Parade of the harlequins

A focus group is unpleasant on so many levels. First, it’s something that props up the foul smelling capitalist system. I’m bouncing into the realm of the advertiser. The advertiser is a strange hybrid, halfway between hipster and corporate. Slighty tighter jeans than usual but with the edges trimmed off. A tie could descent at any moment onto the thoughtfully buttoned up shirt.

While I’m sitting in reception the panel drips into the waiting room. This is my first day of Zoloft and I’m still getting used to the side effects of anxiety so my heart is threatening to burst through my chest and I imagine that if I try talking to someone I’ll either silently gulp in terror or launch into a mile a minute intense discussion about something horrendously mundane. Fortunately nobody engages me. We file into the main room, which has several tables, two mirrored walls and some sandwiches. The issues with buffets is that they tend to be overambitious. If you’re going to put red pepper in there, you need to do it properly, otherwise just stick to peanut butter. I’ll have to put the cheese and jam combo down to a computer virus in the automated sandwich creation facility.

What disgusts me most is the sympathy that people have towards brands. I hate brands. When I encounter brands in my daily life I feel revolted and angry. I have violent thoughts towards the creators and the brand itself - which is a mythical beast, it has no form except for the identity fraudulently invented for it by the aforementioned advertisers.

The topic today is electric shavers. You know that bullshit about 5 blade, rotating shaft, MicroFuckTM they plaster over various razers which are all identical except for the amount of absolute cock peddled with them. Some people buy into that. That’s not a disorientating waste of time for them, it’s an essential part of their process in choosing a product. MicroFuck forms part of their experience with the product. Who knew.

They organise us into four groups and set us a variety of tasks which involve writing on A3 sheets of paper. I’m in a suitably ethnically mixed group of four people. The first task is to introduce ourselves by way of our interests. In this stage I learn how utterly dull the entire world is including me. Here’s a tip: exercise is not an interest. New wave French cinema is an interest. Painting airfix is a hobby. Huffing marker pens outside WH Smith counts. The fact that you either do exercise or get some satisfaction from it says nothing whatsoever about you except for the fact that hold a preference against being fat and coronary heart disease. Football just about gets a pass, but if you announce it to me I will file you in a category marked ‘a lot of people I probably won’t like’ and you will become so indistinguishable to me that I will cease to be able to pick you out of a lineup.

After assessing my companions I deem it acceptable to offend them so I loosen my trousers and my tongue and let the crude jokes fly. Something else I’ve noticed about people in general from these sorts of situations is how shy people are. An extremely noticeable way to pick up on this is when people desperately feign knowledge of something that they have absolutely never heard of and couldn’t care less about. This happens to me sometimes when I talk about where I’m from. “Is that near Newcastle?” they might say, straining for some common ground, a geographic tie that will form the first of many bonds of friendship to come. My village is nowhere near Newcastle. I’ve never been there. “Yeah it’s actually sort of near… I think I might have been there … kind of similar” I’m tugging at the map in my mind, trying to will these two places closer to each other to save embarrassment. Fuck off Barnsley you’re impeding my charisma.

On the whole, people will do anything to please you. It’s only by virtue of us all being so fucking scared of our imagined versions each other that society manages to hold itself together. Politeness is why dictators rule the world. My dream is to burst from my seat and turn to the double sided mirror that forms the end wall of the room and deliver an impassioned speech about the poison of advertising, maybe borrow a directive from Bill Hicks. They’d raise the lights in their little viewing room, making themselves visible to me as they slowly nod their heads, standing up one by one to give me a miniature standing ovation. I salute them before leaping through the window onto a prepared zipline and… ok fantasy over. This didn’t happen of course, mostly due to my not wanting to offend anyone with my distasteful beliefs.

The other issue is that in my fantasies, the enemy is brutal and unremitting, they deserve to be vanquished. They’re not a human being, just a foil for my heroic identity. The other issue is that the man running the course is a visibly nervous man who starts to sweat and stumble through his words as we progress through the three and a half hours the task entails. He keeps asking about prices in euros instead of pounds. I still want to wave my revolutionary flag, but it seems unfair to impale him with it, given that he’s just an ordinary guy like me, rather than the ideological menace I’d hoped for. The other man running the course is totally silent and it’s difficult to know where he stands. He might be a comrade so I let him be.

I’ve done some interviews before for work related reasons. This is a fucking terrible way to go about it. It’s virtually impossible to gather the opinions of more than one person at a time. It can’t be recorded because there are too many people in the room - you might as well leave your dictaphone on in the office while you go for lunch. Groupthink is evident. Electric shavers are not things that people have strong opinions about (though the scant attention my colleagues pay is disturbing enough for me). The kind of preferences I have about a razor are easily swayed by a casual, “I think that having two blades is better than one”. You know what, I think that two blades are obviously superior. I always thought that, I always will. If you control history you control the present. Can you prove I ever held any contradictory opinion?

Equally, putting 30 blokes into a room together is a recipe for smut. In one exercise we’re asked to write a break up letter to our old shaver and a dating advert to seduce the new one. I say, “I think these exercises are horrible and useless” but nobody listens so I give the criticism a break and try to think of some jokes. We fill in in our A3 sheets with answers to bizarre questions that not only try to anthropomorphise hair removal tools but also equating them with something that I would want to love and have sex with. “What first attracted you to this inanimate object?” Each group gives a presentation to the rest of the group, which is entirely for the benefit of a camera in the middle of the room. Predictably this turns into a euphemism competition which all but ends in fist pumping and chest bumping. “easy to turn on… removable sheath… self-lubricating… works best in a steamy environment… has a big pair of tits….” Ok I made the last one up. But the creatives or board room execs who sit round and watch this DVD will learn very little about people’s preferences on shaving and a lot about why men should never be trusted with anything ever.

During the series of presentations - of which there are many, one after every laborious task we do. I feel like I’m supposed to care and pay attention. I feel like I’m in school and that although boring, there’s probably something I can learn from the hard work these guys put in studying chapter 4 of the biology textbook. There isn’t I realise and I look up Sir David Frost’s profile on wikipedia to see how he died. It was a heart attack.

We were asked to bring our shavers with us. During the discussion we’re asked to get them out, for reference or something. Apparently shaving has moved on leaps and bounds since I bought mine, which is the size of two cans stacked on top of each other, something for which my status within the group takes a beating. Conrad sitting next to me has something very dainty indeed, with a thin neck and a long and narrow blade at the end. Other specimens resemble alien technology. The way we grip the shafts of these beasts in front of us and discuss their relative merits makes me feel like we just ought to go the whole hog and get our penises out to compare.

I have never thought this much about shaving. I never want to again. After being invited to write on a post it note one last message to ‘the shaving industry’ we hurriedly join the queue to receive what is euphemistically referred to as our incentive. We have been suitable incentivized. There are no goodbyes in the cutthroat world of focus groups. No tearful hugs between people who have survived the ordeal, we simply file out into the busy street to continue our separate lives having granted an unwarranted amount of access to our presumably soon to be exploited insecurities.

Hypotism and me

Have you ever wanted to surf an astral plane or regurgitate your inner conciousness in front of a group of strangers who’ve paid £5 each to see somebody embarass themselves. Maybe you’d like to dance like a chicken to satisfy the whims of a man who wishes he was Derren Brown but lives in Ottery St Mary. I have wanted none of these things, but you have to do something with your life and sometimes craigslist is the source of such thing.

For the uninitiated, craigslist is a listings site. Most of it is fairly mundane buying and selling. It’s the personals section that is most intriguing. There’s a casual encounters section full of men begging for sex, a dating part full of men begging for sex and a strictly platonic section which, defiantly, is full of men begging for sex. Among these ten-a-penny requests, there are some gems.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be hypnotised? Or perhaps you’ve seen a show and wondered what effect hypnosis would have on you? It is a unique and interesting experience quite unlike anything else you will ever experience.

Also included is this admonition to that section of viewers who prey on kindly hypnotists:

Please be genuine about meeting. Getting too many replies from guys who are unreliable

I am eager not to waste his time, so I fire off a friendly request and get back to my essay. He replies within half an hour. If this were dating it would seem desperate, but I suppose hypnotism is an entirely different business. His name is Vince, and his email address is worryingly anonymous. The first image I conjure up is of a man with a thick monobrow in a string vest swinging a tightly gripped timepiece in a shabby attic while I’m tied to a chair. My mental image then turns to a slick, consummate professional with a bowtie and white gloves who will delight and entertain me. I have a mild fear he may murder me with an axe.

After an exchange of emails, we agree to meet at the Euston Travelodge. I text a friend, last known location: euston travelodge, 4th floor. Pressing send, I shudder, it’s not so much my death that would bother me, I’d just imagined it would happen in a more glamorous way. Preferably in at least a 3 star hotel. On a sofa in the lobby of the Travelodge, I watch guests come and go, looking out for signs that they might be hypnotists. I’m disappointed to note that none of them have a hypnotic air to them, not even Vince, who spots me first and reaches out his hand. He doesn’t fit either of my preconceptions, being a portly Irishman with a soothing voice that sounds like soft rain. I tell him this and he grins.

We take the lift to his room, which I’m pleased isn’t 101. The room is a classic budget hotel with stark white walls, a small television and a print of some extremely bland art. As Vince puts his bag down I study it for the outline of a hatchet. Vince leans over and removes a twix from the bag. I silently wonder if the twix will be part of the hypnosis. He notices my expression of concern. “Some people have said they wonder if I’m going to be Jimmy Savile!” he says jovially. There is a silence.

The first part of the session is a consultation where he tells me a variety of things about hypnosis and the sort of things he’s going to do to me. You can’t hypnotise anyone unless they’re willingly involved. And did you know that you need a license to perform hypnosis onstage? Fascinating. When he asks some questions about my mindset, I say to him, “I’m an extremely tense and neurotic person and I like to maintain control over my surroundings”. He reassures that this won’t be a problem. I can feel my aching muscles relax already.

Hypnosis starts with an induction, a kind of ritual used to put you into a state of increased suggestibility at which point the hypnotist can tell you stop smoking, berate you about your excessive burger consumption or make you rob a bank. Most of this is fairly simple stuff. Vince delivers his patter with smooth and easy professionalism and I have to say, I am quite enjoying myself. I close my eyes as he begins.

There is a hooting from the street as some football fans exit the pub opposite. I open my eyes again. Vince sighs, goes over to the window and rolls down the blind. As he does so I notice a giant stone eagle with its wings spread on the building opposite. I start thinking about the Nazis. Then which is the best Indiana Jones film, then… OH GOD SHOULDN’T I BE RELAXING RIGHT NOW? I give Vince my most apologetic but serene expression. He looks pleased and says, “well hopefully that’s all the interruption we’ll have tonight!”. As he sits down an extremely loud siren bursts into life. He sighs an even longer sigh. I’m somehow reassured by these disturbances, I feel like I’m with a gritty, urban hypnotist dealing with real life problems, not one of those saccharine, white teeth, Hollywood fantasy-relaxers.

We get back to the induction. The first technique involves me watching him and copying his actions. He moves his finger up and down his face and does a strange twitchy thing with his eye which makes me think he might be a David Icke style lizard. I make a mental note to look out for any shapeshifting. I have trouble replicating his eye movements, but I make a good go of spasming. Some breathing exercises, and then, “you’re stepping into a luxury elevator … going down … 4th floor… 1st floor… you feel your muscles start to relax.” Next he lifts my arm and lets it plop onto my thigh. He does it again. This is the signal for me to enter a deep state of relaxation. And I do, a little bit. Sort of. Right before I get my mind blown.

“Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret.” he announces boldly, while I still have my eyes shut, apparently in a trance. “There’s no such thing as the number four. Once you come out of this state, you will simply have no recollection of that number.”

He asks me to open my eyes again. He’s holding up his hand. “As I put my fingers up, I want you tell me how many there are”.

“1, 2, 3…” I pause for a moment, wondering how hypnotised I am. “5?” I say sheepishly.

“Are you sure?”

“Well, no, not really. There is a number 4. I don’t think that one worked…”

We try some more inducing. After Vince has been talking for a few minutes, describing some peaceful paradise, I hear him get up and cross the room. A door creaks. Maybe he’s going to play a cool prank and get his twin brother in. A steady tinkling indicates this is not the case. I tentatively open an eye, as I do so the door of the toilet on the opposite side of the room swings open and I meet his eyes in the mirrored wall. His eyes widen and we have a brief moment of contact before I squeeze mine closed again. There is a hurried zipping and he quickly returns to the chair. I hope that I can act bleary enough we can both pretend I was too hypnotised to notice anything.

“Ok Tom, I’m going to bring you out of the trance state now. When I get to zero, open your eyes again…”

“Wow, I was totally under there Vince! I didn’t know what was going on!” I say, convincingly. I think I can detect Vince quietly breath away his tension.

In spite of my enthusiasm, the first attempt at hypnosis hasn’t been particularly successful. Since I have such an impenetrable mind, I briefly consider trying to hypnotise Vince, the old turning the tables trick. But I figure he’s probably pretty wise to the signs by now. Instead I suggest moving things to the bed. The Travelodge sofa seems to have been designed by someone who had a contempt for people who enjoy sitting, and it’s hardly conducive to letting yourself go. Vince consents, so I lie down and stretch out. He brings his chair over to the side of the bed and starts a new induction. The imagery of this one is quite dark. He describes walking through a wood at night, towards a still lake. Nevertheless, I actually feel myself drifting off for a while. After I awake, he tells me I was under for half an hour. He claims this is something called the Esdaile state, an extremely deep trance where the subject is not responsive to any stimuli. I am skeptical and I express the thought that perhaps I just fell asleep. Vince says this is not possible.

I sit up on the bed and we have a few more minutes of lingering chit chat. Vince tells me that I’m the only person his hypnosis hasn’t worked upon. I feel some pride for my rigid mind, but also a tinge of shame for being different. I think this is how the X-men feel.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience. It was interesting to see how it all works up close. Sadly I didn’t really get to experience what it’s like being hypnotised. Still, I recommend it. Perhaps you’re not as intensely controlling as I am and will be able to relax in the company of a stranger in a cheap hotel room.

As the Travelodge doors gracefully slide open to permit my exit, I have to admit to feeling a little bit less on edge. On the way back through Euston station I buy a family size lasagna from M&S. While waiting for my tube, I wonder if he hypnotised me to do this.