by John Morrison


97: The Gravy Train

A century and a half after the railway was driven over and under the Pennine hills, the trains still stop at Milltown. With motoring being such an expensive, pleasure-free chore (and with him not having a license) this is how Town Drunk prefers to travel. A train journey, - however mundane - offers the prospect of excitement and adventure. Before privatisation, it was a dastardly crime to pull the communication cord without good reason. Now, with profit to the fore, the notice reads rather differently: '£200 a pull... Go on, you know you want to'. The temptation's always there.

While he's on a train, Town Drunk can indulge his favourite fantasy. That the gorgeous lass sitting opposite him will meet his gaze for a nanosecond too long, lean towards him, and say: "You'll think me terribly forward... but I want you to make love to me, and I want you to do it now". Instead of what really happens when he sits downwind of a female passenger: she's more likely to scream for the guard, and rummage through her bag for pepper spray.

If the train service is pretty good, that's more than we can say about the condition of our roads. With the immaculate sense of timing that has become the hallmark of the privatised utilities, no sooner has one hole in the road been filled in than another one appears in exactly the same place. Milltown folk sit and fume in yet another queue of cars that's going precisely nowhere. It drives them mad with frustration.

The utilities seem to have the kind of relationship that so many couples endure these days. Couples with busy careers who, like ships, seem to pass in the night. Communication can be a problem. There are garbled messages on the Answerphone; reminders scrawled with lipstick on the bathroom mirror; shopping lists compiled, in haste, from magnetic letters stuck to the fridge door. Is it any wonder that the gas people haven't got a clue when the electricity people are planning to dig the road up next?

It all seemed simpler in days gone by. The electricity people sold us electricity, the gas people sold us gas, and the water board sold us water. It seemed to make sense. We knew where we stood. But now the buzzword is 'choice': a slightly baffling concept, since water, gas and electricity are basic essentials. It's just not feasible to opt out, and do without them... though this doesn't stop a few Milltown folk trying. What the hell are we doing: handing over the staples of life to accountants? It would be a happier notion if there really was a genuine choice to make. McDonalds or Burger King? Pepsi or Coke? Happy Eater or Little Chef? Bull-shit or horse-shit?

It's a mite confusing for Green Man to find someone from the electric company on the doorstep trying to sell him gas, closely followed by a guy from the gas company trying to sell him electricity. Where's the logic in that? Can they be trusted? Or are they just cowboys? ("We've been delivering electricity in the area, and still have a few megawatts in the back of the van. We could let you have the last few at a special price... to save taking them back to the depot." "No thanks". "Maybe a box of Kiwi fruit, then?" "No"...).

Green Man feels beleaguered. Whenever there's a knock at the door, or the phone rings, or a pile of buff envelopes lands on the mat, he seems to be assailed by people who, in the cause of consumer choice, are trying to make his life ever more complicated.

BT just won't leave him alone. In trying to steal a march on the opposition, they insist on bombarding him with an increasingly surreal assortment of special offers and hare-brained promotions. There's Adulteryline, for example: giving clandestine relationships much-needed anonymity, by ensuring that tell-tale phone numbers don't show up on itemised bills. It's a great boon for the sexually promiscuous. Instead of hanging around in draughty phone boxes, they can conduct illicit affairs from the comfort and privacy of their own homes.

Smutline offers untraceable calls, with a synthesiser making subscribers' voices robotic and unrecognisable. This is an especially important feature when terrorising someone they know well. There are further discounts on obscene calls at weekends, when their quarry is more likely to be home. If they register the five numbers they abuse most regularly, they'll get an extra saving of 10%.

Perhaps BT could be persuaded, instead, not to harass honest folk at all hours of the day. Can we please forget all these bogus 'offers'? Just make line rentals and call charges as cheap as possible, for every call, for every customer, all the time... and then just shut the fuck up about it.

Proving merely that he's being duped twice over, Green Man insists he's resistant to the silver-tongued blandishments of the advertising profession. It's an unlikely scenario; people don't chuck money about for no reason. The folk who work in advertising attract a lot of flak from many different quarters, but however much criticism they get... it's never enough. Even solicitors and estate agents (generally regarded as bottom-feeding creatures in the cesspit of life) can offer a few reasons, however lame, about the importance of the work they do. But what can members off the advertising profession say in their own defense, since their raison d'etre is to make us more unhappy and dissatisfied tomorrow than we are today?

Instead of hunting advertising executives down, like the vermin they are, we lionise them. We dignify their mendacious campaigns by calling them creative. But praising the creativity of an advert is like praising the design of a lampshade made of human skin: it's an observation that rather misses the point. And complaining about crap adverts makes no more sense than complaining that the lions aren't eating the Christians fast enough. It's time to stop moaning that adverts fail to present positive images of women, or ethnic minorities... or whoever. Adverts that demean men are crap. Adverts that demean women are crap. Adverts are crap. End of story.

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