The seven year itch

The seven year itch


It started with a shriek. A shriek that became an itch, an itch that gave me the germ of an idea that became the Greyhares blog. The shriek came from the direction of the shower one morning in late October 2009. My wife had noticed that Pears soap, a soap we’d both been using since childhood, had acquired a new, pungent antiseptic smell. The reformulated soap made her skin itch. On a closer look, we found that the words “hypoallergenic” and “non-comedogenic” had been discretely dropped from the packaging.

A few days later, I was having coffee with my friend Joe Collier. Joe knew that I ‘did’ blogs for some of my commercial clients and, though few would have guessed it of a man in his late sixties, Joe was already an accomplished blogger in his own right. Writing for the online section of the British Medical Journal, he felt constrained and frustrated by the BMJ blog editor’s attempts to keep him “on message”. The “message” in question being the subject of UK medicines policy, something Joe knew a great deal about. At times, he confided, he was so seriously off-message that he doubted he would be allowed to, or even want to, carry on.

“So, let’s do our own blog?” I suggested, adding that I had at least one idea for something I could write about. And so, on 1st December 2009, the Greyhares blog was born and, on 18th December,  we published The Great Pears Soap Disaster.

The new formula Pears soap was horrible, everybody agreed. There was a Facebook campaign, comment in the Press and elsewhere – and there was the Greyhares blog. Seven years on, The Great Pears Soap Disaster remains the most visited page on the Greyhares site, having attracted tens of thousands of page hits, and the comment count, which today stands at 313, shows no sign of tailing off.

Has all this fuss made any difference? Has the outcry led to the old formula being restored? The answers, respectively, are probably not, and certainly not.  The antiseptic fragrance was soon toned down, that much we know, but the mini-consumer uprising that might have deflected a lesser organisation was to Unilever like a flotilla of rubber ducks attempting to alter the course of a super-tanker – colourful but ultimately futile.

Who cares about a soap anyway, even if the soap in question is a 227 year old iconic brand trusted for its kindness to sensitive skins? Supra-national corporations spend millions of dollars every year tracking down and crushing counterfeiters, yet here was a major brand-owner producing a passable facsimile of its own product, and not being sued by anybody.

Bad news then, for Pears Soap, and bad news perhaps, for the Greyhares blog? They say that most blogs last fewer than 100 days (I cannot find the source of this statistic) and in my experience of creating and editing various blogs over the years, a year or two is the norm. The Greyhares blog could easily have subsided along with the soap bubbles – except that I had underestimated the tenacity and single-mindedness of my co-conspirator.

Those who know Joe Collier will know that he is a compulsive interacter and, I would add, a born subversive, as anyone who has ever been on a train journey with him, or eaten out with him, will testify. Joe finds it almost impossible to walk away from potential interaction with anything or anyone. These interactions can be testing, even uncomfortable for his companion of the moment but they are, of course, the stuff of his writing. Through the pages of this blog we have learned about Joe’s quest for perfection – his search for a proper cup of tea, for cutlery that stays put, for a free source of breadcrumbs for his wiener schnitzel, for the note perfect concert performance; his race to be first at the fish counter, or to be the first customer at a new boulangerie. Joe’s adventures in daily life have puzzled and entertained the reader in equal measure over the past seven years.

My contribution as editor has been to suggest the odd title – the odder the better. Some favourites that come to mind include Hello piglet, I’m on a train, Look back in Bognor, Life after teeth, Queen of the Nought, Secret Newsagent and No sex please, we’re Gerbils.

So what lies in store for the next seven years? Those of us who hanker after a gentler soap from a gentler age can look forward to a new handmade transparent soap being developed by La Savonnerie de l’Alchimiste in Brittany. Stay tuned. And Joe’s loyal followers can look forward to the publication of a handpicked selection of 50 of his 220+ Greyhares essays in his new book, ‘In the fullness of time’, which is to be published in early 2017 and will be available via this site.

For the time being, I will leave you with two new contributions to digest in that spare moment between the turkey and the Christmas pudding, and wish all our followers the very best for Christmas 2016 and for whatever lies ahead in 2017.

The first is a story from another Greyhares stalwart, Graham Dukes and the second is from Joe Collier, briefly leaving his normal realm and dipping into the world of political intrigue…

Bohemian Reverie An Audience with Wenceslas, by Graham Dukes

A tale of monarchs reborn by Joe Collier




2 comments on “The seven year itch
  1. Robert Piggot says:

    Dear Alan, I learn from your column that Greyhares is seven years old.

    It’s become part of my life now. We never know what it will be about – it’s always a surprise.

    Someone once wrote that, especially in the arts, everything depends on those who continue. So thank you Joe, and your band of writers who have continued, and who have helped, in however big or small a way, to enlarge our awareness of the possibilities of life.. Robert

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