Every columnist, broadcaster or writer should, as each year closes, review his or her net contribution to the sum total of national good. It isn’t vain — or, if vain, it’s the vanity demanded by self-respect — that we should ask what we’ve done to change the world for the better.
One hundred and ten years ago this New Year’s eve, Emile Zola will have reflected with pride on the total exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus, whose cruel traduction by the French authorities the brave writer did so much to expose. Charles Dickens deserved to spend his Christmases proudly contemplating how his stories, serialised in the daily newspapers, had awakened the Victorian conscience to the sufferings of the poor. The great American broadcaster Ed Murrow could have taken quiet year-end satisfaction from his fearless unmasking of Senator Joe McCarthy and his lies. And, closer to home, my distinguished predecessor on the Times, Bernard Levin, will surely have reviewed with a sense of honest annual achievement the innocent black South Africans, the wicked Gas Board officials and the philistine opera directors whose stories his journalism had brought to public attention.
How I admire Simon Jenkins and his campaigns to civilise the national appreciation of our built and natural environment; the late Hugo Young and his tireless defence of our common European inheritance; and Simon Heffer and Christopher Booker for their tireless attacks on it. Carved on Robin Cook’s gravestone in Grange cemetery, Edinburgh, is his own piece of personal stocktaking: ‘I may not have succeeded in halting the war but I did secure the right of parliament to decide on war.’
Hear, hear, to all that. And so it is, that as the ninth year of our new century draws to a close, I too must ask myself what I’ve done for humanity this year. And with tremendous pride I reply, ‘In 2009 I stopped squishy single-portion milk sachets from squirting people in trains.’
It was in fact almost exactly a year ago — in January — that my campaign began. Writing in the Times weekly diary, I observed:
All over Britain, people at tea-stands, in cafeterias and in train buffets are fumbling with the new-style milk sachets which replace those tiny plastic tubs with a tinfoil top that we used to see. Now we are offered squishy, pencil-shaped plastic bags, each containing one shot of milk substitute.
I little knew what I was starting. How innocent and half-informed those words sound now. In fact, unknown to me, a war was raging, battle-lines were drawn and even a private language was in use. I was only later to learn that the ‘pencil-shaped plastic bags’ I described were called Dairystix; that the product with which they were in mortal combat — those ‘tiny plastic tubs with tinfoil tops’ — were called ‘jigger-tubs’; or that as the jigger-tubs army faced the forces of Dairystix, even the battlefield had a name: the Single Portions Community. War reporting, meanwhile, was coming from the catering trade press.
Into this I had blundered. Dairystix, the new kids on the single-portions block, were aiming to usurp the traditional suppliers of single portions of milk or creamer for cafés and rail buffets. Dairystix were claiming a competitive edge on the grounds of their sachets’ ease and efficiency of storage, environmentally friendly savings on tinfoil and hard plastic, and their English-sourced milk. The jigger-tubs brigade were hitting back with the accusation that Dairystix were customer-unfriendly, being hard to tear open (despite an open-here dotted line) and liable to squirt instead of pour. I, through the Times, had inadvertently fired a massive fusillade straight into the ranks of Dairystix.
Both sides were in a state of high agitation. ‘If it’s good enough for the Queen, it’s good enough for Dairystix,’ said one trade press release (as though Her Majesty would tear her own!). Both sides started writing to and telephoning me. Meanwhile supportive emails and messages flooded in from scores of readers, victims themselves (or embarrassed perpetrators) of misdirected and premature Dairystix ejaculations. Nick Clegg reported a mishap on the train to Sheffield. My fellow columnist Alice Thomson texted me from a Newcastle train to say that she had just squirted Alan Milburn’s new silk tie (‘he was unbelievably nice about it’). I felt vindicated. I had picked the right side.
But I had reckoned without a critical game-changer. In mid-battle, Dairystix admitted to me that there was a problem with squirts.
They were re-engineering their sachets’ tear-lines, they told me. Confident the problem was beaten, they sent me a box of New-Tear Dairystix. In my Derbyshire kitchen I assembled a panel of adjudicators including a senior YHA manager, a distinguished Girl Guide leader, a comedy scriptwriter, a newsreader for BBC Radio Derby and the chief leader writer for a national newspaper. Solemnly each gripped our Dairystick and followed the instructions.
And, yes, the session was entirely squirt-free. The new Dairystix were not just nicked but pre-torn by a few millimetres, the tear was easy to continue, and through the resulting generous aperture the milk poured rather than squirted. Duty-bound as a journalist to report this development, I confessed in print to having done a single-portions U-turn, and gone over to Dairystix.
My new allies were jubilant. A less scrupulous journalist could have extracted from this a lifetime’s free supply of milk sachets. I was offered a tour of the Dairystix plant — a pleasure which could prove a highlight of 2010. And as 2009 has proceeded I’ve seen fewer and fewer jigger-tubs in buffets, and more and more Dairystix. A plaintive phone call from the manufacturers of jigger-tubs recently, asking whether I might reconsider my loyalties, and come back to jigger-tubs, filled me with remorse. I thought of the empty stockings at the feet of the beds of jigger-tub company directors’ children this Christmas, and the clinking glasses in the boardroom of Dairystix. Had I been cavalier? Had I been unfair?
Ah me. But in the end in life you have to take a view, and I had; and soon the jigger-tub may be as rare a sighting in England as the red squirrel. Perhaps on my own gravestone this columnist’s epitaph may be engraved: ‘He may not have succeeded in halting the war; he may not even have secured parliament’s right to decide on the war; but he stopped a lot of people squirting each other with milk.’
Matthew Parris is a columnist on the Times.