Cocking an eye at human nature

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The Independent Online

Last Thursday, I was buying some squid and kippers at Mr Hart's fish stall at Bradford on Avon market, and my eye fell on a tray of cockles. Cockles? I wondered idly if some gang of immigrant Chinese risked their lives for these...?

"Where are the cockles from?" I asked.

"Leigh-on-Sea," said Mr Hart, the fish man. "I know what you're thinking, and no, no suffering has been involved in the gathering of these cockles. And I am afraid to say that I've heard more bad taste jokes about cockles in the last week than in the rest of my life."

Abashed, I said nothing.

"But I'll tell you another funny thing," said Mr Hart. "I have also sold more cockles since the Morecambe Bay tragedy than for weeks and weeks."

"Why?" I said, amazed.

"I really don't know," he said. "I can only imagine it's subliminal. Cockles in the news... Cockles on the stall... people start to buy cockles..."

I never cease to be surprised by the little titbits of knowledge I pick up about human behaviour from talking to specialists like Mr Hart.

Actually, Mr Hart was at Frome Market again on Saturday, St Valentine's Day. But I ignored him. I had already got my squid and kippers. And I wanted something Valentine-flavoured for the wife, and although prawns are nice and pink, I thought flowers would be better. So I went to the flower stall.

"Has St Valentine's Day been good to you?" I asked, idly.

"Pretty good," said the stall-holder. "It's a Saturday, see. When Valentine's Day falls on a Saturday or Sunday, I'm in clover. On a weekday, terrible."

"Why so?"

"Because men do so much of the flower-buying and during the week they're at work. It's only when Valentine's Day falls at a weekend that I profit."

Not so with restaurateurs. My wife was talking to one last week. He was miserable.

"I really hate it when Valentine's Day is on a Saturday. We're always full on Saturday. We don't need the extra St Valentine's Day business on a Saturday. We need it on a weekday."

Little trade secrets, eh? Here's another. I once got talking to a pavement artist in Edinburgh and was admiring his elaborate copy of some famous masterpiece. He said: "Do you know what the secret of getting money for pavement art is?" Of course, I didn't. "Well, I'll tell you. The secret is not finishing the artwork."


"The thing is with the punters, they like to see you doing the work. That's when they give you the money. But if you've finished a picture and you're just standing there, they feel you don't deserve it somehow. So if I finish a picture, I immediately rub some out and start again."

Human nature, eh? Though the best thing I ever learnt about human nature came from a man in the camera shop in Green Street in Bath. I once went in there to have some photos developed, and they asked for the money in advance.

"But I thought we always paid for prints on collection," I said.

"That used to be the system. We've changed it. You now pay in advance."

"Any reason for this?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact. We found if people didn't pay in advance, they very often didn't bother to collect their photos, and we were left with thousands of useless holiday snaps. Which we had got developed at our own expense. So we thought if they were made to pay in advance, they would come and collect them."

"And has it worked?"

"No," said the man. "That's the amazing thing. It's still about the same rate of non-collection. They still don't come and collect them any more than they used to."

Human nature.