Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Matthew doesn't post here anymore (well, hardly at all)...

Hello to anybody who reads this blog. Just to say that I rarely post here these days. My main blog, which has been updated weekly ever since it was started in September 2009, is called NoVisibleLycra and can be found by clicking here.

I still post on TeashopandCaff too, which can be found by clicking here, and I've recently set up Hotel Splendesto, which brings together all of my hotel reviews, and it can be found by clicking here.

Best regards to all.

Matthew Moggridge

Saturday, 25 March 2017

From the archive: What a drag it is getting old...

Last night Panorama screened a programme about ageism in the workplace. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! The BBC is renowned for being ageist as the recent case concerning Miriam O'Reilly, a Countryfile presenter, proved; and let's not forget countless other people who have been told they're too old to be on the beeb – Moira Stewart was one and then there was Arlene Phillips, who was replaced by Alesha Dixon.
Arlene Phillips knows more about dancing than Alesha Dixon, but because Dixon is younger than Phillips, the beeb thinks that people sitting at home in front of the television would rather stare at Dixon than Phillips. We're not THAT shallow, are we?
Phillips must have been inwardly fuming over that scandal, but surely Dixon is secretly thinking, "I'll be next" as she stares pensively into her bathroom mirror, checking for any early wrinkles.
The problem with the BBC's ageism policy is that it's sexist. Strictly Come Dancing's Len Goodman and Bruce Forsyth, for instance, are both really old men – Brucie is in his 80s – but they are still going strong and if you take a look at Newsnight, good old Paxo, now white-haired, is as stroppy as ever. Mind you, I'd rather have Paxo presenting a heavyweight current affairs programme than Adrian Chiles or Dominic Littlewood.
Fortunately, Panorama chose Fiona Phillips to present its ageism programme, probably because she's no spring chicken, although she scrubs up well, to coin a phrase. Phillips turns 50 this year and I guess she was chosen to quieten down the beeb's critics who would have been in uproar had Fearne Cotton been the chosen presenter – and rightly so.
The programme focused on a real problem: the fact that employers in the UK don't want people in their 50s working in their companies. Why? Well, there must be many reasons. One must be that by the time people reach 50 they've kind of sussed things out. They know that loyalty means nothing and that if you work your arse off for anybody you'll get no thanks. They're aware that burning the midnight oil is a mistake, especially where there's no overtime payments, and they don't want to hear any rubbish about team work.
When you're in your 50s you just want to do your job to the best of your ability and get paid for it; you're not going to suck up to the boss, not only because he or she will probably be younger than you are, but because you know it's not going to get you anywhere and you've realised that you work to live, not live to work.
Panorama focused on four people: three men and one woman, all of whom were out of work and having real problems finding a job. Why? Because they're considered to be past it. All four of them have been trying to get work for a very long time, but they've failed despite being well qualified for the roles in question.
What I found really annoying – alright, I found it really irksome – was the absolutely useless presence of Digby Jones. That man failed to grasp the problem and spent any airtime he was given patronising four decent people who already felt bad enough about their lot and certainly didn't need Baron Jones of Birmingham telling them what do.
Jones got it completely wrong. If you're reading this, 'Baron', the point of the programme was this: people in their 50s – qualified people who might have studied hard to become professionals in some sphere or other – are being turned away from jobs that they want to do and for which they are more than qualified. They want to do the job but one thing stands in their way – their age.
But did Jones grasp it? No, he didn't. "Why don't you re-train, become a plumber?" he said as the hapless individuals were given a patronising one-by-one audience with the Baron, who resembled a poor man's Wizard of Oz, after the curtain had been pulled back, and our four 50-somethings were, perhaps, Dorothy, The Tin Man, The Lion and the Scarecrow.
That's not the point, Mr Jones, they don't want to become minicab drivers, driving instructors or plumbers. Why would they? They want to remain as accountants or teachers and they're perfectly capable but they are being stopped by employers who are more concerned about saving money or, in the case of the Beeb, with cosmetic issues.
What I also found rather amusing about the Panorama programme was the occasional input from Age UK, a charity that is obviously anti the whole ageism thing. Sadly, though, the charity's representative was a young bloke who was definitely not in his 50s – they missed a big trick there.
There was no happy ending to the programme either. I was expecting written announcements prior to or during the end credits, stating that the programme's subjects had all found work in their chosen fields, but no, they hadn't. One resorted to voluntary work, the other considered turning a hobby (picture framing) into a job and another – who was sent to work in a bar – gave it up because he felt it was below him. The female former teacher had started her own business, but it all went wrong for her when she lost a contract.
The big problem for the UK and its growing population of over-50s, is that while we're all being expected to work longer before we pick up our state pensions, there are people, like Digby Jones, who expect professional people to simply down tools at 50 (largely for cosmetic reasons) and accept jobs that aren't so important in a 'people-facing' sense. It's as if the general public as a whole – and employers and their workforces in particular – have some kind of aversion to people with a bit of white hair or a more wrinkled face and shouldn't have to endure looking at them for fear of being offended.
I was going to finish this article with the phrase 'grow up', but then I realised that growing up and getting older was the nub of the problem when it shouldn't be.
Napoleon once referred to the United Kingdom as a 'a nation of shopkeepers', but if things keep going the way they are, we'll be a nation of driving instructors and 'white van men' and newsagents windows will be inundated with 'man and van' cards.
Such a fate awaits us all and there must be thousands of people in college today wondering whether it's worth studying hard if they're going to end up stacking shelves in a supermarket or a DIY superstore. Why not simply leave college and go there now? That way you'll avoid disappointment later in life.

A hare-brained idea for making some money...

When I was a kid I used to have many pathetic and ridiculously time-consuming ideas for making money; one was to go around the streets collecting refundable lemonade bottles and them cashing them in at the local sweet shop. Just imagine for one minute how long that would take and how mind-numbingly boring it would be. And then, of course, like most things, the whole thing dried up (in this case, refundable bottles have long been a thing of the past). Back then, of course, I had big plans for my scheme – including a huge depot holding loads of empty lemonade and Tizer bottles – but had I got started, no doubt I would have been severely disappointed and – worse still – if there had been money in the idea, somebody else would have done it before me.
So, there's Andy and I sitting at the Tatsfield bus stop, munching our cereal bars, sipping our tea and looking out across a barren landscape of fields and woods, a solitary road dividing the two and disappearing in the direction of Botley Hill.
"I've got an idea," I said. "What about if I slept rough for a year and rented out my house? I'd make around £20,000 on the rent after a year and I could write a book about my adventures under canvas."
I ignored the fact that I had a wife and a child at home – where would they go while I indulged this hair-brained scheme? Well, they would have to go to the mother-in-law's (where, of course, I could go too, so why bother sleeping rough?). But that, of course, was not the point.
Women often wonder what men think about and this is a prime example: the feasibility of sleeping rough for a year and what it would entail. To be totally honest, I was getting quite excited about the prospect of putting my house up to let, finding a tenant and then heading off to Halfords to buy a one-man tent. I had it all sussed out – or so I thought: first, the big problem of where to pitch the tent, but there's plenty of woodland around.
"I could set up over there," I said, pointing towards some woodland, which was probably private property. Still, my plan (during the winter months) was to sneak into the woods in question under cover of darkness and then be up with the lark in the morning. I had no plans to give up my job, so I'd still be earning good money, plus banking the rent money. I could cycle everywhere, wash and shower in a local leisure centre (and get a swim in every morning too) and then work in a local library or business centre where there are power points for lap tops and internet connections. I only need a suit for meetings, so I could keep one on a hanger round at mum and dad's or the mother-in-law's and use it as and when.
The rest of the time would be straightforward: I'd work during the day in the library or business centre (bike triple-padlocked somewhere outside) and then at night, I'd cycle back to the woods and set up my one-man tent. There'd be no television, so I'd be forced to read books or listen to a small radio and then, in the morning, I'd head off for a swim and a shower. I'd shave there too and then make my way to work.
After 365 days – my point proved (what is the point?) – I'd simply resume my normal life, but I'd be twenty grand better off and, who knows, there might be a book deal involved. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened.
To be honest, I'm amazed at my immaturity. Here I am, married, kids, responsibilities, and I'm sitting at a wooden bus shelter in the middle of nowhere, early in the morning, fantasising (and getting quite excited and inspired) by the looney idea of sleeping rough in local woods for a whole year. Where's the logic?
Well, actually, how else would I get a twenty grand raise? Is there ANY other way? Probably not as that's a lot of extra work whichever way you look at it. Sleeping rough would mean no extra work at all, although there's always the possibility that I wouldn't be married at the end of my crazy adventure and, of course, I might be attacked during the night by some local nutters.
"There's a small risk of nutters," said Andy, as if there was a real chance that I might turn around and say, "Good, well that's sorted then; I'll nip down to Halfords later on and call the estate agent too."
Sadly, of course, I'm going to do neither. Perhaps if I was single, but even then, what kind of nutter sleeps in the woods when he's got a perfectly decent house in which to kip? I would be the local nutter. People would get to know about somebody odd sleeping in the woods. In short, it's not a good idea. But for me, there was something appealing about the idea and I think it's to do with the notion that I'd still be working, I'd have much more disposable income than I have now, I could still see my wife and child most days – although every day there would be that moment: "Do you have to sleep in the woods tonight, darling? You could always stay here." But that would be to admit defeat, to give up the ghost and start on that slippery slope towards calling the letting agent and giving my new tenants notice to quit. No, I'd have to see it through, but the reality is quite simple: it's a stupid idea with no foundation in reality and it will never happen. I think my wife would divorce me if I even mentioned it with a straight face. "Darling, I've got an idea..."
I can imagine the appalled look on her face as she realised that I was serious and she was married to a complete idiot who, for purely fiscal reasons, had plans to sleep rough in the woods – for a whole year! – just to accumulate twenty grand (or thereabouts).
But what's not to like: I'd have a mobile phone (that I could charge daily in the library), I'd have a laptop, similarly charged, and if I had a dongle I'd have internet access even in the darkest of woods. I could eat in cafés – so I wouldn't have to carry food around with me – and as long as I had a radio for company, I'd be on top of things like current affairs. There's a good chance that nobody would know I was sleeping rough as I'd always be clean shaven. I'd probably lose weight through regular cycling and swimming – there are so many plus points! In fact, as I write this, I wonder how many people are in the woods now, settling down for the night in their one-man tents while their new tenants make themselves at home?
It was around 9am when I snapped out of it and Andy and I began the eight-mile cycle home. I was back by 9.30am and, it has to be said, glad to be in my warm house, reading the papers and contemplating the crossword.

From the archive: It's not all Gordon Brown's fault...

I wouldn't regard myself as an expert where politics is concerned. I am, if you like, the man in the street. I watch the television news programmes, I enjoy the BBC's Question Time, I pick up stuff on the internet, I read newspapers and, like everybody else, I occasionally engage friends and colleagues in debate about the Government, the opposition, international affairs and so on.
And right now I'm sitting on the sofa, laptop on lap, watching Newsnight's analysis of the first ever televised debate between the three leaders of our mainstream political parties and guess what? Michael Crick is sitting on a high stool in front of Kirsty Wark criticising Gordon Brown's performance. Earlier, on the BBC 10'o'clock news, they were attacking his persona during the debate, using a new 'worm' from a polling company, Ipsos Mori, to say that while Nick Clegg's and David Cameron's worms rose as people liked what they were hearing – and so did Gordon Brown's – they still had something negative to say about Brown's performance.
Cameron and Clegg were praised, but for Brown, the worm didn't like him; Ben Page, for Ipsos Mori, talking to Justin Rowlatt on Newsnight, said Brown 'failed to connect', he tried a joke, 'it didn't work', he 'somehow failed to reach the heights of approval'.
My question is this: why is everybody misrepresenting Gordon Brown? It seems to be rife and totally unjustified.
Now I know that back in the eighties everybody was slagging off 'Thatcher' – especially Ben Elton – and perhaps that's one of the roles of the media, but what I find particularly irksome about the constant Brown-bashing (some of it plain rude, from the likes of Jeremy Clarkson) is that it is misleading.
Brown is constantly being attacked for his handling of the economy. The Tories (understandably because they're in opposition and we're now approaching an election) keep saying that Gordon Brown is presiding over the biggest deficit in recent history and how he has borrowed a ridiculously large sum of money, as if he was just borrowing the money for the hell of it and because he's a Labour politician and that's what Labour politicians do.
What the Tories and the media seem to forget is that Gordon Brown has steered us through the worst GLOBAL economic recession almost 'since records began' and yet it seems that everybody thinks that the recession is only in Britain and that it's all Gordon Brown's fault. It is interesting, and extremely frustrating, how everybody: the media, the public, those 'celebrities' (like Clarkson); everybody forgets that Gordon Brown was awarded for his handling of the economic crisis.
Allow me to quote the Guardian of 23 September 2009: "Gordon Brown may be trailing in the polls at home, but in the US last night he was hailed as a hero for "stabilising" the world economy and showing "compassionate leadership".

"The prime minister, in New York for the UN general assembly, was honoured as world statesman of the year at a VIP-packed gala dinner. The award was presented on behalf of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an interfaith organisation which campaigns for religious freedom and human rights, by the veteran US former secretary of state Henry Kissinger."
Having gone through the early nineties recession (when the Tories were in charge) and its aftermath (I was made redundant three times), as soon as I heard that a recession was looming, I was understandably worried. But my worries were misguided. I am still working and despite the awful crisis – caused by bankers who, I'd imagine, will vote Tory – I hope to continue working.
I'm glad there was a televised debate tonight for one reason: it gave Gordon Brown the chance to warn against Tory plans to cut £6bn out of the economy at just the wrong time. I believe Gordon Brown when he says that making such cuts now will plunge the country back into recession. I don't believe the inexperienced David Cameron, the man who fronts up the party of business. He talks about how 'leading businessmen' support his party's proposed £6bn cuts (as if that's something to boast about) but abhor Brown's so-called 'tax on jobs' (the planned rise in National Insurance contributions).
People talk about not being able to trust politicians, but the thing is, can anybody trust a businessman? A lot of Tories are both politicians and businessmen and the latter care about just one thing: profit.
Businessmen like to make cuts. If they can get something for next to nothing, they will. They like to save money, cut corners, anything to turn a bigger profit. Apply the business model to running the country and you get job losses, hospital closures, text book shortages in schools, poor transportation safety records (remember the Hatfield train crash when four people were killed and 70 injured?).
The Conservative Party is not only the party of big business, it is also run by people with huge personal fortunes. George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, stands to inherit millions of pounds and yet he, along with others in his party, will, if elected, tell the electorate that it must tighten its belt as the Tories put in to place their 'austerity measures'.
Give me Gordon Brown over David Cameron any day; the last thing the UK needs right now is for the Hoorays to be in charge of the country again.
Addendum: I notice that the BBC is doing its level best to give Gordon Brown a bad press; they're doing it at every possible opportunity they get and now they're making a huge mountain out of the mole hill that is Brown's 'off air' comment about a member of the public in Rochdale. Okay, fine, he said it, he might have been stressed or whatever, I don't know, but just take a look at the ridiculous amount of air time they're giving to this minor gaffe. Furthermore, if the BBC is not going on and on about Brown's 'bigot' remark, they'll be talking about the election as if it's already taken place. Clegg is doing the same thing, arrogantly assuming he'll be involved in a coalition government, making it all sound like a foregone conclusion – that we're going to have a hung parliament – and letting the media know who he will support and why. Why can't the BBC and the politicians talk about the policies? We don't want to hear speculation on the outcome of the General Election, we want to know what each party stands for. Nick Clegg says he doesn't want to form a coalition if Gordon Brown is still the leader of the Labour Party – as if there is currently a decision to made; there isn't, the election is on May 6. Start talking about forming a coalition government AFTER the election day, NOT before!!! Why does the BBC have such a hate campaign against the Government? Is it something to do with the David Kelly affair, their journalist Milligan and the resignation of Greg Dyke? Are they still smarting over that incident? I think the BBC has behaved very poorly towards the Government and seems to have nothing decent to say about Gordon Brown when, as far as I and plenty of others can make out, he and the Labour Party are most certainly the best bet if our economy is going to remain out of recession. Come on, somebody say something positive about Labour and Gordon Brown before it's too late. We don't need such negativity – and we certainly don't need David Cameron.

From the archive (2010): Whenever I hear the word 'culture'...

"Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver." said Hermann Goering at a time, perhaps, when the word 'culture' had some meaning. Had Goering been alive today, he'd have reached for more than his revolver: how about a bazooka, what about a small Howitzer or even a Trident nuclear missile? Personally, I'd rather use a Gatling gun; you know, those machine guns with a cylindrical magazine used in Westerns, something noisy, ungainly and guaranteed to do the job properly without killing any innocent bystanders.
I mean, let's face it, things are definitely NOT getting better on the cultural front; it's been one long and miserable decline where the most marked deterioration has been in the field of pop music – mainly because our so-called stars are not so much bothered about being accomplished in their field; they're more focused on the fame bit – getting out of limos at film premieres, running from the paparrazi, that sort of thing.
Piers Morgan. That probably says it all, and while chat show hosts generally have never been anything to write home about – they all suck up to their guests, squeeze their knees, come over all gushy and showbizzy and generally act in a sycophantic manner that is nothing short of embarassing – Morgan plumbs deeper depths by interviewing people who aren't really that famous.
I mean, at least Parkinson, for all his bad points (being a professional Yorkshireman, going on and on about cricket and being cringeingly 'buddy buddy' with the Big Yin) interviewed some of the greats. I'm thinking John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Mohammed Ali.
Morgan sits there chatting to tabloid people like Katie Price and, tonight (March 13th 2010) that girl from Hearsay whose name escapes me, she's THAT famous. Hold on, while I go and ask somebody. Ah, yes, Kim Marsh. You remember her, don't you? She was in Hearsay and she's now 33, I've just heard Piers say. Look, I've got nothing against her personally, I'm sure she's a really nice person and yes, she's had a few issues in her life, like most of us, and she's been in 'Corrie', but please, Piers, you're sitting there in front of her treating her like Parkinson might have treated the great John Lennon. But she hasn't had an airport named after her, she's not even Enid Sharples or Hilda Ogden and there you are acting as if you've got a major interview on your hands when you haven't. Marsh won a talent competition, for heaven's sake. She was in Hearsay! And you, Piers, have the audacity to talk to her about issues that proper musicians suffer from: tension from within the band, 'differences' which led to the split as if anybody really cared or, indeed, remembered. Hearsay were not Nirvana, they were not Blur or Oasis, they were not even Boyzone.
Yes, if there were 'musical differences' or disagreements within the Beatles, that might have been a big issue, but Hearsay! In Hearsay, musical differences probably meant they were out of tune. Whose idea was it to put Kim Marsh in front of Piers Morgan during the prime time slot on Saturday evening commercial television? Where's my Gatling gun? Hold on a second, though; that sounded a bit like Piers Morgan was some kind of television chat show 'big gun', up there, perhaps, with the likes of Parky, Letterman, Leno or Wogan, but no, Morgan's television career has been carved out of similar television shows to the one that put Hearsay in the public spotlight, and wasn't he once editor of the Daily Mirror and the man in charge when those bogus photographs of Iraqis being tortured were published?
The worst thing about the Marsh interview was the way it was couched. Morgan's questions, his whole attitude, his stance, gave the impression that he was interviewing somebody heavyweight, someone with a bit of history at least, a few major albums under her belt, perhaps, a serious acting career, perhaps, but no, it was Corrie's Kim Marsh – she's not even the biggest star on Corrie and yet there is Piers, asking (or trying to look as if he was asking) the big questions.
As I say, I've got nothing against Marsh, but she was the first of many 'manufactured' personalities from the Simon Cowell Play Dough factory, the man who gave us Cheryl Cole and a whole host of other people who are more interested in 'celebrity' than anything else and really aren't that good.
The main problem with the manufactured 'artistes' is that they don't appear to have any lofty cultural ambitions. I mean, would you ever see Pete Townshend, Robert Plant, Roger Daltry, Liam Gallagher, Damon Albarn, to name but a few, presenting television programmes let alone embarking upon their careers by winning a talent show? No, of course not; they struggled, they played the clubs and pubs and practiced in garages and then chased record deals before hitting the big time and turning into big festival and stadium attractions.
I know what you're going to say: if you don't like it, turn it off; and I did, to be fair. Actually, I left the room to sit here and write this article because I've noticed a marked decline in real talent in this country. I'm not saying that Marsh is not talented, it's just that she and Cheryl Cole and Katie Price and whoever else is out there queuing up to be interviewed by Piers – who, no doubt, is being heralded by the naive as 'the new Parkinson' – are really not 'big' enough to be given that 'big interview' treatment. Gordon Brown, yes; Paul McCartney, of course, but all these 'celebrities' who have found fame far too early, no.
What amazes me is the recent trend towards celebrity autobiographies; books written by people who are too young to have much to write about. I can understand established musicians wanting to put pen to paper about long and distinguished careers, discussing interesting subjects like gigging in Russia before the Iron Curtain came down, say, but imagine a book written by Sir Paul McCartney in, let's say, 1964 when there was so much still to happen?

A Samsung Omnia morning...

If, God forbid, I was involved in an air crash and was, for whatever reason, the sole survivor, clinging to the tailplane as it is gently washed ashore on a desert island, I would, no doubt, be overwhelmed with joy to discover that I still had my mobile phone on my person. I would be elated if I then discovered that I had a signal and more elated still if there was power left in the battery.
On wading ashore and finding a shaded spot under a palm tree, I would reach for my mobile, dial home or the office, tell them what had happened and get them to organise a rescue party.
"Hello? Yes, it's me. I've been involved in an air disaster, looks like I'm the sole survivor and I'll be late home tonight. Actually, I won't be home at all unless you can organise some kind of rescue party as I'm stuck on a desert island, just me and the tailplane."
Well, yes, if I had a Nokia or a Sony Ericsson, maybe, but not if my phone just happened to be a Samsung Omnia. In fact, the realisation that I was a Samsung Omnia owner would, quite literally, induce suicidal tendencies I didn't know I had as I realised I would be stuck on the island for all eternity and would have to resort to remembering what Bear Grylls had taught me from his programme, Born Survivor.
Touch wood, I haven't been involved in an air crash or any other kind of disaster. All that happened to me this morning was that I discovered I didn't have my debit card in my wallet when I went to buy a ticket. This, of course, is worrying as I started to wonder whether I had lost it, dropped it or just left it in another pair of trousers or the breast pocket of yesterday's shirt.
Fortunately, I was still able to buy a ticket because I had my trusty credit card with me, but I thought I'd better call my wife and let her know the situation before she put yesterday's clothes in the wash. Not a problem, I would simply whip out the mobile, press the speed dial button and hey presto! My wife would answer the phone. All would be well with the world.
But no. I'm a Samsung Omnia owner, which means that life is anything but simple. Get this: my phone is on, it had been on all through the night and there was still enough of a charge on the phone to be able to make calls. I hadn't received the usual warnings about power being low and please charge your phone. Everything was fine. When I depressed the keys they made a noise, the home page was before me, I could access my stored numbers. There was nothing to suggest that anything was wrong, so I pressed speed dial, found 'home' and pressed the button.
Hold on a minute! What's that? The phone is switched off? Eh? How? If it's switched off, how can it tell me it's switched off? If the phone is not on, how come I can dial the number, how come I can see the ****ing home page, how come? Ah! Of course, the Samsung Omnia does a really good impressions of being on, when it's off! I should have known!
A speech bubble has appeared. It says that the phone is switched off and would I like to switch it on? Just press the yes or no button. Well, that's easier said than done. I press Yes. Or rather I try to press yes using the Samsung's pen. Nothing happens. I know, I'll press the No button as the Omnia is like that, you press the key NEXT to the key you want and you might get the key you want. Good idea. But it doesn't work. The phone is on but it is telling me that it is off and would I like to turn it on. I press the yes button but it doesn't work. I press the no button and it still doesn't work.
I know! Take the battery out of the phone and effectively re-boot it, like pulling the plug on a frozen computer. That'll work! So I dismantle the phone and take out the battery. Now the phone is DEFINITELY off as there's no power. Phew! That was easy, I think to myself. Now, put the battery back in, turn the phone on in the normal manner and all will be well with the world.
I switch the phone on, the words Samsung Omnia appear followed by the dainty oriental sounding greeting tone as if a Geisha girl is standing in front of me, bowing politely, and handing me a working phone. Within about 15 seconds I'm back at the home page, I press the speed dial button and then I press 'home' and guess what? "This phone is switched off. Would you like to turn it on?" Off course I want to ****ing well turn it on. I want to call my wife to tell her to have a look around for my debit card before some bastard tries to use it and nick all our money!
I dismantle the phone half a dozen times but the same thing happens. The phone is switched off, despite the fact that it is clearly very much on. By now I'm getting flustered. I look for and find a pay phone, which doesn't work, and then I get on the train and fret about the situation. There's nothing I can do. I am completely powerless. I can't do anything until I reach Richmond station and then I can use a call box on the platform. This is what I do and then things are fine, but no thanks at all to the Samsung bloody Omnia.
Over the years I have had many different gadgets: mobile phones, Walkmans, radios, hifi systems, Tamagotchis, you name it, and none of them, none of them at all, even the Tamagotchi (my son's) that often woke me up in the middle of the night because it needed a poo, even that was not as infuriating as the Samsung Omnia. I'm so annoyed with it that I'm now going to write to Samsung in the UK, tell them what a useless lump of plastic their Omnia is and well, that's not the end of it. I might even direct Nokia and Sony to this blog and tell them that their phones are a million, trillion times better.
Most of the mobile phones I have owned have been pretty good in terms of reliability and usability. I've owned a basic Nokia and two Sony Ericssons and none of them have caused me any problems. My latest phone is a different story.
The Samsung Omnia is, in my opinion, 'a poor man's iphone' at best, and an infuriating piece of useless plastic at worst.
Unlike a conventional mobile, the Omnia relies upon a touch sensitive, computer-generated representation of a keyboard. In other words, the keys aren't really there at all. 'Dialling' any number requires thought and I don't want to think too much about such a mundane task; I never had to with my other phones. With the Omnia, it's a case of 'dialling' carefully and slowly, using a pen, watching all the time in case, as often happens, the machine inputs, say, half a dozen 3s or 4s – it's that sensitive. Dialling 0208 could easily become 02000008. You get the picture. Not ideal if you're in a hurry.
I know what you're thinking: use the phone's speed dialling function. Under normal circumstances I'd say fine, but not with the Omnia. Problems lurk on every corner for Omnia users. I have stored around a dozen pre-set telephone numbers, but first I have to access them by pressing a small blue keyhole symbol at the top right of the screen. Pre-set numbers are supposed to pop up, but they don't. Instead, I am given a page of icons offering me the web, the camera, media player, alarms, everything but my pre-set numbers. If I press 'exit' to try again, the same thing happens. Then, to add insult to injury, the phone locks itself, meaning that I have to press 'unlock', which is more difficult than you might think. It's virtually impossible to unlock the phone using the pen (of which, more later) so I have to thump the phone hard with my index finger and then start again, but I get greeted with all the unwanted icons for a second time. Arrrggghh!!! The solution is to press another icon at the top of the screen, like 'settings', and then, as the icons shuffle to the left, press the speed dial icon when it has moved to the far left of the screen – that way the pre-set numbers pop up.
Finally I get to my speed dial numbers. Now I've got another problem. If I press the icon for my home number, it accesses the number represented by the icon to its left and I find myself dialling somebody I don't want to talk to; then the problem of stopping the phone dialling a wrong number, which involves a frantic thumping of the black button below the screen to cancel the call. I have numerous calls from one particular work colleague who thinks I am trying to reach him when I'm not.
The Omnia likes to keep me on my toes by constantly inventing new problems. For example, when I press 3 it's 2 so once again I can't simply dial a phone number on the move, I have to stop, concentrate hard, use the pen to tap the 3 key at its far edge in order to key in a 3 and not a 2. This often takes more than one attempt and is further thwarted by the fact that the cancel key (the orange arrow at the top right of the keypad) then types a 3, the key to its immediate left. Try to keep up: the 3 key is really a 2 and the cancel key is really a 3, but there is no way I can cancel the wrong number so I have to quit the keyboard entirely and start again. But then, the phone locks again and I have to thump it hard again with my index finger to unlock it as using the pen, for some inexplicable reason, won't unlock it.
Writing a text message is a nightmare too. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Invariably, the latter. A big problem with texting is that the keys do not represent the right letters. If I try to write 'Good morning' I need to be aware that G is F and that O is U and that P is really i, D is S and so on. In short, it's impossible so I am forced to give up.
If I try to exit the messaging function, another problem arises: I can't. The pen simply won't work if I use it to depress the 'ok' in the screen's top right hand corner which should close the window. More often than not, a text bubble will appear saying 'contract WAP (GPRS) which I don't understand, but can't delete however hard I try.
The scrolling function on Call Log, Phonebook and Messaging is temperamental, only working effectively when it so chooses. With messaging in particular, it is very hard to move the scroll bar up or down to review messages received or sent, and to exit a message and return to the main list of messages is nigh on impossible, even using the pen, which is supposed to make life easier for Omnia users. It is best to depress the phone icon on the bottom right of the phone and then re-open the function from the phone's 'home' page.
As for the pen, well, it's there to be lost. Miraculously, I still have mine, although it has spent a few days under the car seat during which time I have relied upon assorted ballpoints and my chipolata fingers. The pen is supposed to make things easier, especially dialling and messaging, but it is just another irritation, especially when the P key is O, the G is F and so forth. And I can hit that 'ok' at the top right of the screen as many times as I like but it won't remove the page I'm on for love nor money: all I get is annoying speech bubbles that refuse to go away.
If somebody calls me I have to call them back as, by the time the phone is out of my breast pocket and in my hand, the right way around and without the pen swinging about uncontrollably, they've gone. Even if the phone comes out of my pocket easily enough, I've got to hit the word 'answer' and that's harder than it sounds, believe me; forget using the pen, by the time you've unleashed it from its housing, your caller has hung up. If I call back I'm confronted with the aforementioned call log problems. If I use the speed dial function, I end up calling somebody else. Trying to stop a mis-dialled number is very hard and usually involves a lot of thumping on the screen to avoid a call from somebody else which, if they get through, results in, "Sorry, I dialled you accidentally, new phone," I might lie, ignoring the fact that I've had the Omnia for months.
Knowing what I know about the Samsung Omnia, I would never buy or recommend one to friends. Enemies, maybe. I am seriously considering transferring the SIM card to my old Sony Ericsson and using that instead. Mind you, the Omnia does have a decent 5 mega pixels camera, but that is the phone's only redeeming feature.

In praise of Pixar...

It's hard to know where to begin on this one, but probably the best place is a small picture house in a sleepy Surrey town in England where, I'd imagine, Pixar's John Lasseter would feel at home. It's one of those places where dreams are brought to life and where the past and the present somehow co-exist.
My father used to visit places like this little picture house when he was a kid, during the Second World War. He probably saw The Wizard of Oz in just such a cinema and felt as inspired as I did when I emerged, with my 11-year-old daughter, into the bright summer light of evening having watched and enjoyed Pixar's latest outing of the Toy Story franchise.
I say 'franchise', but to be truthful, the word doesn't really fit the bill. Toy Story One, Two and Three are better than that word, they're not a 'franchise' at all, they're three excellent movies that haven't in any way been ruined by anything. Nobody can say that One is better than Two or that Three was better than One; they're all good and there are many reasons: the characters, the storyline, the general vibe and, above all, the fact that all three movies follow a time line.
People – adults – went through their child-rearing years with these movies (my son Max was five when Toy Story 1 was released) and through the stresses and strains of raising kids, parents and kids alike had the pleasure of Buzz and Woody, Ham, Rex, Mr and Mrs Potato Head and Slinky Dog to make them laugh as they tried to make sense of the world around them.
And while this article is all about the three Toy Story movies, let's not forget Pixar's other excellent stuff: Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Cars, Up, Bolt, Wall.E, A Bug's Life and Ratatouille – all great movies worth watching again and again.
And let's face it, Pixar is not just making good movies, but defining the future of the children's picture – making the old two-dimensional Disney cartoons a thing of the past, not in a negative sense (they're all still great in their own right) but things have moved on – and got a million times better.
I love Toy Story. Infact, a friend of mine recently told me that I was very sad because I'd not only watched the movies, but analyzed them too. I was, he said, not only a dab hand with some of the movies' great quotes (like in Toy Story 2 when Ham says to Rex, "You can be the toy that comes with the meal"); I've noticed things that others have allowed to pass un-noticed.
For instance, the same friend asked me why it was that Woody still had the word 'Andy' written on the sole of his shoe when, in Toy Story 2, it had been painted over. Well, it's like this: everything is rectified in the Toy Story movies. Everything is 'put right' at the end.
In Toy Story 2, Woody's boot is painted over and his arm is repaired, but everything has to revert back to reality before the conclusion of the movie; so, if you recall, Woody scratches the paint off of his boot at the very end of Toy Story 2, so the picture reverts back to the reality of the situation, ie that Andy had written his name on Woody's boot and – perhaps – it was never changed in the first place (the whole thing's make believe). Likewise, Woody's arm – at the end of Toy Story 2, despite it being fixed earlier in the movie, the Pixar people ensure it's unfixed by Stinky Pete in the scene on the baggage conveyor towards the end, so it's down to Andy to fix Woody, which he does. Everything is put right at the end.
I often wonder whether strange things happen to people when they have kids; they become more emotional, easily moved, perhaps, I don't know, but something definitely happened to me; or is it that you somehow realise something – I don't know what – but it sends you down a strange and volatile path.
I was driving into a multi-storey car park one morning, on my way to work listening to a band called Spirit and a track on their Spirit of 76 album entitled Guide Me. I don't know what it was, but there must have been something in the tune. When I reached the top level of the car park I kind of broke up.
From that moment on, things were different for me; certain tracks on certain albums by certain bands just caused an emotional reaction that I had never experienced before and had to fight: Wake Up, Boo! by the Boo Radleys; Suburbia by the Pet Shop Boys, even New Order's 1990 World Cup song – they all prompted an emotional reaction. I hasten to add that I'm 'cured' now, at least I thought I was, but then I saw Toy Story 3.
And then there was a poem by Milton Kessler – Thanks Forever – and Michel Houellebecq's novel, Atomised, not forgetting Bruce Robinson's Peculiar Memoirs of Thomas Penman.
Atomised hit me square in the face while in a bar in Warsaw. There was a sadness about it that, for some reason, concerned me and I started to imagine an alternate reality where my kids had suffered unhappiness and it made me realise that you only get one shot at life.
It had a lot to do with my son growing up and no longer being the little kid I bought radio-controlled cars for; and I thanked my lucky stars for having a young daughter with whom I could live it all again – for now.
And I think that is why the Toy Story movies are so poignant for me; they let it slip that nothing is forever and that kids grow up and become adults and lose their innocence. They also make you realise that having kids was the right decision, however emotional things get along the way.
Toy Story 3 finds Woody, Buzz, Ham, Rex, Slinky Dog and Mr & Mrs Potato Head accidentally donated to a Day Care Centre where, it turns out, they're really in some kind of prison. They plan to escape the evil regime and get back to Andy's house where, they figure, that spending the rest of their lives in the attic wouldn't be too bad. Except that – fortunately for them – it doesn't turn out that way.
The toys do escape – as we all knew they would – but then there's some pretty amazing stuff towards the end of the movie that, for me, rivals anything any mainstream picture can dish out. Forget It's A Wonderful Life, Toy Story 3 is the real tear-jerker. I'll admit to it now: I was having major problems keeping it together. My lip was quivering a lot and I thanked the Lord for the cover of darkness provided by that picture house.
My eleven-year-old daughter admitted that she too was trying hard not to cry at the end, but hey, she's eleven – I'm a 6'1" grown-up!
As we left the auditorium and hit the daylight, I was finding it difficult to talk coherently. I didn't want to let on to my daughter that I'd found the whole thing rather emotional at the end, and had to strike the right tone of voice when I eventually asked her what she thought of the movie. She loved it, of course, and we both drove home awestruck. I was in a kind of daze for the rest of the weekend.
I used to cite Kubrick and Tarantino, Peckinpah and Coppola as my movie makers of choice – back in the days when I felt it was necessary to impress other people and pretend that I was a complex individual, but, as Buzz Lightyear would say, "Not today!"
Give me a decent Pixar movie any day. I don't think I've ever looked forward to a movie as much as I looked forward to seeing Toy Story 3. In fact, I don't think I've ever really looked forward to a movie before.
So the big question is: will there be a Toy Story 4? I hope so, but somehow I doubt it. A fourth movie might ruin the magic, not that I think the guys at Pixar will disappoint, but everything has been resolved.
The toys have a new home, Andy's off to college and why would the toys want to escape from their new home? Still, we'll see. Never say never.
My son goes to college this year, just like Andy, and I'd imagine there will be some emotional scenes between him and his mother. I'll try and hold things together as that's what dads are supposed to do, but somewhere along the line I'll probably have my moment too – although, as my mum used to say about me, "he's big enough and ugly enough to look after himself."
I've still got a wonderful little daughter at home, so my life has, in many ways, mirrored what has been going on in the Toy Story movies – right up to the present time.
They say life imitates art, or vice versa, so, I'll leave it there. If you haven't seen it yet, go see Toy Story 3 this weekend, it's the best.

All is not what it seems...

I was around in the early nineties, during that awful recession. I was made redundant three times in a row, everything was uncertain, nobody had jobs and I found myself scrabbling around for work, freelance writing, then getting a job only to lose it again and so on, until things levelled off a little and everything went back to normal.
It's weird, isn't it? Nowadays, whenever the word 'recession' is mentioned, I worry. I don't want to go through all that again. I hate it when I hear people wheel out the old familiar phrases about 'battening down the hatches', 'any port in a storm' and all that making do rubbish. I start to get angry and wonder who's to blame.
I used to remember in the early nineties hearing phrases like, 'we've reached the bottom' and it always conjured up images of those infra red cameras on the sea bed lurking around the wreck of the titanic. It's bottomed out, we're scraping the bottom, all the imagery that suggests the only way is up. And then, of course, that was the mantra, 'the only way is up', Yazz and New Labour, images of Prescott and Mandelson and Blair jigging around self-consciously as 'New Labour' swept to power in 1997 and a new dawn beckoned. Cool Brittannia, Noel Gallagher in Number Ten, the whole thing.
For a while I remember thinking, nothing more to worry about, no more recession and so on and so forth, but of course, peace and tranquillity was never to be. The Twin Towers followed, then there was Dubya to contend with, Blair being the poodle, the deceit that was the Gulf War and that whole Jack Straw syndrome. I don't know, but I don't trust Straw one bit and the whole Iraq thing cemented him in particular as a key villian of the piece. Even recently, he was a key figure in vetoing disclosure of the minutes of the meeting about Britain's involvement in the decision to invade Iraq. Where there's smoke, there's friendly fire.
But while Iraq trundles on and Afghanistan continues apace, the last thing I wanted was another recession. Rumours started, there were occasional comments in the press, but a lot of the time they were brushed off until suddenly we started hearing the media talk us into it. People started talking about Fanny May and Freddie Mac, two people I'd never ever heard of before, but apparently they had always been larger than life characters in the American financial markets. Odd, when I consider how, throughout the nineties I was reading the Economist and the FT and never once heard mention of these two crucial financial institutions that, apparently, the world economies rely upon.
Sure enough, though, they were responsible for the current major recession or 'downturn' that we now, as a world, are confronting. They lent loads of money to people who couldn't afford to pay it back and suddenly the world faced an economic meltdown largely based on the greed of the banking community.
I find myself wondering many things. When did the world turn from being a largely safe place to the uncertain place it is now? How come I used to work in a variety of jobs (all within the world of publishing) but never once did the commercial realities of life gatecrash my world. I used to go to work, do my job, come home and that was it; the fact that the advertising sales team was either incompetent and not up to the job or that 'market conditions' were forcing their hands never really bothered me. Market conditions never bothered me, they were resigned to the financial pages and were always slightly boring.
Now, of course, market forces are all that seem to matter. Everything is about cost and budgets. We're all in the hands of salesman, sadly, and they determine whether or not we have jobs or not.
But that aside, I now find myself more in tune with conspiracy theorists than ever before. Why? Because things just don't add up. Take the twin towers in NYC, why did they come down like a controlled demolition explosion? How come they then gave Dubya the perfect excuse to flex the military might of the USA in just the countries he wanted to invade? Why did we believe all that rubbish about 45-minute warnings and weapons of mass destruction that have since been proved to be complete and utter rubbish? Who the hell are Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac and why did they suddenly emerge as the key protagonists in the current global economic downturn when we'd never heard of them before?
I read Orwell's 1984 recently, it was one of those books that, of course, everybody must read at some stage in their lives and I hadn't gotten round to it until just a few years ago. What struck me about the book was the similarity between our current situation in Afghanistan and the conflicts that take place in the novel, they're just ongoing and all the people 'at home' hear are the news reports: yet another British soldier dies due to a roadside bomb, constant mentions of Helmand Province and at home everybody wondering why, what's the point? It's almost exactly like Orwell's masterpiece with a mythical enemy and media machine pumping us full of propaganda to keep us on-side, as it were.
It's the same with the recession and the so-called 'credit crunch'. We're all being told to 'batten down the hatches', there are programmes on the television and articles in newspapers showing us how to use our leftovers and be frugal, and the feeling is that 'they', whoever they are, are making deliberate parallels between now and war time rationing and trying to get us all thinking, perhaps, that we're a country at war – we are not, by the way; nobody is trying to invade us and haven't done for 70 years.
And then, of course, there's the great mythical villan that nobody can catch, that former employee of the USA, Osama Bin Laden. How come they can't catch him? They can catch virtually everybody else, they can put men on the moon, imprison dangerous criminals but they can't catch a man with a towel on his head whose picture is everywhere. Once again, perhaps it's all a scam, perhaps that's the deal with Osama, who knows? Where is he? Does he really exist? Is he really in cahoots with the ruling elite and is the whole 'culture of fear' and the so-called 'War on Terror' merely designed to keep us all in our place, like a kind of religion. Is it all another 'Opium for the People'? We occasionally hear about the status of the current terror alert – it's either low, moderate, substantial, severe or critical. Well, I don't know what it is right now, but what's the betting it's not low or moderate? Got to keep everybody on tenterhooks, eh?
Why is it that the recession is supposedly a big, full-on thing, much bigger than in the early nineties, that we should all be concerned about, but people are still going on foreign holidays, there are still ads on the TV for cars – a Golf for only £14,000? Fourteen grand is a lot of money in a cash-starved country with a recession of the size an enormity our respective Governments and media organisations are talking about. Who CAN afford a Golf for just £14,000 in these troubled economic times we're being told about?
And what about the crowded cafés and restaurants in London. I pass them daily and inside there are loads of people eating and drinking, there are bottles of wine on the table, the food is ridiculously expensive for what it is but even now, as I sit here in an upbeat sandwich bar on Holborn Circus at 4pm looking around me there are people sipping tea, munching on almond croissants and the like. Why? Haven't they got jobs to go? They certainly don't look unemployed and if they are, why are they here when they should be out looking for a job?
And how come that everywhere I look there are houses being extended, drives being done – I know somebody who has just spent £12,000 on a new driveway – and why has everybody got a new car and expensive iPhones?
For some reason, nothing seems to ring true to me, although I'm sure I'll be told that it is all very true, very real. Unemployment lurches towards three million, the 'war' in Afghanistan continues apace, news reports of casualties in a far off land, just like in 1984.
And then, of course, there's the UK's growing 'celeb' culture. How come we're all prepared to 'cut our cloth accordingly, 'batten down the hatches' and so on but are quite content to watch various celebs, like Jordan, on shopping sprees with, supposedly, not a care in the world? Why the hell do we accept it? Why the hell has there not been some kind of revolution or uprising, why has nobody appeared as a people's champion, why has there been little in the way of rioting in the streets, why is there no militant group (or groups) attacking the icons of wealth and big business?
No, everything simply carries on. Perhaps nothing has really happened at all. Perhaps it is just a lot of posturing, a lot of political manipulation, creating a climate of fear through terrorist alerts and 'economic downturns' that might be all wildly exagerrated.
How come, for example, that we occasionally hear of how a major terrorist ring has been busted by the security forces that could have been responsible for untold atrocities, but it's all kept at arm's length and we all sit back with our espressos and cappuccinos and just accept it as gospel?
Recessions encourage apathy and give businesses an excuse to do nothing. Terrorism, or the threat of it, gives the authorities the excuse to clamp down on the man in the street. Local councils abuse anti-terrorist laws purely because they can and we all sit back and let it happen.

Our increasingly time-poor society...

This week I remembered, at the very last minute, that I was scheduled to take part in a charity bike ride this weekend in aid of Multiple Sclerosis. Unfortunately, I'd left it late to pre-register and save myself a huge 'on-the-day' entry fee, but in the end I drove over to the organiser's office and posted my entry form through the letterbox.
Now, I would call my lateness pure disorganisation. Others would say it's all part and parcel of our increasingly 'time poor' society. I think they're talking rubbish, but it's amazing how, if you say something for long enough, eventually it becomes gospel.
I often attend press conferences about this and that, notably the launch of new food products, where the latest trends are rolled out by marketing directors in an effort to explain the rationale behind the new product. A common 'finding' is that we're living in an increasingly 'time poor' society, meaning we don't have time to do stuff anymore – even eating is being done 'on-the-go' and 'lunch' as we know it, is becoming obselete. More and more people are sitting at their desks with a baguette rather than get up and take in some fresh air.
The big question here is why? Why are we time poor? We have the internet, which makes life surprisingly easy, especially for journalists and, indeed, for everyone else as we no longer have to visit a travel agent to book flights or holidays, we can shop online and save the journey to the supermarket, there's email instead of 'snail mail' so we don't need to visit our local post office and queue to buy a stamp. Technology, in other words, has made life a breeze and it means that we have more time to do the things we wouldn't normally have the time to do.
Why, then, are we tied to our desks, skipping lunch? Now there's a phrase. "Skipping lunch". It used to be something we did once in a while when somebody was away and we found ourselves doing the work of two people. "Oh, I'll have to skip lunch today," we might say to one of our colleagues. "Pete's away and I've got to write up his product pages by 5pm." But no, Pete's not away - he's not having a holiday this year because he can't afford it, so what's wrong with a spot of lunch?
I'm starting to feel guilty when I go to out to lunch. We're allowed one hour and I like to use the time to take a walk, even if it's raining (I'll take an umbrella). I don't want to be sitting at my desk ALL DAY, I need a break, I need to stretch my legs, get a bit of exercise and a change of scenery; but as I leave the office, I notice that my colleagues have a sandwich on their desks and they're still sitting there, sandwich half-eaten, when I return, refreshed.
What, I ask, has changed? Why are we time poor? I've already alluded to the internet and how it's supposedly made life easier for us all, so what's changed, why can we no longer afford a proper lunch break? Why do we work late? Ironically, we're all earning less money so it's not as if there's an incentive.
The worst thing, of course, is that if everybody keeps doing it – skipping lunch or having a 'working lunch', which is even worse in my book – then it will become the norm and lunch breaks might suddenly disappear from contracts of employment. Even more annoying is the fact that if we're all putting in the extra hours, 'skipping lunch' and working through, what exactly are we achieving? Despite ALL of our 'hard work' the country is back in recession? In other words, it's not achieving anything, but then you might sit back and start thinking: somebody is benefitting from all this unnecessary hard work, but who is it?
I was watching Question Time last Thursday and I noticed, in amongst all the rhetoric being spouted by a bunch of useless MPs and political commentators, that the 'coalition' wants austerity, because that's the way to get the country back on its feet again (it hasn't worked) and the left wing politicians want less austerity but still want to achieve the same goals; except that they would prefer to tax the rich (the people gaining from the masses skipping lunch). The right wants the masses to suffer, the left wants the elite to suffer.
Yesterday, at around 1845hrs, I was on a train coming home from work. Next to me, across the aisle, was a man frantically tapping out an email (or something) on a laptop. Like me, he'd been working all day too, but obviously not hard enough. He figured he could still cram in some work while sitting on the train. But how misguided! He won't be thanked for his hard graft. He'll probably be made redundant, but he thinks that, by working really hard, he might avoid the axe. Think again, my friend. Put the laptop away and enjoy the ride.
My wife mentioned to me the other day that the country seems to be reverting back to Dickensian times: an increasingly poorer population working long hours for less pay while employed by the equivalent of the wealthy, unscrupulous mill owners of the past. There are more rats on our streets as local councils cut back on refuse collection and who knows, perhaps one day the plague will return and then, perhaps, another Great Fire of London. How exciting!

An encounter with Lloyds TSB...

Staggering incompetence is an increasingly common facet of modern society based, no doubt, on greed. Greed? Well, yes, because the business world doesn't like spending money, it has no interest in 'the customer' and only exists for profit. This means one thing: business pays peanuts and it knows it's getting monkeys, but, hey, it saves a bit of money here and there. The key thing for the consumer to remember is simple: do not trust a businessman (or woman); they are not acting in your best interests, they are acting in their own best interests. When you're queuing in the bank to deposit some money, the reason you're in a queue is because there are not enough cashiers on the desk. The reason for that is because the bank wants to save money. There is no interest in the customer at all.

In fact, it's the banks that I want to discuss in this article. Lloyds TSB to be precise. Let's get back to that great word 'incompetence'. I went to Lloyds TSB to initiate a balance transfer from a Nat West credit card to a Lloyds one. In other words, I'm bringing some custom to Lloyds. You'd think that they would bend over backwards to help me (and keep my custom) but no, they are incompetent. Oh, hold on, they want my custom, but they have no interest in me whatsoever. As long as they can get my money, that's all they care about.

Sadly, despite the fact that I'm a journalist and possess a very sensitive (and tiny) digital recording device, I didn't think of taping the whole thing. If I had done, I could be having a field day right now. But let's just live with the fact that I didn't and that all future conversations with bank managers will be secretly recorded – for training purposes, you understand.

So, I enter the Redhill, Surrey, branch of Lloyds TSB and ask if I can make a balance transfer. I'm not planning on closing my Nat West credit card. By and large, Nat West have been very good and very helpful. I'm just working on a way of reducing interest charges and freezing a debt for a few months. I won't go into details for obvious reasons, but allow me to continue.

I want a balance transfer for a certain amount of money. I'm directed to an office with my banker (I use that word advisedly and should, perhaps, substitute the 'b' with a 'w') and take a seat. We discuss the amount and contact Nat West by phone to check the existing balance and most recent transactions. A figure is reached and I say that is how much I wish to transfer, ie pay off. But oh no, that's not enough for Lloyds. They want more money and suggest that I should make the transfer for a couple of hundred pounds more to cover any interest payments that might still keep my Nat West card 'active'. I agree, but it's my lunch break, I'm a bit rushed, but okay.

Later I leave the bank with a brown envelope. I think the envelope contains information about the transaction I've just made, telling me, perhaps, how much was transferred, what the fee amounts to and so on, but it doesn't: it's just basic information about my new card and I'm left in the dark about the details of the balance transfer other than those I can remember from the conversation.

Over the weekend, I get a little disgruntled about the whole thing. It niggles a bit and I get a feeling that  I haven't really been treated fairly. In fact there were a few things that got to me: one was the fact that the man in the bank was asking me how much I earned. Why? It wasn't necessary. Foolishly, I told him. Another was that, because we both phoned Nat West while in the meeting, he knows my security question. On top of that he told me that, should I so wish, I could, if I ventured into the high street, get credit for up to £25,000 if I wanted to (inciting me to get into further debt). In short, I realised that I didn't like the bloke one bit, but, for the moment, let's leave him out of this.

The next scene of this sorry tale is that I'm sitting in a car, in a car park, on my mobile phone, with my wife, trying to talk to Lloyds on the phone about the whole thing. In a nutshell, I want to know if it is possible to simply stop the transaction, take a rain check and then, possibly reconsider the transfer in less hurried circumstances, ie not in my lunch break. I have to go through the procedure: 'key in your account number, key in your date of birth, key in the last three digits on the back of your debit card'. And then there's the infuriating 'you are important to us' bit where they keep you hanging on the line waiting for 'an adviser'.

Eventually, I get through to Sue. She is incredibly rude. Very curt and bad-tempered and showing a clear sign that she lacks patience with her 'customers'. I ask for her name but she's only prepared to give her first name. She's not obliged, she tells me, to give me her full name despite the fact that I've given her my full name and my date of birth. I am transferred to another adviser and have to explain the situation again. If possible, can I stop the transfer going through, I'm not happy with the bank's attitude and I'd rather stop the process and restart it at a later date. I'm told to hold on as she, whoever she is, needs to talk to her supervisor.

I can only imagine what goes on while I'm put on hold. Something like, "Listen, this guy wants to stop the process, get out of the deal. What do I tell him?" And I imagine the 'supervisor' says something like, "We can't have that. Tell him, I don't know, tell him he can't." So she comes back and says I can't and, to cut a long story short, I realise that I'm not getting anywhere. Another line of questioning I take is this: "Can you tell me if the transfer has actually gone through?" There is simply no record whatsoever and nobody appears to know. I'll have to wait for it to go through – which means that Lloyds gets its fee and then, of course, they don't care, they've made their money and if I want to transfer the money elsewhere I can. But for now, they've closed ranks and are being very, very unhelpful. I realise that I'm not getting anywhere and hang up. Oddly, the night before, I'd dealt with a very competent member of staff who told me that changing things on the transfer shouldn't be a problem. How wrong he was! And how interesting it is that different members of Lloyds' staff are told different stories. For some it's a case of it should be fine to make changes. For others, it's simply impossible to do anything and I'll have to wait to see what happens. Amazing. I hang up.

As the week progresses, I wonder why the transfer hasn't gone through. Nat West has heard nothing and Lloyds claims it has no record of the transaction. Well, we all know why Lloyds has no record. It wants the transaction to go through so that it can collect the fee. Bankers are wide boys, rogues and, in some cases, criminals. Wasn't it HSBC that was discovered money laundering for drug dealers? I can't remember the details, but it'll be out there on the internet somewhere.

All week I'm left feeling a little anxious. Nobody seems to know whether the transaction has gone through or not, Lloyds says that once a transfer is initiated it can't be stopped. Nat West – the innocent party in all this – says nothing is pending. Meanwhile, having transferred a fairly large sum of money from my Nat West credit card into my Lloyds current account, I'm accruing interest that won't stop until the card has it's balance 'transferred' by Lloyds.

It's now Wednesday morning. I'm in London at the Marriott County Hall. Just across the river from that other rather dishonest institution, the Houses of Parliament. After my meeting, I decided to call Lloyds again. What I want from them is fairly straightforward: I want to know a couple of things. First, has the transfer been activated. Is it, in other words, in the process of happening or has it stalled for some reason, possibly due to my conversations with the bank in the car park last weekend? In which case, fine, I'll simply initiate the process again.

But I can't get a straight answer. First I go through all the fuss of keying in my account number, the last three digits on my debit card, I answer security questions and, once again, I get through to somebody at the call centre. I ask the questions, but I get, "I'll have to talk to my supervisor about that that, I'm going to put you on hold and...". The line goes blank and then, about two minutes later she comes back. She's stalling for time, but she does let slip that there's no record of a transfer having taken place and would I like to do one on the phone with her now? No, thanks, but what I would like is a letter of confirmation that the transfer has not happened so that I can either to do the whole thing again at a later date or do it with another bank, a bank that might, perhaps, be a little more competent than Lloyds TSB."I'll have to go back to my supervisor...." and off she goes again.

By now, I'm losing my patience. Surely she can tell me whether my balance transfer has gone through or not and surely, if, as the customer phoning 'customer services' I should be able to get a letter confirming that the transfer has not gone through or, conversely, that it has gone through. But no, she has no idea what to do and has to discuss the matter with her supervisor again. By now, I'm getting very edgy. "But I'm the customer, you're customer services, surely...".

I was on the phone for at least 90 minutes and by the time I finished – having achieved nothing – I was in a quiet, seething rage. I went back to the office and decided to call the branch, in Redhill, and speak to the guy who did the balance transfer for me – his name was Jack. But when I called the number first there was no answer, then, on a second try, I got somebody else who said Jack was in a meeting. I said I'd call later and when I did, I got Jack. Could he tell me anything about the balance transfer that him and I had arranged and whether or not it had gone through?

"That was cancelled, wasn't it?
"I don't know, you tell me."
"Uh...I'll call you back..."

I never heard from him.and then I went home and I thought I'd try again, and see if somebody at the Swansea call centre was less incompetent – although I already knew the answer to that question. Watch out, I thought, for anybody who uses the word 'obviously'. Whenever it's used, you can bet that whatever is being discussed or whatever point is being made, isn't obvious.

I was pleasantly surprised. Donna, for that was her name, was understanding and friendly and put my mind at ease. Fine, she'd have to speak to her supervisor, but the word 'obviously' was not used and she came back with an answer: in short, the balance transfer had not gone through and it wouldn't go through unless I went to the bank – any branch of Lloyds – and started the whole process again.

"Are you 100% sure about that?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.

I went downstairs to watch television, safe in the knowledge that the balance transfer hadn't gone through and that, under more relaxed circumstances, I'd go to the bank over the weekend and start again. What a relief, I thought. There's nothing worse than not knowing where you are, being in the dark, especially when it concerns money. But now, thanks to Donna who, incidentally, compensated me for the long mobile phone calls I'd made earlier in the week AND gave me £25 for the simple fact that I'd been messed around, all was fine.

The following morning I went to work, safe in the knowledge that I knew the position and that all was resolved. No more anxiety.

After lunch my phone rang. It was my wife. The balance transfer that I'd been assured hadn't gone through, had gone through. I found myself back in a rage and stormed off to the Redhill branch to have a go. I felt like Michael Douglas in Falling Down and had somebody handed me a gun or a rocket launcher, I'm convinced that I would have massacred half of Redhill as I stormed towards the bank.

Unfortunately for the manager, who was out to lunch, I spotted him and pointing at him like a football hooligan chanting at rival supporters, I said, in a raised voice, "incompetent!" He looked confused so I explained all of the above to him, throwing in a few choice expletives in the process.

He ushered me back to the bank and into an office where I continued my rant about how incompetent they all were and I demanded, menacingly, my hair resembling that of the Toecutter in Mad Max, a letter that I hadn't received before, detailing the entire transaction, the fee, the lot. I noticed his hand shaking (either with anger or fright) as he typed and printed out the letter. We shook hands and I left the bank, still seething, but feeling a bit like John Candy in Uncle Buck when he emerges from a meeting with one of his neice's teachers. I needed a drum roll and a 'yeah!' as I headed back to the office, but then changed my mind and headed straight for the barbers for a number four crop – just what the doctor ordered.

The moral of this story? Forget being nice to people. Remember one thing: they're out to get you. Nobody's your friend and least of all banks and big business. Forget also 'peaceful protest', it'll get you nowhere. The only way to achieve anything is to be confrontational. Direct action, armed struggle – alright, perhaps that's a little extreme, although you could use a Spud-o-Matic – is the only way to get people to sit up and listen. Talking is a waste of time. Alright, I felt mildly guilty about my behaviour, but now that I've calmed down, I realise that had I maintained a sense of calm, I would have achieved nothing – treat people like they treat you.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Why don't we go on strike?

Wandering around the supermarket recently, I discovered something not earth shattering but just fucking annoying. Razor blades cost more than the razors. Or rather, the razor blades for MY razor cost more than my razor, a Quattro. This is very annoying because it is forcing me to rethink once again my strategy on shaving. Don't get me wrong, I'm not considering a beard, or half a beard so I can offer the world two different profiles, but it might mean switching back to disposable razors, which are not very good when it comes to achieving the perfect shave.

To be fair to the disposable razor, I've been using them for some time and they're cheap, but I never get a smooth shave and my face always feels rough afterwards – you get what you pay for, never forget that. 

Whatever happened to those razors with the double-edged blades? You know the ones, they used to open up like a trap door in Thunderbirds and you simply placed the Wilkinson Sword or Gillette razor blade in the razor and then screwed it back up again. My dad always had a razor like that and a shaving brush and Ingram shaving 'lather', none of that foam rubbish you get these days. I think dad switched to disposables too.

It's weird having a situation where the razor blades are more expensive than the razor, like if bullets were more expensive than the gun. Perhaps they are, but it all comes down to something the media call 'shrinkflation' – basically the fact that these days we often get less for more. It's been publicised a lot recently, with crisp (potato chip) manufacturers putting less in a bag and then charging the same price or more. Famously, Toblerone increased the size of the gap between the triangular blocks of chocolate, something that doesn't bother me because I don't like Toblerone, although many people do; it's become a big 'international' brand, seen at most airports around the world. But what about Cadbury's Creme Eggs? No longer Cadbury, of course, they're now owned by an American company who, it is reported in the media, are using inferior quality chocolate but, again, still charging either the same money or more. I think Chocolate Orange is the same: either there's less segments or inferior quality chocolate or both.

Everything is shrinking in size but costing us more and it's a result of pure greed. What always annoys me is that people simply accept it, nobody says they're not going to buy the products anymore, they just keep paying the money, pandering to the capitalists when all they have to do – en masse – is no longer buy the products the media tells us are shrinking. Just stop buying them!

I'm all for bringing these people to their knees. If we could all simply agree, millions of us, to simply stop shopping, if you like we could go on strike and, say, stop shopping for just one day, all of us, stop consuming, stop going to work by train or bus or anything that means paying a capitalist money – it would be fantastic. I wonder when they would start pleading with us, reducing their prices, putting back the value for money they've taken out?

How would we work it? Perhaps more than one day is needed and regularly. How about some kind of commercial fasting? Let's say the first weekend of every month, nobody uses public transport, nobody visits any shop or pays for any service. Imagine that! Every month for one year and why not step it up, perhaps two weekends. We don't drink in pubs, we don't eat in restaurants, we don't take trains, visit supermarkets, anywhere. In short we give them a dose of their own medicine. We announce the days like ASLEF and Southern Railway announce their strikes and then, after a year we review our success. I think this would have to be a long-term project, we'd need the time to recruit people to the cause, but gradually it might start to work and sooner or later, as I said earlier, they, the capitalists,  the clothes retailers, people like Philip Green, would get very worried. Prices would come down, quality would go up and we would be the winners.

Think on that, people, it might be worth putting into practice.