Much more than a spoonful (of Sugar)

I went to a pub quiz in Peterborough two weeks ago.  It was to celebrate a friend’s birthday and I think we were being ironic.  It was dark by the time we parked up so I could be wrong, but the pub seemed to be in an industrial estate; I was reliably informed that this was the posh part of Peterborough though it still looked a little like the Slough Trading estate.  The quiz was supposed to be the main event of course, and a large number of teams had turned up.  In the end, it wasn’t the most highbrow affair, with three of the four rounds being ‘General Knowledge’ (or at least questions taken from the GK section of the quizbook that the barman got for Christmas).  The other round was the more intriguing ‘Things that happened in 2010’ – not exactly topical, but I was looking forward to a few brain-teasers about the recent local history of this Town.  Not a bit of it – each question started with ‘Who won…’ and ended with the name of a reality TV show.  Dancing on Ice, X-Factor, Strictly were all there, though I was disappointed to note an absence of winners from ratings success ‘Pointless’.  I’m not sure if we got any right – my only stab was at the winner of The Apprentice 2010, which I got wrong.  I think this has a lot to do with the fact that he/she has disappeared without trace (though may be on QVC I suppose) or maybe because all these pinstriped wannabe Sugars just tend to merge into one homogenised mass of macho soundbites and trouser suits after so many years.

I always used to think that The Apprentice was the standard bearer for non-shit reality TV.  At least there was some talent involved, a worthwhile prize at the end and some genuine business-based tasks for some of the more promising of Britain’s young business minds to get their teeth into.

This has now disappeared, and the series is yet another lazy tired piece of reality dross, being flogged to death by an unimaginative corporation to a public that seem to be able to stomach year after year of formulaic posturing.  There are many flaws and aspects that really grate, but here are the worst IMO:

1.  The show is no longer about finding ‘The Apprentice’.  The winner now gets to set up a new business using some of Alan Sugar’s money.  In fact, after the first series, the show become less about finding an apprentice at all and more about creating water-cooler TV where pushy 20 and 30-something business people could play-off against each other for who had the more cringe-worthy soundbite.  Listening to 21 year-old yuppies talking about how they ‘always get results’ and ‘don’t care who they trample over to get them’ gets rather tired by series 8, though the line of ‘don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon’ was a personal favorite.

2.  The tasks themselves are the same every series, and in the same order.  There’s the one where they have to make a food product (ice-cream, ready-meals) and then sell them (farmers’ market, tube station); there’s the one where they get a mystery set of items they need to buy for as little money as possible; there’s the one where they get interviewed by some of Alan Sugar’s cronies (questions tend to be along the lines of ‘you’re not very good are you?’ and other playground insults); there’s the one where they have to go and buy some original Art and then sell it on.  The tasks are of course designed to make good TV, not to identify anyone with particular business sense.

3.  The ridiculous set-up of every task.  This usually begins with a phone-call from Alan’s PA at 4.45am, asking them to be at a London Landmark (British Museum, Tower Bridge) by 6am.  ‘The cars will pick you up in 15 minutes’.  I’m never sure why this should be part of the test.  Do all top businessmen and women have to prove their skill in the early morning and limited make-up time, or are we just supposed to think that Alan’s up selling Amstrads at this time?  The links between the locations and the tasks provide the most entertainment in the whole show, and I’ve not once guessed the nature of the task from the start location.  Usually Alan’s cronies will be standing six feet apart, when Alan makes an entry between them from a lift or a pile of dry ice.  His first few lines tend to go something like:

‘We’re in the British Library; there’s lots of books here; books have pages; Elaine Paige once sung Total Eclipse of the Heart; lambs have hearts; you’re going to Smithfield market to buy offal which you then need to sell to paying customers at St John’s Wood tube station….

4.  Team names.  Why?  This merely adds to the cringe-factor as they come up with names that sound like the ones rejected from 90s TV series Gladiators (think insignia, prime, triumph, Hunter (ok, so maybe he was a Gladiator…)

5.  The fact that Alan Sugar is now thought of by the new generation as someone to whom people should aspire.  When I was growing up, he was the person that got his fingers burned at Spurs and whose company made crap computers.  He’s now Branson and Trump rolled into one, pretending that his Essex offices occupy most of the Gherkin and regaling us with tales of how he built up a business from nothing (every week).

6.  The way they hold their mobile phones as though they’re suspiciously sniffing the area where you connect the charger.

Or maybe the most disappointing thing is that so many people still tune in.  The Apprentice is now adopting the old Perry/Croft maxim: if you just do and say the same thing every week, people will like it.  It’s like a big pin-striped comfort blanket.  And I don’t care who I hurt by writing this blog, because I’m on my way to the top and I won’t stop trampling on people until I get there.

Room 101

‘You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.’

So says O’Brien to the emaciated and almost broken Winston Smith. The worst thing in the world to Winston turns out to be rats. He screams for it to be done to Julia instead, and in betraying her, he realises that he has given himself fully over to the party.

It may not be one of the greatest books, but it’s certainly one of the most iconic, and much of what it has to tell us is relevant today.

The phrase ‘room 101’ has made its way into common parlance. It was after the number of Orwell’s office at the BBC. Maybe this was his own personal hell, but for someone who spent a fair amount of time on the streets and in the muddy trenches during the Spanish civil war, there were a few contenders to choose from.

Do we all have a specific idea of our own personal hell, the recurring dream of which causes us to wake in a cold sweat; fear turns to elation as we realise the unreality of the horror?

I’ve got a few more years left on this planet, I hope, and until today I didn’t have any vision of any personal hell. I hadn’t expected to find one as I drove out to Peterborough, in the hope of buying a suit or two to replace my current crop, which are looking a little frayed around the pockets.

The next hour of my life will haunt me for some time to come, and my fingers are trembling over the computer keys as I attempt to explain the full grimness of the ordeal.

First stop: John Lewis. Hardly a gritty beginning, though this is a Peterborough John Lewis, and as such, though the store is at least sanitary, the people have a strange deathly quality to them. They peered out at me from under cromagnon brows, shuffling in anoraks through the aisles, searching for meaning in the discounted tie selection.

Having thought little of the fabric on offer, I decided to head to ‘Suits You’, home of a few labels, even though the store itself is a tad on the tacky side. They had a 75% off everything sale, which sounds good. One jacket I saw was discouted from £200 to £29, which is suggestive a company on its knees. This particular garment did seem to be big enough to clothe an entire Texan family. The racks sagged with cheap and nasty brands; I’m pretty sure that one of them was called ‘Johnny English’, which may impress the Hong Kong market, but did little to raise a smile. There were no suits on display, merely row after row of jackets up top, and the trousers beneath. None seemed to match. I was of the opinion that a suit was at least a two piece venture. The idea of a one-piece suit had me stumped; surely by then it is just a pair of trousers? I asked the manager (if such a place seemed to need one), and he seemed baffled to be asked if there were any matching jackets and trousers. ‘Just find what you can’ was his answer, which seemed to fit better as the answer of a soldier in Iraq who’s just recevied an order to clear out, and fast. The place was packed, and as I shuffled out, the second to last words I remember were from one man berating a store assistant because he couldn’t find anything for a fiver. The very last words were from a man who looked like he’d been hewn from granite (if you could tattoo granite). He looked me up and down, and asked if we sold shirts. We. Jesus.

Obviously this had exhuasted Peterborough shopping centre’s selection of suit emporia, but I had noticed River Island just around the corner. I hadn’t shopped in RI since the mid 90s, buy hey, it was cooler than Burton back then, and maybe they’d sell me a suit that came in 2 parts. They tried to. Sadly the RI suits were so shiny I could almost see my face in them. They were the sort of nasty shiny grey at which Mickey Pearce from Only Fools and Horses might have turned his nose. They did allow me to spy what was going on behind me however, and it seemed at first glance that an enormous ham in a white T shirt was singing to itself. I turned round to come face to face with the most obese child I have ever seen (most obese you’ve ever seen too). Global food shortage? of course there is; that kid’s eaten it all. Somehow in my confused state I managed to part with £165 in RI. My purchases: a purple v neck, a jacket that looks like I’m a four year old off to a wedding in 1927 dressed as a sailor and a military style jacket that makes me look that even if I was military, I’d be the first to desert, and then be shot.

Keen to finish what I came to do, I spent a hefty £564 back in John Lewis (not sure what on, as I haven’t dared open the bags yet). I think there’s a tie that makes me look like an Open University lecturer from the mid-70s, but that can’t have been more than twenty. Please?

With no word of a lie, I ran back across the bridge from the Queensgate shopping centre to the car park, stopping only to marvel at the unfathomably terrible music emanating from Heart 102.7FM’s broadcast station (it really is the sound of Peterborough). I paid at the car park machine, which someone seemed to have urinated on (this is bizarre – who urinates on these, and cashpoints, and in lifts?), and fled.

Room 101? I found it. 90 miles North of London.