A scene from modern life: I'm in a burger bar, one of those chains that charge the gastronomically snobbish a modest premium so they can pretend that they're not actually eating in a fast-food restaurant.
You pay just a little more for the face-saving fact that the food doesn't come in a styrofoam box and for a rhapsodic bit of blurb on the menu about the provenance of the beef. And, as it happens, speed is of the essence right now. In 25 minutes I have to be at the English National Opera for the first night of Le Grand Macabre – a production in which, though I don't yet know it, the defining conceit will be that the whole phantasmagoria is a panic attack, brought on by hamburger-induced dyspepsia.
I am not in the restaurant for the ambience or the cuisine or the service – I am here because I don't want my stomach to rumble in one of Ligeti's quieter passages and I don't have time for anything less fuel-like.
The hamburger is not great. The bun tastes a little stale and the meat hasn't been seasoned properly. And yet when the waitress wanders over to ask an increasingly familiar question these days – "is everything all right with your meal?" – I murmur noises of assent through a mouthful of ground beef and carry on eating.
It's a perfect example of the notorious reluctance of the British public to stand up for themselves. Here is an enterprise striving to ensure that a satisfied customer goes out of the door, and here's a perfect instance of how furtive unsatisfied customers can be. You beg them for feedback, leaving questionnaires or priming the staff to prompt them for niggles, and even then – when you've made half the fuss for them – they steadfastly decline to pull their weight. In this encounter the business looks blameless and the diner – me – disqualified from further complaint by his own pusillanimity.
Except for two things. One, I'm in a hurry, and this has fed into my decision. I could complain that the bun is stale but they're either all like that, in which case there's not much point, or they'd have to start from scratch and I'd definitely miss the curtain up . I didn't come into this place to help them out as an unpaid quality-control monitor and I don't have time to begin now.
The second thing is that I really hate that question in restaurants, and generally take it as an indicator that complaints will be pointless anyway. That might sound a bit perverse. They have made an effort to check that you're not sitting there seething in silence, after all. But the trouble is that those words – "is everything all right with your meal" – never convey their ostensible meaning. To me they're actually a verbal waiver form, thrust at you for a signature in order to forestall later claims.
Does it really have its origins in a concern to improve quality? Or is it more a desire to preserve the illusion of concern? And doesn't it always have a vaguely uncertain, anxious air to it? I sometimes feel like asking: "why are you so worried? Has the cook come in drunk again?"
A decent restaurant should be confident that what they serve is good or not send it out in the first place. And, in my experience, this question is not one you get asked in really good restaurants, where the chef will have done the complaining first so that his customers don't have to. When you hear it, you're not hearing the sound of standards improving, you're hearing the sound of responsibility being passed.
If I wasn't British – and therefore congenitally incapable of making a scene – I would reply to this empty formula with one of my own: "Everything was fine, until you asked that."
'The walk' is a weighty issue for fashionistas
The original stylist for Mark Fast's fashion show – the one which used "larger" models and thus cannily harvested itself a much fatter crop of headlines than it would otherwise have done – has denied that she had any problems with the heft of the models. It was their walk that was the problem, she explained, and "the walk is very important" (the ability to say such a thing and keep a straight face is an important qualification for employment at the higher levels of fashion).
Judging from the last catwalk show I saw (Paul Smith, earlier this year) the walk is now also very peculiar – a jerky strut, which thrusts the pelvis forwards and suggests that the legs are being worked by remote control and have accelerated beyond the ability of the torso to keep up. Off stage somewhere you imagine a Japanese robotics engineer frantically wiggling the sticks and wondering what the hell can be done to make locomotion a bit more natural looking. I guess that anything like normal body-weight distribution would make it all but impossible to walk like this.
You'd probably just end up toppling over backwards. And if women-sized models do return to the catwalk "the walk", however important it is, will find its days are numbered. In the meantime any up-and-coming designer looking for ways to fuss up a bit of publicity can always hazard another audacious breach with established practice. Have a model crack a smile.
There's nothing chic about 'greenwashing' beer
We've already become familiar with the practice of "greenwashing" – in which a thin coat of ecological awareness is skimmed over the surface of a product, rather as Artex is skimmed over unsightly cracks. There have been some very strange examples of this attempt to exploit a current anxiety for greater profits – the most quixotic of which was probably the attempt to pitch ecologically responsible patio heaters.
But I confess myself almost equally baffled by the current campaign for a Belgian beer that promotes the product not – as used to be the case – as "reassuringly expensive", but on the grounds of the company's commitment to the environment.
A typical poster shows a can emerging from the bonnet of a Citroë*DS under the headline "Recyclage De Luxe", implying – I suppose – that only the most impeccably stylish waste products have gone into the smelter for their cans. There seems to be an essential misunderstanding of the customer here. Are there really a significant number of lager-drinkers out there thinking: "I'd like to get drunk now... but I feel much better if the box the beer came in was made of 100 per cent recycled cardboard... preferably taken from chic French posters?"
Or is this an oblique resuscitation of that earlier campaign? If the company can afford to waste their money on a campaign this misconceived, we're supposed to think, then the beer must be great. It's reassuringly stupid.Reuse content