Magazine article The Spectator

My Claim to Fame This Year: I Stopped a Lot of People from Squirting Each Other with Milk

Magazine article The Spectator

My Claim to Fame This Year: I Stopped a Lot of People from Squirting Each Other with Milk

Article excerpt

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 singleportion 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, pencilshaped plastic bags, each containing one shot of milk substitute.

'But you can't get the damn thing open. Or, rather, you tear where it says tear at the top - whereupon, like a leaking sow's teat, milk squirts out all over the table, or you, or your fellow passengers. It isn't just me, honestly.

Nobody can get it right: I watched three other customers, milk-spattered and cursing, on the train on Tuesday. Could we regress, please?

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 jiggertubs 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 cafes and rail buffets. …

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