Dont buy the Sun.

Dont buy the Sun.
Hillsborough Justice campaign - Remember the 96.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Bus stopping

Castle Hill Hospital has been, up to recently, the solitary remaining hospital/clinic/medical facility in Hull I have not had the opportunity to inspect. It is situated on the outskirts of Hull, where semi-posh estates of semi-detatched bungalows skirt greying fields full of starlings. Incongrously, in this retiree community of Sunday morning car washing and tidy driveways, gypsy horses roam the grass verges, picking at the grass and totally ignoring the hermetically sealed people carriers and bottom of range Mercedes saloons that swish by.

The hospital's principal fame is as an oncology centre, so locally it's name tends to be articulated wordlessly - people will articulate the name with their mouths without actually saying it, a product, perhaps of superstition and fear.This type of speaking, particularly among older women, was noticed years ago by a brilliant English comedian Les Dawson. The clip is pretty dated by now, so if you dont want to watch the whole thing, the type of voiceless talking I mean is at about 1 min 15 and again at the end from about 2 mins 30 seconds. What Dawson does here is rooted in observation of a characteristic way of talking, particularly here in the north of England, and its worth a quick aside to discuss where it came from. The common account is that in the Northern towns of England during the Industrial Revolution, the factories
( particularly the cotton mills where women mostly worked), were so noisy that normal conversation was impossible. As a solution, women became expert lip readers and could hold conversations without shouting. However, what this explanation does not account for is that the phenomenon is almost entirely limited to women, and usually about 'sensitive' matters.

The hospitals focus also makes its miserable if only by dint of the sheer number of cheerful touches added. There's happy posters, nice plants and lots and lots of noticeboards where you can pick up pastel coloured leaflets (usually with pictures of trees on the front and if not that then an image of some sort of counsellor, head bent at the unnatural angle only counsellors can achieve, faint encouraging smile that's as chilling as any Medusan glance) offering help and advice. Its completely depressing, and for me would be just a reminder that I was quite ill as I'd never have a picture of a tree, or a cloud, or a puppy on my wall at home.

Then you reach the plastic surgery department. This is the real deal - graphic images of the internal structures of the human body so you can identify exactly the tendon, muscle or bone you have injured, and reflect wonderingly,: why (given how weedy and thin they all look ), why you havent just snapped one before? It's a much happier place.

And that's where todays post ends. The stiches came out on the latest injury and all is healing very well. So well in fact , that given some of us might not meet for a while, I feel obliged to post the picture below, as I have been informed there will be very little scarring, and therefore very little evidence that I'm not making the whole injury thing up.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

We are all trolls...............

The morning ritual:

I become aware of a soft tickling on the nose. The tickling becomes a scratch, which then becomes a persistent pressure, half tickle, half scratch, accompanied by a constant rumbling. One eye opens and delivers the news to a brain that's still mostly floating round an alternate universe of dream, in which I'm usually some sort of Road Warrior, that its still dark. Then the unmistakeable, and unique, sensation of a vicious scimitar of keratin gently picking at the flare of my nostrils.

"Hi Tosh" I say to the cat that's sittng on my head, "Morning is it?". We trundle downstairs to the kitchen door so he can go out, an exercise that's as ritualistic as any religious service. He sits in front of the door, gently miaowing at it and glancing up anxiously at me, apparently concerned that this - of All Days - will be the day foretold in cat lore - The Day The Door Didnt Open. ,Then as soon as the slightest crack appears, he sticks his paw through as if he's Indiana Jones desperately struggling to prevent the massive boulder sealing the Tomb of Neferitititi. Once the door is opened he jerks his head forward, sniffing. A victorious little cry and he hops out, mission focused without even a glance back.

Three hours later, and at the decidely more civilised time of eight thirty, and having returned to bed, I gradually arise properly. If RHB hasnt already allowed the cat entry, he's at the window of the back door, clawing at the glass, miaowing. Once he's in , we both hit the food bowl hard - me marmalde and toast, him reconstituted something or other. Then he hops onto my knee and we read the moring papers. Opposite, there is usually RHB, with a slightly smaller cat on her knee, similarly reading.

But this tradition, this comfortable and comforting lifeway that we've developed as we've co-constructed our culture over the years, is about to change for good. Frankly, I've had enough and have decided I have better things to do. Not, I should speed to mention, of the cat. Nor, of RHB. And most definitely not of marmalade on toast. But of newspapers, and the contents thereof, and most of the content on the internet, television and radio, I am done. I'm also a bit sick of literature as well, particularly previous staples like science fiction, biographies of ancient historical figures, anything anthropological. I have never really enjoyed 'funny' books or detective works, hate reading plays and morning's too early for serious literary work that requires thinking. Autobiographies are, by definition, unbelievable and I find a source of previous excitement - lay accessible science or political works - a genre exhausted and diluted by too many poor imitations. My most reecent acquistion in this genre - "How to teach your dog quantum physics" was not only badly written, but as Tosh pointed out, used the sickeningly cutesy device of anthromorphising the author's pet in a cheap bid for readership.

I think I am justified in this disillusion based on quality alone . If 99.99% of what one recieves through media is utter rubbish (or too good to be read in the morning - an important point that would earn itself a footnote if this was an academic paper that I would not, by self definition be reading in the morning) then paying attention to media in the morning is a total waste of time. Despite this justification, I feel I need somone (other than me) to blame. and here I turn to a recent ongoing discussion between RHB and self about the interactive nature of contemporary life.

A long time ago, at the dawn of the internet, when mammoths still roamed past our apartment window near Dutch Village Road, Halifax, we eagerly welcomed the appearance of "Comments" sections in newspapers. As Comments became enabled on various sites of interest, I registered
eagerly -in all cases immediately forgetting the username and password - anxious to contribute to the growing, and welcome democracy provided by the Web. And for a few years, all was fine: environmental forums were friendly places where healthy debate would flop around aimlessly, political comment sections would host ill-informed, but lively, discussions on competing economic theories, football columns would be exercises in thinly disguised bias. Soon, interactivity became ubiquitous - every newspaper column had a space for comments, every webpage had some sort of forum or comments facility. Radio shows respond to twitters and tweets and texts and are supported by an online prescence with accompanying comments sections, even if they are just meterological forecasts. Books have websites that have more content than the original text and websites have websites about websites - all commented, noted, forumed, ranked and tweeted.

Accompanying this have come the trolls - the subject of the debate between self and RHB referred to earlier. Troll and trolling have become familiar terms to anyone usng the net and are usually defined as either corporate stooges pushing a lobbyist line, or agent provocateur of some description who just like a good argument (I suspect late teenage boys figure prominently here). Both have cluttered up comments, forums and interactive sections of the web, its true, but my meaning for the word troll is broader perhaps than most definitions. By troll, I mean anyone who posts anything online, anywhere, about anything.

How so, you might ask? Well, I reply, its because contemporary media, through its interactive nature is a great big baby. It has developed into a pre-sentient creature that, is designed to elicit (demand actually) baby talk responses from us - when newspaper columns write 'provocative' articles that allow climate sceptics space in their comments sections I feel a need to respond, but space denies anything longer than a few sentences, so a whole ecosystem is reduced to a cartton strip. When a book is accompanied by a website and asks for a review, I am duty bound to post something but all that is really required, and read, is three, four or five stars. When a radio show calls for texts or tweets, limited-character opinions flow in on subjects that require a treatise. The content doesnt matter really, its the response which is important.

So I have decided to stop responding, at least in the morning. I realise my list of material that I am self-prohibiting means there is not a lot left for me to listen to, or read in the morning. But there are solutions. This morning I read 'Bosch Operation Manual: Model 4564'. It was a good start - I am now much more informed on the operation of my fridge via content rich material, and was not obliged to respond in any way. It was a much more satisfying start to the morning than the previous one when i ended up shouting at the radio, computer and newspaper in a growing circle of frustration. I already have my eye on tomorrow's literature "Sharp Autocook MicroWave: A User's Guide".

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Axe-ident. My own personal darwin.

One of the ironies life does seem to be, as I told the attending surgeon at hospital, that in at least one of my occupations, I am usually the nominated health and safety representative when i work onsite. In the most recent accident, however, I am ashamed to admit that I broke practically every piece of advice have ever paternalistically bestowed on people.

These are the circumstances. After a four day stint in Leeds of sixteen hour days welding a series of metal frames for a Christmas production of Beauty and the Beast, my back began to spasm pretty badly upon arriving home at night. So, I decided that a great way to unwind was to have a glass of wine in front of a roaring fire. The fire was lit, dinner was prepared and wine was drunk. I however was not inebriated, as only one glass had been imbibed, but was very very tired. I decided that more wood would be needed. So, I got my axe and went out on to my unlit, wet slippery deck, without my glasses or worl gloves and swung said axe at an oversized piece of wood. Of course, the axe bounced off a knot and sunk its newky honed edge into the back of my arm, about two inches up from the wrist, leaving a two and a half inch wound.

To make a long embarrasing story slightly shorter (because, of course, I now have all sorts of deadlines due tomorrow that require typewriting) I cut through the skin, grazed the bone and severed a tendon in the back of my arm.

Emergency treatment has cleaned the wound, but I am unfortunaely going to cost the medical services a bit more because I need plastic surgery to re-connect the tendon and make the wound a bit less messy. That surgery will hopefully be tomorrow.

About the only thing I can say in my defence is that my reaction was very calm - I closed the wound, elevated the hand got a ride to hospital and didnt cry. This however isnt really clear thinking, rather just habituation as I have crocked me' sen (as they say in Yorkshire) with alarming regularity.

I wish not for sumptuous bouquets of flowers delivered to my door in sympathy. But if anyone has got a decent brain hanging round that has not had it's innate 'stupidity acquiescence device' removed, please send it by first class mail.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Crisis of Capitalism

Analysis of the current crisis.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Occupy everything

Firstly, apologies for the massive delay in posting. You may remember the heady days of yore, when first there started to be delays in posting ? Then, erupting from the mire would another post arise, heady with the fumes of contrition and apology and laden with evermore internecine excuses for the absence. And I think none of us ever believed those excuses - I know I certainly did not. I always suspected there was something more, going on, an agenda behind the scenes. I remember how the excuses I would read when I consulted these amaniacals just would not ring true : 'busy with renos', 'on holiday', 'not much happening', 'not miserable enough to write' etc etc etc . "Hmmm, I thought to myself, this fellow's up to summat or I'm a Dutchman".

Well, it would appear as if I will have to start eating large quantities of Edam cheese, riding my bike a lot, and jumping over dykes, because I investigated myself thoroughly in light of these suspicions, and it appears that the excuses were genuine. Apart from assembling the most ridiculously camp Halloween costume in the world (Ever!), the last few months have literally been renovating, studying, riding my bike, eating lots of cheese and generally being quite happy, with the odd bit of failing-to-visit-Bristol/Aberdeen thrown in. The word mundane has had to be re-defined to describe my existence to the extent that I believe its been withdrawn from service for some maintenance. But you should'nt take my word for it, I had to dig deep before the evidence of the extent of is ennui did become apparent: I have started a blog about my Phd! This sister blog is not an amusing series of anedotes about how it has taken three months to write a thirty minute seminar presentation, nor observations on how I dont understand linguistics - deixus, pragmatics, morphology, phonemics, epiglottal labial fricatives and the like - to the point where I have been doubting whehter I should use language (or indeed communication of any means). No, this new blog is merely a series of descriptions of academic papers I have been reading. I had become ridiculously happy with an existence that I will tag here as 'The New Monasticism'. Having coined this phrase, I fully expect to see it appear in the lifestyle pages of 'serious' broadsheets within the year.

But withdrawing from the world doesnt mean its not there, and recent trip to London made me re-think my Benedictine approach. I was recently invited to attend a research seminar in light of my new role as a burgeoning PhD. The seminar was a blur of brilliance and a competely new experience for me, having previously only been an undergraduate sitting through three hour lectures on 'The Reflective Practitioner'. In those previous experiences, a somnabulance would fill the room very quickly and I would spend a lot of time estimating how long it took to install the ubiquitous white tiles of the suspended ceiling, and how many rats were crawling along the ductwork above our heads right now, before drifting off to sleep at minute 20. This seminar was different - it was as if a massive pllow fight had occured, and the pillows had exploded, filling the room with feathers - a constant Brownian motion of ideas/possibilities/models and hypotheses. All of The Really Big Names (RBN) in my field (people who's work I have read for three years and had just totally excited me) were present, and THEY had asked ME questions about my research, describing it as 'really interesting' and 'timely'. I was 'vibed' to say the least. As the seminar wound down, the collected RBN gathered, chatting and joking, making plans for the evening. To my surprise, one RBN turned to me, asking what my plans might be. I gulped - I had just been addressed, albeit using the name 'Mark', by a legend, a star , who has actually been published. Hesitantly, and trying hard not to cry, I mentioned that I had planned to go to the Occupy St Pauls demonstration, just down the road, and find out for myself what it was all about. A quick consult, and the assembled glitterati of research - the entire constellation of RBN in the field of adult second language learning - declared it a good plan. So with no further ado, all three of us trooped out into the balmy night air of London, in search of civil disobedience.

I will not here retread descriptins of what the Occupy movement is - anyone, even those engaged in 'The New Monasticism' should be aware of not only the vents, but also the essential arguments. I will also not here indulge in a vain-glorious description of how accurate are the essential tenets of Civilisation Why? /Apolcalypse How? and Evolution When? , it is enough to state categorically that it should be obvious to anyone that global capitalism is breaking down, just as every previously designed complex system of control of human society has eventually collapsed. ANd faced with this reality, the merits, or otherwise, of the current paradigm may be a subject of discussion for some people, but viewed for me, these arguments dont really amount to what we historical anthropologists call 'a hill of beans'. Arguments about how we 'fix' capitalism are completely irrelevant and short sightedly relative - for example, feudalism and Maoist Communism, in their time, did feed enormous amounts of people, did result in technological innovation, and apart from hideous human rights violations, did enable a kind of stability for many people throughout their existence. Their designers did have a vision - an ethical position, whether we like that position or not. What matters though, is that when, for various reasons, the jig was up and the system stopped working - in the form of mass famine, plague and misery for too many of the people, a new system had to arise. And from that, what really matters is at we have a debate over what should replace the failing system, so that something worse does not occur. For example, Stalinism, Mugabe and the Aztecs all replaced previoulsy faltering systems. Fortunately in these times, we have a little more influence than the hoi polloi of previous societies, so what I was really interested in was whether Occupy had something to say about replacement, or whether they were just 'agin'.

My own position, I have to confess was ambivalent. Having been a campaignng member of the Far Left Militant Tendency in my youth, and throughout my twenties, a certain revolutionary fatigue is probably part of my make-up. So, viewing the television images of the Occupy camps, witnessing the didigereedoos, home made placards, dread-locks and gas masks, a part of me shared the cynical view of at least one friend, that the Occupy people were 'the usual suspects'. However, RHB's re-engagement with alternative perspectives over the last few years has been compelling, and I found the Occupy Wal street statement compelling, accurate and much more truthful than the ridiculous edge-of-a-clfff negotiations of Europena finance ministers.

In the company of the RBN, I strolled along the Embankment in London to St Pauls, but when we got there, I made my excuses because I wanted to talk to the protestors on my own. I walked into the middle of the tent area and just looked round. There were concentric rings of people, clearly differentiated. On the edges of the square a row of policemen adopted pose not dissimilar to their demeanor during soccer matches - active watching, but not 'poised'. Inside this ring of police, groups of tourists took photographs but mainly didnt enter the area where the tents were. The local coffee shops were doing a roaring trade - ironically the centre of capitalism had gained another money spinning tourist attraction. Suited City types walked purposefully along, between the police and the tents, some muttering as they passed, others ignoring the activity around them in the way only Londoners can do. Inside the tented are there were a few vegetarian kitchens, guitar players, and lots and lots of people milling around, many of them dressed like New Age types - dreadlocks, quilted jackets and Tibetan style hats. Absolutely nothing was happening.

Afetr a few minutes, I approached a group who were sat down on camp chairs outside a tent and asked if I could sit. We started to chat.

Two hours later, I had to leave as I was staying at Brent Cross that night on the other side of the city. But I left very reluctantly. Its impossible to provide a 'snapshot' of what the Occupy protestors stand for, because, as they themselves said, their views are not all the same. Because of this, the accustation has been made that they are just 'agin' but apart from the fact that there's plenty to be 'agin' about, this does not mean there is no focus. If you are driving a car and the radiator is about to explode, there are number of alternative courses of actions you can take - many of them legitimate - get out and walk, abandoning the car, call rescue services, fix the radiator with ahrd boiled eggs or buy a new car. THere are many differnet courses of action yuou can take. What you dont do is just keep driving because it should be apparent your car will explode if you dont do something. The Occupy people I spoke to were cohesive in that they believed that although it is apparent to some what I have believed for a long time - that capitalism is broken - they believe that its not apparent to enough, or many, or the majoority just how broken it is. This radiator cannot just be replaced, in fact the whole car has reached a point where its increasingly dangerous to drive. And to extend this further, you cant afford a new car. So the point of their protest is to highlight this.

I suspect that among our politicians, busily engaged in bail outs, quantitative easing, stimulus packages and the like, many of them also know the car is toast. But because admitting this necessarily involves a relinquishing of power, privelige and money, they are extrememly reluctant to admit this publically. Other politicians who are ideologically-emotionally attached to the current system wont even admit to themselves just how bad things really are. Others still, opposed to the current system on ideological grounds have deterministic solutions. They have convinced themselves that they (and only they) 'know' the 'answers'. Its hard for me to decide which breed of politician is worse, but what is remarkable, encouraging and inspiring, is that the the Occupy people, even amid their various agendas, want to arrive at a solution through consensus. They know that they dont know all the answers. If I can characterize these protesters, it is that they are, among all the people I have met, the ones who can be most accurately described as democrats.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Maxim Power Station

Reply recieved from the Liberals:


Thank you for your recent email regarding the proposed Maxim Power coal plant.

The Liberal Party shares your grave worry that the Maxim plant is attempting to skirt the recently announced federal greenhouse gas regulations for coal-powered electricity by going operational before the regulations are to take effect in 2015.

While our Party remains concerned that these regulations alone will not do enough to reach our stated goal of generating 70 percent of Canada’s electricity from zero-emitting sources by 2020, which is essential in order for us to reach green house sas reduction targets, no party should be allowed to skirt these regulations.

The Liberal Party will be asking the Minister of the Environment to close loopholes in the regulations to prevent companies from trying to avoid these new emission rules, while also advocating greater federal investments in renewable energies and green technologies we so urgently require to put us on the path towards sustainability.

Thank you once again for your email. If you have any further questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact us.

Yours sincerely,

Kirsty Duncan, MP

Etobicoke North"

One of the huge ironies of all major political parties is that Canada could over about half its populated space, be completely self sufficient (and very low emission) in terms of power production, despite being such an energy hungry place today, not by 2020.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Extreme Yoghurt Knitting

A friend has a friend, a sometime wit and poet, and a definite sceptic, who describes our street as populated with yoghurt knitters. He arrives at this characterization because on the surface, the street festivals and local focus that make this road 'the friendliest street in Hull', the organic wholefood store at the end of the street, several adult inhabitants (who really ought to know better) who sport rapidly balding dreadlocks and wear bright waistcoat and the diverse demographic of the street can, to the lazy observer, lead one to the wrong conclusions. The impression my fiend's friend is trying to convey is that the street is populated with wooly minded, feeble hippies, actionless peaceniks and spineless potheads lost in a world of Pink Floyd and Hawkwind, but not really people who engage with the real world. Having smirked grimly once (out of politeness) at a dinner party when hearing the appellation, subsequent repetitions - and my increasing knowledge of my neighbours - make our poet's inaccuracy more flagrant. and so every time my friend's friend quoth his witticism, I grew more irritated. I felt like causing a flaming row at his gentle dinner-party-banter-no-harm-meant-just-a-smug-superiority-complex-in-development witticism, delivered as it was in a grisly Glaswegian accent that carried his class credentials as 'authentic working' therefore presenting a definitive, condescending judgement on our street.

Nurses, drug counsellors, teachers in the hardest of Hull's inner city schools, carpenters, chefs, unemployed, music promoter, retired postman, retired docker, car mechanic, scaffolder. And yes, musicians, artists, students and other bohemians in our street, but also Congolese, Polish, Hungarian and Canadians. And there is also what we actually do together when we work as a community - it does not usually involve sitting round in a 'Healing Circle' banging First Nations drums and channelling our energies. As last week has shown, usually we graft, on this occasion, a pooling of collective resources to paint, and fix up some issues on the exterior of our houses. As the most experienced scaffolder present (ie I had actually done it before), my main job was putting the scaffold up and down at the end of each day, as unfortunately it was a mobile tower and therefore impossible to secure. But by the end of the week, I was just supervising the dismantling a little bit, as a team of rugged, hairy arsed scaffolders emerged. No hippies here, just brilliantly professional, pleasant, hard-hard-hard working people who it was a pleasure to spend time with. And at 10 metres at full height, this was no picnic - it was dangerous (inherently), physically very demanding and often posed difficult problems to solve. We became so professional we even had, in the tradition of all scaffold crews, tough nicknames - Largey, Bristol Lil, Rooster, Russ, Gash and The Gaffa.

My friend's friend is actually a great laugh most of the time. But his cynical take on our street reflects a cynicism that often passes in England for humour. Its not a cynicism about one's personal fortunes, or the weather, or perhaps politicians, but an ugly oneupmanship usually directed broadside at one's peer group. Laughing at, as opposed to with, other people is a national obsession, and if you mention it (as a unpleasant but characteristic cultural trait) to people living here, the aggressive defence is to describe their bitter humour as 'banter' or 'just taking the piss, a bit', and to claim that 'you cant take a joke'. I understand where the origins of this 'humour' arise. So many enterprises, especially community initiatives attempted in the UK are slow, waddling failures that as a self defence mechanism its better to develop a hardened scepticism than enthusiastic endorsement. So it becomes easier to snipe from the sidelines, passing it off as 'banter' than to try something very difficult.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Ride of Hope 2: The True Story

Forest trails can be excellent - no cars, no people. But watch out for hornets - not only hurty, but positive evidence of genetic hacking carried out by "Them".

Before revealing the truth behind this year's Ride of Hope, I should like to just clarify something. Lindisfarne AKA Holy Island - and I dont mean the late 1970's folk/rock band - mean the geographical location - is crap. If there are ever moves launched by the islanders, or anyone else for that matter, to have that place recognised as a World Heritage Site, I will launch an immediate Facebook campaign with the emphasis on 'against'. For those that dont know what Lindisfarne is, the best description I can provide is that it is a small heap of mud, slightly (but not dramatically enough to be interesting) off the shore of Northumberland, created by the monotonous deposition of tidal silt, and is a place made famous because

Top to bottom: Landscape near the Cheviots, The Bridge of Death near the Infamous 68, The best cycling cafe in the world. Also pictured is a mysterious forest, and the picture of Skarra emerging is a re-enactment of the most exciting thing that happened to us on Lindisfarne.

long ago some monk decided to live there. The best thing I can say about Lindisfarne is that on a daily basis, high tide floods the causeway connecting it to the mainland, making the 'island' inaccessible. It truly is a dull place.

The same cannot be said of the rest of Northumberland, which is by and large pretty spectacular, populated with great people, superb cycling cafes and even better cycling. For a few days we revelled in single track roads that motorists, in their eternal rush to be somewhere, have largely forgotten.

We climbed across the Cheviots, thighs burning as we dragged bikes laden with full panniers up hills that looked impossible, then swooped down the same hills in a fraction of the time they took to climb - an exhilirating, if too brief, reward for the hours of ascent. We argued constantly, befitting an agglomeration of two of the finest brains to have taken this route at this particular time, Liverpool Football club versus Manchester United, will Beyonce quit showbusiness, will it or wont it rain?

As usual, after the first day, the rest of the planet faded and the only thing that mattered was ride- eat- shower-eat- sleep. 'Its a hunter-gatherer existence' I reflected on one gentle section 'doing comes before thinking, and pragmatics way before reflection' then another bloody hill hit and the brilliant pain took over. QED. For a time everything was great. Then we hit the National Cycle Network route 68 after a brilliant, ascent, and descent of the Cheviots.

The UK's national cycle network is a great idea : hundreds of cycle friendly, often car free routes - old railway lines, small country lanes, forgotten paths - which, according to the smiling faces on the website, you can either use as the basis of long distance cycle journeys, pop to your local shops, have stress free daily commute or take your family for a fun day of relatively safe cycling.

The website certainly supports this characterisation of NCN routes - helpful little lanes and by-ways, dingling through the dells and immensely grateful for their rediscovery, gently unfolding in just the right way to allow smiling families in jeans and other leisure wear to enjoying an active, but not too strenuous day out.

The World's best cycling cafe, is near Barrowburn. And that is really the truth. AT the bottom of a very fast ten mile descent, very rarely visited by anyone except cyclists we had a good chat here with other local cyclists, and got some good advice based on their local knowledge. Advice we subsequently completely ignored.

Not so The Infamous 68. It snarls and dips, grinds and rasps, up ascents that Hillary would shirk, and through switchbacks that the latter stages of the Amazon would disown as "too

complicated". Discarded cycles lay on the side of the 'path', mewling pathetically. Snags of lycra clothing hang in the vicious brambles that grew from uncomfortably at mid-chest level to dangerously at eye level and launch attacks your face,, shoulders, arms and back, while thorns, thistles, and worst of all, nettles attempt to make your legs stop working. And these are not the only tricks up its sleeve: at one point it disappears completely into a series of fields cresting a hill, and later three fords wait at the bottom of rutted mountain bike paths that I would argue, only an expert in extreme sports should contemplate. Then there are the gates ..............the eternal fricking gates.

Despite these torments, Skarra and I dont give up, pressing on to our destination of that evening - the little town of Wooler - via the path instead of, as we had been advised the previous day, abandoning the path and using the parallel main highway instead. And it is with an enormous sense of achievement that we finally arrive in Wooler.

"Wow" I enthuse to Skarra "Eighteen miles like that, and with full panniers!! I dont think many other road cyclists get through that you know !"

Skarra nods his head "I know that not many other road cyclists get through that: remember what that local cyclist, Steve, told us last night? He said - and I quote - "You'd have to be stupid to ride that final section to Wooler on a road bike. Really, really stupid. In fact, we've been campaigning to get the route taken off the NCN. They dont call it the Infamous 68 for nothing. No, its just an invitation to ruin your bike and break something. God, the idiots that try it!!!". Then he said...."

"Ok" I interrupt him " I get the picture, we were warned by Steve. But how did we know Steve was not just spinning a yarn - scaring the tourists?"

As a reductionist, Skarra is nothing of not pendantic, and once started on a track, feels the need to investigate it all the way.

"Well, all the other cyclists also said it in the cyclists cafe - the one in Barrowburn that is the best cyclists cafe in the world that we said we'd never forget - and then there's the guide books, the warnings that were posted and those two Dutch cyclists covered in blood that we met who had just tried it from the other direction. Plus...."
"Ok, ok" I concede " fair enough. That second ford was cool though......"

And we're off again, discussing the ride - gears chosen, riding positions preferred, water strategies - all completely boring to anyone listening, but for me, the whole point of riding - total absorption in solving a problem without the burdensome daily drag of normal life, politics, position and awkward human interaction that is often described as 'thinking'.

The technical details of cycling are not something that this blog will investigate, there are other much better blogs that cover cycling for that. But while preparing for this ride, an article on rainment for cycling did come to my attention, which I would like to share. It is an extraordinary article from the normally excellent Independent newspaper's cycling section, and what is particularly interesting is the recommendation within re footwear. I can only be grateful I didnt follow this piece of advice.

Monday, 22 August 2011

RIP Jack Layton

A note to mark the passing of Jack Layton, leader of the NDP, the last political party I ever voted for. For a change, here was a politician who had some genuine intelligence, some humanity and principals. See :

for an obituary.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Two Items on the agenda

THe first being that the sweep came, saw and passed - the chimney that is. Actually, one very irritating thing about the locals is that so many of them say 'chibley', not chimney. At first, when stopping random strangers on the street to discuss the condition of my stack, I thought they were being cutesy , doing 'baby talk' for comic effect. However, baby talk is usually not cute anyway, its just incomprehensible babble, often irritating. The number of times I have been encouraged to listen and try to decipher - usually by a preening adult - the vital revelation a child is anxious to impart only to discover that I've lost ten minutes of my life conforming that circular objects filled with air can be classified as "balls", are incalculable. But as I progressed down the street discussing chimneys and wood burning stoves renovations with anyone who would listen, I arrived not only at the hardware store, but also at the conclusion that the mispronunciation of 'chimney' as 'chibley' is indeed a local effect. This discovery, accompanied by the inappropriate wearing of maxi dresses made want to leave Hull. I should immediately point out that I was not wearing maxi dresses inappropriately, but that Hull is, like many English cities, and I am risking prosecution for underexaggeration here, religious in its adherence to fashion following, and the maxi dress is, for females, the new religion. Unlike the cardigan, I can see how the concept of the maxi dress is imagined - an elegant summer item, lightly swathing the wearer in waterfalls of draping fabric: very attractive- and in fashion shoots, it works very well. But in reality, it only works on certain body shapes in certain fabrics, and in the cheap clothing/bad food capital of the UK, where over-made-up is the norm ans subject to a constant North Easterly, the actual effect on the street is that a stroll to our local shops is like walking through an open air canvas tent factory, staffed by pantomime dames shouting "chibley", during a gale.

The remedy is of course to get away, and the second annual Ride of Hope beckons. But here, a bombshell must be revealed. Cheek to Cheek's Second Annual Ride of Hope will not now be occuring in the Welsh Border regions. This year the ride will bring Hope to Northumberland. AN approximation of the route can be found here.
View Larger Map

I say approximation because this year we have dispensed with the official national cycle network and are striking out on our own, deciding on exact routes on a nightly basis. The reasons for this are many, but one primary reason is that our planned route to Bristol took us through the southern Welsh valleys for at least a day. The Southern Welsh valleys are attractive landscapes, to an extent, but they were also the site of the mining industry of Wales. Great people definitely (judging by the friends I have who derive from the Welsh Valleys), inspirational music for sure(in the form of the classic male voice choirs) and an early site of British Socialism, but the area is scattered with ex-mining villages, museums and all the reminders that this was an area where communities were destroyed by political motivations, not economic or environmental changes. Having lived most of my life in areas similarly affected, and living somewhere now where much the same processes are occurring, and finding the British political landscape deeply depressing, I wanted to go somewhere less recently affected. Northumberland, while not immune to the vagaries of modern politics, is much more remote. It is literally 'getting away from it all'

Finally, on a happy note, I can report that this year's annual plunge into the mire of depression has been successfully negotiated. I know this because a week ago, during a routine conversation re cats, in the middle of a sentence about Toshack's latest exploits (lying round all day, chasing Cheeky Monkey, miaowing frequently), I suddenly noticed that I was blubbing uncontrollably about being a failure, and immediately following said blub, I felt much better. "Hang on" I asked myself, "Better?". "Yes" the other me replied, "Better".

A quick review of the commensurate day revealed that I did indeed feel 'better' having been unblissfully unaware for several weeks that I actually felt 'worse'. Walking to the local store now did not require seventeen checks of the front door to ensure it was locked when leaving the house, and furthermore, that the trip was not now conducted under urgent notice, with a pounding heart as a 'must do' at an exact pre-determined time, failure to accomplish the objective of which (buying milk) would be cataclysmic, but success of which would be grandly ticked off on my 'to do' list under "#3. 14:35hrs. Buy Milk". Walking, riding, talking, going to the toilet or indeed any process involving planning on a higher or lower cognitive functional level no longer resulted in a slow motion sensation that one's brain was full of slow setting chocolate, and the endless writing of lists referred to no longer include as objective #1: 'Get up'.

So now its back to normal - being scared of buttons, watching wasps hunt caterpillars, having long conversations with cats and obsessing about ear hair. Time has once again become a friendly ocean that I bob around in, with a few distant islands as reference points, not a raging torrent full of rocks waiting to smash you to smithereens, and people have, for the most part, become human again, not a series of active malicious thoughts. Once out of a depression, my own overwhelming feeling is one of relief, often associated with relief that I didnt accomplish certain things. This summer that has mainly been that I didnt yet get round to building a fire in my 'chibley', or buy RHB a floral maxi dress.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Red Letter, or rather Black Soot Day

Huzzah, huzzah, the sweep is coming, the sweep is coming. Raise a garland! Plant a flag !

Its actually as exciting a day as I've had for ages - I find out the condition of my chimney. According to my information, it is assessed, after sweeping as either 'good', 'fair' or 'condemned'. Yikes !

Saturday, 6 August 2011


Those with fair to middling memories, or an acute interest in gardens, might recall that the posterior of Large Mansions resembled at one time a bankrupt builder's merchant's yard that had been hit by a medium sized atomic weapon. As the first four pictures here show (all taken about September 2009), our rear was bare, barren and smelly.

And as anyone who has occupied this property may recall, even as recently as Christmas 2010, there remained areas of our territory that were untamed, and frankly dangerous. However and further to this, by way of illuminating the following, anyone who has ever played Settlers of Catan with either RHB, or self, will understand that despite our egalitarian facades, we are both, in our own ways, prone to - nay enthusiastic about - Empire building. And further to that further, persons may be aware that since June, I have been on extended furlough, a term that is impossible to explain the pronunciation of to speakers of other languages, thus remaining sadly underused in my own vocabulary, except in times of need such as now. And, as an aside, and as the foregoing illustrates, this extended period of leisure has not been densely populated with my practising the art of clear writing, as will be necessary in my impending deployment. No, instead, I have spent most of the last few months improving my demesne, or, in more prosaic terms 'messing around in the garden'.

This has not been an instant process. For example, an ugly wooden fence ran the length of one side of the garden. The decision was made, towards the middle of June, that the fence should be removed, and the surplus bricks we had dug up, or remained from Concretia would be used to rebuild a traditional English garden wall. The decisions were also made that:

a) Yrs truly would be the one to rebuild said wall, depending on
b) A consultation with Darren, the expert Master bricklayer who built our extension to determine level of skill, feasibility and unforeseen problems.

I found Darren in the Bull's Arms, propping up the bar, and bought him a drink. Polite conversation established that work had been hard to come by recently, and he was interested in taking on a new project. I told him about my plan, and, in view of his situation, invited him to join our enterprise.

"Not a chance" said Darren, ordering another pint " I'm too busy".

"But you just said....." I protested

"Well I suddenly remembered that there are a million things I have to do, including tearing my own arm off and beating myself to death with it, sticking unsterilised needles in my eyes, and chewing a metre of barbed wire for a bet, all of which are vastly preferable, and probably better for my reputation than building a wall out of those particular recycled bricks in that location".

"So you think there might be a few problems with the job, then?" I asked.....

A few hours later, armed with the knowledge that the rebuild in the manner I proposed to do it was "a stupid idea, especially if you Mart - no offence but I have seen your plastering and you just dont 'get' stone products - are going to be the one doing it" , I ordered the mortar. It has taken me three months, although not constant. And I have had to pretend that the Gaudi-esque wobbles are deliberate, theatrical interpretations, adding character. BUt the wall is at least built and I fihure if I get enough ivy to grow on it quickly enough before it falls over, the ivy will hold it together.

We have also acquired a wood burning stove, priced at 60 pounds. This, as anyone familiar with British prices will be aware, is very cheap, as these devices usually cost about 500 pounds for a similar size. However there are a few reasons this particular stove is cheap as follows:

1. It is competely rusted having been left outside for two years
2. There is no glass in the front.
3. One door is broken
4. THe flue has fallen out
5. One of the vent covers is broken.

It looks like this:

we figure with just a bit of work, it'll look brand new. Also it will reduce our heating bill enormously this winter. And also, as the global economy fails, bringing down our beautiful civilization with it (many people think these two things are the same, but I can assure you they are not), and rioting in England spreads, we figure we'll have a way to heat ourselves and get water.

Finally, the eagle eyed among you will have noticed that we are growing Brussel Sprouts next to our pond. I have no idea why I decided to plant this crop as i hate them. Brussel Sprouts are, in my opinion, up there with cardigans and tanning salons in my private list of completely useless things, and are certainly not going to be missed at Large Mansions when civilization does collapse.

Finally, when society does collapse, we will be heading for Nova Scotia, via Scotland, The Faroes, Iceland and Greenland. This is because I think you could just about live in the Bras D'or Lakes Region.

Monday, 1 August 2011

A cautious whiff of optimism

I have never posted on the beautiful game before on this blog, perhaps because the most succesful club in the history of English football have been rather disappointing over the last few years (apart from a fifth European Championship in 05 and runners-up in 06).

But watching the magnificent progess through pre-season , I think every English, and European club should be very afraid of Liverpool Football Club this season.

There, I've done it, I've made a prediction. Now all I need to do is persuade Nel to let me gamble the proceeds from our house sale on Liverpool success this year. It's a sure bet, a dead cert.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Journalism and fishing

Many readers will remember a product review, posted earlier this week, and will be astonished that that piece qualifies as journalism. You may think to yourself 'If that's journalism, then that particular profession is in deep trouble'. And indeed it is. And many practices and elements of journalism that have landed it in deep trouble are shared with fishing. And like fishing, or more accurately fishermen (I'm sorry I cannot use the CBC approved phrase 'fisher' as this is a small mammmal) most of the trouble that the profession is is is its own fault.

Take incredibly dubious work practices, for example. These are, as we all know, rife within journalism - recent scandals of phone tapping, email stealing and graft dont need repeating here. But what strikes me, is that when a British newspaper recently closed because of the dubious practices of some of its staff, there was sympathy (in other newspapers) expressed for the 'hundreds of other good journalists who have lost their job'. I am unsure how familiar readers are with English tabloid newspapers, but 'good journalism' is not something one expects to find therewithin: pictures of ladies breasts - yes, breathless gossip about a reality tv star - yes, blatant stereotyping and marginalisation of any groups considered 'out' by the target demographic - yes, but good journalism???? SO who was writing this crap? I presume it was not the 'good journalists'. I pictured the "News of the World" newsroom divided in half with a bunch of sleazy creeps on one side writing about boobs and stars, and a group of hard-bitten 'real' journos on the other, working on the next Watergate.

The answer I recieved from a friend was that in reality the guys who wrote about the titties and the celebrities actually were 'really good journalists' (he knew some of them). The sleazy creeps and the good journalists were one and the same people but, hey, you know, work is hard to find these days, so the good journalists were only pretending to be sleazy creeps while they were working at these tabloids until a proper job came along.

I dont know if anyone knows about over-fishing, or has lived in a fishing community. There are probably a few good fishermen, who dont over-fish, dont land their catches at different quays under the cover of darkness and who dont engage in really bad practices, and to them I apologise. But they are the minority. And, I am aware of the factory ships that many inshore fishermen say are responsible for the demise of fish stocks. But the simple fact is that inshore fisheries - local communities, local fishermen, the small independent operators have been as terrible at protecting the oceans as the big conglomerates. From net fishing tuna to the point of extinction in the Meditteranean to poisoning seals in the Scottish Highlands. From illegal codfishing in Nova Scotia and the Grand Banks to Alaskan communities that insist on whaling because its 'traditional'. From shark's fin soup to caviar, from dynamiting lagoons to drag netting, inshore fishermen have been, and continue to be just as bad as the big multi-national conglomerates.

Journalism and fishing are in deep trouble. Fishermen have attacked the oceans in search of profit but now continually point the finger at others (big business, the consumer, other fishermen) as wrong doers. Journalists have scoured the limits of ethical behaviour to unearth salacious details about the sex lifes of celebrities, and yet claim that this is 'news' .

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Product Review: The Oral 'Toothmaster Plus' Electric Toothbrush

The implement works very well. In use, teeth feel extremely clean, and while lacking a spectroscope to assess claims that my teeth were several shades whiter after a week, I certainly didnt have that gacky feeling that you might get if using a less technologically sophisticated device, such as a stick.

There are, however, a few issues. The first of these is battery changing. The machine is powered by two 'AA' batteries, renewal of which is achieved by removal of the base section of the sculpted plastic handle. Due to the fact that water is frequently involved in toothbrushing, this base section is a very tight fit. Once the new ones are installed, replacing the base requires firm pressure against a rubber sealing ring separating the removable base from the remainder of the sculpted handle. The first design flaw I discovered is that if you get frustrated trying to get the base to fit securely, smashing the base of the whole object against a doorframe, or using a hammer (even a lightweight tack hammer) to ensure the base docks permanently in the handle results in fissures (or cracks) in the base. These fissures allow water entrance into the battery compartment, causing shorting of the batteries. Once this problem has occurred, then even repeated wraps of electrical tape, Saran wrap and duct tape do not provide permanent solutions as watertightness can never be re-established. Additionally, as water attacks the glue of the tape you have applied, brushing rapidly becomes a messy business, and a pool of assorted goo agglomerates in the basin.

A second technical problem with this toothbrush is its utility as piece of bicycle cleaning equipment. In standard useage, a non-electrical toothbrush is a controllable, yet effective, (essential) part of your bike cleaning kit. The only trick is to have the correct cleaning solution at hand for the toothbrush head after use on the bike as any degreaser left on the head leaves an unpleasant aftertaste (when later combined with toothpaste). However, this electrical device has no frequency or amplitude control (of vibration). Thus, if you have applied cleaning fluid to your rims, even the gentlest application of the tool results in uncontrollable spatter across a considerable diameter. In tests, the newly painted wall I tried this against required repainting across a vertical diameter of about 1.5 metres and horizontally, the carpet has been ruined from between 1 to 1.34metres.

All in all though, an excellent product, and if these minor defects are adjusted in the new versions, I'm sure we will be giving it five stars. Rating: ***

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Ride of Hope - Mountainbiking Version

C2C (this is the name of the progressive rock project that various Cheek to Cheek members are involved in ) are apparently disgusted with the tension currently racking the band. C2C member 'N'tram (C2C members all have names based on an imagined alien race who have dispensed with many unnecssary jobs) said :

"Those guys are doing my head in. They should just do it, you know. C2C believe in action and we are launching our own Ride of Hope. It will be like the mountain biking you can see here "

Friday, 22 July 2011

Ride of Hope - Update

A split has been reported in the ranks of Cheek to Cheek, as secret emails 'obtained' by this reporter show. The announcement that this year's ride of Hope would be in support of Freeway - THe Dublin One, was premature, with at least one member of the duo rejecting this as a worthy cause, as the following email exchange between Skarra and Mazzer illustrates.

Mazzer to P:

Hi P,

See you about lunch time (1.00pm???) .

In the meantime, I have found a cause for our Ride of Hope . The cause is "Save Little Freeway (The Dublin 1)" and it will be a campaign to save Freeway from her terrible ordeal - arrested by the vicious Irish police and evicted form her home and now kept in detention.

Skarra in reply to Mazzer:

Yep, 1 pm is fine. See you then.

As for that kitten, it’s disgraceful that animals can be that lazy – further evidence of the sedentary lifestyles that humans and animals are adopting these days. Another example is that lazy rabbit we nearly ran over the other night. I don’t mind animals lying down, but to do so on a public highway is dangerous and stupid.

I’m afraid I’m in full support of the brave police officers who risked their lives to apprehend that selfish layabout.

Mazzer to Skarra:

Well that opinion of animals leave our Ride Of Hope in tatters, a shattered dream, as far as I'm concerned. Not because I love animals (just some animals, and only a few of them human) but because we now have no cause. We risk the same debacle as last year, where we rode our message of hope across Cumbria and Northumberland, but forgot to arrange what that message was.

I blame you for this, as you obviously read the newspapers, whereas I dont. I would suggest as an alternative theme that we ride for the Neanderthal Rights - the right to marry, the right to get a job, the right to good housing and an education, but I'm afraid you will poo-poo this idea as well, despite the desperate plight of said species.

If this is not acceptable, then you'll have to come up with a cause.

Sources within the band say this rift could jedopardize the imminent album release and first shows by the influential combo. This could be expensive for their record label, who have constructed a lavish stage set, rumoured to cost twenty-six pound fifty three pence. A spokesperson for Cheek-by-Jowl, the bands record label said :

"Hopefully we can get the tax back form the purchase of the two plastic chairs, although at present we havent found the receipt".

The Ride of Hope 201 - Announcement

Cheek to Cheek, the seminal folk-punk-elecro band have issued the following Press Release:

'This years Ride of Hope from Chester to Bristol will be in aid of Freeway - The Dublin One. This week, the Irish Police cruelly evicted Freeway (The Dublin One) from her home and are now holding her in detention. We will campaign for the immediate release of Freeway and full compensation in the form of a lifetime's supply of 'Yummys'.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011


As a successful undergraduate, I have issued this guide which is intended to pass on what I have learned, and help others become as brainy as what I did become.
Throughout remember grammes and punctuality are important, as spell check most of it, even the bits that are copy and pasted. The most important part of essay writing though is that it flows logically and presents a coherent argument.

1. Intro:
This is the bit where lay down what you are going to say in the whole essay. It is usually written five minutes before you hand it in.

WHy has it been so long between blog posts? Well, mostly because things have been going very well and there's no news in happiness. Also, Yorkshire remains anthropologically fascinsating, but is no longer new, although some dialectical concerns will be addressed hereinforthto. And thirdly, I've been building a wall. And fourthly, this entry will finally answer why the questions "Is toadpole a word?" and "Why are flamingos pink?" will never be answered.

2. First coupla paragraqphs:

This bit can be descriptive, a bit, on account of how you might have to describe and expand upon some basi concepts and definitions that you wrote in the intro. This is the easiest part of the essay although its still not fun.

Plans for the PHD have developed and plans are now firmly in place for the work to be done in a Languages department at a major University. Having met my supervisors, I am very excited about the next three years. However, prior to applying to, and being accepted by the Languages Department, I had discussions with a few other University departments in the region about doing a PHD with mixed results. Most, I am happily surprised to report, were very interested in my ideas. But some of the interviews were a bit strange. THe basic idea for the PhD is to study the complex world of adult second language learning. Initially thought the Education departments of three local Universities would be the natural home for my proposed research. "Where?" I thought to myself " Would be better placed to study language learning classes than a local Education department?". However, a typical interview with most of these Education Departments went a bit like this:

Professor: We love your proposal.

Mazzer: Oh Great! When do we start?

Professor: Well, there are a few problems, though............

Mazzer: Oh, yes. I realise that as an undergrauate, I am not fully formed, and that my proposal will be modified somewhat if I am what do I need to do to modify it????

Gets pen and paper, looks up eagerly, ready to make notes....

Professor: Well, as I said, the proposal is great.........M writes 'Proposal great' ......but this thing about languages ? we dont really do languages here....Mazzer writes 'Languages problem - see interdisciplinary- possibly consult languages department where necessary ?' ......and this emphasis on adult learning? well we dont really do that here either .....Mazzer begins to write 'Dont do adult learning?' then stops

Mazzer: I'm sorry to interrupt, but what part of adult learning dont you do? You are an Education department arent you?

Professor: Well, yes, but the whole bit about learning, really, its a bit passe. We dont do that, particulalry not reductionist approaches to finding out how people actually learn. THis stuff about social policy though, we DO love that. And that's what we think the PhD shoud be about...

Mazzer: What the social policy of adult second language learning? That is really just one small part of my proposal.

Professor: Yes, and thats the bit we loved. Apart from the focus on adults and learning. What we like is the politics of social policy generally.

Mazzer: But would'nt that be a politics PhD?

Professor: Exactly !!! You could still refer to adult learning in the footnotes if you like, I suppose.....but essentially, I see this PhD as a critique of Government policy..its very exciting.........

3. The central argument.

This is the bit where you are at your most creative. You assemble an argument, supporting it with evidence. It is important to maintain continuity with the rest of the essay and that it not be disjointed.

As mentioned, not much has happened. I have worked on the house, specifically our garden, have taught a lot of classes, and have done quite a bit of advance research for the PhD. I have also watched a lot of soccer, and played music more than I have done for years. I also have attempted to sign on for 'Job Seekers Allowance' but that situation became so ridiculous that writing about it risks accusations of exagerration.

Firstly the football. I have watched Liverpool's pre-season tour of the Far East with interest. Expect an unedited (from the original) re-posting (for the fourth year running) of the now traditional post 'A faint whiff of optimism'. I am going to the local football stadium on Saturday to watch the Mighty reds play Hull in a pre-season friendly.

Secondly the wall. Those familiar with my plastering exploits will be aware (from 'The Calumny of Plastering') of my complete inability in, but continuing addiction to, the stone based arts. To the left of our small garden, there has been an unattractive wooden fence for many years. I was facd with two problems : firstly I hated said fence with a passion, and secondly I had a largish pile of bricks left from our renovations. THe answer seemed obvious. So I tore the fence down, and with the same amount of experience in building brick walls that various Education departments seem to have in studying adults, I set to building a wall. Eschewing convention on account of impatience, I decided to forego traditional tools for establishing essential ingredients of a wall such as of 'plumb', 'true' and 'straight' and deecided my eye was accurate enough. I soon discovered the error of my ways, and as the wall began to emerge it curved (in the horizontal dimension), wavered (in the vertical dimension) and skewed (across all three, or possibly four dimensions) so the next three weeks were a daily battle of carefully placing bricks to tyr to return it to the straight and narrow, like an enormous game of Jenga. The result is aesthetcally pleasing in that the wall looks as if it is a hundred years old and just about to fall down. I now pretends that the effect is deliberate, based on the organic architecture of Gaudi.

4. Conclusion.

This is where you sum up your arguments, not forgetting to include everything you have previously mentioned.

I have run out of space. One of the ridiculous elements of this summer is that for the first time in years, have a whole summer unoccupied. Yet I fnd myself daily short of time. This is good though. There are things I want to do outside, and very soon I will be immersed in three years of hard study, tied to a desk. One thing I did not mention earlier is that Cheek to Cheek are planning our second 'Ride of Hope', this time through the Welsh borders - from Chester, to Shrewsbury to Bristol. Also, not mentioned is that younger brother, a victm of the recession is in Euroe for three months, travelling with his family and camping. He has been to Frnace, Italy, Croata, Slovena, Hungary, Romania and is heading back through Austra, Germany and France. One of the great things is though, we talk on Skype a coule of times per week. Via con Dios.

Monday, 4 July 2011


As proof that life is indeed circular (which feels, on occasion like a downward spiral), this blogger returned last week to the very reason this blog was started in the first place, namely namely the dole office, or more accurately the acute misery, accompanied by absurdities so extravagent that Jean Genet himself would blanche.

As you may know, the occupier of these words has currently completed his degree, with a degree of success that was nearly surprising. I say nearly, because frankly, I expected to pass. The cumulative marks up to Christmas meant that one would have had to do something absurd, such as fall over a large pinkish cat while attempting to use the bathroom late one night without turning on a light or applying one's spectacles, smashing one's head against the windowsill resulting in a fractured spinal bone and severe concussion a few brief days before completion of one's final assignments, thus making the task of completion impossible, for one not to have passed. Fortunately, there was not, as has been recently confirmed by X-ray, sufficient spinal damage to prevent one finishing the essays. The extent of my passing was somewhat unexpected, as not only did I obtain a First class degree but have also been awarded a prize for academic achievement. In the tradition of English people, I shall describe these results as 'quite satisfying', and that I was 'somewhat pleased' with the way things turned out.

None the less, graduate or not, after my degree, the question obviously arises, what next??? That question is a little way of having a definite answer, but for now, lets just focus on how I attempted to take care of immediate necessity by "signing on" for dole, as I am now officially unemployed. To be completely accurate, I wasnt really seeking, or expecting a payment of any kind, due to a chequered work history and RHB's wages (the UK system is a bit odd, but both are deciding factors in whether EI is granted or not). My main reason for making a claim was associated with something called National Insurance Contributions. If working, these contributions are taken from wages. If a student, they are credited to you. If unemployed, they are granted when you sign for dole. It is important to realise that no actual money changes hands concerning NI contributions when you are unemployed, your National Insurance record is just credited, but a complete National Insurance Record is a vital for all sorts of reasons to do with health care, old age pensions etc etc. So, I decided to claim.

I was initially delighted to find that three years after making some earlier observations on the subject in this very forum, a new, more efficient system has been introduced. These days, you can, claim online. 'Great' I thought ' In cases like mine, where no money is involved, and I am not in financial distress this is a great way of saving everyone time and tax-payer money - money we are told that is in such short supply in the UK these days'. Then I thought further 'Seriously, this is a really good, and proper, use of computing power. I will simply fill in an online form, the computer will very quickly link to the records from the tax office, see that I have not made enough contributions for earnings based EI and that will be the end of that. I will just be told to sign for National Insurance credits, and everyone will be spared the lengthy, frustrating and expensive assessment procedure that accompanied my last, similar effort'.

How wrong it is possible to be. Actually what happened was:

STAGE 1: Fill in the form online. About one hour. This time, fortunately, there were no stupid questions about whether I was an escaped prisoner or survivor of Monserrat volcanoes. AT the end of the process, I recieved a message saying I would get a phone call from a human in the next few days.

STAGE 2: Phone call from human. We go through the form again. All of it. One notable difference between this time and last is that person on the phone is a lot nicer. At the end of the call, I am told I will now have to attend for interview at the local office, and a date is arranged.

AT this juncture, I should point out that I have been attempting to tell the computer, and then the caller that I wont get any money.

STAGE 3: I attend for interview a few days later. I am on time. Twenty five minute late, my name is called and I meet 'Richard'. We go through the form again. Then I sign it. 'Richard' invites me to re-take a seat, and an 'advisor' will be with me shortly.

STAGE 4: Another fifteen minutes pass. The office is packed, arguments are breaking out, mostly young excitable men. I should have also mentioned that the venue is the same miserable office that was the sight of my last contact three years ago. Then my name is called. My advisor is about twelve. He barley glances at me, mumbles something and shoves a form in front of me. At this point, all my earlier public spiritedness, especially the desire not to cost any more money that is absolutely necessary, has gone out the window, particularly because it seems that my new partners - the Government, are as determined as ever to waste as much of it as they possibly can. In processing dole claims, they obviously dont mess around with this concept - so far they have splurged three hours of taxpayer's money on my file, and it look like there's no let up. I ask my 'advisor' if he could repeat what he has just said. He again rushes through a series of mumbled, semi-words that dont seem to belong together. When he stops 'speaking', I lean in close:

"A bit of advice" I say as patronisingly as I possibly can (which is 'quite') "Try to pretend you even give a flying f*** about what you are doing. The day will go quicker, you will get a less antagonistic response of people, and probably most important for you, you wont get old geezers like me asking you to repeat yourself".

He glances up, and I think I see a light of realisation dawning in his eyes, as it must have done over Olduvai Gorge all those thousands of years ago when fire was first invented. He gently, and quite vaguely waves his pen at me, friendly like.

"I should inform you that swearing at me can be considered assault in this office and we have a zero tolerance policy for such aggressive acts. I will have to ask you to sop immediately or I will call a security guard."

I am astonished, because this is said with perfect clarity. But I decide discretion is the better part of valour, and concede "Point taken. Please carry on".

My advisor shakes his 24 or 25 year old head, mumbles some more and shoves the forms at me again. I sign about eight of them, possibly they represent a commitment to invade Franz Josef Land, and leave.

The system has been re-vamped, I have been told since I last signed. The Government claims it is now more efficient. That word 'efficiency' is, like the horrible word 'bespoke', an incredibly abused word. It certainly doesnt mean what it is supposed to mean. I can only wonder which website designers, efficiency consultants, political advisors and private companies profited form that revamp. I have come to realise that in Government circles "efficiency' actually means "profits for our mates'.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Thought leaders revisited revisiting sustainability

"Jerry" I say as we drive back from Harrogate, "You realize that we have two managers each for this project. We should make the mots of this and ensure we get the most information that we can"

Jerry doesnt answer, which I consider slightly rude, until I risk a glance sideways - he's fast asleep, probably because its nearing midnight and we've been up since 5 am trying to fix the latest mess we've gotten involved in. Its the third time, on an annual basis, that I have been to Harrogate with nearly (and that word is absolutely crucial) the same show, in the same place at the same time, for the same company. Over the years, the company has shrunk - understandable given current economic circumstances nationally - but claims to have maintained its service capability and improved its practices, while developing a commitment to sustainable practices. The morning meeting I tell (the still sleeping) Jerry I will arrange with the Project Manager, Designer, Client Account Manager and Project Finance Manager in order to sort out the mess they have left us will give us a good idea of how efficient they have become. I had a preliminary meeting with the company in Leeds to discuss this years event prior to accepting the job, and was assured that this year, my only task would be, as it should be, installing a fully prepared, properly cleaned and maintained, pristine, conference stand. I really should have known better.

WHat actually happens is that the company apparently abandon the stand completely. I arrive at their warehouse to find a moldy, dusty old stand, mice nests in its darkest corners, numerous dings and bangs from collisions with forklift trucks in the warehouse. It look terrible, even blessed by the darkness of a dingy Leeds warehouse. And this set is incredibly heavy. All there is to move the set in the warehouse is one very small trolly with three working wheels. From there, things have gotten worse and by the end of the first day onsite, I have no idea how this show is going to happen. Therefore, as I tell Jerry, I call a meeting of the four managers responsible for arranging this project.

We meet on-site as agreed. The first order of business is to establish exactly what needs doing to this conference stand. Essentially, the stand (or show as I interchangeably call it) consists of a raised floor on top of which a four metre high, twelve metre long double sided, internally lit wall sits. Attached to this is a working bar. There is also two seperate elements that demarcate the corner of the stand. While that describes the basics, every year there are subtle changes. It takes three full days to install the set, because behind this simple description, there is lighting, plumbing, electrical installations to arrange and some av work to hook up. Today is day two.

I note this to the designer "I think before we do anything, we [when I use the word 'we' I mean me and Jerry] need to know what changes are there to the set?"

The designer thinks for a minute "Well not that much actually. We [when these people use the word 'we' they also mean me and Jerry]only need to remove the graphics on the bar and figure a way of installing this sign (he holds up a sign, mounted on plastic about A3 size) without visible mountings and apply all the graphics to the overhead truss (this is a big lighting bar hung above the stand)and move the position of the wall mounted plasma tv's."

"And that's all?" I ask increduously.

"Well", says the Client Account Manager, who being a a 'people person' has probably spotted the look on my face "I know that's a lot, but I think we can do it if we work really hard. And there's a few other things to do - the client though the stand looked scruffy last year: we need to replace the chips in the laminate as well. The thing is, we need to know how much time we need. What do you think, Red Mazzer??"

I'm not sure whether Jerry has gone outside to catch a bus back to Hull, or just to try and find some drugs, so I have, temporarily, no partner to provide verification, but I give the best estimate I can:

"Installing the graphics will take about a day, fixing the laminate will take about a day, setting up the show and hooking up the Av will take about a day, and removing the graphics from the bar will take about two days. Effectively, we will probably be finished two days after the show ends. And there's no point sending me anyone to help, unless they are very skilled, because these are all skilled jobs. So do you have anyone?"

"Er, No."

The rest of the conversation goes along similar lines, like:

Can you do with out the changes?

Er. NO.

Have you given any thought what-so-ever to how this show might actually get installed ?

Er. NO.

SO why do you expect me to give a Flying F*** when you so obviously dont?

Er. We do care. I did a 36 hour stint in the office last week.

Well done, although that doesnt show commitment, just murderous intent on the part of your employer allowing that to happen, and total gullibility on your part in doing it. But that aside, what do you want me to do, given the situation you lot have have put us in ?

Er, We were hoping you would tell us.

The worst thing is, when the inevitable happens, and the client comes on site and has an absolute meltdown because their show is, of course, not ready, the Client Account Manager, rather than accepting responsibility for this eventuality on behalf of the company, blames an utterly blameless third party, accusing them of not doing their job properly. Needless to say, the client is so angry that she seeks out this third party to remonstrate with them, and inevitably, the truth emerges. The necessary services of the third party were not engaged by the Project Manager until so late that the third party was only able to provide part of what was requested. The overall effect of this is that half of the stand is unlit. It looks like a Goth has designed it. The stupidity of lying to the client becomes apparent as the third party explains their entirely blameless role in the proceedings and the finger points back to the company. Not deterred by looking like a complete idiot, the Client Account Manager then proceeds to attempt similar lies to explain away other deficiencies in the stand. One of those lies points the finger firmly in my direction, as it attributes the bangs and scrapes in the once pristine laminate surface to lack of care during transport of the show, an area which is part of my remit.

The whole week is a comedy of errors. In actual fact, the company get their show with only a minor delay to the presentation of some video material. And the various company managers breathe a huge sigh of relief. I personally doubt that they have any idea at all how dangerous (in terms of real health and safety) and dangerous (in terms of not getting their product to the client at all) the approach to this show has been. Mostly however, I wonder at the culture of their company that allows this to happen. It is a company that flouts its commitments to sustainability, and its one whose self titled 'thought leaders' emphasize the humanistic and human in their written and verbal statements, its the type of 'new' approach to business typical of media, advertising and the vents industry, all first names and 'banter'. THe need to do long hours is recognised, but its presented by the company as an occasional necessary evil. The occasional stresses when things go wrong are noted by the thought leaders as inevitable in this business (and indeed they are) but the reality is actually total chaos, on a permanent basis as standard operating procedure.

Whether this company continues to function or not, does not make a great deal of difference to me. But I do notice the en0rmous stress that all the workers are under. A common presumption goes like this "If the workers are under that much stress, just imagine how much more stress the managers and thought leaders are under?" The picture of the busy executive getting hit by a mid-forties heart attack because of the stress caused by their restless efforts to keep a company afloat and make sure every one still has jobs is a common one. It is also inaccurate, as the Whitehall Study quite clearly shows. The Whitehall study shows - after investigating 18,000 people over forty years, that it is the ones lower down the totem pole that suffer from stress. Thought leaders should think about this very carefully. They can claim sustainability, walk round the shop floor jovially calling everyone by affectionate nicknames, be trendy, cry when they have to sack people, and appear human. They might claim with some legitimacy that they are supporting local jobs. But what is actually happening in many cases is that they are killing their workers through stress. Its not sustainable, its not human and its not efficient, its just desperate.