Above The Call

A waiter slops asparagus soup over my mum’s posh top, spits on my steak tartare and asks my dad if that’s a wig he’s wearing – which it isn’t. He now presents the bill for around £80 and asks dad if everything has been to his liking.

‘Splendid, thank you,’ says dad, making out a cheque for £90.

I witnessed this scenario hundreds of times during dad’s life. A routine addition of about ten per cent, rounded up, regardless of the experience.

‘It’s for the service,’ he would explain.

‘But what if that’s not very good?’ I’d say, trying to fathom it out. ‘And isn’t cooking the food and bringing it to the table what you’re already paying for?’

waiterThere seemed a touch of master-servant about the whole thing, a leftover from Victorian times – doffing the hat and placing a penny in the palm.

Dad’s benevolence especially showed at Christmas. People you never normally saw would knock at the door. The dustman (as he was then affectionately known) touched his forelock and dad handed him a small brown envelope; the milkman would find something similar in an empty milk bottle; and it was the only time the postman actually took an envelope away with him.

Tipping in taxis was also de rigueur. Failure to do so might mean the driver retracing his route a mile before letting dad out. Ten per cent to the hairdresser prevented an unwanted bald patch. And generosity towards chambermaids and bar staff during a hotel stay guaranteed clean beds and proper whisky measures.

While all this was going on, the doctor’s receptionist, sales assistant, bus conductor, deck chair attendant, train driver, signalman, street sweeper, telesales operator, left luggage handler, airline pilot, local government officer, hospital porter, travelling salesman, car mechanic, farmer, footballer, formula one driver, lifeguard, gardener, soldier, gravedigger and balloonist, and many, many others simply had to get by on basic wages, since their services were clearly of less importance.

Class distinctions are increasingly blurred. Christmas door-knocking is no longer fashionable. But tipping in the traditional trades continues, more under the guise of mock friendship than master-servant, but with scant regard for what it really means. Clearly, it’s not in the interest of those sectors to disavow people of the custom.

When I was younger I found myself following dad’s ‘easy route’, expressing gratitude and adding percentages regardless of the circumstances – a comfortable way out, making me feel kind of important and stupid at the same time. Annual Christmas cards from the Indian Restaurant (address written at their request on an Excel sheet during a November visit) reassured me that a lasting friendship had indeed been forged.

But as social rebellion kicked in I steeled myself to experiment with paying the asking price only. I was terrified that abandoning tips would mean losing these friendships. I expected the chef to come running from the kitchen with a machete, or the manager to ban me from his establishment. I waited for the taxi man to warn other drivers by radio. I feared a Sweeney Todd incident at the barbers.

barber Instead I was offered a loyalty card by the barber, placed on the priority list by the taxi firm and welcomed back to the curry house with open arms. I realised it was my continuing custom and that of my entourage they wanted, not the small change in my pocket. We remained friends.So, although tipping is still widely practised, in my world the random and pointless custom ended years ago. But I still feel bad about all those who remain tipless while the same old people cream off the ten-percentages. And I’m trying to do something about it.

At Greggs yesterday a woman passed me my 85p sausage roll, asking if I wanted anything else and wishing me a nice rest of the day.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I must say this is the most exquisitely wrapped sausage roll I’ve ever had. You presented it with utter professionalism and a beautiful smile – more than I could possibly have asked for. Here’s a pound, and I want you to keep the change.’

As I left the bakers, trying not to catch the eye of the homeless people blocking my exit, it was ample reward hearing the woman enthusiastically recount our conversation to the girl on doughnuts.

Back at home, concluding a telephone conversation with the MakerMint Water Company, I said to the assistant, Trudy:

‘Frankly, I’ve never known someone handle a direct debit application with such grace and aplomb, offering me all the information I could possibly want, and making the experience so enjoyable. Trudy, you have performed over and above the call of duty. Please give me your BACS details immediately and I shall place £5 in your bank account.’

And on the London train today, when I’d felt compelled to mention the state of the toilet to the train manager, and he’d apologised profusely before single-handedly restoring the cubicle to its pristine condition, I said as he called me to inspect his work:

‘Young man. I know you didn’t make this mess yourself, but you stepped up to the bowl and took full responsibility. Watching you don those Marigolds and plunge wholeheartedly into the matter of the moment has restored my faith in young people and in the entire railway industry. I paid £29 for this journey. Here – take this additional £2.90 to spend as you wish.’

So far, so good. And three new friends already!

Next week: Part 2. Fly Tipping – What To Give Bluebottles.

Copyright © Paul Costello January 2017



Donuts and Toilets

On a recent trip to Stroud I spotted a postie delivering letters to the Wy Wong takeaway, and since my mind works in mysterious ways I imagined that the white envelopes scattered across the mat were from dissatisfied customers answering that very question.

2014-08-30 13.56.43‘Because it wasn’t the weightwatchers version I asked for,’ might be one reply, or ‘because as always I was still hungry after eating it.’ Or simply, ‘because you forgot to put in the prawn crackers.’ That sort of thing.

Naturally, I jotted these thoughts in the Moleskine writer’s notebook that follows me around, its pages rich with wacky catering snippets – a source of writing inspiration only surpassed by people’s moronic mismanagement of mobiles in public.

A lot of material has come from Indian Restaurants – probably because I’m in them so often. The chicken madras in the Rice ’n Spice at Haywards Heath according to the menu contained ‘avid black pepper’. In the Bengal Lancer at Llanelli you could get a ‘potion of chips’ (spooky).The Bilash at Rugeley offered ‘King Prawn Roshuni – a pleasant dish of king prawns made by our chef,’ which sounded, well, really pleasant. When I hurried the order along at the Jalsagor in Hereford the manager said he’d ‘hasten the papadums in a minute.’ And in the Taste of India at Leominster the menu described chicken tikka as ‘tender pieces of lamb cooked in …’. I wondered if it might have been ‘torn’ chicken – torn, that is, between whether it was a chicken or a lamb. It got eaten, so we can’t ask it now.

Elsewhere, a sign in Tesco exhorted me to buy puddings: ‘Life’s Short – Eat Dessert First’. In the same store a man asked the shelf filler if they had any Camp coffee. ‘Ooooo, I’m not sure. Now let me see-ee.’ And in a lovely cafe called Quinns in Worcester the menu offered ‘a lovely large bowl of home-made soup, lovely salads, lovely old-fashioned puddings and orange squash served in a lovely plastic cup with a straw’. Lovely. I was, however, appalled to see 30p for a glass of tap water with ice and lemon at Nice Things cafe in Ledbury, a charge sensibly removed by new owners.

Further afield, I liked the English blackboard menu outside the Hotel Verol Restaurant, which included chicken breast with chips, chicken wings with chips – and chicken tights with chips, presumably a thirty denier Las Palmas speciality.

I'm sure there's a chimp in here somewhere.

I’m sure there’s a chimp in here somewhere

And during a three-night stay in Bangkok I took a shine to a nearby fish restaurant – Kuang Seafood – which had numerous fish tanks fronting the street. Families and business people filled the room each evening, waiters brandishing huge trays of mouth-watering delicacies and chefs periodically lowering their nets into the bubbling homes of red snappers and catfish. In Thailand what we know as prawns are called shrimps; and tucked among the long list of shrimp dishes I found ‘Baked Chimp with salt’. I didn’t fancy the salt and opted instead for crab curry and fried rice with fish.

On the move, I particularly enjoyed the jolly Welsh trolley man on Arriva trains between Manchester and Cardiff. Happy in his work and determined to offer travellers a new experience, his operatic rendition of ‘Just One Cornetto’ lightened the atmosphere of a crowded carriage, as did his later promotion of sea serpents and snake venom in as deadpan a way as one might sell Walkers crisps or KitKats.

And on a bus near Gloucester I overheard a woman telling fellow travellers they should try a cafe in Herne Bay, Kent which sold ‘the best garlic bread in the world’. Okay – tomorrow perhaps.

I’m used to restaurants glossing their menus; outrageous descriptions are now so commonplace that I rarely bother noting them. A roadside Brewers Fayre listed ‘fresh, hand-battered, pole-and-line caught Cornish cod, served on a bed of chef’s chunky, crispy-dipped potato strips and topped with a jus of caper-infused mayo rich in mountain tarragon’. To you and me, fish and chips with tartar sauce. Even M&S gets in on the act with ‘handcrafted, British pork sausage rolls’. And I found a fine example at the Seven Stars pub in Ledbury: ‘complex, muscular yet graceful, with fine length and lovely maturity’. Not as I had imagined some sort of sex service, but a bottle of Bolinger for fifty quid. A stark contrast with the pundit on a TV wine tasting who glugged some red and got ‘a WVS clothing store’.

2014-11-04 11.04.31

Only last week I found that a Weston-super-Mare seafront cafe had thoughtfully placed its menu on the outside wall.

Only two choices. But which first, that’s the exciting thing?

Eenie, meenie, miney …



Copyright © Paul Costello November 2014

Utterly Undiscovered by Paul Costello. A hilarious Bed and Breakfast memoir set in deepest Shropshire. Order through bookshops or direct from http://www.fineleaf.co.uk

Website: www.paulcostello.me                 Twitter: @PaulCostello8

Marmite and Anchovies

Ask a hundred people, ‘Do you like Marmite, yes or no?’ and there’d be near enough fifty in each camp. Marmite is the old favourite – the one that comes to mind. Ask another hundred, ‘Which product do you most associate with loving or loathing?’ they’d all say Marmite. Clever marketing by Unilever, I’d say.

And it offers a spirited avenue for social exchange. In a room full of strained conversation, Marmitetry yelling:

‘Listen everyone! Hands up those who like Marmite.’

Half the people raise a hand and the mood lightens. The ‘Not been a bad day’ gambit is gone, and conversations move swiftly on.

But Marmite doesn’t have it all its own way. There are plenty of other contenders.

‘Do you like anchovies?’ would not be the greatest chat-up line on a blind date. Personally I love the salty little creatures, especially to spice up a pizza topping. Change the question to black pudding (or lard – same thing) and you might get a good slap. But I’d wager the outcome for both on a wider headcount would be 50-50.

And it’s not just food where opinion is polarised. Social media is a good candidate. From its original idea of connecting people socially, Facebook has developed into a must-have tool for commercial organisations and those espousing causes like ‘Save the Thin-Skinned Wombat’ or ‘Buy My Hand-Crafted Lemon Curd.’ I should know – I use it to promote my book, Utterly Undiscovered.


There – I’ve just done it again! But to use Facebook and Twitter effectively, you have to trawl through a mountain of other stuff, and I hate that. I’ll bet a joint survey of users and non-users would confirm split interest.

Staying with electronics, the Kindle is a contender. Yes, usage grows apace and book sales have shrunk, but pros and cons for each format surely leave equal numbers enjoying both.

Book ReaderThe same applies to predictive text (PT). I’ve had mobiles where PT works perfectly and others where the text comes out weird or rude. For everyone who swears by PT, I know as many people, some far techier than me, who loathe it – though qwerty keypads have to an extent sidelined its use.

Back to food, and how about kippers? Traditionally a breakfast dish, yet arguably one of the sharpest, most lingering tastes you could offer a palate dried up by eight hours of rushing air. In Utterly Undiscovered, My Basil loves telling guests about the bride-to-be who stayed the night before her wedding and chose kippers for breakfast. Definitely an acquired taste – you love ’em or hate ’em.

Olives evoke a similar response. Personally I like green olives, de-pipped and stuffed with pimento, anchovy or cream cheese. But I’m less keen on unpipped, unstuffed olives, especially black ones, where the sourness of the olive prevails. There are those who won’t touch them and those who demolish a whole bowl, waiting for the chicken to come off the barbecue.

On the move, I love public transport. Always have done – bus, train, boat, plane. It’s escapism and adventure – away from routine and responsibility. Must be the nerd in me – from train-spotting days on the Southern Region. And these days, as a writer, it offers a rich source of material, not just about places I go but people’s behaviour. But there are as many who use public transport only as a last resort, preferring the security and control of their own car.

The train may take me to a National Trust property, where I’m offered a guided tour. I loathe guided tours. The herding nature of tour guides means going at the pace of the slowest and in the direction you’re told. I remember once a guide calling ‘Come by!’ like One Man and his Dog. And does it really matter whether things happened in 1489 or 1490? I’ve paid my hundred pound entrance fee and want to poke around by myself. But for others, the tour is a godsend – safe, sociable and included in the two hundred pound entrance fee.

AnchoviesOr I might be on the way to a reunion, as long as it’s with a few close friends. Three or four hours in a room with forty others, usually same sex, many of whom weren’t friends fifty years earlier, haven’t been in touch since and likely won’t be again is hard work. But many people do thrive on such reunions. I suppose it’d be okay talking about Marmite. Or anchovies.

Other foods spring to mind. ‘Bits’ in orange juice seem equally loved or hated. Likewise mushy peas. I enjoy both – nothing like mushy peas with fish and chips occasionally.

And a major contender must be offal, particularly liver. A cheap and plentiful source of protein and iron, liver was, until the outbreak of BSE (Mad Cow Disease), a commonplace product, warranting eye-level space on supermarket shelves. But when cattle began turning in circles and being put down, politicians, who spend their entire working lives turning full circle and putting each other down, banged the final nails in the offal coffin. I love a rich liver and bacon casserole. I make a good one myself, and I’m always delighted when an enterprising cafe places it proudly at the head of the menu. Consigning these tasty innards to a small corner on the top shelf surely belies their popularity.

So those are my contenders for ‘Love or Loathe’. There must be more. If you think of any, ask a hundred people on the street, and let me know.

Paul Costello © September 2013


Hilarious tales from a Shropshire Bed and Breakfast!


Available through bookshops (ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2) or direct from Fineleaf Editions


A fabulous holiday read!