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.