Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Am I a terrible racist?

There's an advert on the telly at the moment which features a baby carrot who appears to be utterly terrified at the thought of being chopped up and eaten as part of someone's Christmas dinner. The advert triggered a memory of having seen a trailer for a recent animation of some sort where anthropomorphised vegetables unite in an attempt to avoid being ruthlessly slaughtered by humans. The sequence I watched would have made me incredibly upset as a child. The vegetables were being minced into pieces by an enormous pair of human gnashers, screaming in agony.

Those who know me will no doubt be aware that I don't eat meat, and haven't since 1981. I became vegetarian, by choice, at the age of seven, long before it was fashionable to do so. If you were veggie in the Midlands, in the early 80s, your only option for food, if you went to a restaurant, was fried egg, chips and beans. People in my class at school were actually banned from playing with me because "all vegetarians die." (I was banned from playing with several other people because their Mums said I was a "bit gay.") The 80s were hard core!

Years later, when I was the partner of an MP, we'd often find ourselves eating Sunday dinners at constituents' houses. When we arrived at the houses I'd always ask my partner if he'd remembered to tell them I was vegetarian. The response was always the same: I'll just go and tell them now. On every occasion, I'd hear the host's voice in the kitchen saying, in as nonchalant a voice as she could muster, that it was absolutely fine. Minutes later I'd hear the sound of the front door opening and someone's panicked footsteps running down the street to the local shop! The most classic occasion was when I was served a fried egg with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and all the trimmings!

Anyway, I'm not a militant veggie by any stretch of the imagination. I'll happily stick a chicken pie in the oven for Nathan, and don't have any issues with other people eating meat. I do, however, start to draw the line when people tell me I don't "look" like a vegetarian, and I get a little embarrassed when people fetishise meat, by which I mean the weird spontaneous rounds of applause that joints of meat often get when they're proudly placed in the middle of a table, and all those ludicrous traditions associated with the alpha male being asked to carve... It's all a bit primordial for my taste.

There are various "witty" things that meat eaters like to say to vegetarians. Just as when I used to carry a 'cello about with me and people would say, "that's a big guitar", it's always assumed that a veggie is hearing the jokes they tell for the first time. "Why don't you eat lamb, mate? Sheep are vegetarian!" "Eggs are baby chickens" and, my favourite of all, "how do you justify killing all those vegetables just for food?" Ho titty ho ho ho!

Yeah, yeah, I know these things get said to parody the holier-than-thou attitude of many veggies, but I also I know, deep down, they're said to assuage the inherent guilt a meat eater feels about chowing down on the flesh of a (once) living thing. And, I think it's this guilt (masquerading as bravura) which makes a group of advertising execs humanise a carrot in an advert... for a laugh. Imagine the same advert with a little calf with giant terrified eyes peeking through the window at a table laid out with a big dish of roast beef? It's a ludicrous advert. 

...It's almost as ludicrous as Indian call centres. Woh horsey! What's with the quantum leap? And why are you making these obscenely racist remarks?

The two companies I have regular dealings with who expect me to talk to people in Mumbai are Talk Talk and Barclays Bank. The largest problem seems to be that Indian call centre staff working for both companies are never given the same problem solving rights as their fellow workers in the UK. Everything is done by script, and if your answers don't tick the necessary boxes, then there's nothing they can do. It is frustrating all round. The expectation of failure from the customer kicks off the moment the phone is answered and stalemate is almost immediately reached. The customer's heart sinks as the verification questions begin. His sub-conscious starts screaming that he's wasting his time and the stress levels start to bubble. Perhaps as a result of some form of self-fulfilling prophesy, the conversation always ends with the customer rudely demanding to speak to a supervisor.

And today was no exception... All I wanted was a duplicate bank statement. After an almost endless set of security questions, he suddenly announced that I wasn't eligible to do telephone banking until my bank account had been linked to my telephone banking account and that I needed to go into a branch to remedy the situation. So I asked to speak to his supervisor and when he told me that his supervisor was on the phone, I'm ashamed to say that I heard the following words falling out of my mouth; "then can I speak to someone in the UK?" I was astonished when he said that I could, and two minutes later, I was speaking to a lovely Geordie chap, who, without any fuss, and without any extra security questions, sorted me out with exactly what I was after!

So why is this not something the guy in Mumbai could have done for me? Something similar to this happens every time I call Barclays or Talk Talk. There's always a moment when the person in India runs out of boxes to tick and says he can't help, and the situation is only ever resolved (swiftly) when I speak to someone in the UK.

So what is the answer? And am I a terrible racist for saying this stuff?

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