Friday, November 28, 2014

A black day for retail

Sign up to receiving a few emails from retailers, and the Black Friday deals on offer today won’t seem anything out of the ordinary. Barely a day goes by without receiving seemingly unrepeatable discount offers… until another arrives tomorrow.
Given this background noise it’s amazing that Black Friday has gained any traction at all. However scenes of shoppers fighting to get 50% at best off an inflated RRP that you’d be a fool to buy at, seems to indicate that you can sell any old tat if you slap a sale sticker on it the enduring appeal of a discount.
Retailers are certainly giving it a go. Black Friday has definitely entered the common parlance this year, and will probably only get bigger over the next few years. So retailers have two options: stand aloof and hold their noses, or get down among the frenzy and start cutting prices. It looks like option two is the winner at the moment.
Or maybe not. Given the unsavoury images from today, I’m predicting that Black Friday will be about as welcome as a looter’s convention in a few years. Weigh up the advantage of a few extra sales, at deep discount, against the additional costs of opening at stupid o’clock to catch the buzz, Fort Knox security to satisfy the local plod that they’re not going to spend all night separating swivel-eyed bargain fans, and the cost of general wear and tear from thousands of shoppers rampaging through the aisles trampling over stock as they go, and it suddenly doesn’t look like such a great idea. I'm not even mentioning the first cases of store staff suing for PTSD.
I may be completely wrong, but I’ve stayed well away from the high street today.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Mornings are the worst

6.00 am. Hmm, lie in today is it?
Boys, can you keep your voices down please, it's still quite early. No that's not really a morning voice, is it. A little bit quieter. A bit more. A little bit more. I know it doesn't sound like shouting to you, but it does to mummy and me, and I don't think our neighbours really want to hear you.
Why not? Well, they don't have children in the house. They're retired and they don't have to get up this early.
They can hear you. Our staircase shares a wall with their's so they can hear you jumping and shouting on them. Okay, not shouting, talking. Actually, that is shouting now.
Look, just stay in your room for now and shut the door. Don't slam it! Don't....
Okay, daddy will get up now and make breakfast. Who wants porridge. One for porridge and one for Cheerios. We don't have any Cheerios. You don't want porridge. Cornflakes?
Look, this isn't a cafe, and I'm not going out to get anything else from the shop. You'll have to have porridge.
Oh, we don't have any milk. I will have to go the shop. No I'm not getting Cheerios. Because I'm not, that's why.
Can you both behave until I get back. Leave mummy alone - she's still asleep. Because it's early and she's tired. She got up with you yesterday.
Okay, I'm going to the shop. I'll only be five minutes.
Why did he hit you? Why did you hit your brother? Okay, so what did he do to you to start it? He did, did he? What do have to say to that? Oh, he took your book. Look, it doesn't matter who started it. It stops now!
Right what happened there? I didn't even get out the door. If you can't behave then one of you will have to come with me. Yes, I know it's raining. I'm not exactly thrilled about going out myself.
Well, you're the oldest, so you should know better. Put your clothes on and come with me.
Stop shouting. I know it doesn't seem fair. Life often isn't.
Okay, last chance. Do you think you can not kill each other in the time it takes me to go to the shop and back. Promise?
Now, who wants a drink?
Water, milk, squash or orange juice. We don't have pineapple juice. I do not put too much water in it. I'm only thinking of your teeth. You have lovely teeth and I'd like them to stay like that.
What would you like on your porridge? Actually we don't have any banana, or raisins. Okay, you can have syrup today. No it isn't very good for you. It's a treat.
Where are your school clothes. I've got your trousers, but not your sweatshirt. Can you go and find it. Well I don't know where it is. If you took it off and put it where you ought to then we wouldn't have to go on a treasure hunt every morning.
No, we're not doing a treasure hunt. There isn't a prize, because there isn't a game. Maybe mummy will do one when you get home from school.
Well you have to go to school. Because it's fun. Okay, because you will learn things. It will help you get a job and earn money.
No you're not. You're not staying here forever because children don't do that. Well he's different. You wouldn't want to stay with us when you're older anyway. You'll want your own house.
Of course we don't want you to go away sweetheart. You can stay here as long as you like, now get your shoes on and go to school.
Toast? I don't think you've got time. Okay, you find your shoes and put your coat on and I'll make some, but only if you help me.
You can't have peanut butter because some of the children at school are allergic to it. It means they'll get ill if you touch them. Yes, or kiss them.
Did you? I'm sure she didn't mind, but the school doesn't like it. I don't know why.
Look, your lift to school is here. I'll pick you up in the afternoon this week.
Why didn't you tell me earlier that you need to take in a shoe box today. There might be one upstairs, hang on a minute. There you go, now go!
Have a lovely day at school.
Yes, I love you too.

Silence falls...

Thursday, September 18, 2014


There have been a lot of wise words written from both sides of the Referendum debate in Scotland. I don't have anything particularly profound to add, just a few jumbled thoughts of my own.

It was 1979 when I left Scotland. It was the year of Margaret Thatcher coming to power and also the year of the referendum on Scottish devolution.

Our local village hall was the polling booth and I recall a megaphone car outside with SNP posters on it. Nobody ever came to our village, so it was an odd sight. The Scottish Nationalist Party - how good did that sound?

Even at an early age I was introduced to the idea that we were different to our neighbours to the South. I knew this already as we had relatives in the Midlands who had moved to England in the late Sixties and early Seventies to take jobs in the mines down there. We would visit them most years usually en route to our annual week in the sun - Clacton, Great Yarmouth or somewhere.

So I knew that England was different. It seemed more affluent for one thing. The weather was better - hence the holidays there. And they didnae half talk funny, and yet they thought we were the ones with accents!

We did think we were different. As I grew up I was always led to believe that the Scottish education system was superior to that down South, that we were a more generous people in many ways (despite the stereotype of the stingy Scot), and that we were hard working and inventive (TV, penicillin, tarmac, the telephone, deep fried pizza etc). I guess many of us have these kinds of assumptions about the sort of people we are and also what our neighbours are like, whether they're next door or in the next state.

The referendum came and went. Scotland was denied its chance of an assembly despite a majority Yes vote. I moved to Bedfordshire with my family and started to become a wee Englishman.

Looking on 35 years later at the independence debate has been fascinating and tortuous. I don't have a vote, and I don't have a problem with that. I believe in localising democracy, so the people who live in the country should have the say in how its governed.

Although it may sound heretical to say it, I'm almost glad I don't have a vote as it feels like it would be one of the hardest decisions I'd ever have to make.

Like many people I'm an emotional nationalist. I love the idea of Scotland and belonging to somewhere even if I don't always know what that means, and don't always like what it can mean. It's hard not to be in love with the idea of your country, especially when you're an expat like me. Scotland has so much going for it: great resources, beautiful landscape, fascinating history, whisky, intelligent, warm and funny people, and a vibrant cultural life.

There's a side of me that naturally bristles when I sense my tribe is being put down, patronised or treated unfairly. In some senses I am a typically chippy Jock. I can see how Alex Salmond has been able to use this in his campaigning. Like I said, we think we're different and he knows the levers to pull.

Although he's one Britain's canniest politicians, he's barely had to break sweat because of the incompetence of those ranged against him. From Cameron's haughty decision to deny a devo-max option, through Alistair Darling's dry and hectoring tone, to the overall patronising and negative tone of the No campaign, Salmond probably can't believe that the fight of his political life has been so easy.

I've been really impressed by the seriousness of the debate. It's not just about oil revenue. Many nationalists wouldn't care if the only oil in Scotland was that in the chip pan awaiting a battered Mars bar. It's about the future of the country and it may be the only chance many will get to see their country independent.

It's so close - who knows how the vote today will go. In the past week the kitchen sink has been thrown at the Yes campaign with businessmen and economists weighing in to claim that Scotland could be voting for a future of austerity, higher taxes and poorer services. Of course, this is what the country could end up with by sticking with the Union.

I'm not denying that their predictions sound ominous, but the problem is that they may be too late, and that after a couple of years of nay saying, it's just white noise. There's also the attitude of Scots as put to me by a friend of my mum's, a very genteel lady (and Unionist) in her 70s. She said: "You know what we're like! The danger is that with so many people lecturing us about what we can't do, we'll just turn round and say, 'Oh we can't can we, well let's see!'"

I really don't know how it will go, but I will make one prediction. In the event of a Yes vote for independence, the sky won't come in on the house, despite what some say. There will be tough times ahead. Anybody who thinks an independent Scotland will be a land of milk and honey is kidding themselves. Even if there was untold oil wealth, is that the sort of unearned inheritance that hard working Scots would want for their kids - I don't think it is. They want them to be well educated and healthy living in a country that looks after those who are least able to look after themselves.

To me, that doesn't sound like a lot to ask for. The real question is which side is going to provide it? Choose well Scotland.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Bank holiday bands

I have just spent the bank holiday Monday afternoon drinking in the pub. Post-kids, this is something of a rarity, but once upon a time it was almost the preferred option for wiling away the long bank holiday hours.
Today I wanted to see a local band that I'm quite partial to and having spent the past couple of days on family friendly activities (Southwold and Colchester's Big Sunday street festival), and given that the weather was rubbish, I had a green card to get down to the Kings Arms.
It did make me think back to the halcyon days of bank holiday weekends at South Bedfordshire's premiere pub venue, the Wheatsheaf in Leighton Buzzard.
This was my local in a way that I've never had since. It was the pub I started drinking in (underage, sorry Geoff), where all of my friends would end up at some point over the weekend, and where people really did know your name.
A special mention at this point for the main man behind the bar for much of this time, Roy who was one of the coolest guys we all knew. He was more likely to strike up a conversation about free form jazz, beat poets, indie rock or contemporary literature than how the football had gone this weekend. I think I've still got a copy of a Richard Brautigan volume he loaned me.

Anyway, the Wheatie was the centre of my universe for a number of years. I still remember fondly the pub trip to Glastonbury '90 in the back of one local's van - no planning, just turn up and get in. We were treated to an endless supply of home made vegetable wine from a regular named Les: "This is a rather pokey little beetroot noir. Goes very well with cheese." Roy was on that trip too - passing round the hash cakes probably.
The Wheatsheaf was, and is, a mainstay of the local gig scene in the region, so bank holidays were always a big deal - an opportunity to drink all day and groove down to local bands. I recall bombing back from the Stone Roses Spike Island gig in 1990, just to see a Northampton soul band called Moses who specialised in War covers (Low Rider and World is a Ghetto stick in the memory.) I must have cut a particular dash in my Levi's parallel flares and gig T-shirt.
I was still living at home at the time, having moved back there after university when no career presented itself on a plate - how very inconsiderate.
It was quite a depressing time in some ways. Three years at university had been one great big laugh - gigs, parties, laughs... but not much sex - and ending up living at home seemed a real let down.
Then I discovered a new, pub centred, group of mates. Many of them were just ordinary blokes and lasses. That's not meant to sound condescending. What I mean is that after three years in university surrounded mainly by privileged, middle class kids (this was the mid 80s before the great expansion of higher education), I was hanging with people who I probably felt more at home with. It was a community based around alcohol mainly, but a community nonetheless.
So, that was my bank holidays sorted.
Today was a bit different. I indulged in drink, but not so much in chat. The band were good but it lacked the shared experience of yore.
I felt a bit old to be honest, especially after one guy spoke to me about how it now took him two days to get over hangovers. "Still, I expect it's about four for you," he courteously pointed out.
It's a good job the next bank holiday is not for a few months.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Yours sincerely

A strange thing about the way we live so much of our lives online is how difficult it can make it to read situations.
I have friends who are so witty, scathing, political, angry or provocative in their online personas that I sometimes don't recognise the person I know.
We spend so much time now presenting our preferred image to the outside world. I remember when I first heard somebody talk about their personal 'brand' 20 years ago or so. At the time it seemed a ludicrous idea to me that individuals would think of themselves as a package of personal brand values, but not any more.
I think many of us do present an idealised image to the world online. One where we're funnier, smarter and more interesting than we really are. And it's easy to become trapped in a notion of how we are perceived by others through our Tweets, comments, status updates, Instagram pictures, check ins and likes. I often find myself hovering over a comment wondering, "Is that what I think?" or even, "Is that what people think that I think?"
And then deleting it!
At a time when the idea of 'authenticity' has gained great credence in branding, it's probably never been tougher to really be authentic. Or maybe that's just the case with frauds like me.
Today a friend replied to a Tweet of mine where I had recommended something she wrote. She thanked me, but I'm so used to reading her acerbically funny comments about stuff that I couldn't work out whether it was a genuine or not.

Why did she use those particular words?
What does the use of capital letters THERE mean?
Do you even thank people for praise in Tweets?

I know, First World Problems.
Maybe I should have called her.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Free ice cream

Who wants an ice cream?
It's vanilla - I've got it right here.
It's free. You don't need to pay.
The man took it out of his freezer.
He just left it at the side of the road.
There's nothing wrong with it.
But there isn't any space.
There's strawberry as well.
Look at the swirl of red.
They're filling up the freezer now.
No room for ice cream.
Does nobody want one?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer holiday

De de da, de de da, de de de da, diddle-a...
Six weeks summer holiday starts today and as usual, Mrs Holiday has excelled herself by preparing for the larks ahead. Both the boys have a Summer bucket of toys, books and diversions. It's one of the little traditions that she is gradually introducing to our happy band.
I can't remember ever getting anything like that back in my days. You'd get the summer special of whatever comic or magazine you favoured and read it until the ink had practically come off over the ensuing weeks.
Our two have water pistols, Top Trumps, hula hoops, a space hopper (to share - good luck with that!) and various books from the second hand shops of the town. They are delighted. In fact they've both just come wandering into the office stark naked wearing butterfly nets (I forgot about those) and pointing the water pistols at me. It's going to be a long summer!
Happy holidays.

Friday, March 28, 2014

I see a sadness

He stands in a crowd of friends, outwardly happy, confident and fulfilled. He’s talented, handsome and going places, but there’s something not quite right, and nobody else seems to be able to see it.
I catch him glancing at me. He knows that I know. I look away, embarrassed at being caught catching him out. When I look up again, he has turned his back on me but I know that he’s thinking about what just happened.
What did just happen?

Friday, February 07, 2014

Picture this

Eighties style: it's in there somewhere
We live in a world where images have lost some of their power or allure. The fact that most of us carry a camera around with at all times means there are not many things that remain undocumented or shared.

Of course it wasn't always like this (cue Hovis theme tune). When I was younger, cameras were not generally carried around. Unless you saw yourself as a photographer and were always on the lookout for a shot, people only took cameras out on certain occasions: holidays, parties, school trips, weddings, Christmas...

The list is not exhaustive, but the point is that we only tended to document things that we thought were special and required recording for posterity. You can see it in the studied grins and stiffness in many old pictures. You really did pose for pictures. There were only 24 or 36 shots in a reel and you didn't want to waste them by not being camera ready. When the film was eventually finished, which could take months, or even years in some cases, you then had to send off the film and wait for Truprint or whoever to return it 28 days later.

As a result, I find that there are large parts of my life where there aren't many pictures of me. My university years for example. It really wasn't like today were we can shoot off that many pictures of one scene, choose the best one and delete the rest. The few pictures I have are a bit stagy with me and my peers trying to look cool, or wacky, or a combination of the two.

That's why I like this picture, which until last night I didn't know existed. I was browsing Facebook where a band I saw quite a lot in the Eighties, The Very Things, had posted some pictures from back in the day. I was scrolling through them when this one jumped out. That's me in the middle with the rather wavy, Charles I do (I thought I looked like Bono at the time). It was taken from the stage at one of their gigs at ULU in London. I think I must have been about 19 or 20. Standing next to me with his hand making a fin in front of his face, is my friend Andrew.

There are several reasons I like the picture. It captures a time an a place that I remember very fondly. It was my first real taste of independence, living away from home and left to my own devices. I thought I was kind of out there, but looking back on it, I probably had, as David Cameron would put it a normal student experience. There were some high jinks, but in some ways we were fairly innocent, and I think that it comes through in the picture. We weren't particularly cool, although we thought we were. Our pleasures were fairly simple and we had a good time.

In some ways we had it a lot easier than students today. I can't remember there being a whole lot of pressure on me to achieve highly at university. In some ways I wish there had been. College was seen as a bit of a lesson in life, certainly that was a message I carried from my very liberal social studies lecturer at school, but it was a fairly common thought. You could live reasonably well on a student grant (just starting to become means tested as I went to college although I got a full grant for three years), tuition fees were paid, banks were happy to indulge an overdraft if required (some things never change), but you could get housing benefit and claim dole in the summer.

I wonder how many of the people in that picture ended up working in the City or in corporate law or accountancy. Not very many I guess, although most of them are students. Did many of them have a plan? I certainly didn't, and I didn't really have much of a clue either. But by the look of my face in that picture, I was happy enough that night.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Yoga time

My pre-Christmas running binge turned out to be a bit of a folly. After 24 days of running my right knee swelled up like a balloon and I've had to opt for something a bit less high impact.
Just before Christmas I took in a yoga class run by one of the parents from my son's school. I've been meaning to give it a try for a while, mainly on the testimony of a colleague who swears by it. Despite the fact that his wife was a qualified yoga practitioner, he'd never shown interest until she dragged him along after he'd been moaning about his back. It turned out to be a revelation and he's now turned into the most flexible Fifty-something in West London.
If it could work for my friend, then why not me? I've at least a decade on him.
After the pre-Christmas class, today saw me back on the mat in a packed class in the centre of Colchester. From the informed position of having taken two classes in my life it seems as if there are a few things going on here.
It's a mix of the mental and the physical. Yoga seems to help with flexibility, but there is a lot of emphasis on breathing, relaxation and visualisation. This leads to some odd instructions like being asked to try and envisage breathing out of your back or from behind your knees. Perhaps you need to reach the next level of enlightenment for this to work.
It's gentle, but intense. The class was full of a real mix of ages and the teacher Ceri offers a number of options for each exercise to ensure that people work to their level. You can take it easy, or you can really go for the stretch, although given the overall philosophy, I expect it's not encouraged to go crazy in the first few lessons - see my running experience for further details.
It's a different type of work out. I'm used to exertion and being physically wrung out as an indicator of how worthwhile a session has been, but yoga isn't like that. You can feel you are using muscles, but it's not a cardiovascular burn. For me, it's probably something I will do in conjunction with more intense activities such as running, cycling and swimming.
Having said that, I definitely feel like I have done something that exerts me. I think I'll sleep well tonight.
Flexibility is a good thing for all of these CV heavy activities anyway, and you're less likely to do yourself harm if your body is a bit more elastic.
Another observation is that because your body is being twisted around in ways it is not quite use to, there can be occasional involuntary releases of gas.
I don't think it is yoga etiquette to ruin the moment by guffaw at these, and look round for the culprit.
It wasn't me anyway.