Friday, December 29, 2017

A Happy Christmas from Manchester City Council

Just received a penalty charge notice for driving in a bus lane at Hunts Bank (apt name, given the way I now feel about the place...) at 17.43 on Fri 1 Dec. I'm not a frequent visitor to Manchester and was only driving in the city centre as I was dropping my son and his mate at the MEN Arena for a concert. Although I accept I was in the bus lane, I only knew this when I saw a notice and the sodding camera once I'd turned right onto the damn thing (there was a much larger sign for the Arena immediately before the turning, which had far greater prominence than the penalty warning). Now £30 the poorer, I can give this categorical assertion without fear of future contradiction: I won't ever drive in this shit hole of a city EVER AGAIN.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Two Christmas firsts

Out of all my 56 Christmases this is the first one with a real tree and also the first I'll be working on Christmas Day.
Special greetings if you're also having a 'first' this Christmas  - be it good or not. And here's hoping for a much better world on 2018.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

2017: books that started and finished the year

The year started with me on the final few pages of Philippe Sands' magisterial and meticulously researched East West Street. Tracing the lives of his own grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, along with two international lawyers - Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, the narrative follows the implementation of the 'final solution' in and around the city of Lviv in Ukraine and the development of the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity to punish those responsible. Ending the year on a similar theme, but this time from a personal family perspective, in the form of Fergal Keane's Wounds provided a timely warning of the dangers of nationalism and inter-communal violence in pre and immediately post-independent Ireland. Keane describes the roles that his grandmother, great uncle and their friends played in the War of Independence, and later how those bonds were fractured by civil war - with his forebears on the pro-treaty Free State side, ranged against former comrades in arms who sided with the Republicans in north Kerry. Neither of these works could be described as easy reading, but both have immense relevance for the present. While Sands deals with the horror wrought on those subjected to Nazi atrocities on an epic scale, Keane presents a far more subtle picture of youthful idealism forced to choose between acquiescence to British rule, in the face of repressive violence from the Black and Tans, the Auxilliaries and that both perpetrated by, and visited on, the Royal Irish Constabulary or joining the IRA. Following the treaty that gave rise to the 26-county Free State, though still requiring an oath of allegiance to the British Crown, and the presence in Dublin of a London-appointed Governor General - the monarch's representative in Ireland - the nationalist camp split into pro and anti treaty forces, which in turn led to a brutal civil war, in which those who had fought together against the British took up arms against each other. Taking his focal point from the murder of an RIC officer, Keane shows how the protagonists in the later civil war had become so inured to the effects of violence that - in many cases - they were able to visit death and suffering on former comrades in ways that were every bit as brutal as the violence and wanton destruction practised by the hated Black and Tans and Auxies. He also describes how the Irish Republic addressed the wounds caused by the civil war; building a democratic state on the far from promising foundations of emnity and distrust that were hallmarks of a conflict that neither side wanted to talk openly about, or felt able to let go of in a full spirit of reconciliation.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Remembering: a century on and half a world away

One hundred years ago today, Albert Hyatt, my great uncle, died at a dressing station near the town of Poperinge in Belgium. Knowing the anniversary would fall while we were away, I spent a few moments at the war memorial in Motueke, on New Zealand's South Island to honour his memory. Half a world away from Ripon, where he lived and worked, and the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, where he lies, his family remembered him a century on; a Yorkshireman among the Anzac sons of this Kiwi town.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Tory's Costa service rant - how charming

Peter Chapman seems like a man in a hurry to get his caffeine fix. Hope the overworked and, probably grievously, underpaid Costa staff add a little something extra to his flat white (presumed drink of choice for Tories) on his next visit - Exlax should do the trick.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Christchurch taxis - just too good to be true?

Arriving at Christchurch airport after a 25-hour flight from Manchester, broken by short stops at Dubai and Sydney, the first thought was to get to the hotel as quickly as possible. Walking to the taxi rank, it appeared transport NZ style differs markedly from taxi and private hire practices in the UK. First, two drivers politely declined to take the four of us and our luggage: 'too much for the car' explained the first, before his friend chipped in: you don't want to have to pay for two cabs - better wait for the shuttle, it'll be cheaper too' What was this? Cabbies refusing a fare, better yet, refusing to make us take two cars instead of one? Weird. But stranger was to come the following morning. For the first day, we'd booked the TranzAlpine Express; a four-hour train ride over the Alps from Christchurch on the east coast to Greymouth on the west, and had specifically booked a larger taxi/minibus to take us to the station at 7.30 am. A few minutes after half seven, Doug appeared in a minibus, apologising profusely for being late, he packed the cases into the rear and then drove us to the station. With no breach of the speed limit, I watched as he indicated for every turn and junction, all the while extolling the virtues and sites of his homeland, before dropping us at the station and pointing out the best seats for the journey. Beware if coming to Christchurch for the first time - there are bogus taxi drivers here. Have to be - they are just too good to be true (in Doug's case, he even reduced the fare as the booking clerk had neglected to tell use there was a special deal for bookings from our hotel...)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Anglican openness - Archbishop Welby goes the full Daily Fail

Strange that Justin Welby has decided to assume Paul Dacre's favourite mantle and go after the Beeb over Savile. Stranger still, that he should point to the records of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches as examplars in dealing with child sex abuse claims. It's almost as if he wants to forget the cases of John Smyth, in which Welby himself admitted to 'failings' and Bishop Peter Ball, where cover-ups and conspiracies of silence lasted the best part of three decades. With Smyth and Ball sized planks in his eyes, it's surprising Welby can see clearly at all...

Friday, September 29, 2017

How true

A most untimely demise...

Human Resourcefulness

After 40 years in print and publishing, it's time to drop the red pen and move on. Facing up to reality means accepting that the world has moved on. The great and wonderful English language needs editorial skills now, perhaps more than ever - but the beancounters who rule our world decree otherwise; unless, that is, the freelances are prepared to accept rock-bottom fees and scrabble around amongst themselves for the diminishing amount of work that's tossed their way. No amount of networking, favour-calling, begging or cajoling is going to change this. Time, as Robbie Robinson so memorably put it in Fallen Angel: take the hand that's dealt you. Reality bites and the teeth marks will show for a long time, but I'm dropping the old red pen.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Wish you were here?

Sad news. The UK's oldest postcard printer is closing in December. Anothor loss to the much diminished printing trade. Nearly 40 years since I started work as an apprentice platemaker the industry has shrunk to a mere shadow of its former self, and I mourn its loss.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


I took this photograph on a visit to Tatton Park in Cheshire
The thought struck me that we use the word 'windfall' incorrectly. After all, there's nothing more certain and predictable that a gust of wind or strong downpour will cause an apple to fall from a tree; it's not the unexpected or even rare occurrence that people describe when an unexpected gift or other unplanned bounty appears in their lives.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


Feedback from applicants overwhelmingly favoured public horsewhipping for the HR professional who invented the Core Competency-based Interview. Next on the list of popular responses, with 45% of the vote, was to apply the same punishment for all the unimaginative and compliant grunts who blithely accept CCI as the way ahead for all employers. Out of all respondents, 87.2% of those voting in favour of options one and two had been told they had 'failed by only a few points' to successfully navigate the shoals of bland questioning and hidden depths of weighted scoring, leaving their CPD stymied by human unresourcefulness.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

PAC: blink and you miss it

You find a better mobile deal with another provider but how can you keep your number? Answer - request a Porting Authorisation Code (PAC) from your current provider - should be simple enough, except that it isn't The current provider doesn't want to lose your custom, so they make it really hard. First thing, build in a bit of a delay - it can take 24 hours for them to notify you of the PAC and then you have to give it to the new kids on the block within 30 days, otherwise it expires and the whole giddy performance starts again. A second complication is that the current provider might suddenly decide to make things difficult: a PAC can only be given over the phone, not by email or text. Why the hell not - they're supposed to be in the communication game, except no-one seems to have told the PAC creation fairies. Or rather they have, along with the instruction to make it all as ball-achingly difficult as possible. After 4 days of waiting for 3 to get their PAC ducks in row, patience has now worn so thin that a call to Ofcom is seriously on the cards. That is unless they really do phone back within the next hour, which I certainly don't believe or an instant is about to happen.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Leeds misleads

The BBC headline was intriguing at first glance. Leeds, the old home town (OK, city) 'may' be about to 'get' a New York-style 'high line'. Wow, I thought. One in the eye for the Big Apple. But wait, it turns out Leeds has had it since Victorian times and the last time people could walk on it was 1988. If it's already there - all 92 viaduct arches of it - how come we're just about to 'get' it? A more accurate headline would have read 'Leeds remembers it's got a High Line that's every bit as impressive as those in New York and Paris'. But then, the city is rather good at forgetting things - like the flax mill built to copy an Egyption Temple, Colonel Harding's campanile tower, the forlorn Queen Victoria's Arch, abandoned to fate and the elements in Beckett's Park, and the Headingley Bear Pit.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Just a tiny bit call centre

I'm looking for some extra work at the moment and was offered a 'phone interview for a job with one of the major outsourcing companies (no names, you'll see why...) The advert was non-specific on a number of key areas: I knew what service was being provided, but for whom and how were well hidden behind generic - and in several places ungrammatical - waffle. A few minutes in, the HR bod mentioned that the job could involve handling a number of telephone calls, to which I asked 'is this a call centre?' A pretty straightforward question in the circumstances, one would have thought. To which the answer ran along the lines of 'no, um, rather yes'. It either is or it isn't - you can't be a 'little bit' call centre any more than you can be a little bit pregnant. There comes a point when relativism has to meet certain boundaries and I felt less than comfortable that an prospective employer could want to hide the real nature of a job by advertising in such broad terms.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Is there a competent elephant in the room?

It might come as a surprise, but there are some who work in the private sector who might be tempted to apply for a public sector post on the basis that it meets their skill set. Private sector job descriptions can be very long-winded and appear more as a wishlist for a superhuman form of employee possessing skills and experience that runs for page after page. For the intending applicant, these are daunting at first reading, but if you can group them into workable categories that can be addressed in the application, then a perceptive recruiter (even if not possessed of sufficient editorial skill to prune the verbage in the first place) can evaluate a ‘broad-brush’ application. In the public sector, however, the tendency now if for highly specific internal skills that appear almost impenetrable to the private sector (or, even worse, self-employed/freelance applicant). This is strange, given that many public sector employers trumpet ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ as being key to their recruitment processes. The paradox is further complicated by the universal – if nonsensical – way that both public and private sectors have embraced competency-based interviews as the only game in town. Faced with the usual six competency questions (three broad, three job specific) the danger for the private sector ‘outsider’ who has made it to interview is that you are hard pressed to identify the key words and phrases that are often meat and drink to public sector ‘insider’ applicants. Short of a Rosetta Stone or the divining powers of a dowser, private sector or freelance applicants are immediately at a serious disadvantage and can go on to award themselves the bum’s rush before they even realise that something’s amiss in their responses. A nice touchy feely ‘We welcome applicants irrespective of age gender, orientation, ethnicity, religion’ is all very well, but diversity can go take a running jump if you then rule the applicant out by a too narrow or overly subjective application of the competency criteria.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Looking for Leeds Central

The first verse of Hue & Cry’s song Looking for Linda contains an intriguing railway mystery. Linda, the eponymous heroine/victim of the song is escaping from an abusive relationship when she meets the singer, a wandering railway troubadour presumably, on a slow train, heading – she hopes – for Paisley. So far, so ScotRail, but things then take a strange turn, as Linda keeps on running away ‘straight down to Leeds Central’. Now, assuming the slow train connected at Paisley to a train, or trains, that could take Linda to Leeds, the choice of the Central suggests time travel, because that station closed in May 1967, twenty-one years before the song was released. Leeds only has one main station now, the rather unimaginatively named Leeds City. It is the third busiest station outside London in the UK, behind Glasgow Central and Birmingham New Street, which rather suggests closing the Central wasn’t perhaps the smartest of Beeching’s moves, especially if you’ve ever had to wait on a stationary train until a platform comes free. Pat and Greg Kane’s choice of Central over City for Linda’s arrival into Leeds could be down to the way the words scan – arguably the former fits better than the shorter four-letter alternative, and avoids repetition of the word ‘city’ within the space of two words. As with many artistic choices, this creates an image in my mind of something I’m not even sure actually happened but represents a very important first meeting between my much younger self and great aunt Vera, my grandma’s sister. Vera lived in Dublin and her visits to Leeds were eagerly anticipated joyful occasions. In later years, she flew in to the then Yeadon Airport (now Leeds/Bradford), but her first visit of my lifetime was a sea crossing, from either Dun Laoghaire or North Wall to Holyhead, with a boat train bringing her the rest of the way. As Leeds Central closed when I was five, what follows could be mere wishful thinking on my part, but – like the song – actual reality isn’t as important as the impression. Great aunt Vera had to get off the train from Holyhead somewhere, and Leeds Central seems to be as good a place as any for me. In my memory, my parents, grandparents and I, are standing on a long platform with buffers in front and some trains, steam trains, close up to the buffers. Down a long side platform, running the length of a train, my great aunt is walking towards us, a great beaming smile on her face and the light playing on her pale ginger hair. Stations are evocative places; memories of arrivals and departures, families, friends, lovers reunited or divided. And Leeds Central would have been no different; it was a terminal station, so trains arriving here were going no further, this was the end of the line, and in 1967 those lines ended permanently. The ground was cleared of all trace of the railway, with the exception of two stone-built goods lifts, that had been used to transfer mail and other freight from road level to the platforms above. For many years they stood marooned amid a scene of urban devastation. Eventually, the site became the Aireside Shopping Centre, which suffered from a chronic lack of parking. Too close to the city centre to be ‘out of town’, you took pot luck finding a place to park either in front of the shops or dodging traffic wardens on the surrounding streets. Now the shoppers have gone, replaced by the Wellington Place Development, which means commerce and law have now moved onto the site. One of the three-storey goods lifts remains – a reminder of the station and all those who it brought into and out of the city. One last thought on Looking for Linda lyrics: £35 for a packet of fags was a hell of a lot in the 1980s - what was she smoking, gold-filter tipped Balkan Sobranies?

Friday, May 05, 2017

Push, don't pull

A 'comfort stop' ahead of a crucial meeting caused a moment's unwanted panic-induced hilarity. Picture a designer gents in a swish office block. Floor to ceiling cubicle doors with polished steel handles and door locks. Entry was successfully effected, but on trying to leave the door refused to open. Fearing a broken lock, I slowly turned the lock while trying the handle, all to no avail. Taking a moment to reflect - and also envisage calling for help and being rescued by security - I returned to the door, only to find that it opened outwards, so my frantic pulling was no use whatsoever. A small push sign would be a welcome design addition...

Saturday, April 01, 2017

The barbarians are within the gates

These photographs show the sadly now closed Burley Library on Cardigan Road in Leeds.
Strangely enough, the disused building sits cheek by jowl with some very swanky new student accommodation and is situated within an area that has been term-time home to students from Leeds and Leeds Beckett Universities for years. Admittedly it's some time ago now, but when I was a student we spent rather a lot of our time in libraries. Looks like things have moved on now, though. After all, Leeds has always liked to think its at the cutting edge of social change. I can remember when it proudly proclaimed itself 'Motorway City of the 70s' - and if you want to see how well that turned out, try circumnavigating the Inner Ring Road around 9.00am or 5.30pm. Perhaps the city worthies should have kept the libraries and found enough money for a tram system. You know, like they have in Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Spiced up customer service - Curry's of a Sunday afternoon

Just back from a trip to Curry's. We were hoping to buy an small freezer, to live under a worktop, and a hotplate. The first item had been moved from display, for reasons the salesperson didn't go into, while the second couldn't be located with the cookers or kitchen gadgets. So we asked a young woman, who said they didn't sell them, then changed her mind, before advising that we'd probably have more luck if we tried on line! Or to put it another way, using business-speak, the bricks display their own obsolescence by telling us to use clicks instead.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Gig economy: not enough room on the stage?

The gig economy, beloved of 'flexible' employers - especially those with cost-cutting finance chiefs and aggressive or overly compliant HR directors - has spawned a host of media articles and academic studies; not to mention court and tribunal challenges. However, one area that is generally overlooked is the issue of over-supply. Say, for example, a media or publishing company decides to get rid of its in-house editorial team and 'encourage' its members to work on a freelance basis (even though they have only their former employer as a client), the company saves on its wage bill and the newly 'flexible' freelances take responsibility for their tax and national insurance liabilities. But what it also does is increase the pool of freelance labour. In reality, organisations working in this field will already use freelances as they can be commissioned to work on long or one-off projects, or to add extra capability during busy periods. Now, however, the existing freelance pool has been increased - but the amount of work has not; neither has the requirement to improve rates of pay. In certain respects, pay rates for editorial and other media-related areas have not increased appreciably since before the financial crash in 2007, in some instances they have rather been reduced. For established and newly-minted freelances, this state of affairs can represent a perfect storm, with an ever larger pool of labour chasing the same amount of work for fee levels for which there is no prospect of an increase any time soon. While freelances represent - in conservative or neo-liberal minds at least - go-getting entrepreneurs at the cutting edge of labour market reform, the reality is often very different, and, it would seem, largely built on the illusion of flexibility and economic progress. In hearings conducted by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, the three most often reviled unholy trinity of Amazon, Deliveroo and Uber admitted that taking responsiblity for tax and NI back in-house and conferring employment protection rights on their gig contractors would not adversely affect their businesses. This admission led committee-member and South Cambridgeshire Tory MP Heidi Allen to ask almost plaintively "when are you going to start paying people properly?": a cry freelances, both new and long-in-the-tooth can only echo. Could the day of the bucanneering finance and HR freelance creators be drawing to a close? Here's hoping.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Teddy Moment

I was an Andy Pandy fan when I was a pre-schooler and one scene in particular sent me into fits of toddler giggles. Andy's companion Teddy (he's a bear, for the uninitiated) had a habit of standing in the middle of the set with his paws over his eyes. The ursine logic was wrong, but compelling (and funny - to me, at any rate. Teddy believed that he couldn't be seen by anyone because he couldn't see anything, even though he was 'standing in plain sight'. A simple device that caused me much childish mirth, but now our politicians seem to have fallen prey to the Teddy 'paws over eyes' syndrome - linguistically at least - by adopting the mantra 'I don't recognise' so-and-so to avoid having to answer questions based on facts that contradict their point of view. It was funny when Teddy did it way back then, it's pathetic now and devalues democracy.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Superior retail confectioner

I was put rather firmly in my place recently while buying a couple of cinnamon buns at a well-known mass outlet bakery operation that begins with a G. On entering, I noticed cinnamon buns placed in the display incorrectly identified on the card as Belgian buns. In a moment of madness, as I now realise, the words 'two Belgian buns, please' tripped off my tongue, to which the shop assistant replied 'we haven't got any today'. Undeterred, I walked to the cinnamon/Belgian buns and pointed, at the same time asking for 'two of those'. Sensing the need to educate, the assistant looked quizzically at me and then enunciated slowly and deliberately 'those are cinnamon buns' - with added emphasis on the last two words. Suitably chastened, I paid and left the shop with the cinnamon buns in a paper bag. But then I remembered a similar incident many years ago in a Birmingham confectioners. I was attracted to a rectangular cake with cherries and a dusting of icing sugar, my request for 'one of those, please' was met with the decidedly superior reply 'that, is a paradise slice'. Are confectioners trained in the overarching need to teach customers the correct name for each and every one of their products?