Every week in life I’m tempted to open this column with the immortal words, ‘It’s been an itsy-bitsy week’; and every week I resist the temptation, for the very good reason that if I discourse on itsy-bitsyness fifty-two times a year they’ll dock my pay.
But this week I might just get off with it because it was a week of itsy-bitsyness par excellence. Triviality abounded. The government set the ball rolling with its advice to motorists, faced with yet another fuel crisis. We should keep our tanks half-full, they said, but this made no sense when you counted the days. The tanker-drivers have yet to decide on a date for their strike, and once they do decide they have to give the public a week’s notice. By the time they’ve jumped through these hoops the motorist’s tank will be empty again, and there will be no way of filling it because panic-buying has drained all the forecourts dry.
It transpires that no one is to blame for this. Panic-buying just happens, although it has a curious habit of appearing right out of the blue whenever the TV News tells us that supplies are severely disrupted and that there are huge queues at petrol-stations. But then, broadcasters are not really part of society. They merely observe it, completely detached and with no obligation to behave responsibly. They will rejoin society only when, as a result of media-induced panic-buying, the broadcasters themselves can’t get to work. ‘Sorry, but Mr. Paxman is currently stuck in a queue at a service-station on the B8201.’
The Government then off-loaded some more wisdom. Yes, we should all fill our jerry-cans and keep them in our garages for use in emergencies. This bred other bits of bitsyness. It became apparent, for example, that the nation is deeply divided over how to pronounce ‘garage’. The Government spokesperson, Mr. Francis Maude, pronounces it like a Frenchman: ‘garahj’. You can tell at once that he has a garajj, came from a good home, went to a good school and is a fit person to sit on a Cabinet of millionaires.
The other, far larger, half of the nation pronounce it as they pronounce homage or rummage, which tells you that they went to a state-school and probably don’t have a garage; or, if they do, that it’s crammed to the rafters with barrows, ladders and old mattresses.
But on top of this came the further revelation that few in the nation have any idea what a jerry-can is, and that perhaps Mr. Maude doesn’t know either. Far from running out to fill these great, heavy metal cans carried by US tanks and post-War Lewis trucks, most Brits thought they were being advised to fill any old plastic containers they could find (most conveniently, a two-litre milk carton); and if they didn’t have a garage, to store them under the stairs.
This, again, was in case of emergency, but then a highly intelligent and well-informed Fire Chief informed the nation that this itself could cause an emergency since petrol is widely suspected of inflammatory and explosive behaviour. The Government then withdrew its advice about keeping petrol in jerry-cans, but didn’t tell us where to keep it instead; and at the same time the more responsible sections of the media were alerting us to the alarming levels of rural crime, and especially the epidemic of fuel-thefts from isolated farms.
But just as all this was threatening to settle down (for the meantime) another item joined the itsy-bitsyness: the honourable pasty. It turned out to be part of a larger story (or, perhaps, of no more than an urban myth). In his recent budget, the Chancellor put great faith in the rich. If he reduced their tax from 50p to 45p in the Pound, their natural goodness and patriotism would assert itself, they would abandon their historic addiction to tax avoidance and their dues would flow in to the Treasury.
But he could not be entirely confident in the integrity of his class, and so he resorted to his usual fall-back measure: tax the poor (who, apparently, are much more faithful tax-payers); and one thing on which they were not already taxed was hot, as distinct from cold, food. Hence the new measure. If you buy a cold pasty there is no VAT; if you buy a hot one, there is.
For all I know this may also apply to fish-and-chips. Both the fish and the chips were clearly cold at some point in the day, which means that if they are hot when you buy them, they must have been heated and are therefore liable to tax.
But it was not the fish-and-chips that made the itsy-bitsy headlines, but the pasties, which you buy in a bakery, and which originally arrived in this country from Cornwall . What the Chancellor didn’t know was that pasty is what every British worker has for lunch, and suddenly he found himself standing in a second big hole, right beside the Granny Tax one. He was taxing the lunches of the poor (though it has to be admitted that those who lunch in the Ritz also pay VAT).
Then matters took a sudden turn for the even more worse. Pasties assumed a symbolic significance: no politician could be ‘a man of the people’ unless he had a pasty for lunch every day, and this left our governors without a fig-leaf of street-cred. But suddenly they all knew what a pasty was, some had seen one and one or two had even tasted one, and it had been very good.
The whole Cabinet was now safely working-class; and this, in an itsy-bitsy week opened the door to a profundity. How do politicians prove they’re human? The obvious answer would be, ‘By erring,’ but that, apparently, won’t do. They need a bit more. And so, Gladstone cut down trees. Harold Wilson smoked a pipe and used HP sauce. Margaret Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter. Tony Blair wore jeans and owned a guitar.
The rest are now praying that God will re-write their CVs and fix it for them to have been born in a council house, starved as children and left school with no qualifications. That should pull in the votes.
This column first appeared in the West Highland Free Press, Friday 6 April 2012.