Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Feeling happy?

Remember Happy Eater? Presumably inspired by America's roadside diners, these dismal boxes of bad food were littered around Britain's motorways and A-roads between 1973 and 1997, when they were gobbled up by the corpulent and equally nasty Little Chef. The Happy Eater logo, you may recall, resembled a bulimic Pac-Man, managing to grin gamely while attempting to purge the ersatz "Real American" hamburgers that been dropped onto the kitchen floor in order to separate them from the frozen multi-patty clumps in which they were stored before being "griddled to order". Eating on the road in the UK is now stupidly expensive, but the recent emergence of mini-supermarkets at motorway service stations and the evolution of the pre-packed sandwich are moving the experience towards tolerability. But in their heyday, Britain's  two major highway dining chains exerted a baleful influence. If hunger struck, there were often only two choices: massively extend your journey time by leaving the motorway to seek decent fare in some town centre, or endure the entirely depressing ambiance of the Little Chef or Happy Eater.

But why would memories of Happy Eater come to mind while holidaying in Bulgaria? The answer comes in the form of this country's very own burgeoning chain of "casual" restaurants. As well as having a go at livening up the dining scene in the downtown areas and new retail parks of Bulgaria's larger cities, this expanding food empire (they're getting into franchising soon and are looking to grow across the Balkans and even into Russia and Ukraine) owns outlets arranged along the country's highways. As we were drawing closer to the Black Sea coast on Saturday afternoon, we stopped at one by the side of the E772 and close to the village of Kyosevtsi.  Hunger had definitely struck, thirst was also an issue, and we hadn't seen anywhere else to grab a bite for quite a few miles. Having spotted other branches along the often narrow and often bumpy roads which pass for major routes in Bulgaria, I wasn't really keen. The chain rejoices in the name Happy Bar & Grill, which, along with its presence by the country's main roads, was what evoked memories of the late, unlamented Happy Eater chain.

As we clambered out of the car on a sweltering afternoon, I asked myself why anyone ever risks including the word "happy" when naming a consumer brand. Surely a case of setting the bar too high when it comes to customer satisfaction? Happy Eater must be the definitive case in point.

Putting these thoughts to one side, we went inside. Definitely a case of that wannabe US dining experience, I thought. Another contribution to the blanding and homogenisation of life under globalisation: sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly ironing out the millions of local differences that make it interesting to travel around the world. But the simple fare (local variations on the burger and chicken nugget themes, really) was edible and served up with the swiftness you'd like when wanting not to take too long a break from your journey. However, while the beer (my other half was driving) was nicely cold, I can't say the food or anything else about the place made me happy. Happiness is elusive, isn't it? I'm not sure we all agree on what it is. Is it found in those short bursts of joy which brighten the day and remain in the memory? Or is it more to do with long stretches of contentment about one's lot in life? Or is it both? Or do the answers to these questions vary enormously across cultures and personality types? Fucked if I know. But I feel sure that eating an inexpensive burger in a nicely air-conditioned building with free WiFi, while alright in itself, is not an experience from which genuine happiness can be derived.

I was also struck by the demeanour of the efficient waitresses working there. Simply put, these girls did not look happy. Nothing like happy. Perhaps not actually completely miserable. But not happy. Bright eyes and dazzling smiles were definitely not in evidence. I don't know if the wages are bad or if tips are generally not forthcoming (I tipped, by the way), but every face spoke of some lack of joy. If I were to guess at the source of melancholy among the waiting staff at the Kyosevtsi branch of Happy Bar & Grill, the uniforms would be my hunch. I think it's pretty rough on those girls that they are asked to wear what can't even really be described as miniskirts. Pelmet would be more like it. It must be reasonably unnerving to think that bending for a dropped fork would involve showing your underwear to a roomful of diners. Maybe it gives some customers a little thrill, but is it really cool in a place most of whose patrons (in the summer, at least) seem to be folks with their kids on the way to the seaside? Sort it out, Happy Bar & Grill. The little skirts might be contributing to the gap between the implicit claims in your brand name and the looks on the faces of your perfectly efficient and polite staff. It was better than the fucking Happy Eater, though.

Monday, 29 July 2013

A pause for thought in Lovech

Having explored the monuments and other sights of Sofia, and having been surprised by the omnipresent street art and graffiti in the Bulgarian capital (all while being fairly clueless about the anti-government protests rumbling on during our brief stay), on Friday morning it was time to begin a gently paced journey to the villa which we've rented on the Black Sea coast.

Why take a holiday in Bulgaria of all places?
The broad Central and Eastern Europe region (take that to mean the former communist states of Europe) has been close to my heart for almost twenty years now. So I was keen to find time not only to laze around a swimming pool but also to explore a bit of Bulgaria, one the CEE countries that I'd not previously managed to visit.

My interest in the region began quite by chance when I was presented with a wholly unexpected employment opportunity that took me to a Polish city of which I had never heard prior to accepting a job there in September 1993. I expected to stay in Poland for just one year. But the people were hospitable, I made wonderful friends (some of whom I still see occasionally all these years later) and it was genuinely fascinating to get to know another country better than it is possible to do on a short holiday or business trip. So that one-year stay ended up being a four-year stay.

Since returning to the UK from my stint in Poland, I have sometimes managed to find ways of making a living from my interest in the CEE region. Simply put, my time in Poland, as well as equipping me with some understanding of opportunities presented by the ways in which the region's economies were developing, had imbued me with an ability to be perceived as somehow more than averagely simpatico when speaking with people from that part of Europe. In a couple of different jobs, I would often find I was in a race with one or more competitor based, like me, in London and seeking to take advantage of the same CEE region opportunity I was working on. In every case, I appeared to find it a bit easier to open the right doors. I remain convinced that the key factor at play was the feel for life in the region which I had gained from living right at its heart. This is not meant to imply that I believe the region to be culturally homogeneous. Far from it, in fact. Rather, while the peoples of these countries do have some shared memories of living with communist systems, I have found the differences between them as interesting as the things they have in common. 

How the west sees the east?
I recoil a bit, then, whenever I hear anyone from western Europe or North America generalising about "East Europeans" - especially when the generalisations are by way of making some uncomplimentary point. I am thinking here about certain observations which can be made when some British people discuss recent immigration to the UK. But that is by no means the worst of it. For example, I have occasionally overheard British or American men referring to the young women of either some particular CEE country or of the region as a whole, sketching a crude characterisation of disadvantaged and therefore easily exploitable objects for the lust of anyone shopping for sex. For anybody who thinks in those terms and especially for anyone capable of seeing something funny in this kind of idea, I would recommend a viewing of Lilya 4-ever, a harrowing film directed by Lukas Moodyson which examines the issues of human trafficking and sexual slavery, as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl from an unnamed former Soviet republic. If this movie failed to disabuse our imagined viewer of his squalid ideas, I would draw a very unfavourable inference about his capacity for human decency. What, then, of anyone who found Moodyson's film in any way titillating? Well, I don't want to meet that person.

I have no idea to what extent the notion of the exploitable East European is a widely held view in western Europe or how many people think it acceptable to try to take advantage of it. But I know that this idea is not only about a cheap leg-over on a stag weekend or the supposed availability of young brides for middle-aged men from more affluent parts of the world. As I write this, I am reminded of a particularly unpleasant remark that was once made in my presence in the kitchen of a large, comfortable house in London to which my wife and I were invited for lunch. Our hostess that day was the person who made the remark I am thinking about now. Before having children she had pursued a fairly lucrative career in financial services. Her partner continues to work in that field. In common with many of London's richer residents, she uses the services of full-time helpers whose role involves performing many of the more menial and demanding tasks that most parents do for themselves when bringing up kids. She was comparing the merits of employing British versus East European women in this context. "I always prefer to have an East European girl," our hostess opined. "They're cheaper, more grateful for the job and easier to get rid of if things don't work out."

I am not interested in disputing the truth of this comment. Sadly, it's almost certainly factually accurate. But I was struck by the lack of feeling for a fellow human being that seemed to be exemplified by our hostess's words. Not only was she unashamedly open about seeing people primarily as a commodities, but she had also constructed a hierarchy of exploitability, with the degrees to which we can take advantage of another person's neediness arranged along an east-to-west cline.

Going off the beaten track
In the years that followed my return from Kraków, my work-related travels have taken me not only back to Poland (numerous times) but also to Russia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Romania. As well as making these various trips, I am certain I have met at least one person from each of the other countries of the region, as well as from all of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. While all of this was going on, I started to pick out further CEE countries as holiday destinations. So as well as coming over here to Bulgaria, I've also enjoyed breaks in Croatia and Montenegro. Every time, I've managed to see a bit more than the area immediately around my sun lounger. I know many people love to do nothing more than sunbathe, swim and take some refreshments on board and I don't mean to imply here that those kinds of holidays are in any way inferior to the ones I enjoy. Different people like different things, that's all. But I would get terribly restless were I to go no further than the beach or pool. I simply always get the urge to see a few old buildings, walk a few back streets, drive on a few back roads and attempt to get a feel for something beyond the usual tourist experience. It's extremely fortunate that my other half feels the same way about holidays.

The plan here, then, was to spend a couple of days getting to know the capital city and then to drive across the country, making an overnight stop along the way. Those previous trips to Montenegro and to Croatia's northernmost and southernmost regions have taught us that driving conditions can be a bit unpredictable. In the same country, it's possible to find both areas in which the roads are wide, well-kept and adequately signposted and areas in which the way ahead is narrow, bumpy and hard to navigate. With this in mind, we opted not to set ourselves an ambitious task on the first day of getting used to driving in Bulgaria. So, selecting a place to stay mainly on the basis of being rather less than halfway between Sofia and our eventual destination, we ended up booking a hotel in Lovech. Of this small city, we knew almost nothing. The sum total of my knowledge of Lovech was the existence of its football team, whose exploits in European competitions were something of which I was vaguely aware.

Lovech, the guidebooks tell us, has a long and eventful history behind it. Inhabited by Thracians around six thousand years ago, the town has since seen the arrival of Roman soldiers, the twelfth century signing of an important treaty between the Byzantine and Bulgarian empires and the fifteenth century occupation of Ottoman Turks. The most prominent figure in the Bulgaria's later struggle against Ottoman rule was Vasil Levski. Lovech was the centre of operations for the resistance movement led by Levski in the nineteen century. During that time, it seems, the town was among the wealthiest and busiest centres of trade in Bulgaria. But the impression we gained during our very short stay in Lovech was of somewhere whose prominence and prosperity seems to be on the wane.

That said, one fairly major employer does provide what I imagine to be, in the local context at least, reasonably well-paid jobs. The town is home to a vehicle assembly plant operated by Litex, a partner of the Chinese auto manufacturer Great Wall Motors. If, like me, you're a football fan and had heard of Lovech's professional team, you will recall that the word "Litex" forms part of its name. The club, founded in 1921 and originally known as Hisarya, has changed names many times during its history, adopting its present incarnation in 1996 when Litex supremo Grisha Ganchev took it over. Although now active in auto assembly, Ganchev's company started life in fuel importing and trading. On our travels this week, we have already filled the car once at a Litex petrol station. In Lovech, the Litex brand is pretty prominent. A mural depicting the vehicles to whose manufacture it contributes was one of the first things we saw on entering the town.

Lovech: strangely familiar
As we pressed on into the town centre, I felt an odd sense of familiarity. Because while Lovech is surrounded by a very different landscape and is laid out somewhat differently, I was immediately reminded of Kielce, the Polish city in which I found myself almost twenty years ago. I only spent ten months living there, going on to spend the majority of my time in Poland living in the rather livelier Kraków. But when in Kraków I had reasons to revisit Kielce on numerous occasions. So at one point I could claim to know the city fairly well. That said, my last trip there must have been some time in 1996, so I expect it has changed a great deal and I am aware that I am comparing the Lovech of today with the Kielce of about seventeen years ago. Maybe that says something about the lower base from which the Bulgarian post-communist economy has developed versus the Polish experience. But whatever the reasons, and however shaky a proper comparison might prove, the visible similarities were striking for me - a down-at-heel, sleepy town centre lacking the familiar retail brands that we know across the somewhat homogenised western European commercial landscape; a pretty extreme state of dilapidation of the infrastructure, as evidenced by terribly pitted road surfaces and run down public buildings; a ring of cramped and dilapidated public housing just outside the central business district.

In Sofia we had seen graffiti remarkable not only for its quantity but for the size, complexity and colour of many of the pieces. Work of that nature was generally not in evidence in Lovech, but the walls were smeared very liberally with marks that suggested that some of the town's younger people may exist in a state of nihilistic boredom: as well as countless simple graffiti tags, we saw white power symbols, swastikas, crudely drawn genitalia and references to football hooliganism. 

Don't take these remarks about the look and feel of Lovech to be by way of condemnation. My experience of living in Kielce started to teach me that wonderful people with interesting lives can be found in the visually unprepossessing and less well-known towns and cities of Central and Eastern Europe. If you ever visit Poland as a tourist, I'll wager that Kraków will be on your itinerary and that Kielce (or other middle-sized Polish cities like it) will not. But I had a good time in both and I suspect that the younger, more adventurous version of myself would have found a way of enjoying life in Lovech had I ended up working there instead of in Kielce.

Another similarity between the Lovech of today and the Kielce of my memories was the evidence, in both places, of decades of communist-era town planning. In addition to the preponderance of public housing blocks, parts of the town centre reminded me of parts of downtown Kielce. I think anyone who has visited a number of CEE countries and has had the opportunity to look around beyond the castles and cathedrals of their capital cities will have started to build a mental map of what public spaces looked like behind the Iron Curtain. In this respect, I found that Lovech largely conformed with the personal schema for a CEE town that I began to develop when wandering around the centre of Kielce twenty years ago.

That said, one difference did stand out. In Lovech today, kiosks selling magazines, cigarettes, confectionery and so on seem to be thin on the ground. In the 1990s, in every Polish town I visited, both large and small, such kiosks were in plentiful supply. In Kielce I learned some important basic vocabulary by shouting through the tiny grille of one particular kiosk, trying to make myself heard above the noise of trucks and buses and above the howling of the wind blowing in from the Świętokrzyskie mountains. On Monday mornings, I would buy a copy of Gazeta Wyborcza at that kiosk and scan the small print of the sports pages for QPR's score from the weekend. Living abroad in the pre-internet and pre-mobile phone age, folks. News from home was a scarce and precious commodity.

Later, travelling to other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, I could see that the humble kiosk remained a staple feature of the retail scene all over the region. But perhaps even in a place as sleepy-looking as Lovech, where the independent shopkeeper does not yet seem to have been blasted out of the water by well-capitalised chain stores from Germany or France, the kiosk has had its day. The Wikipedia entry for the town refers to a steady flight from Lovech to a more favourable job market in Sofia. Maybe the conditions have just become too tough for many of the hard-working independent retail pioneers who built nice little businesses when Bulgaria began its transition away from a centrally planned economic system. Hence the abandoned, sad-looking husks of kiosks we saw dotted about the place.

If you do find yourself in Lovech... 
Should anyone responsible for the development of tourism in Lovech read this article, I guess I won't be thanked for my description of the town. So I should restate the fact that what's presented here is only drawn from a very brief visit. Those passing through but with more time to spare would doubtless find something of interest in the various museums dedicated to preserving and presenting the town's rich history, not least the period during which Levski was at large in the area. A large and appealing park with a zoological garden can  also, apparently, be found close to the town.

If, then, your travels do ever take you to Lovech, we can, without hesitation, recommend a truly excellent place to stay. The Family Hotel Varosha 2003 is real little gem. With just eleven comfortable, clean, rustically furnished rooms overlooking the River Osam, this is one of the most delightful places I've ever stayed. Everyone working there was incredibly welcoming. We splurged on a suite of two bedrooms, a kitchenette and a bathroom (with very fancy jacuzzi!) for just €70 (in advance, via a hotel booking website). Both bedrooms were air conditioned (the Bulgarian summer is stifling) and we had a neat little balcony overlooking the courtyard restaurant where you take breakfast. Do also have dinner there. The cooking was excellent and the place seems to be extremely popular with locals as well as with the handful of foreign guests staying in the hotel.

Finally, Lovech is reached by driving through very striking countryside - heavily wooded mountain ridges interspersed with welcoming-looking valleys. But do be warned: the roads leading to the town are, in places, in VERY poor condition. It's a bumpy ride and I wouldn't fancy it in bad weather.

For me, though, Lovech offered not only a gem of a family-owned hotel in which to break our journey across the country, but also pause for thought about the varying paces of change across the states formerly behind the Iron Curtain.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

A strange monument to the state of Bulgaria

We are still heading east towards the Black Sea, taking it easy and working up only a pretty leisurely pace. Yesterday, having eaten and slept well only yards from Bulgaria's current round of anti-government protests, we picked up a hire car (Is it normal for a SEAT Córdoba to appear to be very badly built? Squeaking and rattling madly right from the word go?) and started out for the coast. About the journey, and about our stopover in Lovech: more later. In the meantime, a quick look back at one of Sofia's real curiosities.

On arriving in the Bulgarian capital, we were immediately surprised by the sheer quantity of graffiti and street art smothering on the city's walls and street furniture. In Europe, surely only Berlin can rival Sofia when it comes to the volume of spray can work on display.  But Sofia's graffiti writers can trump their German counterparts in one respect - the extent to which they have got away with defacing (improving?) major monuments in their home town. 

Most famously, a monument honouring the Red Army in World War Two was given a colourful temporary makeover a couple of years ago, with the bronze socialist-realist figures of heroic Soviet soldiers transformed into figures from American popular culture including Superman, Captain America and Ronald McDonald. We didn't see that monument (presumably still in the condition to which it was restored once the Banksyesque references to comic books and fast food had been scrubbed clean), but we did spend some time walking around what remains of a 32 metre-high structure built in 1981 to mark the occasion of the 1300th anniversary of the foundation of the First Bulgarian Empire. Not for the first time, our slim Thomas Cook guidebook proved to be woefully short of information, simply describing this large monument in terms of being ugly. So we were not prepared for the structure's state of extreme dilapidation or for the fact that the more easily reachable sections of its crumbling surfaces are liberally covered with large, colourful pieces of graffiti. None of this appears to be of a political nature. Just the standard braggadocio of the spray can artist, as far as we could see, but shocking, nevertheless, simply for having been applied to such a prominent piece of state-sponsored sculpture, albeit one that has perhaps never been loved by the Bulgarian public. Writing for a popular architecture news website, Alison Furoto informs us that the monument was completed in a hurry, resulting in poor quality work. So much so, apparently, that marble plates covering the construction began to fall off just four years after the inauguration of the piece. This must have caused something of a safety issue because we could clearly see that the monument had been designed to encourage visitors to come very close to its intertwining structures (meant to symbolise the past, present and future, according to Furoto). The base of the now-ruined monument is set in a kind of trench, some metres below the lawns of the large park in which it is set. In its brief heyday, it would have been approached via concrete steps leading down from the paths criss-crossing the park. Furoto writes that the monument was "completely abandoned by the authorities"  by the early 1990s. A fence does surround the vast structure, but this is also in a very poor state and it is very easy to gain access to the crumbling steps and to the base of the monument. Moreover, none of the Sofia citizens snogging on benches or walking their pooches batted an eyelid when I cleared the fence, walked down the steps and got busy with the camera.

We liked Sofia. Even with protests in progress and police vehicles in abundance as a result, the city seemed to have a pleasantly laid back sort of vibe. There are also a good number of points of interest in the standard touristy sense - churches, major public buildings etc. But I don't think I'm being uncharitable when I describe the Bulgarian capital as having a rather worn appearance. The graffiti everywhere is just one part of this. You will also notice that the city's infrastructure is crumbling. Loose and missing paving stones are expertly navigated by the many chic ladies in their vertiginous high heels. But I certainly lost my footing and turned my ankle more often than I would in London. Many buildings, too, looked a bit unloved. But even in this context, nothing really prepared me for the visual effect of a huge monument in prominent location having been thoroughly vandalised and left to rot for many years. The effect, however, was one that I found strangely beautiful.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Oblivious in Bulgaria

In stifling heat, we had a better look around the streets and sights of central Sofia this morning, before adjourning for a very good lunch of delicious salads washed down with grapefruit-flavoured beer (sounds horrible but was amazingly refreshing). This is not a tourism blog so you'll find no snaps of the various churches, mosques, synagogues, monuments, public buildings etc. which caught the eye. A number of the pics seem to have been spoiled but some sort of greasy spot on the camera lens anyway. The bloody blob really stands out on any shot involving an expanse of pale colour, e.g. the sky or a whitewashed wall. But a few more graffiti and street art snaps have come out OK, with the offending mark being lost somewhere in a busy and/or darker-coloured part of the picture. Still can't get over how much wall space and street furniture has been painted on by artists and graffiti writers. In many cases, the wall of an apartment building or shop on an apparently busy street will feature a huge and complex piece that must have taken some time to do. I'm not sure how it is that the graffiti writers, particularly, manage to get away with their stuff in such public locations:

The weeks leading up to coming here were taken up with work-related bullshit of an incredibly aggravating and time-consuming nature. This is my excuse for flying into a new country with absolutely no clue about the political situation here. We were idly wondering about various low-level protests that seemed to be going on here and there around the city and were unable to decipher what was written on the placards and banners being carried about the streets. It seems, then, that predominantly educated and middle-class people have been expressing their discontent with a recently elected but already-unpopular government. Up to yesterday, apparently, weeks of protest had passed pretty peacefully. Trust me to be in town when it finally boiled over, with the Parliament building attacked and a few injuries sustained by protesters. That said, we were blissfully unaware of this, despite staying at a hotel which is very close to all the main government buildings. Full of rich food and too much wine, we had staggered back to the room and were dead to the world while it was all kicking off around the corner. Let's see what else we can manage to miss during this holiday...

повече креативност от София

An evening stroll ending with unsuitably rich food and a Bulgarian wine that seemed just a bit too musky took us past yet more walls and street furniture that had felt the attentions of the street artists and the graffiti guys:

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Стени на България

This year's summer holiday is to be on the shores of the Black Sea. The journey there involves a stop in the Bulgarian capital. Prior to coming here, I had no idea that the city's walls feature graffiti and street art on an almost Berlin-like level in terms of pervasiveness. This stuff is EVERYWHERE:

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Daily Mail caught outraging public decency

No one does hypocrisy like The Daily Mail. Read avidly by around four million of Britain's most dismally fearful and deluded people, the newspaper which once trumpeted its support for Hitler, Mussolini and Oswald Moseley has more recently perfected a uniquely open approach to committing the very sins for which it condemns the various objects of its hatred. 

The Mail, for example, finds space for writers who (rightly) deplore the sexualisation of children by marketers, advertisers, television, etc. while at the same time running articles which variously describe an EIGHT-year old CHILD as a leggy beauty* and creepily salivate over teenage girls billed as looking all grown up.

Today, on a somewhat related note, the grubby tabloid's website is running a report which names a doctor caught using his iPhone to capture video footage of women's legs and breasts in Trafalgar Square - with the story positioned next to the site's infamous Femail sidebar, which provides links to all of the Mail's most prurient content. Said sidebar this morning included items such as these:

So, if you're anchored to the spinning moral compass of the Daily Mail, it's not OK to use your mobile phone to capture footage of the bodies of women in public places without the women's knowledge or permission. But it is OK to buy pictures from someone who uses a long lens and a good camera to capture pictures of the bodies of women in public places without the women's knowledge or permission. 

* The term "leggy beauty" seems to have been removed from the article in question since it was published - but outraged comments below the piece still refer to the offending phrase

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Bingo: just for Tyler's mum?

While relentlessly butting into your consciousness in order to sell you things you don't need (and would be better off without), the advertisers select from a menu of tricks. Such ruses include: cajoling you into jumping onto a bandwagon lest you feel the shame of being left out; offering glittering generalities which appear to make strong claims but in fact dodge legal troubles by claiming nothing (Healthy-LOOKING hair? MAY reduce the APPEARANCE of wrinkles by UP TO sixty percent?); creating a sense of false urgency in order to make you worry about a vanishing opportunity to buy the useless piece of crap being sold to you; appealing to a plain folks notion that the pointless geegaw in question is for people like you.

The last of these tricks would appear to take a bit of thought. Would you really use it to promote something seen as aspirational? Surely if the status symbol being sold is a luxury item that requires you to spend money you don't actually have in order to impress people you don't actually like, then any people seen enjoying the banal glow of brief satisfaction which it confers ought to be presented not as people like you but as people you'd like to be: wealthier, more attractive, more sophisticated, better dressed, taller, slimmer, fitter and with better hair and teeth. You're stupid, you see? Easily suggestible. Somewhere inside your fearful little brain is a combination of chemical reactions which has you believe (only until you've actually made the purchase) that if you buy that watch, car or handbag then you will somehow be suffused with all those markers of ease, success and confidence.

But luxuries aside, the plain folks thing works for all sorts of goods and services. Yes, that old duffer wittering on about pottering in the garden with the grandkids and not leaving any funeral expenses for your loved ones to deal with.... that's you, that is. That busy mum stocking up on fish fingers that even fussy eaters will agree to ingest without tears and tantrums... that's you, that is. On and on. They know into which part of the demographics filing system their product is being forced. They know that the consumerbots in that segment have been programmed to buy certain clothes, haircuts, houses and kitchens. So that tells them what kind of lifestyle to represent on screen when using that plain folks trope. Oh look, that carefully programmed brain of yours says, that thing is used by people who are just like me. If I buy it I will neither be looked down at as some sort of chav nor laughed at for having ideas above my station.

Look at the gambling addiction industry, for example. As it continues to normalise the transfer of hard-earned salaries onto the balance sheets of giant gaming corporations, the various forms of the vice are associated with the various target demographics. Simple stuff: betting on football is male, matey, blokey and one suspects that the word banter is never far from the mind of the "creative" types at the ad agency. Online bingo, meanwhile, is natually sold to women. Specifically, it is sold to working class women. Cheeky Bingo, for example, show an animated world of modest terraced housing and use a chirpy northern accent in their voice-over. Jackpotjoy not only use loveable Cockney Babs Windsor but also draw on her Carry On past by dressing her in a historical costume and having her cackle at the odd double entendre.

What, then, to make of this effort on behalf of BingoPort? These women don't live in small terraced houses in the north of England! They're not married to plasterers, van drivers or whatnot! They don't have children named Tyler or Charmaine! Look at them! They wear scarves and pearls! They drive Chelsea tractors! They don't play bingo!!!

Or is bingo now about to cross the class divide which for ages wasn't supposed to exist but which now so very obviously can be seen not only to exist but to continue to be a major source of preoccupation for the English?