Friday, 27 February 2015

27/02/15 - Green Shield Stamps

One of my early memories, for some reason, is being at the petrol station in Liphook. I’m not sure if I’m remembering just one occasion or if it’s an amalgamation of many visits – it’s a bit blurry – but I can clearly remember the intoxicating smell of four-star and the poster for Green Shield stamps on the wall.
I was reminded of Green Shield stamps recently, and realised that it’s something I haven’t thought about for years. It’s one of those images that was everywhere when I was a kid, like yellow British Telecom vans, but suddenly fell from view and hasn’t popped up anywhere since. My mum used to collect the stamps in a little book, and I’d help her stick them in (I realise now that she was just giving me a task, rather than actually requesting my help – she was probably capable of doing it herself without too much difficulty) so that she could save up for, I dunno, a set of steak knives or a pocket calculator or something.

Green Shield stamps were introduced to the UK in 1958, and their popularity endured right through to the 1980s. The principle was pretty simple; think of it as an early version of Clubcard points, except that they weren’t limited to just one retailer. Tesco was one place you could get them, actually, but they were also available from countless independent greengrocers, hardware stores, chemists, confectioners, tobacconists, petrol stations and so on, as well as Priceright and The Cooperative. You got a stamp for every 6d you spent (this is all conceptually familiar to today’s consumer, of course), you stuck them in the book, you saved up to swap completed books for various goods. It was like Nazi Germany’s saving stamp books for VW Beetles, but without the undertones of mass murder.
As with all loyalty-bonus-thingy systems, they didn’t represent brilliant value – but that was only a concern if you were actively shopping in order to receive the stamps, rather than just collecting the stamps for money you’d have been spending anyway. In the early days, you’d have had to spend £32 before you’d filled a Green Shield book of 1,280 stamps (which was a fair amount in the 1960s – equivalent to about £590 now), which you could then swap for, say, some stainless steel salad tongs, or a set of mugs. Tenacious savers could exchange 13 books for a Kodak Brownie 8 movie camera, 88 books for a Regentone 19” television, or 170 books for a Silver Cloud motor boat! (Although you’d have to buy the outboard motor yourself…)

Rather excitingly, a stamp war broke out in 1963, with a rival system of S&H Pink Stamps flooding in from America. These were actually called ‘S&H Green Stamps’ in the US, but they changed the colour for the UK market for obvious reasons. Blue Chip stamps also appeared, as well as King Korn and a number of others. It caused all sorts of bloody running street battles between retailers (er, possibly), although Lord Sainsbury was vehemently opposed to the stamp concept - so much so that he formed the Distributive Trades’ Alliance along with Boots, WHSmith, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and various other retailers, lobbying parliament to restrict and heavily regulate the reward stamp industry. What a killjoy.

Nevertheless, Green Shield Stamps went from strength to strength. In the 1970s, the catalogue offered a more down-to-earth set of aspirations than the speedboat dreams of the sixties, while the number of stamps-per-pound shifted necessarily in line with inflation and decimalisation: 185 books got you a Hotpoint washing machine, 140 books could be swapped for an LEC chest freezer, and you could get a Philips colour TV for 375 books. I wonder if anyone ever actually managed to save that many…?

It all started to unravel in 1977, when Tesco withdrew from the scheme in order to focus on their pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap strategy. The relative value of Green Shield Stamps was rapidly dropping, and the main outlets for them became petrol stations, aiming largely at fleet drivers who didn’t care how much they were spending, and offering double-, triple- and even quadruple-points deals. As the stamping infrastructure began to dissolve, the Green Shield catalogue started to offer part-cash redemption, meaning that if you had a half-full book you could trade it in for your set of steak knives or whatever and cover the remainder of the balance with cash. This turned out to be a bad move, as it really highlighted to people how much cheaper it would be to just forget the stamps and buy the things elsewhere. Green Shield founder Richard Tompkins had taken this catalogue shopping formula and launched Argos in 1973, and by 1983 had stopped distributing Green Shield Stamps entirely.
They were revived in 1987 – this must be the period that I’m remembering, I’d have been five at the time – but died out again after a few years.

Interestingly, it was only four years after Green Shield Stamps disappeared that Tesco introduced the Clubcard. While that is inarguably a great system for earning discounts from money that you would have been spending anyway, there was a certain backlash at the time from people who preferred the old model of collecting; after all, isn’t it more fun to receive a tangible thing – a tobacco tin or a rolling pin – that you’d actually saved up for? Feels more like a project, doesn’t it?
These die-hards are still gunning for the prizes too, despite the system having been defunct for almost a quarter of a century. Just take a look at how many Green Shield stamps and books are for sale on eBay – perhaps it’s worth filling up a few books and taking them into your local branch of Argos? You never know, Richard Tompkins might have left a secret set of instructions at the counter to ensure that the legacy of his stamp-collecting empire lived on. They might even give you a speedboat…

Couple of Stacks

Dizzee Rascal's latest vid is hilariously gruesome. Not for the squeamish...

Rowing is tricky

Yep, 'carnage' is a fairly accurate description.

A very cool kitchen

Looking for a bit of retro chic for your house? How about an original, untouched kitchen from 1956...? Clicky.

Celebrity neglect

Marmite + Dean Gaffney = lols, or something.


It continues to be quite chilly in the Northeastern US. Click here for some astounding photos.


So... you saw Madonna fall over, right?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

19/02/15 - Tattoos

Tattoos are surprisingly commonplace these days. Well, I say ‘surprisingly’ because I’m clearly rapidly becoming an old fart – I still remember a time when having a tattoo was an unusual thing; when I discovered at the age of 8ish that my uncle had a swallow inked on his upper arm, it blew my mind. I was related to someone with a tattoo! Blimey. He’s like a movie star or something.

Time, of course, moves on. It has a habit of doing that. Technology and technique have evolved rapidly, meaning that alongside the dodgy tattoo joints of yore – you know, the sort of place where you pick a design from a menu on the wall and end up with a shitty little devil or something – you’ll see high-end, upmarket tattoo parlours run by bona fide qualified artists wielding state-of-the-art equipment. If a tattoo is done well, it can be a glorious and impressive thing. If done badly, however, you’ll end up looking like a chump. As with everything in life, you get what you pay for. It’s almost a shame for the people who get proper tattoos that there are so, so many berks out there getting rubbish cheapie ones – it devalues the ‘I have a tattoo’ statement by immediately creating an assumption that it’s something you regret. I know some people with really good tattoos, and I bet it irritates them that folk don’t always realise that there are different strata within the inked community.

I have no tattoos. It’s not that I have anything against them – far from it – or that I’m particularly fearful of the pain (although I’ve never been a big fan of needles). No, it’s the knowledge of my own indecision and fickleness that stops me. I couldn’t watch somebody drawing all over me with a pulsating inky needle without thinking ‘Christ, what if I think that’s really shit in ten years’ time?’
Case in point: I quite fancied the idea of a tattoo about ten years ago, and drew up a design that was a big blue musical quaver with cartoonish crossed pistons and conrods beneath it. Thank goodness I never actually got beyond the design stage, that would have looked really terrible.

But anyway. To return to the original point, the ubiquity of tattoos these days leads us to lazily assume that they’re a modern phenomenon, but they’re anything but. It’s been going on for centuries, from the Fulani to the Saisiyat, from Yuan Dynasty China to Iron Age Britain, people have been getting words, pictures and symbols etched permanently onto their dermal tissue. So, just for funsies, here’s a selection of notable tattooed characters – some of them may surprise you:

Winston Churchill
All kinds of morons in the EDL/BNP/UKIP arena proudly sport bulldog tattoos which they probably think Churchill would have been really impressed by, but did you know that Churchill himself had a tatt? Not of a bulldog, of course – he was more old-school than that. He had an anchor on his forearm, much like countless other military servicemen of his generation.  

Thomas Edison
Edison, the brains behind the phonograph, motion picture camera, instant concrete housing, urban electricity infrastructure, and pretty much anything else you can think of, was also in the ink club. This makes sense really, as the modern tattoo gun can directly trace its lineage back to the Edison Electric Pen of 1876.
He had a quincunx on his forearm, which sounds filthy but is in fact a geometric pattern of five dots – the same as you’d find on the fifth face of a regular playing die.

George Orwell
The iconic author had a pretty colourful past, and he liked to carry a souvenir of that everywhere he went, in the form of a bunch of bright blue dots tattooed onto his knuckles. A little reminder of his days as a policeman in colonial Burma.

Samantha Cameron
Yep, another tattoo at 10 Downing Street. David Cameron’s missus has a little something etched into her ankle – and it’s not anything particularly good either. SamCam has a rubbish dolphin inexpertly slapped on down there, looking like she got it in the early hours of the morning on a girlie holiday in Crete.

Theodore Roosevelt
Roosevelt was an impressive figure – arguably best known as the 26th President of the United States, you could equally comfortably refer to him as an explorer, soldier, author, naturalist or historian. It’s this sort of multi-faceted swashbuckling nature that led him to have his family crest emblazoned indelibly across his chest. Raaarr!

Helen Mirren
Ah, lovely Helen Mirren. She’s a national treasure, isn’t she? Single-handedly upping the stakes of the sexagenarian tattoo genre, she’s got a pair of interlocking Vs on her left hand, which she claims denote a ‘love thy neighbour’ attitude and serve as a daily reminder of the importance of tolerance. 

King Harold II
The last Anglo-Saxon King of England, Harold Godwinson reigned for just nine months in 1066 before copping it at the Battle of Hastings. His body was identified by his enemies on the battleground by his unique body art – most notably, his wife’s name, Edith, over his heart.

Sally Bercow
Cretinous publicity tart Bercow – wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow – likes to flaunt her spurious ‘fame’ by doing things like circulating images of herself online dressed only in a bedsheet, entering Celebrity Big Brother (bloody hell, they really will take anyone, won’t they?), and releasing top secret information about paedophile suspects and abducted schoolgirls on Twitter. She also has a tattoo of her kids’ names on her arm because, oooh, she’s so zany!

Dorothy Parker
Respected American poet, author and satirist Parker was an inspiration to countless writers and artists. And, rather charmingly, she had a small blue star tattooed near her elbow – a souvenir of a drunken night out in the 1930s.

David Dimbleby
What’s most surprising about national institution Double-D Dimbleby having a tattoo is not so much the ink itself, but the fact that he was 75 years old when he had it done. He’s got a scorpion on his shoulder; his explanation at the time (in 2013) was ‘I’ve always wanted one, and you’re only old once’. Well, quite.

The Katering Show

This is great. All cookery shows should be this offensive.

The ch-ch-ch-changes of Bowie

'it's a(door)able'

A gorgeous little one-minute game. Clicky.

Calgary's worst driver

The back-and-forth-back-and-forth is strangely hypnotic.

BBC: Your Story

If you've been looking out for a colourful list of various random things that happened throughout your life, this natty little BBC doo-dah is the thing for you - click here.

Kung Fury your new favourite film.

Korg Miku review

Not being a guitarist, I don't spend a lot of time watching pedal review videos. But this one is very amusing indeed.

Latte Motion

This must have taken ages.

Friday, 13 February 2015

13/02/15 - Phoneberks

Mobile telephones, it’s fair to say, are pretty ubiquitous in 2015. The tide has been swelling since the late 1990s, when affordable stick-it-in-your-pocket telephony started to become truly mainstream, and of course it wasn’t something that we needed to be trained in – phones have been growing in stature since 1876 (which was quite a year – Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray had a mad rush to be the first to arrive at the patent office with the idea of the telephone, Thomas Edison devised his carbon microphone, Tivadar Puskas invented the switchboard exchange; the following year commercial telephones were released in Germany, and after a little while it occurred to somebody to fit a ringer to them), and we know how to use them pretty naturally. They haven’t changed all that much in principle; sure, your grandma’s old rotary-dial phone – or, indeed, your great-grandma’s candlestick phone – don’t have all that much in common with an iPhone 6 in stylistic terms, but they’re all basically just machines with which to talk to people who aren’t in your immediate vicinity. It’s a fairly simple premise.

So why have people suddenly forgotten how to use them? People are bloody stupid in 2015 – go out for a stroll and see how many wallies you can spot misusing their phones, it’s embarrassing for the species. This extraordinarily easy-to-use device seems to be posing a great deal of difficulty for a lot of users. It’s not clear why this is. But here are the key types of common modern telephone stupidities, see if you can make any sense of it:

The holding-hands-free-kit-to-face
There are a number of types of hands-free kit for mobile phones, with the one that’s totally guaranteed to make you look like a self-important turd being the wireless Bluetooth thingy that clips onto your ear. Give it up, David Brent, it’s not 2005.
But that’s not the most annoying one. No, that accolade goes to the cable setup that has a pair of earphones plugged into the phone, with a microphone attached to the lead. Not an offensive item in itself, of course – very useful, in fact. And very easy to figure out how it works, yes?
Er, no, apparently not. Something you see every day, over and over, is people using these hands-free kits, but holding the microphone near to their face with their hand. YOU FUCKING IDIOTS! If you’re holding the hands-free kit up to your head, you might as well dispense with the whole thing and JUST HOLD THE PHONE UP TO YOUR HEAD. Particularly if you were holding the phone in your other hand anyway. Berk.

The moving-from-ear-to-mouth
I just can’t work this one out. People who hold the phone up to their ear to listen to what’s being said, then move it round to their mouth when it’s their turn to speak, then move it back to their ear for the response… this daft behaviour demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how the telephone works. The microphone is very sensitive, and specifically engineered to pick up your voice while suppressing other ambient sounds. You don’t need to put the fucking thing in your mouth in order to be heard.
Furthermore, it demonstrates a certain lack of respect for the person on the other end. ‘You may not interrupt,’ you’re saying. ‘You will listen to the important things that I have to say, and then I will allow you a moment to respond.’
Everyone’s laughing at you when you move your phone about like this. You look like a total moron.

The Apprentice
A fairly well-established device, this – having your mobile on speakerphone, and holding it up to your mouth to conduct your end of the conversation. This is what they do on The Apprentice, hence me calling it that here.
What the brainfarting fuckwits who do this on the bus seem to have failed to spot, however, is that such a device is necessary on The Apprentice because we, as viewers, are observing both sides of the conversation. It needs to be on speakerphone so that we can hear what they hear. If, however, you yourself are one half of the conversation, you don’t need to put it on speakerphone – because you’re already able to hear what it is that you’re able to hear. YOU FUCKING CLOWN.
Turn the speaker off and use the phone properly, you’re disturbing everyone.

The very-loud-talker
Another fundamental misunderstanding of how the phone works here. Well, actually, the same misunderstanding as in the moving-from-ear-to-mouth instance, but for a different reason.
People who are somewhere with a lot of ambient noise – walking down the street, in the pub, on a busy train, wherever – often feel the need to bellow into the telephone like Dom Joly. This is totally unnecessary. The microphone, as previously highlighted, is tremendously sensitive. The person at the other end can hear you perfectly well if you talk normally, you dumb shit – you’re the one in the loud place, not them. If anything, you’re just transmitting a lot of unnecessary noise to a quieter location. Why would you want to do that, what’s wrong with you?

Sadly, there seems to be no easy way to remedy all of this. Almost 140 years of behavioural evolution led the telephone to become an integral unit of communication, something that slipped effortlessly into day-to-day existence. But it’s all being forgotten now, for no obvious reason. 

My suggestion is this: print out this list of telephonic howlers for ease of reference, like an old 1950s I-Spy guide, and every time you see someone behaving in the manner listed above, simply slap the phone out of their hand. And stand on it. And push them over. (Be sure to explain why you’re doing it, of course - you don’t want this crusade to be misinterpreted as a series of random hate crimes.) Let’s reclaim telephone logic one handset at a time. And let’s roll our eyes and tut a lot and say ‘Honestly…’ while we’re doing it.