Bunhill: Who's got all the answers? I'll give you a clue

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The Independent Online
HERE'S a clue to the name of the company I'm going to talk about now: phone-up service, three letters, SAT (anagram).

Sorry, this isn't a fair question because you won't get it unless you're an avid follower of crosswords, horoscopes or personal ads. On the other hand, you might have come up with the answer straight away because the company - ATS - has demonstrated that there is a huge market among newspaper readers for just these services.

I became aware of ATS - or Advanced Telecom Services - because I'm a long-suffering victim of the quick crossword, forever breezing unstoppably through the first couple of hours before becoming bogged down on the last two clues. But even in the darkest hours of intellectual self-doubt, I have regarded resorting even to the dictionary as a grievous crime against oneself worthy of the rack, the ducking stool and other medieval tortures.

So I won't be taking up the offer from ATS that appears at the bottom of some crosswords: "Stuck? Then call our solutions line." Just dial an 0891 number and a recorded message will put you out of your misery.

Now, given that the answers will be printed in the next day's paper, you'd think even crossword junkies could wait a little longer, but apparently thousands can't: a spokeswoman for ATS assures me that the service is "incredibly popular". And "incredible" is the word because to call the solutions line will cost you 50p a minute - and even if you're only on the phone for 60 seconds, that's still more money than you'll have to fork out for the entire newspaper.

Clearly, though, this is niche work if you can get it. And ATS's work with newspapers does not stop there, because it is also a big player in the classified sections. It provides a dial-up horoscope, a dial-up Old Moore's Almanac, a dating service and a "live psychic" service through which you can speak to a mystic - presumably to get a prediction of the next day's crossword questions.

ATS has an arrangement with its partners by which the newspaper provides the space, the company fills it and the profits are split. And it seems to be a lucrative trade because ATS had a turnover of pounds 3m in 1997, up from pounds 1.9m the year before. So as a tribute to the company I conclude with this clue: No cheating (4, 5, 3, 5), Pet hooch, nut the don (anagram). The answer is printed at the end of this column.

AT THE risk of offending taxi drivers, I take a vengeful pleasure in Gordon Brown's decision to increase the cost of diesel fuel - for reasons I will outline in a terrible confession.

You probably think of Bunhill as an urbane sophisticate, a man of letters and not the sort of hapless sap who'd pour diesel fuel into a car designed for ordinary petrol. This, though, is just what I did late one nightmany miles from home after failing to pay attention to the colour of the pump. To have started the car with the wrong fuel would have blown the engine, but the attendant told me there wouldn't be any mechanics available to drain the tank until the next morning.

So after a long trek home and a long trek back to the filling station before sunrise, I arrived to find the mechanics had finished de-dieseling my car. The only thing was, I'd have to fork out for a full tank of petrol to clear out any lurking diesel residue. But now things took a turn for the better: the garage had a special promotion on and, because the fates had conspired to force a full tank on me, I qualified for a free glass tumbler.

So off I drove again. Then, 10 minutes down the road, I realised I had to turn back again. All the mechanics and attendants were still in the forecourt shop when I returned; they were probably still discussing the man with no brain who'd filled up his car with diesel. But I strode boldly up to the counter. "Sorry," I said, "I forgot the tumbler." The look on their faces haunts me to this day.

Mug's game

SO THE game's up. Whatever else comes out of the alleged remarks by two Newcastle United directors that the club's fans were suckers for over-priced merchandise, we can at last bury the myth that football is just like any other business.

Look at it this way: would you stick with your favourite brand of bacon if the price doubled and it started to taste rancid? Probably not, unless your favourite football club had diversified into selling bacon (don't laugh - you can get Manchester United milk), because in nearly every walk of commercial life people make buying decisions based either on logic or good marketing. In football, however, it doesn't matter if you raise admission prices or charge over the odds for merchandise; fans will never vote with their feet because your team isn't a product, but a drug.

For all the commercial talk of football clubs as "brands", no research or creativity is needed to devise anything so grand as a corporate identity. Instead, all clubs have to do is take any product and stick a badge on it. Two years ago, a friend of mine bought a T-shirt bearing the logo of a Premiership club. Then, when he washed it, the badge fell off to reveal what had been printed on the shirt in the first place: the logo of a brewer.

Other tales of poor-quality merchandise are probably legion, but the truth is that clubs get away with it because they can; it is one of the curiosities of football "customers" that they proudly proclaim their loyalty while admitting to themselves that they've been had.

So, however worked-up investors get about the fall in Newcastle's share price, above all else football is a mug's game and everyone depends on that conspiracy - including the City.

The crossword clue answer is: "Don't touch the phone".

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