Two types of theft in Sainsbury’s

I was having a stroll yesterday, enjoying the sight of the fine people of south London attempting to slide down the newly-laid snow on the slopes of Streatham Common. The contraptions used were many and varied, from a fellow strapped onto a snowboard, to children on the classic sledge you see on Christmas cards. Most amusing, however, was a couple of middle-aged women going down the Rookery with Sainsbury’s carrier bags underneath their bottoms. Not the biggest surface on which to be sat, particularly when considering the scope of their back-sides, but they went down the slope at a decent clip nevertheless.

It was this sight that reminded me I was not far from the main Sainsbury’s in Streatham (there are another two, smaller stores farther along the High Road). As I had little to do with my afternoon, I though I would go in and buy some food. (Or ‘bob in for a few bits’ as my mother would have it.)

I’m a fairly loyal customer of Streatham Fruiterers, the greengrocers down near Streatham Hill Station, so I avoided the fruit and veg side of things. Ambling along, I found myself on the aisle with the breakfast cereals. Recently, I’ve moved towards Alpen as my cereal of choice. Seeking it out, I realised there was more work to be done in deciding which type of Alpen to buy.

There were three options:

a. Classic Alpen i.e. the normal one
b. High-fibre Alpen (with extra roughage for those who don’t shit as often as they would like)
c. Alpen, with no added sugar

All were £2.37, in same-size boxes. However, I noticed, with the alertness which rarely comes upon me in working hours, the Classic was 750g, while the other two were 560g.

I bridled at this. I am quite health-conscious, for two reasons: I want to live forever and enjoy being censorious about what other people eat. Therefore, I wanted the ‘no added sugar’ version. But, while I am health-conscious, I want good value. I envisaged buying the ‘no added sugar’ and finishing the box, knowing that if I had bought the Classic I would still have had another 190gs of the good stuff left. For once, my healthy lifestyle took second place to my parsimoniousness. I bought the Classic, yet felt like Sainsbury was making a mug of me.

Cantering about the store, I picked up some other essentials: pasta, bread, Bombay mix; at which point I realised I could have done with a basket. I am, if nothing else, efficient in my movements, and could not tolerate going back to the store entrance to pick one up. So I carried on, dropping the occasional item, picking it up, and dropping something else in the same motion. If Charlie Chaplin was there, doing his weekly shop, he would have thought it a bravura display of comic acting.

Having got my hands securely around all of my shopping, I came upon the herb shelf and realised I needed some dried oregano. I put my items on the floor, shoved the oregano in my jacket pocket, before going about the aforementioned picking up and dropping routine again.

Getting to the till, I unloaded the items on the conveyor belt, bar the oregano. I felt inside my pocket, and it was still there. While I paid for the vast majority of my items, the oregano stayed in my pocket.

Outside the store, I was so pleased with my work that I slid into the Pied Bull for a pint of Winter Warmer (£3.20). Ruminating about the matter, I saw clearly that Sainsbury could absorb the odd loss of oregano into its day-to-day running costs, with no harm to anyone. What’s more, becoming more reflective at about the half-pint mark, I realised this festive generosity on the part of Sainsbury had secured my custom for the New Year, however sneaky some of its pricing might be.

Len Shelley RIP

Len Shelley and his wife, Ang, have both died of cancer. He has had an obituary published in the Guardian which speaks of him in very factual terms. Hopefully, I can add some colour to the picture of this wonderful man.

I lived with Len from 2002-2005 in his big old house on Undercliffe Terrace, just off the St Leonards seafront.

In late 2001, I was working at the Hastings Observer as a reporter, earning peanuts, living in a bedsit in Bexhill. It was an attic room, and I had to pay pound coins into the heater. I was miserable and lonely.

One day, a South African woman called Hazel arrived at the Observer offices to promote a gig – some sort of world music thing called the Baghdaddies. I ran the ents pages and promised to put her gig in. We got talking and I explained I needed a place to live. She said I could live in her boyfriend’s house. She drove me down there after work in her retro-style car, looking sexy in a fake fur coat.

She let herself in to the house and I saw a big man with long hair, wearing a waistcoat, billowing shirt and green jeans, mopping water in the kitchen. The place was freezing. She introduced me to Len and he started apologising for everything: the leak in the kitchen, the lack of heating, the chaos.

They showed me round the house. All the rooms were big, with exposed floorboards, old rugs, OS maps of Sussex running up the wall next to the stairs. Everything was peeling, falling apart, damp walls, strange art lying around the place. I remembered a Dylan Thomas story about him moving to London and finding himself in a house full of furniture and thinking it the best place he had ever been. I felt the same about Len’s place. I moved in.

Len was mostly away, living with Hazel. We went on occasional cinema trips down to Bexhill or for Harvey’s in the Horse and Groom pub. He was both very warm yet clearly uncomfortable with other humans. He wouldn’t look you in the eye and nervously fiddled with blu-tac.

We always talked about music – it was the way in which we could safely connect with each other. We liked the same freaky shit: Parliament, Beefheart, King Tubby, etc. He introduced me to shit like Fela Kuti, Gang of Four, Can. He only had cassette tapes and vinyl. He loved cassettes, the way they rolled from one side to the other. He also liked that he could pick them up from second hand shops – the only places he ever bought anything.

After a year, he and Hazel split up and he moved back in. He brought his two cats with him. I am allergic to cats, but I didn’t want to leave the house. I wanted to live with Len, so I spent my time enjoying life, but not breathing very well.

Len was in quite poor condition at that time. He was coming off anti-depressants. He wasn’t doing his art – these strange, glass fronted cases with still animated scenes made from found objects. He spoke very little. It was a big house and we gave each other a lot of space.

He loved to read the Hastings Observer and liked to hear about what was going on. We had very polite conversations in the kitchen, chatting about the cassettes he was playing or my work or my drinking, which was going well at that time. He made a big pot of tea in the morning and got about his day before I went to work. He would potter in his garden, digging with no great purpose.

Slowly, his life began again. Word got about Hastings that he was single and he had a number of suitors. He was an incredibly attractive man. Dark skin, brooding eyes, a genuine artist among all of the much more loud and much less talented artists with which Hastings is filled. He got together with Angie, a painter. She was a warm and more gently encouraging presence than Hazel. She got him to get the basement turned into a studio and generally able to see the future in less bleak terms. The depressive cloud lifted somewhat.

I, meanwhile, was drinking with my friends in Hastings. We’d use the house as a late night hangout, getting up on the roof if Len was out, drinking Lynx lager, looking out to sea. I developed an obsession with the Libertines, which sent me into a manic state of hyperactivity which channelled my energy and frustrated creativity.

Len was invited to be part of an art show in Romney churches. He loved the Romney coast, both for its bleakness, and for the opportunities it offered to pick up flotsam and jetsam, which formed his art. The work he displayed in one of the Romney churches showed all of his mordant humour, surreal imagination, and respect for his surroundings, yet his desire to subvert them. Drinking wine at the opening, he still seemed uncomfortable, but he was back. He was pleased with the show. (See Len’s work at

Living with Len was both beautiful and remarkable in many ways. He grew rhubarb in his garden, only to let it sit there and die. He said he liked the shape of the leaves. I would often come home from my office in shirt and tie, to the sound of loud African music in the basement, and the sound of banging; the artist at work.

One day, I came home to find a large, strange object on the dining table. I couldn’t work out what it was at first. I walked round it, to discover it was a horse’s head. It would form part of a show in Tunbridge Wells. I loved that.

When his relationship with Ang became serious he started taking an interest in making the house more civilised. He got the house damp-proofed. He painted walls. He wanted her to move in. I had finally managed to get a girlfriend and so I made my excuses. It had been three years and it was time to move on.

I still saw Len on occasion in more recent years. He was working, he was doing well. He and Ang were in love. Ang was keeping bees and writing poems about them.

When I started on the road I am now on – writing performance poetry – the first piece I wrote was about him. It took the structure from My Old Man, by Ian Dury, who we both loved. It might not be on the level of his art, but it’s all true, a poem from me to him.

Len was a mentor for me in those years when I had no direction and was struggling to know what to do with my life. His love, support and friendship – and that of Ang’s – meant everything to me. He was a true bohemian, a true artist, and a true friend.

RIP Len and Ang.

My landlord

I saw the house in the winter
Boiler’d broke, it was cold
There was a flood in the kitchen
Wasn’t normal I was told
Rugs and sofa were all ancient
Maps of Sussex on the wall
Maps of Sussex on the wall
My landlord

My landlord he was an artist
Only worked with things he’d found
Brung in seagulls, foxes, badgers
Dreamt of ships run aground
Created strange dioramas
Gothic visions for the home
Gothic visions for the home
My landlord

My landlord, the women knew him
He weren’t like other blokes
Had himself romantic notions
Always wore an old waistcoat
In the summer, he had a boater
See him cycle down the coast
See him cycle down the coast
My landlord

Ol’ Len he never done much talking
Always showed a great reserve
He liked digging in his garden
Think it helped him with his nerves
Played me all his vinyl records
‘Tribal beats, son, have you heard’
‘Tribal beats, son, have you heard’
My landlord

Three years in he met a painter
She was blonde and had two sons
He became quite dynamic
Got the damp and the pointing done
In the end we hid our feelings
Shook hands and I moved on
Shook hands and I was gone
My landlord
My landlord

How big is Essex?

Essex is a very big place

How big is Essex?
The map suggests it is bigger than Surrey
And not quite so big as Kent
And nowhere near as big as Sussex
When you join it up, the East and the West

Essex, I would contend, is bigger than any of them
Bigger, in fact, than all the counties put together
Bigger, while we’re at it, than all of Europe,
America, Africa and Asia

Colchester is far larger than Tokyo or Calcutta
The River Rom longer than the Rhone or the Volga
Epping more vaster than the forests of Sumatra
Harold Hill more higher than Mount Kilimanjarar

Yes, the map suggests Essex is bigger than Surrey
And not quite so big as Kent
I would say the man who did the map
got things wrong, out of perspective
And there’s one thing for certain
He weren’t born and bred Essex.

The Only Way is Essex

The office has been abuzz with talk of a new show on TV: namely, The Only Way is Essex. Some have said it’s so bad it’s good. Others contend that it is just bad. I was keen to find out.

I was reassured by the fact that the Essex show was on ITV2. This is my favourite channel, mainly because you can almost be guaranteed a bit of Katie and Peter action at any time of night or day.

You see, I don’t really like good telly. Give me one of those five-star rated dramas and I’ll be asleep within moments. It’s only the so-called shit telly that I can pay attention to. I can watch any amount of Snoop Dogg’s Fatherhood show, or At Home With the Kardashians.

So, to the show. At first sight it looks like a sort of Essex Hollyoaks, without a script. There’s lashings of fake tan, fake eyelashes, fake nails, fake acting. In fact, it might be nearer the mark to say it is more like an updated version of Eldorado, the ill-fated soap on in the early days of Channel 5.

But there has been some debate whether, aside from its lack of plot or characterisation or anything – does it represent an idealised Essex?

I reckon – and I may just be saying this because I’m from Essex and I’m narcissistic enough to write a blog – that it does. Essex, as Mark says, is a bubble. People in Essex have very little reason to leave and go elsewhere. I’m almost alone in my friends from school in actually having left the county. I’m not quite sure why I left: probably out of a desire to be curmudgeonly.

Also, this is a telly show that dares to have a sense of fun. It is rubbish on most normal levels, but it is almost impossible not to keep watching. I sat through two episodes this evening and was genuinely disappointed when it finished.

I think The Only Way is Essex is just like most things from Essex – a bit chintzy, a bit crap, but on the whole brilliant. I just hope Stacey Solomon makes a guest appearance.

Lord Browne is a limelight-loving short man – and we’re all going to pay

What with all the anger surrounding the proposals to massively increase the cost of university education to students, it’s worth taking a look at who is behind them.

The man deemed by the coalition government to be best placed to ‘review’ the future of higher education is Lord Browne, John to his friends. This is the fella who was in charge of BP for many years until he got retired by the board.

Fortunately, for those of us who do not follow these matters closely, Tom Bower’s recent book, Squeeze, gives a decent summation of what Lord Browne is all about. He is described as the most rampantly aggressive pursuer of profits, even in the cutthroat world of oil. He’s the sort of neoconservative that makes George W Bush look like the epitome of restraint. And he’s a short man with one of those Napoleon complexes that makes you wonder if the term needs to be renamed. So, just the sort of balanced individual to take an impartial look at higher education.

For those who don’t want to wade through the 500 plus pages of Squeeze, a brief glance at the index of the book to gives a feel for the kind of chap Lord Browne is.

Here is a sample from the Browne, John section:

  • Alaskan oil leaks and
  • cost cutting at BP
  • highlights achievements and buries failures
  • limelight, love of

And my personal favourite:

  • security of western oil supplies, pays scant attention to

You get the general idea. He is one of those short men for whom the spotlight is the place to be and who will do anything possible to stay there.

He achieved great celebrity while at BP for his aggressive approach to mergers but also for the most audacious attempt at greenwash in the history of corporate social responsibility.

As Squeeze lovingly tells the story, Browne conceived the ‘Beyond Petroleum’ rebrand for two reasons: to burnish his ego; and, a close second, to wind up his climate change-denying rivals over at Exxon.

So when you hear the arguments put forward by the government that the new reality for universities is inevitable in the economic climate, and all about fairness, remember this:

Lord Browne is that terrible combination of the limelight-loving short man, with rather a lot of time on his hands, some hardcore neoconservative ideals, and more to the point, new to government and desperately eager to please.

Let’s just hope Lord Browne’s star in government wanes somewhat because if he starts ‘reviewing’ the NHS or the education system all of us who are not multimillionaires will need to make a dash for the continent.

Memories of Hastings Pier

When I saw footage of Hastings Pier up in flames earlier this week, I almost burst into tears. I didn’t feel anger because it seems that all the best piers meet the same fate: fall into disuse, owners not prepared to invest, and then up in flames.

Hastings is a romantic place. It is full of artists and chancers and wasters and dreamers. I fitted in nicely. I’d only been living there a few weeks, back in 2002, when the pier ballroom was being reopened. I was doing the ents pages for the local paper and got accosted by a bug-eyed fella by the name of Paul Hutchinson, plus beautiful accomplice.

They had designed a night called Phase:02, which was pretty much a shout out for everyone who liked to get mashed up – ie the whole town – to come and have a party. I went down there with a son of an artist called Jonathan, and we joined the happy throng.

I grew up in Romford where club nights are pretty much the preserve of the young, or very young. But in Hastings you pitch up at nights and you will find everyone from teenagers in hoodies, right up to grandparents. There’s no cliques or little subcultures, you either want to crack on, or you don’t.  Most do.

Needless to say details of the night are sketchy at best, but it left me feeling good about living in this seaside town.

Over the course of the next three years, I saw all manner of people in there: Jimmy Carson, Nick Cave, Chas & Dave, and, three weeks before he died, Joe Strummer. I interviewed Strummer over the phone before the gig and he had a desire to come back to do the pier, to a place where the Clash had played, where the Stones had played. It was a legendary venue.

I often wrote stories about the pier. The possibility of new ‘boutique’ shops, the rent prices, the need for investment. The pier did get some investment while I was there, but it was never enough. The place was always getting patched up, while the traders just about hung on.

Hutchinson soon flew the nest, a string of debtors shaking their fists, and in his place came Dave Preedy, a man designed to run a cabaret venue. He was all tattoos and tall tales, another man placing his dreams in a crumbling edifice above the sea. He didn’t last long after what money he had ran out.

But the fact is that people just like piers. It’s great to be on land but over the sea. It’s wonderful to look back at Hastings seafront and see the line of grand old houses, and Pelham Crescent and the castle above. It was good to sit and have a cocktail on the pier apron, with the fortune teller in her little hut down the way, and the smell of frying burgers and onions over the other side, and a couple of old people having a fag outside the bingo hall.

The pier closed again a few years later, for safety reasons. And, as the place was always quite rickety, you imagine those reasons were fairly compelling. But people were determined to get the thing reopened. On one of my more recent visits I was walking past the pier, feeling a pang of sadness to see the place bolted up, even if it was a windy and rainy winter’s day. And there outside was a couple of old women, collecting money for a fighting fund. I gave a couple of quid, knowing it was probably futile.

It seems now, a few days after the fire, that if people really want to save the thing, to stop it going the way of the West Pier in Brighton, it could happen. I bloody well hope so, but they’ll probably need an awful lot of cash. Piers are romantic places, but like theatres, they eat money.