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.