Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Your Country's Commemoration Needs You, By Jingo!

The choice of Lord Kitchener's image - and blunt 'your country needs you' slogan as the coin design to commemorate the centenary of World War I bodes ill for those, like Jeremy Paxman, who feared the coalition government would turn this event into a jingoistic flag-waver, or worse, a flag-draped smokescreen that could be harnessed for electoral purposes. My granddad, who served as a Driver in the Army Service Corps in Greece and Macedonia in that conflict used to joke that they gave them a medal that said they'd fought 'for civilisation' because the powers that be couldn't admit to not having a clue as to what the war had actually been about. The forthcoming centenary will evoke many feelings - while my grandfather's generation have now passed on - they left a powerful evocation of the suffering and horror of war, even though they were told not to talk about it when they returned - and many didn't because deference to authority was such a powerful element of early 20th century society. Times have changed, and the memory of our loved ones - both those who returned and those who did not - taken together with our current prediliction for conflict and even involving the military in schools means we should not merely accept the events and artefacts given to us to remember but rather actively question their motive and appropriateness over the next four years.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Goodwill ends at Tesco

Predictably, I suppose, the season of peace and goodwill ends when the sales start. For me, signs that normal incivility had returned came when the man next to me at the customer service counter decided to be boorish and unpleasant to the young female assistant serving him. She managed it well, with a slight reddening of the cheeks developing in response to a tirade that sprang, seemingly, from nowhere. But the most striking them was that none of her co-workers offered any assistance or solidarity after the moron had left. Are they so used to it - or is it company policy not to show weakness in the face of aggressive behaviour?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ofgem's unwelcome Christmas gift to Co-operative Energy customers

Ofgem, the scourge of overcharging energy companies everywhere, has decided, in its infinite non-wisdom, that the dividend, beloved of co-op customers for generations, has no place in the 'regulated' energy market. Co-operative Energy, a not-for-profit gas and energy provider - of the sort that is really needed to ensure genuine competition in a decidedly non-competitive sector - has been ordered by Ofgem to stop paying dividends to Co-operative members that sign up for its services but who have no 'democratic connection' with Co-operative Energy's owner, the Midcounties Co-operative. Evidence of a rather parochial approach by the industry regulator, while it lets the 'big six' carry on regardless with their cosy price-fixing ways.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Indoor skateboarding, yawn

Watching son play X-box skateboard game. Can't think of anything more futile or boring than virtual-reality skateboarding. Is this a sign of an unbridgeable generation gap or just that I've finally morphed into an old fart?

Just one more teenaged sleepover until Christmas...

The combination of a December birthday and a rash promise comes home to roost tonight. Telling recently-birthdayed son that he can have a sleepover turns into reality tonight. Deep joy, and I'm locking the fridge. Oh, and the three of them are in a band. The neighbours are going to love this.

Christmas at the Farm Shop

An early start this morning; after queuing for an age last year, I decided to get to the farm shop when it first opened. Now feeling knackered but justified, as only the second person in the place at 7.00 can.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

They do things differently in the Diocese of Chichester

The Church of England's Diocese of Chichester has had to move quickly to distance itself from anti-gay comments made by one of its own elected General Synod representatives. Fresh from a conference in Jamaica, Andrea Minichiello Williams, urged the Jamaican government to maintain its criminal ban on homosexuality, before going on to trot out the old saw that homosexuality is the same as paedophilia. The important thing here is that the diocese has only distanced itself - not taken steps to remove its representative. How very Anglican - half-measures and a little light condemnation.

Hammond - the ideal politician to drone on about drones

Interesting piece from RAF Waddington - the UK's drone central - on the operation of what the MOD wants us to call Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems (UAVS), in fact anything but 'drones'. A losing battle if ever there was one. But then again, there is more than the naming issue that seems unreal. Locking the 'crew' into a windowless metal container in their flying overalls to operate an aircraft thousands of miles away is also pretty unreal - they could just as easily rock up for 'work' in jeans and t-shirt. The only thing that is real - and lethal - is the payload. That and the admitted chance of 'collateral damage'. The RPAS/UAV/drone pilot can speak to troops on the ground, or a lawyer in the UK; why don't the go the extra mile and let them phone a friend? Then again, if they did, they'd probably have an American accent, because 'our' drones only operate courtesy of US satellite technology. Biggles it most certainly isn't.

Friday, December 13, 2013

That Christmas spirit

Had a great time at a Leeds toy shop today, after three customer services staff had calmed down the near homicidal patron ahead of me in the queue. She obviously wanted to leave someone feeling a warm glow-in a pool of their own blood, by the sound of things.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

A free guide to cutting energy bills, sort of...

In October, I 'switched' from Scottish Power to another 'energy provider', who I will refer to as C, for a property we had rented since the end of August. Remember the dates - and the UK weather at the time - they are important. C ask for 'final' gas and electric readings, which were to be passed onto Scottish Power to enable them to prepare final bills. All went well with the electricity side of things, but the gas bill proved much more problematic. First, Scottish Power sent a final bill for £116.00, based on 'estimated' start and end dates. When I queried this, pointing out that the period from August to the start of October had been unseasonably warm for the UK, this was reduced immediately to £75.00. Feeling that this was still, possibly, on the high side - and noting, once again, that the new figure was based on two 'estimated' readings, I contacted Scottish Power again (no mean feat, given the uncommunicative nature of ther call centre set-up), where I learned that they had never received the 'final' gas reading from C. Turning into my own volunteer Scottish Power customer service adviser, I called C, who gave me the 'final' gas meter reading that I had sent them in October (what do I have that Scottish Power doesn't, I wondered...). Not wanting to brave the call centre wait again, and having received a mildly threatening letter about late payment from Scottish Power, I sent the readings to the manager who had, supposedly, signed the threatener and was rewarded with an email, informing me that a new bill, using the real 'final' reading would be sent to me. It arrived yesterday - in the sum of £50.00: a £66 reduction on the first attempt. The moral of the story? If you can't find the scrap of paper that you wrote the readings on, at least remember what the weather was like at the time.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Windows 8 - welcome to computing's netherworld

The prognosis wasn't good. I couldn't even get my Windows 7 laptop to switch on and the guy in our local computer repair shop said it was 'beyond economical repair', so - taking the advice of my IT guru, I've just taken delivery of the latest Lenovo Ideapad, which came complete with the all-singing, all-dancing Windows 8. From the start, it didn't feel right. The front screen looks as if you should be swiping at apps, like a tablet, but all you've got is the touch-pad or mouse. And you don't go straight to the desktop. In fact, I didn't seem able to go to anything; frustration soon crept in: at every turn, all Mr Gates' minions wanted to do was sell me something, or want to know where my mum was born. I soon felt like swiping more than the screen. Enter 14 year-old son, home from school. He's just earned himself a tenner for sorting out the entire mess I'd got myself into. Might even be able to do some work tomorrow - if I can find my way back to the desk-top, that is.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ireland's first woman bishop

Congratulations to Rt Rev Pat Storey on her consecration as first woman bishop of the Church of Ireland. Good to see Ireland leading the way on this - it's a shame that the Church of England still can't live up to the promise of equal recognition of male and female ordination that it embarked on 20 years ago. Divided, backward looking and increasingly out of touch - the 'established' church has a long way to go before it can seen as a credible voice of faith and theological teaching in contemporary society.

Home again

Spent first night back at home since we were flooded while on holiday back in August. It was great to wake up this morning in our own bedroom after so long away. Made the stress of moving - twice - almost seem worthwhile. Hopefully won't be seeing the inside of Ikea again for a while, either. Walking the route of the corralled intending purchaser has been a fixed event in our lives for the past couple of weeks. The coffee's good, and I like the herring in mustard sauce and meatballs, but the time spent queueing amongst the laminated products gnaws at the soul after a while. Can quite see why the Swedes are so into self-harm.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Playing doctors and nurses in Sainsbury's

The combination of chemists giving quasi medical advice and supermarkets opening in-house pharmacies means you get to broadcast intimate problems to all and sundry as they go about their weekly shop. Just encountered a well-meaning assistant who seemed to want the full-on details of a thrush condition before she'd handover the Canestan. Apologies to the couple passing by on their way tobthe cooked meat aisle - the symptoms just overrode the embarrassment factor.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Farewell to the Co-op but not mutuality

OK, finally had enough. Despite the well-intentioned pleas of Save our Bank the activities of the Rev'd Flowers and Osborne's multiple 'investigations', I've decided to switch from the Co-operative after nearly 20 years' trouble-free banking. The Co-op's demise - a mixture of poor decision-making and management appointments, coupled with serious regulatory failings - marks a serious reduction in the much-vaunted neeed for diversity in the retail banking sector. Far from trying to blame Labour for the Co-op's problems, Osborne needs to understand that diversity and increased competition won't spring from nowhere, but instead needs serious government backing, allied with Treasury-sanctioned initiatives.

Scottish Power's final, final gas bill - probably

We sacked Scottish Power as dual fuel supplier for our rental property in October after a fruitless afternoon trying to get through to a human being in their customer services dept. A colourful pie chart reproduced on the bill showed that out of every £100 charged, £9.00 goes on customer service, while only £3.00 is profit. I don't know what they get for all their money, but judging by the amount of time spent on hold, those customer service advisers must have the run of a comprehensively equipped bar and leisure complex. After telling Scottish Power we were leaving - and enduring a number of phone calls begging us to stay (so they can call out OK) - we were asked to supply final gas and electricity readings to our new supplier. The electricity reading was obviously passed on to Scottish Power, because we received a final bill, which was duly, though reluctantly, paid. The gas reading, however, was a different story. At the start of this week, we received a final estimated reading of £116.00. A rather high figure, I thought, given that it related to the period from 22 August to 14 October, when we were enjoying a pleasant Indian summer. On mentioning this to a Scottish Power customer services adviser I happened to catch on her way from the sauna to the poolside bar area, she agreed, and said a new estimated bill would be drawn up. Why estimated, I asked, to which she replied that they could not ask our new supplier for the final reading, given the time that had now elapsed. Today's post contained the second estimated final reading, in the sum of £75. Thinking again that this could be on the high side, I called our new supplier, where I was given the final reading from October straightaway, along with confirmation that Scottish Power could have asked them for it at any time. Of course, I could not provide the final reading to Scottish Power, because they are experiencing 'high call volumes at this time', so the final reading, along with a promise of verification from our new supplier, is awaiting the next Scottish Power customer services adviser who decides to read an email after the latest blockbuster screening finshes in their media viewing area. When estimated readings are plucked out of the air, and utterly ridiculous explanations given to perfectly reasonable questions, is it any wonder that the poor benighted energy consumer holds private energy utilities in such low esteem? Privatisation hasn't worked - and 'switching' isn't the answer; it merely serves to churn customers from one bloated supplier to another. Time time has come to renationalise energy supply.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fibro or Poly, it's still Myalgia

After enduring aching arms, neck and shoulders and feeling the kind of tired normally associated with pulling a sledge in an Arctic expedition, I went to the doctors for a consultation last Friday. Feeling that the symptoms indicated polymyalgia rheumatica, she sent me for a blood test because this condition causes a raised inflammatory marker to show in blood. However, when the results came back, there was no raised ESR level - which she was looking for to explain the condition. Poly duly ruled out, we then discussed Fibro, which turns out to be a really tricky little blighter. While the explanation of differences in symptoms left me feeling there isn't much to choose, in diagnostic and treatment terms, Poly seems far more preferable to dastardly Fibro: while Poly helpfully increases the pesky inflammatory marker and can be treated with steriods, Fibro doesn't show up in blood tests results - and there's no recognised treatment (aside from some distinctly 'tree hugging hippie crap' stuff on the wackier reaches of the internet). Oh, and depression is a side-effect of both conditions. So, with arms, neck, shoulders - and now wrists - aching and the need for a lie-down manifesting itself each afternoon, it looks like I'm in the longish haul while the medics try to decide whether I've got Fibro, or not...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Smell of Teen Spirit...

Being the father of a teenager carries a number of unforeseen responsibilities. Right now, I'm preparing to deliver forgotten PE kit, so 14-year-old son can take part in an after-school martial arts group. The kit has been residing (more accurately, festering) in a sports bag for several days now and probably represents a biohazard. As I walk to school, with this offensive article slung over my shoulder (straps adjusted so that the body of the bag is furthest from my olefactory receptor), I'll take care to keep away from other people. Can't help but wonder if the malodurous nature of the kit is a defensive strategy: after all, you'd have to be a pretty determined opponent to come into close proximity to the wearer to be able to even attempt a hold or throw, and hanging on would be foolhardy, to say the very least.

Friday, November 08, 2013

September 1918

Those poor beggars. To us, they looked to be either young boys or old men. Dressed in rags, starving. They just threw their guns onto a pile at the side of the road and shuffled off into the distance
. My Grandfather, then serving as a Driver in the Army Service Corps, remembered watching the Bulgarian surrender at the end of September 1918. War in a land without a settled name Southern Serbia, Alf called it where maps now place Macedonia or FYROM from Salonika’s dubious attractions to a frontline where even water had to be delivered by mule or lorry train. His war was a sideshow to a sideshow: out of the birdcage, out of the garden. Where boredom and malaria took a greater toll than bullets and shells. Tiadatha’s braves moved out over Muckydonia to face the Bulgar and the Hun. Soil too shallow for trenches; in this land you froze in winter, baked in summer fought mosquitoes and ennui in between, watched all the while by an enemy from Crowns Big and Small and the Devil’s Eye.   Then from Dobra Polje to Doiran the line began to move – following Desperate Frankie’s urgent plan to capture the Vardar and Strumica. In the bloody aftermath, corpses packed standing in lorries the easier to transport, silent guards of death. So standing on that dusty road he watched that vanquished army walk away to a shattered land that had bleed so much but now could not bleed anymore. Bulgaria - the first Central Power to fall. An end forming the birth pang of fractious new nations: freedom’s allure mingled with nationalism’s latent dangers. There were no winners in that, Alf said. He was no military hero, never keen on the soldiering life. There because he had to be, yearning to go home: after going through that, I wouldn’t even join a library his response. I owe it to his memory to staunch centenary ‘celebrations’ because there were no winners in that. Nothing for idiot politicians to exploit, nothing to glory in, not after what he saw on the road from Doiran. For Alf.

11-plus coaching - the middle class obsession

Good to see the Sutton Trust criticising the middle class 11-plus coaching 'industry'. Here in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, our 2 selective grammars run a neat line in paid for pre-test exams (for the borderline) and full selective 11-plus tests that help to keep private tutors gainfully employed. Anecdotal evidence shows that hopeful parents regularly start paying for tutoring at the start of Year 4. But the tutoring really moves up a gear when the pre-test and final exams draw near. The tests themselves also bear a striking similarity year-on-year, thereby helping to perpetuate the middle class domination of grammar school places that the Sutton Trust report also criticises. Coaching itself can prove problematic for those who pass the exam and are then awarded their coveted place at grammar school. A maths teacher at one of the schools revealed that his colleagues can identify those new Year 7 pupils that have been tutored in his subject within days of the start of the new school year - and also predict which of those will then need additional support to enable them to access the curriculum. Middle class push and paid-for coaching does not ensure a pain-free transition to the type of grammar school education that Mr Gove so idolises and the pushythat the middle class so crave.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Unco-operative banking - the 'ethical' question: the expensive Swedish alternative

Appalled by the hedge fund sell-out of the Co-operative Bank, I decided to look for an 'ethical' alternative. Handelsbanken looked good: local branches that will offer a personal service but only if you either live or work locally (within sight of the top of the local church spire, apparently), and its Swedish - the Ikea of cash?. Maybe even offers fish and meatballs, I wondered. However, a cold Scandinavian chill soon descended when I spoke to an account manager at the paragon of Nordic finance. Free banking is only available if you keep £85,000 in your accounts - otherwise its £15 a month. And what do I get for that, I asked? A dedicated account manager and the chance to drop in for a chat. A chat? For £15 a month I expect meatballs and a slice of Dime bar cake - and none of those disgusting berries no-one's ever heard of, thanks very much. So, while the hard-nosed capitalists prepare to carve-up the Co-op, I won't be looking to Sweden for banking salvation, thanks very much.

High school is just so exciting

Or so it seems at the Sports College Academy my eldest son attends. After gaining academy status a couple of years ago, the establishment seems to have appointed a large number of head teachers - each with a different job title. Makes you wonder how they managed with just a head and a sprinkling of deputies in days of yore; or whether the new appointments have all the gravitas of McDonald's employees stars - though I suspect with far better remuneration... One role of the new breed of head is to appear unaccountably excited and enthusiastic about the most mundane changes. A couple of months ago, the 'executive head' (formerly headteacher) wrote a letter that suggested pleasure of almost orgiastic proportions at a new reception desk and improved WiFi. Calm down, dear was my response. But now another head has written of her 'excitement' at the latest drivel from Gove's DoE surrounding curriculum changes. Given the response from others in the profession, her heightened state is somewhat misplaced - a feeling added to by her subsequent admission that she doesn't yet know the full extent of Gove's proposals. She signs of her bewildering - but excited! - epistle with the hackneyed phrase: "With challenge comes opportunity", to which I can only add "and with bullshit comes suspicion...".

Monday, November 04, 2013

When sorry is the only word...

Met the new employee of the business upstairs today. She'd forgotten to lock the toilet door and I breezed straight in, well the lock showed it was vacant. She screamed and then said 'sorry' and I did the same. How very British, as will be subsequent embarrassment at our next meeting, no doubt.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The top 50 call centres - Arghgghg

Just unsubscribed from an online retailer that was becoming a pest - emails daily offering unbelievable, and unnecessary, goods. Scrolling down to the unsubscribe 'button', I noticed the business prides itself on running on of the 'Top 50 UK Call Centres'. Really? How are such things graded: does Lucifer and his demons check the chains keeping 'operatives' at their desks? Does Azkhaban send dementors to check on the levels of misery stalking the corridors and toilets? I'm free of their pestering emails, but my undoubted sense of freedom is somehow tainted by the knowledge that there is a league table of call centres. Tear down the facile marketing slogans, rip up the sales scripts- you have nothing to lose but your chains!

Saturday, November 02, 2013

World War I commemoration - far too important for the politicians to control or direct

I know he was selling a book, but Paxman came across well on Graham Norton last night, and the audience approved of his repeated criticism of Cameron's idiotic linkage of WWI commemoration with Jubilee celebration. While the First World War is now beyond personal memories, it is certainly still a large part of collective folk/family memory: how many families have granddad's or great granddad's medals in a tin or drawer? The commemoration needs to focus on that shared memory - not made easy, as many of that generation followed their orders not to talk about the suffering and loss when they came home. Damn the British sense of deference to our 'elders and betters' - something that should have sunk in the mud of Flanders, but sadly limped on for a few more years. We don't want cloying sentiment or triumphant flag waving - that would only serve to cheapen and demean the memory of those who suffered; but we can't afford to let the political class make the running either. August 2014 is less than a year away from the general election due in May 2015 and it would be appalling if Cameron, Crosby, Osborne et al were to try create a patriotic smokescreen to garner a few votes. Remember those who went before us - those ancestors who returned and those who lie in Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries (Britain legislated against returning their bodies, partly to prevent the full extent of the losses becoming known, for fear of undermining the war effort or encouraging civil unrest). Remember, but don't allow any hint of 'celebration' to enter the equation.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Oh, Mr unpaid 'station ambassador', what shall I do?

Brighouse is inordinately proud of its railway station. Closed for 30-odd years by the Beeching cuts, it re-opened in May 2000 and provides a useful link for commuters across West Yorkshire and now even boasts two daily return journeys to London, operated by Grand Central Trains (prop. Arriva - ultimately owned by Deutsche Bahn). Our station is a pretty minimal, two-platform ('up' and 'down') affair - for Thick of It fans, its major claim to fame is that it was the location for Rebecca Front's character, Nicola Murray's angst-ridden resignation as leader of the opposition. Oh, and JK Rowling once steamed through on a Harry Potter special. Now, however, due to a spiffing idea from Grand Central marketing and publicity wonks, Brighouse has been chosen for an interesting unpaid work opportunity. Locals with time on their hands are being invited to apply to become Station Ambassdors, who will rock up to the station - in GC supplied uniforms - once a month to 'assist passengers arriving and departing from the station'. We used to call these people porters, and they were railway employees. The added shame of this is that this exciting idea is being supported to the hilt by the local traders' organisation, the Brighouse Business Initiative. Not much initiative being shown here in reality: volunteers won't have any extra money to spend in local shops - the 'consideration' they receive for their luggage lugging efforts will be rewarded with free train tickets - to take them to London.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

One night's stay in hospital, one MRI scan, TWO surveys...

Yesterday afternoon I returned from a 24-hour, unplanned, stay in hospital necessitated by a suspected TIA (mini sroke). Minor symptoms on Sunday afternoon led to admission after a visit to A&E (don't worry, Mr Hunt; we were told to go if I experienced such symptoms after a planned visit to clinic the previous Saturday, so I wasn't wasting resources). Before I could be discharged, after being seen by my consultant who arranged for the MRI and discussed the outcome with me, I was interviewed in person for one survey and given another to be completed on a pre-paid postcard. The face-to-face interview involved completion of the usual 'on a scale of 1 to 5' questions, which included such shoe-ins as 'how would you rate the food' and 'what do you think of the decor' - neither of which are going to be too high on the list of improvements, given the current state of NHS funding. Most difficult to reduce to a 1 to 5 response was the question about quality of sleep. It was very poor, but this was because I'd been allocated a bed - at short notice on a Sunday afternoon - in a high dependency stroke unit, where my three fellow 'roomies' needed round the clock care from a dedicated, hard-working team of medical professionals. If lights turned on and off during the night and medics conferring at nearby bedsides disturbed me, lack of sleep was a small inconvenience to me alongside the care the other patients obviously needed. On a scale of 1-5, sleep quality was accorded a '2', but I made sure the scribe recorded my reasons at length. Higher up on the facile question scale was the single question on the pre-paid card: how likely would I be to recommend this hospital to a friend or relative in need of similar care? I've decided to save the NHS the postage on this, as it smacks too much of vapid customer satsfaction league-tables. But the answer is: should you find yourself suffering the symptoms of a stroke or mini-stroke in Halifax or its environs, the staff on Ward 6 at Calderdale Royal Hospital do their utmost to treat and reassure, given the constraints currently facing the NHS, and if you have a friend or loved-one being treated on that ward, they are - on the evidence of my experience - treated with a high-level of care and respect. Sorry there's no appropriate column on the survey for that testimonial, but dedicated, well-trained professional healthcare can't be reduced to a simple box-ticking exercise. So if your'e looking to save NHS resources, the questionnaire culture should be the first to go.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

When Dad and Uncle Harry Couldn’t get a Pint

Dad and his best mate Harry, home on leave from Italy. A Joiner and a Caretaker turned Sapper and Fusilier sergeant 'for the duration' went into Leeds for the night. Two lads from Burley walking down the Headrow and into Vicar Lane called in the Robin Hood for a quick one. That’s how the story starts. Start of a home town night out. Harry was a big man, a sergeant in battledress, he goes over to the bar. Dad’s the smaller one of the two. It’s Harry’s shout, and shout he does. The barman goes red in the face as the drinkers at the bar part. “And I’m telling you I can’t serve you in here. Leeds is closed to the British. We can only serve Yanks and Poles in here”. Now Harry liked the Poles, fought with them at Monte Casino, though neither he nor Dad really got the Yanks. Too much money, too many cigs, too many girls. Dad never forgot three days’ blinded from the flash of one of their anti-aircraft guns defending the harbour at Bari, always grumbled how “you’d think they’d won the bloody war” at war films on TV. But denial of beer in the Robin Hood was an indignity of war they remembered and passed on; for them it was a war story in their very own backyard. If they’d hailed from BiaƂystok or the Bronx, instead of Burley, then that genial mine host would have pulled their pints, but there was to be no beer in the Robin Hood for those two squaddies that night. D-Day Dodgers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4hny_XRaw4 By the same author: Short and Curlies Gnosis

Monday, October 21, 2013

A run in with a big prick

Nurses aren't trained to take blood samples. A useless fact - unless you've just agreed to be guinea pig (human pin-cushion) for a staff nurse's first attempt; as I did on Saturday. As if the TIA 'mini-stroke' clinic wasn't scary enough, the nurse in charge of blood letting and pressure checking decided to ask me if I 'minded' being first victim for her colleague. OK, take a walk on the wild-side, I thought, after all, it's just a 'little scratch', so they usually say when taking a sample. Enter staff nurse in training with trolley and look of steely determination. The needle was prepped and she went at the task like a Tommy preparing to clear a trench in a bayonet charge. Pausing only to observe I'd given her a 'good vein' and to line up the needle, in she went. Still got the purple welt two days later. Whereas the pinprick from this morning's professionally phlebotomist-taken sample has already faded into memory. Now who feels the little prick?

Coming over a little queer in the kitchen

Emptying the dishwasher is a mundane job that we do without thinking. It's a day-to-day activity that isn't marked out as special in our minds. Apart from last Wednesday evening, that is. I was just standing up with a handful of plates when my right side became numb: face, arm, hand and upper leg all lost sensation. I was immediately aware that one side of my body was sending or receiving the usualy amount of sensory information and I suddenly felt very vulnerable and 'odd'. Wife and son confirmed that my face looked 'normal' but I felt anything but for nearly an hour. Once sense and feeling returned to normal, I didn't think anything of it, until the following day, when I have the mother-and-father of all migraines - accompanied by 'speech disruption': I knew the right word, but couldn't say it out loud - quite a handicap, given that I was attempting to deliver a contract law lesson at the time. So, a visit to the GP was arranged for later on Thursday afternoon. The doctor asked my permission to video the consultation, which I agreed to, but now wonder whether we both might regret the recording. She started by asking if there was anything I was afraid of and what she hoped I could do for her: both rather daft questions, but probably conforming to some NHS training protocol of which I was unaware. Having run through the events of Wednesday evening and that morning, she thought I'd suffered a transient ischaemic attack (TIA)or 'mini-stroke', as they used to be called before the relentless onward march of the TLA (three-letter acronym) took over. She then proceeded to give me a full neurological examination, which involved hitting knees and wrist with a small hammer and scraping a metal object against my arms, legs and feet before printing a six-page article from the internet and telling me to take an alarming amount of aspirin each day until I was summoned to the TIA clinic at the local hospital. On returning home and reading the literature, however, I saw - on the sixth and final page - that I was now unable to drive until I'd been seen at the clinic, where a decision on the full duration of a driving ban would be made. Alarmed by this - especially in light of the GPs failure to mention driving, coupled with the amount of aspirin seriously outnumbering the prescription I'd been given, I made another appointment for the following morning. Now events took a far more serious turn. The second GP was very concerned about the speech disruption and, on discovering that the TIA clinic appointment was for the following Wednesday, called the hospital to expedite matters. He wanted me seen sooner because speech disruption is another TIA symptom, and could, therefore, indicate that I had had a 'crescendo' TIA, where episodes follow each other with increasing severity. The appointment was rescheduled for 9.00am the following morning. So, Saturday saw us at the hospital, bright and early, where I was ushered, with brisk efficiency, through blood pressure and blood checks, a neck ultrasound examination and consulatation with a reassuring doctor, who then said I was being prescribed a statin and a clopidogrel: the former as a precaution against cholesterol and the latter against sticky platelets (but not of the dishwashing variety, these little blighters hang around on artery walls, waiting for the chance to break off and get carried off down every narrower blood vessels until they get stuck and cut off the flow of blood to some poor unsuspecting nerve ending). He also said I would be called back for an MRI scan of the back of my head and advised a period of rest - 'don't worry and don't overdo things'. Yeah, and I'll try not to think about giraffes, either... Go on, bugger off, you long-necked pest.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

From bona fide emergency to nothing to do with us

When the car disturbed the manhole cover in the middle of the road outside the rental property we moved into yesterday, I ventured a look into the hole. This turned out to be an approx 40 foot drop into a surface water drain, with upended cast-iron cover sticking up - end-on - diagonally into the air. Either way, it represented a serious danger to passing cars, who were at risk of hitting the cover, driving into the hole, or both. So I called Calderdale Council's emergency helpline. It's a bank holiday weekend and the operator agreed that I'd taken the correct course of action; for around 5 minutes - at which point she called back to say it wasn't their problem, because the were the responsibility of an unknown private contractor. So, from emergency to nothing to do with me in 5 minutes. The only suggestion forthcoming from the helpline? 'Call Yorkshire Water' - on the vague offchance that they might know who had fitted the manhole cover. Solution? Go to neighbour, who, bravely, manhandled the manhole cover back over the hole (I'm a devout coward when it comes to positioning heavy metal objects over deep holes and not afraid to admit it). The hole's safe-ish until Monday, when my neigbour assured me they're coming back to tarmac the street. We'll see - it'll still be a good old-fashioned British banky then, after all. It shouldn't surprise me, but the speed with which the Council washed their hands of the matter - especially given the potentially serious consequences - shows, yet again, how far the public service ethos has been lost in the UK.

Monday, August 19, 2013

An Unintended Consequence...

We returned home from holiday on Saturday 3 August to find our house flooded. On the morning we left, I went into the bathroom to discover no water was flowing from the taps. I called Yorkshire Water, our 'service provider', to report the disruption to our supply and then went on holiday, with the operative's words wishing me a good holiday ringing in my ears. Not so welcome was the call from our next door neighbour the following Saturday. We were just south of Worcester on the M5 when she called to say that there was water running out of our front door and that her partner had turned off the stopcock on the pavement outside. As our 'keyholder' - my sister-in-law - turned out to be enjoying a weekend away in Rutland (is that even possible...), we then had to endure the torture of a stop-start drive back up the M5/M6 before we could witness the damage first hand. The journey did allow us the luxury of reporting the flood enroute, so we arrived home in the knowledge that the restoration team would call on the Sunday morning, but also that the emergency accommodation promised by our policy would not be available until the following night, because all 'quality' hotel accommodation in our area was fully booked. I was, therefore, left with the need to secure overnight accommodation in a local 'non-quality' hotel, or cheap flop-house, if you prefer; least said the better, though a room that comes complete with a dog-end must now be a comparative rarity in these smoke-free days. After a fortnight in a Holiday Inn, we're now enjoying the delights of a Premier Inn, while waiting for the formalities to be compeleted on the assured short-hold tenancy of a three-bedroomed house near to all local amenities and our own, slightly damp, home. It was at this point that I reported our predicament to our local authority, Calderdale Council - itself no stranger to flooded households, but which was still able to deliver a most unwelcome surprise. Owing to changes the Council had been allowed to make by central government, Calderdale's cabinet has recently reduced the second home exemption to a nice round 0%, which means, shorn of the legal terminology the official tried to hide-behind, that we will have to pay full Council Tax on our own home and temporary accommodation. This is, apparently, an example of the coalition government's localism agenda, which gives local authorities powers to do what central government and civil servant used to do, but for which no-one gets the blame when hard-of-thinking local councillors and their employed jobsworths make a complete pig's arse of something in their own area. This came home to me when I brought the matter to the attention of one of my ward councillors. An independent, he turns out to be a member of the very cabinet that voted for the disastrous change. His reply was a prime example of how much havoc a no-doubt well-meaning numbnuts can cause when left in a room with a number of other elected representatives, a supply of tea and coffee making facilities, some biscuits and a frightening array of devolved powers. He had voted in favour of the reduction in exemption rates because he thought it would somehow prevent private rented accommodation being left empty, but he went on to say that the reasoning behind the decision was 'scant consolation' for us, as we were victims of the 'law of unintended consequences' that 'will get you every time'. He ended his apologetic email by asking if there was anything he could do. To which I must respond with two suggestions: 1) get your hand in your wallet and pay one of the two Council Tax bills you have landed us with, and 2) think about the consequences of your actions, rather than trying to use financial policy to motivate private landlords to do what you should be doing - housing people in need in your borough, councillor.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

This is England?

So ran the legend, without question mark, tattooed onto the large man's upper left arm, underneath the tattoo artist's representation of a Union flag, unfurled in a stiff breeze. A simple affectation of patriotism – albeit it one stolen from the title of a series of TV films, written and directed by Shane Meadows. In his work, Meadows depicts the changed fortunes of a group of working-class skinheads during the 1980s and the tattooed man certainly would have shared their origins. But it was his chosen depiction of patriotism that interested me. The word itself is loaded – 'last resort of the scoundrel', according to Dr Johnson - or, perhaps increasingly, the first resort of the right-wing politician, as evidenced by David Cameron's frequent references to speaking of behalf of the British people, or praying in aid nationalism to bolster support for his policies. The reality, as exemplified by our tattooed friend, is rather different, for here we have a government dominated by a public-school and Oxbridge educated cabal that is simply light years away from the common shared experience of those they govern, yet with the apparent need to use the sentiment driven language of unity and shared past to drip feed fear of the 'other' – be it foreigners, the poor, the jobless, to keep the majority onside and supportive of policies, such as privatisation or the loss of employment rights, that are inimical to their basic needs and instincts. Seeing the tattoo made me wonder how it is that we have become a nation bound together by fear: is this the only vision our leaders are able or willing to offer those they are otherwise so clearly alienated from? Juxtoposed with the tattoo, I have another image – this time on the T-shirt worn by a man (strange how both image bearers are male – mirroring the John Bull or Tommy Atkins of old, so beloved by those on the right...). This slogan was slightly longer and far more threatening:
'Welcome to Great Britain; fit in or f*** off'
Fear of being overwhelmed by the 'others', by 'them' – a lowest common denominator rendition of the common refrain of IDS, Cameron, Farage, and those despicable advertising vans trundling around parts of London. We are better, more generous, more accepting, more open than this: we need to demand better of our leaders, or they will squander the real legacy bequeathed to us by those past generations who welcomed the 'other' and the different to these shores and whose leaders did not seek to create division and hatred merely so that they could claim narrow electoral advantage.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Breakfast with a Bee

I like to have breakfast in the conservatory this weather. It's warm and peaceful - but not this morning. I was just getting into the coffee and cereal when I heard an angry buzzing. I looked up to see a bee repeatedly flying into one of the glass end-panels and the angry buzzing that accompanied its efforts showed that it obviously was not enjoying the experience. To escape, it had to fly down the panel and then out of the open patio door; instead, its instinctive reaction seemed to be to fly upwards, thereby trapping itself against the glass. My attention wandered for a moment and I though it had managed to work this out, but then the buzzing started again - muffled this time. The sound reduction was due to the bee trapping itself behind a roof blind. And this is where the yuck factor kicked-in To remove the bee, I had to get a stepladder from the garage and climb up to unclip the blind. This released around a dozen fly and other insect corpses, but not the bee. True to instinct, it then flew to the lower edge of the roof panel, where it repeated the head banging on glass futile escape method. Retrieving a large glass from the kitchen and a magazine, I then had to balance on the top of the stepladder and put the glass over the bee, who by now had convinced me that it was not the brightest of hive employees. Not realising this was intended as a life-saving manouver, the bee now became really angry, with the result that sliding the magazine under the glass, while in danger of overbalancing on the top of the ladder became an even riskier operation. Balancing the glass on the magazine, I descended the ladder and walked out into the garden and placed the glass on its side on the garden table and removed the magazine. True to form, the bee continued flying into the bottom of the glass for a few seconds, before turning and flying out of the other end. I then feared a repeat of the whole rescue when it flew back towards the patio door, only veering up and away at the last minute. I was feeling rather proud of my rescue - the bee had returned to the wild unharmed and intact. My wife then appeared, wanting to know what I was doing with the stepladder in the conservatory and why I'd covered the floor in dead flies... All together now http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlrsqGal64w

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Constructive Vultures? Buying into Co-operative Bank Debt

Aurelius Capital Management and Silver Point Capital - two US hedge funds with 'vulture' reputations (ie buying debt to demand stringent repayment terms from already endangered creditors) have bought bonds issued by the Britannia Building Society before it was taken over by the Co-operative Bank. The bonds rank higher than the subordinated bonds and preference shares sold to small investors, who are already faced with losses as part of the bank's 'bail-in' that is intended to raise £500 million towards the bank's recapitalisation. Vulture funds act only on their own narrow self-interest but Aurelius and Silver Point have - perhaps mischieviously - attempted to excuse their behaviour by claiming: 'We are not here to cause mischief. We want to sit down with the bank and work out a consensual solution.' A 'consensual solution' to a situation where they have no definable interest in the first place. Their actions will force the bank to pay an even higher price for the recapitalisation and cause even more loss and uncertainty to the small investors who now risk higher losses if Aurelius and Silver Point's demands destabilise the bank still further.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lights, Latex and Lubrication - it's Time to Examine That Prostate!

There really is nothing quite like a prostate examination first thing in the morning to add a spring to the step and a fresh focus to the eye. Having told the Doc that I was gaining entirely the wrong sort of reputation as a twice (or even thrice) a night man, he decided it was necessary to go through the brown rusty key-hole for a quick digital examination. Now, I've heard some people are prepared to hand over a decent wodge of hard-earned for this kind of thing, so getting it free on the NHS could be a boon for them, but whisper it not in front of Jeremy Hunt, for I'm sure he'd want to emulate the trail blazed by the private sector in offering this service, albeit for very different end reasons. For those of us either not yet initiated into such practices, or whose views on such matters are purely practical, as opposed to pleasurable, it does feel a bit intrusive to have - admittedly a medically-qualified - rigid digit pass through the old tradesman's on its way to gauge the size and location of this mystic organ. Then again, there is the undoubted advantage that a short period of discomfort gives way to longer-term reassurance: size and location found to be 'normal' it was all over and dignity (for both of us) was soon restored. I can now sit down in comfort, safe in the knowledge that there's nothing nasty lurking where the sun doesnt' shine. More of us chaps of a certain age need to try it - a lot more is at stake than a moment's embarrassment and fleeting discomfort.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Day the Co-operative Bank Stopped Co-operating.

Once upon a time there was a bank that did not exist to make a profit for its shareholders. Instead, it was owned by its members and shared its profits with them. It did not sell products that its staff didn't really understand and it wasn't concerned with taking over as many other banks as it possibly could to grow its market share. Unspectacular banking - and it was ethical too: it refused to lend to businesses that were involved in the arms trade or in tobacco products, for example. But then it bought a building society. That was also a mutually-owned business (we used to have a lot of those, but most converted to become banks, and turned out to be run by people with about as much idea of banking as I have about football or brain surgery). Unfortunately, the building society, in order to compete with the bad banks that used to be mutually-owned, had made some spectacularly bad lending decisions and they sank the bank that co-operated with its members and its lenders and borrowers. And no amount of hiding behind spurious arguments, such as it was actually a 'plc' all along, just owned by a mutual organisation, will change the fact that ethical considerations and member dividends have now been sacrificed: we just lost another of the few mutuals, and in spite of the need to open up banking and increase competition, that everybody agrees on in principle, we now have one less alternative to choose from.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

The Overexcited Headteacher

My son's high school headteacher sent a letter out to all parents at the end of the last half-term. In it, he used four variants on the verb 'to excite'. On closer reading, his state of near euphoria seemed to have been induced by a proposed extension to the entrance hall and a WiFi upgrade. I was torn between advising him to calm down - take a restful holiday, perhaps, or maybe do some relaxation exercises. Either that or advise him that vacuous hype of the trivial or mundane was a waste of trees, when commited to paper. In education there is a tendency for those in positions of authority to resort to vapid sloganising. The phrase 'I'm excited to tell you' - or one of its many variants - too often hides the reality that there is nothing worth saying, and that being the case, silence is the most honest course to take.

What's in a Name: the University That Needs to Grow-up

Soon after the official opening, my dad found himself standing in front of the then Leeds Polytechnic's new Brunswick Building, when a man came up to him and asked what he thought of it. Dad was a joiner and spent much of his working life on major construction projects. Taking in the front of the building, he said to the stranger that it was neither symmetrical nor finished (the right hand side was punctuated with the protruding rusting ends of metal wall ties). Hearing dad's assessment, his interlocutor took a sharp intake of breath before announcing that he was Patrick Nuttgens, the Polytechnic's Director and the architect responsible for the building! Nuttgens, who was Director of the Polytechnic from its opening in 1969 until his retirement in 1986, channeled his considerable talents into architecture and higher education. Not always popular in his adopted home city, he was nonetheless a leading advocate of urban development with a human face and of wide access to higher education, based on merit, not ability to pay. Fast forward a few years after his retirement to 1992, and the Polytechnic became Leeds Metropolitan University. The new name, a tad too pretentious for some, was felt to add a certain cache to the institution's new status - and served to differentiate it from the neighbouring, and longer established, Leeds University. Twenty-one years after attaining university-status, Leeds Met's current leadership (who don't tend to go in for Nuttgens' like longevity in office) appear to have decided that 'Metropolitan' has been outgrown, and propose spending £250,000 on a makeover, that includes the options of substituting Metropolitan with 'Headingley', 'Beckett' or 'Riding'. Susan Price, Leeds Met's Vice-Chancellor and leading advocate of change, wants a 'consultation with stakeholders' - whoever they might be - but offers little by way of explanation as to how a name adopted in 1992 has become 'outgrown'. With finance cuts blighting further and higher education provision and courses closing in many universities, including the loss of some language teaching at Leeds Met, a more mature outlook from the leadership would be more welcome than this ridiculous cosmetic attention grabbing exercise.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Fearless Independence of the Taxpayers' Alliance

They're getting rather touchy at the Taxpayers' Alliance. Responding to a critical item in Private Eye 1339, which condemned the Alliance for its silence over the cost of Thatcher's funeral, its Political Director, Jonathan Isaby, complains in Eye 1340 about 'glaring inaccuracies'. Citing press and TV mentions, Isaby insists that the Alliance is not a 'Tory body'. However, a closer look at the coverage rather undermines his bluff and fluster. First up, Isaby mentions ITV and BBC appearances - neither of which offer much by way of critical analysis of the Alliance's credentials, but tend to accept its pro-Tory outpourings and partisan number-crunching to pad out their reporting. But he is on even shakier ground with the press articles that he says were critical of the Tories - ranging from the Daily Wail and Torygraph through to that bastion of left-wing ideology, the Daily Star, Isaby crows that the Alliance has been fearless in its attacks on tax avoidance. Or rather they don't. What they actually reveal is that the Alliance follows the editorial strategy of those papers: scare the crap out of the middle class; stop them getting ideas beyond their station (as the subtext goes: 'try this and you'll get your name in the papers your neighbours read...'); above all - keep the bastards voting Tory - that's the independence of the Alliance for you.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The end of the Co-operative Bank?

Well, so much for the much vaunted spread of competition in the retail banking sector. The beleagured Co-op, of which I'm a business and personal customer, seems rather shaky this weekend. I like mutuality in banking - sod the shareholders and their clamour for dividends - mutuals inject some sanity into the financial world; and in the case of the Co-operative, this was topped with their ethical stance. But not all mutuals were so nice and cuddly. The Britannia Building Society, for example, might have been owned by its members, but it was driven by a very pushy sales culture that I came to dislike intensely when managing accounts their on behalf of my parents. Every visit turned into a sales opportunity. Once, at the end of a month, I was coerced by the manager of the Huddersfield branch into converting two low interest accounts into 5 year bonds:I had an eye on the parking meter; she on her sales targets while the spiel wore relentlessly on. So important was the transaction to her that she insisted on dropping the forms round to my house in person, it was, she said, a short detour for her on the way home. In consequence of this treatment, I closed all the Britannia accounts as they matured and voted against the 2009 acquisition of the Society by the Co-operative. With pay reportedly being clawed-back from former Co-operative and Britannia employees involved in the debacle, I think there are many in the Bank and amongst its customers who must now wish they'd done the same. Unfortunately, the Co-op isn't too big to fail, and its founding principles are probably way too far to the left for Osborne to feel much in the way of sympathy, so I don't think there will be much appetite for a Treasury-mounted rescue; the only hope from that quarter might be the desire to give some traction to the oft-repeated calls for greater competition in the retail banking sector. Co-operative savers and investors, however, need to keep their options open, and hope that another mutual offers something approaching the same level of service that saw the Co-operative consistently outperform larger high-street operations in the customer satisfaction stakes.

A bit of a Kerfuffle

Which is the most serious: a kerfuffle or a palaver? Judging by usage in Yorkshire and Lancashire it would seem the former is the more trivial. After all, you can have a 'bit of a kerfuffle, but there's a tendency to say it's a 'right palaver'.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Guru of Ampersands and Asses

I recently attended a business promotion event held in a football stadium in a near-by town. In addition to 40-odd businesses showing their wares, there were a range of seminars, led by expert facilitators. One, aged in his early 20s, was – according to his blurb – a Facebook guru. Already a seasoned promotional and marketing campaign leader, he was going to show us all how to ‘create a real kick ass page & what sort of content you need to think of to get “viral”. Being a native UK English user, my first thought was whether I needed to learn how to kick a donkey. This was followed by the cringe-making realisation that the young guru seemed to have a predilection for unwarranted ampersands. Facebook, as with other social networking media, may indeed be international, but the dangers of adopting it as the benchmark for all forms of written communication are becoming increasingly apparent. The guru, again according to his blurb, is adept at ‘finding ways that make him stand out’. You could say that again.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Cameron’s Fusiliers - Now Recruiting

The National Governors’ Association, the umbrella body representing the UK’s school governors, is now acting as the recruiting sergeant for David Cameron’s national service scheme for school and college students, the National Citizen Service. NCS participants are expected to take part in community and team building projects before joining a week-long residential outdoor pursuit course that takes place in school holidays. The scheme is heavily subsidised; the cost to parents is £50.00 with a bursary scheme for those who can’t afford it. Each session culminates with a ‘graduation ball’ at which students are presented with a certificate personally signed by David Cameron. Organisers gush that this ‘will look amazing on a CV or UCAS application’ – but given the PMs current low standing in the education sector, students would be well advised to keep the signature covered if showing the certificate to admissions tutors. Aside from the ball and Cameron’s moniker, the scheme replicates much of the outward bound work that local education authorities used to provide at their own centres, many of which have now been sold off to fund budget cuts, and the NGA’s involvement smacks rather of desperation by Downing Street and the DfE in drumming up support. Imagine the hue and cry that would issue from those same portals if Labour-run local authorities offered their own subsidised schemes for youth in their areas. In any event, school governors are kept rather too busy by the outpourings of Mr Gove’s over-active imagination to be sounding the praises of the Big Society by recruiting their young charges to take part in taxpayer subsidised prime ministerial feel-good photo opportunities.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Feeding back on feedback

Just in, from head of an examination board - who obviously has too much time on his hands... "You have provided us with a rich and detailed source of feedback and we have a lot of work to do to further analyse and consider how we move forward on the issues you’ve raised. I remain committed to providing you with feedback about this over the coming months, through the newsletter as well as through other means as appropriate." A never ending loop of feedback, going forward. Arghhhhhh. My idea of a living hell.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Tories: so many scapegoats, so little time - but IDS really doesn't want to frighten you

Interesting piece in this week's Private Eye. Apparently, IDS is concerned that people are being unnecessarily frightened by changes to housing benefit for social housing tenants. Bit of a mouthful that, isn't it. Could shorten it to Bedroom Tax, After all, that's what some journalists and a lot of the Twitterati seem to do. And that's the problem: you see, IDS has taken the BBC to task - and they've agreed not to call it the Bedroom Tax anymore. So simple really. Except it isn't. As you see from the article, IDS really only wants to frighten 'social housing tenants', not people in private rented accommodation who claim housing benefit (presumably he'll be coming after them later). But this is a perennial problem for the Tories. They have a political ideology that is built on fear: fear of the 'others'; fear of the immigrant; fear of the poor; anyone that might possibly be useful when it comes to keeping the marginal Tory voter on side. Right now, of course, with UKIP on the rise, the fear and scapegoating is taking on a new urgency. This can be seen in the reply from my MP - Tory in key marginal by the way - to an email I sent him. In this, I voiced my concern about politicians and the media victimising the poorest in society. But as you see from his response, he artfully only picks on the journalists (but doesn't name any Tory scribblers, presumably for fear of losing support; but we know who they are, don't we?). He only bothers to take up the first paragraph half-answering my point before turning the reply into a veritable hymn of praise to IDS's Universal Credit. . How reassuring it all is. And how reassured I'm meant to be; as long, that is, as I'm not a benefit claimant, or even, presumably, someone who doesn't have a job of work. I'm not, and I do: but I have claimed benefits and been unemployed in the past and recognise that I could be either of those again in the future. I also recognise the fear and loathing that scapegoating like this causes those who are claimants now. Which is why I spend so much of my time reading and writing about the subject - because we are responsible for those the Tories and their fellow travellers in the media tell us to distrust or castigate. Which is also why I'm so impressed by the Truth and Lies about Poverty Report from the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Church Joint Public Issues Team. The Report dispel myths, in particular those of the 'everyone knows' sort that IDS and his happy band of SPADs like to feed to the Daily Wail, the Sun, Express et al. The truth is that benefit claimants did not cause the deficit. They do, however, come in useful as a government tool to deflect concern away from the real culprits: the message that we should take from these deflection strategies is that we shouldn't even think of attacking the bankers and financial institutions that are really to blame - because IDS doesn't want us being beastly to his friends.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Blandings - too bland for Wodehouse

Blandings - a good job the Beeb said the series is 'based on' P G Wodehouse's stories. The originals are much better and far, far funnier. As a Sunday evening sub-Downton offering Timothy Spall and Jennifer Saunders have been mildly amusing, but after I got a couple of 'Plumb' Wodehouse's books from the library (we still have them in Calderdale - and damn good they are too), I realised the written version is much better than the screen performance. For a start, Wodehouse carefully crafts his humour and lets the reader in - slowly - to the unfolding action. What is a short piece of virtual slapstick to Spall's Lord Emsworth is a verbal delight on the page - and laugh out loud funny when he reaches the squishy punchline. The hero - in Blandings it would be Lord Emsworth - is just a liable as the villain to end up looking ridiculous, and even the most inconsequential of plotlines is made to feel like the stuff of major importance as Wodehouse's elegant prose leads you into the action. Turn off the TV - read the books. Aside from the Jeeves and Wooster series, I particularly recommend Blandings Castle and A Few Quick Ones (ten short and very funny stories).

Friday, January 18, 2013

Take your partners for the great energy switcheroo...

Hacked off by Eon's latest price hike, a price comparison check showed that Co-operative Energy was cheaper. Being an existing Co-op member, and feeling that it would be good to cut the shareholder dividend out the price equation, I opted to change supplier to the Co-op.
Now received three emails from the Co-op requesting final meter readings. I've responded to these but the site linked to the request can't accept a gas reading because they haven't yet received a final reading from Eon. Which the won't - because Eon are waiting for the final gas reading from the sodding Co-op!
Human contact is out, of course. An insipid recorded voice tells me they're experiencing "high call volumes" (no big surprise there, probably legions of us frustrated would-be switchers caught in limbo betwixt suppliers).
So much for government and Ofgem assurances that switching is now much easier and that customers should shop around.
From what I've seen so far, with sob story calls from Eon and Co-operative Energy's inability to read emails switching suppliers is as frustrating as ever.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A Rather Poetic Pennine Wander

Spent the afternoon of New Year's Day walking from Lumbutts to Langfield Common in Calderdale, West Yorkshire. Following Paul Hannon's Hebden Bridge and the Calder Valley guide, we set off from Lumbutts, a hamlet in just off the Pennine Way long-distance footpath near Todmorden in the Calder Valley.
A strong wind at our back, we walked from the Shepherd's Rest public house away from the hamlet to join the Pennine Way before turning back at the Long Stoop to return to Lumbutts down an ancient packhorse path.
The walk was certainly invigorating, though we found some of the rather poetic instructions hard to follow in places, in particular the sections describing the path leading from Lumbutts to the Long Stoop. All in all, though, an great walk - certainly blew away the post-Christmas cobwebs.

The Long Stoop