30 April 2009

50 Moans, Whines and Whinges of the Modern Englishman

The more I've written in this blog, the more I've moaned about things. In fact, it has almost become therapeutic to voice the series of minor things that appear to irritate me immensely. If there is one thing English people are good at, it is moaning. We are famous for it the world over. Americans might call us whinging limeys, and Australians moaning poms. Our reputation as complainers is well earned, although for such an obese nation, perhaps the fruit references are a bit outdated in those particular insults.

All of my moaning has got me thinking that perhaps a change of outlook is required. Less cynicism and more sunshine. (As a cynic, that last sentence has just made me cringe). Its something that I want to try anyway. But not before I get this lot off my chest.....

1) Hangovers. They just get worse as you get older. Once upon a time you could drink a huge amount, be sick on your white jeans and be up in time for breakfast (ok, the white jeans were a mistake). Once you get to 30, you're stuck with a hangover for two days, with an unhealthy dose of paranoia thrown in.

2) The insistence of everyone involved in business on the web to create unique terminology for absolutely everything they do annoys me immensely. Every day, a new term is created and people like me have to look them up. Well, I've got news for you, tech-speak creators. I know what WYSIWYG is now, and saying 'wizzywig' just makes you sound like idiots.

3) Is it necessary that every car driver has to drive the same roads they do every day at half speed every time it rains. The road is a bit wet, that's all. In a 30 mile an hour zone, even if the road is wet you aren't going to spin off the road if you approach the speed limit.

4) Search Engine Optimisation specialists. There are so many of you and plenty haven't got a clue. Until you find some way to distinguish yourself as one of the 'good ones', you will never get any business from me.

5) I understand the purpose of nasal hair. But when you get to a certain age, is there any need for it to grow at such a rate. If you don't watch out you could be waiting 20 minutes for a bus, and by the time it arrives you trip over it. (Yes, the nose hair, not the bus).

6) I wish the BBC would note that if they do a news article from Newcastle Upon Tyne, it is not necessary to play 'Fog on the Tyne' in a patronising fashion.

7) Changing the bedsheets is the only activity that requires more energy than climbing Everest. There must be a way to do it that doesn't leave my arms aching in agony when I attempt the duvet cover.

8) Spammers should note that inviting me to a 'webinar' will never, ever, ever be successful. The very word induces nausea.

9) UK Planning Departments have no plan in 99% of cases. Manchester's skyline has buildings in every architectural style ever devised by humans for example.

10) Every day a new foodstuff, drink or activity is declared as being damaging to your health. There is nothing left for anyone to eat! If it continues and everyone follows the advice, cancer will be eradicated but everyone will starve to death.

11) If psychics had the powers they claimed to, surely they would be able to contribute to society more than a small advert for a premium rate phone number in the back of a magazine.

12) Ghurkas, Nepalese soldiers who fight in the British Services cannot settle in the UK after their service. What annoys me more than anything is that the Labour party could have made a decision that would have been universally popular (their first for a long time), and they take the opposite view.

13) If you drive a Volvo like me you can't switch the headlights off. As a consequence you have to replace the bulbs every six weeks.

14) The only epidemic we are likely to have is Swine Flu Fever. This infects people who have a cold and recently ate burritos in a Mexican restaurant chain. There is no need for people to be wearing masks. Unless visiting Middlesborough. Face it, the only really at-risk group are Danish perverts (obscure joke there).

15) People on the internet who list themselves as 'Web Evangalists'. Tossers.

16) Hardly a unique moan, but driving a huge 4x4 in the city is stupid. It costs more, is more difficult to drive and pollutes more. Not rocket science.

17) If you get on a train and sit at a table in the UK, you will be joined by three people who talk loudly, eat smelly foods, drink booze, use their mobile phones all the time or simply smell. It is the law. Only one person per carriage is allowed to just sit quietly or read a book.

18) Internet people again. There is no such word as 'Mompreneur'.

19) Footballers being interviewed are so predictable and boring they may as well just record one at the beginning of the season and repeat it after each match. Days of any personality are over. You'll not get Ron Atkinson's great quote again - 'I never criticise referees and I'm not going to make an exception for that prat'.

20) Is there any need for the Glade air freshener advert where the irritating little boy shouts 'Muuuuuum, I need to do a poo!', over and over.

21) The conservative party are about to be elected by default, without explaining a single policy.

22) As a supporter of Carlisle United, away supporters singing '...just a small town in Scotland' is very boring, you all do it. And as for 'sheep, sheep, sheepshaggers', yes we know. We invented it.

23) My local supermarket doesn't stock the guardian, but does sell the weekly newspaper entitled, 'Cage and Aviary Bird News'.

24) The national lottery has not afforded me a single £10 win in 12 years. That is not good value.

25) At school it used to irritate when a fellow pupil would ask what was in my sandwiches and say 'Uuuuurrgh, tomato', or whatever was in it. But people, grown up people, still do it! Have you nothing better to do than criticise my choice of sandwich filling?

26) I cannot deal with people with no sense of humour, they totally disarm me and leave me gibbering and trying to crack jokes. This person is usually your boss.

27) Famous people who say 'I could never work a 9 to 5 job'. Insensitive idiots. It is called making a living for the majority, there isn't really a choice.

28) Web people (who feature a lot!). Don't describe yourself as 'ideas energisers'.

29) Do you remember when CDs came out and we were told they were virtually indestructible. Obviously the scientists who made these claims must have omitted certain things from their tests. Like playing them, or picking them up.

30) I've worked out that if a man needs 2,500 calories a day, the amount of calories you burn in an hour of the gym would suggest you've only just exceeded the amount you'd have burned if you just sat down instead.

31) I've often heard Americans say of the British, 'we saved your ass in WWII'. Perhaps if an earlier entry into a conflict against the world's most evil regime had been effected, millions of people would not have died. Just a thought.

32) A Scottish National Party official recently said that Scotland had been dragged into a recession by England. RBS and HBOS bailed out. Guess what the 'S' stands for in both of those.

33) Domino's Pizza looks revolting, tastes revolting and costs more than a good meal in a restaurant. How is that business model successful?

34) People wouldn't illegally download movies if it didn't require a second mortgage to get into a cinema.

35) Could I be bald or not bald. Is it necessary for me to look at the same time like a monk and someone with a map of the Isle of Wight on their forehead.

36) When I worked for a bank, somebody once rang in sick saying they'd run so fast on the treadmill they'd worn all the skin off their feet.

37) On a half full Easyjet flight, people will still sprint to get on the plane first, despite there being enough room for everyone to have their own row of seats.

38) There is a reason most Chinese buffet restaurants are patronised by more English people than Chinese. The Chinese people all eat in restaurants where the food is edible.

39) People who say that football is just 11 men chasing a ball about. Surely there must be something more to the world's most popular sport. And anyway, technically it is 22 men chasing a ball about.

40) British society dictates that if you drink red wine, go for meals with another man or like clothes you are gay. Call me Graham Norton then.

41) Critics of the new tax rate for top earners say it will cause a talent drain from the financial sector, the UK's biggest earning industry. The second biggest is Higher Education and research. Maybe the talent will move into this sector, meaning they'll be creating knowledge, rather than their own profits.

42) Simon Cowell's trousers are not newsworthy enough to take up column inches in the newspapers with the largest circulation in the UK.

43) I was informed by a former colleague that HD television was 'better than your own eyes'. Is it wrong to want to attack such people?

44) Everyone, including charities refers to the credit crunch in their marketing. Why constantly remind people of the fact when most will be unaffected, while simultaneously trying to get them to give you money. Buy from us and beat the credit crunch? Nonsensical.

45) Food labelling is ridiculous. I wouldn't be surprised to see 'free from artificial flavourings' displayed on rat poison in the future.

46) I could buy the best album of all time and I would listen to it over and over until I ruin it because I have overdone it.

47) Being English, why do I still turn a crimson red of shame when recalling the most minor embarrassing social situations. Things that happened ten years ago or more that everyone else will have forgotten about?

48) You can put a man on the moon, but you can't create a cordless phone that doesn't have more interference than Garry Glitter at a school disco.

49) When writing a blog and creating a list, you choose a number of things that you are going to cover. In this case, 50. But by the time you get close, you can't think of anything. If I had called this the 1 moan, rather than the 50 moans, I'd have got writers block before I'd started.

50) In approximately 50% of pubs I've been in in my life, you have been able to smell the toilets while standing at the bar. That is just wrong.

That is it, I'm a new man. All my bitterness has gone. If you've got this far, please feel free to add your own in the comments below!

27 April 2009

Blame The Parents

Opening the paper a couple of weeks ago, I looked at the tale of the awful news from Edlington, South Yorkshire. The torture of two little boys, by two little boys was a harrowing read and is a story I have subsequently gone out of my way to avoid. Just what on earth can possess two children of 11 to even contemplate such sadistic thoughts, let alone get their hands on weapons and then carry out a shocking mutilation? If I was anything to go by - they should be stopping their bicycles at lampposts and waiting for an imaginary passenger to climb on board before speeding off humming engine noises.

Thankfully, such incidents are indeed rare and I’m by no means lamenting the end of an age of childhood innocence. Unfortunately though, robbery, violence and disorder in adults is not rare and it got me thinking why it’s ended up this way.

Sure society has always had its problems but it never used to be this bad, did it? Turn back half a century or so to the post-war 50’s and such serious crimes and anti-social behaviour were much rarer. That's not to say they didn’t happen. There were some horrific crimes in the decade prior to the civil rights movement and society was a grotesque racism-riddled world away from the multiculturalism we enjoy today.

So whilst we can thank the 1960’s adolescents for a freedom and liberalism and an acceptance of individuals as equals. To that generation we can perhaps attribute the blame for many of society’s problems that we now contend with. The undoubted slackening of peoples tolerances to unsociable behaviour coupled with a desire to be experimental. This brought drugs, alcohol, sex and crime in to the mainstream. What was unacceptable a decade previously could now be tolerated in a summer of love drug-in. A summer which was always only one bad trip away from turning to disaster as drugs manifested in and then bent people’s minds.

It was a decade for good and bad that literally did change our world for ever as much as any other. No longer would rock bands line up in suits like an early Beatles. No longer would rock stars have to lie about taking drugs when they could instead make them cool. No longer would songs be banished from radio for their drug references (which admittedly would be a travesty for those such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamond or the Byrds – 8 mile High). Nor indeed would it be considered anything but sociable to sit around drinking in fields all day listening to such music.

The youth wanted freedom and they made sure they got it. Suddenly with this seismic shift in the consciousnesses of society, the 60’s turned in to the 70’s and the new generation heralded in an era of punk that made violence cool. Violence cast an ever-reaching shadow over society, plaguing the simplest of pleasures from late night walks to going to football matches. Long gone were the days of leaving doors unlocked overnight or a society where each knew their neighbour, or where murders generally were headline news.

So for my 30-something generation - we can absolutely blame the parents. Mind you they did make cracking music which would have probably been un-experimental repetitive dirge, were it not for those blessed mind-bending drugs!

24 April 2009

5 Things That Are, Well... Things

There sometimes comes a time in this blog where I can't think of a subject weighty enough to fill an entry up on its own. That isn't to say many of my previous writings were on noble, worthy subjects that warranted my amateurish treatment; but at least they offered me the chance to get past a few sentences. Usually at these times my co-writer and business partner Andy takes up the slack with his own, often sweary blogs. And then there are times like these, when neither of us has a great deal to say. It then falls to me to resort to listing a number of minor points, in essence the first things that pop into my balding head.

I read somewhere it was a good idea to include lists in your blog, as these prove popular with visitors. Having no overriding theme to link together such a list, I have simply opted to talk about five things that are, er... things. And so, in particular order of interest or relevance: -

1) Druridge Bay, Northumberland

I've written the pre-amble above in one fluid motion. Your experience reading this will be seamless, unlike my efforts in writing it. A full 30 minutes have elapsed between the end of the introduction and the first point, not the best start. Already I'm thinking of changing the number of points from five to three... The one saving grace is that as I write I am sitting on several miles of golden sand on the Northumberland coast. Not all at once you understand, my arse isn't that big.

Quite why, on a warm sunny day, I am one of about twenty people on a beach that stretches for several miles is a puzzle. And why, of these twenty, seven have chosen to set up camp right next to me and boot a football around inches from my head is also confusing. Over half a million people live within an hour of this beautiful coastline, yet it is all but deserted.

The Northumberland coast is undervisited, beautiful and accessible. With miles of sand, studded with coastal castles and small market towns, it truly is a gorgeous part of the world. But hang on, my beach companions have unleashed a crate of Stella Artois. This is England.

2) New World Wine

Being an Englishman it is my wont to drift into a diatribe of moaning. Whether I'm at a sun drenched beauty spot or not. My focus of this rant is the penchant in this country to embrace the wines of Australia and New Zealand with such passion. Call your new wine Kookaburra Ridge Mountain or Wombat Creek and you'll be guaranteed sales. But for the most part they are awful, and I've tried a lot. Perhaps there are a good deal of complex, light and fruity wines that hail from these countries. But they don't make it here.

I read once that in the UK, a survey was carried out which asked the public to sample and give a preference for several red wines. The unanimous winner was sweet white Liebfraumilch mixed with red food colouring. Obviously the tasters didn't know what they were drinking, but that was their favourite. Seemingly the wine producers of the new world seized on these statistics and produced a series of heavy, industrial strength wines with sweetness akin to blackcurrant cordial. Guaranteed to give you a bad head, these aberrations come from some of the most popular and most advertised wine houses. What the customers of these grape abusers would make of a real wine I have no idea.

France, the most famous producer of wine in the world, has stepped up its efforts and there are amazing bargains to be had, if only people would look. I asked a Frenchman once what he thought of Australian wine. 'Ca existe' was his reply, 'It exists'. Pompous yes, but the best way to describe it.

3) A Little Reward

There are constantly stories in the press about government initiatives to make us behave the way we should, particularly in regards to the environment. These measures could be made so much more successful if every one didn't involve a proposal to fine or charge people for not doing what they want. Imagine the take up for recycling if people received a small council tax rebate at Christmas for doing it. Or if drivers could leave their cars at home and use a clean, efficient public transport system. All we seem to know how to do is disincentivise and fine, giving the excuse to any knockers that these are just revenue generating measures. Which they probably are.

4) Accentuate the Positives

I am aware that I am giving off the impression that I am an irrepressible moaner. In many ways that is absolutely right. But I also have a capacity to feel pleased, indeed 'lucky', when things aren't quite as bad as they first seem. On a recent trip to Scotland, my expensive Sony camera decided not to work anymore. I had purchased it 11 months before for a hefty fee, and I now no longer had a receipt or knew where I bought it. Well, I got it at Stansted airport, but that wasn't going to get me very far.

On my return, I had a letter from Curry's explaining my warranty on the camera would soon expire and did I want to pay for an extended one. Instantly, where and when I bought it together with proof of purchase had dropped into my lap. I was left feeling very lucky, as my broken camera situation could be resolved with one trip to a grim, crowded retail part and a half hour discussion with a spotty teenage member of staff. A far better feeling than had it just not broken in the first place.

5) Total Policing?

The Police have recently undertaken a poster campaign across the country, with large messages displayed at many bus stops and advertising hoardings. I've seen these large fonts and forceful messages in Newcastle, Manchester and and Glasgow in the past fortnight and am still at a loss as to their purpose. One simply declares, 'ANYTHING YOU SAY MAY BE TAKEN IN EVIDENCE'. Anything? A conversation in my car or if I talk in my sleep?

Either the communications office of the police has never read 1984, or they regard Orwell's looming vision as some type of blueprint for law and order. I better not expand further, as anything I say is being taken in evidence. Of what, I don't know.

So there it is. And now I am off to relocate as my young beachside intruders have lit a barbeque and I am shrouded in choking smoke. The joys of the English countryside...

20 April 2009

Mountain Pass Series

You may have read bits and pieces of the series of blogs written by my business partner (blogger username Espiritoart - Andy). This is an epic tale of stupidity in which went clubbing in Milan with our laptops. Never the most sensible of things to do.

The mountain pass title stems from the ridiculous task of rebuilding our business after this ill judged escapade set us back a good 6 months...

This tale of two idiots is now complete, in 5 parts: -

1) Setting the Scene

2) Two Idiots in Milan

3) Clubbing with Suitcases

4) I Blame Matt

5) The Final Chapter of Stupidity

Mountain Pass #5 - The Final Chapter of Stupidity

We returned to Milan 2 days later as bonafide maniacs - intent on trackingthose daughters of whores down. However improbable it was.

After a steadying glass of red in the hotel, we headed back to the statzione in the darkness of late evening. We searched round a couple of streets looking for the vendors where we had met them and passed a gang of around 8 people outside an internet café. My heart skipped ten beats as I turned round for a proper look …… Matt - it’s them’. Matt turned and unbelievably, we found ourselves stood directly in front within touching distance. God, they were young and there was fear etched on the little plump one’s face. The taller smelly one (as Matt had remembered) seemed to be contemplating whether to have chips or a kebab, she had not a care in the world.

They retorted that they didn’t have the laptops when we demanded them back. ‘We’re not f*** stupid. We want them back’. (Really we’re not F*** stupid, honest). The rest of the gang - who worryingly were also within touching distance of us looked on. The girls bolted and we set off in pursuit across to the statzione. As we caught them they cleverly split, one going into the statzionne itself and the other turning completely, heading back down the street.

They problem was we couldn’t bring ourselves to touch them to attempt a restraint, they were after all just teenage girls. We followed the young plump one because she was slower on her feet. I noticed that we in turn were being followed by the gang the girls had been standing with. They were perilously close and there was some big looking lads. We were in danger of both being clobbered. So I made a sensible decision to run across the road out of harm’s way so they couldn’t strike out at us both. You see, this action meant they could only clobber Matt. ‘Matt’, I shouted. ‘There’s five of the F**** behind you. Watch Out!’ I added considerately.

Someone had to help us surely. 'Carabinieri, excusi, carabinieri!'. I found myself running across some tram tracks shouting at two respectable looking people. An older guy close to pensionable age ran towards Matt and flashed a badge at the girl. Thank F***. The gang moved back and the girl was shouting frantically at this old fellow who we can only assume was a civilian policeman. To our disbelief the fellow allowed the girl to walk off after a few minutes, shrugging his soldiers as we lambasted him. Was it that unlikely this little girl had actually robbed these two big Englishmen?

We set off in pursuit again and a street on, Matt stood to prevent the girl from walking further. I ran in to a hotel to call the police. The receptionist was disinterested and fobbed me off, saying she couldn’t understand me. An American guest finally came to my rescue and angrily told them that they knew exactly what I was saying. She finally rang the police but Matt and the girls had already disappeared off in to the night.

After an arduous task of trying to explain to the two carabinieri what had happened, I found myself in the backseat of a police car touring the murky Milan streets, looking for my good friend. ‘Quick back there’ The police car reversed back up the street. ‘Ah, No, No, Sorry. Sorry’. It was obviously going to be a fruitless search and the police soon got bored and dropped me off - so I could get a taxi back across town to my hotel!

My thoughts were with Matt. I had left him. Was he lying, bloodied and battered in a Milanese backstreet or worse? And more importantly, had he got those F*** laptops back. The hours ebbed away but the receptionist steadfastly refused to ring the police to report him missing. I had consumed the equivalent of a full bottle of red when and was slightly incoherent when he finally returned. He was alive but empty handed (he later told me that I had been unable todisguise my disappointment that he was indeed laptop-free).

It turned out Matt had had an adventure all of his own. The girl had screamed she was being attacked, some man had come down to look, she ran off and jumped on to a tram. Matt followed and just made the jump on to the tram as it pulled away and chased her up a packed carriage. They got off after a couple of stops, the girl finally buckled and matt accompanied her to an internet café where she rang for someone to bring the laptops. Matt asked the staff in the café to help but they ignored him, the girl set off again and Matt was forced to peruse her down a couple of backstreets. A guy appeared and said he would go get the laptops from a flat for 50 Euros. What? Surely Matt you didn‘t pay the thief to give you back your computer? No, no, no!! . The guy gleefully accepted the 50 Euros before telling Matt he hadn’t pinched them and it was nothing to do with him. Matt punched him in the face and retrieved his funds. Another guy appeared, and a big one according to Matt. Matt retreated and the girl seized her chance to make her final escape, disappearing off in the direction behind the big bloke from which Matt was fleeing.

Back upstairs in the hotel I lamented how stupid we had been to have miraculously found the girls and let them slip away. ‘We’re stupid. F**** stupid. Idiots!! Utter w**** we are’. ‘Matt, I know your way of dealing with something is to just try to shut it out and go to sleep, but me - Ineed to dissect it and persecute ourselves’. Even in all the turmoil I recognised our different mindsets, ignored his wishes and ploughed on, ‘honestly, we’re 30 this year f***** idiots’....

My incessant chastising of us through the early hours had left Matt bewildered, tired and beaten. My insistence to find the internet café he had been to the night before, call the police, check the CCTV and then goto the Milanese press pushed him too far. ‘RAARGGHH. I can’t deal with this bloody crusade any longer!’ he cried. The silence was only punctuated an eternity later when he had to borrow 5 Euros for a coffee.

To while away the hours until the return flight we did make it to the internet café and then to the police station. Unfortunately the ‘CCTV wasnot working last night’. We finally made it home later that day, disillusioned at our own stupidity and filled with recoiling anger at the seemingly endless injustice we had initiated.

On reflection now - the events in Milan were helpful. It taught us the hard way of the importance of: PLANNING / CONTINGENCIES / BACK-UPS and BACK-UPS. It also made us stake stock, improve the site, deliver a much better body of work and launch a year to the exact weekend later. So hopefully for anyone starting a business, there maybe something to draw on to avoid a near catastrophe - even if it is only not to go nightclubbing with your suitcase, laptop, passport and digital cameras...

Mountain Pass #4 - I Blame Matt

I returned from the toilet. Where are they? Where’s Matt? Deviant – Is he off dancing with the pair of them? I wandered round the dance floor.

It was dark, loud. Where are they? Ahh at last, here was one of the girls. Hi, where’s Matt? She looks concerned and gestured for me to hand over my phone to make a call. She’d lost them too. I passed the phone in to her hand. She looked at me and ………slipped it effortlessly in to her bag. Hang on???

I leaned forward with both hands. As I did, my wrists were grasped tightly by a small stocky guy to the side of me. The girl reached in to my other pocket and took my wallet. (I realised at this point that these were definitely not the nicest girls in the mundo!) What the F***? She removed the 100 or so Euros, calmly sifted though my cards, taking one, before putting the rest back and returning the wallet to my jeans pocket (A caring thief! There is a semblance of good in everybody - is there not?).

Suddenly my wrists were free but by the time I turned they had disappeared into the throng. The search was useless and so I switched to finding Matt which took a good half hour. He was dazed and slumped on a chair. ‘Where is everyone?’, his slurring voice asked. ‘They’ve gone, robbed us!’ I replied. To my increasing annoyance - he was struggling to comprehend the gravity of the situation, in fact he didn’t even known there was a situation.

We looked desperately round the club again, outside, back inside again. The crumb of comfort we found in seeing our suitcases, towering proudly over a small round table almost instantly receded when we realised the laptop bags were not in accompaniment.

Matt was still drunk and he slept most of the way on the train to Firenze, leaving me to contend with a conductor requesting 80 Euros - given that we had completely forgot to buy a ticket back in the early Milan dawn. He finally took pity on me as I explained the situation and did not charge us on the proviso we got off at the next stop, Piacenza. He also provided me with the useful advice to get on a train to Firenze - as the one we were on didn’t!!!

This gesture was tempered by my increasing fury at Matt. He was leaving me to deal with all the S*** yet he spoke the better Italian. I erupted.... MAAATT’. I shook him. ‘F**in hell, 6-months, working all hours on the business, and we’ve lost f**** everything!’. Matt was incredulous. He smiled smugly and casually told me there was nothing to worry about - everything was saved on backups back in Newcastle.

Arrggghh. I had reached my tipping point and screamed back at him, demanding he shared my pain. ‘Have we, have we. We’ve got the website, but the artworks, the F*** artworks. We haven’t got the F*** artworks saved.’ This for me was the best part of the entire trip. The forlorn, despairing look which enveloped his face, instantly banishing his conceitedness, did at least unload a miniscule part of my heavy burden. Haha you twat. We‘re both F***d!

We stood on the Piacenza platform in the biting cold, reflecting on what had happened. We had been done like kippers. The girls helped us to get drunk, and separated us while the other went to the toilet and made off with... Well, only 2 laptops, 2 digital cameras, 2 ipods, 2 mobile phones (Matt was just realising he didn’t have his) and 1 passport, (typically mine). We had kindly hand-packed all of that in to the laptop bags and trusted two girls who we had met on the street 1 hour earlier with them. Some might say naïve, others preposterously stupid.

6-months of intense hard-work had just disappeared. We may have still had a website but we had no product - you cannot print canvasses from small jpeg images and our only back-up of the real images was on each other’s laptops.

Our 2 days in Florence were taken in up in British consulates and police stations. We even tried to convince ourselves that a very expensive meal was beautiful, when all either of us could manage was a couple of mouthfuls of a steak that had already drowned in a rich dark chocolate textured sauce. ‘It might not be for us, but what a restaurant, you cantell it’s quality’ I salvaged. Matt agreed.

3 April 2009

The Unbearable Being of Likeness

Best to move on swiftly from that mangled title I feel. I suffer from random passions and preferences for things. I'm not sure if other have the strange outlook as I do. I know people all like different things, but it usually for a reason. For example, people like the phrase 'life's rich tapestry', which would aptly fit what I am trying to describe. But I don't like that twee comment at all so I wont use it. I can't for the life of me think why I like Canada, Russian Literature of the town of Narbonne in France. True, there are likeable things about all of them, but that isn't why I like them. I sense I have lost you already. I am myself.

Canada is a fantastic place, friendly, scenic and bewilderingly vast. I've been lucky enough to visit a small fraction of this country and see it for myself. There's nothing strange about liking it. Except that I liked it before I'd been, before I knew anything about it other than what the flag looks like. I've been across North America and my favourite place is the pleasant but unremarkable Halifax, Nova Scotia, rather than Boston or New York. I drink whisky and I like Canadian Club more than better quality, tastier brands.

Russian literature has many classics, but everyone would agree there are equals from other cultures. But I haven't read a serious book by a non-Russian for years. I seek out obscure ones now that I've done the big names. And I forcibly enjoy them, denying myself the opportunity to criticise them even if I don't enjoy them. I rank Bulgakov's Master and Margarita in my top twenty books, and I just don't like it. Talking cats indeed.

I love France, have been many times and am comfortable in why I developed this opinion. But Narbonne, a small provincial city in Languedoc is my favourite place of all. It is surrounded my Montpellier, Perpignan, Sété, Toulouse and Narbonne. But I prefer to all of those other places. It boasts an impressive unfinished cathedral and a pleasant, compact centre. It also has a history of race riots but that doesn't put me off. I only went the first time because I had to change trains there, and had such a hangover I couldn't face the ongoing journey. I spent my stay there stuck in the hotel watching the Champions League final, rather than any great social or cultural pursuits.

I'm not sure how I can recognise the failings in the things that I like and like them all the more for them. Perhaps I'm odd. Sometimes this thought worries me. And then I realise people out there laugh at Rob Brydon, watch Holby City and read Dickens. And then I relax, as there's nothing rational about enjoying those things either. I realise, I'm not alone.

Mountain Pass #3 - Clubbing with Suitcases

Ahh so the girls!!!! Well it went something a little like this.

They were very nice to us. They put us at ease as we chatted in fragmented sentences - in a hybrid of English, Italian and French. We asked them if there was a bar we could find refuge in. They disappeared for a minute or two and returned, politely ending their calls to tell us there was the taxi was on its way. They got in the taxi with us to take us there.

The chills and anxieties that arose in us around the statzione were obliterated to another lifetime, as we sat relaxed on the back seat laughing and chatting – making friends. Were these the most helpful, friendly girls in the mundo? A few minutes on, the taxi swung around a corner and pulled to a halt. The scene that greeted us - big groups of late teen / young 20 something’s, all dressed ‘street casual’ in training tops and chunky white trainers was a little disconcerting.

But thankfully the girls were there beckoning us up to the nightclub steps, briefly muttering a reply to one of the hostile looking gang members. One of the girls even came back to help me negotiate the steep steps after I struggled to haul the suitcase up. This would be a difficult manoeuvre at the best of times not least when clutching a laptop in the 'free' hand.

Inside the packed club, the throng of people parted a path before us in amazement as we dragged our suitcases through to a small seating area. One of the girls was busy; repeatedly disappearing and returning every few minutes whilst the other sat with us drinking. A couple of more double Jack Daniels set our heads spinning once again and then it happened...

2 April 2009

Spare a Thought for the Bankers

I'm about to present a social commentary for which I have no qualification whatsoever. The ground on which I will touch is far beyond my intellectual capacity. Much like sudoku in that respect. In fact, even during the planning for this article, I realised the flaws in my logic. At the same time i will present an egalitarianism where everyone is treated equally, as individuals. So all equal, but different. Not a great start. And if that appears too uplifting I'll go on to blame all the world's economic woes on everyone, as humans. Fantastic, so the world is doomed because we are who we are.

And as if that wasn't enough, I will also fail to offer any alternatives or solutions. The only thing I'm good as seems to be downplaying expectations. If only there was a career where I could be as critical as I like of society - yet offer no ideas on how to make it any better. Oh hang on, jut let me make a note to join the Conservative Party as soon as I finish this.

The reason I have chosen to defend bankers is twofold, both based on personal experience. For a start it isn't really clear what a banker is. Is it all bank workers, city bankers or just the bosses of big investment banks? Whichever of these groups is being blamed, that blame is unlikely to lie at the door of every one of them. For the best part of a decade, until last year, I was a manager at Northern Rock. During the crisis which saw the bank run and a third of the workforce axed (myself included), I experienced similar generalisation first hand. 'Northern Rock's Incompetent Management' cried every MP, newscaster and journalist. If you take that description literally then I'm one of them. Was it my fault, a manager in the complaints department? I don't think so but after hearing that every day for 12 months it was hard to believe that wasn't what other people thought.

Obviously I'm being too sensitive here, but it can affect you. Just as it affects people in groups of other popular news phrases of the moment. Asylum seekers are spongers. Iran is part of the axis of evil. The media is responsible for the sexualisation of young people. Bankers are stereotyped just as much. Having said that, I've a lot more sympathy for any Iranian TV producers currently seeking political asylum.....

Aside from the issue of stereotyping, bankers (however you define them) are only doing what the majority of people would do given the chance. A friend of mine from university (where I clearly didn't study sociology) is a hedge fund manager. He's a perfectly nice man, generous and intelligent. What he did was get into a career where he could use that intelligence to make lots of money. There will be some amongst those judging bankers who wouldn't have done the same, but most would. I know I would.

Everyone can talk about the perfect job, living the dream and the like. The sad fact is, the vast majority of us don't ever get them. It shouldn't stop you striving, but most people just do a job because it pays the bills. How many estate agents, truck drivers or complaints managers dreamed of doing that job when they were young? There's nothing wrong with them and some people get some enjoyment out of them - but if you ask whether you would have been a banker and earned ten times as much? In most cases human nature dictates that you would.

It is human nature that has created a society driven by status and possessions. With notable exceptions we are all part of it. And we'd have managed a hedge fund and made our millions over the last ten years if we could have done. So it's not just the bankers fault, it's mine and yours.

1 April 2009

Fit For Parenthood?

No - not me. This morning however it was harrowingly obvious I wasn’t alone.

As I settled in to my seat on the metro and unfolded my paper, there was a slight commotion. Two teens, shaven headed but reassuringly suited and booted, prised the doors back open and bundled on to the carriage.

‘Eehhhh, man. Mam man, a cannit here you man. Am on the Metro’. The reassurance was fleeting. It was quite clear that opposite me were - as we say in Newcastle - two ‘charvers’. The conversation went on.

‘I’m on me way for an interview. Eh? - Aye this morning. Aye. I’m F*cked though. The bairn’s been bad aal neet’. A pause. ‘Naar, just coughing an that like and being sick'. A further pause. 'Naah she’s in the hoose. I’ll only be an hoor’. A longer pause. ‘Aye the dogs in in aal’. An even longer pause. ‘Divin’t worry mam man, it if gans for her, I’ll f*ckin smash it’.

I instinctively peeped above the paper and then upward to the route map, averting prolonged eye contact. The conversation wasn’t over though and it didn’t get better. ‘Hahaaaaa. She was deed funny like. She was farting this morning and it F*ckin stunk’. There was no indication as to whether this was the ‘bairn’ or the dog.

Fortunately, I was only travelling one stop. As I walked to my destination it still troubled me though. I just couldn’t comprehend what I’d heard, nor put it out of my mind. To leave the dog in the house with the young child in the logic that you’ll ’discipline’ the dog should it have attacked the child. Perverse beyond belief.

I don’t have children, but how can anyone treat them with such contempt? Even as I write this, it still disturbs me. Does a childhood of neglect, beatings and dog bites await? Or miraculously did this thing, masquerading as an adolescent human being somehow attract a loving, doting young mother who will shower her with the love and care afforded to myself and
that deserved by any child.

It would seem as unlikely as her father succeeding in this morning’s job interview, the very one for which he had left her. We can all only hope...