Napkin versus serviette: class wars in Pret A Manger

There’s a Pret quite close to Baker Street tube station and I often pop in there when I go to London for one of my regular visits to Howarth’s. It’s a handy place to grab a cup of tea, and the tea’s not bad either – it’s hot and plentiful, and that’s what you want, really, isn’t it?

But the wording on their napkins really annoys me, and so you can also appreciate its hypocritical humbuggery, here it is in full:

This napkin is 100% recyclable (Pret’s sustainability department is militant, we’re making headway). If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins (which you don’t need or want) please give them the evil eye. Waste not want not.

…and this is piously followed by the recyclable symbol.


But, you know, what’s all this? Give staff the evil eye? Would this be the same staff who are on their feet all sodding day, who are probably on minimum wage (£6.50 per hour in 2014), who no doubt have to deal with plenty of rudeness and bad behaviour from the Gen Pub already? Yup, that’s them. And no doubt it was a hugely overpaid consultant who penned those very words we see printed on every napkin, words which grant carte blanche to Pret’s customers to bully those behind the counter – barista staff who have to work for the best part of half an hour before they have earned enough money to buy one of the overpriced coffees they serve.

And you just know, don’t you, that some sanctimonious more-organic-than-thou twat is actually going to take up this offer. Brendan O’Neill, writing for The Guardian, was present when precisely such an event took place:

I actually once witnessed a woman following this advice. She gave a Pret worker a piece of her mind after he handed her two napkins instead of one, presumably by accident. “I only need one,” she said sternly, and loudly enough so that the 27 groggy-eyed people queuing for their morning coffee could hear her, too, the smug cow.

I can only say that I wish I’d been there too. I would have reminded her – loudly, of course – that good manners cost nothing. You can read all of O’Neill’s nicely tart piece here, but it’s probably best if you don’t look at the comments that follow. It’s a thread that’s just as depressing and dispiriting as these things usually are.

One thing O’Neill doesn’t mention is the shift from ‘serviette’ to ‘napkin’. To recap, the wording is: ‘If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins’; so, the staff hand out serviettes, but the customers take napkins. I thought I’d investigate by having a quick look at Debrett’s online, and sure enough, Debrett’s is firmly against ‘serviette’:

if you are anxious to pass muster in more class-aware environments you should remember the basics: loo or lavatory never toilet; sofa never settee; napkin never serviette; supper never tea; drawing room or sitting room, never lounge or front room.

(See more here – if you can bear it. There’s a point at which it stops being amusing, and that point comes when you start thinking about people being forced to use food banks while the kind of toffs who care about the sort of crap on this website are swilling champagne.)

But, revenons à nos moutons. Pret want to convince you of their love of all things organic and wholesome and healthy, and so you can join them in their fight to save the planet, they ask that you berate their staff for the terrible crime of handing out more napkins/serviettes/whatever than is absolutely necessary. And the insinuation in the shift from serviette to napkin is that it’s perfectly alright for you to do so, because the staff are of a lower social class than you. You are the Napkin. They are the Serviettes.

So there you have it. Pret A Manger: fighting to change the world for the better, in spite of their lower-class employees! And – as O’Neill points out – 33% owned by McDonald’s.

Don’t You ‘Actually’ Me! – What I Really Think about The Guardian’s ‘What I’m Really Thinking’ column

Let’s get this clear from the start: I wouldn’t dream of reading any newspaper other than The Guardian – except perhaps possibly maybe The Independent – but the What I’m Really Thinking column which appears in the Guardian Weekend magazine renders me puce with apoplectic rage every Saturday morning.

The idea of this column is that you send in your real thoughts about one of your roles in life, those vile horrible oh-god-what-an-evil-person-I-am thoughts: so, for example, I could write in as Woman Who Chose Not To Have Children and bitch on and on about the people who’ve referred to me in the past as ‘monstrous’ and ‘unnatural’ and then I could follow that up with comments about how secretly I pity them because they are obviously slaves to their biology, that sort of thing. You see? It’s really not nice. The column’s purpose – if it has one – is probably something drippy such as ‘dispel stereotypical notions surrounding the role in question’, but what it actually provides is usually some pretty nasty-minded voyeurism along with a replacement set of stereotypes designed to satisfy the self-important reader.

Guardian Weekend would have us believe that the column is written by a different person each week, but, mysteriously, the writing style is always the same. I’m prepared to believe that the substance of the column is provided by Guardian readers and that one member of the editorial team works it up every week, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. I haven’t spent years studying literary style for nothing.

However…I can’t resist reading the damn thing. I try not to. But the temptation to start my weekend by working myself up into a state of frothing bile is just too strong and one day not too long ago, when my fury had apparently attained its zenith, I was sufficiently enraged to tweet my objections and to voice my hearty disapproval in a public forum (rather than bending poor Dr B’s ear about it again). So I tweeted thus:

I didn’t really expect to hear anything in reply and, to be honest, my fury had been sated by simply putting that tweet out there. But reply they did:

Now, I wasn’t going to have some prissy pert little madam saying ‘actually’ to me. My rejoinder was as follows:

I see your ‘actually’ and raise you a ‘Pffffft’. Five Fs in my ‘pffffft’ were all I could manage with just 140 characters, otherwise I would have added more. Pfffffffffffffffffffffft.

I’ve already outlined my first objection – that the column isn’t the product of anonymous contributions as is claimed – and my second objection, that the column is poorly-researched, I’ll explain by way of elaborating on my comment on the ‘Exam Invigilator’ – you can read the original column here. This, as I mentioned in my retaliatory tweet, is outdated nonsense. The writer’s comment that ‘[t]his is the sharp end of the educational treadmill: three years of study distilled into a few hours of pure pressure’ refers to the kind of university finals that just don’t exist anymore – not outside of Oxford, Cambridge and possibly Durham anyway. Nowadays, most undergraduate programmes are assessed by means of appropriately weighted coursework submitted over a three-year period. And the invigilator’s final comment too is a piece of pure poppycock: he or she writes ‘[s]o am I a fan of exams as a method of assessment? Yes, sure. Without them, I wouldn’t have a job’. A moment’s thought is surely enough for most people to work out that no one can make a living as an exam invigilator. Exams take place once or twice a year and the pay for invigilators is minimal. I know this because I work in university administration and it’s part of my job to organise exam invigilators. They’re often PhD students looking to make few bob on the side – about sixteen quid, usually. I’d like to know how our Guardian Exam Invigilator survives for a whole year on just sixteen quid. My conclusion? This column is poorly-researched bollocks.

But I haven’t finished yet. My third and – for now – final objection harks back to the question of stereotypes I mentioned earlier. The Guardian Weekend team seem to be on a mission to persuade readers not to judge people by the job they do. Nothing wrong with that – a person is not their job, after all. People do the work they do for all sorts of reasons. But if you could believe what you read in this magazine, you’d be led into thinking that every person in a job obviously considered menial by the Guardian Weekend editorial team is actually a university student just filling in time and earning a bit of pocket money. The shelf-stacker tells us that ‘[w]hen I hear you shout, “Oi you, over here” in my direction, I smile and put down the crate of bottles I’m unpacking. I’m thinking, at least I’m studying for a science degree and I’ll soon be out of here’, and the call centre worker joins in with ‘[t]he thing is, the job’s not bad, your stories make for good anecdotes, oh, and I’m going back to university next week’. Well, I have news for the editorial team. Some people do these jobs all the time – yes, all the time. Why are their voices not represented? You see, the column is headed with a definite, not an indefinite article: the shelf-stacker, the call centre worker, the supermarket delivery driver, the effect of which is to induce us to believe that the words which follow are representative of every single member of the profession in question and not just a single spotty student whiling away the summer months in Asda.

Clearly the Guardian wants us to replace the notion that people do certain jobs because they do not have a university degree with another equally damaging assumption that everyone is really a budding Stephen Hawking in the making. Surely someone, somewhere amongst the editorial team must have some idea how patronising this is. But I’m guessing that person isn’t the Little Miss Pert-Arsed Prissy Pants who ‘actually’-ed me.

By way of afterword, and plonking myself firmly in Hypocrite’s Corner, it’s only fair to point out how much I enjoyed the outpouring of venom from Guardian readers that greeted the GP’s Receptionist when it was her turn to contribute a column. The Letters page the following week was full of it. I was enormously cheered by this because I have in the past been reduced to sobbing down the phone when trying to reason with a cow-bag receptionist who ‘[found] it hard to care about a bladder infection’ and it was only when I threatened to go to A&E that the doctor intervened and made her give me an appointment. Yeah! Suck on that!

The Hunt for ‘Mr Pig’

Right, so this is my film for Hallowe’en. I’ve already done the ‘Scary’ iMovie Trailer (see The Bun of Terror), so I thought I’d have a go at the ‘Film Noir’ template. My camera has a setting called ‘Palette 4’ which is black and white with an additional lovely blue shimmer; however, our front room is rather too gloomy for this setting to work properly, so some of the film is a bit too noir. Well, never mind, I had fun doing the filming even if poor Petey Pickles turned out to be desperately camera-shy. Basil, though, was perfectly cast as the tough-but-dim detective and gave a marvellously dappy performance. The bun done good.