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.