It was Coca-Cola that altered me to the problem. With the unseasonably warm weather the one thing that one wants is a chilled bottle of Coke – and they can quote me on that. But in Stratford it was the one thing that could not be found for (as those with an eye for a happy turn of phrase might put it) love or money. I was surprised because I know of old the formidable logistical abilities of the Coca-Cola Company: never a demand for the brown and bubbly liquid willingly unsupplied. I made enquiries of the local shopkeepers.
The problem, as it turned out, was an advertising campaign. The slogan is ‘Share a Coke’, and there is a great deal that goes with it in terms of having your name printed on a bottle of the drink where the word ‘Coca-Cola’ is normally to be found. Possibly, in the spirit of reciprocity ‘Coca-Cola’ appears on your driving licence. Togetherness, it is fair to say, is the theme.
Now, the phrase ‘Share a Coke’ is generally to be found in the advertising as three distinct words and in the URL for the associated website, where gaps are of course not permitted, they are still distinct, being separated by hyphens. But it was not always so. The campaign was initially, or so it appears, tested in marginal areas, like Ireland and the East End, with a view to its being fine-tuned on the proles before being released on the ABs later. And in the earlier version, the slogan, certainly as regards the URL, was apparently all one word: ‘shareacoke’. And it was here that the misunderstanding arose.
One of the last areas where you achieve fluency when using a language to which you were not born, as the better half will tell you, is the spelling. This is particularly the case, as the better half will, if encouraged, emphasise, where one’s original language has a different alphabet. Many of the people who live in Stratford (some thirty per cent according to one account, though I didn’t know how they think they know; they haven’t asked me) are of Pakistani origin. It is not surprising that with all their fluency in English they read ‘Sharea’ as ‘Sharia’. It is a mistake that any of us might make.
Probably they were predisposed to reading it that way, thinking that some recompense was due after the frankly un-Islamic concentration in previous Coca-Cola campaigns on Christmas.
Anyway, hence the bulk buying of one’s favourite summer drink. The damage was done. No doubt a substantial minority of the people of Stratford (though probably fewer of the Irish) thought that it was a special release: Sharia Coke, like Classic or Sugar- or Carcinogen-free or whatever the others are. It might be a mistake but if it works it’s good advertising.
(Or, as it seems to be compulsory to say these days, I’m not sure why: ‘It may be a mistake but, hey, if it works it’s good advertising.’)
After a silence of some months, when they were no doubt busy, Popes Я Us have been calling again, and I shared these thoughts with them. As things turned out, it might have been better not to.
First of course I asked about the new pontiff.
Well, said Popes Я Us, it’s not like it used to be. The last one you never saw except safely though a cloud of incense or at a formal audience for which you were prepared. This new one you never know where he’s going to pop up. You can be tucking into your linguine con polpo in the Vatican Library canteen and there he is suddenly in the midst of you, wanting to talk about the Poor.
That’s good though, isn’t it?
Of course it is, said Popes Я Us, but at luncheon?
And his accent, said Popes Я Us in a whisper.
But, I said, from what I read, he is going to cleanse the Augean Stables that is the Vatican hierarchy.
Ng Stables? said Popes Я Us.
A-U-G-E-A-N. Hercules. Look it up. You’ll find them in the Vatican Library.
There was a moment’s silence and a tapping sound down the phone.
Or Google, said Popes Я Us. Ah yes, of course. I know these stables. Of course. In Italian we pronounce it otherwise. The pederastic monsters and the thieves among the Cardinalate! Oh yes!
Watch this space, said Popes Я Us.
And since he would not accommodate my prurient interest any further I changed the subject and told him about Islamic soft drinks and the thirty-something per cent of people in Stratford of Pakistani origin.
Many of them have an understandable attachment to Sharia law, I said. Periodically they suggest that it should be adopted as standard in the London Borough of Newham. I hope that they don’t succeed, having spent a working lifetime establishing some familiarity with the English sort.
Oh no, said Popes Я Us. The thirty-something percentage is for people originally from the sub-continent altogether. Indians, Hindus, Sikhs. Many of them would share your reluctance to replace the Common Law with Sharia: quite strongly in fact.
How do you know?
I looked it up in the Vatican Library when you said that you were moving.
We care about you, said Popes Я Us, in a whisper.
They called back an hour or so later.
The Church must stand up and be counted in Stratford, they said. The very clear message from our brothers in Islam must not go by default.
Mm, I said.
A procession: that’s what’s needed. With gorgeous robes.
It’s very hot, I said, currently, for gorgeous robes.
Pft, said Popes Я Us. If Our Holy Mother the Church knows about anything, after two millennia, it’s processions with gorgeous robes. We thought Westfield.
I remembered The Coca-Cola Company and its dry run.
Try the old Stratford Shopping Centre, I said. It’s cosier: much more suitable.
And as it turned out that was my biggest mistake so far.