19 June 2011

Heartless spectacle-selling bastards

I'm moved to write about a TV advertisement which, every time I see it, chills me to the bone and causes whatever semi-digested meat-based snack is in my intestines to lurch upwards to my gullet in sour anger.

I refer, of course, to the Specsavers advert featuring the elderly sheep-shearer.

If you're not familiar with it, the story is as follows:

An elderly farmer on a windswept Scottish hillside herds his flock of sheep with the assistance of his faithful border collie.

Safely ensconced in the pen, he proceeds to shear them by hand, his rough fingers jerkily snipping the shears through their thick fleeces.

Finally, after all of the sheep have been shorn, the dog walks faithfully up and tentatively licks his master's hand.

Squinting, perhaps myopically, perhaps against the cold wind blowing across from the loch, the farmer snips away once more.

As the sheep hustle past the camera, we suddenly see the border collie, thin and shivering. It's coat has been snipped away by the short-sighted farmer.

The final image is of the farmer looking out across his land, grasping two fence posts to aid his balance. Across the centre of the screen, the words "Should've gone to Specsavers" appear.

Now, to many this advert will be an amusement. "Ha ha!", they will say, spraying Cornish Pasty crumbs from between their glistening, oil-smeared lips, "That stupid farmer sheared the dog because he can't see properly!" They will then attempt to brush the crumbs from the front of their acrylic sweatshirt, but only succeed in grinding the greasy short-crust pastry into the weave of the material, before continuing to watch Animals Do The Funniest Things! as a way of filling the fifteen-minute void in their lives before Britain's Got Talent comes on.

I, however, am not laughing. I will now take you on a journey to explain why. It will be a journey of imagination and supposition in which I make many assumptions and leaps of logic. Indeed, you may feel that I go too far and, at some point part-way through this blog post, we part company; I forwards to my aggrieved, entirely-manufactured-for-comic-effect conclusion, you to some other blog where the author isn't such a miserable, humourless bastard. If you do come with me on this journey, I can promise you nothing other than it will, eventually, end.

So, let's take a look at this farmer's story.

You will notice that there are no other people in the advert, just the farmer. We can reasonably assume therefore that he is all alone in the world. "Wait a second!", you may shout, "how can we possibly know that? Perhaps his wife is in the farmhouse baking a pie as we speak and warming his slippers* by the fire!"

*The vast majority of men's slippers are tartan. Is this the case in Scotland or are they rather more serious about tartan than we are? Would it be seen as a terrible faux pas to wear a generic, mass-produced tartan in Scotland, or are they relatively relaxed about the whole thing? Would they, perhaps, clad themselves in the Diana Princess of Wales memorial tartan as sold by Mackenzies of Piccadilly (available as scarves, capes & serapes) as a tribute to the Queen of Hearts? These are the sort of questions that keep me awake at night and prevent me from masturbating myself to sleep.

To answer the wife question, I direct you to Exhibit A, the full-length version of the Specsavers TV advertisement. I will embed the advert at the bottom of this blog so that you can watch it in all of its hideous, money-grubbing glory.

7 seconds in, there is a shot of an old church. Next to that church is a graveyard. In that graveyard are several graves. On two of those graves are very white crosses which contrast harshly against the general gloom of the black and white picture. I put it to you that these crosses are specifically being shown to suggest to the viewer that these are unforgiving highlands which only a fool would treat with disrespect. Life there is hard and many people have paid a terrible price for seemingly inconsequential errors of judgement, like going out without their coat on or trying to treat a persistent cough by sucking a toad, which I understand is a popular medical treatment in certain areas of Scotland.

Thus, we are drawn to the inevitable conclusion that the farmer's wife is no longer among the living. He is, to all intents and purposes, alone. We may never know what malady took his wife from him, but I shall certainly invent something later on in this post.

Now we must take a look at sheep farming itself.

After conducting in-depth research into sheep farming, I present to you Exhibit B. This is a question asked on 'Yahoo Answers' by a fledgling farmer who is eager to avail himself of the valuable knowledge held by the patrons of Yahoo. His question is as follows:

How much money can i get by selling sheep wool?
i am moving and becoming a sheep farmer but i don't know how much money i will make and how many sheep i need

You may be thinking, as I did, that this man is clearly a trenchant buffoon. Without knowing a single thing about the financial implications of becoming a sheep-farmer, he has already committed to move away from his loved ones and purchase a smallholding for the purposes of raising livestock. He will most likely get it all wrong, incur enormous bank charges, make himself bankrupt and unemployable, and spend the rest of his life stroking a curl of wool in the pocket of his threadbare jacket while reminiscing about those halcyon farming days.

However, that would be an incorrect assumption to make. We must give him some credit as, after some careful consideration, he followed that original post with some additional detail that I feel will enable him to be in full possession of the facts and pursue his dream more effectively:

and how much sheep would i need to make enough money to pay bills and get food and cloths and take care of the sheep with out getting a job

Oh, gloating Internet hoards; how you scorned him. Personally, I think he might be more suited to keepin' rabbits and growing alfalfa and livin' off the fat of the land, but whichever career path he chooses, I wish him the best of luck.

The answer provided by the thoughtful and knowledgeable Yahoo community is that "The price of wool for commercial use is way way down. In the UK it barely pays for the shearing."

Indeed, further research suggests that the fleece of a sheep is worth a paltry 10p. Our Specsavers farmer, of course, can't afford to pay for his shearing to be done so carries out the task himself, ensuring that each fleece is pure profit.

However, if you pause the advert at 0:19 you can see the farmer's entire flock which, according to my hasty count, is comprised of only about 35 animals. For the extremely specialised work that he carries out, he can expect to earn a paltry £3.50.

So far, we have learned that this farmer lives alone since the tragic death of his wife, and earns a pittance for back-breaking manual labour that most of us simply couldn't carry out. But what of his future?

Later that day, with the sun far below the horizon (I'm reliably informed that in Scotland it gets dark at about 1 o'clock in the afternoon and that's at the height of summer) the farmer enters his humble house and sustains himself with a meagre repast of thin Scottish soup; little more than lamb-bone stock with shreds of mutton and a misshapen potato. As he sits in front of a small fire which provides little in the way of either heat or light, he sees a slowly shifting blur of movement by his feet and realises that the dog has sat down to warm its weary bones by the faintly glowing sticks collected from the shores of the loch. Reaching down with a cold, gnarled hand, he strokes the dog gently.

He stops, a puzzled look creeping across his weather-beaten face, like the enormous shadow of a cloud moving across the craggy hillside of his home . His hand feels around the dog's neck and back and hind legs. The awful realisation hits him like a blow to the stomach. He places his other hand in front of his face and stifles a sob.

An avalanche of memories tumbles through his mind; memories of rain and wind, earth and stone, thorn and flower, and Morag...and Morag. His long-dead wife. She was his one, his only, his very first love.

They met at a ceilidh and danced the night away, inhaling the smell of whisky from each others breath. All the other lads were jealous and kept trying to cut in, but he laughed, pushed them away, and danced and danced, delighting in the sparkle of her eyes and the flash of her smile. He was the happiest man alive and knew, right then, that this woman would be his wife.

They were married within the month. The entire village attended the wedding. Morag looked so beautiful in her borrowed wedding dress that he thought his heart would burst. He clutched the brim of his hat so fiercely that he made a crease in it that never came out, but of course he never actually tried to remove it.

When his father died, he took over the family farm. He didn't have any choice in the matter, but even if he had, any alternative would have been unthinkable. For eight generations this little plot of land had belonged to his family. It was his birthright, his destiny, and he would tend the sheep until the day his own son took over from him, continuing their noble family tradition.

Six months later, the good Lord saw fit to bless them with pregnancy. Morag had good child-bearing hips and carried the baby well for 9 months. One night, he came into the farmhouse after a long days work and found her on the floor, a broken mixing-bowl next to her white outstretched hand, blood soaked into the material of her maternity dress and gathered in a thick pool on the rough stone floor, a stain that would never fade no matter how hard he scrubbed it.

Morag and their bonny wee boy were buried together in the churchyard beneath two dazzling white crosses. He would never cross the threshold of the church again.

The thought of finding another wife never crossed his mind. How do you replace your one true love? So, instead, he tended the farm; shearing the sheep, toiling in the soil, earning his living the only way he knew how. Even when the rest of the village moved away, tired of the daily battle against the harsh elements, he stayed.

He hasn't cried for forty years, since Morag's death, but as he sits there clutching the partially-shaved dog in his arms, he greets like a bairn*.

*Cries like a baby, for English-speakers.

He has no money for eye-tests. Sheep wool has fallen alarmingly in value over the last few years and he has no savings with which to supplement his income. With that one simple act, the accidental shearing of the dog, he realises that he can no longer look after the farm. With no son to pass the responsibility to, his livelihood is gone, his home is gone, his future is gone, his past is gone, and the countless thousands of hours of labour that he, his father, and his father's father put into the land are nothing more than wasted effort and folly.

His life is at an end.

And Specsavers think that's a suitable story with which to sell you some glasses. The bastards.

14 June 2011

My Father

This is a blog post that I've put off writing for a few weeks now. Primarily, I suppose, this is because I'm reluctant to manufacture a happy ending where one does not yet exist, but nonetheless I feel that it's important to let my thoughts tumble out onto the page.

My Father, after six months of harsh Chemotherapy treatment, has been given the all clear. Sort of.

The doctors at Kingston Hospital have stated that they cannot detect any leukemic cells within his blood using current medical techniques. This doesn't mean that he's completely cured, but rather that their devices are only accurate to a certain level. It's entirely possible that the leukemia is still in his body somewhere, hiding and waiting, eager to resume its battle against his immune system.

He is required to attend the hospital once a month for the next year so that tests can be performed. After this time, his visits become bi-monthly. This then continues for an additional 4 years and if, after that, no leukemic cells are detected then he will be given a clean bill of health.

I feel decidedly undecided about the whole thing. On the one hand, it would be absolutely unforgivable if I had the temerity to complain about the matter, after all it could have been a significantly different result. But I'm unable to totally relax and consider the issue resolved. Indeed, I find my heart faltering whenever my phone rings and I see 'Dad' appear on the screen. For a few seconds, I hold my breath until it becomes apparent that he's just phoned up for a chat rather than to impart some bad news.

Overall, this makes me feel like one of those insufferably precocious and spoiled teenagers on My Super Sweet Sixteen who howls like a stabbed alsatian because they've been given a $30,000 car two days before their birthday instead of on the day itself.

In my defence, I think part of the reason I'm so on edge about the whole thing is due to something my Father told me a few weeks ago. After visiting him in London, we went to his local pub for a couple of pints. On the walk back to his home, he said something that I'm having difficulty shaking from my mind. He spoke about how draining the treatment had been and how helpless it had made him feel. "I've got to tell you, Dan" he said, "if it comes back, I don't think I'm going to go through this all again."

It's entirely possible that this was merely him blowing off some steam and, if faced with a recurrence of the leukemia, he would be back in hospital like a whippet. But I fear that he was telling the truth and has no intention of receiving treatment should it reoccur. This obviously increases my fear that it will return, but I'm trying not to think about that. A phrase I like to smugly use on other people is, "Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due." I continue trying to live my life by that tenet, but it's harder than I'd previously imagined.

I've had some amazing support over the last few months and this whole matter has certainly helped me to recognise those people who are worth hanging on to, whether it be for their care and attention in discussing my father's health, or for simply engaging me in normal conversation without feeling they have to walk on eggshells, allowing me to carry on with life as normal. I won't name names because these people already know who they are.

My Father is now at home recuperating and is hoping to get back to work very soon. Indeed, the support he's received from his employers has been astonishing. Despite being ineligible for contractual sick pay, they put him on full wages for two months. Then, after that, his colleagues continued to give him his share of the 'tips pot' right up until the present day. This is something they didn't need to do, but it has prevented him from worrying about how the bills will be paid.

On the subject of work, there's a story that I'm compelled to relay.

My Father works in a major London casino. Sometimes, if a big player has had a particularly fruitful day on the tables, they will engage in a ritual that involves lining up all the drivers, doormen and receptionists, and walking the length of the line handing over tips, usually £50 a head. A few weeks ago, this noble tradition was taking place when, upon reaching the end of the line, the Big Player said, "Right, is that everyone?".

One of the drivers replied, "Yes. Well, everyone except Ray."

The Big Player asked where my Father was and the driver explained that he was in hospital being treated for leukemia.

Without a moment's thought, the Big Player nodded, reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a plastic-wrapped bundle of cash. He handed it to the driver and said, "Give this to Ray with my regards."

It was a thousand pounds.

I have difficulty telling that story without crying.

It's been such a long haul, that it's easy to forget how lucky my Father has been and, by extension, how lucky I've been. A few weeks ago, for instance, it was my 38th birthday. My Father, for the first time in almost a year, was able to catch the train down to Southend.

We went to the local Wetherspoons and spent a fantastic 6-7 hours trying the guest ales, eating steak and kidney pudding, and just chilling out. Earlier that day, I'd been a little bit annoyed that I'd received no birthday cards, except from my parents, and no presents, except for some money from both of them. Indeed, a very good friend completely forgot my birthday, which I have not yet forgiven her for.

As we left the pub, my Father and I hugged and he wandered off to the train station. I watched him go, then walked in the opposite direction towards the high street.

Once there, I sat down on a bench and lit a cigarette, cogitating on the day so far and bemoaning my lack of presents. All at once, a moment of realisation came upon me and I actually laughed out loud at how stupid I was. Far from being 'the birthday where I got no presents', this was quite probably the finest birthday that I'd ever had.

The best presents are those that you never thought you'd get.