Proud to be stoical about stale bread rolls

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The Independent Online
My sister-in-law is a splendid woman, and - like many Americans - greatly taken by going to the pub. Which is a shame, as every time we visit one, we have a horrible time. Her bright-eyed East Coast charm is a great hit in West Country pubs, but her social requirements are very specific, and very rarely met. This bothers her, so she complains. That bothers me, a lot.

Iffie has even been known to complain when the barmaid is her sister- in-law. She likes Stolichnaya vodka, a squeaky-clean glass and vast amounts of ice, all in a McDonald's moment. As none of these can be relied upon in any British pub, least of all the one I worked in, this presents quite a problem.

The pub, a pretty Tudor muddle, was endlessly overrun with people who had brought their families out for lunch. They plainly liked them little, and so, seeking something in common, would all resolve to like me even less. This wasn't too hard, the standard of service being appalling, but I liked to think it befitted our olde worlde appeal. And the spectacle of Pringle man swearing over a smeary wine glass I found extremely unpleasant.

My sister-in-law did not think so. She was hugely encouraged. What, she enquired, was my problem with consumers demanding the service they were entitled to? The trouble with us Brits, in fact, was that we didn't complain enough. All this embarrassment, she said, was just about being bashful and immature. It was years before I realised she meant not me but the nation.

Iffie will be delighted to hear the latest findings of GGT, a London advertising agency. Britain, it declares, is becoming a nation of "Vigilante Consumers". According to its research, seven out of 10 dissatisfied customers would now phone or write to complain; a third would alert the media; and audiences for The Cook Report are almost up to those of Neighbours.

I do not see much that is mature about this. Forbearance in the face of the odd stale roll bespeaks a perspective we would do well to hold onto. The idea at GGT, I think, is that chief executives should be quaking in their boardrooms at the thought of this vigilante army. But it is far more likely to be hapless Saturday girls who are quaking at their tills at the prospect of stroppy Pringle man. I'm not sure either needs to worry.

Like new lads and laddettes, vigilante consumers will, I suspect, prove just another of our media-made near-misses. So, 76 per cent want manufacturers to "provide fuller facts about products that involve cruelty to animals or damage to the environment"? Of course they do. This has not stopped sales of "green" products from falling. People like watching the Cook Report in the same way that they like watching a fight in the street.That is all.

What makes the vigilante consumer noteworthy is not his or her dubious existence, but the assumptions made about the kind of society such a creature might signal. "Gone," rejoices a GGT consultant, "is the silent acceptance of the status quo.... The proactive consumer is voting with his wallet."

In this version of political vision, good citizens shall be litigious shoppers who read the packaging properly, and discharge their democratic duties by filling out complaint slips. The state will retire to the modest task of policing the labels. Capitalism shall be forced to become caring - and thus shall Utopia be built by happy shoppers.

My sister-in-law can have any kind of vodka she likes in America, and probably a willing lawyer if she doesn't get it. This has not, as far as I can see, resulted in a more ethically agreeable society. The "status quo" is located in many things - but I do not think a vodka on ice is one of them.

I FIND my general opinion of the police slightly annoying. It feels a bit lame to simply take A Dim View, but they will keep giving us reason to. Happily, that dim view is forever brightened, after a mounted policeman passed by last week.

Drinkers dotted along the cobbles paid little heed as he passed - all save one, a lad called Tim, who was straight on his feet.

"Why on earth," he demanded, "isn't that horse wearing a bullet-proof vest?"

This isn't a question you could reasonably expect an officer to engage with - least of all when it is from someone displaying all the cheerful signs of chemical enlivenment. That telling blend of daring and concern for the well-being of strangers, in this case a horse, is comic enough in a nightclub, let alone the street, but the officer's response was enchanting.

"Well, the trouble is, I think a vest would be too heavy for the horse."

"Rubbish!" cried Tim. "You can get special lightweight vests."

"I expect they would find it wasn't cost-effective in the long run."

"Cost effective? This is the life of a poor, defenceless animal you're talking about! What if somebody had a gun?"

"Yes, I suppose it is possible the horse might get shot." They discussed this possibility at length. "But you must remember," the officer smiled like a patient grandfather, "it's only a dumb animal."

And, to demonstrate his point, policeman and horse performed a perfect round of dressage, just for Tim. "You couldn't make a human being do that, could you?" he said - then bowed, waved and ambled off into the sunshine.

Scottish parentage has endowed me with the unenviable duty of supporting a team that always loses. We are very good, my father is fond of saying, at moral victories, and I've developed quite a talent for making much of bad refereeing.

So for overwhelmed English folk at a loss for words, I can offer few suggestions. I simply haven't the vocabulary. The Spanish, though, should comfort themselves with this: when you lose to England, you do at least enjoy the sympathy of the whole world.

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