Thursday, December 31, 2015

Mytholmroyd and Calder Valley flooding

Spent Wednesday 30 Dec as a volunteer with Calder Valley Flood Support in Mytholmroyd, helping to deliver cleaning gear to flooded homes, packing bedding for a person flooded out of her home who had secured rented accommodation and then helping to clean up at the Dusty Miller pub, which had been badly affected by flooding from the river Calder on Boxing Day. One theme that recurred throughout the day, from conversations with those affected by the flooding - and this was the third bout in a month - and from other volunteers, was the number of uninsured properties in the village. Some people had simply found that no insurer would offer cover for their homes, while others felt that premiums and excesses had been hiked beyond their reach to deter them from even bothering. A prime example were the couple I met who were forced from their small cottage on Burnley Road, the main road running through the village, on Boxing Day night. Their home has one room downstairs and a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor. From their bedroom window, which was then partially under water, they had watched mature trees and other large pieces of debris being swept downstream with such force that they were amazed there had not been loss of life. They are friends of the Dusty Miller's landlord and are currently staying at the pub as the guest accommodation has not been affected. For their small home, the most recent premium quoted was £1,800 per year, with a £5,000 excess. They had not bothered to insure and now, along with a sizeable proportion of other village residents, now face a costly clean up and repair bill. Calder Valley Flood Appeal - please donate now.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Short arms and deep pockets at Christmas

Last act of the day before finishing for the holiday? Checking to see if a very large corporate customer has paid an overdue invoice. The answer is, they haven't (despite an 'assurance' from an accounts wonk that it would be in my account by yesterday). So I'll be starting the new year in full on credit control/small claims threatening mode. Bah humbug. Happy Christmas - 'cheques in the post'

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

e-cards: pressies on planks

Received two business-type e-cards in past couple of days, one from customer, the other from a trade body - both using the image of either presents or holly superimposed on a background of planking. See both as evidence of lazy design that tends to creep in to certain images or products - think back a couple of years and there was a sudden plethora of book covers showing solitary figures in long overcoats standing amidst incomplete/fog-bound city scapes. This became so dominant that spawned a Private Eye feature that still occasionally runs in the Books/Library news section. So, designers, take some time off this Christmas, recharge the old batteries and stop looking over other peoples' shoulders in the studio. And please, no more planks...

Friday, December 18, 2015

Romanian sheepdogs and the rule of law

This story intrigued me. It seems the Romanian Government has passed a law that limits the number of sheepdogs that can work with a shepherd in some places during the hunting season. The law was passed after, what we would call 'lobbying', by hunters, who are concerned that the dogs frighten away bears. That's right, Romanian sheepdogs go after bears. And now the hunters and politicians have decided enough is enough. But the shepherds, and presumably their four-legged friends (dogs, not sheep), aren't happy about it. They're so pissed-off, in fact, that the shepherds flocked (sorry, couldn't resist) to protest outside the Romanian parliament. Now, while the rule of law is absolute - ie law should be upheld and respected everywhere by all - there are times when legislators need to realise there have to be limits to the laws they enact. Taking on a group of canine employees who embody a work ethic that is so developed as to be almost a death wish seems to me to be just one of those limits. Perhaps the Romanian parliament ought to try another tack - how about outlawing the Ursine practice of woodland defecation, see how far that gets them... PS: apparently there are 10 million sheep and 1.5 million goats in Romania, so the dogs are kept pretty busy. PPS: BBC Radio 4 Crossing Continents (or Cross Incontinents) has now taken an interest!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Little Red Chairs - Edna O'Brien

This story sees a 90s Serbian war criminal turned new-age healer (an obvious Karadzic manqué) turning up in a rural Irish backwater. Once established as a massage oil doling sex therapist, he impregnates the wife of a failed draper before the long-arm of an Garda Siochana whisks him off to stand trial in the Hague. Retribution is then visited on Fidelma, the woman he leaves behind by the wagging tongues of her neighbours and the altogether more terrifying hands of her erstwhile lover's former bodyguard. Forced to flee to London, Fidelma is transformed into that Irish every woman who leaves home under a cloud of disapproval or common or garden poverty, who then works in any menial job she can find, becoming strong in the process. O'Brien weaves a tale of violence and male weakness and female empowerment that is compelling and yet strangely tender. Mna na Eirean  have probably never had a more telling or powerful advocate.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The bigot in the changing room

Just had the following conversation at the gym. A stranger asked me if it was still raining. When I said it was, he responded by saying he was 'fed-up with this country' because it's 'crap now, always wet and full of foreigners'. His answer? Emigrate to Cyprus!
I wanted to point out that that would make him a foreigner too, but for some reason words failed me...

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Johny Foreigner and the Spirit of the Blitz (Reversed)

Strange how we are so often told that the Blitz brought out the best in the British, how we refused to be cowed in the face of air attack on these islands, yet our Middle East policy is now - apparently - based on the total opposite. Could it be that Cameron actually believes, as per Mainwaring/Jones, that IS 'don't like it up 'em'? That, contrary to how the Brits took it on the chin from the Luftwaffe, that the assorted nasties ranged against us will crumble at the first rumble of RAF bombing? When Kenny Everett (yes, he was a Tory supporter, don't forget) put on his 'bomb the bastards' personna he was joking. But Cameron/Fallon and crew seem to have missed the punchline and enshrined the principle into foreign and 'defence' policy...

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Art at the Brewery

Spent the afternoon at the Tetley, the art gallery and community space housed in the former Tetley brewery office in Leeds. The brewery was controversially closed by parent company Carlsberg a few years ago but the imposing main office, complete with wainscot panelled boardroom and portraits of late Tetleys, remain surrounded by art installations and community event spaces.
Shame the beer served in the cafe is now brewed in Northampton, as opposed to the traditional, but sadly now demolished brewery that dated from the early nineteenth century that until recently stood next to the office. The smell of malt and hops filled the air for generations of loiners.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The train now standing at Peterborough...

Returning from London by rail the other day, the train slowed noticeably as it neared Peterborough. Pulled by a diesel engine as we were, the speed reduction, we were told, was due to high winds - which reduced the speed of electric engines to 85 mph. As one of these was pulling the train ahead of ours, this was the reason for our own reduced speed. We weren't due to stop at Peterborough, but we soon did. After the guard was asked to contact the driver - never a good sign - an announcement was made, telling us that the unscheduled stop was due to a report that a tree had fallen on the line. The staff member serving drinks in my carriage seemed to wince slightly as he listened to the announcement. After a 20 minute wait, we started moving again. It was only then that he told us the reason for his trepidation: 'last time that happened, I ended up spending the night on the train' he said. Fortunately, the total delay was only an hour this time.

Saturday, November 07, 2015


Tonight I'm readying myself to stand at the war memorial in the morning. I used to go with my grandad, a WWI veteran, and my dad, who fought in WWII. I went with them as a boy because they told me it was important to remember their mates who were wounded and killed. Later, I learned it was also to honour all victims of war. But dad and grandad are gone now, so it can seem lonely, except I go in their memory, sometimes even carry one of their medals so I can remember when we stood together.
It can also feel lonely for other reasons, too. Mainly because I remember when a poppy was a symbol of suffering and loss, not something you felt compelled to wear for the sake of appearances, or to show 'respect' to a far right group that my dad would have raged over.
He was a proud Legion member. And I remember when the Legion didn't go in for a self-appointed guardian role, or or accept sponsorship deals from arms dealers, but existed to look after those who fought, as it did when they helped secure dad's war pension for hearing loss.
So remember tomorrow, remember the lost and maimed, the fatherless and orphaned, the bereaved parents, the widows - from all sides. Yes, that's another lesson I learned from my grandad: there are no 'winners' in a war - no matter what politicians, of all shades, tell you. He knew it for real: on a road leading from Macedonia into Bulgaria at the end of September 1918, he saw the Bulgarian Army surrender:

To us they looked to be either young boys or old men, starving, dressed in rags. They just threw their guns on a pile at the side of the road and shuffled off into the distance.
That was war to him, a cruel waste of life, of people and land. War was fear, suffering and loss - he taught me and I remember. Tomorrow, I will remember.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

On a gold autumn day - Calderdale, not Orangefield (apologies to Van the Man)

Cycled from Brighouse to Sowerby Bridge and back on the Calder Hebble Navigation towpath (that's a canal, for the uninitiated). Anyway, here's some Autumn gold, hope you enjoy as much as I did taking the photographs.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Keeping to the script

Had to buy a new router yesterday, owing to its predecessor packing up without warning. The replacement, a Netgear     AC1600, ticked all the techie boxes, including streaming and gaming. But it resolutely refused to accept my ISP's login settings, so I called Netgear technical support.
After several minutes listening to loud muzak, a female operative answered the phone and proceeded to take my details. After a short while, I was asked if I would like to join Netgear's mailing list (hint to Netgear marketing: technical support calls might not be the most fruitful source of future sales, if the caller can't get their present purchase to work).
I was then taken through an obviously scripted sequence. When this didn't resolve the issue, we went through it twice more. An hour and a half later, the operator admitted defeat and we ended the call with her telling me to contact my ISP and ask them to 'reset the Internet connection and refresh my username and password'. The ISP's tech support dept took some getting through to ('unexpectedly high call volumes'). But eventually a guy traced the problem and the router connected. At this point, I asked about resetting the Internet, only to be told that this was impossible (the request actually reminded me of the IT Crowd episode where Jen 'breaks' the entire Internet by dropping the box that Chris and Moss have told her contains the world wide web as a joke).
The router works, but Netgear tech support didn't help bring this about, and the scripted approach prevented the problem being identified sooner.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Stylish, with small cups and cold showers

Spent the weekend in a 'contemporary hotel' but didn't give much thought to what it meant until I took a shower and then ordered breakfast.
The reception area, corridors and rooms were all clean lines, bold feature walls with contrasting lighter tones. But ''contemporary" has its limits, as I discovered in the shower. This was an old fashioned mixer affair, with the intending showeree trying to gauge flow and temperature from the bath, before turning a third tap to switch the water from bath to showerhead. All of this effort could soon be undone, however, as anyone drawing water elsewhere could either send a stream of scalding water cascading from the shower, or turn the temperature to a level that would be more appreciated by polar bears or penguins.
As I experienced the latter twice during the shower, I went down to breakfast craving hot coffee. But, here again 'contemporary' had its limits. The cups were small and guest seemingly not to be trusted with a cafetiere. Leading to a situation where every sip was followed by a scan of the restaurant, in the hope of securing a refill from a passing and suitably equipped waiter.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Dentist will see you now

Just back from having a filling. The dentist had to get the dental nurse to place a finger on my chin - seems I was showing signs of wanting to 'chew the drill', not, as she helpfully pointed out 'a very good idea'. It must be novocaine that unleashes a reckless streak in and around my jaws. Her predecessor told me off for trying to bite her just after the jab took effect.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Gone for a soldier?

Being in need of some teaching work after the late cancellation of a course, I registered with a number of agencies and, by way of a circuitous cyberspace route, ended up in the clutches of Totaljobs, website dedicated, according to its blurb, to finding us all our 'perfect' job. In my case, this should have been within the, admittedly, fairly narrow confines of Post-16/FE Law teaching or editorial work. However, Totaljobs have other plans for me, because they've taken to sending me several links per day to the Army. And not just any military role, but rather specialised stuff, such as 'mapping', mail courier (thought they'd all be on email now), or a rather more mundane 'warehouse operative' role. Have to wonder, how many of those who follow the link all the way to the recruiting office end up in something altogether more mainstream military, such as infantry? Still, I'll bear it in mind - as long, that is, as the Army are indeed open to discussing career options with a 50-something with blood pressure and a bad back who can't manage Tuesdays due to a prior work commitment...

Saturday, October 10, 2015

An Agent of Casualisation

Casualisation was probably an unintended consequence of the reforms to the Further Education system, or so I like to think. After all, who in their right mind - except perhaps a right-wing idealogue, would want to take an experienced, well-educated, settled workforce and turn it into a fear-obsessed group - always looking over its shoulder for changes to contracts and working practices, fearful of course cuts or amalgamations, wondering if or how they'll have enough hours' teaching next term, next September? I've been forced to look for teaching work after the start of the new academic year - a situation that probably wouldn't have come about even a few years ago, but now - due to cost-cutting - is more common. And this means having to use employment agencies. For a while now, I've become increasingly concerned as to their understanding of the roles they are trying to fill. I teach Law, once a A level popular subject, but now - thanks to the Governments ill-considered A level reforms, one that colleges and sixth forms are becoming increasingly wary of. After all, the only predictor of final outcome, after 2 years' study, is now the student's GCSE grades. A lot can happen between the ages of 16 and 18, and Law is not a widely taken GCSE subject. With little to go on in terms of final grade prediction or target setting, school and college managements seem loath to offer Law, when other courses that have a GCSE equivalent can be taught instead (such as Sociology or Psychology). Enter then the agencies, paid by results, they offer harassed heads of departments the chance - for a fee/commission - to offer courses that have either last minute interest, or been affected by teacher non-availability. So it was that I saw an advert for an A level Law teacher, no hours mentioned, or even duration of contract. My initial application was enthusiastically received and I called the agency yesterday morning with high hopes. But that's when it all went wrong. The named contact explained that he hadn't written the advert himself, and that the school sixth form wanted someone who could teach Law AND Sociology. I was a bit annoyed at this rather important omission and the conversation ended with a half-hearted offer on his part to call the school and see if they would take an experienced Law teacher on an 80% contract that's supposed to run until July 2016. Now the waiting game begins again, although I doubt anything will come of it. Demoralization sets in quickly when agencies get in on the act: they only want result and don't seem that motivated to negotiate on behalf of those that don't fill their criteria - even where they have singularly failed to stated exactly what those criteria are at the outset. After all, a casualised workforce has little or no rights and can't - or wont' - fight back. You have to kiss the (agency) hand you dare not bite these days.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Privy Council

I'm not that bothered whether Jeremy Corbyn kneels, bows or curtsys when he eventually joins the Privy Council (after all, both Cameron and Clegg took their time about getting round to the formalities). The important thing - and a point missed by the media feeding frenzy - is that he does join if only to inject some accountability into its secret and hide-bound operations. You see, the Privy Council, which apparently always has to stand when it meets the Queen (great to live in such a grown-up democracy, isn't it?), has a law-making role. It has power conferred on it by Parliament in a number of acts that allow it to make Orders in Council, usually when Parliament is on one of its many holidays. These Orders, which all the Privy Council articles I've seen over the past few days failed to mention, can have far-reaching consequences (one Act that gives the Council power to make law is the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which - in theory - could allow it to give drastic powers to the police or armed forces in the case of civil unrest or emergency). And for drastic consequences, look no further than the Order in Council that deprived the Chagossian Islanders of the right to live on their traditional island home of Diego Garcia, so that the UK could hand it to the US for a military base. The sooner Jeremy joins the Privy Council the better.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Cameron the Despot

Some recent utterances by the Prime Minister are rather worrying. First, he stated - this time in the context of an ECJ judgment - that he would refuse to follow a court judgment that outlawed the blanket ban on prisoners voting. Although Cameron has form in this - he's already refused to accept an ECtHR decision on the same subject. Second, we have his shiny-faced rant to the Tory faithful against the danger posed by Jeremy Corbyn. In a highly selective quote, with intentional twist in meaning, he repeated the lie that Corbyn said Bin-Laden's death was a 'tragedy', when in reality (always an unwelcome guest at Tory conferences), Corbyn actually felt that the tragedy was that Bin-Laden was not tried for his crimes. So, we have a Prime Minister that sets the dangerous precedent for those who want to ignore court judgments they don't like and who feels that 'extra-judicial' killing is preferable to the long-winded and excessively expensive, but time-honoured (and Magna Carta ordained) right to a free and fair trial (also found in the European Convention on Human Rights 1950 Art.6, Mr C - if you're interested). But then again, judging from the baying horde in the conference hall, probably not.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Oik or Oinky, it's grim up North, Dave

I look forward to Conservative Party conferences - being in government (in office, at least) they get to go last. Labour had a spectacularly good week down on the South Coast. But now Dave's Tory gang face a rather different prospect in Manchester - centre-piece of their much-vaunted Northern Powerhouse, lest we forget. Not only has their venture north led to a large part of the city centre being placed under something resembling a US-style 'lock-down', but delegates have reportedly been told to hide their conference passes while traversing the mean streets on their way to and from the Party jamboree. All this just four short months since Dave's less-than-overwhelming 12 seat majority general election 'victory'. If they're scared of the proles now, what are they going to be like in a few years' time?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Permanent parliament guaranteed: Dave's whopper of a lie to Scotland

I want to let you into a secret: Parliament cannot make a law that will last forever. In legal terms 'parliament cannot bind its successors' - which means that the next parliament can abolish everything its predecessor did and no-one can do a damn thing to stop it. All of which means that David Cameron's 'promise' to make it 'crystal clear' that the Scottish Parliament will be a forever thing might just as well be 'written in water' for all the good it will do. Politicians like promises, and Dave knows he hasn't delivered on the post-devolution referendum package that he, Clegg and Miliband made in the wake of last September's 'Yes' vote. But politicians also break promises - in the case of Cameron's Conservatives that list is long, and likely to get a lot longer. But his constitutional falsehoods need to be carefully considered: a promise or a guarantee to make an unchangeable law (entrenched law, as the lawyers call it) is simply beyond him. Countries with real, written constitutions make that sort of law - and the entrenched stuff can only be changed if the legislature (parliament and a a pre-determined majority of the electorate agree: that's real constitutionally entrenched law, Dave. And you and I both know that's the last thing your party would allow, because then the people really would be able to tell the politicians what to do.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A casual victim

I've been teaching Law in FE colleges and sixth forms forms for the past decade. Not any more. Despite good exam results (now the gold standard by which all teachers are ultimately judged), good student (sorry, learner) approval ratings - backed up by performance management appraisals and lesson observations, I found myself without a class to teach just 2 days into the new academic year. It was against this backdrop of newly enforced idleness - I was a 'freelance teacher': no contract, no guaranteed hours, but expectation of managing my own 'continuous professional development' and qualifications - that I read Jo Johnson's comments about 'lamentable teaching' standards in Higher Education. This Johnson is supposed to be capable of joined-up thinking that at least meets the standards of modern society, as opposed to bro BoJo who wants us to live in a classicists dreamworld, but the end result is the same - a fundamental disconnect and wilful refusal to accept the truth. Which is simply this: good teaching can only come from a well-trained, well-equipped and properly resourced professional teaching body. It can't be conjoured from thin air when teachers are forced to rely on temporary, or even no, contracts, and where there is no continuity of employment. When you are continually looking over your shoulder, wondering if the agency has found you enough work, at a high enough pay rate, then you cannot perform your duties to a high standard; and without the limited guarantee of of work from one week to the next you have no incentive to do more than the basic minimal level of work (Ofsted and PM obsessed line managers notwithstanding). And that, Mr Johnson, concludes your lesson in teaching reality for today, now write a 500 word essay on why casualisation is undermining the UK's vital FE and HE sectors.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Primal scream therapy for middle managers

“Frankly, I just can’t understand how you can still see things like this. We organise team building and personal development sessions to help you plan your career development and you go and behave like this.” Yes, Giles, I know, what an ungrateful wretch I am. How I’d love to take that propelling pencil next to your fancy executive toy and push it into your right ear. I’d do it hard enough to come out of the left and wheel you over to the window and push you out. Three floors to the car park. How would that develop your career? Tosser. “Pete, look. Let’s put it behind us. The overhead projector can be written off and I’ll make sure this little chat comes off your record in three months. Just try to play a fuller part in what I’m trying to do here.” Thank you, sir, can I go now. Smirking arse, Jim Porter, loitering outside Giles’ office. Prat. “Hope you had plenty of paper down the trousers. How was he?” “Talking bollocks, Jim, same as always.” “What did he say about the OHP?” “He’ll get it written off, apparently.” “Wouldn’t have minded, but you couldn’t see it was an arse anyway.” “Sod off – the glass splinters went a bit too close to the trademan’s and the family jewels for my liking.” I’ve been working at Milen for six years. Last two in the Blue Marketing Team, reporting to Giles Southwick, team leader and purveyor of crap to the young, gullible and deluded. To Giles, every new fad put out by HR or some overpaid consultant is the very thing we need to develop our careers or stimulate team working. He manages to sell a new suit of clothes to the directors – our corporate emperors – every couple of months; I wouldn’t mind if we sold as well as we bonded, but with Giles, there’s always another course or session that will sourt out our problems, all to do with motivation. Yeah, motivate me by my bank balance, not by making me listen to some latter day snake oil seller telling me my breather is the barrier to better selling, or that improving my arse-wiping technique will improve the share price. Back at my desk, I managed the grand total of two calls before another piece of electronic crap arrived: “Teams, As you know, the next phase of our improved targeting drive is due to be rolled out across group next month. To inspire interest beyond this section, we’re going to have a competition to decide on the name of the drive: something that will identify our ownership but also galvinise support in other departments. Answers in by Friday – I know you’ll rise to the challenge. Giles Southwick BA, MBA Marketing Teams Co-ordinator” Giles likes everyone to know he’s been to uni, twice. Bet he joined all the societies but still never managed to get a shag. “Hi, Pete, got a minute?” The lovely Julie. “Course, what’s up?” “The boy wonder’s just asked me if I want to gon on a time management course. Bloody nerve, I’ve got that much on my plate as it is – without being expected to swan off to Sheffield for two days. Then again, saying ‘no’ looks bad. What do you think?” “I think – as always – that it’s a waste of time. But I see your point: don’t want to upset him. Just don’t site on any overhead projectors while you’re away.” She needs time management training like a hole in the head. Julie has three kids and a husband in a wheelchair; juggling that lot – and a full time job – puts her streets ahead of the boy blunder. The rest of the day passed in the usual whirl of calls, faxes and emails, but at the end I still couldn’t work out what, if anything, I’d actually done. In the circumstances, I felt compelled to take my dark mood and indecision to the pub. Working in a dreary out of town office development at least means you get to travel against the flow at home time, as long as you leave it late enough to miss the first mad rush. That night I had a painless commute to the Barge and the third pint was wending its merry way down when I had a real blast from the past. In walked Neil Ferguson: naughty boy of these parts, former school mate and all round sight for sore eyes. A couple of drinks alter and we’re right up to speed. Neil’s just back from a spell at Her Majesty’s for deceptively removing a sum of cash from a gullible former business associate and I’m pouring out my hatred of Giles; lack of money; lack of woman; lack of everything, really. “You know what you need, Dex, old boy?” “No, what?” “An amusing diversion, a trick – of the confidence variety.” “Great, so I can add criminal record to my list of gripes?” “Nothing illegal – well, not so you’d notice. More like a ploy to catch the gullible. How does primal scream therapy grab you?” “Now, I get enough crap at work without you coming over all life-affirming on me. Is this what you get up to inside; screaming at the taxpayers’ expense? The bloody Mail’d have a ball with that one, I can picture the headline.” “No, it’s just an idea. Give your boss something to think about.” “How would you do it?” “Simple, just dangle it in front of him and see if he bites. I’m at a loose end, and catching a daft punter is all in a day’s work for me. Look at it this way, if he bites, he really goes on to hook himself, if he smells a rat, he walks and I’m out of there. Nothing new for me, it’s just a spot of practical continuous professional development, if you like.” Have to confess, the rest of the night was a bit of a blur, but I seem to remember a curry and a taxi; woke up feeling ghastly, but got into work without much bother. I didn’t hear from Neil for a couple of weeks. Naturally, I thought it had just been the beer talking. Then my ‘phone rang. “Dex. Has your boss told you all about his new training brochure yet?” No, look, I can’t talk here, what’s going on, Neil?” “Amazing the stuff you can get printed off the internet. Makes life much easier for bad boys like me.” We had a Blue Team meeting the following day. As usual, ‘continuous professional development’ was down as an agenda item, but just before we got to it, Giles passed round a glossy number from something called the “Empower Consultancy.” These meetings run over a lunchtime. I used to feel robbed of my break, but there’s sod all to do round here – and the food’s free – so now I look at them as a free feed, with the chance of a laugh at Giles thrown in.” Giles was very concerned by my coughing fit. He wondered if I’d swallowed a whole pea from one of the samoses. In reality, my ability to process food had been overcome by the sight of Empower Constultancy’s Lars Pedersen, who looked more than a little like Neil Ferguson in a ginger wig and naff beard set, on the back of the brochure, urging readers to “use scream therapy to readmit the primal energies of ‘fight or flight’ into modern-day marketing strategy and decision-making.” I’d just about recovered by breath when Giles said: “I know some in the team can be, how shall I put it, rather dismissive about my training and development ideas, but I think – mentioning no names, Mr Dexter – that the more resilient, laddish elements could find something in this on.” Giles went on: “Read what this Pedersen guy has to say about PST – that’s primal scream therapy – I think even the cynics will be impressed. He reports great results and I’ve checked out the Empower website, it’s amazing to see the companies they’ve worked with. It’s not all about sitting in a room full of people just bellowing your lungs out; just as well for you Pete, really, after the samosa encounter. For the first couple of sessions they work one-to-one. I’ve got funding for up to four of us to have two sessions: it’s first come, first served and I’ve bagged the first, so I’d get in quick if you’re interested. You never know where these new initiatives might take you.” I have a damn good idea, Giles, a damn good idea. Neil called me at work a couple of days later: “Dex, Fancy a drink tonight? See you in the Barge around seven?” “Are we going to scream at each other?” “Not a bit of it. Just wanted to let you know how we’re getting on with your boss?” “Can’t talk about it now. See you later.” I wanted to know exactly what Neil had planned, and whether he was going to limit himself to humiliation to graduate onto theft. “Just wanted to have a bit of fun with him”, Neil said as we settled ourselves at a table opposite the bar: “You were right about Giles, he really believes in the professional development bollocks. I’m just teasing him along at the moment. You tell him what you’re selling and hint that he can’t have it – not yet, anyway. You see, I think he needs some one-on-one sessions with Lars. That way, he’ll really get into the whole scream therapy thing.” “Have you met him yet?” “Nope. We’re having a meeting in his office on Friday afternoon. The con artist in me can’t wait to bait the hook. Don’t worry, I’m not into anything criminal, just keeping myself sharp. Something Giles would approve of.” I wasn’t so sure that coming to Milen during office hours during office hours was such a good idea, the place had security and closed-circuit TV cameras, but Neil wouldn’t be put off. He wanted to try his Lars persona out on Giles and couldn’t wait for a face-to-face encounter with his mark. Friday took an age in coming. I’ve never known a week take so long: holidays fly; boring weeks drag; but this one seemed to last a century. Finally, 2.30 found me loitering in the corridor a few doors from Giles’ office. There’s this little alcove with an unreliable photocopier in it, we only usually use it if the main one’s busy or broken, but today I decided it was ideal to copy a couple of files. I thought it look efficient, but Neil told me afterwards that I was so obviously snooping that I nearly put him off His entrance was just right, ginger wig and dodgy van dyke notwithstanding. Well dressed in blazer, grey trousers and those wanky loafers Americans wear. I could tell Giles was positively salivating at the prospect of ingratiating himself with this demigod of psychobabble. I’d expected Neil to do Lars as a Scandinavian, the name was sort of a giveaway, or so I thought; it was a surprise, however, to hear him talking softly and coming over very self-assured, in something I later discovered was Neil’s best Californian “just flown over the pond with the latest in wuff, teat argleblaft”: we’ve paid thousands to hear this, sitting on plush velour upholstered chairs with gilt metal frames, all lined up on badly air conditioned hotels and conference centres. And here was Neil, the respectable face of con, oozing “you too can be like me” faux charm into Giles’ ever so receptive shell-like. We’d arranged to meet at nine for a balti, but Neil left me hanging round for nearly three-quarters of an hour. “Where the hell have you been?” “Over at Giles’ place. Arsy little apartment thing in a tarted up mill. Supposed to be a ‘waterfront’ development; actually looks out over a weed infested bit of canal” “Yeah, heard he’d moved into a new place, never been invited myself.” “Right, let’s get some beers in and I’ll tell you about our little screamer.” Beer, poppadoms and bhajis followed as Neil told me about the meeting. Giles was absolutely suckered from the off. Neil sold him scream therapy as a way of releasing primal urges of fight and flight when faced with a threat. Only by learning to ball your brains out the Pedersen way, could you harness this latent power as a force in the commercial world. Transfer the primal urge to survive from Neolithic man to marketing and you unleash a potent force that increases sales potential. More beer, a chicken jalfrezi and prawn dopiaza, with naans the size of single duvets, accompanied Neil’s vivid description of Giles bursting to have his first session: “But I told him, you can’t rush this. I’m out of the country until the end of next week. It came to me from nowhere, and do you know, that gullible prat was almost begging to come with me! I swear, your boss is the easiest mark I’ve ever come across. It’s a good job he hasn’t got any money – I’d leave him naked in the street, smiling from ear to ear and thanking me for showing him the error of his ways!” “By the end of next week, he’ll be impossible to work with. What are you going to do with him then?” “Rent some office space for a couple of hours and let him start screaming. I’ve told him he’s got to be committed 110% before we can start work with his team. That’s when I got him to name you as one of the main doubters, one of those who scoff at change; even made him explain what scoff meant – it’s fun being American. He’s got a real thing about you – why didn’t you tell me about breaking his OHP?” “He told you about that? We were on a team-building thing; roll play and adventure training at some place in the wilds of Wensleydale. Saturday evening saw some drink taken, and I decided, so I was told afterwards, that the best way to round off the evening was try and project my arse onto the outside of a barn door; sod all else to do, what do you expect?” “What happened, apart from splinters near the sphincter?” “Five or six cans and a couple of whiskies made me underestimate my weight, probably thought I could levitate by then. Anyway, I came crashing down, the glass broke, bulb exploded; Shit for Brains came running out as we hightailed it round the back of the barn. Sunday morning; major sulk from Giles and full-on bollocking on Monday. Same day I met up with you in the Barge.” “Admire the risk-taking but it wouldn’t have worked anyway, OHPs don’t work in 3D images. Eat up. More beer? Well, we’re going to build up the one-to-one screaming until I’m, sorry Lars, is convinced that Giles is fully committed to the project – then I’m coming into Milen to video him in action. He’s going to get so much patter from me, he’ll burst his lungs to order.” As I made my way home, Neil’s excitement was beginning to wear off. What the hell were we doing? Giles was certainly gullible, more than a little stupid and drove me crazy, but this was shaping up to be the ultimate in humiliation, and how would he react if he realised it was all just a conman’s training exercise? Apart from a couple of text messages updating me on Giles’ progress, Neil didn’t get in touch until a week the following Thursday. It was all on for Saturday. He wanted me to give him a description of meeting rooms at Milen. We settled for the second floor boardroom. This was a long narrow affair with a balcony that split down the middle with a dividing partition that could be used for round table meetings or opened up as a large space for bigger seminars. Neil wanted it divided, he was going to video Giles in action – and I could watch the proceedings by forcing a small gap down the centre of the partition. This sounded crazy to me: I had no reason to be in the office on a Saturday and couldn’t see why Neil wanted me there. He brushed off my arguments, brusquely reminding me that he was doing me a favour and that he wanted me to see the effect of all his hard work. I got to the office just after 7.30 in the morning of the following Saturday. I told the security guard that I had some figures to sort out for a meeting on Monday, then made myself scarce, reading some advertising and marketing websites until I got a text from Neil to say he was in the boardroom. I felt like someone in a spy film, making my way up to the second floor. I peered into every office I passed on my way to the boardroom but there was no sign of anyone. I could hear Neil next door as I settled down to watch through the gap in the divider. With my left eye pressed hard up against the partition, I could see the video camera mounted on a tripod, pointing to a large swivel chair about three metres from the balcony window. Giles came in, he was wearing designer sports gear: jogging pants and trainers that had never seen a gym, expensive-looking T-shirt with a designer top over his shoulders. He looked nervous as he sat in the swivel chair. “Why do we need this?” Giles asked, gesturing towards the camera. “Simple”, drawled Neil; “it’s to give you all round vision. Look, think yourself into the part. This is your territory, when you feel threatened here, it heightens the ‘fight or flight’ response. In a few moments you’ll be tracking round and round in that chair, living the heightened response to primal fear. Only by seeing you – and you’re good, believe me – will your team buy into this project. I mean it, even the uptight Brit types – you know, Dexter, the guy you told me about with the OHP? Even he, I guarantee it, he’ll be right here with you on this one.” I noticed Giles tense momentarily when Neil mentioned my name, but he pushed himself back into the chair and waited for Neil to take over. “OK, Giles. Let’s try a few warm ups. Just loose shouts, if you like.” Giles emitted a small yelp, followed by a short growl. I hadn’t realised quite how ridiculous this would look. Standing there, with my face pressed up to the break in the divider, I was forcing myself not to laugh. Then Neil walked quickly across the room and smacked Giles full across the face. “No scream, you little shit, scream long and loud – go on!” At this, Giles looked up at Neil with absolute terror in his eyes and let go with an ear-splitting shriek. This first scream was followed by another, then another, building in intensity before he let out a long bellow that seemed to make the partition vibrate. As the noise died away, I was aware that the screaming had evoked a sense of fear in me. I wanted a piss and didn’t know if it was a response to Giles; like I was feeling ‘fight or flight’, or just the effect of standing in one place feeling nervous as hell. I was concentrating on my bladder so hard that it took me a while to take in what Neil was saying to Giles from behind the video camera, which I now saw had been positioned so that the Milen logo would be in shot, just above Giles’ left shoulder. “Good, good, now remember what I said about defecation: ‘fight or flight’ can make you want to open your bowels, perfectly natural response to extreme stress. It’s a primal reaction. Some folks just let it go – some even smear the spoor on their faces – kind of masks their own scent. Just seems to be instinctive, natural response, I guess.” The faint American accent, used with Neil’s quiet intensity, made this seem so plausible. I couldn’t begin to wonder what effect it would have on a suggestible character like Giles. “Can I go again, now?” Giles asked “Ready when you are, it’s going really well”, replied Neil. Again, Giles let out a scream followed by two more, building again in volume and intensity. I was so taken by the performance that I only realised the door to my part of the divided room was being opened from the outside. I don’t know how the hell I managed it, but I somehow transferred myself from being pressed against the divider to the underside of the meeting room table in about half a millisecond. Wedged between the table leg and two chairs, I could just make out the black Oxfords and perpetually grey-suited legs of John Pateman, Milen’s Finance Director. Pateman. Who else but a highly paid money junkie would be in the office at this time on a Saturday, dressed in his habitual grey suit. I knew his sartorial tastes of old. For six months I’d had an affair with his PA – the lovely Melanie of blessed memory, who confirmed the general sentiment that her boss preferred numbers to people and didn’t care much for workplace niceties. Just what he’d make of events on the other side of the partition was anyone’s guess. As the screams lessened, Pateman seemed to hesitate for a second. Watching his feet, he seemed to half turn, as if about to leave the room. I was so keenly aware of my senses of sight and hearing that the smell took a while to permeate, either that or I was shielded from it by the table. Whatever the reason, Pateman turned again and was now looking straight ahead down the room as he audibly sniffed the air. His sniff alerted me to the unmistakable stench of shit now wafting freely throughout the room. I knew Giles was gullible, but I hadn’t realised just how suggestible he could be if put under enough pressure. Neil had actually convinced him to shit himself to order. All I could think about at that moment was back in high school, when we were forced to play football on Wednesday afternoons. Our team captain, a drooling soccer nut called McPhee, had an annoying phrase he used to shout: “I’m in charge, do as I say; if I say ‘shit’, you ask for the shovel.” It didn’t make much sense back then, and he must have taken it from a film he’d seen – certainly he didn’t have the imagination or intelligence to come up with it himself, but now it struck me as the funniest thing in the world. I wanted to shout it to Neil next door. Fortunately, I was brought to what remained of my senses by the noise of Pateman slamming the door as he quickly left the room. The slam caused commotion next door. There was a heavy thud as Giles pushed the swivel chair over and ran out of the room, knocking over the tripod as he went. Giles barged into Pateman as he shot out of the room. I heard a faint scuffling as they collided in the corridor before Pateman shouted: “What the fuck are you doing, Southwell? What’s that smell? Is that shit on your face?” I went into work early on the Monday morning and at 9.15 I emailed a youtube video link to the blue, orange and yellow marketing teams from my mobile. At 10.00, Giles left Milen carrying two large black bin liners. Jim thought he was walked all the way to his car by a security guard. Strange, they usually just see you out of the back door and leave you to it. Adjustment, that’s what Giles called it, or sometimes it was “being freed up to pursue other opportunities”. Relief, however, proved to be short lived. At 10.30, an email came through from (in)Human Resources: “Giles Southwick has ceased to be employed at Milen with immediate effect. In order to ameliorate any detrimental effects in the marketing teams that formerly reported to him, a team building exercise will be held soon, date and venue to be notified in due course.” Arghghghghggh. More from the same author:

Friday, September 04, 2015

The joys of the flexible labour market

Flexibility. That's the key to a diverse economy, or so the free-market, no-regulation employers like us to believe. Well, in another first for me (after 38 years' work), today I find myself without a major source of employment. In my case, the need to remain flexible meant that my earnings were whittled away to such a point that it was no longer worth my while going to the office. But the client/employer (call them what you will - I've got a few names in play at the moment...) was still ready to whittle away a while longer than I was. Now, how long will it take me to fill the gap? And how long before I really lose it with the next smoothy chops Tory waste of space who tells me that 'work pays' or that the economy is looking up?

The long wait for the Labour ballot

Apparently, the Labour Party are going to start chivying along the more laid back of its members and supporters if they haven't voted by next Tuesday. Chance would be a fine thing in my case. I'm still waiting for the ballot email. All the 'help' desk minions can suggest is to make sure it's not in my spam folder - which it isn't. Anyone would think they've decided not to sent it out to me...

Friday, August 28, 2015

E-chuggered by Mencap

Early morning email from Mencap, with exciting news and fundraising pleas. Apparently, I received this because I'd given consent to being contacted by them. Except I haven't. Also, although the e-mail, right at the end, states I can 'unsubscribe', there was no link allowing me to do so.
Now, I know that Mencap does vitally important work, but this kind of unsolicited e-begging (as with postal pestering and on street chuggering) seriously reduces the good name of many charities. Yes, I know times are hard financially, and that their are a lot of causes competing for money. But it starts to feel rather underhand when appeals masquerade as news, surveys or questionnaires, or when charities buy in the names and addresses of the provenly pesterable, based presumably on prior giving to comparable causes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hipsters and trolleys

When I was a kid, my mum had a 'shopper on wheels' - a fabric-covered bag with wire support that was mounted on a hand-wheeled trolley. I was surprised to see they're back again - a 'must-have' accessory for the hipster market. On leaving King's Cross the other day, I turned right up Euston Road only to find my way blocked by a herd of hipsters, already slow moving due to the overly tight trousers - a quick spurt of speed risks emasculation - but now further encumbered by the latest cool piece of impedimenta, a re-invented shopper on wheels for the 21st century! Hipsters fascinate me. It seems their sense of credulity increases with the length of facial hair. Out goes commons sense (and a sense of humour: remember the Channel 4 cereal cafe interview? And in comes, well, anything... I think I'll try an experiment next time I'm in London. Stick on the largest theatrical WC Grace lookalike beard I can find, wear the tightest strides I can manage and galumph around on the Euston Road in a pair of clown shoes. What's the betting I'd soon be joined by a herd of hipsters strapping oversized shoes on to their feet in the rush to join the latest trend?

Diane and Diana – the hunt for permanence

Diana the Huntress scatters stars around her feet. Her career’s on the up now she’s taken on moon-related matters from Luna, who’s out on the street. Diane in the phone shop has stars on her feet. Seven blue-outlined planets run a linear course down the top of her right foot. Being a goddess adds permanence to memory; but being in the shop is only transitory. Ink beneath the dermis is all the permanence there is to the lives of we mortals, as we know when we pass the tattooists imposing portals. Diana, on entering the shop with a view to improving communications, notices the name-badge and the stars. At a computer that she makes spare with a wave of her arm, she outlines her needs to Diane. Four gig’s enough for her purposes. A deities commands are short, and she sees no need to talk to mortals when she’s on the chase – though Skype might be useful if she wants to apparate in virtual reality, just to bring a point home, so to speak. Diane is impressed by her near-namesake’s grasp of technology. But the credit check proves a problem. ‘Who’s Artemis?’ she asks, when the fog clears on the screen. ‘Dunno’ replies Diana: ‘it’s all Greek to me’ ‘But she seems to be you’, Diane replies, ‘nice temple, though – but there’s some sort of mammarial profusion going on with the graven imagery’. ‘Don’t worry about that’ the goddess replies: ‘the mortals get carried away with statuary. For us, it’s about power and glory, just give me the handset and port my number; I’m away to an orgy in Bessarabia tonight, and I want to make sure the band don’t get lost, or they’ll be hell to pay with the satyrs’ ‘Take me with you’ pleads Diane, ‘I’ve had it with credit checks and commission, the endless updates and new releases. Dealing with needy nerds and smartphone junkies is doing my head in. You must need a handmade or someone to brush your hounds? I want to bath in moonlight and cavort with nymphs. Please say you will!’ ‘Alright, but the job specification can be a bit confusing, with hunting, moon management and animal welfare, I suppose you could say it's a "circle of life" kind of thing - I hear you've got a song about it down here'. 'We have' Diane replied, 'but I couldn't afford the ticket to see the show'. 'Don't worry' said the deity, 'there's no charge to see my performance, it's written across the starry firmament. But remember, about the other staff, the nymphs can get uppity, and the satyrs throw tantrums at the slightest thing. You’ll need to watch your Ps and Qs, but as long as you’re OK with the incense and not too prudish about the stuff in the arena, I think you’ll fit in just fine. Hold on to my robe, and we’ll be away in a starry cloud of glory’. And with a rushing of wind and a temporary dimming of the earthly light, Diane and Diana swept from the store, leaving Russ – the manager – wondering how he was going to report this to head office. The seven stars on Diane’s feet peeled away to join the rest of Diana’s celestial train as it sped across the heavens. She had no need for inked permanence now that she’s joined the goddess’s personal retinue.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Oh, what a Chief Executive!

Fans of Americanisation (no zee, please note) look away now. A couple of years ago, business bosses started adding 'officer' to titles, sometimes accompanied by 'chief' to keep it company. For example, a Chief Executive became a Chief Executive Officer, or merely a 'CEO'. The boring number-cruncher became a 'Chief Financial Officer', as opposed to the more traditional Accountant or Financial Director. And we've not reached a point where even academies have CEO's (some of whom 'earn more than the Prime Minister' - the new all-purpose measure of wealth, rather like 'the size of Wales' is used for geographic area). As with Oreos (which are, after all, merely expensive proof that Americans have finally learned how to dunk biscuits), Disney Land, Coca Cola (and Pepsi), mucky Donalds (I'm seriously not loving it), the Munroe doctrine and pre-emptive self-defence (no 's'), what starts out as an anodyne impulse on the other side of the Atlantic becomes an insidious creeping 'must have' that the rest of the world accepts blindly without thinking of the consequences (unnaturally bright dental work, obesity and devastating military interventions). The US, being the largest Superpower, but a relatively young nation still at heart, likes to see itself as the originator of new descriptions for things the rest of the world has taken for granted for years (a kind of over-bearing master of the bleeding obvious, with a sickly sweet grin and pom-poms). Then, as with the crowd who fell for the Emperor's New Clothes routine, previously sane and rational people rush to ape the new as it spreads like a wind-borne spore from its American heartland. But Americans are not immune to the dangers of this; there is a growing tendency, as evidenced by a growing rejection of 'pushing the envelope', 'thinking outside the box' in CVs to turn against their last best idea (remember 'have a nice day y'all'?). However, this can often come with a sense of incredulity at the strength of the backlash, a time slip in cognitive dissonance, whereby the previous common place is violently overthrown, sometimes accompanied by a public recanting of surprising vehemence, like a teenager throwing out last month's superband poster. Here's hoping they learn to ditch the utterly superfluous 'officer' soon. I can take the public recanting of the otiose or facile - if we must have Chief Execs (though I haven't a clue what they do, aside from pocketing salaries many times removed from the amounts doled out to those who actually do the work) let's keep their titles within the realms of the strictly necessary: British understatement takes back the boardroom and the annual report and accounting statements.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Ted Heath failed grandma's marmalade test

Historical allegations of wrongdoing aside, Ted Heath always struck me as rather an oddity when I was growing up. For a start, he was a Tory. Second, he did that weird heaving shoulders thing when he laughed. Third, he wouldn't let us have any money for a new school - our's had outside boys' toilets. Fourth, he was a Tory (already done that, but they weren't popular round our way, so it goes down twice. Fifth, and most serious, he annoyed by grandma. Having fallen foul of the decimalisation deadline for half-crowns, which meant that she was left with a bag of very heavy metal cribbage counters, she was naturally cautious about the change to decimal currency. As it turned out, her fears were well-founded. Every Friday, she carried out a weekly shop at the local mini-supermarket Buywise. For reasons known only to her, the main focus of concern was the price of marmalade. Pre-decimalisation, the price had been 9d a jar. The conversion table we were supplied with, courtesy of Mr Heath's Government, which foisted the change on a largely unwilling population, showed that this would be 3.75 new pence, rounded up to 4 new pence. But the shop added a gravity defying 1 pence to the price in the weeks immediately following the change, taking the price of a jar to the equivalent of a shilling - 5 new pence. And this, we were told, ran completely contrary to Mr Heath's promise that consumers would not be out of pocket by the change. Marmalade, unlike the Prime Minister, didn't like. And if anymore proof was required, we only had to think back to his election slogan, in which he solemnly promised to 'cut prices at a stroke' if elected. He was, and they weren't, carrying on instead an inexorable rise that led to a failed prices and incomes policy, strikes, power blackouts and a three-day week. Sadly, Heath wasn't the first, or last, politician to make unsustainable promises that we were expected to believe just because they spoke with a plummy voice. Music and yachting might have lifted Heath above the run-of-the-mill hectoring politician, but his string of broken promises, as evidenced by the incontrovertible evidence of the marmalade test, were enough to damn him in our eyes before he lost the '74 election and the eventual leadership of his party to the over-wheening ambition of his former Education Secretary, Margaret Hilda Thatcher. And she couldn't have cared less about how much we were expected to pay for preserves.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Hammond - another grotesque in a cabinet of nasties

Last week we had 'floods' and 'swarms', now Hammond opts for marauding. When will the Tories stop pandering to the ravings of Murdoch, Desmond, Dacre  et al and show real political leadership? And that means cease the scapegoating and threats of inhumane  treatment, rather acknowledge that the West caused much of the unrest that has led to the refugee crisis and start to alleviate the suffering.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Simon Armitage Walking Away from a hernia

I really enjoy Simon Armitage's prose works - especially All Points North, Gig and Walking Home. In this latter work, he tackles the Pennine Way, but walks from north to south, so that he will arrive at his home in Marsden, West Yorkshire. The route is a dream achievement to many walkers; most, like me, probably won't even attempt more than a few sections, so Armitage's valiant walk, accompanied by his wandering troubadour act of nightly performances, is a saga of suitably epic proportions. Now, he's back, but this time in Walking Away, as serialised, and ready by the man himself on Radio 4's book of the week, he walks the northern part of the South West Coast Path and then leaves the mainland to carry out as wandering troubadour in the Scillies. Unlike the Pennine Way, I have walked several sections of the SWCP, most recently just over a week ago in south Devon's glorious South Hams, and can well picture the route as it winds is way up and down steep combes, where maximum effort is expended for often just a few short miles as the gull flies. But there's one thing that jarred with me, and that is where Simon mentions that strength of effort was enough to give him a hiatus hernia. Sorry, Simon, but I think you've confused with with a common-or-garden rupture (beloved of music hall acts, who could then go on to cause hilarity by using the word 'truss'). Strenuous effort won't give you a hiatus hernia, but your parents probably could. This is generally regarded as an hereditary condition (I got mine from my dad's side: thanks folks!) and the leakage of stomach acid through a tear in the oesophageal lining has given me years of acid reflux, now managed by a proton pump inhibitor (a drug, not something you fit on your bike), which reduces the amount of acid produced by the stomach, thereby reducing the painful symptoms - but it's still best to avoid pastry (for a northerner this means not eating pies...). My granddad had both (how lucky can one guy get?): a hernia due to a fall down some steep cellar steps while carrying a shop window shutter as a 14-year-old barber's apprentice, and a hiatus courtesy of his genes.
Hernia confusion aside, I really enjoyed Walking Away - a great description of a wonderful walk and the adventures of a northern troubadour amongst those rolling - if sometimes vertiginous southern hills.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Ofsted ignore my outstanding features

Just been informed that my application to carry out freelance work for Ofsted didn't come up to snuff. Apparently, they received a lot of applicants, which they ranked according to their published criteria.
All guff, so far, as per usual. The application process struck me as rather superficial at the time, based as it was on a short Survey Monkey questionnaire. The questions were not those you'd generally use to assess editorial competency or experience. For example, while they wanted to know how many days per week I was available, no-where was I asked for a list of recent titles or names of my referees. And the curt series of questions didn't allow me to establish that I have over 35 years' experience.
Still, 'rational thought' and 'Ofsted' aren't often seen together in the same sentence. Being awarded the bum's rush on this occasion does not, according to my informant, preclude me from applying again in future. But if Ofsted persists in using something as shallow as Survey Monkey, which is designed more for cheap and cheerful, self-generated opinion polls (the folks in my wife's office use it to decide where to go for lunch), I might just save time and effort and preclude myself.

A short discourse on the passing of time

Spent Saturday evening at a surprise party. Usually, I view these things with a mix of disdain and trepidation; after all, shouting 'surprise' at someone on or near to a birthday or other life event can be a shock to the system that could elicit a true, or perhaps less than guarded response that neither the recipient or those doing the surprising bargained for. But Saturday was different. Different because I hadn't seen the recipient (can't think of a better description - victim doesn't seem right, and birthday girl wouldn't ring true at our age). We'd been at school together and also been members, later leaders, in a youth organisation, but I hadn't seen her for over 30 years. My decision to attend was based on an open invitation from the recipient's daughter, who explained that her mum was suffering from a long-term illness and had experienced a bad time over the past year, culminating in a move to sheltered accommodation and mobility problems that had robbed her of her independence. I admit to some concern that she might not remember me, or fail to appreciate the 'surprise', also that I might not know too many of the fellow guests, but my resolve to go was strengthened by the sight of a number of Facebook messages, announcing that people were on holiday or otherwise unavailable on the night. So it was that I shouted 'surprise' on cue, and followed up with a communal rendition of Happy Birthday (remembering all the while that I'd also been present at her 15th birthday party). Then we got to talk, and I discovered something of the course her life had taken, from work to motherhood, caring for parents and her working life. There were also family and former work colleagues who spoke highly of their valued friendships - and concern for her future, with admiration for the way she had coped, or dealt, with her illness. This is life-threatening and also makes her prone to lose balance and has affected her speech, but her acceptance of all these indignities and the eventual outcome had an almost serene quality, which meant she could talk very much without rancour at the way her life had turned out. The party-organising daughter and MC for the evening was, by turns, nervous then elated at the way the evening had gone, while I mused on the nature of my connection to the recipient, and my own sense of shame at the length of time that had elapsed since I last saw her. During the earlier part of the evening, I fell into conversation with the party-organiser's partner's father. He explained that he and his wife had been put in charge of the catering, but that this had been complicated because they lived so far away. It turned out they lived in Sedbergh, which he was pleasantly surprised to discover I knew the location of, and we discussed the town's past fame for producing grandfather clocks and bicycles. The sound of time being measured in such measured and solid tones down all the years stood as a mental accompaniment to the evening's conversations and reminiscences.
On the following day, my friend's daughter emailed to say that her mum was still completely bowled over that people had remembered her after so many years, which set me to thinking that her contribution to the lives of so many people, and the obvious affection in which she was held, that recognition was long overdue.
Friendship is precious, and grows in importance with passing years, but losing touch can make the eventual reunion seem rather bitter sweet. There is great strength in tried and trusted friendship, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Taunton Deane 3; Totnes 0 - Totnes wins

Costa outlets, that is. While the Devon town famously rejected moves to open a Costa, just up the road, Taunton Deane services has all three permutations - full-blown cafe, outdoor kiosk and WH Smith instore 'express' concession (same beans, same milk...) And the keyword there is 'same', because Costa (and other coffee chains are available, eg Starbucks, Cafe Republic, Caffe Nero - ad nauseum, ad infinitum) specialises in the 'same' coffee/biscuit/cake/pannini etc being sold in all its outlets. Sameness also extends to the faux 'comforting' decor - the mismatched chairs and tables and well-work sofas are anything but thrown together - all is planned to the nth degree. This is a coffee experience designed by beancounters, not bean roasters or grinders, to deliver optimum price per unit sales to a pre-determined and oh-so-well managed profit margin. And then there's Totnes. I called in last Friday after a long journey down to the South Hams. It was a wet and windy day and Totnes provided welcome relief from the M6/M5/A38 trek south. The four of us stumbled into the welcome, if slightly steamy, warmth of the Old Bakery, where everything is anything but samey homogenous pap. Did I want clotted cream on my freshly baked strudel (emphatically 'no'); did I want hot milk with my no-frills filter coffee (absolutely). Menu options changed in the blink of an eye and delivered with Devon charm. In Sunset Grill, Don Henley sings about his favourite, long-time family-run restaurant on LA's Sunset Boulevard and its continued survival amongst corporate-owned America - the message being that corporate-chain consumerism creates victims ('basket people' and 'working girls') but the Totneses of this world somehow still survive and thrive by rejecting 'sameness' and by being places where care is real and lovingly provided, not doled out to some pre-calculated, turnover-enhancing, eye-always-on-the-bottom-line measure. They sell secondhand books and the work of local artists at the Old Bakery. Bet they'd even play Sunset Grill for me if you asked them.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Rather a coincidence, Mr Dimbleby

We walked over the hill from our rented holiday cottage in Hallsands to Beesands and decided that tea and chips would be the best refreshment to be had from the Britannia @ the Beach. Talked turned to favourite dogs, as it sometimes does, and I said I'd recently seen a repeat of David Dimbleby's sailing. documentary, in which he introduced his skipper's wired-haired fox terrier, Stanley. Jane said that was a great name for a terrier before our attention turned to a red-sailed yacht passing close to the shore. I took out my binoculars and Jane focused them on the boat, only to exclaim that is was Dimbleby aboard his beloved yacht Rocket - and that Stanley was there in the boat with him! We raised a salutory chip to the great orator, his crew. but most of all to the venerable sea dog.

Devon country lanes

The drive from Totnes to our self-catering cottage on a farm at Hallsands in Friday's downpour was interesting, to say the least. The satnav took us down ever narrowing lanes, with ever-increasing amounts of standing water one the road surface. Looming hedges took out much of the light already depleted by the grey storm clouds that lowered from the narrow slit of observable sky.
My wife, who hasn't been to the - usually glorious - South Hams before, admitted to feelings of claustrophobia before we swung down hill to the farm and the dry  welcome of home for the next week.
Woke today to clear blue skies and a light breeze. Now I can show them the beauty of south Devon combes and clear sandy beaches that I've loved since my late teens.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Controlling Conservatives

The present crop of Tory leaders seem to have turned their collective back on their party's traditional reliance on the idea of individual liberty. This is particularly the case with their apparent growing willingness to tell the media, and country at large, what language they don't want to be used. First off, we had IDS and his acolytes bashing the Beeb over the bedroom tax, on the spurious grounds that he and Cameron preferred 'spare room subsidy'. Post Tory general election win, the rot has spread, with Gove telling his Ministry of Justice civil servants how to write (as a former journalist himself, he should know better...). Then we had Cameron lecturing the media about his dislike of the IS tag, on the grounds that the group is neither 'Islamic' nor a 'state'. As with the bedroom tax name debacle, the BBC (Charter renewal in the offing) cravenly capitulated to this bollocks. And now, suitably emboldened, IDS is back with his stated intention of changing the definition of 'child poverty' because he doesn't like the way it is covered in news reports and social media. This thought/news controlling tendency, which you'd have thought Tories would have run a mile from, due to its Soviet-style origins (and Orwellian overtones) also manifests itself in the ridiculous way some Tory politicians try to dispose of an argument by stating blithely that they 'don't recognise' some fact or set of statistics contrary to their own world-view (good examples of this dark art of thought-spin tend to fall most readily from the lips of Theresa May, when asked to comment on an opposing view). The supposed party of liberty has turned into a modern-manifestation of the stupid party, but mainstream media is dangerously accepting, when it should be ridiculing from the rooftops - it's the only way to drag Cameron and his cabinet of blinkered fantasist neo-cons back to anything that remotely resembles reality.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

D-Day, 71 years on. A school party's tribute

Youngest son returned home from six-day school trip to Normandy in the wee small hours. He'd been very impressed with the solemnity of the British, American and - perhaps most movingly of all - by the German cemeteries they'd visited. In the British cemetery, his group had discovered a section set aside for the dead of other allied nations, and of one Polish soldier's grave in particular. It's good to know that, having given his life for the freedom of Europe, Pte Ernest Minge, found a special place in the affections of a group of 13-year olds...

Monday, July 06, 2015

Teenage confusion: when 'in' means 'on'

A commonplace, but nonetheless annoying phenomenon, concerns my two teenaged sons and the dishwasher. When the amount of used crockery left lying around in their bedrooms starts to exceed the stock of clean dishes and plates in the kitchen cupboards, we issue a parental order for the mucky stuff to be taken downstairs and placed 'in' the dishwasher. But this apparently simple instruction is nearly always mistranslated in their computer game and streamed music addled brains, so that 'in' becomes 'on top'.
A small problem to the passing reader, perhaps, but one that is seriously starting to affect my already feeble grasp on sanity.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

That's entertainment?

Come in from the garden to find youngest son riveted to youtube video of three potty-mouthed adolescents playing Grand Theft Auto and giggling over their expletive-ridden in game commentary. And he thinks I'm boring.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Give blood

Just back from failed first attempt at blood donation. Medical problem needs checking with GP before the red stuff can flow free. Was asked if I'd ever had unprotected oral or anal sex with another male. Question came as a bit of a surprise, because I thought they only offered tea and biscuits afterwards...

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A fiver to park - a great day out

Burnsall in Wharfedale is one of the Yorkshire Dale's most picturesque villages, and home to a tradition much-beloved of Yorkshire folk - especially those from West and South Yorkshire who like to explore the rural beauty of the Dales as a way of recharging urban care-worn batteries. There's a field by the river at the side of the historic bridge where generations of families have parked their cars before getting down to the serious business of cricket, football, picnicking, barbequing or mucking about in the river. We had a glorious day there yesterday and stayed much later than everyone else - so late, in fact, that even the ducks were returning home as we left. Best fiver I've spent in ages.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

A voluntary invitation, but it'll cost you...

Youngest son has had a very good year at school. Or rather, he's been so good at school that he's been invited to spend the day trampolining. In fact, quite a lot of his year have been good enough to qualify for the bouncing extravaganza. It turns out that all but the most serial of recidivists (ie those who have accrued more than three after school detentions) have been invited to momentarily defy gravity. Parents and carers have also received an invitation - but in our case, it's to make a 'voluntary' contribution to the cost of the revels. You see, while the school isn't making a formal charge, the event simply can't go ahead if enough of us - preferably all of us really - don't cough up a voluntary tenner; but who could refuse - when our offspring have been so good? The letter home also mentions that we should also give them some money for food if we're not sending sandwiches, along with a small additional sum to allow for the purchase of friperies or mementoes of the day. Of course, even the most curmudgeonly parent would be hard pressed to begrudge the invitation to make the 'voluntary' payment, even though, on close reading of the letter, that word has been given the clear imputation that it actually means completely the opposite to that found in everyday usage: no money, no bouncing. Can't help but wonder what's planned for those left behind in the naughty corner: oakum picking or mail bag stitching, perhaps? Not that I'm advocating a return to Victorian punishment in our schools; that can safely be left to Nicky Morgan, our perpetually surprised Secretary of State for Education - although she could possibly consider an encyclical to all heads pointing out the real meaning of 'voluntary' and 'compulsory' in communications to parents and carers, if she can tear herself away from making a complete dogs breakfast of the exam system, that is.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Diabetes and Doughnuts

Called into our local Tesco this morning (Saturday and Supermarkets - what's not to like?). In the foyer a small group of volunteer or press-ganged employees were clustered round a stall raising money for Tesco's charity of the year: Diabetes UK. On turning into the store, what struck me was the stall was directly facing the Krispy Kreme doughnut stand - which from its highly visible logo display and dominating position must be a paid-for concession. The incongruity of this struck me straight away - how can Tesco 'adopt' a Diabetes charity when they take Krispy Kreme's cash to ensure prime position? And how come Diabetes UK don't kick off about this (or vice versa), given the health risks so clearly associated with the consumption of excess sugar and saturated fats? On raising this via Twitter with Tesco, I was told that my concern had been noted, then that the store's deputy manager had replied that the charity stall had to be in the foyer, and finally that to 'log my concern' they wanted me to DM my name and address. I refused, after all, if Tesco customer services can't work out the health risks for themselves, how would the addition of my name and address to their database of troublesome customers allow them to take the matter any further? Finally, another Tweet revealed that Tesco are now following me on Twitter...

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Naming the Pollock

When they named the Pollock
Did they have a strange wish
To perhaps malign the poor fish
Or maybe just drop a bollock?

Monday, June 08, 2015

An app to record war crimes

Need to declare a tiny bit of an interest here, as I do some work for one of the following, but it's in tax, family and weights and measures law, so I've no direct link to a little bit of tech wizardry that might just bring war criminals to justice. LexisNexis and the International Bar Association have joined forces to fund and develop EyeWitness, a smartphone app that allows witnesses to record atrocities. The recordings are masked from the prying eyes of state agents of nasties with guns who might see the phone user filming them, and stamped with authentication meta data that should allow for the recording to be adduced as evidence in court. It's not every Monday morning that the world of legal publishing feels this good to work in...

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Raymond and the Roman cavemen

In a move that was probably seen as really progressive at the time, my 1960s county primary school (we didn't have much truck with academies back then), boasted a Partially Sighted Unit, commonly referred to as 'PS' - where a small group of partially sighted children, aged between 5 and 11, were educated in glorious isolation from the rest of us. There were, however, a few exceptions to this rather patronising situation, and one came to join our Year 1 class of 7 year-olds, in the form of Raymond, who was permitted to join us for History lessons with Mrs Wonce a fortnight. A rather shy boy, Raymond had the look of a rather startled owl when we looked at him because of the thickness of the lenses in his glasses. Mrs W, who bore a more than passing resemblance to Frankie Howerd in drag, made Raymond sit at the table I shared with three or four others, and we did our best not to stare and generally to make as welcome as a group of 7 year-olds could (which in general terms wasn't very much and probably didn't do much to make him feel anything other than a strange addition, plucked from his comfort zone to join a mainstream class). We quickly learned that Raymond (never Ray...) was very keen on history as a subject, but that his fortnightly appearances could be very unsettling. Back in the early 70s, the history curriculum was highly selective and started with the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages before taking in the Romans, Saxons and Normans - but if you only came to every other lesson, your appreciation of the majestic sweep of history could soon become disjointed. Raymond was doing fine until we got to the Stone Age and joined in with the depictions of cave dwellers and their animal drawings we were expected to produce in picture form and then label, but then for reasons I can't quite remember, he missed the next two lessons and rejoined us for the thrilling account of the arrival of the Romans. This caused a change in Raymond that was as startling as near miraculous. He wanted to know how we'd got from troglodytes to Legionnaires and from cave painting to Caesar hunting down Boadicea's Iceni. We hadn't much of a clue either, but under his earnest questioning and magnified gaze the only possible option was to make it up. Mrs W wasn't that much help - probably away with another table trying to titter ye not at their artistic interpretations, and - this in the age when talking wasn't allowed in class (as opposed to today, where discussion isn't so much encouraged as compulsory), so that our gap filling commentary was also conducted in whispers, with a few pointed references to pages in the text book. Chronology isn't a strong point at that age, and I can dimly remember Paul B introducing a dinosaur or two into the equation. I don't know how much Raymond managed to assimilate, and I've often wondered since how he ever managed to fill in the gaps between the making of flint tools and straight Roman roads and funny names for places, such as Olicana for Ilkley or Eboracum for York (which seemed to be about the only things the Romans ever did for us that we could glean from Mrs W and our Schofield and Sims junior history textooks). I just hope that we didn't bring to a very premature end the promising career of one of Britain's premier partially-sighted historians.

Hebden Bridge Handmade Parade 2015

Standing on the corner of St George's St, watching the parade go by. That was just so Hebden Bridge!

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

A passionate new job opportunity

Noticed a promising new job advertised online, a transport company wanted a training consultant. But decided not to bother when I read the HR spiel. Apparently, they want someone who's 'passionate' about putting stuff in lorries to teach others how to do it 'passionately' too. Where do HR/recruitment wonks learn to spout such utter bollocks?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Flamborough lighthouse in a sea of yellow rape

Walked along clifftop path from Flamborough Head under a near cloudless sky. Took this photograph on the return leg.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Tomorrow you die, Andrew Coogan's autobiography

Have to declare an oblique interest in this title because it was written by a friend's grandfather.
Coogan's account details his childhood in Glasgow's Gorbals in the 20s and 30s, through to his athletic success with the Maryhill Harriers, to his call up for service in World War II in the Lanarkshire Yeomanry. This territorial cavalry unit was in the process of being subsumed into the artillery, and Coogan's battery - woefully I'll equipped - were shipped out to Singapore to face the full fury of the Japanese onslaught as it tore through Malaysia and Thailand to take the supposedly impregnable British fortress at the foot of the Malay peninsula.
From facing the horror of a banzai attack and a forced retreat to Singapore, to the brutality of imprisonment in the infamous Changi Jail Coogan presents an unflinching account of the sadism of his Japanese captors. The title is taken from a threat made to Coogan by a Japanese officer in response to a refusal to obey an instruction to stop digging a deep grave for a dead fellow POW (Coogan wanted to dig deeper than the permitted 18 inches to protect his friend's remains from scavenging animals). From Changi, Coogan and a small band of surviving comrades from the Lanarkshire Yeomanry, augmented by a changing group of British, Australian and Dutch POWs, are taken first to work as slave labour in a Formosan copper mine, then to a coal mine near Nagasaki. Enduring starvation, sea and rail transport in appalling conditions, and the casual violence of guards indoctrinated to believe that surrender made their charges completely worthless, Coogan never loses his belief in the innate goodness of humanity. While he encounters brutal treatment from some of his captors (two of whom he went on to present testimony against to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal) he is eventually befriended by a guard who shares his love of running and, along with a Roman Catholic chaplain, manages to ensure the survival of a number of his comrades by stealing food from a variety of ingenious, and occasionally stomach-churning sources.
The book also highlights the futility and banality of war. He is scathing of the failures of those in authority, from Churchill's refusal to make proper provision for the defence of Singapore, to the senior officers and wealthy expatriate community who singularly failed to appreciate the danger posed by the advancing Japanese. A final indignity is recalled by the derisory £75 Coogan received as back pay on his return to Scotland. The payment, he recounts, was itself subject to a deduction for food and accommodation, giving rise to his observation that he was docked pay for the pleasure of being starved!
This searingly honest narrative pulls no punches but ends by bearing no hatred. In some ways it complements the Railway Man with its account of Eric Lomax's search for release from the brutalisation of such horrifying captivity in that this is an account of survival against the odds, but one that is suffused with a love for humanity. It deserves to be read by a wide audience. I hope also that it comes to stand as a testament to a passing generation that lived through World War II and stands as a counterbalance to the often cloying sentiment and sensationalised accounts served up on film and TV.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

An evening of poetry with Mike Harding

Went to see Mike Harding yesterday evening at the Square Chapel in Halifax. I've been to several of his shows over the years, in fact, he was the first comedian I ever saw live. As a 15 year-old, I blagged a ticket from my mate, John Hodgson, who was too scared to ask a girl from the year above to go with him to Leeds Town Hall to see the Rochdale Cowboy tour in 19776. All week he'd been trying to pluck up courage, but his nerve still failed him by Friday, and with two tickets to that evening's performance, he asked me it I wanted to go. John had been busily supplanting Harding as the teenage mimic's monologue of choice instead of the then ubiquitous Monty Python for a while beforehand. It was a tall order, but 'hulla, hulla, hulla' and 'dip your bread in' had made some inroads into the all powerful 'shut your festing gob, you tit' and 'shut the bleeding door, mother' so I was mentally prepared for the big night out. Harding had an uphill task that night - the acoustics in the Victoria Hall were not on his side. A strong wind whistled round the domed ceiling - prompting plenty of impromptu wind breaking jokes from the lad from Crumpsall, and I was hooked on live comedy from then on. Last night was different; Harding's poetry is of the blank verse-type (I had hoped we weren't in for a night of forced rhyme) and it's largely based on the people he's known in his life. So we reconnected with his mate Worfie - and learned how Miss Worswick used to relax at the weekend (a subtle and moving piece, in which he showed a tender respect for his self-confessed early years' educational bette noir. The poems were interspersed with readings from Harding's forthcoming autobiography and the readings ended on a well-received political philosophy note, with works that castigated bankers, fraudsters, shysters and general arseholes - much to the evident approval of his audience. Like myself, many there had followed Mrs 'Arding's Lad for years: the cast of characters were largely well-known by most, and he gently introduced us to new ones - from his Irish, atheist and Socialist granddad, to Ireland's best digger driver with a light and assured touch. The tragic death of his RAF navigator father, a month before Harding was born in October 1943, was also deftly handled. Fans will remember this from his 1980s Bombers Moon tour, but in his poem Photographic Father, Harding shows how his memories have changed over the years - even down to mentioning the account of the man responsible for shooting down his father's aircraft: a sombre and reflective moment. But the evening was about the warmth of humanity - as best reflected in his poems about life in Connemara and the joy he has had in seeing his grandsons grow up. It was a pleasure to meet up again, Mike. Thanks for the laughs over the years. And from the recounted tales I overheard walking back to the car afterwards, my mate John is part of a long-lived oral tradition of Hardingophilia that is still alive and kicking.