“Did you know,” my assistant Norman said, “that the UK health and fitness industry has a total market value of £3.8 billion? And how much of that is our shop getting? Not much, that’s what.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “We did once sell a pogo-stick to a one-legged man in 1984 although I admit we had to give him his money back after he ended up in casualty.”
“My point exactly,” Norman said.“And also it’s your turn to buy the crisps. Steak-and-onion flavour for me, please.”
We were in the pub having a swift half after work and Norman was taking advantage of the convivial atmosphere to say things that he wouldn’t dare to mention in office hours.
“Have you been into the big sports store by the bus station?” Norman said.“They’ve got this health and fitness suite full of the latest gear - elliptical cross-trainers, multigyms, computerised cardio workout monitors…the lot.
“They’ve got these fitnesstrainers, girls in Lycra shorts and T-shirts who give you a complementary fitness workout. You could hardly get into the place for blokes making appointments.”
“We’re a family business,” I said.“And anyway where would we put a health and fitness suite?”“I’ve thought about that,” Norman said. “If I keep my bike out on the pavement and we move the kettle into the toilet we could make quite a nice little display in that corner where the Wayne Rooney poster covers up the damp. It shouldn’t be there anyway, now he’s done a runner to America.”
I could see things were getting out of hand so I employed some basic diversionary tactics by suggesting we did a little market research. This meant asking a few chaps in the pub whether they kept fit and would they buy exercise gear if we stocked it?
“You better ask Roger”, said one cove, indicating a man in the corner who was either asleep or dead. “He thinks being part of the human race counts as exercise. He gets exhausted winding up his watch and his idea of a work-out is to sit in the bath, pull out the plug and fight the current.”
“I get enough exercise lifting my feet when the wife is vacuuming,“said a bloke trying to summon up enough energy to pull his darts out of the dartboard.
“If God meant us to touch our toes he would have put some fivers on the ground. As far as I can see, the only advantage of exercise is that you die healthier.”
“That’s right,” said his mate who was breaking into a sweat opening a pack of cards.“Every time I get the urge to exercise I sit down with a bag of chips and wait until it goes away. I get quite enough exercise stumbling around the house looking for my glasses.”
“Don’t believe him,” said the landlord who had been listening from behind the bar.“The only exercise he gets is jumping to conclusions and pushing his luck. Not like me - I started a strict running programme yesterday and I’ve only missed one day so far.
“On the other hand, there can be problems in keeping fit,” the landlord said.“My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 now and we don’t know where the hell she is.
“You’ve got to be sensible about keeping fit - if you’re going to try cross-country running make sure you start with a small country.”
“The only reason I would take up jogging is so I could hear heavy breathing again,” said a man who returned to the table with a tray of drinks.“When I went to a health club the first machine they put me on was a respirator.”
“Exercise wouldn’t be a problem for me if I had a different body to do it with. But I do like long walks - when they’re taken by people I don’t want to see.”
“I’ll know I’m really out of shape when I can’t pull two supermarket trolleys apart,” said a man in a cap who had appeared in a doorway with a dog. “Until then I take it easy. I was asked to run the London Marathon but I had to turn it down. I’ve no experience organising something that big.”
Eventually Norman, much to his chagrin, had to admit that I had proved to be pretty accurate about the public reaction to fitness and exercise in our neck of the woods. “They all deserve to have high cholesterol and get heart attacks at 50,” he said.“But at least my bike won’t have to stand out in the rain.”
Perhaps one day I might admit to Norman that while he was in the gents I persuaded the chaps to tell a few relatively harmless porkies.
Pints all round and a packet of Marmite crisps for the dog turned out to be a pretty good investment.