Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy new rug

The manager of a nearby petrol station has gone for a surprising new look. For the past dozen or so years, he would perhaps best be described, along with myself, as 'folicly challenged' or bald as a coot, if you prefer.
Today, however, he sprang a surprise. Summoned to the counter to answer a query as to the availability of the jet wash, he appeared from the newspaper aisle sporting a bouffant gentleman's hairpiece that was as startling in its luxuriance as for its man-made lustre. So much nylon, close to petrol dispensing equipment might be inadvisable on safety grounds; so much new, artificial hair, as featured in his syrup, was also a threat to good order and discipline in the queue to pay.
Once I got over the shock, and mastered the urge to stare, my initial reaction was one of midlife crisis or urge to impress a new special someone in his life. Either way, what better time than a new year to completely throw over the traces and face the future with a bold, if nylon, new look?
Happy new year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Read all about it?

I was at the gym when Sky broke the story of the shooting by police of Antonio Martin in Berkeley, Missouri. We don't have Sky at home - I can't abide the thought of adding money to Murdoch's obscene coffers, and I'm a former print worker, so there's no love lost between us. However, at the gym - as in many other areas of life, Sky is the only news source going. I was further limited by restricting myself to subtitles (Van Morrison provided my personal music soundtrack this morning). On returning home, my 16-year-old son brought me up to speed. He followed the Micheal Brown shooting and aftermath in Ferguson and couldn't believe it was starting again. His news was brought to me in a fast moving array of YouTube and website reports. I was amazed at the information he'd been able to gather in a short space of time. When I contrasted this with Sky's pared down coverage, he replied 'that's why I don't get my news from the news channels'. He's learning fast, and so are his contemporaries. Social conscience informed by the views of the world around him.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Recruitment agencies - a suitable case for regulation, or possible extermination

I'm a qualified and experienced post-16 teacher. Wanting to increase my teaching work, I registered with some agencies - mainly because many FE colleges now only recruit part-time and hourly paid teaching staff in this way. The downside - for the teacher - here is that, while agencies class you as 'self-employed', in reality you have the worst of both worlds, being expected to pay for such essentials as DBS checks (successor to the CRB), allowing you to work with young people, you can't claim travel or other expenses that the true self-employed can, because you are treated as an employee by HMRC. This not-so-neat trick aside, I naively thought that the agency would take the leg-work out of the job search. How wrong I was. For a start, registering with one online service seems to mean that your details are passed to a number of others, who all then send you details of the same job (albeit sometimes with different pay rates - of which, more later). The other problem is that, initially at least, you are promised a fantastic service and rapid results. In my case, this is mere hot-air: my subject - Law - is not one where vacancies often occur, so I soon learned to weed out the fantasy merchants. Now, to pay. I recently entered a digital merry-go-round involving a sixth form college near Wakefield that uses an agency to fill its vacancies. Having registered with the agency and filed my CV online, I was perplexed to see the advert on the agency's website, only to be told that there was a more urgent vacancy in Barnsley. Too far to travel, I told them - especially on the £16.00 per hour fee on offer, but Wakefield would be fine. The agency bod promised to get back to me, but then fell into sullen silence. The job was re-advertised several times online, and I applied to each one. Finally, tiring of getting nowhere with the agency, I contacted the college direct. Their HR dept were, I was assured, responsible for advertising all vacancies - they're on our website, I was also told. So I tried to apply direct, only to be informed that there were no Law teaching vacancies. No-one seemed to tell the agency, however, because the email alerts for this - now mythical - job kept on coming. Finally, someone from the agency got in touch to arrange an 'informal meeting' with a curriculum manager at the college, the pay? A princely £16.00 per hour. Now, this isn't a teacher-whinge: I also work in the real world of publishing so I know pay levels haven't increased much, if at all, for the best part of 10 years. But I also realise that for every lesson in the classroom, you need to make extensive preparations and mark the resulting efforts of your students, so £16.00 for the hour on your feet actually teaching soon reduces when you factor in the preparation and marking to something approaching minimum wage levels. Question to FE students and their parents: do you, or your offspring, really want to be taught by a teacher earning close to the minimum wage? We're talking A-levels here, a two-year commitment intended to prepare students for university. Sixteen pounds an hour isn't much in the way of incentive to stay with a college for two minutes, let alone the two years of AS and A2 level study, and students value continuity and the relations they establish with their tutors. Who, also remember, are frequently called on to help out with UCAS applications - a time-consuming, though ultimately enriching experience for all concerned, but one that cries out for continuity of service. After all, you can't provide a meaningful reference if you're the fourth teacher to deliver the subject because the other three have left to take up more lucrative work involving burger-flipping or manual car washing. I finally decided against taking up the offer of the 'informal chat' when a second agency - one I hadn't previously registered with - contacted me via a site called CV Library, which seems to act as a clearing house for employment agencies, offering the same post at £18.00 per hour, which proves that agencies must be making a large profit by suppressing the wages of those hapless enough to register with the hoping for a decent wage for their labours. The growth of teacher recruitment agencies has not been matched by any meaningful protection for those who look to them for work, and there is little to prevent the more desperate 'recruitment consultants' making extravagant claims when enticing in new recruits. For me, I'll stay with my two-days' teaching and wait for an upturn in publishing. Either that, or I could join the fantasists in recruitment consultancy - there are several teaching agencies who regularly advertise their internal vacancies amongst the teaching and training jobs. Wonder how I'd manage as a gamekeeper turned poacher?

Friday, December 12, 2014

The simplicity of right wing propaganda - a lesson from Goebbels

Profoundly disturbed to receive, via Facebook, something forwarded by a friend from the I am Proud to be British Facebook 'community', which says the overseas aid budget should be used to house homeless ex-servicemen. Now, where to begin: first - there is no either/or here; the overseas aid budget is far in excess of the housing needs they purport to identify; second - it isn't meant to be an intellectual exercise, rather it's an attempt to create fear and hatred of 'them': foreigners, those that differ from me/us. And it isn't meant to assist homeless ex-service personnel one iota. Rather, it's intended to further a blinkered, far-right agenda: stigmatise the scapegoats and frighten the masses: how Goebbels would approve! I prefer Auden's approach, Epitaph on a Tyrant he wrote:
Perfection of a kind, was what he was after, And the poetry he invented was easy to understand; He knew human folly like the back of his hand, And was greatly interested in armies and fleets; When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, And when he cried the little children died in the streets
By my reckoning, they've reached the easy invention of their themes, and are delighted to experiment with human folly in garnering as many shares, hits and likes as possible. We need to be afraid when they discover armies and fleets - and watch out for those Tories who, anxious to save their skins, suddenly find an accommodation rather easy to swallow, for they will be the first to quake at the jokes made at the expense of the lost, lonely, different or disadvantaged.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A little known cause of man-flu?

The middle-aged male cashier who served me Sainsbury's this afternoon was plainly under weather. After laughing off his symptoms with a self-deprecatory diagnosis of man-flu, he then said that it was nonetheless a real condition. His special pleading then broke down, because he put his plight down to excess oestrogen!
Cue hilarity from self and two women ahead of me in the queue.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Northern Powerhouse, poverty pay

Now that the excitement over George Osborne's discovery that the North is not the desolate region his father-in-law believes it to be is settling (and how many of the more excited commentators neglected to mention that our 'sovereign wealth fund' will be funded by fracking profits?) more attention needs to be paid to the value of the Northern skills base. An illustration of persistent, and pernicious, undervaluation is found in an advert for experienced freelance editors, placed recently by a Manchester-based agency. PSUK wants editors educated either to PhD level, or who are advanced members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders to work on academic titles for the miserly sum of £12.00 per hour! SfEP suggested rates for this work range from £22.00 to £27.50. Needless to say, this SfEP Advanced Member won't be applying.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Fraud is good!

Received a piece of puffery from a business consultancy, telling me that fraud has to be expected in a percentage of all business transactions. This, they reckon, is a good sign, as it means we are now recognising the inevitability of fraud in business and can work with clients to address the issue (using, of course, the flummery only they could provide...) I countered this by reminding the sender that 'greed is good' has now become hackneyed, but they came back to say that ethically businesses have to allow for fraud in their planning and negotiations. At this point, I had to admit finding their enthusiasm and acceptance of fraud to be a profoundly depressing comment on the state of business and commercial life. How can something that causes misery and harm be acceptable in the shiny world of corporate piffle and froth?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Charitable giving becomes a tradeable commodity

My mother-in-law is interested in animal welfare and for several years has made donations to charities working to alleviate suffering or rehome animals. Recently, however, she has noticed a marked increase in requests for donations from a host of other charities. These take the form of letters, and can come at the rate of 5 or 6 a week. Being advanced in years, it can be distressing to be deluged with mail you haven't requested - and, again, being older - perhaps she hasn't noticed the little box you're supposed to tick if you don't want your details to be sold on to other parties, with the express purpose of being the target of an ever increasing number of pestering, begging letters. Things have now reached a point where I regularly remove - unopened - a range of letters and take them back to my house and our waiting shredder. Sorry to have to break it to you, but the Spectacled Bears of the Andes will not be benefiting from my mother-in-law's largesse, neither will his Grace the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Durban - thanks for the card, you look great in the cardinal's robes, your Grace, and the blessing on the back of the postcard was no doubt kindly meant. But I hope you don't mind my mentioning that your request for donations to be paid into an Isle of Man bank account does rather put the Catholic Church in the same frame as some rather disreputable company, just when things were starting to look up a bit for the Church (of which my mother-in-law has never been a member, by-the-by).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Parliament just got a little bit more supreme - now to keep up the pressure

The Labour MP Clive Efford secured a highly symbolic victory in a debate on his Private Members' the National Health Service (Amended Duties and Powers) Bill on Friday 21 November to roll back NHS privatisation and remove the NHS from the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Treaty negotiations(TTIP. During the debate, in which Tory MPs were conspicuous by their absence, Labour Health shadow Andy Burnham pointed out that over 60 of their number have links to private health companies, many of which are US-owned; just the kind of multinational business that would benefit greatly if TTIP passes into law – doubly so, if the Coalition keep the NHS within the scope of the Treaty. Paradoxically, for a party that pays a lot of lip service to the convention of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ or ‘supremacy’, the Tories seem very keen to give large chunks of it away to foreign-owned businesses. TTIP would allow such businesses to sue our government if it dared to pass any future laws that threatened to undo privatisations or reduced their perceived ability to make expected profits on UK-based deals. In reality, therefore, TTIP puts the British people (the ones Cameron likes to bang on about) at the mercy of the profits of foreign and multinational business (those who have such a problem paying out taxes, remember?) And Cameron is very keen on TTIP. He wants the deal signed with almost indecent haste, and said only this week that he wanted ‘rocket boosters’ putting under the negotiations, ridiculing those who argue against it for having only ‘weak arguments’ and dismissing fears that it will be used to force further NHS privatisation as ‘nonsense’. Parliamentary sovereignty has two main features: first, there is the unwritten rule (called a ‘convention’) that parliament can pass a law on any subject it fancies – because that’s the democratic will of the people (yeah, right); and second, parliament can’t ‘bind its successors’, which means any law passed by the current parliament could be repealed by one sitting in future – we don’t have any ‘entrenched’ laws – unlike the written constitutions of the US, France or the Irish Republic, for example. So by forcing through TTIP and making sure parliament passed domestic legislation to give effect to it in this country, Cameron was hoping to make NHS privatisation unstoppable, because he’d effectively given away the power of parliament to stop it in future. After all, MPs with shares in private health companies won’t be took keen to cut off the profits from their own investments, and a future parliament would be wary of incurring legal costs if a foreign company took the UK to court because it had legislate in a way that was damaging to their supreme right to make money. TTIP, like Cameron’s line of reasoning is dangerous and needs to be stopped. Clive Efford’s PMB has to become law, for all our sakes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

My boss can be a prat sometimes

This week's Private Eye (Eye 1379) contains a worrying article on page 9 (Tidings of Joy) which reveals that Daily Express employees have been commanded not to make disparaging comments about owner Richard Desmond or any of his friends in their Tweets or on Facebook.
This is worrying for several reasons. First, an employee should not be expected to cede all aspects of their right to freedom of expression when they sign their contract of employment. Second, an adverse comment about an unidentified co-worker, superior or manager made in exasperation or as a throwaway remark should not constitute a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence that forms part of the contract of employment when to do so serves to allow the employer to intrude into an employee's personal and private life. In any event, to claim a right to control how an employee uses social media represents a gross abuse of bargaining power that distorts the employment relationship.
In my case, I can say that my boss can sometimes be a right pillock; but then again, I'm self-employed.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Recognition for George Osborne's EU Triumph?

On 17 December 1985, the Labour MP Brian Sedgemore was suspended from the Commons for calling the then Tory Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, a 'snivelling little git'. After his brazen attempt to spin his dodgy deal yesterday can't help but feel that Gideon is a worthy heir to Sedgemore's earthy epithet

Friday, November 07, 2014

War - and the failure of politics

This is what political failure leads to . The images are striking and have had a profound affect on public opinion. War is not an acceptable or 'normal' part of the human condition - it certainly isn't 'generational' or inevitable. I'm reading a collection of pieces written by First World War veterans that was published originally in 1930. Time and again, they use the phrase 'never again', and many were firmly convinced that they had taken part in the last war ever to be fought; there was no way they could ever imagine another conflict after the horror and loss they had witnessed - no politician could ever make that mistake again. But now, we see remembrance used in a very different way: remember the past, but also with an eye to contemporary and future events - almost as if the past is being used to validate future political shortcomings: 'we fought before and we'll fight again' has replaced 'never again'. On Sunday, I'll stand before a war memorial, as I did in years gone by with my granddad and my dad - veterans of the First and Second World wars. When I was young, I wondered why dad didn't wear his medals when the others did. He replied that they 'meant nothing' to him, and that the regimental mascot, a bulldog, had been given the same ones. For dad - who fought in North Africa, Sicily and Italy - war was neither normal or inevitable. He'd been brought up in a family where is dad and uncles had fought - and in one case died - in the war 'to end all wars' and he knew that the conflict he had had to endure was a result of the failure of politicians to secure a lasting peace, compounding the failure that led to the First World War. Now, I have to stand on my own, my granddad and beloved dad have gone, but I go to honour their memory and remember the suffering they and their comrades and former enemies had to endure. But I have a growing sense of unease when politicians now speak of war was inevitable, or of engendering military discipline in our schools, because this makes conflict seem commonplace, even acceptable, especially when fought in far away places, where its victims are not placed in the public eye - we hear about the casualties, but the ambulance trains do not bring the wounded home to the full glare of the public gaze, as in those earlier wars. The suffering has almost been sanitised and the media - especially the tabloid end - uses this language and imagery to perpetuate the old myth: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Hyundai - counting down the seconds

Hyundai's Auto Stop function cuts the engine when the car is waiting at traffic lights or held up it congested traffic; it restarts when you depress the clutch to engage first gear. But this environmentally sound feature comes with an unpleasant add-on. The time the engine is automatically stopped is measured - to the nearest tenth of a second - by a clock that comes to life right in the middle of the dashboard display. This is lost time you will never see again, being counted down in front of your eyes, while you wait for the road ahead to clear or the lights to change. It's very cruel of Hyundai to taunt us in this way.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Three days in Northumberland

Just back from my first visit to Northumberland in eight years. We stayed at a holiday cottage on the farm at Belford Mains. Bit of a last minute booking, but turned out to be a great choice as the cottage - which was large and comfortable for a family of four, including two teenagers, was in a good location, about 15 miles distant from Alnwick, in the south, and Berwick, to the north. Spent Tuesday under dark clouds in Bamburgh - and when these broke, giving way to a torrential downpour, we bade a hasty -and soggy - retreat to the cottage. Wednesday saw a bright and clear day, so we headed for Lindisfarne under skies of deep, clear blue.
Sailing dinghy and kayak in Lindisfarne Harbour, with Bamburgh Castle in distance. We left lunch til late on Lindisfarne, which meant that most of the cafes and eateries were bursting at the seams when we arrived. Taking a chance on the Lindisfarne Hotel, we were amply rewarded with four all-day breakfasts served by a resident double act of waiters-cum-comedians - a great pair of ambassadors for this part-time island and all round mystical land of saints and scholars. Thursday dawned dull and drizzly, so we headed for Alnwick on the way home. Rather unusually or half-term, we found Alnwick Castle already closed for the winter. The garden remains open. But the £33.00 price of a family ticket seemed rather steep to us. A friend who hales from these parts commented that this was just what you had to expect from the 'grasping Percys', as if one of the richest families on England needs to squeeze any more revenue from the great unwashed visiting its Hogwarts film set castle and gardens. Best buns in Alnwick? Trotters of Bondgate Within. Bailey's Cafe does a mean BLT as well.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A career in recruitment, never listen to anyone again

I've been looking for some extra work and thought I'd try a few of the myriad recruitment agencies that flooded my search results. They seem to follow a basic pattern: a breathless and urgent promise, followed by ever longer waits for more details - then silence, when you realise they've lost interest and gone onto someone who is easier to place (and easier for them to claim commission). Now another dimension has crept in, because they've started to email asking if I'd like to work in recruitment myself. Have to admit, after dealing with a few of these over-hyped individuals over the last few weeks, there is a superficial attraction. I mean, where else could I get paid for not paying attention to what people tell me and then trying to fit obviously square pegs into very round holes just for the sheer commission-driven hell of it?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Haunted house opposite

The house opposite is now haunted. At least that what the cheap plastic sign, hung in front of the cheap plastic shroud, says. Soon we'll be faced with face-painted tormentors demanding sweets. The American imported spook-fest is upon us once again. They've not hung a red light in the porch - looks like a knocking shop!

Food tech terror

Five texts, the tone increasing in panic, from youngest son on school bus this morning. He'd forgotten the ingredients they'd been instructed to take in to make carrot buns. The teacher is - according to him - a terror, who shouts at the slightest provocation. We immediately leapt into action: ingredients weighed and bagged in only a few minutes. Mum now making a considerable detour from her work commute to ensure peace reigns in the Food Tech kitchen area. I can identify with the sense of panic this teacher engenders because I well remember the three domestic science psychos who kept my cohort of kids in a state of terror. One was a middle-aged friend of Jesus, who used our saviour as her own personal and unseen enforcer. Appearing sickly sweet, she could reduce individual pupils or even an entire class to silence with her quasi-religious line in mind control. Of her two colleagues, one was a large, mainly silent, character who had a corner of her room decked out as a living room - complete with standard lamp and flowery lampshade with a rug and armchair: we took to recreating Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition sketch there if left alone in the room. The third member of this decidedly unholy trinity could go from apparent calm to wailing banshee in the blink of any eye; it was her I thought of as I grated carrot and bagged up the castor sugar. The memory fades but the suffering doesn't. I just hope our efforts were in time, son. I really do. No schools were named in the writing of this blog to protect both the guilty and the innocent...

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Specsavers make me an offer I had to refuse

Specsavers email a 'friendly reminder' that it's my 'last chance' to complete their customer satisfaction survey. Last chance or what? They'll send someone round to scratch my new glasses?
What is it with the survey meister's need for endless approval of the most mundane of actions? Celebrate our mediocrity, we're just doing our job, but we need your approval to massage our bored egos. Sadly this was an offer I could refuse: Speccy speccy Specsavers, you're opticians - not the Mafia. The kid with the specs doesn't get to make the threats. I know, I've been wearing bins since I was 8. Get over yourselves, and wise up on the marketing. The current model suits you as well as a pair of Dame Edna's glasses.

Yvette on the earhole

A couple of days ago I completed a survey emailed to me by the Labour Party. Have to say, as I read it, I wondered why they - and I - had bothered. The questions were designed to elicit anodyne responses and didn't ask for detailed views about anything. What it did ask, twice, however, was for donations. I declined, and when I hit send, I received a auto generated response from Ed, thanking me for taking part. Of course, now they have my email, so I thought there would be more. And today, there was. This time, Yvette Cooper, supposedly, emailed to say she wanted a fiver to get more women into Parliament. I responded with a quick click on the unsubscribe button. You see, I was a party member - but left when the last leader but two took us into an illegal war on the say so of his best mate George, who treated him - and us - like his poodle (remember 'Yo, Blair'?). If the people's party really wants to engage with its supporters - by which I mean those millions who traditionally vote for it, how about really listening to their concerns, instead of asking questions dreamed up by a bunch of 20-something, probably privately-educated, policy wonks closeted away somewhere in the Westminster village. That, Ed and Yvette, is how to win an election - rather than this self-referencing froth, that really only serves to show how remote you've become from the electorate. Giving the Tories a damn good kicking over the NHS and renationalising the railways would be couple of decent moves in the right direction - as would making sure the national minimum wage was a living wage (get rid of Trident and you'd be able to afford it).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Pants to your girlfriend

With two male teenagers in the house, we've developed the practice of throwing clean pants and socks onto their beds and letting them out them away.
Yesterday afternoon, eldest son brought new girlfriend home, but didn't tell me. So I, clean shreddies etc in hand, kicked open his bedroom door and launched them at his bed. At which point I noticed son and girlfriend talking (yes, just talking). Managed fulsome apologies before the undertrawlies hit their target, then withdrew to barely suppressed laughter.
Joys of parenthood...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Time plays tricks on memory – especially when you look back 40-odd years. In my mind, I’m sitting on a coach outside York railway station. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in Spring 1977 and the light streaming through the windows is adding to an air of dreamy contentment, the kind that settles after sharing joint endeavour and the talk is of what our group of teenagers have been doing since Friday evening. I’m with a group of Sea Cadets (SCC) from units throughout North, South and West Yorkshire. We’re on our way back from an adventure training weekend on the North Yorkshire Moors. We’d gone up on the Friday and camped behind the Horseshoe pub in Levisham. The Saturday was taken up with an extended orienteering-style event, walking a set route around the Levisham, Hole of Horcum area, with checkpoints and set tasks to complete. Come Sunday morning, we’d packed the tents away after breakfast and then had the presentations. My team came last – we’d messed up the map reading and missed out a checkpoint. A group of teenaged boys – even those with a modicum of Naval discipline – aren’t the most organised cross-section of humanity you will ever encounter, and a general air of ‘sod it’ had meant that we’d taken a joint decision to keep walking the previous day, rather than try to find the checkpoint and complete the task they were waiting to give us. But failure was forgotten as we basked in the sun while the Sheffield team got their gear off the coach and headed into the station for the train back home. There was music playing over the coach sound system and my memory serves the song up as Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill, his supposed anthem to the leaving of Genesis. But as a general ode to leave taking it will do to mark a time of impending change for many of us on that coach, myself included. This was May 1977, and I would leave school later that month, returning only for CSE exams (the Certificate of Secondary Education was a relatively short-lived qualification that allowed you to boost your exam marks with course work: a grade 1 equalled an O level, but not many employers seemed to know this, with the result that many who took it unwittingly condemned themselves to a second class qualification. Nowadays, CSEs don’t even feature in those drop down box qualification lists you get on job application websites). Others were to face greater changes. Initially, I’d wanted to join the Navy, but poor eyesight prevented me from being offered either of my two preferred jobs: control electrician or tactical radio operator, and rather than go with the only alternative on offer – steward – I opted instead for a printing apprenticeship, following a short period working for one of the sea cadet officers who had an electrical contracting business. For several others on that coach, along with friends at my sea cadet unit who didn’t take part in that weekend, careers in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines did indeed beckon. As cadets, we weren’t trained for war, although we did march with some very decrepit ‘drill purpose only’ Lee Enfields and have the chance to shoot .22 rifles at a local TA Centre on a Tuesday evening. Of those who joined up, however, war would come to several of them just six years later: one of my former cadet training ‘shipmates’ would be shipwrecked when HMS Coventry was sunk by the Argentine Air Force on May 25 that year – Argentina’s national day. Another was wounded when HMS Glamorgan was hit by a land-fired Exocet missile two days before the end of the conflict, while a third took part in the fighting on land as a Marine Commando. The cadets, for me, represented an extension of things I’d grown up with. My dad had fought in WWII and he, along with his friends, had a strange ambivalence to the conflict; there was a recognition of the suffering and loss, but also something approaching a yearning for the closeness and comradeship they’d known as conscripts, forced to face the horror and uncertainty of war. As an only child, prone to bullying at school, and lacking any interest in sport, the camaraderie of dad’s generation was something I found echoes of with the cadets. Membership also brought a sense of belonging and shared identity: a sense of purpose and friends away from the rather lacklustre council estate on which I’d grown up. For his part, my dad seemed to take a vicarious pleasure in the uniform pressing and ‘spit and polish’ that went with a parade. Chief amongst these was Remembrance Sunday, when I would be treated to illicit under-age beer after standing in the cold and observing the silence. There was, then, also a class-based air to being a cadet – by far the majority lived on council estates and attended state comprehensives. 11-plus successes were rare – it was abolished by the education committee in my home town for children of my age and younger, and the older cadets who had places at grammar schools seemed strangely reticent about admitting it. Likewise, our officers and instructors were, mainly, from the same background: drivers, police officers, fire service, and the then GPO were the more usual occupations followed by our leaders. I can only remember two who were teachers – and one of those was in charge of the district and lectured at a further education college in Harrogate, well beyond our common field of experience or endeavour. Being part of the cadets, however, was a thing that set us apart from our school contemporaries. There was the outward appearance of shorter hair for one thing, and the having something else to do two evenings a week and several weekends during the year. On one joyous occasion, I was even granted a week off school in late 1976 to attend a week’s course at RAF Lossiemouth in northern Scotland. I was chosen to go as an instructor and placed in charge of a room that housed around a dozen younger cadets. School mates were envious, and I remember leaving school on the Friday with a new found sense of purpose as I headed for home before being dropped off at my unit to board a coach for the long drive north. There was, as it turned out, little enjoyment to the journey. Around Pitlochry, sometime in the early hours, several of the younger ones developed communal travel sickness, and a Mexican-like wave of hurling went round the coach. One poor kid was held up as the champion puker because his friend swore blind that he’d seen him forcibly eject vomit from his mouth and nose simultaneously. The days were happy enough to warrant remembrance and reminiscing: there is a thriving community of SCC veterans on Facebook, people for whom, I suspect, schooldays were not the happiest times as they grew up – their fondest memories stem from parade nights and illicit snogs with members of the GNTC, walking to the bus stop or over cups of frothy coffee in late night cafes. Lessons in life dressed up in blue serge or baggy No.8s. So it is that I see the government’s interest in forming cadet units in schools with rather a jaundiced eye. We have had many years of conflict – near and far away – since I was a cadet; now there is a very real prospect that those who do join up will face participation in the ‘generational conflict’ with Islamic extremism threatened by British involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. Added to which is the form of cadet service envisaged by our private school-educated leaders. For this isn’t the working class style of the SCC, but rather the private school Combined Cadet Force (CCF), with its Navy, Army and Air Force branches and school-teacher/cum officer corps. The government wants 100 school-based CCF units by September 2015 – a figure that the MoD is now baulking at on cost grounds. They, after all, provide the uniform and kit, even though the government is dipping into the fines it imposed for the LIBOR bank rate setting scandal to fund its militarisation of education. And again, here, there is a departure from the very voluntary model I knew. Placing the military in schools has been a pet theme of politicians for a while now, not just cadet units, but fast-track teaching training of former military personnel, stand as testament to a desire to instil discipline – or more sinisterly – to ensure a steady stream of recruits at a time when unemployment amongst the under 25s is stubbornly refusing to shrink to manageable proportions. Another, perhaps more fanciful explanation, could lie in the advanced aged of Conservative voters. An injection of younger people, who have learned to ‘know their place’ on the playground-turned-parade ground of the CCF could be just the thing the Tories need to fill the gap as their older voters – like old soldiers – fade away.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hack Attack by Nick Davies

The full account of News International's hacking and other illegal information gathering activities. Written by Nick Davies, freelance journalist and long time Guardian contributor, Hack Attack also charts the lengths to which Murdoch - both Rupert and James - demanded 'no-holds-barred' journalism (as exemplified by the widely used injunction 'whatever it takes to get the story'), and the corrosive effect of their use of power, threat and patronage to befriend and threaten elected politicians, as decreed by Rupert and his senior lieutenants, such as Kelvin McKenzie and Trevor Kavanagh. Davies is honest about the shortcomings and failures that beset his investigation; he also raises the terrifying spectre of a resurgent tabloid media that was all too eager to trash Leveson and hide behind freedom of speech to resume its prurient spying on those who threaten its lack of ethics or basic morality or allow it to sell papers and news subscriptions with 'stories' that exploit the weak or chew over the foibles of public figures or transient celebrities..

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Digitising my past

A scanner, laptop and a pile of old photos. Just been 'admitted' to a Facebook page set up for members of an organisation I joined in my youth. Now on verge of tears - so many memories flooding back. Must pull myself together - they're only pixels after all. And I'm not that old, in spite of what teenaged sons might say...

Friday, October 10, 2014

One in the eye for me

I had an eye test the other day. In addition to myopia (been wearing specs since I was 8), I also have to be tested for glaucoma because my mum had it. This involves sitting at a machine that puffs a shot of air onto your eyeball to check the pressure ( the correct ophthalmic name is tonometry). Now, I'd always thought that the person sitting on the opposite side of the puffing machine administered the puff by pressing a switch or button. Indeed, I have to admit to rather envying them their role: being able to add an extra one 'for luck' if faced with a particularly stroppy or annoying patient would be a great perk of anyone's job. Not so. The pleasant woman who ran the test for me, and apologised after each puff, told me the entire process is automated; the puff is triggered when the eye is fully opened. So why was she sitting there? Do they record reactions and play the best ones back at break time?. Didn't ask. After she'd blown the gaffe about the automation, the process lost some of its magic for me. The strange thing is, no matter how many times a person has the tonometry test, she said they always jump. Unpleasant the sudden shock of forced air to the eyeball may be, if it diagnoses glaucoma, keep on puffing, I say.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Beware of Geordies selling private health insurance

And today, another call from AXA PPP 'on behalf of MYCCI'. So I ball them out and send an angry anti-cold calling, anti- selling my details on without consent email to MCCI. Now for the ICO website. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, amongst the call centre fraternity, a Geordie accent is regarded as the most trustworthy. Well, I've just been called by a Kevin Whately soundalike who wanted to tell me all about the benefits of AXA private health insurance. Before I bade him Auf Wiedersehen, he managed to tell me that my details had been passed to him by the Mid-Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce. All rather strange, because, apart from attending a seminar they organised a few months ago, I've no connection with MYCCI, as it styles itself, and certainly no recollection of giving my consent to receive exciting marketing waffle from their, no doubt, 'carefully selected' partners. Do hope MYCC aren't acting in breach of data protection legislation, as my natural antipathy to private healthcare could trigger a reference to the Information Commissioner if I receive any more 'exciting' cold-calls attributable to them.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Appreciated, valued, deluded and underpaid

According to a piece of professional development drivel I just came across, people who are 'appreciated' work harder. The capacity for self-delusion amongst the horny-handed toilers never ceases to amaze me. Having been told for years that unions are evil, that any form of collective expression of dissatisfaction is wrong, it seems we now have a generation of workers that feel beholden to those who employ them or commission them to work - is it any wonder that pay rates are, at best, stagnant? The best way to show appreciation for work well done is to pay for it properly, and on time (if performed by one of the growing ranks of the self-employed). Recent years have seen a growth in CPD as a means of ensuring that skill levels remain relevant across a whole range of sectors, but - hand-in-hand with this - has been the insidious spread of a species of management-speak that constantly chips away at the need to pay well (or even at all - witness the growth in reliance on volunteering or the apparently unstoppable rise of the unpaid interns). There is clear danger here: by denigrating concern about pay levels, we are creating an underclass of impoverished workers, at a time when management sees its pay levels increase out of all proportion to those they employ. We need politicians and economists to demand a far greater correlation between the two - and soon.

The wild (city)rover

Owing to a car service that necessitated an overnight stay in the garage for our somewhat venerable Fiat Punto, I ended up with a Cityrover courtesy car. Cityrovers, for those not familiar with the marque, were built at Longbridge between 2003-2005 and, rather incongruously carry the Rover badge. Now, in my youth, Rovers were a beast of a car: John Thaw's Jack Regan drove one menacingly around London's badlands every week on the Sweeney and every hard-bitten (plus quite a few soft-boiled) 70s sales reps probably gave their eye-teeth to get behind the wheel of one. A Cityrover, by stark contrast, is a rattle-wagon with an under-powered rubberband engine and doors that give the adjective 'tinny' a bad name. In short, driving from home to Yeadon and back was a trial. The experience was made worse on arriving at work as, for reasons best know to the manufacturer, this car is fitted with an alarm and immobiliser of fearsome proportions - far in excess of the vehicle's worth - and which I managed to set off while trying to lock the damn thing. My humiliation was not quite complete, however. On leaving the office, and making the most of the non-powered steering to wrest the thing out of its parking bay, I was treated to a look of such superiority and contempt by the man behind the wheel of a sleek, brand new Merc (64 plate for UK readers) who was just pulling into the car park. Cityrover - experience the true feel of 1970s British auto engineering: coming soon to a scrapyard near you.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Recommended reading?

I bought Nick Davies' expose of high crimes and misdemeanors in the evil Murdoch empire Hack Attack on Read Now app, which has just recommended Mein Kampf for 74p. I knew Rupe was a thoroughly-bad egg, but didn't have him in the same league as Hitler. One recommendation I won't be taking up.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Guinea pig bereavement

Peppa, one half of the duo of sows we 'adopted' in April died in her sleep on Wednesday night. At six-and-a-half this was not entirely unexpected. Cheeky and playful to the last, her version of raging against the dying of the light was to stage an audacious dash for freedom when being moved from the run to hutch for what proved to be the last time.
Her partner, Salt, at three, and with a far more nervous disposition, has gone through a complete transformation in behaviour. Where previously she'd run away if we approached, even bearing food, now she just sits and looks vacantly into space, she is also now content to sit on a lap and purrs when stroked. I think we will soon be looking for another adoptee.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thirteenth birthday bash, where's the antacid?

Youngest son celebrates thirteenth birthday tomorrow, so tonight - as requested, we have a sleepover preceded by an outing to KFC. Hope sleep comes early, and the heartburn inducing deep-fried grease fest doesn't mean I'm the one who can't get to sleep til the wee smalls...

I Am Pilgrim

Enjoyed Terry Hayes' debut novel. Bit too James Bond in places but a good espionage tale nonetheless. Looks like a film's planned, so see what the movies make of it. Decided to follow it up with Le Carre's Most Wanted Man. Might not get to see it at cinema so soon after its release bit really enjoy his writing in any case. Sad to see it's Seymour Hoffman's final leading role.

Dead flies and a dead shredder

Just seen off the second shredder of the year. With the sheer volume of paper that contains names, addresses or even hints of bank details needing to be disposed of, you'd have thought they'd built to last. Them again, perhaps weakness makes up  for the lack of built-in obsolescence in the damn  things. Either way, it's another 25 quid down the drain. At least it keeps the guinea pigs in bedding.
And now, as the nights draw in, the time has come for Autumn's least likeable task: removing dessicated fly and moth remains from the conservatory roof blinds delicate folds... All hail the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and crispy creepy-crawly corpses.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Choking in praise of Wensleydale

Over dinner last evening in Ziggy's Indian restaurant, Halifax, my eldest son regaled us with the news that one of his scout leaders had, earlier that day,  cycled from his home in Sowerby Bridge to England's highest market town, which is situated in Wensleydale, an are I love to visit. Indeed, so caught up was I in the moment that I immediately ejaculated the highly ambiguous phrase 'I like Hawes'.
Cue coughing fit and mirth from spouse and offspring.
It's great when you can embarrass the kids in public...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Family walk in the Dales? That'll be £14, please

Went to Ingleton today as a family of four looking forward to the 4 mile walk that takes in a couple of dozen waterfalls and some fine limestone scenery, all in the majestic shadow of Ingleborough. There's always been a charge for this, as most of the route is admittedly over private land. However, we were unpleasantly surprised to find the price had been hiked to £14 for a family ticket! Time for another mass trespass?

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Fear and loathing - religious bigotry in west Wales

Leaving the Gatehouse after visiting St David's Cathedral, in the smallest Welsh city of the same name, I was handed a double-sided, closely typed A5 sheet. The bearer was wearing cycle clips, which I probably should've taken to be a portent of obsession. The message contained on the sheet, and reinforced by a disparate collection of biblical quotes ranging from Genesis to Timothy, although all held together by the drivel that is Revelation ('the happy hunting ground of heretics and schismatics' or 'I don't know what the writer was on at the time they wrote it, but I wouldn't want to be caught coming through Customs with any...': two blistering counterblasts I once heard a baptist minister deliver against the final New Testament entry). The text starts by stating that God has made Israel his 'battle axe' to destroy all 'His and Israel's foes', so you know straightaway that were talking fundamentalist Christian support for Israel's stance on Gaza. Interestingly though, Islam isn't mentioned by name as one of the 'human anti-Christs' to be destroyed by the divine battleaxe. Rather the writer states that Israel is now 'surrounded by enemies' that want its destruction. These are all lumped together as 'Satanic'. But if Islam is only hinted at, others aren't so lucky - because also lined up for a bit of battleaxe smiting action are Jehovah's Witnesses and anyone that practises transcendental meditation (looks like some personal issues crept in at that point: still, must be hard to stop, once the smiting urge grabs you). To sum up the message: taking a string of biblical prophecies and eschatological texts (ie those dealing with the end of the world/judgement day/Armageddon, etc), written between 2,000-3,000 years ago, the author is using the Old and New Testaments to justify the violence and death being visited on Gaza by the modern-day Israeli state. In this context, the author's antipathy to Jehovah's Witnesses is interesting, because they too are heavily influenced by a belief in the 'end times' (which to them started in 1914 and will culminate with a cataclysmic final battle - literally Armageddon). This belief that 'the end is high' is also shared by several other sects and even some 'mainstream' fundamentalist evangelicals, and the author of this text is clearly motivated by a desire to hasten the 'end' by talking of modern-day Israel in Old Testament prophetic terms: this isn't a focus on the suffering of either Israel or the Palestinians, but rather an attempt to exploit the suffering for decidedly millenarial ends. The bible isn't always on the side of the foam-flecked, however, and instead of using Rev as the mortar to stick disparate pieces of biblically inspired intolerance together to justify the violence that has caused so many child deaths in Gaza, it would have been better to turn to Micah, Chap 4. Best known as the bit in the bible that wants to turn swords into ploughshares, it goes on to say that all should live in peace, each under their own figtree. Now there really is a quote worth reminding Israel - and all those who sell it weapons - about. Could also be used as a British value, if Mr Cameron really wants to show some leadership. Micah appears to have lived at a time when - as now - tolerance and peace were in short supply in the Middle East. The writer's response was to pen a phrase that stands in stark contrast to those who filter scripture to bolster calls for war. In Chapter 6, in answer to the question 'what does God require of you?' there is the simple reply: 'do justice, love mercy and walk in peace with your God'. Effective, straight to the point, and certainly beats peddling hate outside cathedrals/chapels/mosques/churches/temples et cetera, passim, ad nauseum.

Llandudno, twinned with Devizes?

Twin Llandudno with Devizes
An Orme so small, hardly no Orme at all
But another so big it wins prizes.

Friday, August 08, 2014

All together now: serving food the family way...

Might sound rather old-fashioned, but my family of four likes to eat together, sitting at a table, but here on holiday in south-west Wales that's proving rather difficult. In pubs and cafes over the past week, we've had food delivered at intervals, so that some sit eyeing up the dish in front of them, while neighbouring sibling or parent twiddles their thumbs. It used to be standard practice to assemble and hold all one table's dishes in the kitchen so they could be served together. Now, food delivery seems to focus on each individual dish, so that eating is staggered - even between members of the same party, who ordered their food at the same time. And it's bloody annoying.

The perils of falconry

Caught a falconry display at Pembroke Castle. A couple of Harris hawks put through their paces by a falconer from Abergavenny with a nice line in slightly politically incorrect patter. Come the grand finale, however, and the anticipated peregrine flying display fizzled out when the bird flew off over the castle walls only to find chasing seagulls preferable to entertaining the crowd, which left, leaving lone falconer climbing the castle walls shouting 'Quack Quack' - the bird's name, but surreal nonetheless.

Estuary-side holiday let

Neyland, Pembrokeshire. The letting agent insists on calling the three-bed semi we've rented for the week a 'cottage'; it isn't.
It's comfortable enough, although the claw-footed bath with ersatz rubber shower hose attachments is rather impractical. We're also next door to a masonic hall. The bowler and pinny brigade haven't shown up yet, but I'm on the lookout for rolled-up  left trouser legs.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Telegram from Guernica, biography of George Steer

In which Churchill's recorded as being in favour of using poison gas against native uprisings. Mussolini got there first though. War in Ethiopia was orchestrated by Italian fascist regime and used copious amounts of the stuff against poorly equipped Ethiopians.

Summer, the first time...

Last Saturday, with my wife out shopping and eldest son skateboarding with his friends, I rashly asked my 12-year-old if he would like a barbecue. Not keen myself: risk of eating raw meat and amount of cleaning up afterwards, but he was very keen to take up the offer, so burger and sausages in hand, and charcoal nearly alight, the cooking commenced. Soon afterwards, there was a call from the first-born, could he and his friend AND TWO GIRLS also attend the charred meat fest? The upper case letters are there to denote a first: we haven't had a request for teenaged girls to join us before - my youngest son was horrified, and immediately said he would be eating inside (girls to him are classed as 'annoying' - the vast majority; or 'OK' - which means the like to play football and go nuts in the park with him). I declared the barbecue open to all - with the proviso that eldest son procured either more sausage or burgers as we didn't have anywhere enough for six people. The four newcomers duly arrived and I was amazed when the girls ensured eldest went for the extra food without my having to issue the request more than once, and took the lead in arranging an impromptu al fresco experience on the decking. Mind you, youngest still thought they fell in the 'annoying' category, they didn't eat any of the salad or offer to help with the clearing up. Still, a major civilising influence and a neat, yet determined, counterbalance to the usual testosterone-fuelled, YouTube video-watching staple of teenaged male-only mealtimes. They can definitely come again, no matter what youngest son says...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Know your place

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Patterson and Gove and the blobbies

First Gove derided one, now Patterson has blamed one for his ministerial demise. Both criticised 'blobs', environmental or educational establishment groupings that stood in the way of their pet theories. But delving into the alleged constituent parts of their respective blobs, a different picture tends to emerge. Take Patterson's Green Blob, where we find pressure groups - like Greenpeace and other lobby groups, the Green Party, and a vague identification of others opposed to Patterson's climate change beliefs. These aren't the dangerous elements he describes, but rather those concerned enough to take  stand against the arrogant/ignorant stance taken by ministers convinced as to the rightness of their cause, but lacking the empirical evidence for their frequently dogmatic assertions. It's not the blobs we should fear, rather the unchallengeable assertions of Tories with unshakeable views that don't stand up to reasoned argument. Bet IDS has a lot of blobs.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

Really enjoyed this surreal romp through 50 years of geopolitical history; even made grim, apartheid era South Africa funny. And the king even appealed to Republican me

Monday, July 07, 2014

Zut alors; French cops on English streets - a Mail reader's nightmare

Along with 2.5 million others, I managed to catch sight of the peloton as it made its way through God's own country at the weekend. As I left Mytholmroyd train station to walk up the hill to Cragg Vale, the longest continual incline in England, I noticed a line of deckchairs on a grass verge, every single occupant of which was engrossed in the Mail on Sunday. Thought at the time that this was one of those quaintly British paradoxes at work here: a group of right wing media consumers out to watch a bunch of mainly foreign bike riders race past them. It was only an hour or so later that I realised they faced a threat to their well-being from the pre-peloton 'caravan' itself. By then waiting outside the Robin Hood pub, the first outriders appeared, but they weren't British bobbies on motorbikes, rather French Gendarmes or Police Nationale, and they kept on coming, either on high-powered bikes or in minibuses. The platoon of MoS readers must have been driven to apoplexy, I thought. Soon afterwards, I heard the wail of a siren, only for a Mountain Rescue Service ambulance to drive past, down the hill in the direction of the station. I learned later that it was called to treat someone who have fallen off a wall, not to defibrillate a MoS reader who'd been driven to cardiac arrest by the sight of so much French motorised law enforcement. This was probably a good thing, because the ambulance itself was Irish - first aid for the Tour being provided by the no doubt excellently equipped Dublin and Wicklow Mountain Rescue Service - Erin Abu.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Ofsted inadequate

Son's school has just had an Ofsted inspection that shows - achieving academy status AND opening a 'free school' FE vocational centre notwithstanding - that it's gone from a 'good' community high school to being so inadequate, across all four inspected areas, as to be placed in special measures.
All this decay took place against a veritable deluge of supposed good news stories pumped put at regular intervals via email and paid for mailshots. Strange, then, that notification of the Ofsted inspection was by way of a letter handed to pupils to bring home. Being suspicious by nature, I now wonder if they hoped to ameliorate the potential flow of bad news to the inspectors by using the least reliable method: after all, the Ofsted report itself mentions the low number of parental submissions. There's a parents' forum taking place in an hour, where I'm really hoping that serious questions will be answered, particularly regarding the findings of inadequate teaching in KS3 and 4 and the inadequate finding for pupil behaviour and safeguarding. But then again, perhaps I shouldn't expect too much, after all, in the (mailed) letter inviting us to the 'forum', the headteacher assures how keen they are to embark on their 'improvement journey'. From Michael Gove preserve us...

Forum update: Some very interesting questions about lack of quality homework - this is an area that the school has previously said senior management (SMT) were going to tighten up on, but nothing happened. Some parents also very scathing about internal organisation of recent Yr 10 mock exams. The new head did admit, in response to one of my questions, that attaining academy status had not worked for them. Seems to be more a case of being distracted by the 'freedom' of being run by the DoE, as opposed to answerable and accountable to the LEA, that they failed to consider the developments being made by other comparable schools in the locality. She even went so far as to admit that there had been no proper benchmarking undertaken for the best part of two years, so that the SMT were essentially 'flying blind' but happy to do so, given the nice warm feeling of being in charge of their own school and the new FE centre. All crashed down around them now. Gove not such a good replacement LEA after all. Not to worry - it's only our children's futures they're working with.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Virgil Tracy lives on our street

The electric double up-and-overs hide his island of neat Each tool and gadget is easily to hand Thuderbird 2 has been swapped for a white van. Hours spent wall-mounting, storing and ordering Unlike the rest of us unprepared tool-fumbling dimwits He knows anything could need fixing in the next 30 minutes.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

A problem in the trouser department

When was it decided that button flies were back in fashion? What will they bring back next - night soil removal? Rickets? I know UKIP and the Tories want to take us back to the fifties, but hadn't realised zips were on the list of things they disapproved of, along with social security, the NHS and human rights.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Assessing insurance claims

Time was if misfortune or accident struck, you called your insurer and left it up to them to sort put estimates and costs. That's what insurance companies did. But then, insurers realised they could cut operating costs by turning themselves into call centres, which handled the initial contact, and sent out premium reminders - which have now morphed into egregious auto renewals, complete with nasty, unexpected direct debit bills. The difficult site visits and dealing with builders, mechanics, car body repairers, etc being farmed out to loss adjusters.
The insured, having notified the insurer of a claim, would then deal with someone from a different company, who sorted out the costs and expenses and instructed the repairer. But now, yet another entity has interposed itself between insured and insurer: the claims or loss assessor. Once a claim comes into existence, these bottom-feeding ambulance chasers use divers means, including, apparently, payments to emergency service personnel, to discover the identity of the insured, and then hasten to 'sign' them up, by getting signatures to a contract that allows the assessor to 'manage' the claim on the insured's behalf, in return for commission payments from the repairers they obtain permission to use from the loss adjuster.
In reality, however, the assessor is doing nothing the insured couldn't do in person, and adding yet another party into the equation also increases the time taken to put right the damage caused. Unnecessarily complicating the claims procedure adds to adminstration cost and that forces up premiums, meaning that we all lose, due to the resistable rise of the loss assessors.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Happy Anniversary

The picture was taken 100 years ago today - my grandparents married at St Andrew's Church, Burley, Leeds on 1 June 1914. Just 27 days later, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo - a place that most of the people in the photograph would never had heard of. But by the beginning of August, WWI was declared and within 4 years my grandfather would be fighting in Flanders and of his two brothers, Arthur would be a prisoner of war in Germany, and his youngest brother, Albert, would be dead - killed in an air raid at Ypres. Of two of the male cousins in the photograph, one would lie about his age to enlist and another would endure the opprobrium and ridicule reserved for the conscientious objector. Before the public displays of remembrance start, I want to offer my family as an example - on this, the centenary of my grandparents' wedding - as a reminder of what war did to ordinary people, and how they coped with the horror of events way beyond their experience or control.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Conspiracy of email silence

15-year-old son's high school has a tendency to send out emails on matters of mindless tedium. Surprising then to discover, 10 days after the fact, that it saw fit to inform parents of a recent Ofsted by the tried and not-so trusted method of sending a letter home - which I've only just found!
Anyone would think they didn't want us to talk to the inspection team...

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Myth of Beef Tomatoes

Nearly 30 years ago, I worked with Keith, a keen gardener, at a printing company in Leeds. Keith’s main interest was growing flowers, but he, like many gardeners at the time, also liked to grow tomatoes. Perhaps it was the novelty of growing something that demanded light and warmth in the wet and usually cloudy north, but he enjoyed the challenge, with the added dimension of being able to claim that he had grown tomatoes that were larger than his neighbour’s or work-mate’s efforts. Keith used to talk about another former workmate who had seen large beef tomatoes when he was on holiday in Spain. This person, whose name escapes me, if indeed, I ever knew it, had managed to dry the seeds of a large Spanish beef tomato, from which he had grown his own tomatoes in his greenhouse back at home. The story seemed plausible, more than that, it set up the challenge: would this successful gardener share his seeds? Keith asserted that the exercise had been repeated for a number of years, but, unfortunately, he had now lost touch with the grower of those wonderful Spanish-originated tomatoes. A few years later, I was working at another printing company, when a similar story reached my ears. This time, it was a machine-minder called Lewis, whose cousin – certainly not the person Keith had mentioned – who was the successful importer of the rare sun-dried seeds, even though the modus operendi sounded very similar: the tomato was eaten on holiday in warmer Spanish climes; the putative grower procured another specimen, extracted the seeds and managed to dry them on a hotel room window sill, before packing them within the family’s luggage for the return journey. In those now far-off days, when we still had a printing industry worthy of the name, printers were inveterate potterers, so this part of the story, which relied on ingenuity struck a chord. Some of my co-workers had turned pottering into an art form and spent years perfecting the skill of obsessively creating things of little apparent use, both in and out of their paid working environments; these strange ‘hobbies’ ranged from complex indoor recreational activities, such as crazy golf or indoor cricket games that could be hastily removed if the boss appeared, while others became factory-renowned experts in cacti and succulents, geneology (years before Who Do You Think You Are? graced our TV screens), and there were also renowned home brewers and winemakers. Some of this latter grouping led me to experiment for a while, until, that is, my then cellar became home to a few dozen bottles of lethally explosive cider. Sitting upstairs of an evening, my television viewing was punctuated by random subterranean detonations, followed soon afterwards by the sharp aroma of apple and the soft tinkle of broken glass falling from shelf to floor, which led me to abandon the project. And yet, thinking back over the eccentrics and the pranksters, for example, the work’s foreman who delighted in wandering into a local DIY shop at lunchtime, where he would surreptitiously set a couple of the mouse-traps that formed part of a long-standing basket display, before loitering in the adjoining paint aisle to await activation by an unsuspecting shopper, you have to mourn the passing of interests and diversions that enlivened the working day, for we were not yet enslaved to desk or screen and prevented from interaction by stress, deadlines and worry; co-workers were ‘mates’, not ‘colleagues’. Collegiality now means isolation for many, as opposed to being alongside others in the collective exercise of labour. We even tolerated those whose productivity was lower than our own. For example, my first boss would urge us to keep the noise down after lunch if one of our number was in the darkroom. It only occurred to me later that my workmate was having a short rest: a power-knapper years before his time, and that the boss, normally such a stickler, was fully cognisant of the fact. We could also cover-up for the unfortunates who suffered equipment or fitting malfunctions or transgressed health and safety norms. In this category fall the paste-up artist who joined with the mythical three old-ladies by becoming locked in the lavatory when the bolt stuck, and had to be rescued by the boss, who effected the release with the aid of a liberally applied hammer that just about drowned out our laughter. Or the camera operator who managed to slip and fall from a darkroom bench when changing a light source filter. The front of the bench was fitted with an exposure control switch that became entangled in his left trouser bottom as he rapidly descended. This caused a rent in his trouser leg that extended from ankle to crotch. The dull thud was heard by many, but he refused to open the door or a while. Indeed, he only did so when convinced that ‘Charlie’ wasn’t in the building: he had fallen so hard onto the control switch that ‘I’m surprised there aren’t two lumps on the back of my neck’ were the first words he said as he shakily emerged into the light, and ‘the last thing I needed was Charlie howling with laughter when I opened the bloody door’. The biggest beef tomatoes ever grown in the north might have been the Leeds print industry’s very own modern myth but I still want it to be true. Now that the indoor games have been packed away and graphic design software has swept away the darkrooms and cameras, even the very businesses where we worked, that the memory of those tenuous claims to fame have achieved the status of waymarkers to a past, where, sadly, we did things differently but with more style and fun than we can ever claim now.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Playing doctors at the Chemist

Routine collection of a repeat prescription was enlivened by the announcement that the pharmacist on duty wanted to review my medication. This turned out to be a short discussion in a rather cramped 'consultation room' that they've craftily hived-off from a storeroom. Working through a list of my medication, the pharmacist seemed most concerned to know whether I needed to take rabeprozal sodium every day - and what would happen if I didn't?
Now, these questions rather highlight the facile nature of the review exercise: this medication was prescribed several years ago to treat a hereditary condition that affects the duodenum's ability to prevent stomach acid entering the oesophagus. Rebeprozal is a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) that stops me enduring perpetual heartburn caused by acid reflux. Asking the question means the pharmacist didn't know the obvious answer, and caused me to wonder why she'd decided to second guess my GP, who also regularly reviews my medication - the key difference being that, whereas the pharmacist dispenses, the physician prescribes. And I'm interested to know who has decided that essential and time-honoured division should now be eroded by the pill-counters.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Bullying lasts

Research showing that bullying victims recall their feelings and sense of humiliation years after the event comes as no surprise to me. Bullied at primary school in the mid-sixties, I can still remember the sense of hurt and alienation. Even now I fear seeing the face of a tormentor in the crowd if visiting the place where I grew up. The effects, for me, are heightened when I remember the inaction of those supposed to protect me. Teachers then handled complaints of bullying by doling out the routine advice 'don't let them see it upsets you'. In other words, they expected the victim to modify their behaviour, rather than challenge or confront the tormentor.
A few years ago, I saw how things can change for the better. Now a teacher myself, I found a Yr. 8 boy crying in the cloakroom. A sensitive and intelligent child, he told me he'd been bullied by another boy. I mentioned this to a senior staff member, who asked that, as there were 'pastoral' issues surrounding both boys,  would I mind writing a short note for 'the record'? Remembering my own humiliation from decades earlier, I agreed, but asked that she take my comments onboard. Her response was swift and effective: both sets of parents called, bully confronted, and effects of his actions painstakingly explained.
We have learned something in the intervening half-century. It's not the victim that has to hide their feelings or the bully that's allowed to carry on unchecked anymore.
And Richard, if you ever get round to reading this, the kid you used as a punchbag in the cloakroom at Beckett Park Primary School in Leeds back in 1966 hopes you somehow learned to change your behaviour on the way to becoming the director of an electrical contracting business. If you didn't, you must have cost the business thousands in compensation claims by now. You see, your primary education failed to prepare you in much the same way that those charged with providing it failed to protect me. Either way, it did not allow us to grow into fully rounded people, capable of empathising with, and relating to, those around us.
But there's another face I fear glimpsing in the crowd, and that's your's, Chris. Because every victim can turn on another they perceive to be weaker or different to them, and that's what my senior colleague saw from my report: the victim had turned on a quieter boy, a victim of his own, to visit revenge of a kind, for the humiliation he'd suffered at the hands of others. Which is what I'd done to Chris - one who struggled at school, who now would have been identified as having needs to be addressed so he could make the most of the education he needed. Yet back then, he was singled out by the teachers and his fellow pupils, made to sit at the back with much easier work than the rest. They might as well have painted a target on him.
The bullied can bully too. I did, though thankfully not for long, because a deputy head intervened, but the harm I could have done shames me as much as the hurt I suffered.

Bullied children still suffer at 50

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The house at pooh corner, or why I wanted to kiss a Glaswegian drain cleaner

Confusion reigned this week. A blocked drain, and some distressing internal seepage, raised the question as to whether I or Yorkshire Water were responsible for the repair bill. On Monday, a blockage was discovered, which meant we were no longer left feeling flush after a visit to the smallest room. So, I called a company that advertises in the phone book. Assuring me they were specialists in this matter, they advised a CCTV survey. For £140.00 I got to share a viewing of the mystery of our sewers, which the technician assured me were damaged beyond repair. A pavement licence would have to be obtained from the local authority. This would allow them to dig up the path outside the house and replace the cracked and broken pipe from the fall pipe to the nearest manhole.
Fortunately, at this point someone decided to call Yorkshire Water, the 'statutory undertaker' for drainage in these parts. A visit from the aforementioned Glaswegian contractor then followed, which brought forward two pieces of very good news. First, Yorks Water were responsible for all the work because the fall pipe entered the ground on 'public' land; after the first flush, our poo became public property. Then he got his own camera out. This showed that the 'collapsed' pipe our contractor had identified was nothing of the sort, but rather a long abandoned surface (ie rainwater) drain. The poo pipe ran beneath - and was soon unblocked by a high pressure squirt from my new Caledonian best friend. Up to that point, I had been in fear of a four figure repair bill, but with that jet wash blast, my worries disappeared -- the block to happiness vanished along with the very tangible matter that he had freed. Now all that remains is the small matter of the deposit I had to shell out to the contractor for the now unnecessary street works.
Confusion as to whether the statutory undertaker or a private contractor was responsible for the work arose because of rule changes brought in two years ago, rules which neither public nor private sector drainage workers seem to fully understand - with the attendant risk that homeowners are paying for unnecessary repairs that are now the legal responsibility of the private water companies - but who seem rather shy about publicising the fact.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Chuggered on my own doorstep

A guy called from the RSPCA the other day. We don't live on a main road, in fact, you have to travel some distance up a hill to find us, but he was nothing if not persistent. He wanted me to agree to a standing order to protect animals from cruelty and he was very forceful in his delivery and batted aside my comment that, while I knew the RSPCA prosecuted those who harmed animals, I also thought that they were a tad too gung ho in some cases. This was 'political' and he didn't want to go there - all he wanted were my bank details. And I refused to give them, so he left - leaving me with the rather unpleasant feeling that I had been hectored on my own doorstep by a chugger. Meet one on the street and you can sidestep them, but when they turn up on your doorstep, all enforced bonhommie and over-the-top persuasion, they present a very different image. If one calls from a charity I do support - and there are many - I will immediately cancel my direct debit and tell them exactly why I've done it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A stumble on the stairs

Although I asked him not to laugh, the chap at the till in M&S at Leeds Station apparently couldn't stop himself when I answered his question about my finger. 'I tripped on the stairs', the first part of the answer went OK. But when I followed it up with 'all my weight landed on my right hand and I ended up with a chipped bone in my little finger (not, NHS 111 operator please note, my 'pinky'), the chuckle barrier broke. And when I finished by saying that just about everything in the known universe that I'd encountered since seemed magnetically attracted to the spot, well I don't know if he'll manage to finish his shift.
The break was diagnosed and dealt with by the staff at Calderdale Royal Hospital A&E, a department under threat of closure from shortsighted penny-pinching NHS beancounters. They must be resisted at all costs. Preferably given forced enemas by Linda the capable and friendly nurse practitioner who strapped up my finger hopefully administered in a public place, while an effigy of the excreable Hunt burns slowly in the background.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spooky, pop-pickers, spooky

Earlier this week, apopro nothing at all, Joe Dolce's 1981 novelty one-hit-wonder Shaddap You Face popped up in my mind. Such things happen at my age so I probably parked it somewhere in my cerebral cortex and carried on wondering what I'd gone upstairs for.
Now forward to this afternoon and I'm waiting to pay for petrol when the cashier, a man of my own age - who also happened to be listening to Tony Blackburn on the chart show, doing a rundown of the chart of this week in 1978, as I had before pulling into the petrol station, looks up and says that  TB had just said Midge Ure was on record as saying that Brian and Michael's Matchstick Men had kept Ultravox's Vienna off the number one slot.
'er no it didn't' I replied: 'it was Joe Dolce with...', and that's as far as I got-because the cashier finished the line for me by adding 'Shaddup You Face', or maybe he was addressing me directly for daring to contradict that colossus of pop, Tony Blackburn.
I checked when I got home, though. Ultravox didn't release Vienna until 1981 and it was Joe who deprived them of the number one slot,  not the cuddly Manchester folkies.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Neanderthal P E Teacher

Just heard my son's PE teacher call him by his surname, 'he always does that' my son replied when I asked if that was usual. The boy doesn't mind, but I do. Brought back unpleasant memories of my own school days, when teachers seemed to regard their pupils as lower life forms. Contrary to all expectations when I left school, I am a teacher myself, but I find respect and cooperation get far better results, and make for more harmonious learning environment then the one I was educated in.
Of course, it would have to be a PE teacher that brought this on; the sweaty trainer brigade never were at the forefront of academic life.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The joy of tumble dryer ownership

A friend complained that there tumble dryer was packing up after only a coup!e of years' use. When asked if she'd checked the filter she replied 'what filter?'. Can you imagine the sheer joy at peeling away all that compacted lint? Simple pleasures, but probably wasted on the filter ignorant....

Work experience?

15 year-old son's high school has declared that next week is work experience week for Year 10 (14-15 year-olds). In his case, this is to consist of visits to three universities. Parents were asked if they could arrange work placements, but only given a week to do so, and subject to the proviso that they were to take place within the LEA area, to cut down on traveling costs for teachers who needed to conduct risk assessments and supervise activities.
Would have thought uni visits were more appropriate to Years 12 and 13. On present showing, by time we reach that stage they'll tell them to stay home and watch day time TV in mornings in preparation for the real student experience.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Co-operative Group - time to show we really care.

In his satirical observation of 70s Northern life and social mores, Peter Tinniswood's Brandon family reflected the decline of traditional working class culture and the aspiration - as voiced by the upwardly-mobile but socially inept wife, Pat, to middle-class values. Most frequently expressed in her urging her hapless, and largely disinterested spouse, Brandon, to be a 'young executive'. Pat embodied much of that generation that would later embrace Thatcherite values of self-interest and later materialistic excess. The demands of the executive class have now 'evolved' into a demand for ever higher pay, without the justification of hard work or measurable success criteria that are accepted or understood by few outside the immediate 'charmed circle' at the top of an organisation. If Carter Brandon ever did climb the greasy pole to become an 'executive', he would now be one of those - like Euan Sutherland - who argue that high salaries and bonuses are justified merely on the basis of job title, without a corresponding increase in corporate value or profitability. News that the Co-operative Group now wants to award Sutherland with a pay and bonus and pension 'package' worth £3.66 million, with similar increases for the rest of the board, means that the final bastion of non-shareholder led endeavour on many of our high streets has now fallen victim to the prevailing, though ultimately illogical, business ideaology that management should be rewarded at levels that are out of all proportion to pay levels endured lower down in the organisation, but justified by remuneration committees on the basis that 'talent' has to be retained - even though there is no evidence of a demand for it elsewhere in the general employment market. Tinniswood's Brandon family books - A Touch of Daniel, Mog, Except You're a Bird and I Didn't Know You Cared were turned into a TV series by the BBC under the title of the final book - I Didn't Know You Cared: when it comes to the Co-op that title could prove to be highly prophetic - Co-op members should care, and show they do, by refusing to countenance the inexplicable rise of the 'executive' in an organisation that has hitherto prided itself on being led by them, not some mystical charmed circle remote from the shopfloor and answerable to the Stock Market, not the membership.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

London property rental prices - good for a laugh

Checked rents charged for residential property in Bloomsbury yesterday on way back from British Museum. Saw a 'studio' flat (one, not very big, room) for £750.00 per week. Laughed all the way to king's Cross. Who has that sort of cash to play with? Certainly not hotel and shop workers or museum staff which seemed to be only employment on offer. Time for a social housing revolution, methinks.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I am the target

Reaching some age milestones are accorded special status, the 40th birthday, the joyous 60 year-old, for example. Hitting the half-century, in my case, has brought me into repeated life assurance advert-related contact with Parky himself, courtesy of Google targeted advertising.
Plebs are supposed to stalk celebs, but Parky -in yet another twist to his long and illustrious career - has gone for stalking the great mass of 50 to 80 year olds that he feels are in desperate need of no frills, no questions asked life cover.
Parky, you were the doyen of chat, king of Saturday night TV, the chat show come back kid - hey, you even reversed boomeranged back to the UK after taking Aus by storm. But please, from one Tyke to another, call off the cyber ad blitz. Otherwise I'll be forced to seek out the emu...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jeremy Paxman's War

Although Paxo gave some good insights into the way WWI affected life on the home front, the overwhelming coverage given to the Western Front gave a rather one-dimensional aspect to the series. He only seemed to mention the Dardanelles briefly and failed to give any coverage to the fighting that took place in Palestine, Mesopotamia and Salonika-Macedonia. It was on this latter front that, arguably, the Central Powers began to fall apart, after first Bulgaria and then Austro-Hungary sued for peace, leaving Germany, in Hindenburg's words to 'wage war alone against the world'. It was also irritating to hear him shoe-horn the phrase 'all in this together' into his commentary in a couple of places. The centenary is far too important for politicians - or those who comment on their activities - to use for their own narrow ends. Don't want Paxo to start a trend that Cameron - with his desire to turn the whole thing into a 'commemoration' - can use for party political tub-thumping in the run up to the 2015 general election.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Bishops are being pastoral again

So, the Anglican bishops chose St Valentine's day to have another go at gays in the church. In what they refer to as a 'pastoral statement' they state that those in same sex marriages can't be ordained and those gay clergy already serving can't enter into same sex marriages. Alright, we know they've got form in this area, but seeing as its now law, wouldn't you have thought the 'established' church (ie the denomination that's headed by the Queen) would accept the law as passed by parliament? Are the bishops so far removed from reality that they believe they can issue a pronouncement from on high that the rest of society will meekly accept?
And they wonder why their pews are getting emptier.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Mind the Gap - Tonight it Starts in Leamington

At times a train manager's lot is not a happy one. Liaquat explained - several times - that the delayed departure of the 17.33 from Birmingham New Street to Oxford was due  to a 'driver shortage'. One was finally rounded up and we left Birmingham at just before six. The first stop was Leamington Spa. It was to be the last stop too. On arrival, Liaquat's best oratorical efforts could not detract from the plan and bitter truth: a complete power failure at Banbury meant everyone had to leave the train.
Somewhat shamefaced, I made my way through the throng of disappointed passengers. I'm here for a work-related meeting and was pre-booked into a rather shabby guest house. The Stucco's fine, but in place of Betjeman's oft-quoted chintzy chintzy cheeriness, I'm faced with grungy grungy carpet-stainedness.
Can't help but think that the delayed Brum departure was down to a premonition that had spread amongst the drivers. South of Leamington on this storm-tossed night, lay danger and peril for the traveler.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Casino, the Church and the Page 3 Model - Northampton Goes to Hell in a Handcart, For a Fee...

The decision by Aspers Casino to project a 30 foot tall image of a page 3 model on the front of All Saints' Church in Northampton has led to a bit of confused thinking by the Diocese of Peterborough. The image was projected without permission being sought and is intended to advertise a St Valentine's Day Strip Poker 'event' (touching, eh?) but the diocesan spokesman's response proved interesting - to say the least. He was "disappointed that Aspers Casino has sought to use a church building for advertising a commercial event without offering payment and without even having the decency to seek permission first". Presumably if they'd paid it would have been OK? What was that about a den of thieves - in Peterborough Diocese it looks like a den of strippers would be allowed in, or more accurately, 'on' the church - but only as long as they paid first. Fetch the cord, start the whipping...

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Without a human care in the world

Defending the Coalition government's decision to remove the clause imposing human rights standards on private care providers from the Care Bill, my local representative of the swivel-eyed loon faction saw this as a victory for cost and complexity reduction.
Ruling out basic standards of human rights for some of the most vulnerable in society, on the ground that it was too complex for the private sector shows just how far the government is prepared to sell its own people short so that it can promote the interest of corporatism. And the patients? Well, my MP felt they were more than adequately protected by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the doughty and fearless regulator regularly shown  up in the media for its inability to spot dehydration or pressure sores in patients, or even signs of physical abuse.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Like Nam - the food, the choppers

More a case of not a Goodnight Saigon last night. After a first - and very favourable - experience of Vietnamese food at Pho at Trinity Centre in Leeds yesterday evening (Ok, but I've only got myself to blame for the bird's eye chili overload - they give you a whole bunch of herbs and fruit to add to the noodle soup...), returned home and went to bed, only to be wakened in the wee smalls by the West Yorkshire law enforcement community's helicopter hovering near my house. In the cold and wet light of today, work, thought, even breathing, seem to involve wading through treacle. Two lessons this afternoon; hope there aren't any flashbacks.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Superfast broadband in Bucharest

Had to call Microsoft for help earlier today. The month-long Word trial on my new laptop had ended and the download of the paid for version wouldn't work. Not even our resident 15-year-old IT wizz could get it to load, so I called the 0800 number and found myself talking to Adrian, who, by the wonders of 'remote-working' sorted the problem and waited with me while my UK-based service provider's broadband took an age to download the correct version. While we waited, I correctly guessed that Adrian's accent was Balkan, then narrowed it down to Romania. This seemed to impress him and he then commented on our respective broadband speeds - 'theirs' is much faster and more reliable than 'ours', apparently. So, taken with emergent xenophobia and UKIP-inspired hostility, efficient and fast broadband provides another reason for 'them' to stay 'there'. 'They' can do 'our' IT jobs from the comfort of home.

School governor shortage - now how could that have happened?

According to the charity Governors for Schools up to one in 10 governor posts remain unfilled, a figure that rises to one in four for schools in rural or deprived areas. As a governor of over 12 years' experience, I can think of a number of reasons for this. The business of governance is time-consuming. Hours spent in committees and sub-committees, talking to teachers and administrative staff, attending courses and conferences, getting ready for Ofsted (and the box ticking and form filling that entails) calls for a high level of dedication. And that's before we consider the plethora of - often contradictory and ill-thought through 'initiatives', policy documents and guidance notes that issue forth from the DfE. Mr Gove's fiefdom has also added to the burden by now choosing to scapegoat governors in underperforming schools; academization (which I'm not sure is even a proper word) beckons for those deemed to have failed. But, then again, he's also on record as stating that many governors are only in it for the kudos. Twelve years in and I've yet to find any, but then again, I'm probably too busy being responsible for child protection and safeguarding and sitting on the finance committee to be that concerned about the honour of being there. Then again, I might just be looking for glory in the wrong place. Making sure my school provides the best possible education for its 420 pupils and makes the most of its 50-odd dedicated teachers, teaching assistants, administrative, catering and caretaking staff - and provides them with a caring and committed place of work that can continue the tradition of education that started in 1869 and has continued unbroken, with a surprising short list of head teachers ever since. That's success - and what makes governorship worthwhile.