Friday, 29 July 2011

Service Stations as a Microcosm of Capitalist Sheeple-Herding

I had to go to Addenbroookes Hospital yesterday. Cue the long, boring journey from Sussex to Cambridge, made longer and more boring by the road works that only appear at the start of school holidays.

Most political geeks like me have mini-causes ingrained in us. They achieve absolutely nothing but they make us feel better. I cannot buy a Murdoch paper, I refuse to buy drinks at Starbucks and I never, ever, use Motorway Service Stations.

Yesterday however, I had no choice. Just past Gatwick, I remembered I was supposed to have a a "full bladder" for the particular appointment I was attending and needed to stop to buy some drinks.

Once inside the soul destroying, plastic and chrome cattle shed I made my way past Costa Coffee - £2.69 for a large coffee and around £2 for every cake. Exactly when did we accept paying £2.69 for a cup of coffee? Every member of staff was of ethnic origin, surely not seeing the fruits or these extraordinary prices in their wage packs?

Then on past the "casino". Yes, really, there are mini-casinos to squeeze a few more pointless quid out of people making their way around the country. Makes perfect sense.

My husband decided he wanted a BigMac and queued with all the other economic-sleepwalkers for his bit of cardboard soaked in fat. Their staff too were all black except the two managers who were white and shouting at these minimum-wage slaves as if they were animals.

Finally I got to the "shop" This is not really a shop, it is exploitation in it's purest sense. I picked up a carton of Ribena (Normally 79p) and headed for the till. "£1.35 please" said the man crammed into the space behind the checkout, who was so morbidly obese that his hands morphed with his arms that morphed with his entirely round body.

I couldn't help myself. "£1.35?!?!?!? But that's terrible"

"Not at all" he replied from his dizzying minimum-wage perspective "You're just lazy. If you'd been better prepared, you wouldn't have had to stop here."

I promise this was his answer. To his customer. Who was a little curious about why she should pay double for a product for no good reason.

This blog post formed in my mouth, but I swallowed it whole. I wanted to suggest to him, that someone earning minimum wage might think again about judging his neighbour for not wanting to be exploited and instead, judge the out-of-control excesses of a capitalist system that has made it OK to charge us prices we can't afford.

I wanted to point out that FTSE 100 Executives got 32% pay rises last year, whilst he was almost certainly taking a pay cut due to inflation.

I wanted to point out that the energy companies were all announcing billions in profit in almost the same breath  as raising bills for customers like him by up to 20%.

I wanted to point out that he was working in a "shop" in which he almost certainly could not afford any of the products.

I wanted to point out that the only reason "shops" like the one he was working in could charge such exorbitant prices was because we were a captive market. Without leaving the motorway and risking getting lost, few had any choice but to pay £1.35 for their Ribena or £2.69 for their cup of coffee.

But what was the point? I looked around me. The place was swarming with customers, cheerfully queueing up to be financially-abused. No-one questioned the price of their coffee or bagel or beak-burger. There are always a few old ladies translating the prices into "old money" shocked by the resulting shillings and pence tally, but they are getting rarer, replaced by the generation who have given up.

If, one day, I stop to find coffee has reached £10 a cup, I won't be surprised. There is, after all, only one way to keep shareholders in every increasing profits. I would be less surprised to see people cheerfully paying it. Yet another area of their lives where they know they're being shafted, cheated and mocked, but one they stopped questioning years ago.

I found the whole experience more depressing than reading the Daily Mail. We never stand up to anything any more and in fact we're happy to pay £2.69 for a cup of coffee. We're all middle class now and it makes us feel aspirational and a little spoilt to pay three times as much as we need to for a little slice of acceptance.

Our wages barely pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads, yet we have been sold exploitation in a beautiful box all tied up with the most alluring shiny bow. It happened so long ago, none of us remember what's inside the box any more. We're too distracted by the pretty wrapping.


  1. Another excellent blog sue and i know how you feel. It could have been worse if you had to have stopped off at Gatwick where my youngest daughter works at pret part time £4 for a sandwich and as you say the customer just pays up

    It's like every time i pass our cinema/restaurant complex here in Crawley the parking bays are all full and on the verges that's around 2000 spaces where's the money coming from I thought we were in a recession? That is one of life's mysteries of which I have yet to work out and probably never will

  2. We are fiddling while Rome burns. Across the US citizens are stockpiling vast amounts of food, water and medical supplies along with private arsenals that would rival an army in anticipation of an unprecedented economic collapse and resulting anarchy. Even if this was not to happen very grim times are ahead and are in fact already being experienced. Any major US event will affect us directly and rest of world. Only five days left until a potential default on their huge national debt even if this is temporally averted or postponed does anyone think the prices here will go down and if so when?

  3. Fantastic post, as usual. I really liked this:

    "We're all middle class now and it makes us feel aspirational and a little spoilt to pay three times as much as we need to for a little slice of acceptance."

    Very inspiring language.

    You may be interested in this. I worked for the "C" coffee shop. That cup of coffee that customers pay £2.69 for? Guess how much it costs them to produce. 10p. Nop, I am not making it up. The difference, shockingly, doesn't end up in the workers' pockets. Minimum wage to start, weekends included. A*holes.

  4. It's not that you get a cup of coffee. No, they insist in selling you a vat of the stuff. I barely manage a small coffee; god only knows what the large coffee comes in, a dustbin a la Desperate Dan!

  5. great post, Sue! have been worried, hope you're Ok.

  6. Mote whiny bullshit. Service stations have considerable overheads stuck in the middle of nowhere as a lot of them are.

    You know the journey? Make sandwiches or bring a flask of tea or coffee. As for having a pee you can generally do this for free.

    Poor entitled to everything for nothing you. My heart bleeds.

  7. Why do we need to be told that the man who sold you the Ribena was...

    "so morbidly obese that his hands morphed with his arms that morphed with his entirely round body" ?

    You have let yourself down badly with that comment, it comes across as sneering and judgemental. Which, considering the aims of this blog, is not appropriate in any way.

  8. Lucy - Perhaps you missed the part we HE called ME lazy? It was simply a "pot and kettle observation"

    No, not everyone who is so fat they can't walk to the door is lazy, but it was certainly a huge irony dontchya think?

  9. Sue, I didn't miss the part where he called you lazy. That is simple rudeness from a possibly poorly trained sales assistant.

    Since obese people are so poorly regarded in our culture and abuse of them is seen as justififiable by so many, I believe that campaigns (and campaigners) for those of us who are disabled ought to rein in any urge they have to disparage others on a tit-for-tat basis. If someone is rude to you, you have a choice, you don't have to be rude back.

    Would you have bothered to describe his body if he hadn't been obese?

    Why does it become "ironic" that a fat person called you "lazy" - not every fat person is lazy, just as not every slim person is a powerhouse of energy. But I'm sure you know that at heart and wouldn't wish to portray yourself as someone who simply believes that disparaging fat people is acceptable.

  10. An insightful and thoughtful article. It reminds me of the issues of exploitation and profit that Lindsay Anderson explored in his film 'O! Lucky Man!' We need to look through the label, the carton, the brand, and think about the line of production and how everyone involved is being exploited - apart from the CEOs.

    As someone who has lived on Incapacity Benefit for several years due to a life-threatening illness, I feel trapped both by my physical and economic limitations. It infuriates me how so many people have swallowed the 'Coalition's' propaganda about sickness benefits. It seems that there is an increasing consensus that the sick should be forced to work, even if they are unable to. It reminds me of the maxim that was inscribed above the gates of Auschwitz: "Arbeit macht frei", which means 'Work Liberates'. It really feels as if that is the direction this country is going, and that most people are just sleep-walking into a Fascist state, unaware that they are being spoon-fed sedating propaganda through the mainstream media - or 'manufacturing consent', as Chomsky calls it.