Who makes the best cup of tea: George Orwell or Douglas Adams?

The Covered Market in Oxford is simultaneously cheap shoe shop gaudy, and hipsterific. I’m swathed in a gamey fug of meat smells, contained by the low ceiling. Each turn around a corner brings me a fresh sight of hanging flesh; that is, if I’m lucky enough not to to be blinded by a swinging rabbit carcass. If it weren’t for the prices, and the bubbling pockets of tourists, you could be stepping into almost any England of the last 100 years.

Cardews tea merchants opened in 1948 and moved into the market just under 20 years later, and the layout can hardly have changed: tins of tea and jars of coffee beans sit on the dark wood shelves, the shelves sit behind a counter and scales sit on it. I’m here to buy tea, and I have very little idea what I’m doing.

Luckily, on the wall near my head as I queue, there is a tariff that gives prices for different weights of tea. I pick the lowest unembarrassing order and, after embarrassing myself anyway by having to ask for an explanation of the different grades of tea leaf (finer grades make stronger tea, the young assistant told me), tuck two folded and taped white bags into my bag.

Buying a packet of tea, across a counter, in a market feels properly English somehow. Or that may just be the uncomfortable feeling from having to have any encounter where you aren’t totally sure of your exact rank in society. I’m here because I’m doing what George Orwell told me to do. Orwell, in his 1946 essay A Nice Cup of Tea, is very firm on using leaves and is very firm that these leaves must be free to be shaken around the pot (an earthenware pot, firm of course) – and he’s equally clear on the provenance: “Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea”, he says. So that’s what I got, along with a bag containing his second choice – Ceylonese leaves, which in the tea world didn’t change to being Sri Lankan until 1972.

Tea in Britain has been a tale of empire and class, ever since the 17 century when Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, popularised it and the East India Company began to import tea into Britain. Doctor Johnson loved the stuff and was reported to drink up to 16 cups in a session, but his contemporary Jonas Hanway published an essay that called on tea drinking to be “considered as pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation”.

So, while it might surprise us that Orwell thought it necessary to give us his “eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden”, he was following both a grand literary tradition and also a British tradition of thinking it necessary to codify and control such a simple action. In 1941, the Empire Tea Bureau paid for a short film called Tea Making Tips in which one stilted and prim lady of indeterminate age tells another: “There’s no great secret to making good tea, but some people get careless.” It has six golden rules and finishes by throwing to a comedy working class lady, “And what do you say, mum?” That film was aimed at those who needed to keep the wartime effort stoked with hot wet refreshment on an industrial scale; George and I are after something more homely. But do I follow the Orwell method, or should I take a more modern approach and take the advice of Hitchhiker’s Guide genius Douglas Adams, who set out a similar, but crucially different, set of rules in the 1990s?

Where Orwell is traditional and talks about loose leaves and country of origin, Adams is much more rooted in his time – the 1950s, at least when tea bags were first released in the UK by Tetley. “Go to Marks and Spencer and buy a packet of Earl Grey tea”, is his predictably quotidian, upper middle class solution. I got mine from Tesco in the end, as the only M&S near me is attached to a petrol station in Didcot, but most people who say they shop at Marks or Waitrose really sneak to Lidl when you’re not looking.

Suitably armed, I repaired to my kitchen, which was to become my laboratory. And I was to stay there until the end of the experiment: there and in the lounge drinking cup after cup, and also popping to the toilet (yes, it turns out that the 17th cup of tea is a diuretic). As well as the rigours of science and all forms of confirmation bias I was battling one great problem: that the 17th cup of tea never tastes as good as the first.

The first was made to Orwell’s recipe: pot warmed on the hob, six teaspoons of Indian tea directly into the pot, pot taken to kettle and water at boiling point poured in, a shake and you’re ready to pour. It’s strong, chewy, you can feel it coating your teeth as you drink. The earthy leaves that I spooned into the pot leave an infusion that is tangy and fortified without being stewed.

Adam’s Earl Grey (three bags, boiling water as quickly as you can into the pre-warmed pot, stand for two or three minutes and then pour it into a cup) fills the mouth with a taste of lemons. I don’t really like it. In any real sense the experiment can declare a winner.

The pot is a crucial stage in both of these methods: the mixing of the brew in a separate place to the cup (and as there was no other advice here I chose Orwell’s “cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type” for all tests) does seem to make a difference. The Indian tea is nicer, to my thoughts, than the Ceylon; it seems to produce fewer leaves in the mouth (George is against tea strainers). With milk is preferable to without.

Leaves versus bags, and blends can all be a matter of time and taste but we do find one fundamental difference: Douglas says milk in first, George has a very good reason why it should be last. “My own argument is unanswerable […] by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk”.

Both are aware of the societal pressure to put milk in last; Adams notes that “social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatever to do with reason, logic or physics” and, as he would probably have considered himself an iconoclast, it’s no surprise that he wants to go against the old order.

In one of the later series of 50s-set British sitcom Hi-de-Hi!, the well-to-do parents of Squadron Leader Clive Dempster referred to his sometime intended bride Gladys as “milk in first”, meaning that she wasn’t of sufficient breeding to marry into the family. I’d never heard the phrase and didn’t have a clue what it meant, I don’t think at the age of 10 I’d given any thought to tea production and class. I’ve made up for that now.

It seems that the question is the ultimate “U and non-U” signifier, and one that doesn’t need language to define it. Alan SC Ross, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, coined the terms U and non-U in a 1954 article on the differences that social class makes in English language usage – U standing for upper class and non-U representing the aspiring middle classes. As a working class lad I wasn’t at the forefront of this battleground, but living in Oxford one can see these interplays everywhere. Should I become a “milk in last”?

Nancy Mitford (one of the nice Mitfords) took up the usage in an essay, The English Aristocracy, and in a letter to Evelyn Waugh mentions a mutual friend who uses the expression “rather milk in first” to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale. Mitford, it seems, rather meant the whole thing as a joke, but others – including the family of Squadron Leader Clive Dempster – obviously did not.

If I were to find an answer, the Dorchester hotel seemed to be the place to get it. One can book a champagne afternoon tea for two on the balcony for a little over £100, so I did.

We sat on an interior balcony, overlooking the reception where wealthy Russians flow as they check in and out. A little unsure of what to do, we were shown the menu of “specially selected grand and rare teas served in our vintage Minton china set”. I chose an Assam tea after Orwell, while my partner plumped for the blend that Samuel Johnson was a 16-cup fan of. Our waiter was every bit his part in the empire charade: prim, neat, knowledgeable and a foreign national led to kowtow to traditions of Englishness thanks to the still-existing economic hegemony.

At the Dorchester, they put the milk in last. But maybe, like a stopped clock, the U were right on this one. I needed more help, and luckily I found some: back in Oxfordshire. Ross Meredith is a physicist who has studied the science of tea making. He told me: “As the milk makes contact with the hot fluid, isolated pockets of milk would reach a local equilibrium temperature above scalding point — the milk proteins will become denatured — before being cooled to the net temperature in the cup. This leads to a cup with a noticeably heavier taste.”


“This effect can be avoided by pouring the milk in first, as rather than causing parts of the milk to reach the final temperature of the mix ‘from above’, the milk is warmed to the final temperature from below, as the hot tea is gradually added.”

Brilliant, an answer.

“But whether that affects the taste is up to the individual.”


Ross, perhaps sensing my disappointment, alerts me to ISO Standard 3103: Tea — Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests. Last reviewed in 2013, this sets out the internationally recognised method for making a cuppa. He tells me: “It’s intended to standardise the material ‘tea’ for scientific/nutritional research rather than, say, for cafés to be judged, but you can be sure that any café I run conforms to it.”

And it says: “If the test involves milk, then it is added before pouring the infused tea”. It feels wonderful to be right, even if I’m never going to be considered socially correct.

Tea, as the Empire Tea Board would tell you, is ‘the cup that cheers”. Orwell said we should “feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it”. Douglas Adams thought it worth educating Americans that the British were not “generally clueless about hot stimulants”. It’s wonderful.

Fancy a brew? Orwell-style, with the addition of a tea strainer? Of course you do.


Orwell (1942, Evening Standard) A Nice Cup of Tea

Adams (1999, H2G2) Tea

Empire Tea Board (1941) Tea Making Tips

ISO 3103: Tea – Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests

Hi de Hi! “Wedding Bells” (1987)


Gawd help us if there’s a war: C86 and where it got us

Some, er, I dunno, 28 years ago, roughly speaking, the NME put together a cassette that readers had to cut out tokens and send off for through the post. It wasn’t their first and it wasn’t the last, although eventually they would become cheap enough to just be sticky-taped to the cover. The bands weren’t a “scene” at the time but by being lumped together became one, and the tape became a bedrock for a particular form of bed-wetting British “indie”.

Former NME staffer Andrew Collins has called C86 “the most indie thing to have ever existed”. It surely seems to have been the high watermark.

I take it you’ve worked out where the “86” in C86 came from, and the “C” (cassette, sheesh), and the bands came from around the country: not a single city scene. It came, they went, but not without leaving a mark. We’re still talking about it nearly 30 years later.

The compilation has just been rereleased – some would say recuperated and monetised – as a three-CD box set. Is this the final pillow over the face of “a certain type of indie”? Is Cherry Red indie’s Dignitas?

I know some of the bands and I know the history, but I’ve not had a cassette player for some years. So it’s a fairly clean sheet for the team of C86 when I unwrap the new box set. It comes with a carefully written booklet containing a more detailed and loving history that I’ve got time to pull the covers back on here. But I slip the CD1 version of the original tape in — not the CD2 or CD3 bolster — and listen to it.

Primal Scream sound nothing like Primal Scream of any other era. They sound crisp, nice, Byrds-y, far fewer sheets to the wind that they would in future years. The Soup Dragons’Pleasantly Surprised could be a missing Buzzcocks seven-inch. In The Mighty Lemon Dropsthere’s something that the Inspiral Carpets were able to add an organ to, turning it up to king size, and make successful.

Therese by The Bodines, sounds closer to The Smiths — at the height of their powers as a band, if not an influence in 1986 — than anything else here. They aren’t quite as smart, the production isn’t as tightly well made, the lyrics aren’t quite there, the vocals don’t have Morrissey’s somnambulant delivery but you can place them quite easily in the family tree of indie music. When Johnny Marr did a bunk soon after, they could have stepped in.

The Wedding Present seem almost tucked in at the end (of side two of the original tape). But they’re almost fully formed — they are the C86 band that made it big without changing too much. You can hear the following year’s masterpiece of an LP, George Best, starting to trickle out.

Listening to the tracks individually, it’s clear that these bands aren’t of a musical or lyrical family. There’s a spread, but it’s not what sets them apart from each other that’s surprising. They all say — all of them, in those words, in this blanket-coverage, oral history — that it wasn’t a movement.

Sean Dickson from The Soup Dragons: “There was no big movement called C86.”

Kev Hopper of Stump: “It wasn’t as if we felt part of a movement.”

Vix from Fuzzbox: “we didn’t really think of it as a movement.”

Mick Geoghegan out of Mighty Mighty: “It didn’t feel like a movement”

So, honestly, it wasn’t a movement. But was it a shuffling in the same orientation? If there was even a nod in the same direction it wasn’t musically, it was in independence of spirit. These were the bands that grew out of fanzines, DIY, let’s do the show right here (but without the brash confidence of say, punk or Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney) culture. They were taking the ethos of punk and applying it to many different notions of popular music. This is what jazz, or 60s beat boom, or post-punk, or even The Smiths sounded like when played by people with ideas and inspiration and enthusiasm — but without always the skills or the money.

A band no longer have to find a label to get a record out; as the pages of this website and many others will trumpet, crowdfunding is where it is at. Bands can set their ambitions at the level of their fanbase and produce release after release: without too much risk, albeit also without much chance of it getting any further. It’s a safer form of DIY, the preordering leaves less chance of boxes of CDs hidden around the house, under the mattress and in the ottoman. Unfortunately for us fans, it also means email after email of too much information about vinyl pressing problems and the band’s medical conditions, when we’d probably just rather pop to Swordfish and hand over a tenner.

From 1986 until the advent of Britpop, the C86 bands and their ideological children inspired reams of NME copy and at some point the definition of indie mutated and transformed to meet the music press’s caricature of what C86 meant. Shambling, drippy, pacifist, Walter the Softies, the trope went. The music press would print pictures of them and their ideological children and state: “Gawd help us if there’s a war.” It wasn’t the independence they were writing about. By the mid 90s the idea of indie was changed for good and certainly wasn’t about which label you were on. The music press’s indie chart—which did at that point simply list records released on non-major labels— would be dominated by underground dance vinyl. You could pick up a sparsely recorded, scrappily packaged, limited edition single by SMASH, say and find out they were on Hut Records. If you looked harder it would become clear that Hut was Virgin; everyone was at it.

At this point Thatcherism — which C86 can be seen as a reaction against — found its place in music acceptability. It would be called “aspiration”, this was the Blair era after all, but it was all about being the biggest and the best. Oasis were on Creation, as Primal Scream had been and still were, but boss Alan McGee had long since sold out to Sony. The bands themselves at this point didn’t want to sell out — they wanted to make sure there was always stock of their product on the shelves.

The Shop Assistants, The Shrubs, Bogshed: those names weren’t of bands who really cared how many units they shifted. The look of C86 – the T-shirts and the mumbling down at your plimsolls through a lank fringe – did became a way of life for some of Britain’s finest pop talents. But the bands were important in lots of other ways. Manic Street Preachers bassist, Nicky Wire, was certainly influenced: “McCarthy, probably my favourite band of all time,” he told The Guardian *the last time people were looking back at *C86. “They were quite fey musically, but their lyrics were so political and erudite: We are all bourgeois now, The procession of popular capitalism.”

You can look more directly at Belle and Sebastian or the twee bands that populate a festival like Indietracks, and see a fashion lineage and even that do-it-yourself spirit. But they seem to be trapped in aspic, cut off from the world of culture in the same way that modern-day teds, psychobillies, punks or northern soul aficionados are. This isn’t really a legacy.

The Wedding Present, today’s Primals and a more laid back Half Man Half Biscuit are all still going. None of them fit into the mould now, as we’ve seen they didn’t really then — you wouldn’t immediately put them all on the same bill. So we don’t now have a collection of bands to look at, just a collection of nearly 20 fantastic records.

At the time, as with punk, C86 must have sounded like anyone could do it — and that would have been the reason that it sounded so wonderful.

Time to get up, turn it over, spool the header to the right place with a pencil, and play it again.


The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists today

Around about 104 years ago Robert Tressell wrote a book that George Orwell called the “book everyone should read” and then, after publisher disinterest, chucked it on the fire. His daughter saved it from the flames and, after her father had died, persuaded publisher Grant Richards to take a chance on it.

And that is very much the story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: championing by those that believe in a world that seems indifferent to its ideas.

The original manuscript, charred as it may be, is now held in the TUC archives — a relic of the power in a union. It is remarkably close to the book you would read today, but the version that was published 100 years ago this year was an abridged version (down from 250,000 to 100,000 words) with a lot of the left-wing polemic taken out. It was also cut to end on a depressing note: implying that all these socialist idealists could do to change things would be to commit suicide.

The book follows Tressell’s real life closely: he was a member of the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first Marxist organisation, and painter and decorator in Hastings.Worried about being blacklisted because of his views, he picked a pseudonym after a decorator’s table, Hastings became Mugsborough and you feel that Robert Noonan became Frank Owen, a talented, honest but heartbreakingly poor man. Apart from the bosses, almost every man, woman and child in Mugsborough is constantly hungry and terrified about what the next day would bring: a foreman such as Nimrod taking a dislike to you would mean starving in weeks.

My wife, Libby, gave me a copy when we were courting, and I devoured it: howling and highlighting my way through it as it talked again and again of not just historical cruelty but of an unfairness that it is still part of life today. Reading it as the government passed edict after edict dividing the poor into the deserving and the undeserving, much as the charities and corporations do in the book, listening to stories of people forced onto zero hour contracts, not knowing if they had work from one day to the next, horrified seeing of working people forced to on food banks, starving, was like being part of a link through time. It was a good time for her to recommend it. I can’t say it changed me, I was already a Marxist, but it filled me with a spirit to keep fighting.

I also wondered if she wanted me to pick up some tips about wallpapering.

She’d first been given it in her teens by her grandfather. He had been a life-long Tory voter who had, conveniently for this story, also been a painter and decorator in a small town in south of England. He read at the age of 80, and it did change him: he stopped voting Conservative, switched from the Sun to the Mirror, and heroically starting using the Colchester Labour Club — at the other side of town — rather than the Conservative Club which was just across the park from his house.

Libby was a school contemporary of Labour MP Stella Creasy, who claims to have read the book at the age of 9: there must have been something in the Essex water at that time.

In the book Frank Owen spends much of his time not so much trying to convert his workmates to the cause, but trying to get them to take an interest in how the system controlled them. Buying pamphlets and books to lend to them in the hope that it might wake them up. They — the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists — are his targets, and the focus of his anger rather than his sympathy: “They were the enemy! They were the real oppressors! They were the people who were really responsible for the continuation of the present system … No wonder the rich despised them and looked upon them as dirt. They were despicable. They were dirt. They admitted it and gloried in it.”

But he keeps trying all the same.

Kevin Jones first read the book as “an immature 14 year-old” in 1969. He had got a job as an apprentice at a local firm of painters and decorators in Liverpool and his dad, a trade unionist, gave him the book and told him to “watch out for the Nimrods”.

“Like many teenagers, I had no interest in anything remotely political, “Kevin told me. “I did read the book however and I remember quite enjoying it, although mainly I think because of the humour, like the flabby and flatulent Rev Belcher. Any relevance to the ‘real world’ just went completely over my head.

“The painting job did not last long. Many of my friends were working in factories and being paid far more than me. Work was plentiful at that time and the local glass industry was flourishing, so I handed my notice in, gave up the apprenticeship, and went to work making glass bottles.”

A decade later times had changed, and Kevin found himself on the dole. 1981 was a bad year for him: his dad died of cancer at the age of 51, he was going through a divorce and, along with hundreds of others in Thatcher’s first recession, he lost his job.

Then in the local library he spotted a familiar title: “The humour was still there, but I could see for the first time just how real it was. Every character was recognisable, every situation it described could be related to my life.

“The anger welled up inside me as I read of and recognised the injustices, the malpractices, the exploitation, the lying, the cheating, the greed and selfishness displayed by the employers and the upper classes. I understood for the first time the blatant hypocrisy of so many of those who profess to be Christians.

“That anger was intensified ten-fold as I recognised the apathy of those philanthropists who suffered most. It reminded me of my own 14 year-old self. ‘Why would anybody bother their heads about politics?’ ‘It’s not for the likes of us.’

“I realised that much of the anger that I felt was directed at myself. It forced me to re-evaluate my life.”

The Association of the Ragged Trousered

Kevin is now chairman of the Association of the Ragged Trousered, a society dedicated to spreading the word of the book: “Like many, many others I recommended it to anybody who would listen. I lost copies by lending them out only for them not to be returned. I started to collect second hand copies at car boot sales and charity shops so that I could pass them on to friends.”

“I got talking to a colleague in the pub about The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and its history of being passed from hand to hand. We then each pledged that we would try to give away one copy per month to a stranger. Neither of us had any clear idea of exactly what we wanted to do other than to introduce Tressell’s book to as many people as possible.

“We launched the association at the Tolpuddle Festival in July 2012, a non-profit group, membership is free and we are open to all. Our membership remains relatively small at present although geographically, our membership is spread throughout England Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, as well as Spain and Germany. Each helping to spread the word about the book in their own individual way.”

One of the ways they spread the word is to spread the book, copies are bought and left around for people to find — the books tracked by number and containing a message of solidarity from the association. Frank Butterfield from Lancashire picked up a copy from the association in a bar in Spain and by return left his story online:

“I attended a socialist Sunday school in the 40s and 50s where the book was used in classes, in those days there was only the abridged edition available but the impression the book had on me has lasted me all my life and has always been the basis of my political views. I always have a copy on my bookshelf, and have given away half a dozen copies over the years.”

It’s difficult to find an enthusiast who just saw the book on Amazon and bought it, everyone has a story. Actor and activist Ricky Tomlinson is one of those interviewed for a new documentary Still Ragged: 100 Years of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists:

“This book was given to me when I was in solitary confinement, by the prison governor. It’s something that changed my whole way of thinking. It’s the most important book I’ve ever read in my life. Not only did it change my life politically, it also stirred up again in me the beauty of reading.”

Firebrand MP Dennis Skinner tells the makers how “it might be about painters and decorators in a small southern town, but it applies today.” The film also contains a version of the book’s centrepiece of rhetoric: The Great Money Trick.

The Great Money Trick

Tressell uses the workers’ dinner breaks as an opportunity for a lecture, much as he uses the work time to praise honest craftsmanship over the cutting of corners. For this, Frank Owen opens his dinner basket and takes his bread, alongside that borrowed from his workmates, and uses it to represent “the raw materials which exist naturally in and on the earth for the use of mankind”.

Capitalists pay the workers to turn those raw materials into usable goods, and are paid money — but only enough money to buy enough of those goods to survive. The capitalists end up with a surplus, and all the money they started with. “As for the working classes […] having each consumed the pound’s worth of necessaries they had bought with their wages, they were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work — they had nothing.”

Anyone who doesn’t think this happens in the modern day need only to think about Walmart — the biggest retailer in the World — who last year launched a charity food drive for its own staff rather than pay them enough to live on.

George Moore, who at 17 has directed a self-funded film version of the book, described how he felt when he first understood how it worked:

“ I was crying ‘Why does nobody know about this?’. I do think we are stuck in the Great Money Trick – I try not to get too political in conversation , but I have found myself performing the trick with chips in a restaurant on occasion. It brings out the same reaction every time, whether on stage, on screen or in real life – people stop and realise that this isn’t just a theory – it’s applicable to everyone’s life in one way or another, and it definitely still happens today.”


While I was asking about the book several people, including Moore, commented that the book was “halfway between Orwell and Dickens”, and there are similarities. Tressell has a Dickensesque way with a name: the bosses are Crass, Slyme and Hunter and the local Tory MP is Sir Graball D’Encloseland. However what that might hold up in style it isn’t true in message. Orwell himself said that Dickens was not interested in challenging or changing the status quo, that there is “no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’.” George Orwell said that Dickens was not a ‘revolutionary’ writer: but Robert Tressell is, every page of the book aches for the overthrow of the capitalist order.

Kevin Jones: “As Tressell himself points out, the inequalities and the exploitation will not, and can not change under Capitalism. In his time it looked for a while as if socialism might eventually triumph. Certainly socialism has had it’s successes, most notably the NHS and the welfare state both of which are now under attack. The Labour Party it seems have now abandoned even any pretence of socialism and although there are many, many socialists out there, the lack of one unified left wing party, I fear, means that socialism will probably never attain power through the ballot box. Global capitalism makes any change of the system highly unlikely. Revolution? Well I think that as the rift between the haves and the have nots continues to grow, as it inevitably must in the present system, then eventually there will inevitably be revolt.”

But even these champions of Tressell’s ideas are not too optimistic. Moore is worried by the working class lack of interest: “A key theme of the book echoes the idea that: all selfishness needs in order to win is apathy. If nobody takes an interest in politics, it will be swayed and manipulated by the selfish few.” While Jones can be as disheartened as Frank Owen, “the ‘philanthropists’ in the book are a stark reminder of just how much inequality and deprivation some people are willing to accept.”

I also spoke to Daz Wright, who said it was one of many factors that influenced him to work in the public sector. He picked up the book “because one of housemate’s dad was always going on about it. He was a committed Labour party member who annually stands in completely unwinnable council seats. We’d talked about what you can learn from it and how it was salient today. But no, I don’t think the book has had an effect. I think it is largely read by an exclusive left wing intelligentsia and we are peculiarly incapable of ever effecting change.”

For all that, people will still keep reading, believing and spreading that message. As Kevin Jones told me “There is a saying in Liverpool that ‘for every person Karl Marx introduced to socialism, Robert Tressell introduced ten.’ Most people would certainly agree that the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is far more readable than Das Kapital.”

The book doesn’t end on revolution, it doesn’t end with better conditions for the workers, it doesn’t even end with a comeuppance for the foreman or the bosses — it ends with a fairly simple twist that makes life bearable for Frank Owen and some of the other workers you’ve been building solidarity with. And that’s its great achievement, for all its anger at the unengaged, it makes you believe in solidarity more than anything else.

I’m recommending that if you haven’t read it already, you should now. You can read it online for free, buy it yourself, or wait until someone lends it to you. If you read it you’ll be doing the lending soon. As well as taking great care to do thorough preparation before you get out the brush and the emulsion.

Not everything I know about socialism and capitalism came from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but everything I know about painting and decorating did.

Tom Watson: Money, power and the media

Tom Watson MP is sitting at a desk in Westminster, listening to the first Dexy’s Midnight Runners album. That’s sort of how I picture him a lot of the time: he’ll often start his working day by informing Twitter just what the soundtrack to his parliamentary office is. Squint and you can imagine a vista just somewhere between The Thick of It and teams that meet in caffs — a nexus between the world of Westminster, the real world of West Bromwich and the other real world of the web. The web that Tom has made his home since the days when MPs didn’t get notoriety and ridicule for what they said online but just for being there at all.

I first met Tom in person in a pub in Birmingham and ended the night later crawling home at around 5am. I’d first spoken to him, of course, online. I estimate that he had seven years as an MP before joining Twitter — then a small enough concern to organise drinks for all those that used it in one city in a small pub in a backstreet rather than, say, the O2. Today we conduct this interview via Twitter and no one bats an eyelid.

I know where Tom is as it was the first thing I asked. A journalist friend of mine always starts an interview by telling everyone just where it takes place: a device that can help set a tone for the reader. Are we comfortable here or is this a transactional experience? On Twitter, here, I think we are both comfortable. I wait for the DM that tells me when my light turns green.

Dexy’s first record — a trumpet-strewn impassioned plea for a better, more just, life — is firmly a document of its place and time. The music is dressed in donkey jackets as the band were and the angry cry of Kevin Rowland is that of a smart guy who doesn’t quite know how to change things for the better. Tom Watson is similarly rooted in the Midlands, fiercely intelligent, with the grammar school kid’s chip firmly on his shoulder. He thinks he does know how to change things and when the structures of democracy don’t serve the purpose he’s willing to get mad and hopefully even.

Sometimes the anger, while endearing him to many who watched him calling education secretary — and part time Pob impersonator — a “miserable pipsqueak of a man”, doesn’t go anywhere useful. At the time he blogged, “I began to make my point about the intolerable way that parents and pupils had been treated. His eyes met mine. Was his top lip really quivering? […] It was like looking at Bambi. So I shot him.”

We exchange opening bursts of 140 characters and I know Tom must be reaching the last line of track one, side one: “Shut your fucking mouth ’til you know the truth.” Tom is no doubt mouthing along to the words. Everyone does.

Has Twitter made you a better MP, I ask, or is it a distraction?

“It’s certainly broadened my horizons though sometimes I worry I read fewer books and magazines.”

Not newspapers you’ll note, Tom has a history with them. Metaphorically spat on and shat on by Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, including a court decision against The Sun over claims that he was behind a plot to smear members of the Tory party. (Watson won an apology and a ‘substantial sum in damages.’) It seems reasonable that he might not be the mainstream media’s biggest fan.

We’ve not had the trolling or abuse I’d have expected the interview to incite. I’m glad as I’m rubbish with trolls and hecklers,so I couldn’t help if I’d tried, but Tom claims it doesn’t bother him. And we’ve not yet had the police accusing anyone of threatening Robin Hood airport: thankfully, not living in Yorkshire it doesn’t apply.

“When I first started blogging it was met with almost universal derision,” he told me. “It’s funny but after 13 years [of being in Parliament] I barely notice the snide stuff. It’s just the wild world of the ‘net, the rough bit of the pub.”

Mainstream media versus social media sees financial capital and social capital stacking up against each other. As one of the authors of Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and The Corruption of Britain, Tom has been in the centre of the push and pull for power — and the centre of the phone hacking trial that he says helped end his marriage. “I’ve certainly spent more time scrutinising the media than I anticipated in 2001,” he says.

As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, he questioned Rupert and James Murdoch and former News of the World editor, Rebekah Brooks, in a committee session in July 2011. Re-questioning James Murdoch that November, Watson was again all over the papers for his likening of Murdoch to a mafia boss.

“At its heart,” he continues, ”social media allows you to form groups very quickly, with low barriers to entry.” As an example he cites his recent campaign against the something tactics of his nemesis The Sun. “Over 7000 people signed up to notothesun after it was shared on Facebook and Twitter.” It then became a issue for the press and TV: “a classic example of an online debate seeding political arguments to the mainstream media and, frankly, the pedestrian political parties.”

“The mainstream [media] definitely try to distil social media conversations, sometimes for old agendas. Yet, when you know trust in what’s read in papers like The Sun is down to 15% then there’s no need to worry much.”

If the papers aren’t the influence they were there’s still a mainstream channel that does: “I think online will be an important component of the 2015 election campaign but TV will still be the gorilla. And ultimately, if your policies are wrong, it doesn’t matter what your online voice sounds like.” And he adds in what might be construed as a dig at Ed Miliband, if he hadn’t already given BBC radio a more direct one, “I don’t think the twitter feeds of the party leaders add much to the debate.”

He’s just about to sign off but then lets slip that he’s seriously thinking of “going out there and setting up my own little campaigning news house to see what can be achieved”. Tom Watson again actively channelling the old order by using a delicious mix of political nous, online and offline networks and an anger that drives him on.

“We need much better media. More curious, less editorialised, more engaging.”

The old order? Burn it down.

Cue the trumpets. I’ll see you all in the front row.

Why everything is shit nowadays

Walking through the ticket barrier at Didcot Parkway a few months ago, I was witness to a most middle class kerfuffle. A young polite guy was being stopped from exiting and treated like a fare-dodger, his tweed-clad father was going quickly puce: which no-doubt made it all the more embarrassing for the lad. His crime? Getting off a station early on a ticket that had been bought, paid for and presented gladly. A victimless crime, one that might even have saved the train company a little bit of fuel: but the station staff were having none of it, their hands were tied.

It was something to do with the tickets having been pre-bought from a pot of special fares. It was something to so with how, these days getting off a stop early costs more. I couldn’t understand it, none of the gathering crowd could, but the staff suggested that a read of the Terms and Conditions on the company website would explain all.

That same week I spent hours on a support line to O2 who, because I’d had it looked at in an Apple store, decided that the iPhone I’d bought from them was not their responsibility. Virgin Media then charged us £50 for not being in for a engineers visit we hadn’t booked with them, and my Oyster-style bus pass just stopped working. Luckily this isn’t a week when I’ve arrived home to find a ‘Sorry you were out’ card from Yodel, an item on the doormat that makes my heart sink like no other that the cat hasn’t personally left.

Each and every transaction took longer than it should have, each ended with me feeling fraught and ripped off. And with each I was very aware that the choice presented by the market would only lead me to other suppliers with similar processes and frustrated customers: you only have to look at the stream of Twitter support accounts to see that. In terms of the buses and trains I had no choice at all, except to give up using them. With courier firms it’s not even your choice, but that of your supplier.

We’ve had the crash and the recession, and now supposedly a recovery: those companies that are still making huge profits have done so due to being more efficient. They certainly haven’t, they say, maintained those figures by cutting corners. So why is every little transaction, from getting a parcel delivered to buying a train ticket awkward, confusing, and ultimately a bit shit?

I have a theory that it’s all about responsibility and the cost of transactions. It’s not in the interests of profit to have the customer understand or be in control. Even where it’s not deliberate, the removal of decision making from frontline staff—placing it in the hands of algorithms has lead to a whole new level of Kafka-esque process mazes, with the added bugs and dead ends that only software can provide.

Nick, a call centre veteran, told me, there’s just no freedom to deviate from ‘the script’. “Many times you know how to solve a problem but can’t do anything due to restrictions, it [is] all about making money.”

“everyone is under pressure to complete calls within a certain time…callers had just had their cars either clamped or removed. They were pretty angry. So they were not in the mood to be fobbed off. This led the call centre staff to make up anything to get them off the phone. They’d lie. Sometimes they’d hang up on the excuse that the caller bad become abusive.”

Under pressure from bosses, dealing with increasingly frustrated callers. It’s no fun at either end of these calls. Nick: “It was the most miserable environment I’ve ever seen. People were always going off sick.” Another worker from a different centre told me “the fact you had no real power or responsibility amplifies the most stressful scenarios in the job.”

It’s that lack of an ability to take responsibility that causes problems. For example I moved house, I phoned my bank and changed my address, they didn’t change the address for my credit card; because despite all of the cards having the words NatWest on the front, they are really run by different entities. One size really doesn’t fit all.

One company I see getting awful feedback online is delivery firm Yodel, who claim to handle 135 million parcels every year. Call to complain about a missing delivery and it seems you’ll be told that you need to speak to not the deliverers (who might know something about it) but the people who sent it to you (who definitely don’t have it). A Yodel worker on a web forum explains “your contract is with [the sender] and not yodel. Basically its down to [them] to sort this out and they can then bring it up with Yodel if they wish.” You can’t often speak to anyone about a delivery as the ‘we missed you’ cards don’t have a call centre number on them: they have scribbled mobile numbers, which very often ring out.

This is because the Yodel model is to engage, rather than employ, delivery people: who must supply their own cars and phones. They target this work at those who are “newly retired yet still wanting to contribute to an active role, or [who] would like to earn some extra money whilst the children are at school”—these are people not working regular hours that are contactable through ‘normal’ systems.

The job isn’t easy, and isn’t—according to posters on moneysupermaket.com forums—well paid:

“You HAVE to be in 5 mornings a week Mon-Fri to get the parcels in, which can be from anytime from 7am-2pm. You get paid 65p per parcel delivered (even if you have to go back to try and catch the customer in you only get paid for a signature)”

“You are expected to attempt delivery twice and then return undelivered parcels —you do not get paid if it is not delivered no matter how many times you have tried (and each attempt costs you in petrol). The price of petrol means that this is simply not viable.”

“Every fortnight I was getting paid about £70, minus the petrol expenses that you have to cover yourself. So realistically for two weeks work I was earning £30.”

Worse, it seems that the reliance on computer systems, perhaps the most ‘cost effective’ ones available means that the data in those systems is often wrong. “The Yodel scanner is the pits, and there’s sometimes no way out other than to sign off the job.” Poorly paid, battling the system from their side—it’s not a surprise that the satisfaction with the firm seems to be low.

From automation to outsourcing, to the obfuscation of self employment—money drives the cutting of corners and abdication of responsibility, and it seems digital technology makes that possible.

No wonder that every time we try to do anything it seems that little bit shit.