Many of you will be familiar with the London conference hotels that cluster in the hinterland between the Euston Road and Oxford Street; bland, anonymous 80s-ish foyers, conference rooms equipped with audio and projectors for the ubiquitous Powerpoint presentations, and kitchens equipped to dish out a 20 minute lunch. I would usually rather have a fork thrust in my eyeballs than spend a day in one of these places, but a couple of years ago, despite every ingenious effort on my part to escape, I was obliged to do so. These things are perennially popular with Northern middle managers for some reason; pompous, inflated little balloons of men who fiddle incessantly with their testicles and whose requests to ".. bring us a black coffee, will you, pet" to the Lithuanian staff are met with incomprehension.
Anyway, on this day the conference kitchens had excelled themselves. The buffet lunch was a massive stainless steel bed of crushed ice on which were laid salver after salver of living and dead water-creatures; oysters, green-lipped mussels, sea urchins, sushi and sashimi, several varieties of Nethrops, a poached salmon, nestling in beds of crisp lettuce from which the fluorescent glow of lemons shone as artistic highlights. In the queue before me a knot of Northern balloons worked their fingers frantically in their trouser pockets. "I can't eat that; it's bloody raw fish" "Lewk, George, there's some crabsticks there" "Where?" "There, in the corner by those slimy things" "Have you got any bread, love?".
If you visit the pages of the Sunderland Echo to gauge the reaction of that place to the news that Policy Exchange thinks we should stop spending our tax subsidies here, you will be presented with a recruitment video for the local Barclays call centre. A call centre worker steps from a limo of the kind favoured by suburban hen-parties to the corporate HQ; the camera pans lovingly around the corporate gym and the cafeteria, the chilled shelves of which will be reassuringly devoid of raw fish, and the shot closes with the monstrous sign over the corporate front door that reads "Through these doors walk the loveliest people in Sunderland. And you're one of them". You just know that as the head-balloon stood inspecting the newly-erected sign and counting his testicles that he longed to add a comma and 'pet' to the final sentence.
I suspect that Barclays confines its Northern middle-managers to their own call centres and an occasional two days at a London conference hotel. If these little bundles of wool-polyester pomposity were ever allowed into the bank's docklands tower to meet the teenagers with iPod earphones slung around their necks and take-away sushi boxes littering their desks who earn six times their own salary, it would have the same effect as a drunk with a cigarette at a children's balloon party. Scraps of wool-polyester and bits of limp testicle would lie scattered from Bow to ExCel.
And the adage that you can take the man out of Sunderland but you can't take Sunderland out of the man holds true. It would be cruel and unusual punishment indeed to take these fish from their small ponds to resettle them. The piece in the Sunderland Echo uncannily parrots the Onion in quoting "We have the Winter Gardens, the Glass Centre, the Aquatic Centre, the football team – and the only way is up". Alright, pet.