Monday, 31 January 2011

Service with a Smile

Tomorrow I have an informal “meet and greet” interview at a shop in Covent Garden. Facing possible redundancy in the coming months from my job in social care, I figured it was time to look elsewhere for potential employment. As someone who dreams of running their own business one day, I figured a bit of paid work experience as a trainee manager might be the way to go. Not being a fan of big corporations, I checked out the website of one of my favourite brands who, in my mind, go against the grain, and sent off my CV.
Offering fresh, funky products in a friendly environment, they put most other retailers to shame. In fact, I am surprised Mary Portas hasn’t showcased them in her Secret Shopper series. One of the things I like about it is its customer service. They pitch it just right, greeting you a “hi” and “hello” and offering to tell you about their products without being pushy or stalking you around the shop whilst you browse.
In London especially, this is a rarity. Most shop assistants do well to break into a smile, let alone offer you any help. Then there are those that are just plain rude. In fact it was only Friday that I was in what I would consider a middle class supermarket attempting to buy fish. I stood at the counter with Him Indoors whilst the assistant talked and gassed to her friend over at the butchers. After several minutes of attempting to make eye contact with her I trotted over and asked if she was serving fish. She gave me a stony look.
“I’m just washing my hands. Okay?” She retorted, and took her time completing her task too. Him Indoors and I looked at each other, stunned. We debated complaining, but didn’t. I watched Mary Portas later that day, and kicked myself for putting up with such sub standard service.
Unfortunately, service can go the other way too, and become cloying and cringe-worthy to the point where I want to run away and be left alone. Then there is the faux pas of calling me “Madame”. I mean, really? If I was middle aged, I wouldn’t mind, but at the sensitive age of 31, I consider it quite inappropriate and, quite honestly, depressing. I am a Miss or a Mademoiselle if you insist on speaking French, thank you.
There is a sandwich shop just around the corner from my office that gets it just right. Even during a busy lunch hour they always offer a smile, joke about the price, and call me “Senorita.” I leave with a smile on my face and feeling much relief that I haven’t reached the “Senora” stage yet. Much more acceptable, in my eyes.
So, when I pop along to my appointment tomorrow evening, I shall be keeping my Golden Rules in mind. At the end of the day, I might not be selling their products just yet, but I need to market myself just right to get my foot in the door. So, I will be wearing my biggest smile, maintaining eye contact and calling people by their names as much as I can remember. I if I can’t? Well, I won’t be calling them Ma’am, that’s for sure. Maybe I should introduce London’s shoppers to “duck” or “shug” instead…

Monday, 24 January 2011

Public Service

This weekend, I had a visitor from Up North. He travelled down on Saturday in order to go out for dinner with myself, Him Indoors and a couple of friends who lived on the commuter belt who were celebrating their birthdays. My chum arrived at around lunchtime, so, over an omelette courtesy of Him Indoors, we discussed what our plan was for the rest of the afternoon. My friend didn’t fancy a museum. Him Indoors wasn’t in the mood for a film, and I couldn’t really afford another shopping trip. There was only one solution. The pub.
Thank the lord for the good old fashioned pubic house. Where I live there are several to chose from, ranging from the Prince Albert (which makes the Queen Vic on Eastenders look like The Ivy) to the Landseer, which offers a full range of beers in an atmosphere that isn’t all that different from your front room.
That’s what I love about London. Whether we are talking shopping, art or music, there is something for everyone. I myself like the shabby chic kind of establishment with a range of premium lagers (if they stock Frulli, Staropramen and Crabbies, I am in pretentious beer heaven) with worn William Morris-style wallpaper and scuffed, squashy leather sofas. Throw in an extensive menu of good honest pub grub and some authentic indie on the jukebox and I am a happy bunny.
There have been a couple of recent developments in my favourite watering holes that I favour even more than their extensive range of hand cooked crisps. I’ve always appreciated a pub that stocks a selection of broadsheets, but now a number of places offer free wifi. Yes, I can take along my laptop, do my internet grocery shop and chat on Twitter over a Saturday afternoon pint. But my personal favourite? A stack of board games in the corner of the bar. Ah, now you’re talking! As a kid (and, let’s face it, as an adult), I’ve always enjoyed a hand of cards or a tournament of Monopoly, Cluedo and Guess Who. Now you can enjoy a good game, not in the comfort of your own home, but somewhere you can meet your mates and not have to worry about stocking up on Salty Dogs and choosing a selection of beverages to suit everyone’s tastes.
So, on Saturday afternoon, we wiled away an afternoon playing dominoes, drinking beer and watching the world go by in the Angel Inn at Highgate. Two pints and whisky ginger later and I was certainly feeling rather warm and fuzzy inside. That’s the great thing about London pubs. They cater for your every need, whether it’s a Sunday Roast, a boogie on Saturday night or the obligatory mid week Pub Quiz. Either way, I will no doubt be setting up my Scrabble board in a pub near you soon.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Nicely Does It...

It is official. Today is the most depressing day of the year. Apparently. I have to say, it came as no surprise to me as I heard the announcement on the radio. It was dark and dreary when I crawled out of bed. It was drizzling as I traipsed to work. It was still grey when I left the office at 2pm to attend a meeting about job cuts. It’s a small miracle I’m not currently sobbing into a straight vodka having eaten the contents of a small chocolate factory.
It is on days like today that a friendly face, a genuine smile and a please and thank you would make life a lot more bearable. Unfortunately, it has become apparent to me that such a pleasant exchange with anyone else in this city has become a rarer and rarer occurrence. Customer Service is a thing of the past. Common Courtesy is all but extinct. Why? Well, because being Nice isn’t cool. It is out of vogue, unfashionable. Passé. Especially in London.
Take, for example, your average bus journey. Rather than automatically clearing the space next to them, people leave their bags on seats whilst you stand clearly in their line of vision, hanging on for dear life with one hand whilst the other struggles to keep hold of your shopping. People mutter to themselves when you try to get past them to take a seat at the back. Then there is the problem of personal hygiene. I am sorry, but unless you do not have access to a shower and a bar of soap it is unacceptable in my opinion to travel on public transport with BO. Okay, so end of the day sweaty pits is understandable, but stale week old funk? Just plain rude.
Recently, whilst enjoying a bus ride home from Camden Town after a meeting away from the office, I have seen this level of rudeness develop into pure nastiness. One evening before Christmas I heard a young female voice loudly inform a fellow passenger that they need to learn the language and uncover their face if they want to live in this country. How embracing of people from different religions and races. Then, only two weeks ago, I heard a young man talking to someone on the phone about a spate to motorbike robberies in the area. The acquaintance on the end of the phone was clearing looking after this chap’s bike.
“If you let anyone touch my bike bruv I’m gonna cut you up, do you get me?”
Wow. So this is how we communicate with each other these days, is it? Threaten others with violence rather than ask them to keep an eye on our property for us, please? Intimidate people to get our own way, rather than try and persuade them to help us out because we are nice people?
This disdain for others seems to have spread to our opinions of the rich and famous, too. Okay, I admit, I am not a big fan of the X Factor. But, you know what? Fair play to Whatsisface who won this year. He went for it, and he got it. Good for him.
A couple of weeks ago I was in HMV queuing to pay for a bargainous DVD. Whatsisface’s book was on display near the counter. Two young men in front of me noticed it.
“You see that guy? He is sick, man.”
“For real. He is a loser.”
Er, hello? Okay, so he isn’t quite John Lennon, but hey, he’s actually done quite well for himself! Okay, so by all means, question his musical ability, but a sick loser? Me thinks that he isn’t the person who falls into that category in this example. Surely it is those who cannot bear to see other people succeed who are sick?
Maybe that is the problem. Our society is ill. London’s communities are diseased with bad manners, a deficiency in respect and a bad case of not caring.
But there is good news. These ailments are easily treated with a dose of holding doors open for others, offering your seat to the elderly and infirm and an avoidance of queue jumping and elbowing. And, the icing on the cake is that such niceties are contagious.
So, when you set out to work tomorrow, why not give it a go? Who knows, being Nice might reach epidemic proportions.

Monday, 10 January 2011


This Saturday I didn’t feel like doing much. I don’t know whether I should put it down to post-Christmas Blues (and bankruptcy) or just sheer laziness, but I didn’t fancy anything more exciting than a spot of breakfast in Crouch End. Resigned to re-runs of Dad’s Army, I perused the telly guide. With delight, I remembered that Channel 4 was dedicating the evening to the mysterious antics of Derren Brown, including a screening of his live show “Enigma”. Result! You see, I saw most of “Enigma” in the West End a couple of years ago. But there was a certain part that I wanted to experience again. But this time from the audience, not from the stage.
The date was July 13th 2009. Derren was at his peak as he entered into the second half of his show. Having sat through two of his shows before I was unperturbed when he asked his audience to listen to a sound that scientists had worked on for years which, he explained, was said to entice the listener into a trance-like state.
“Some of you will feel the urge to stand up. You may experience this by simply feeling that you are floating up out of your chair. Others of you will just have a strong desire to stand up. Don’t fight it, just go along with it and stay standing until I tell you otherwise.”
The “sound” started to play. Its rhythmic rumblings seemed to have no effect on me whatsoever. It was reminiscent of a train engine turning over in a station or a loud, constant bass thundering from a pulsating club. I continued to sit with my eyes closed and felt oddly comforted by the overwhelming noise that vibrated around the theatre. Then it started to happen.
I started to lean forwards in my chair. I was halfway to falling off it when I realised what was happening. Mildly alarmed but exceedingly curious, I eventually had no choice other than to try to wake my self, lunge into the person in front of me or stand up. I went for the latter.
The sound stopped. A hushed but incredulous murmur rose from the audience around me. Derren instructed those of us standing to remain where we were. I wondered if I was actually in a trance. I was convinced that I could snap out of it if I wanted to and sit down. But I didn’t.
Eventually Derren told everyone who was still standing to take a deep breath, lift their heads and open their eyes. I did and, feeling refreshed, looked around. I had assumed half the audience would be standing alongside me, and was alarmed to see a sea of inquisitive faces pointed in my direction. I quickly sat down and turned to Him Indoors. He looked back at me, an odd expression on his face. I settled back into my chair and, feeling slightly ridiculous, tried to turn my attention back to what was happening on the stage.
I had almost forgotten about my altered state when, about half an hour later, Derren asked all the women who had been hypnotised before to stand up. I felt several pairs of eyes bore into me and gingerly rose to my feet. Within a second the Weird One pointed me out. “You? What’s your name? Are you here with somebody else?” My answers clearly pleased, and he asked me to join him on stage. Applause drowned out my mumbled expletives.
Derren explained that he was going to sit me in a “Spirit Box” as used by mediums in the 18th Century to communicate with the dead. He explained mediums would put themselves into a trance and sit in the curtained off area (think a four poster bed without the bed part), where the deceased would communicate with the living. Two other volunteers were called up onto the stage to make sure there was no cheating.
Inside the spirit box was a wooden table and chair. On the table was a bell. Derren asked me to sit on the chair and looked at me. I started to feel very silly again. He held up his hand and walked towards me maintaining eye contact.
“And… sleep”.
For a second I looked straight back at him. I probably looked a little sceptical, and, well, I was. I was quietly confident that nothing was going to happen and Mr Brown would be left looking even dafter than I felt. But I was wrong.
My eyes closed heavily and my head lolled. I felt my spine turn to jelly and slumped forwards. I heard the audience laugh and again wondered if I was really in a trance. I was aware of everything that was going on around me. I felt Derren put a roughly woven bag over my head and heard him tell the audience he was going to close the curtains and summon the “spirits”. I felt a draft as he pulled the heavy velvet fabric and waited.
“Spirits, if you are with us please let us know of your presence.”
Silence. I sat in my chair. Then, without explanation, I heard the bell on the table next to me ring. Seconds later I heard the curtain being pulled open and the blindfold was lifted off my head. Derren roused me and I blinked my eyes open. He looked at me a little accusingly.
“Did you ring that bell?”
I tried not to laugh. “No!”
“Are you sure it wasn’t you?”
“Yes!” I clearly looked as bewildered as I felt - the audience were laughing at me again.
Eventually he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth. He asked me to put my hand over a large glass he placed on the table, along with a yellow ball and the bell. He ensured that my hand was tightly placed over the top of the glass before giving me his funny look and sending me to sleep. Again I crumpled, and again the audience laughed. Even in my current state I almost laughed with them.
Again, Derren closed the curtain and summoned the spirits. Again, the bell rang on the table next to me. Derren opened the curtains once more and woke me from my stupor. He told me to look at the glass. The yellow ball was inside it. My hand was still sealing the top. You can guess what he said next.
“Did you put that ball in that glass?”
“You must have done!”
“I didn’t!”
I really didn’t have a clue what was going on. Was Derren putting one of the other volunteers in the spirit box with me when I was under? It was either that or an actual ghost. And the whole point of the exercise was to prove that there was no such thing.
I was hypnotised again, this time with a chalk board and chalk on my lap. I heard the chalk scratching across the board before the unknown hand threw it across the stage.
“Did you throw that chalk at me?”
I did laugh this time, although a little nervously. The chalkboard on my lap had the name “Alison” written on it. And not in my handwriting. Derren decided to up the stakes.
“Do you mind if I tie you up?”
At this point in our relationship it seemed rude to say no.
His two volunteers were instructed to tie my hands together and I was bound to the chair.
Next two chalkboards with chalk sandwiched between them were placed on my lap. Again someone, or something, wrote on them. Then it was a tambourine. That got thrown at Derren too.
For his last summoning of the spirits, one of the other volunteers was ordered into the box with me. Blindfolded, tied up, and apparently not quite with it, I listened as the tambourine was shook and the newspaper left in our care was violently torn up. The tambourine was dumped on my head and my companion started to scream. The whole experience had gone from bizarre to downright scary.
Derren opened up the spirit box. My new crown caused much amusement. “Did you tear up that newspaper?”
This time the question was directed to my comrade. The look of clear bafflement on his face reassured me that I wasn’t going barking mad after all. Well, at least not alone anyway.
We were thanked for our help and sent back to our seats. The finale of the show came and went but I struggled to focus. I was flabbergasted.
“So what happened when he put me to sleep?”
Him Indoors didn’t really clear up any of the mystery on the bus ride home.
“Was there someone else in the box with me? Did he switch the light off so you couldn’t see either?”
It became clear that I really was alone in that spirit box. And I knew there were no spirits involved - other than the stiff JD and coke I poured myself when I got home. There was only one solution. Derren Brown made me ring his bell. And I could have sworn on my life that I didn’t.
So, on Saturday night I set up camp in the living room with a glass of wine and some Jellied Fruits and watched Derren perform his mind-blowing madness on some other innocent soul. I nodded in sympathy as she protested her innocence and pointed at the telly in wonder as I saw for the first time the spirit box in action. It was true. Derren had controlled my mind and made me do things I could have sworn I didn’t do. It was a revelation, and an unnerving one at that. I went to bed in the early hours of Sunday morning, clear on two matters. One, that Derren Brown is a scarily clever man. And, two, if I ever meet him again, I will avoid eye contact at all costs. I mean, what might he get me to do next time?

Monday, 3 January 2011

Reality Bites

Happy New Year everyone! I hope the festive period has left everyone feeling relaxed and invigorated. Okay, so bloated and hung over is more likely for the majority. But, after ten days visiting family and friends, and despite spending New Years Day with a decidedly unforgiving stomach (note to self not to mix Grolsch, red wine, bubbly and Harvey Wallbanger in the future) on a train back to London with the World’s Heaviest Suitcase, I am feeling relatively at peace with the world.
Despite my misgivings, my train travel over the holidays was remarkably simple. Okay, so we opted for the slow train to Peterborough to avoid the rush on the East Coast Mainline, but we had a seat for the entire journey. And our other two train journeys on New Year’s Eve and Day were also pain free. There was space for our luggage, AND we got a seat. Without booking in advance. I still can’t quite believe it. The icing on the cake was the bus we caught back home from the station. I was all in favour of getting a taxi but Him Indoors did not fancy paying Bank Holiday prices, so with a sinking heart I trundled to the bus stop, World’s Heaviest Suitcase in tow. The bus stop was deserted. The bus was half empty. And yet again, there was room for our cases with seats right next to them. I was starting to think we were in the wrong city until the bus deposited us outside our flat.
The following day, I made a brave decision. No, I didn’t quite make it to the gym (my stomach was still a bit dodgy), but I went sale shopping. On Oxford Street. Yes, of my own free will. And... I quite enjoyed it. Yes, it was busy and yes, the shops were ransacked of most decent items, but I returned with a smashing blouse, a lovely cardie, some knee-high socks, a DVD and a sense of satisfaction. And relatively stress-free. In fact, it wasn’t the bargain hungry crowds which increased by blood pressure, but the excitement of catching a glimpse of some of the new season’s offerings. I have already earmarked £55 of next month’s salary on a couple of rather delightful tops I spotted.
So, I returned home yesterday with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. Today... well, today I have to face up to the fact that I have to return to work tomorrow and interact with people other than my family and friends who, like me, would rather be tucked up in bed with a hot chocolate whilst watching Love Actually and pretending that the holidays have only just begun.
Something tells me my feeling of contentment is about to be challenged very shortly. But, until that time, I am going to make myself a cup of tea and settle down in front of the telly until Him Indoors reminds me to get ready for my impending doom and go to bed.
Goodbye Holidays. Hello reality.