smile to myself. Bill and I have won. FOMOO8HS will not defeat us for another night.
You envisaged a kind of calm, peaceful four and a half hour coach journey back to London after a weekend trip in Leeds. You are prepared for the trip with your green M&S bag containing a sandwich, salad (yes, both) and various choccie treats – along with a big, rustling broadsheet and a sneaky packet of Quavers.
Or at least, for the first thirty miles.
A young innocent male approaches the back of the bus, steps gingerly over my bag of treats and smiles down at me for a moment, before slipping into the toilet. What a nice chap. How pleasant we all are to each other on this coach.
I go back to munching, chumping, reading the food supplement and commenting to my friend beside me. I’m very happy and it’s all lovely jubbly.
Oh, what’s this? A cheesecake recipe. Oh, yummy. Maybe I should try this out later…
I fall asleep for a minute or two – the bus is like a warm lullaby, safely rolling me back to the south, where there are more planes than stars and where the light pollution means we don’t wonder about the wider universe.
I wake up to find yet another man budging my bag of choccies to get the toilet.
“There’s someone in there,” I tell him.
He smiles, shrugs, and sits back down.
“How odd,” I said. “That other man is still in the toilet.”
I look at the clock and realise I’ve been dozing and jerking my head up and down for a good thirty minutes.
He’s been in the toilet thirty minutes?
I suppress a small giggle. Maybe he had a curry. Or a hangover.
The smile fades when I realise I am sitting at the very back of the bus, in close proximity of the toilet door, and any unpleasant smell radiating from it would put me off my choccy-woccies.
My friend is now reading the paper’s educational supplement and I get back to studying the cheesecake recipe.
But, somehow, I can’t concentrate. I keep reading the same lines over and over – two lemons, lemon zest, half-tub of macaroni: wait, what, macaroni?
Focus, stupid. It says mascarpone.
Two lemons, lemon zest, vanilla essence—
Why hasn’t that man come out the toilet?
“Very odd,” I say to my friend next to me. “That that man hasn’t come out the toilet.”
The Indian man in front of me overhears and turns round.
“Is someone in the toilet?” he asks.
“Yes, someone has been in there for thirty minutes now.” I said.
He looks slightly worried.
At this point, a girl with purple hair comes up the aisle. Again, my bag of choc-tactics has to be moved aside.
“There’s someone in there,” I told her. “They’ve been in there well over thirty minutes. I have no idea what’s going on.”
The girl with purple hair approaches the door cautiously, and knocks. Nothing. She knocks twice more. No response.
The Indian man in the row in front looks over his shoulder again.
“Was it a male or a female?” he says.
Something in the air has changed. We all know it.
“A male,” I reply gravely.
The woman with purple hair marches straight down the aisle to tell the driver, and returns holding what looks like a coin.
“The driver told me to “just open it, love!”,” she says.
My friend is giggling nervously behind her education supplement. The man who had tried to get in the toilet is turned in his seat. The Indian man is visibly nervous.
The girl with the purple hair looks helpless with the coin in her hand. I know what she’s thinking. If she’s going down, we’re all going down with her. The A1 motorway will be our final resting place.
She bravely jams the coin in the lock and starts to twist.
The words on my cheesecake recipe are blurred and confused: macaroni, vanilla of lemon zest, rind of gelatine…
My friend is stuffing a fist in her mouth to stifle another nervous giggle. The Indian man has unbuckled his seat belt and is ready to jump out the emergency exit.
My heart is racing. I am actually scared and wishing I’m not opposite the toilet. If he has a gun, I’m a direct target. If we keep the door shut, surely we’re more likely to survive?
It was a male. In the toilet. He’s locked himself in the toilet! He’s a toilet bombe—
The door opens.
“Oh,” she says. “There’s no one in there.”
My heart slows a fraction, and my sweaty hands gripping the cheesecake recipe relax. I ignore the accusing look from the original man who had tried to get in the toilet and the girl with purple hair.
But the Indian’ man’s eyes are still wide.
“Is there a window in there?” he asks.
I can now clearly see the “terrorist” reading the Guardian near the front of the bus. The red “locked” sign on the door was faulty and just needed jiggling.
As the coach grumbles and lurches into Victoria station that evening, I can’t help but reflect how we’d not only undergone a journey from Leeds to London, but a metaphorical journey of discovery – discovering how melodrama can reach unprecedented levels.
There are doubtless countless times in a person’s life when said person will realise their degree is useless.
For me, the latest question of self-worth posed itself at London zoo, when trying to pronounce the word “penguin”.
FYI: it’s “pingouin” in French. It’s all muffled vowels, and accents, and requires the human mouth to take on an odd and unnatural shape. Besides, I went to Durham University and we learnt things about Molière and… erm, other famous French writers, and they never mentioned penguins.
At the zoo, I was in the company of a person who spoke fluent French, and who could pronounce “pingouin” just fine.
As we approached the ticket booth, we were hustled in the queue by a smiley zoo employee teenager, armed with a camera.
“Take a picture time!” she said. We huddled together and grimaced against the cold, but cheered up on the thought that this could be included in the ticket price.
“Now pretend you’re tigers,” the teenager cried, throwing up her hands like claws. “Grrr!”
I was mortified.
“No,” I said.
“Rrrr.” The person beside me who spoke French had at least tried to feign enthusiasm. Maybe “rrr” is like “grrr” in French. Maybe he would rather speak in French?
We went straight for the most exciting part – the tiger cage.
“Les tigres,” I said to him, just to clarify. We walked around the entire enclosure, peering into every corner. But there were no tigers. “Pas de tigres,” I explained.
The person who spoke French nodded, comprehending.
I felt happy. This has to continue, I thought. We are bonding over random animal vocab.
London zoo is a funny world, in the middle of Regent’s Park. There are tigers (sometimes) and lions and very miserable-looking gorillas, but the free-flying pigeons and tree-climbing squirrels caused almost the same level of delight.
(Note: always say “again”, as it implies you already know it but just need a reminder).
Ah, not such an easy one.
“Aykeeroy…,” I tried. Unperturbed by his doubtful expression, I skipped over to Penguin Beach.
“Les penguins,” I said, on a mission to impress.
“Pingouin,” he corrected.
“Pangoo,” I nodded happily.
Penguin Beach was a frosty harbour – a few tiny, tufty birds waddled over to the fence and pressed their stomachs up against it. I had seen some YouTube videos of “ticklish penguins” the previous day. I decided these birds were more like prisoners asking to be rescued rather than asking to be tickled.
“I’ve learnt so much this afternoon,” I told the person who spoke French. “Aykeeroy, pingoo—“
“Actually,” he said, shuffling awkwardly. “It’s not really “pingouin”. In France people don’t really use that word.”
“Oh,” I said.
My degree is useless. I am qualified in nothing. Unless, of course, you want to talk about Molière or, erm, other famous French writers.
What could I do? Maybe a French accent.
“Oh, zat is… unfortunate,” I tried. “So what ze French call pengoo?”
Penguin Beach had fallen eerily silent. A few birds belly flopped into the pool; others waddled around, for no purpose. An irritated zoo guard shouted at the only other visitor present to stop “winding up” a penguin. Maybe she was tickling it. Or wanted to take it home.
The other penguins stared at us and we back at them; I thought maybe we should have visited Vauxhall City Farm instead.
We moved on. As we saw there were sadly no giraffes –or “giraffes” in French – (maybe they had shot them and fed them to Les Big Cats?), we headed for the exit.
“That was… très amusant,” I said. One last ditch attempt.
“Tu veux prendre un café?” he asked me. There, he had obliged me. There was my reward, my validation. I got a 2:1, you know.
I nodded and off we went au café to have un café.