How original - lamb sausage in Genghis Khan sauce

'The people who run the Mongolian restaurants have no more idea how to milk a yak than I do'
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The Independent Online

It all started with those ridiculous fake Irish pubs. A pub would have a saddle and hurling stick placed in the window, some potatoes slung round the floor, and re-open as "Liam o'Eamonn's begorrah bar". And generally they're the most un-Irish pubs in the world; no one allowed in with a child, and a very English torrent of abuse forthcoming if you request a drink at two seconds after 11pm. Which is like having an American theme bar in which no one is allowed to be loud or overweight.

It all started with those ridiculous fake Irish pubs. A pub would have a saddle and hurling stick placed in the window, some potatoes slung round the floor, and re-open as "Liam o'Eamonn's begorrah bar". And generally they're the most un-Irish pubs in the world; no one allowed in with a child, and a very English torrent of abuse forthcoming if you request a drink at two seconds after 11pm. Which is like having an American theme bar in which no one is allowed to be loud or overweight.

Now these things have taken off in Ireland itself, presumably to cater for English tourists who find real Guinness a touch too spicy. How sad it is that the only way the English can export their culture is when it's an English fake version of someone else's culture. But I suppose there wouldn't be much mileage in opening up a chain of restaurants in Paris called "fishfingers", or bistros in Rome offering "as much cod in parsley sauce as you can eat".

Now almost every pub seems to be part of a chain, run by a huge company that dictates everything from which tapes are played to which crisps are displayed. An ex-manager of one of these places told me once that she'd been taught at the training class not to chat to customers as this went against the "brand image". So everything about them is soulless, the result of an executive calculation. If the barmaid smiles at you, it's probably because there's been a circular to announce a smiling drive.

It's becoming almost impossible to find pubs that aren't part of a corporate image. Even if I'm in a complete dump, I expect to be told the place is part of a chain called "winos", and that the bloke dribbling Tennents Extra into his matted beard is an actor, who is sponsored to shout "try our delicious dry roasted peanuts" during his rant.

A similar trend has encompassed every branch of leisure. Last week, when a Mongolian restaurant opened near where I live, I naively assumed that a family of real Mongolians had moved into the area. But it's part of a chain of 80 restaurants, run by people who have no more idea how to milk a yak than I have. I bet this food bears no relation to Mongolia at all. Some poor sod who runs a cafe in Ulan Bator will now get English backpackers asking for stuff like "lamb sausage in Genghis Khan sauce. Oh, you MUST know. It said on the menu in Streatham it's the traditional dish you all eat on the birthday of your favourite camel".

Even comedy has gone the same way. Most comedy clubs are now part of a chain, in which the acts are booked centrally, and instructed as to which parts of their routine to perform. They have to do an identical set each night, regardless of which town they're in, and receive marks like an Olympic gymnast from the club manager, who then reports the scores to head office. Maybe the long-term aim is to do away with the comedians altogether, and have the jokes rung through to the clubs by staff in a call centre. Not only will it save in wages, but when they've finished they could sell the audience a pension plan.

The leisure companies have even created a corporate friendliness, which can otherwise be described as rudeness. Staff are obliged to say "have a nice day" or "enjoy your meal" but they have no choice. So it doesn't come across as friendly, any more than you could think the cash machine is chatty because it thanks you and asks if you want another service.

So everything becomes identical. Every shopping centre boasts the same Our Price, Body Shop, Clinton Cards, and bloke selling chocolate almonds competing with someone trying to recruit you into the AA. A hotel could be in Norwich or Bangkok, but the notepad will be in the same place in relation to the trouser press. This is why sport upsets these people, in that the result isn't always predictable. Give it a few years and every football match will be a three-all draw with a penalty in the last minute, as product feasibility studies indicate this score creates maximum consumer excitability.

But no branch of the leisure industry has more experience at this destruction of spontaneity than the holiday business.

My one experience of this was in Morocco, where the tour guide went to great lengths to ensure everyone stayed in foreigner-free zones. When there was an excursion, it began with a speech along the lines of "don't wander more than nine inches from me, because if you speak to the locals they WILL slit your throat and hang you upside-down in a bazaar as part of their religious beliefs".

Then everyone is guaranteed to drink, eat and buy gifts at the designated places. Anyone adhering to these guidelines would hardly know they were abroad at all, apart from the wailing coming from the mosques. Though I bet the tour firm ask them: "Is there any way that, instead of prayers, you could do something by Britney Spears."

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