Suspicions of a shop assistant: when hospitality takes a sinister twist

Buy me buy me BUY ME! Or don’t buy me, but then lie in bed and suffer, and hate yourself, and wish you had, so really you can’t win. Wow us sugary things are clever

Generally, I’ve found that shop assistants fall into four main categories (there are probably numerous sub-divisions, but I’ll leave the geeks to ponder what they might be): you have those who despise everything about their job and show it in their body language, their facial expressions, or their slow lumbering walk to the till with no apology for making you wait (there is something so true and right about these people’s understandable hatred of serving the general public though, so for this I have respect), those who acknowledge you and care a bit (or at least bother to make eye-contact), those who make conversation with every single customer whether the customer likes it or not (they especially adore the old ones, who they can mine for all sorts of information…which is really irritating when you’re stuck behind an older citizen who really wants to talk) and the last kind who you have to watch out for the most: the assistants who are oddly happy and up-beat for no obvious reason, and seemed to really want to know you. I’m talking consistently happy, in a way which is unlike almost anyone in my life (who knows, maybe I just always walk in when they are about to finish their shift, or perhaps that’s just their personality, but somehow I doubt it. Surely the world cannot really be this cruel?). And today, at the newsagent’s, I came across a particularly happy — make that obscenely happy — shop assistant. One of the most extreme examples who I really do dread. Do not get me wrong: I love nothing more than for a sales assistant to be welcoming, but there is a big difference between being welcoming and being welcoming in a creepy, sinister way…

As soon as I walk into one of these situations — almost like a having a great big hug imposed upon my personal space — I fear the inevitable: the sales assistant looking at me in a way in which I cannot ignore — or will not, because I was brought up too well-mannered, I have no doubt — and talking to me; and not shutting up. Somehow, perhaps by genetic intuition, the worst of these offenders know that to really freak a customer out, the best method is to adopt the guise and mannerisms of a close friend and ask a question. Something open-ended and unnecessarily kind like “How was your day?” will do it perfectly. And this was to be the technique used on me tonight. All I wanted to do was buy a packet of McCoys salt and vinegar flavour, and now here I was forced to consider how my day had been — all of this against my will.

So I said: “It was average, thanks,” and Immediately I knew I was done for and realised my mistakes. Two of them and they were in no way small! Firstly I had gone and done the ultimate stupid thing of answering in a kind of vague, mysterious way. A way which begged yet more questions to be asked. Had I said “OK” or “Horrendous thanks for asking, my cat was squashed flat by an articulated lorry. Twice,” I’d have shut the conversation down before it could even get started. But by saying “average” I had, instead, opened up the flood gates of mystery and intrigue, playing right into this sucker’s hands! Why was it average? I could almost see his warped mind processing. Fortunately he didn’t say it loud. Unfortunately he did laugh, give me a weird kind of I-know-you-from-somewhere glance, and grab a packet of Fruit Pastilles. Yeah, that old trick. It appeared I was to be groomed.

I had to think very, very fast. “No thanks,” I said, “I don’t like Fruit Pastilles.” That was definite, nice and definite. It was also a lie, a massive ENORMOUS lie — I had gone through a fairly wild period way back in 1991 where I could think of nothing but them — but he did not know that; this I told myself repeatedly. I had also ensured a stoney and impenetrable gaze and was confident that this shop assistant, however eager to make conversation he was, was unable to read my feelings. Or at least the feelings he could read would be pretty obvious: these blatantly obvious signs would say things like Go away and Leave me alone and Stop looking at me right now, weirdo! I was better at this repelling shop assistants thing than I thought; I reminded myself to give me more credit.

It was then that the shop assistant — a kind of androgynous, overly tall, Avatar-esque ponytailed male who I had thought might be a female in the same vain as Hilary Swank in Big Girls Don’t Cry — went in for the second blow of attack: the guilt trip. He needed to shift the Fruit Pastilles today, he said, twice. They were on special offer and were only £1, which as anybody knew — even if they found the sweets repulsive — was a damn good bargain which only a fool could pass up. A serious conundrum that worked on my tendency to buy sugary things, even when I know I absolutely shouldn’t. The cruelest kind of grooming, almost certainly intended to lure me into the world of part-time shop work (as a 16-year-old I had done a year in my local Spar, and after a succession of elderly people offering me “the right change” at the till — which was demonic and didn’t add or subtract at all for you — that was enough), it seemed.

A man models a pair of horrendous short trousers. Even his shadow is scared!

And I’ll admit I almost caved at one point. Who wouldn’t have? I almost gave in and bought two packets of Fruit Pastilles. But then I found myself in a new place, mentally. A place where a box of Fruit Pastilles that cost £1 and were sitting there all alone just looked desperate and pathetic and…well, a bit pointless, really, like those trousers which I see people wearing which aren’t quite shorts, and definitely don’t qualify as trousers. I won’t ‘t lower myself to that level, I told myself, and with that I asked for a bag — why I have no idea, and it all got a bit bizarre and embarrassing when he gave me a tiny bag with no handles, no bigger than the packet of crisps I had purchased… — and went on my way, proud of myself for not buying into the shop assistant’s scam but also a bit annoyed, I’ll admit, because as I said before, I do love Fruit Pastilles.

How My Clay Great White Shark Was Born (…If Only You Knew…): Part 2

Nothing to do with sharks: me in clay. Doing the hair was a nightmare, I tell YOU!

…But I kept going. I was in this. I couldn’t just give up (OooOOps, Ive been a naughty boy or girl and I haven’t yet read part 1, so please take me to part 1!).

Once I’d resigned my model to being total crap, things started to go much better. It was as if the hand of doom had been lifted and the clay wanted to cooperate. What can I say, I am good at kidding myself.

Stop. Wait: I haven’t said yet what happened when I noticed the fins I was yet to create…

Yes, I had noticed the fins of my rubber model shark before of course — you couldn’t help but notice them! — but up until now, I hadn’t considered how I would make the fins and attach them to the body. The logistics of it, which now revealed themselves to be perilous! Now I really looked at the rubber shark, I saw that the fins on the shark’s side splayed out and downwards beneath the submarine-like body. What a pain for a man who thought things were going better. So you could say that this presented a serious problem…with the clay still soft, how would I attach the fins and make them strong enough to support the immense weight of the body?!

I wouldn’t, that much was clear…I was in dire straits, again…

For ten long minutes — which, as any craftsperson knows, is a lifetime in the world of quick-drying packet clay — I ummed and agghed, considering how I could magically suspend the shark in the air and attach the fins. Then a stunning flash of inspiration struck me right about the head! I would rest the shark on something so it was off the table, and then add the side fins…

Another angle of the shark now getting there…before the big disaster that dogged me a good ‘n’

Yes, I know this solution sounds obvious, but trust me: when you’re in the thick of Great White Shark model-making, you don’t always see the most obvious solutions…

Now I had solved this somewhat fundamental problem, I was free to continue my quest. This I did with gusto: my next task was to build the–

WAIT! No, scratch that: my next task was to come to terms with the fact that I had made the tail of the shark way too flippin’ long! Not only that, but the shark’s entire body was way too long. Damn that rubber shark and my extreme excitement and enthusiasm…

There was no other thing for it. I couldn’t just stare at this dodgy specimen all day. I had to make an executive decision while the clay was still nice and soft, and that I did: sometimes you have to do this with model-making, and in this case, this meant cutting my shark in half and extracting a large part of the abdominal area.

Then followed a precarious few minutes as the fate of my shark hung heavily in the balance. The bloody thing just would not stick back together, no matter what orthodox and unorthodox tactics I used. I’m disgusted with myself for saying it, for creating this monstrosity, but it looked a lot like one of those cut-and-shut cars that used to be all the rage back in the 1990s (but stopped being all the rage when they started separating into 2 when drivers were joining the motorway at 90 miles per hour. Novel, but not what you ideally want to happen. Unless you have really annoying kids in the back and it’s a very long drive all the way from Cornwall to Scotland, that is).

If I’m making it sound highly dramatic, well, dear reader, that’s because it was

Now I had the fin situation under control, it was time to pay some more attention to the head, which, up until now, had much more resembled a very angry cow. For a good twenty minutes I geeked around with smoothing the head and body into the right kind of shape, and then I moved onto the top dorsal fin and tail fins — both of which demanded a special skill-set that it appeared I did not possess.

After ten minutes, I sort of possessed it, but it wasn’t easy. I surmised early on that I would have to use a bit of cunning artistic license, otherwise the fins would be much too thin and, later, when the shark stood on them and I felt all proud and happy, they would collapse under its own weight and I would be sent frantic with annoyance and worry (and possibly embarrassment too, depending on who else witnessed my fishy shambles).

An hour and a half in and I was sweating…the clay was drying fast and becoming much less maliable!

Nothing to do with sharks — this is actually my brother’s face in icing on a poor quality gingerbread biscuit bought from the co-op on special offer (I did the face of course, you can’t buy them like this, duh). I certainly learned my lesson there.

I moved onto the gills. I really liked doing the gills, they were tough but fun. Then, horribly, terribly, it dawned on me that I hadn’t even started the teeth yet…

I needed to, and in a quickfasthurry!

So that was precisely what I did: one by one and looking like the kind of nerd that even a fellow nerd from Games Workshop would find unsettling, I cut the tiny razor sharp daggers from the clay I had left, and then, very carefully, went about putting them into position. I do not mind saying one bit that it was a monumental PAIN IN THE ARSE. You had to get the angle just right, or else the shark would be a laughing stock. Not really the look you want when you’re trying to recreate the world’s most vicious swimming predator.

I thought I was now out of the woods. That all my preparation and intense concentration had paid off. But over the course of the next three hours I was reminded, repeatedly, that I could not leave my shark’s side for even three minutes — less it become a disaster! As the clay dried, it was crucial to be in or near the immediate area drinking peppermint tea, hovering like a trenchcoat flasher, just in case a fin looked like it might fall to one side, or the thing might collapse in the middle, rendering the whole operation pointless.

So I was to be on vigil until it ended five endless hours later. Not one of the best wait-around times I can remember, but I was damned if Iw as going out and leaving that thing to its own sordid devices after what we’d been through together. No way was I going out to have a good time, only to come back with a smile on my face to see that my shark miniature had warped and twisted into a total flippin’ wreck!

Not this shark maker.

The finished article


All my waiting by the shark’s side had been more than worth it. My God I as relieved. The Great White Shark was just as it had been left before midnight! Now a light grey colour and seventy-percent hardened, all the effort and attention-to-detail was set forever and not going anywhere. Or at least until some moron picked it up and said “Wow, how long did it take you to make–” and then dropped it.

I thought that was the end of the making. I thought I had really done it. But no sooner had I started to relax than a tooth dropped out…followed by another! In the end, all of them dropped out and I spent another hour gluing them back in…

Once it was 100% dry, or so I thought, I decided I would sandpaper my shark. I would take it outside and carefully buff it until it was smooth (even though Great White’s aren’t smooth, but still).

It began well, but events took a sinister twist when the left fin snapped off, followed almost immediately by the tail. With the shark in three pieces, I won’t lie…for a split-second the urge was there in massive amounts to hurl the damn thing right over the next-door neighbour’s fence. But I kept my cool. No flying miniature Great White was potentially going to maim someone. Instead, I spent another hour gluing it all back together and staying close by with yet more peppermint tea. In times of strife, peppermint tea is nearly always the answer, as I believe I have demonstrated (warning: do not drink and model-make. It will only end in tears).

Later, I would paint it as you see in the picture, but first I wanted to show the shark to my friend Ola (via picture on my phone), who is a also a huge fan of these devastating beautiful creatures. I remember the text conversation we had quite well. It went something like:

Her: “Wow! It’s amazing!” I promise I’m not trying to big myself up, she really did say something like that.

Me: “Thanks!”

Her: “…So how did you do all the rows of teeth? You know…like they have? That must have been hard.” Something like that, I think.

Me: “Rows of teeth…?”

Oh God, oh no. A horror thought struck me: Great White Sharks had multiple rows of teeth and I had done just one row each…

And I call myself a shark lover!

Go and hug a Great White Shark RIGHT NOW!

How My Clay Great White Shark Was born (What A Pain In The Arse): Part 1

A rare photo of a Great White Shark looking gormless with that teddy-bear expression we all know and love. No wonder they hate human beings for capturing these embarrassing moments!

“I know what I’m going to make…” I said to myself. Actually I probably said it several times; probably I muttered it while rushing to finish my work so I could just get on with it. I was all excited. Inside me was the joy of a child — one of those really irritating ones who keeps poking you in the arm until you turn around and shout in his or her face all un-adult-like.

Then I announced, still only to myself, but still, it had to be announced and not just said.”…I’m going to make myself a Great White Shark out of clay!”

My oh my, it was a fine day (and that ends my bi-yearly attempt at poetry, don’t worry. How can someone spend so much time writing yet be such an abominable poet? I don’t know, but somehow I manage it easily).

I have always loved Great White Sharks. I mean, ask anyone, I’ve always loved all sharks — Tiger Shark comes a close second, followed by the Hammerhead — but the Great White Shark…this shark is different…to my mind, this animal holds a special sacred beauty which no other shark (or creature, with or without legs, for that matter) can touch. Millions of years old and sensational at all things killing-wise, it isn’t the violent misguided stereotype of the Great White which makes me love it so…no, it’s so much more than that. I love Great White’s so much I even bought the Jaws DVD box-set at full price (£9.99), even though it didn’t actually contain the original movie (just the slightly less legendary Jaws 2, 3 and 4). I know! There is a price to be paid for committment, what can I say…

Back to the day I decided to make the shark. It had been on my mind a while. Now it had to get done.

My plan seemed flawless. Using the clay-making skills I had been carefully honing since my sixth-form days — my last big clay model before I left college was a four-foot tall bizarre building where rent would have been very cheap, seeing as nobody had any floors or ceilings, although they did have gigantic windows to make up for it — I would construct an anatomically correct miniature Great White Shark to end ALL SHARK MODELS. Once the clay had dried and fully hardened, I would then paint it with painstaking precision, carefully taking the time to not insult the animal’s evolution.

A previous clay-making attempt…click my brother’s face to read about it. If you like. No pressure. Really

But the very act of doing so panicked me immensely. There were so many things to remember…to remember to remember…among many, many things which had to be right or else internet shark experts would come down on me like a ton of bricks, I had to 1) remember to get the shape of the head just right and 2) get the length of the fins right, too. I also had to make sure that 3) the shark was not too thin or too fat, and that 4) he looked supremely ferocious, but not so ferocious that my model only added yet more weight to the compelling yet inaccurate argument that Great White Shark’s are good for nothing but shredding human beings into tiny pieces for no good reason (they’re good for much more, and actually inhabit a unique role in the watery eco-system as a whole, don’t you know. And no, I didn’t rip that straight from Wikipedia. I adore my sharks, so I just knew it).

I began by ordering my clay — it was all very well talking about creating a Great White Shark model, but until I had clay in my possession it would be easy to wimp out and do a zebra, or a measly elephant (though the trunk would be a tricky conundrum, there is no doubt). There were two options: the big bag of brown clay stuff like what we’d used in sixth-form, which I actually preferred, or the more expensive individual packets of clay which you can easily order online. Both have their good and bad points. Although the big bag of brown clay would have been a better self-black-mailing device sometime in the near future, if I did go and wimp out — it cost more and would look very imposing, staring at me from the corner of the room, mocking me for not daring to open it like a man — I quickly decided that the small packet of clay would be better suited. It’d dry a hell of a lot quicker, which could be bad news all round, but I always find there’s something great about pressure and lack of time when working with clay. It forces you to focus more, and from that focus comes a conclusion of wild thoughts and imagination which you just don’t get when you spend hours and hours procrastinating about what to do and how to do it. The panic brings the best out of you.

Opening the packet, I was actually quite nervous. That may sound quite utterly stupid — I was on my own, and if it went wrong nobody but me and the mangled attempt of shark would know about it — but I can’t stand throwing things away. I’m bad enough with old T-shirts from years ago that hold some nostalgic significance which I can’t actually remember. With stuff I have made, if I throw it away, it doesn’t just feel like I wasted my time, it feels like I wasted a part of my soul as well.

I know, us bloody creative types

Ah, I didn’t say about the model yet. I wasn’t going to make my shark just from a picture, oh know. You think I’m stupid? Not me. I mean, I would have done if I’d had to, but seeing as I had a small rubber shark (given to me by a then-girlfriend from years ago when she sponsored Derek the Great White Shark for me, swimming somewhere in South Africa, who knows where Derek is now…I just hope he is happy… ) to give me some semblance of help, I decided to model my shark roughly on that. There would have to be adjustments in form, of course — the rubber shark had a very dodgy bent tail and wasn’t a Great White or any other shark I recognised, but more a hybrid of every shark that had ever existed — but the essence of the idea was there, at least. All I had to do was craft a beautiful model out of clay based on that.

Hmm, simple…

Immediately upon beginning, I was besieged by a feeling that may be familiar to you…one of Oh no, this is horrifically difficult…more so than I could have ever anticipated! Actually it was probably the culmination of many feelings — dread, excitement, fear and loathing of my own stupid obsession with sharks that has always got me into model-making trouble — and for a few minutes it had me eating out of the palm of its decrepit paralysing hand. There I sat, rolling clay into more or less pointless sausage-like shapes, hoping that if I rolled it just right, the shape of the Great White would magically materialise out of nowhere.

Which it didn’t. Many other shapes materialised — the shape of a Giraffe’s foot, for instance, and what looked like a Mountain Gorilla’s giant nipple ,maybe — but the Great White, as in nature, eluded me.

I care, I really do. I even spent a while finding a picture that was the perfect compromise between aggressive and majestic. I could have so easily uploaded a hideously frightening photo of one launching out of the water, and I wanted to, oh I really did, but I restrained myself.

Take me to Part 2 right this minute! Or, if you like, read about my novel

So, what’s your secret Hidden Talent?

Two baby foxes fight over who has the bushiest tale. Important stuff indeed

Aside from The Undateables, I think Channel 4s new show Hidden Talent — about everyday people discovering raw potential for talents they never knew existed — is one of the best things I’ve seen on TV in a while.


1) We can all relate to it. All of us have tried baking a cake and found we were absolutely terrible, for example, and then discovered that, for no apparent reason, we just always seemed to be there in our car going 30mph when some poor sod was walking by completely unawares on the pavement. Likewise, some people just seem to always be the poor sod on the pavement; for whatever reason, they were born with that uncanny knack for always being unlucky in a hilarious way which benefits mankind more than it will ever know. Thankyou, poor sods. OK, so there are no awards for being the latter — and it has to get pretty bloody annoying, especially when it’s the third time in the same week and you come home with soaking-wet pants to the sound of your long-suffering wife crying “Oh Jim…not again, seriously…” — but it’s still a talent and we all have one, even if it is unfortunate. That’s better than nothing, right? At least we can say we’ve made our mark on this world in some tangible way.

2) It’s a hundred times more exciting to watch, say, than Foxes Live — another more bizarre Channel 4 show which documents what the lives of somewhat tame English foxes get up to when…well, when they’re just walking around and stuff, really. It genuinely is pretty pointless TV on a whole new level. The last episode saw a variety of these furry hated celebratory fiends going about all kinds of sordid mangey never-seen-before business: the biggest tragedy was that most of it wasn’t even live as had been advertised; the foxes had, apparently, seen the cameras coming (not that if it had been live it would have been that much better, as far as I can see. A fox rummaging through a bin is the same live or recorded, is it not?!).

3) Another reason why the Hidden Talent series is so good: it reminds us of old times. Alice-in-Wonderland-times — or Rambo-times, if you were a boy who cunningly managed to watch almost every 18-rated horror movie before he was 13 — way back, when we were smaller and our powers seemed unlimited. When adults were not just older, but also tragic and hysterically pointless. Take me for example. As a boy, people probably didn’t see much special about me, aside from my annoying ability to draw (my mum’s words, not mine, before you jump on me!): I seemed to have all the traits of Autism without actually being Autistic — Dyscalculia made me this way, and mangled my perception of spacial awareness and maths so severely that it warranted this statement all these years later — and a nose which was years ahead of its time in growth and maturity (we’re talking both girth and length. Really, it belonged to be in at least the year above). Yet put me up against the other boys in the toilets — even the taller boys who were said to have the advantage of a flicking wrist — and I was a formidable force to be reckoned with when it came to the who-can-wee-highest-up the metal urinals challenge. More an ancient rite of passage than just a physical matching of boy-against-boy in what might at first seem a trivial and debatable childhood act, it involved, as can be expected, three or four of us (it could be five, there was no strict enforcement of the law within these walls) all standing in line a set distance away from the urinals, and aiming the onslaught of our golden-power-flow heavenward to the highest point, until the arch of yellow descended, splashing everyone’s shoes with a very satisfying sound that made walking into chemistry with piss-soaked shoes easily worthwhile (it gives an interesting new angle to the expression “Don’t go near the golden arches!” don’t you think?). The other boys, even the bigger boys, didn’t stand a chance! To be honest, I look back all these years later and I don’t even know what they were thinking about going up against my turbo-bladder. Not only could I wee up past the metal and onto the unknown of the bricks above the stainless steel where really very few boys had ever managed to ascend to, but if I put my mind to it with particular, groin-straining, sphincter-tensing committment then I could occasionally blast it out of the window (that had always been left open for centuries to allow this sacred act to take place)! Honestly, the thought of piss dribbling down old bricks might sound rancid and wrong, but the sight of it could literally make a crowd of bigger boys gasp where they stood and say “I hate puberty!”.

So I guess what I’m really saying is this: don’t count yourself out, even if you feel like you have nothing left to give the world and your talents begin and end at just about being able to not over-cook pasta…because somewhere inside you is the raw potential for something bigger and better.

Even if it does involve a freakishly powerful bladder.