Wanaka tree

Happy Birthday


Today is the fifteenth of March. Today was a portentous one for Julius Caesar, but I always look forward to it with an anticipation of joy. Today is the birthday of my best friend.

Happy Birthday Julia, the dearest friend anyone could wish for.

I love this photo. Yes, I've stolen it, but I hope I can be forgiven today.

There is added joy and anticipation because we will be meeting in Kiev later in the year. Looking forward to that!
Wanaka tree

The doorway - a column

I think I'm getting old. In fact I'm sure I'm getting old. Being realistic, I knew it would come, it always does, but I didn't expect it quite yet, and I certainly hadn't prepared for some of the things that come with it. The creaks in the morning I can handle, the aches at the end of a tiring day I can put up with. I can even accept walking into a room and wondering what the hell I went in there for.

The thing that is hardest to come to terms with is the intolerance. I've always seen myself as being particularly tolerant - or should that be peculiarly tolerant? - noted for it, in fact. Considerate to a fault, me. I've even been used as an example in a magazine article about British consideration and tolerance.

So, what's gone wrong? I hear you ask. I wish I knew. But I don't think it's all entirely down to me. But that could just be me being a tad intolerant. I'll explain.

Let's use an example. When I'm at work and lunchtime comes around, I head off to buy something in the town. I probably shouldn't say where I go, but let's just say that it rhymes with Barks and Fencer. From the office it's a fairly short walk through the town centre. On a sunny day it's a pleasant walk, at any other time it's just something you have to go through to get to where you want to be.

The thing I find annoying, the thing that seems to have eroded my tolerance and consideration, and Britishness, is demonstrated by a very small, insignificant few steps on that journey between my office and where my lunch is waiting. It's the doorway of Barks and Fencer. Yes, just the doorway - I have other gripes about this world-renowned, seller of underpants, knickers and things to cover them up, but they'll keep for now.

The shop is in what used to be Taunton's second-best-known hotel, which closed a long time ago and got repopulated by various things, including a rather fine Waterstone's book shop and, of course, the pants shop. The doorway is nothing special. Automatic double doors peel themselves back as you approach and, although I've never actually stopped and gawped, presumably close behind you. If there's no one in front of me I quite like doing a Jedi hand sweep as I approach, making it look like I'm opening them with my incredible powers.

As I say, the doorway is nothing special yet I fear it affects a lot of people in nasty ways. Sometimes it doesn't believe I exist and won't open when it sees (or doesn't see) me coming. It's a bit embarrassing to slam into the door when you think it should have opened for you, and you believe it's just playing games and will cave in at the last moment, and doesn't. But even that isn't the problem.

I think we've established that this is probably the most special completely unremarkable door in the universe. And it must have unseen powers beyond anyone's imagination. The nub of the matter is this. When other people walk through the door I can only assume one of two things. Either it drains them of all energy and impetus, or the shop full of underpants and my lunch is so enthralling that people entering are completely bamboozled as to what to do next. This is because every time I follow someone through the door, as soon as they've set foot beyond it, they stop, completely and utterly. It's like they become welded to the ground and just can't go on. It's like they weren't prepared for the wonders they'd find inside. It's bloody annoying.

And it doesn't stop there, even though they do!

On the way out it's exactly the same. People walk out through the doors, take just one tiny, infant step onto the pavement and freeze, bewildered, presumably wondering where the hell that sunlight, or Somerset rain, is coming from; wondering why there was a sudden change in temperature. Again, it's bloody annoying.

In the grand scheme of things this isn't remotely important, but it wears my tolerance painfully away to just below the skin where all the nerve endings live. It makes me mutter under my breath, and probably much worse, as I nearly bump into one of these bizarrely transfixed people, or have to avoid them dramatically.

Is it just me, or does this happen in other places and annoy other people?

Wanaka tree

Happy Birthday Alice


Today is Alice's 8th Birthday. Happy Birthday special young lady!

I can't work out where those eight years have gone; they have just flown by. These pictures were taken back in September when she started school. She really is growing up very quickly.

Alice, I hope you are doing well and staying safe in a troubled country.

With all my love.

Wanaka tree

Plain language at work - one of many pearls of wisdom to come.

I love playing with words, and I love using words in an unusual and interesting way. But I also want to be understood. I have to wear two wordy hats – the one I use when I’m writing for myself, trying to be creative and having fun, and then there’s the one I have to wear at work where it has to be all straightforward, open and easy to follow. I try to make my creative stuff like that too, but I know I make the rules there; I don’t make the rules in my work use of language. But I do have to enforce them, which can be fun sometimes.

This is a genuine email that I received at work.

Here’s the background. There were problems with the computer system – there often are. Some people couldn’t get into their emails, some people couldn’t open Word, and then they would be able to but couldn’t save anything. The next day it would happen to a different group of people. This went on for a few days.

Then this email came out, sent to everyone in the building. Given the problem, I would question whether an email was the right way of telling people, but…..

“In conjunction with Third Party Supplier and Consultancy our ICT Network Services Communications team are continuing to proceed with further analysis, fault finding and eradication of any possible failure that may reside within the configuration or item on the network which is still continuing to cause internal County Hall network interruption problems similar to yesterday.

“I will of course inform you when a resolution has been found. However and regrettably at this present moment I cannot give an exact time of fault resolution.

“Due to the intermittent nature of the fault it is difficult to say categorically, how many customers are affected.

“Therefore and once again, I apologise for the inconvenience of non availability of service to customers who are experiencing problems.”

Now that’s a really wordy way of telling people what’s going on. In fact it makes the message almost unintelligible, and probably doesn’t tell them what’s going on, at least not in a way they’ll easily understand. I’m sure the person who wrote felt they had to use language like that because it’s what was expected of them. My argument, and the thing I have to enforce, is that it makes more sense to give people a message they’ll actually be able to follow.

Here’s my version.
“We know there is a problem. We are working on it but we don’t know how long it will take to put it right. We will tell you when the problem is solved. Sorry.” 

It’s going to be fun getting these techy people to write properly in English.

Ecosse map

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

I've written about this on a few occasions before, and now that it's happened I thought I would break my (unintentional) silence to round it all up.

Yesterday, between seven in the morning and ten at night, the people of Scotland had the chance to vote on the future of their nation. It's a rare thing in these islands for such an obvious democratic event to happen at all. Yes, we have elections, and those elections are run in such a way that they never represent the actual will of the people. If a political party gets forty per cent of the vote they achieve a landslide victory. But that's another story.

Scotland had its moment in the sunshine - a rare thing in Scotland in my experience. I was there once at the beginning of July, contending with temperatures that didn't get above four degrees, and horizontal rain. If you see photos taken in Scotland, the chances are that someone has photoshopped in the blue sky and the shadows. Don't get me wrong, I love Scotland, I love Scottishness and I love that I have Scottish ancestry. Those things are very important to me, and that's why I took a keen interest in the independence referendum.

It all started a couple of years ago. There was an election and for the first time the Scottish parliament ended up being run by the Scottish Nationalist Party. One of their manifesto pledges was to have a referendum about independence. That set the ball rolling. It took a while, but a date was fixed, rules were drawn up and a question was drafted - 'Should Scotland be an independent country?' - a question requiring a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer. Six little words that would have a huge impact on the future of the UK, whatever the final answer.

Debates were waged, families and workplaces divided, and more Scots registered to vote than ever before. There was, of course, quite a bit of misinformation too - that always happens when politicians are involved. Some wonderful British icons were mauled in the arguments, the currency and who would have a right to use it, the NHS and the way it's funded, North Sea oil and who should benefit from the wealth it generates, the Queen and who she should reign over. Both sides had very different ideas about those things. Both sides made promises they stood no chance of keeping - again, that's politicians for you.

Anyway, the day, yesterday, finally came. The lies, conflation, exaggeration and rhetoric died away as people finally got their chance to put a cross on a slip of paper, stick it into a metal box and walk away in a democratic euphoria.

The polls closed at ten o'clock last night, and by five this morning the result was known. More people had voted than ever before in any form of Scottish election, and for the first time that included 16 and 17 year olds. Good.

As I said in my previous entries about this, I was torn for a long time on which way I would vote if I had the chance. Living in the south of England, of course, I didn't have a vote. Good. My Scottish genes wanted independence, my English ones didn't. All the others, well established genes from other parts of the British Isles, from Western Europe and beyond, didn't, I have to confess, get much of a say. It surprised me but my English genes won out. I decided that, personally, I didn't want Scotland to be independent, I didn't want the main link in the UK severed. And, I wouldn't have wanted the rest of us to suffer Conservative governments for ever more - that just isn't healthy.

So, listening to the radio this morning, I heaved a sort of sigh of relief when it was announced that the people of Scotland had voted to remain as part of the UK. I had thought it would be a close run thing, but the final margin was 55 per cent 'No' (to independence) and 45 per cent 'Yes'. 

And happily, our national nature says that 'that's that'. We will continue to talk about it but not to question the decision. It's been made, now sit down, have a cup of tea, perhaps something stronger, and work out moving forward together. That's what I like about us. In other parts of the world, people are so frightened by the possible result that they choose not to have the debate, they resort to violence and a lack of consideration that we just can't contemplate here. How unbritish can you get?

Wanaka tree

Somerset Remembers the First World War

As you will know if you read my entry last week, on Friday evening I was privileged to attend a preview and official opening of a new exhibition at The Museum of Somerset in Taunton. It was a gorgeous evening and standing in the courtyard of Taunton Castle, glass of lemonade in hand (I was driving as always) mingling with the other invited guests and watching colleagues working themselves into a frenzy, was a great experience.

We were all eager to see the new exhibition, but first had to go through the ritual of welcoming speeches and acknowledgements of all the hard work that had been put in to get us where we were.

Here are a few pictures - not mine because I didn't feel it was appropriate to take my camera along. I had a quick look around the exhibition and promised myself to go back when there weren't as many people around and more time to take it all in.

I was really impressed by the artwork in the centre of the room (in this photo, the soldier with his back to you). It was specially commissioned for the exhibition and is created using poppy seeds.

My colleagues, Helen (designer) and Sam (curator) preparing some of the exhibits.

At the end of the exhibition there is a painting of this man, Harry Patch. He died, aged 111, only a few years ago. He was the last man alive who fought in the trenches on the Western Front and was a Somerset man through and through. I think this is an incredible picture showing his warmth and intelligence. He didn't talk about his part in the war until he was over 100, then he realised that talking about it might actually help to prevent something like that happening again. He was truly remarkable.


Exhibition in a noble cause

I'm feeling quite proud at the moment. I'll explain. As I'm sure you all know, this year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the first world war. Obviously, along with a lot of other European countries, this is a very significant anniversary for the UK. Over the past few months, and sometimes longer, a lot of projects all over the country have been put in place ready for the anniversary. In that, Somerset is no exception.

More than a year ago I was asked by the Somerset Heritage Service to give them advice about setting up a website, what job it should do and what content they should have. I was happy to do that for lots of reasons. I like working with the Heritage Service and have even done some volunteer work with them in the past. The result was http://somersetremembers.wordpress.com/blog/ .

Although I am very firmly a pacifist and always have been, I can't change the past, and we need to know about things like this war so that we don't make the same stupid mistakes in future (even so, a vain hope I think), so the war interests me too. On top of that, my grandfather actually fought in the war. He was posted in Palestine looking after and driving horses. When I was a child he used to tell me some stories about things that happened to him and people he met. Of course, because I was so young, he didn't tell me anything grim or horrific - and I'm sure there must have been things like that - but I did get a bit of a feel for his part in it all. Sadly, I don't remember most of what he said, which is a pity, and he hasn't been around to ask for a very long time, but I do feel a connection even now.

As part of the project I gave advice about, the Museum of Somerset is putting on an exhibition called Somerset Remembers the First World War. The exhibition opens this coming Saturday, and I hope it will be a great success. A couple of weeks ago I received an invitation to a posh opening evening this Friday. The exhibition will be opened by the Lord Lieutenant of Somerset, Lady Gass (no laughing at the back, please), and is quite a prestigeous event. I feel very honoured to have been invited. I'm also looking forward to actually seeing the exhibition.

Perhaps my fascination is because it was such a pointless, tragic conflict - really just a stupid family feud that got way out of hand and resulted in the deaths of millions of people and changed the world forever. I've recently read a lot about Russia's involvement - something that seems to be largely overlooked in western European history - an immense event in Russian history that partly led to the downfall of the monarchy and nobility, and the rise of the revolution.

Perhaps it's also because of my grandfather. We have lots of photographs of family members in their uniforms - my grandfather, his brothers, my great-grandmother's brothers and sisters - I intend to offer them to the project (to be recorded digitally) so that the sacrifice those people made doesn't fade away when there is no longer anyone around who remembers them.

Whatever the reason, I'm delighted to have been invited and look forward to attending, and reporting back.


The coolest job in the world

Here's a bit of a story, an anecdote. It's about me and just one of the funny things that seems to come along and stick.

When I bought my car, some time ago, I asked the company I bought it from if they would kindly organise the insurance for me too. There was a reason for doing this. For many years before that I had had company vehicles, so had no recent insurance history of my own. On top of that, the company I had worked for had gone spectaculary 'tits up' and there was no one to vouch for me. Becky, at the Toyota dealership, was happy to apply on my behalf and that application netted me a significant 'No claims bonus'. I was happy, they were happy and, I suspect, Toyota's insurers were happy too.

And life went on as normal. Because I pay by direct debit, I just get confirmation that everything is carrying on as before and I don't need to do anything at all about renewing it. I like that. They send me a pile of documents I don't even look at - who would? they really aren't remotely interesting. And, most importantly to me, I keep being insured.

That all happened this time around a few days ago. I don't quite know why, because as I've just said, these documents aren't interesting, but I had a quick flick through them as I was putting them back in the envelope. Amongst them was a printed copy of the original application, as filled in by Becky at the dealership. There was my name, address, date of birth and a whole load of other facts. I have to confess that Becky had guessed a couple of things, but that was probably done to put me in the best possible light as a low risk driver.

As I was reading down through the form, I noticed what it said next to the innocuous box labelled 'Occupation'. I had a chuckle. I looked again to make sure I had read it correctly. I had. I chuckled again. Then I thought, and chuckled again. When I had finished chuckling, and thinking, I decided that I probably had the best job in the world. (Not the real world, you understand, just the insurance world.) The form said that my occupation was, 'Inventor'. I hope you're chuckling too.

That was a few days ago, and ever since, in my idle moments, I have been wondering what exactly I invent - or what I would invent if I really was an inventor. I consider myself to be quite a creative person, but invention is creativity with knobs on - metaphorically and, often, literally.

As I say, I've thought long and hard about this and I've come to the conclusion that I would like to invent things that have already been invented. My creativity would be to invent them in a way that meant that they actually last, that they don't fall apart, break or self-destruct. I would, in short, build out obsolescence. I do understand that the long-term effect of that would be to not make any money, but I'd be happy, and so would everyone else.

I'm sure everyone else has a burning idea at the back of their minds, the idea of an invention that would change the world. Fellow inventors, what's yours?


Finally, falling on one side of the fence

I’ve just been looking back through some of my entries and I’ve re-read what I wrote here on 19 September last year. It was my column about the impending Scottish referendum on independence.

I saw this video, used as a television advert, yesterday evening (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvymXo3xF3E) and it reminded me that I had planned to revisit this topic.  

Basically, I read that I couldn’t decide. In general that doesn’t surprise me, as someone who completely fails to commit to anything at all. It’s far less complicated that way. But, on this particular issue I can understand especially why I was so spectacularly undecided.

As I said at the time, there is a part of me (an ancestry I’m immensely proud of) that wants Scotland as an independent nation – after all, it has a culture of its own, an astonishing uniqueness that is easily recognised around the world. Its music, and the wonderful way it sounds, is familiar to most, its literature demonstrates a sense of nationhood that writing from England could never hope to achieve, its art and design is as Scottish as the hills, lochs, islands and mountains that inspired much of it. I intend every pun I use, and this is no exception; it has a voice that is easier to identify than most world accents in any language. Scotland deserves to be seen as being for and of itself. It shouldn’t just be a ragged northern part of something else.

Scotland has a lot going for it, there’s no denying. To start with, it delights me so very much that Scotland would be the only ‘western’ country where that vile dark brown muck that might just rhyme with Poky Pola isn’t the most popular soft drink. Let’s hear it for the very Scottish Irn-Bru (iron brew).

You can feel a ‘but’ coming, can’t you? Of course there’s a ‘but’, there’s always a ‘but’. And here it comes…..now.

But. The loss of Scotland from the United Kingdom would diminish the country, and the nation, beyond recognition. A UK without Scotland would be a mere shadow of what it is now. I can’t really imagine, and I think I’ve got quite a good imagination, my country not having the Scottish bit.

Obviously, Scotland wouldn’t move geographically, it wouldn’t up and resettle somewhere warmer. It wouldn’t even go for a change of diet, with less fried and more fresh – cold chips are comically known as a Scottish salad among British stand-ups. But its relationship with everyone else would change. And that’s quite a big problem. If the people of Scotland vote for independence, they have already been told that they wouldn’t be able to keep the pound. They’ve been told they wouldn’t automatically keep EU membership (so adopting the Euro would be out too); they wouldn’t automatically cling on to the same Head of State (technically, the Last King of Scotland might just be a queen!) and things like banking arrangements wouldn’t carry on as before.

These announcements, teased out of Westminster and Brussels in recent months, must have come as a bit of a setback to the ‘yes’ campaign.

No one is ahead in the race, if race it is. The average of the polls I’ve seen (and I really wouldn’t set any store by opinion polls before the event, because I think I’d enjoy misleading them if I had the chance, for comedy and practical joke value, if nothing else) suggest that about 40% support the ‘Yes’ vote, about 40% support the ‘No’ vote, and the rest are either undecided or not planning to vote.

There’s still a while to go yet. The vote takes place on 18 September, and only voters registered in Scotland get a say. So, my opinion simply doesn’t count and certainly doesn’t matter, but I still believe I have a right to voice it. Whatever decision the people of Scotland make will have an impact on me, and everyone else in the UK, and Europe for that matter, and on anyone who trades with any of us.

I’ve thought long and hard, weighed up the arguments that have swirled around, however briefly, in my head. And I’ve decided how I would vote if I could.

The ballot paper will have this question on it: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ And I would tick the box marked ‘No’. There, I’ve done it, I’ve nailed my colours to the mast. I don’t want a UK without Scotland, I don’t want to lose the links that all of us being part of one UK bring.

I don’t want a British parliament perpetually run by the conservatives. (Here’s a pleasing fact: there are more giant pandas in Scotland than there are conservative MPs.) We need that balance, we need the cynicism and rebellion that Scotland supplies, and we need the inventiveness, humour and good sense that come along with them.