Debenhams Refugee Blues

PLUS: Hellfire preachers, ant men, my new friend Clive and much, much more

Fresh from being sacked as PR man for the European Super League, I head to the Carlisle branch of Debenhams for some much-needed retail therapy.

There has always been something soothing about the men’s department here. Yes, the clothes are designed for middle-aged white males who find themselves in fashion limbo on account of their age, but I also like the vibe. There is no blaring music, no intrusive sales staff: in the Before Times I would often spend afternoons wandering the aisles, just hanging out with the guys.

Unfortunately, Debenhams is closing down. Everything in the men’s department has been reduced by at least 50%, and as a result the wives have already ransacked the place in search of bargains to give as Christmas presents to each other’s husbands. The racks resemble a Kenyan maize field which has been stripped bare by locusts.

For old time’s sake I purchase the last couple of Blue Harbour tank tops for a desultory £8.50 each, but the magic has gone.


With nowhere to go I find myself wandering aimlessly along English Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare.

It strikes me that they should rename it Unlimited Data Street on account of the fact that every shop appears to be a mobile phone retail outlet – but then such is the way of the High Street these days and it is futile to stand in the way of progress.

Some things never change, however. I pause at the Market Cross to listen to a wild-eyed, Bible-waving preacher whose simple message on this glorious Spring day is that we are all sinners heading for hellfire and damnation.

He’s probably right, but timing is everything. “Give us a break, mate,” shouts the man standing beside me. “We’re already in the middle of a plague.”

He is about fifty years old, wearing a tank top and Chinos. Our eyes meet and we share a knowing smile. I hold up my Debenhams bag and he nods sadly.

“Clive,” he says, extending a hand. “Coffee?”


By coincidence it turns out Clive was also employed by the European Super League. A copywriter by profession, he had been working with the team tasked with creating the ESL’s official slogan.

After six months they had whittled it down to two possible versions — ESL: Greed Is Good, and ESL: A Kick In The Balls — although he says both would have been used in the official ESL anthem, played before each match.

However he admits, “I started to have my doubts about the project when I saw the official mascot was a loveable cartoon gangster called Don Luigi.”

Now that the ESL has imploded Clive finds himself unemployed and, on the wrong side of 50, with few career prospects. He says he has applied to be a driver for Hermes, but after two weeks he is still waiting for the information pack to be delivered.

“At least I had the men’s department at Debenhams,” he says. “But even that’s gone now.”

I can’t bring myself to tell him that it was my PR strategy — “Just announce it, they’ll love the idea!” — that ultimately sealed the ESL’s fate. When he asks what I do for a living, I tell him I work for Laurence Fox’s London Mayoral campaign.


In truth, if I ever stopped writing this newsletter I’d get a job as an ant exterminator.

We had cause to call one out the other day, our kitchen having been invaded by a colony of ants. An hour later he turned up in a battered Transit van, speaking an incomprehensible Cumbrian dialect, looking for all the world like the village idiot.

Having identified the location of the nest, he applied a couple of dabs of ant poison to the wainscoting by the fridge then stood up and looked at me expectantly with his bog eyes — and it dawned on me that he had finished.

“How much do I owe you, squire?” I asked jovially , expecting him to say £10.

“£65 plus VAT,” he replied.

My mouth worked soundlessly. “I don’t have that much cash on me,” I eventually stammered, at which point he grinned and produced a card reader from the pocket of his overalls.

By the time I had calculated that at £65 for a minute’s work, working 40 hours a week, he stood to earn in excess of £8m a year, the ant man had gone.

I’m already thinking of retraining.


I’m taking a break from the newsletter for the next couple of weeks. Something to do with a succession of looming deadlines and the urgent need to get off my lazy arse and do some real work — but I won’t bore you with the details.

In any case, you’ve put up with this nonsense every week since October; I’m sure you could use a break, too.

All being well I’ll be back on May 14. Until then, you know the form…

Have a good weekend.