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Tricky pub quiz

Last night I helped a small team do tolerably well in a very large pub quiz. We finished in the top quartile. Two questions we weren’t asked, but would have failed if they had been (because we commute often);

1. Which word should not be part of this group?
Train-snow-freezing-December-surprised- Delayed

2. Which of the following phrases should you NOT expect to hear in December? ( especially after the long range forecast of a harsh winter in 2012)

-South West Trains is running a normal service despite the cold weather
– Due to cold weather SWT have mobilised our defrosting equipment, there will be minimal delays to your service tonight. We apologise for any minor inconvenience we cause.
– As a result of the conditions, we will be running additional trains to some destinations to ensure SWT can deliver a good service to passengers
-Due to unexpected freezing, extensive delays may, and indeed are, occurring to most destinations.

Clearly after 5+ years of ahead of inflation fare increases we are getting the service we deserve and paid for!

NB for SWT insert any train “service” provider of your choice in the UK

It may be emotional, but is it intelligent?

Two very separate incidents have occurred recently that have prompted me to think about the modern state of relationships, unfamiliarity and emotional comfort.

The first event ( actually there were a few examples over a four day spell, but one will suffice,) was in a hotel bar in Grenada last week. A retired white English gentleman holiday maker, in an all-inclusive air-conditioned 4 star hotel complex, leaning over the bar to talk with the young black married  mother serving prepaid cocktails. The man is trying to ‘relate’ with her, asking her about how much she likes the job, the hotel and how she must be able to get something better because she’s so nice. He treats her with familiarity, casually using her first name and remarking how she remembers him and his wife He then opines to me how super all the staff are, how he has been many times and made friends with them, and that this is like a little home from home.  Just warmer and sunnier.

On one level you could see this as ‘lovely’, no master/servant relationship here- he empathises, surely that’s a good thing?

But isn’t it odd? A man who holidays thousands of miles from home several times a year believes he can relate to someone on borderline poverty who happens to be the main, or even sole, breadwinner living in a shanty town with an electric fan for cooling- and that’s when the power is working after a devastating earthquake eight years ago whose wounds still bleed or gape open today across the island.

Don’t get me wrong. I respect the effort and sentiment. I recognise that today’s retirees are enjoying the Golden Age of Retirement- fully funded employer pension schemes, sound state benefits and a raft of free or discounted public services- and that they should enjoy their sunset days. ( Mind you I think discount sports stores have a lot to answer for. A lot of cheap striped nylon trackies and “running” shoes on display, and 70 year olds should not wear ‘budgie smugglers!’) However, why do we increasingly seek to breach barriers of mutual respect in an effort to ‘relate’, to empathise rather than sympathise, to ‘connect’ when the relationship is fundamentally a transactional one. You’ll never visit their home or understand their life over extended passages of time, so why pretend you might?

The second instance is today’s announcement that Kate Middleton is pregnant. My first reaction- quelle surprise, that’s part of the deal!
Then we get the beginning of the endless stream of guff from commentators and public, and what a load of twaddle.

Should she have been playing hockey last week?
Will it be twins?
What sort of mother will she be?
What sort of father will William be?
How will she/they cope with pregnancy?
What’s this horrible morning sickness thing she’s got ( at one stage I expected the BBC’s royal expert Nicholas Wytchell to use the term
metatarsal to make it sound medical and complicated) Anyone would think she has had a major accident or become severely incapacitated.

Let’s go over to Sonia who’s outside the hospital, Sonia what’s the latest? I know you’ve been outside for 3 hours and seen and heard
nothing new but please let’s have some more spurious speculation. ( Bet she doesn’t say, Kate’s watching Jeremy Kyle, while eating toast!)

Well, let’s start with some simple facts.

The baby will be of one of two sexes. Kate (excuse my familiarity but I’m trying to relate) will get more care and attention than any other citizen. It’ll be called something like Anne, Mary, Elizabeth or Victoria if it’s a girl, Charles, Philip or Edward if a boy. They’ll be
good parents and cope easily because they are loaded and have more helpers than Santa. She has morning sickness- its normal. Lots of women do and they survive. It’s no fun, but it’s not special or unique. Now can we stop speculating?

What might we take from these two examples? I just wonder why people are so concerned to move from appropriate distance in these relationships to something more familiar. What’s wrong with sympathy ( feeling pity or sorrow for another’s situation) over empathy (understanding and sharing someone’s situation)? Why do we feel the need to ‘relate’ by falsely believing we can get much closer to someone, as opposed to having an appropriate distance, after all the term ‘relationship’ describes the physical or emotional distance between two objects or people, it does not mean that intimacy is required in all circumstances.

Can I or any of us really relate to either the local hotel worker or Kate Middleton? We can sympathise, we can understand some of their
issues, but perhaps accepting who we and they are, being true to ourselves and them is a better option. Which might they prefer?
How’s this for a new approach- mutual respect and understanding  rather than false or over-worked intimacy? Now that is both emotional and intelligent.

Please fire me?

There are times when you really do wonder.

I don’t immediately recall what the minimum wage is, roughly a fiver an hour, but with 2.5m registered unemployed there are many who do. There are quite a few more who register for other benefits who might be grateful of an opportunity to get a job too.

Tonight I had one of those almost surreal experiences that make you wonder if you have lost your marbles, or if people really are that stupid.

W H Smith, railway station , ‘need for chocolate/water.’ A £2.89 transaction. You’ve got the picture- it’s nearing midnight, I want to get home and just a little something to either tide me over or stay awake. I select the items and approach the till. The cashier points me to the self-serve “bagging area” with associated tills and devices. There are no queues for either those or the manned tills, which he is at.

Is this a dilemma? No- I never wanted to be a check-out boy/girl, and frankly my limited experience of “the bagging area” has been a mix of loose vegetables, incorrect change, lack of awareness if I bought my own bags or not and using the wrong denominations. Inevitably, and in every single instance, followed by manual interference ( not in a Saville sense!) of the shop-help.

I suggest that paying at the tills would be better for me ( I don’t want a handful of shrapnel as change), preferable and WOULD KEEP HIM IN A JOB. How dumb I must be- he guides me, physically, to “the bagging area” runs my items over the scanner and invites me to insert the money into the inanimate object, I point out that giving him my two items at the till him passing them over the scanner, taking my fiver and giving me the change would be quicker and more satisfactory for me, and keep him employed! – was clearly talking Swahili.

Where will it end? Well, the bad news is either I’ll be self-serving check-out boy, or not buying choc/water. (Don’t bet on it WHS or whoever, I am not an unpaid lout, and cannot be a+sed learning this skill) for sure they, the retailers, will fire more staff, or teach them how to teach us to be check-out boys/girls! Just pay them to process simple transactions so we can be on our way, perhaps even with a happy smile and no sunny request to buy the Daily Telegraph to get a free bucket of water or a family of fourteen’s chocolate supply for a Saturday night in!

In summary, I don’t need to see marginal gains in profitability, when the price is that I and others have to do the work of a shop assistant. I’m happy to pay marginally over the odds if it means human interaction, a “brand experience” and not queuing at LIDL to buy in bulk. If the price of the minimum wage is that corporates feel they need to depersoanlise the one part of their entire customer experience that is, well, personal, then they have lost their brand identity somewhere along the line.

And if they tell their staff to dumbly make themselves redundant, and the corporation ends up  commoditising their brand/service and personality, I don’t predict long term success.

So, was it me? Did I lose my marbles? Are staff that stupid? Maybe- but I think the smart money would be on ‘marginal gains make long term pains.’

“The Beautiful Game” no more – a love lost

Many years ago the World’s greatest footballer, Pele, described football as “the beautiful game.” Coming from the land of ‘samba football’ with a long tradition of attacking flair, astonishing skills and an instinct to entertain- to treat it as a game- his claim seemed fair and true. No other sport can be picked up so easily, played anywhere or reward the humblest or richest in equal measure as players.

What made the game so alluring? At its best the game combines passion and drama, athleticism and physicality, commitment and a certain nobility. Respect for the game, your opponent and the rules combine with a simple love of the game. How many young boys, and increasingly girls, do not dream of playing in front of packed stands full of life, colour and noise as they chase almost any round object in street, park, playground or beach?

Sadly the romance for me is almost dead. Like any fading love, it’s been a gradual erosion; a combination of irritations, disappointments and the realisation that you just don’t share the same values or beliefs anymore. Like so many men, I haven’t got the guts to dump her, but I’d not going to make the effort to relight the fire either!

Why, or why now? I read recently of the true contempt the pros have for fans. I’m sickened by cheating and diving, the sycophancy of commentators and pundits, the cosy “we all love the greatest game” stuff wheeled out by people who have forgotten its simple and fun-filled essence. I despise players racially abusing each other, and the fact that any hint of intelligence is treated as being “gay” and the fact that no professional footballer can be openly gay- or indeed Asian-British.

But that’s been the case for years, so what is the final “she never puts the top back on the toothpaste” moment? Mark Clattenburg. I have no idea whether the referee of last weekend’s ‘Titanic clash’ of our two leading teams (with porous defences and average midfields) made poor decisions, swore at players or did anything else wrong. What I do know is hat he has been “excused duties” until the issue is cleared up, and is unlikely to referee another Chelsea game for the foreseeable future. I then discovered there are a number of top-rated refs who are also kept away from certain sides because of contentious games in the past and those clubs INSISTING they don’t get them again! This is outrageous. We point fingers at Italian match-fixing by bribing the ref, but what’s the difference? Get one who’s on your side before the game and you don’t even have to pay him!

By way of contrast I watched Gloucester vs Leicester play rugby union ‘live on sky’ a weekend ago. All the spirit, thrills and skills on display, and in the centre the smallest person on the pitch empowered to keep order, and insisting on the rules. There were contentious decisions but only one piece of chat- back, punished by ten yards.

I’m not claiming for rugby over football. But in the wake of both sets of Olympics, where the spirit of competitors, officials and fans was faultless, I wondered why am I still attached thoughtlessly to such a tawdry, ugly old slapper of a sport like professional football. Sure I’ll still marvel at the odd moment, but I’m no longer a slavish follower. Why would anyone be- I leave the last nail and hammer in the hands of a Chelsea fan speaking on Radio 5 Live over the Terry-Ferdinand affair, “He’s our captain, our leader our legend!” With a man like John Terry held in that esteem, perhaps we should recall the phrase ” a man is known by the company he keeps.”

So long Darling, it was once a blast, but I’ve got better things to do now.

By Gove, it’s a rum old world

English: Michael Gove speaking at the Conserva...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been asked a few times of late why I haven’t blogged for a while. Well, I need a trigger- something that catches my attention and raises longer term questions that I think might be interesting to others. It may be an oddity (see the US editions,) an event or a running issue. The credit crisis comes to mind for both of the latter two.

What makes it hard is that some of the prompters for long term concern, and that should have been addressed, have simply been ignored. One can only harbour doubt and anger for so long before it turns to despair. Each iteration of the Eu’s lack of response to the reality of the debt crisis, only serves to deepen my expectation that this will all end very messily indeed.

On the domestic front, I had hopes that the party conference season would see some reappraisal of Plan A, or at least some steps to improve the supply side of the economy. For no more than two days some interesting ideas on small business funding and cuts to red tape raised my spirits, before more U-turns, a kicking of the London airport can into the long grass and Osborne’s inability to hold a line on policy spoiled the mood.

“Dave’s” latest crowing on the so-called recovery, inspired by the Olympic blip and a week of sunshine will surely come back to haunt him. If those of us living in the London bubble can feel the chill winds of a third dip, then it’s going to take more than a small uptick in manufacturing and everyone buying winter coats to make up for a sudden contraction in services. The Ides of RDR and PPI are that financial services will pull GDP back in the second half.

So if it’s not that stuff, what has prompted me to pick up my torch again? Well, it’s little Michael Gove- ‘the Man who would be Squeers’- with a series of policy statements on education that defy all lessons in how to motivate people to improve, to advance or to dream. You see, I lived and did well out of the grammar school era. We learnt stuff by rote so we could pass ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, and then had free university education. In between the exams bit we actually learnt a lot more other stuff. It was called, “getting an education.” Nothing vocational, no obvious tangible worth, no career path attached to it. In those days having a broad enquiring mind was ‘a good thing’ in itself. We knew the capitals of most countries, the maps of all the continents, why plants are green and glaciers blue (in parts,) how to use a lathe, a forge, the history of Russia, dissect pigs eyes, etc. etc.

BUT only two boys out of 130 in my year were allowed to use the computer. We only ‘did’ French or German as foreign languages. (In most cases those subjects ‘did’ us, but that’s another story.)Art meant painting. Music meant listening to classical LPs for half an hour before bunking off to play rugby in winter or cricket in summer.

Why does this matter? This appears to be the essence of Gove’s policy. Wouldn’t it be nice/better if we could go back to “proper schooling.” The education system needs to go to matron to winnow out the poor performers ( 11-plus again.) No more of that shabby course work approach, life’s an examination and if you can’t get two year’s work compressed into 3 hours then you’re not good enough! But what if you’re not good at exams? What if you work hard and do well consistently through the year but duff up the 3 hours? In my real world I’ll take hard grafting regular achievers over last minute blaggers anytime.

And what of the purpose of all this. What is education for? To make more worker-bees, who come out of school “fit for work” but not for life? In the USA they aim to take a child and broaden their horizons, fit them to look at the world as one where they can go out and do almost anything. You do multiple subjects till you’ve done your first year at college. We, well we seem to want to narrow them down, get them focused, ready for a world of work and service. Gradgrind’s revenge, or Gove’s dream- “it didn’t do me any harm,”- well that is a matter of personal opinion Sir, but no way to rebuild a nation!

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Postcards from America 2

LA Baby!

Now this IS La-la land.

I’m no expert on the American social security system, but I have one
piece of evidence to suggest they have an alternative to unemployment
benefit- valet parking. Most hotels and smart restaurants around where
we are staying exercise this pernicious system- you drive up, HAVE to
pass your keys to a flunkey who then parks it for you. It costs upwards
of three dollars to get it back (in hotels try $10+) Last night our car
was six spaces away from the restaurant door! I offered to walk that far
to release my own vehicle, but $3.50 and one hundred yards of petrol
later was safely on my way. Still it’s a job and one more off the
unemployment stats.

That’s more than can be said of the human menagerie that populates
‘beach-side.’ I don’t know what it is about resorts by the sea that
attracts so much of the flotsam of society ( the UK also shows this- I
mean, have you been to Blackpool?) but since circuses ceased to be the
way out, it seems the freak show now inhabits the promenade. But they
are canny folk- they charge $1 for a photo. And who buys all the tat
that stands for ‘crafts?’ For those inclined towards soft drugs, they
also have three shops that will diagnose if you would be legally
qualified to be prescribed marijuana on medical grounds. Only in America!

While the poor look for scraps, the rich doggies do lunch! Check out the dogs (which end of the leash I ask?) even
write their own reviews. Susan Sarandon writes her dog’s blog by the
way. How long before we see For those who find this
offensive, the counterbalance,is . Hand-delivered
Beagle Bourguignon anyone?

On the more serious side, we are seeing one of the things that is so
great about America, and at the same time one that sucks ( OMG I’m
slipping into la-speak.)

Hurricane Isaac is getting full-on daytime coverage. The impact is truly
Biblical, vast in scale and devastating. As I write the hurricane has
been down-graded to storm, but that still comes with another 15 inches
of rain. The national response is equally impressive, reflecting the
true and deep care for neighbours that is one of the foundation stones
of American values. There’s no pussy-footing around either, it’s rapid
mobilisation, get your hands dirty and send what you can to help.

Less so is the Presidential race. We have no idea what mud-slinging is
about in the UK compared to what goes on here. If this is how to run a
democracy then we should not be surprised that not everyone wants to
emulate it. The Republican Convention closes today with an outburst of
tub-thumping that emulates the pre-fight theatrics of an over-hyped
“Wuuuuuurl Champeeeenship” heavyweight boxing match. And not a very good
one at that. Multi-millions of dollars are being expended on adverts and
campaigns that not only position the contenders as something close to
ameoba, but lie so outrageously that the electorate don’t know who or
what to believe in. So they don’t.
Interesting to my British eyes is that the two parties are so close
together on so many issues and values, that they have to make such
incredibly deep divisions on the few others that they genuinely disagree
on to create differentiation. The passions around these issues are quite

What is telling is how the party machinery works, and sadly what that
tells the people here, and wider observers elsewhere, about the US

Be of no doubt, there is a deep democratic deficit here. The
middle-classes have just suffered their worst decade since WW2,
declining in personal wealth for the first time. The very richest have
done incredibly well. The two main parties’ conventions will cost over
$50m each in an orgy (literally in Tampa they’ve been flying in
additional prostitutes to cope with demand) of corporate lobbying that would
shame the defence lobby in a Middle-Eastern dictatorship. And that’s the
lesson- if you are very rich and powerful, can garner enough equally
rich ‘friends’ and corporate interests around you, you can become a
legitimate contender for President. If the electors turn off, as they
are here, it doesn’t matter, as long as enough of yours turn up on the
day. Oh, by the way, ” It is highly likely that voting systems will fail
in multiple places across the country,” according to a consortium
monitoring electoral integrity,  due to electoral computer fraud. Stark
lessons indeed when we’re trying to spread democracy across the globe.
As momma might say, ” those in glasshouses…”

Postcards from America

Yeah, the West Coast is all you’d expect- old ladies lindy-hopping in lycra in the park on Sunday afternoon, skateboarders racing trams in San Fran and cool art galleries on every corner.

And so many oddities;

Women ‘of a certain age’ pushing chi-hua huas around in prams, the dogs wearing brightly-coloured overcoats, probably having been to the doggy coiffure and nail salon (yes, they exist.)

There’s a guy standing for the Senate, a Republican anti-abortionist, who claims female rape victims “their bodies have a way of getting rid of those things.” He actually believes women’s bodies can force a miscarriage if the foetus is unwanted!

News coverage will send reporters to minor car crashes at 4.30am, but ignore major disasters elsewhere in the globe that we read about on  Does Syria exist?

You do wonder sometimes if you’re in la-la land. Every time you say thank you a polite reply comes back in a Barbie-esque squeak of ” You’re welcome.” It’s like dealing with a non-stop air hostess from Toy Story 2!

But two things in particular give pause for thought.

First observation- food. It’s everywhere, all the time- being promoted, consumed and discarded. Apparently if you’re awake you should be eating, or thinking what you will be eating next. Portions are ridiculous, my family of four could live on single plates of most dishes served for one. Waste is catastrophic. The US has got so used to abundance that it has forgotten how to control its appetite, or how to budget. How far does this extend into other parts of the Nation’s psyche?

I understand that in long gone days, the purpose of a feast was to celebrate survival, a good harvest/hunt and give thanks for having enough for all. Here it’s like a permanent feast. But not for all. It’s really noticeable how many homeless people there are roaming the streets, openly begging, often for food not money, watching the rest waddle past, burger, corn dog or litre of Coke in hand.

This brings me to observation number two.

The haves and the have-nots, or at least the ‘have nowhere near as muches.’ Each town or city we’ve been through has a prosperous looking downtown ringed, either completely or along the main arteries, by poor housing and run-down districts. These areas are expanding, noticeably, seeping into sub-sections of downtown and creeping like bindweed out into the suburbs. Here they are mainly hispanic, or service workers.

There was a news piece on tv today. Two youngsters shot dead in separate incidents in the  city of San Jose, Northern California population just short of 1m (about the same as Birmingham). The news reader said the deaths were believed to be drug gang related. It was added that these meant the total number of homicides in the city is 29 so far this year. Apparently it was almost understandable, I almost sensed it was welcome, because of the hispanic drug gangs in the area.  Imagine forecasting 45 murders in Brum in one year and seeing it as OK!

In cities just the other side of the Mexican border, these shootings are so random and frequent between gang teams, with both police and army too scared or too bribed to get involved, that bystanders are routinely caught up in open air shoot-’em ups in downtown malls.

There’s more than a chance these two forces are connected. I read the other day that a now deceased ex-Prime Minister made the observation that western political society evolved in thirty year cycles. From the late 40s to late 70s it was the era of labour power, until the unions had to be confronted. The Reagan:Thatcher revolution shifted the West to focus on individual progress; a society in which personal success, measured through wealth accumulation, became all. We now know the result of this approach, over-concentration of wealth and power into very few hands, with the middle classes falling behind and the poor marginalised. “Let them eat cake” perhaps replaced by “burgers and fries” but no less destructive. I wonder how long the bulk of the population will tolerate this, or who will offer up the next 30 year vision.

In the meantime, from Stateside it seems the Kardashians will rule, Whitney Houston was a saint after all and the meaning of life is nachos, cheese and 100 channels of local cable tv. God- Bless America, and help us all!

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