Philip Norman’s Week: The people at RBS. They've got a nerve, haven't they?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

After being bailed out by billions of pounds from the taxpayer and creating, in its former chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin, the most reviled fat cat since Robert Maxwell, the Royal Bank of Scotland might be expected to keep its head down for a bit. But no. Last week there plopped on to my front door mat a free glossy magazine called Sense with Jude Law's face on its cover, put out by, er, the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The thought processes of PR people never cease to fascinate me. How long do you suppose some high-salaried "creative team" sat around brain-storming for a title before coming up with Sense, the very quality which RBS proved so stunningly to lack?

In what dreamy netherworld could it seem beneficial to their shattered corporate image to be identified with Jude Law's reflections on marriage ("You grow up and realise that relationships need hard work"), Masterchef's John Torode's favourite recipes, 24 Great Garden Ideas, Perfect Holiday Hideaways and "the flexible wardrobe for him and for her"?

How could recipients not be expected to fall about in hysterics when this recent fiscal disaster area offers bright, helpful advice on how to "get your bank account in shipshape condition" and "be a savvy saver and discover your money personality"?

Recession has done little to stem the flow of such clunky nuisance-mags with their knack of adding insult to injury. Also on my mat every month I find one from the London Borough of Camden, an authority renowned for its surly officials, capricious planning decisions, draconian parking penalties and overall hatred of anyone it regards as middle class. And the title of this breezy little publication? Your Camden!

You can't beat a terrible intro

Speaking of Orwell, the first line to 1984 ("It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen ...") is among the most attention-grabbing ever written. Dickens has the same power ("It was the best of times and it was the worst of times ...") to make one read on, as Orwell's friend Cyril Connolly said, "like a lover rushing to a tryst".

I'm also a connoisseur of first lines that stop one dead in one's tracks and kill all desire to read so much as another syllable. Here is my Top 10, culled from top British newspapers and magazines over recent years. (As for blogs and Twitter, let's not even go there.)

"When I got home on the night before our pet rabbit was put to sleep ..."

"Paraguay is voting as I write ...

"Not much has ever been written about chewing-gum ..."

"I'm not at all well and fuller of wind than usual ..."

"It will not have escaped your notice that Bono is a man with a mission..."

"And so the agenda moves on, as agendas tend to do ..."

"For the past two years, I've been learning the banjo..."

Feature articles now almost all have straplines meant to be an irresistible come-on ("Kate Winslet on Sex, Divorce and Cooking Pasta") but are often an instant turn-off. My current top three are "Poo – the Last Taboo", "Face-to-face with Britain's first celebrity potter", and "Robert Peston on pizza and indie bands".

The bread might be French, but the style isn't

I've often thought how pleasant a baker's life must be, especially in the sort of French village immortalised by Gabriel Chevallier's Clochemerle stories. Living among all that dough and cream and sugar should by rights make one doughy and creamy and sweet oneself like Mr and Mrs Bun the Baker in the old Happy Families card-pack.

Why is it then that in the French-style boulangeries which now proliferate (or should that be profiterolate?) on our High Streets the staff are often so crusty, and in many cases a real pain?

I have four such establishments in my neighbourhood, one on the site of the bookshop where George Orwell worked in the 1930s. (If he'd lived, he wouldn't have had to go to Paris to be down and out.) And I never enter any of them without tensing myself for conflict.

The other day, having bought a baguette and a quiche, I asked the young female server what, given the circumstances, seemed a reasonable question: "How much is that?" "I don't know yet," she snapped back." It clearly was almost as bad a faux pas as when I asked the difference between a paysan loaf and a white granary.

Then there's the bag question. Most poncy bread shops put any items smaller than a loaf into an undersized paper bag with a transparent front. If you make several such purchases, you get a silly, awkward little bag for each. Ask for them to be all together in a plastic one and you receive a censorious glare, as if you're personally attacking Antarctica with a blowtorch.

Leaving my bolshiest local boulangerie this morning with my usual Viennoiserie and gritted teeth, I took comfort from the blackboard menu outside. "We serve," it said, "freshly-grounded coffee". I'd heard their coffee was going off the rails: so glad it's on the straight and narrow again.

Comments