A man with a rusty tannoy and a wooden clipboard told me I was on. I stepped onto the stage and walked over to the table which stood at the front of the stage and the faces in the crowd stopped bobbling, eyes widened and the chatter of voices died away. The table in front of me was a fold away and it dipped a little in the middle and on this chocolate altar was placed a line of 10 cups of warming hot chocolate. This was my first ever chocolate eating Heptathlon. The 10th Great Annual Chocolate Ingestion was in full spring and there was a category for every kind of chocolover. There was tasting of new formulations. There were world record attempts, such as eating 8 Mars Bars in the fastest time without being sick. There were talks and lectures by expert gourmands. And finally, there were the extreme chocolate sports. You could surf on liquid chocolate or go paintballing with chocolate filled paintballs. It was the Comicon of cocoa beans and here we worshipped with awe and some silliness in equal measure.
Clipboard man took the microphone, which hung from the roof like in a boxing ring, and announced my name, age, where I lived and my all time favourite chocolate. I received a cheer for each piece of information, but the fact that Cadbury’s chocolate buttons were my favourite was met with a low dismissive buzz and a few wolf whistles. I assumed this wasn’t good. The clipboard man smiled. He had few teeth. Too much sponsors product I thought to myself.
From the stage I caught sight of Jonas Blane, a gargantuan character. He was outspoken, sneering, contemptuous and possessing of a belly that took away the view of his size 14 feet. He was well known in chocolate circles for his knowledge of chocolate and his contempt for others with lesser wisdom. For instance, he knew to smell first, and then eat. He prided himself on his knowledge and his tastes were as refined as any wine or whisky drinker. He knew the best instantly and the worst was treated with a screwed up face, which during competition made him look like a magnificently fierce chocolate monster. I momentarily sang a couple of bars of a song from REM’s Monster album. Blane had been in trouble with the law in the infamous “Chocolategate” scandal a couple of years ago. He had been filmed trying to sell Thornton’s premier range recipes to a competitor and had been jailed for industrial espionage. Blane returned and when he won the competition last year it was seen as a great return to form by some and a disaster for the respect of the competition and indeed the industry for others. He was in prison for 4 months and it had not been plain sailing by all accounts. I could see him in the crowd and he didn’t look himself today. He seemed more hunched over, his head dipped a little more than usual and it gave him a less confident posture. Surely he had known he would get caught and a chocolatier getting nabbed by the law is obviously bad news:
• Bars are for drinking in and having a merry old time, not for peering through with a tear running down your cheek as you realise the guards won’t be bringing you hot cocoa or Horlicks in bed.
• Prison officers are often no better than their captive audience. They’re called screws for a reason. They will screw you over for a bite of your bounty bar.
• The minimum wage for prison labour is 49p an hour. This hasn’t changed since 1974. If the rest of the prison is stuck in the same twisted time-warp then I’d happily live in 2012 instead. Nowadays I can only get a snack size Twix for that price and I have a preference for king size.
• Cinema has it all wrong. There is no Red or Andy Dufresne in Saughton and no Colditz style solidarity in Barlinnie. Everyone hears about the drugs stashes, but did you ever hear of a chocolate stash in prison?
• Individuality is stamped on in prison. Look at the uniforms. How could you celebrate a love of coffee Revels in that environment? And there are no pockets in the uniforms. Where do you keep your break time Walnut Whip?
• The only heat of human contact you’ll feel is when your roommate (usually called Ramon or Frankie) is snuggling into your bed late at night to tempt you with his tube of Smarties.
• Charles Bronson and Peter Sutcliffe are in prison. Would you really want to share your Toblerone with them?
If prison is for people who are master manipulators then I think anyone like me with the cunning of a goldfish should stick to paying the bills through legal means. With that I refocused my mind on the competition. The crowd was silent and not even the grass twitched under the audience’s feet. Clipboard man counted down from three. “THREE”, my hands were still shaking, “TWO”, I imagined the look on Blane’s face if I managed a favourable time, me, a novice, “ONE”, A fly was buzzing about and I shooed it away from my first cup of chocolate goodness, “GO!”.
The last cup seemed to take a depressingly unfeasible 10 minutes, in reality it was much quicker and I managed all ten cups in less than a minute and a half. The crowd cheered and hurrahed and went completely nuts. For a moment I felt like Justin Bieber on stage. The adulation was overwhelming and I walked off stage and immediately went to the toilet, pulled down the lid and sat down. My whole body was dancing with the glucose, adrenalin and excitement and I wondered how I was going to manage 8 mars bars later that afternoon.