All I want is ten quids' worth of lead-free conversation

'We're now equipped with a new-look, wussy police force that daren't go near a crowd'
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The Independent Online

Having been on holiday, I'm still not sure what happened here while I was away, but something seems to have made petrol into the new dope. Coming back from the airport, the cabbie kept leaning back and whispering, "I hear they've got some at Sainsbury's in White Horse Lane, but you'll need to be there at six in the morning."

Having been on holiday, I'm still not sure what happened here while I was away, but something seems to have made petrol into the new dope. Coming back from the airport, the cabbie kept leaning back and whispering, "I hear they've got some at Sainsbury's in White Horse Lane, but you'll need to be there at six in the morning."

Then what, I wondered. Do you have to go round the back, knock on a boarded-up window, wait for a bloke in a poncho to peer out of the letter-box and say to him, "Is Steve in? I'm a mate of Terry's." Are there people sitting by broken-down cars sniffing their petrol cap and screaming, "The bastard cut it with paraffin"? And parties that suddenly stop at the distant sound of a police siren for everyone to flush their unleaded down the toilet.

Not having experienced the gradual build-up, I was confronted with the full surrealism of the fact that it was now etiquette for every conversation to begin by discussing petrol. It was as weird as landing on one of these islands where they worship Prince Philip. I felt that if I met someone in a pub and asked whether they'd seen the swimming on the Olympics, they'd fall on their knees and wail, "O woe is you, for you are damned. By not starting a conversation by talking about petrol you have angered the great God Exxon."

Was everyone doing this? Did the weatherman come on and say, "You'll be pleased to know I got five gallons at the Esso place near Brent Cross; not the one in the shopping centre, the one the other side of the railway. Anyway, it looks like rain."

Even stranger, it seems we're now equipped with a new-millennium, new-look, wussy police force that daren't go near a crowd if there's more than 12 of them. This is marvellous news. If only this police force had been operating during the strike of Liverpool dockers, they'd have asked how many pickets there were at the gate, and said to the Mersey Docks Authority, "What can we do? There's nearly 20 of them. Looks like you'll have to give them their jobs back."

One inspector, at the Stanlow refinery, even said that their inaction was an "example of what can be achieved in dialogue". Dialogue? Is their riot training being carried out by progressive counsellors? Does this mean that the next time there's an incident like the poll-tax march, instead of riding at people, waving batons, they'll place a hand on a demonstrator's arm and say softly, "Why do you feel this anger?"?

And in yesterday's edition of The Daily Telegraph there's a call for mass protest outside the Labour conference. If they go up that road, they'll end up with thousands of Telegraph readers giving each other leaflets denouncing each other, and a splinter group called "The New Daily Telegraph" that disagrees with the original's line on Albania.

But they're loving it. For them the episode proves that people are switching back to Conservative values, which shows how they misread the situation. The widespread sense of betrayal with New Labour has no focus, but bubbles in every area of society. So anything appearing to represent principles and standing up against the major parties can win support, such as Ken Livingstone's campaign for mayor, animal rights protesters, or lorry drivers. Otherwise you can't explain why the most common attitude towards the protesters, even among the hordes sneaking around at night for a stash of great unleaded four-star, was "at least someone's having a go."

It's also why many of the people supporting the petrol protesters also said "at least someone's having a go" about Swampy and the crusties campaigning for a diametrically opposite cause. They couldn't both get their way, as the benefits to lorry companies of cheaper petrol would be offset by Britain being turned into a giant forest with no roads and everyone living in hammocks under the ground.

But there are measures the Government could take. They could reduce petrol tax and raise tax on the petrol companies. And they could make people less dependent on cars by creating a public transport system that wasn't so unreliable that it packs up in winter because it snows and in autumn because of leaves on the track. Which is a bit like a ferry company saying, "We can't send a boat out there, it's soaking wet."

Because at the moment, people feel so tied to their cars that one DJ on a Welsh radio station makes a joke about petrol running out again and half the West Country's screeching to their garage. Sixty years ago, for a radio broadcast to have that effect, Orson Welles had to fool people into thinking the Martians were landing. Now if War of the Worlds came on and people thought it was true, everyone would yell, "I hope these Martians don't think that just because they've got a huge spaceship they're getting any more than twenty quid's worth."

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