Toyah and cancer

'Perhaps the Travelodge likes to list the first name of every employee on these badges and then bene

I spend a good portion of my year on the road and so have much experience of this country’s cheaper hotels. This week I stayed at the Manchester Ancoats Travelodge. Can my life get any more glamorous?

It's a fairly basic hotel, but right next door to the Frog and Bucket where I was performing and thus very convenient for the drunken stagger back from the club. The venue had booked me in, but when I got there there was no record of the booking. Luckily there were rooms available, but I was at reception for a good ten minutes trying to sort out what had happened.

I noticed that the receptionist was wearing a badge with her name on it. Her name was Toyah - I imagine her mum became impregnated whilst "I Want to be Free" was on the radio.

Toyah was written in large letters in the centre of the badge, but beneath it in smaller letters was the word "Cancer".

I wondered what this meant. Was her name really Toyah Cancer? I suppose it's possible, though that makes her sound like a punk from quite a poor band from 1976. So if not that then what?

Does Travelodge put the star sign of each of its employees on their name badges? This would seem like a very odd thing to do, almost like imposing a religious philosophy on everyone who works there.

What if you don't believe in astrology? Wouldn't it be pandering to people who think they can lump you into one of a dozen groups of types of people? Surely there must be some law against labelling people in this way?

Alternatively perhaps the Travelodge likes to list the first name of every employee on these badges and then beneath it list any disease that they are currently suffering from.

This would seem a bit more intrusive and I hope it's not the case as Toyah was young and it would be a shame for her to be stricken down with such an awful condition and then be forced to wear a badge letting everyone know.

At least, if this is the case, I could be sure that she didn't have herpes. So there are some advantages to the system. But if that's the case then the Travelodge organisation is akin to the Nazi regime. Surely it would be illegal to do this, even were it voluntary.

I was tempted to ask her why her badge said "cancer" on it, but was more concerned with getting a place to sleep sorted out so it slipped my mind. But in a way it's more fun not knowing. Did she just have an unusual surname, was she born in late June or early July or did she have a tragic illness? Or is there some other explanation I hadn't thought of?

Possibly the Travelodge likes to put the latitude of birth of each of its employees on their name badge, usually this would be a number, but as this woman happened to be born 23° 26′ 22″ north of the Equator, right on the Tropic of Cancer, they have been able to use the word rather than the numbers. No, that doesn't seem too likely.

It's good to have mystery in one's life and I guess one of you may be able to answer this conundrum, but I am not sure I actually want that.

Mystery can be better than knowledge.

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Boots sells lots of products used inappropriately – the morning after pill isn't one of them

The aisles are filled with items to “fix” women's bodies, but somehow preventing pregnancy is irresponsible.

As a teenager in the early Nineties, I had a favourite food: Boots Shapers Meal Replacement Chocolate Bars. There was a plain milk version, one with hazelnuts, plus one with muesli which somehow seemed healthier. I alternated which one I’d have, but I’d eat one every day. And that was all I’d eat.

Because the packet said “meal”, I told myself it was fine. Why bother drawing fine distinctions between the thing in itself and the thing in itself’s replacement? Boots sold other such dietary substitutes – Slimfast, Crunch ‘n’ Slim – but the chocolate bars were my go-to lunchtime option. I was severely underweight and didn’t menstruate until I was in my twenties, but hey, I was eating meals, wasn’t I? Or things that stood in for them. Same difference, right?

I don’t blame Boots the chemist for my anorexia. The diet foods and pills they sold – and continue to sell – were not, they would no doubt argue, aimed at women like me. Nonetheless, we bought them, just as we bought laxatives, high-fibre drinks, detox solutions, anti-cellulite gels, bathroom scales, razor blades, self-hatred measured by the Advantage Point. Boots don’t say – in public at least – that their most loyal customer is the fucked-up, self-harming woman. Still, I can’t help thinking that without her they’d be screwed.

Whenever I enter a branch of Boots (and I’m less inclined to than ever right now), I’m always struck by how many products there are for women, how few for men. One might justifiably assume that only women’s bodies are in need of starving, scrubbing, waxing, moisturising, masking with perfume, slathering in serum, primer, foundation, powder, the works. Men’s bodies are fine as they are, thank you. It’s the women who need fixing.

Or, as the company might argue, it’s simply that women are their main target market. It’s hardly their fault if women just so happen to be more insecure about their bodies than men. How can it be irresponsible to respond to that need, if it helps these women to feel good? How can it be wrong to tell a woman that a face cream – a fucking face cream – will roll back the years? It’s what she wants, isn’t it? 

Yes, some women will use products Boots sells irresponsibly and excessively, spending a fortune on self-abasement and false hope. That’s life, though, isn’t it? Boots isn’t your mother.

Unless, of course, it’s emergency contraception you’re after. If your desire is not for a wax to strip your pubic region bare, or for diet pills to give you diarrhoea while making you smaller, but for medication in order to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, well, that’s a different matter. Here, Boots have grave concerns that making such medication too cheap may be “incentivising inappropriate use”.

I am wondering in what instances it may be “inappropriate” to want to stop the implantation of an unwanted embryo in its tracks. I’ve wondered and wondered and wondered, but I can’t think of anything. I’ve used emergency contraception five times (twice from Boots, following the third degree from an embarrassed pharmacist for no reason whatsoever.) On no occasion have I particularly felt like it.

I don’t get high on nausea and heavy, gloopy periods. I took emergency contraception because in the context of my life, it was the responsible thing to do (by contrast, the most reckless thing I’ve ever done is have a third baby at age 40, even if it saved me £28.25 in Levonelle costs nine months earlier).

Clearly Boots don’t see things the way I do. There may be women who use Adios or Strippd inappropriately, but what’s the alternative to making these things easily available? More women getting fat, or fewer spending money on trying not to get fat, and such a thing would be untenable.

As for the alternative to accessing emergency contraception ... Well, it’s only a pregnancy. No big deal. And hey, did you know Boots even sell special toiletries for new mums, just so you can pamper yourself and the baby you didn’t want in the first place? See, they really care! (But don’t go thinking you can then use your Advantage Points to buy formula milk. Those tits were made for feeding – why not spend your points on a bust firming gel for afterwards?).

I get that Boots is interested in profit and I get that pretending to really, really care about the customer is just what you do when you’re in marketing. I also get that Boots isn't the only company which does this. They all do.

But making it harder for poorer women to access emergency contraception just so you won’t offend the customers who’ll judge them? Really, Boots? Isn’t that making this whole charade a little too obvious?

Commenting on what another woman does with her body should not be off-limits (if it was, no one would have ever identified and treated the eating disorder that was killing me.) Even so, it’s instructive to look at the things we see fit to comment on and those we don’t.

Want to inject your face with poison? Augment your breasts with silicone? Have your vagina remodelled to please your husband? Go ahead. Your body, your choice.

Want to control your reproductive life? Avoid the risks and permanent aftermath of childbirth? Prevent the need for an abortion down the line?

Well, that’s another matter. We’re just not sure we can trust you. Forget about those pills. Why not have some folic acid and stretch mark cream instead?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.