Pickled onion or chicken flavour?;Talkback

16th April 1999 at 01:00
Cutting up greasy crisp packets for tokens isn't everyone's idea of fun, writes Carolyn Lloyd

They litter the office, fill every available receptacle and spill on to the floor. Every child's school bag is bursting with them, especially on Monday mornings. And still they come. Upwards of 30,000 and still counting, like a plague of biblical proportions. Could Walkers and news International ever have envisaged the side-effects their Free Books for Schools campaign would have?I think not.

The well-meaning covering letter showed a certain amount of naivety when it suggested that tokens should be cut out, counted and enveloped. Presumably they thought crisp packets and papers leave home in convenient batches of 100. Would that it were so. They arrive in dribs and drabs - five here, 68 there. They come in tatty envelopes, plastic tubs and carrier bags. The local publican's son brings his in a pint glass.

A few do arrive clipped, counted and clearly labelled, but six-year-old James doesn't know this and sprinkles them in with the rest anyway.

Most primary schools have a helpful band of grannies eager to turn their hands to anything. Well, almost anything. With a few stalwart exceptions, there aren't many senior citizens who are ready to spend their free time carving up greasy lumps of foil.

So it's left to the school secretary to apportion the task to anyone straying within a 10-mile radius of a basket housing a crisp bag collection the size of Annapurna. Is there a child waiting to be taken to the dentist? I'm sure they can cut out a few tokens while they're waiting. Feeling sick and need to go home? This'll take your mind off it.

Children who normally fight shy of the great outdoors and skulk around the cloakrooms at break are welcomed with open arms. Of course you can stay in at lunchtime - now, do you see those scissors?

Inevitably, especially after the post-holiday deluge, even the secretary must embark on hands-on experience. She will not use a three-inch blunt pair, purloined from the reception classes. No, she has her own foot-long, devilishly sharp pair of shears that could slice through a child's right leg faster than you can say "health and safety".

There are as many ways of cutting tokens as there are positions in which they appear on the packet. Three cuts and a sharp tug, lots of tiny snips, or heap a dozen packets one on top of another and chop through the lot at once. Admittedly, the last ones in the pile may move and the tokens at the bottom get chopped in half but, as one smart kid observed, "Mmm. Two tokens!" No matter how you do it, nothing can stop the crumbs spraying all over the worktops, important documents and you. Nothing can mask the smell of pickled onion or roast chicken flavour. And nothing can prepare you for the delight of cutting into a bag that has been dribbled into. Pass the bacterial handwash, please.

Slowly but surely the stack of cut and counted tokens grows. The English co-ordinator will beam with pleasure at the mounting pile and assemble a mighty list of books to line the shelves of the new WalkerNews International library wing.

The secretary, meanwhile, has scissor-induced repetitive strain injury, an oily tide mark on the carpet and an unpleasant smell in her office.

Carolyn Lloyd, a school secretary in the West Midlands, writes under a pseudonym.

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