Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Bourgeois Muscial Fantasies? Or just entertainment?

I found this in my "drafts" section when I logged in for the first time in years just now. Thought it was still quite relevant, so here you go......

I have read some pretentious bollocks in my time but a recent blog post that appeared on the Guardian online (let's face it, a tree groaning with low hanging fruit when it comes to pretentiousness) really takes the biscuit.

Entitled "Florence and the Machine feed a bourgeois fantasy of 'folksiness'" the author, Alex Niven, spews forth a veritable tsunami of pseudo intellectual verbosity, the meaning of which I am still (after several readings) trying to fathom but which seems to suggest that any middle class, privately educated musician who enjoys commercial success is somehow an imposter and a fraud, especially if their style is "folksie".

Aside from the fact that the target of his ire, Florence and the Machine (pictured left), is anything but "folksie", this Leonard Sachs on speed is so wide of the mark that he is barely on the same page as it.

Get your laughing gear around this nugget of literary gold - "These artists seem to speak of a wealthy urban elite turning aside from the realities of the political system that undergirds its wealth and power to revel in a daydream of vintage Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell records, secret gardens, allotments, woolly jumpers, fairy costumes, cake-baking, and homey, Keep-Calm-and-Carry-On bathos", he blathers. Or perhaps, Alex, they just like making music and entertaining people. They write nice tunes, they sing in tune, their songs are well produced and they are entertaining. Just because they are not using the medium of song to protest, to symbolise their struggle against oppression, to raise awareness of a political cause it does not mean that their songs are worthless. The fact that they come from a comfortable middle class background and are not mentioning that in their music does not make them frauds. What are they supposed to sing about? The fact that Waitrose have run out of quails eggs or that mummy shrunk their Jack Wills hoodie?

A wise man once wrote "I want to be moved by the needle in the groove" (okay, it wasn't a wise man, it was my mate Tim who writes the songs and plays guitar in our band - and if you don't understand the allusion to "needle" and "groove" you are too young to be reading this), but there are many ways in which music can move someone. It doesn't have to be laden with political meaning or to deliver a powerful message about anything. There is nothing shallow or superficial in enjoying music for what it is. Music credibility is not the sole preserve of the oppressed underclass.

I have seen Florence (or FATM as she is apparently known), Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling live at various times and they were all very entertaining. The fact that they come from a middle class background did not stop thousands of people sharing the same opinion. Their tunes are catchy, they connect well with their audience and they entertain. I felt no discomfort at the fact that they had not dragged themselves up from the poverty of the ghetto and that they were feeding a bourgeois fantasy of folksiness.

I recently went to see Anna Calvi perform at Concorde 2 in Brighton. For those of you who do not know her, she is a very talented guitarist and has a very powerful voice. Her style is very individual. She comes across as modest and unassuming. Concorde 2 is a terrific little venue right on the beach in Brighton and the gig was sold out. The place was packed, and yet in parts of her set you could hear a pin drop (or rather, more atmospherically, the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach outside), such was the hold that she had on the audience. I have never experienced anything like it and it was genuinely moving. I don't care what her background is and I suspect that she doesn't care about the demographics of her audience – she was there to entertain and we were there to be entertained. And it worked very well.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Park Life

Here is an interesting fact. The area of land owned by Disneyland Resorts at Marne-La-Vallee just south of Paris (on which Disneyland Paris is constructed) is perfectly circular (look at it on Google Maps and you will see what I mean). What is less well known is the fact that Disney have options over two further areas of land adjoining the existing holding which, if exercised would form (alongside the existing resort) an area of land the shape of Mickey Mouse's head. Fact. And interesting. Don't you think?

I was completely oblivious to this piece of fascinating trivia when I turned up at Disneyland resort late one Friday evening in about 2003 to join my young family who had journeyed down there from London on the Eurostar earlier that day. The kids (then about 3 and 7) were tucked up in bed when I arrived at our room in one of the many themed hotels at the resort and after a room service Mickey Burger (which I ate having strangely failed to find anything French on the menu in the capital of France) I drifted off into the land of nod.

The following morning we (well, the kids, not me) awoke with eager anticipation of the Character Breakfast which - according to the marketing blurb - was "the ultimate way to meet and interact with your favourite stars of Disney's animated films". So - imagine being a 3 year old kid whose only previous experience of Disney's chipmunks had been seeing their playful frolics alongside Snow White and the seven vertically challenged ones. Cute, playful, cuddly little creatures tugging at Snow White's skirt and disappearing into holes in the trunks of trees in search of acorns and nuts to throw at each other, the little scamps. Imagine the expectation of a couple of playful critters bounding across the tables and scuttling up the curtains, pausing only to be stroked and petted by the spellbound kids.

And then imagine the horror of the same 3 year old kid being confronted by two fucking massive six foot chipmunks with three foot wide expressionless heads suddenly appearing above the rim of his cornflake bowl. The poor lad was terrified as these mute mutants towered above him giving it the full "jazz hands" as they stared into middle space like some deranged monsters from a 1970s episode of Dr Who. The little fellow immediately vaulted into my lap and buried his tear-strewn face into my chest, his sobs increasing as my soothing words were drowned out by the fifteenth chorus of "Happy Birthday" of the morning, as yet another candlelit cake made its way to yet another table occupied by yet another obese family who had read about the special birthday breakfast offer. (What are the chances of so many people sharing the same birthday and happening to be at Disneyland Resort all at the same time? Very slim (unlike them). Because they were all lying).

My first yellow card offence was then committed when I told the Chipmunks to "piss off and leave us alone" so that we could finish our breakfast in peace (I had previous in this regard having only a few weeks previously received a straight red for shouting "wanker" at H from Steps at a concert at Wembley Arena when he murdered Careless Whisper live on stage - to be fair one of the few bits of live singing on show that particular day). But I digress....

Once everyone had calmed down, we readied ourselves for the magical experience of the park itself. "In a Magical Kingdom not so far away - somewhere between a place where you wish upon a star and dreams come true - Disney heroes and heroines live in fairytales that are, happily, never ending." Hmmm. The only thing that was never ending that weekend were the queues. And the rows and rows of Disney stores. The part of suburban Marne-la-Vallee known as Main Street USA (I think it was called that, anyway) is lined with cutesie little village stores such as "Al's Muffin Shop" and "Bill's Barber shop", but anyone who wishes to buy a muffin or have a haircut will be disappointed to find that these shops sell nothing other than shelf upon shelf of Disney memorabilia.

>And the rain. Relentless Northern European rain, falling incessantly on the snaking queues of stiff upper lipped Brits stoically enduring their never ending wait for a two minute spin in a motorised tea cup. Or to watch a group of petulant froggies dressed as Disney Characters parade miserably along the Disney Store-lined boulevards of Disneyland Paris in the driving pluie.

My second yellow was issued for persistent dissent and I was sent back to the hotel for an early bath (or rather an early drink) ahead of the evening attraction, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

The Wild West Show was altogether a different proposition. We took our seats wearing our straw Stetsons and clutching our skillets of sausages and beans, and as the lights dimmed the sand arena was filled with a cacophony of whooping mounted cowboys roping steers and wrestling bison. At last - some real entertainment. Fuelled by the bottle of Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais (not so) Nouveau that I had consumed when exiled earlier that afternoon, I was really getting into the mood, whooping and clapping at the rodeo stars, laughing at the antics of the rodeo clowns and their daredevil stunts, pointing excitedly at the buffalos and horses charging around in a cloud of dust......oblivious to the fact that my wife was sitting motionless beside me enduring a severe horse and cattle induced asthma attack. When this eventually came to my attention, and mindful not to panic the kids, who were by now fumbling around in the dark trying to cut their "not so Wild Western" saucissons on their skillets, we agreed that she would make her way back slowly to the hotel while I diverted the kids' questions about why Mummy had gone blue.

A truly dreadful evening to end a truly dreadful weekend. And I have never visited (or, put more accurately, been allowed to visit) another theme park since.

The same goes for waterparks. My last experience of a waterpark was at a place in Spain to which, for some reason, we decided to drag the kids on a public holiday in about 40 degree heat one day during our family holiday. Having stood in a queue for our first descent (the longest flume at the park) in the burning midday sun, my day of fun was brought to an abrupt halt when my fried body was ejected at about 70mph out of the end of the pipe into a pool of cloudy water and I promptly lost both of my contact lenses. Game over. I hadn't brought any spares or a pair of glasses so I spent the rest of the day groping my way around the park looking for non-existent shade in which to shelter from the sun, terrified of accidentally making physical contact with a bathing suit clad child or woman and being set upon by an angry mob of Spanish sex offender vigilantes.

It is that inadvertent contact with a stranger's flesh that really puts me off waterparks, that and the thought of accidentally ingesting someone's verucca plaster, hair band or one of the myriad other nasty floaty things that pollute such places. And wave pools - what is the point of them? If you like waves, why not just go to the seaside where they have real ones?

That is something that I don't understand about Center Parcs as well. I know that I am going to lose a fair few of my loyal readership here when I say that I simply do not get Center Parcs. I have only been once and it was not a particularly memorable experience, to be honest. It was expensive, it pissed with rain the whole time we were there (so perhaps I did not see it at its best), it was overrun with squirrels, two families ended up having a fight at the end of a game of laserquest (much to my kids' amusement), the pool was dirty and overcrowded (mainly with people trying to escape the rain) it was right next to a US Airforce base so we were plagued with the sound of fighter jets taking off and landing, and the list goes on.

Once you are there you are captive. Every activity or meal out has to be booked in advance and we spent the whole time rushing back and forth from tennis to laserquest to dinner to ten pin bowling. Center Parcs' tag line is "It's the times you have together that you'll carry with you forever" which apart from being annoyingly grammatically incorrect and not rhyming properly (it reads like someone has stuck the words through a Google translator) is also somewhat misleading.

Spending time at Center Parcs made me feel like an extra in the Truman Show. Not my cup of tea at all, though I can see why it appeals. As Truman Burbank himself might say "Somebody help me, I'm being spontaneous!" or perhaps more accurately "can we book a half hour family spontaneity session at 3pm tomorrow please"?

There really are an awful lot of quotes from that great movie that can be adapted perfectly for Center Parcs and which would be much better than that dreadful brochure tagline. My favourite is this :-

It's all true. It’s all real. Nothing here is fake. Nothing you see at Center Parcs is fake. It’s merely controlled.

All part of the great wave machine of life.....

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Red Nose Day? Or One Whole Month of Enforced Joviality – a short rant...

I was amused to read in the letters section of the Telegraph this morning a letter from someone questioning whether it is "Red Nose Day or One Whole Month of Enforced Joviality". Now this is a tricky subject for a blog as I run the risk of portraying myself not only as some joyless curmudgeon (bothered) but also as someone who is in some way questioning the undoubted benefit that the hundreds of millions of pounds that this biennial event and its ilk have brought to countless underprivileged people (at home and abroad) over the years. So I must stress at this point that I think that the work done by Comic Relief and similar organisations (and more particularly those who donate and who have undertaken some unbelievable fundraising tasks in the name of those causes) is incredible and a credit to our great nation.

Children in Need has been running since 1980 and is the granddaddy of UK Telethons, but mass fund raising was taken to another level in 1985 by Live Aid. That unforgettable day at Wembley (yes I was there along with the other 5 million people who claim to have been in the intervening 25 years) had such a massive impact not just because of the never before (or indeed since) seen array of stars who turned up and gave their time for free, but because of the seismic shift in awareness of the plight of third world countries that the event brought about. Up until then, news of famine and starvation tended to be hidden somewhere between the miners' strike and a skateboarding dog on our evening news bulletins. Sir Bob and his mates catapulted it straight into our living rooms and straight into our collective consciousness.

But in the intervening years somehow the format has become tired and the values held by those heroes of 1985 have been lost.

Over the years, whilst admittedly punctuated with some truly admirable achievements (Eddie Izzard's unbelievable 43 marathons and David Walliams swimming the channel spring to mind) both Sports Relief and Red Nose day have basically descended into a month long pratfest in which publicity seeking celebs undertake a series of cringeworthy stunts in return for which we, Sir Joe of Publicshire, are expected to cough up our hard earned wonga.

It's a bizarre concept when you think about it, isn't it? "Those crazy Geordie nutters Ant and Dec have just commandeered the TV AM sofa for Comic Relief – fetch a mop Marjorie while I find my credit card". Don't get me wrong – there have been numerous very moving and thought provoking programmes produced in the pursuit of these noble charitable causes. I have particularly enjoyed the recent Famous, Rich and in the Slums over the past couple of weeks. But there has also been a lot of dross.

Groups of Radio One DJs, X factor runners up, lower league pop stars and daytime TV soap actors are sent off on apparently arduous and dangerous treks and adventures like walking up Mount Kilimanjaro and trekking in Kenya, feats so dangerous and death defying that their tear jerking reports back to base on their battles against adversity immediately get us reaching for the Visa. Or do they? Do you honestly think that the Beeb is going allow "Wor Cheryl", the nation's sweetheart, to go climbing up a big mountain if there was any chance that she could come to harm? Of course not. She'd actually be safer climbing up a mountain in Tanzania than staying at home with her ghastly airgun toting imbecile of a then husband. And does anyone actually give a hoot if Olly Murs has got chafed inner thighs on his desert trek? I think not. Nor does he – the benefits to him of some free publicity, in a money raising context, is going to be worth the pain. Yes – his efforts will raise lots of money, but they will also do wonders for his profile. Lots of nice photos of him in his cheeky chappy pork pie titfer rubbing nappy rash cream into his naughty bits will be nicely bankable. It's a win-win.

Do I sound cynical? Yes, I probably do. But let me tell you a tale of which I was reminded as I walked to the station this evening past one of the Big Four (or however many there are now) accountants who had a MASSIVE notice in their reception window proudly declaring that they were Comic Relief's Honorary accountants and that we should all do something funny for money. And the tale is of so called corporate social responsibility and the benefits thereof.

I used to work for a law firm which decided that a corporate social responsibility programme and a diversity policy would be a good thing to invest in only when it became apparent that some of its key clients required evidence of such programmes and policies before it would give them work. And suddenly CSR and diversity became all important. At a partnership conference in a big hotel in Chicago, a diversity policy was declared the firm's top priority and as I looked round the room at the 500 or so lawyers sitting and nodding enthusiastically in agreement, I noticed a handful of female partners, a handful of partners of ethnicity, no partners who were openly gay (fantastic for diversity policies, but ruinous for career prospects) and about 480 who were breathing huge sighs of relief that the firm's commitment to a diversity policy would ensure reappointment to the legal panel of their biggest client whilst confident in their own minds that they could continue to fill their coffers without actually implementing it.

And that big client in turn will have basked in the warm glow of having off loaded its corporate social and diversity responsibilities onto its highly paid advisers whilst seeking to raise its own moral standing by proclaiming to its customers and financiers that it will only use advisers who show commitment to CSR and diversity. And so the food chain of corporate responsibility continues.

And it is not dissimilar in the context of telethons. Hugely wealthy celebrities such as Jonathan Ross (I would actually donate my house to Comic Relief if someone would behead him live on TV on Friday night) give up a couple of hours of their time for free knowing that this one night of unpaid work will pay dividends in terms of profile once the red noses have been packed away for another two years. It is a fine line between altruism and naked self promotion that is being trodden and I can't make myself comfortable with that .

Anyway - I like lists, so here are a few things that I would like to see in the context of Red Nose Day, Sports Relief, Children in Need and their ilk:-

1. Cut out the unfunny, prattish behaviour. Send Ant and Dec back to the Jungle and keep the gunge in its container.

2. Stop Walkers crisps from making their puerile novelty crisp flavours. They are not funny, and for those of us who are creatures of habit the replacement of our usual ready salted with crisps in the shape of Gary Lineker's ears or with pictures of Frank Skinner on the bag is unsettling. Make a massive donation to charity by all means, Walkers – but leave the crisps alone.

3. James Corden – I actually like you and think you have the potential to be a very good character actor. But ever since you did that amusing skit with the England Football team you have become unbearably smug and self satisfied. The episode with Patrick Stewart was Rossesque in its appallingness. Resign from A League of Their Own – you are better than that. That format died with They Think It's All Over. Freddie Flintoff needs the money as his career is at an end. Yours is just beginning. Move on before you become a one trick pony.

4. No more charity treks. One of my colleagues climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with a training regime that involved walking up four flights of stairs a day for a couple of weeks. It is not difficult. If you want to do something impressive, do something that requires a commitment of time, a step outside the fluffy comfort zone of celebrity (viz Izzard and Walliams). And a nod to Helen Skelton too – that high wire walk took more cojones than I have got. What a girl. Got a bit of a thing about her....

5. Concentrate on raising awareness. Cut the shock tactics and stop playing the guilt card. That is what I liked about Rich, Famous and Living in the Slums. It was not a montage of shocking images, but a real insight into some of the day to day issues affecting those living in the slums of Nairobi. It left you with a feeling of despair, though with a clear picture of how charitable aid could improve the plight of some of those featured. By far the best thing that has been done in the context of Comic Relief for many years. Lenny Henry – respect. Have a word with Corden and tell him how it is earned.....

6. The presenters. For pity's sake – NO MORE JONATHAN ROSS. I note that he is down to host the show between 11pm and 1am. Why? He has been sacked by the BBC and should not be allowed in the building. He is not a comic and the only relief will be when he no longer invades my living room with his foul mouthed "poo-bum-wee" brand of playground humour. The jury is out on Winkelman. The positive is that Patrick Kielty will not be making an appearance. I shall hit the mute button whenever Michael McIntyre appears.

Anyway – enough for now. Give what you can, but do it for the right reasons. This has turned out to be far more serious than I had intended. But there again it is no laughing matter....

Sunday, 27 February 2011

20 Things That Really Irritate Me

1. People who use mobile phones on public transport. Viz:-
"Hello - it's me"
"On the train"
"The train is delayed so I'm going to be late" (a Southeastern Trains favourite)
"I'm just heading into tunnel territory so I may lose you" (why did you start the call in the first place then?)
[train enters Pole Hill tunnel] "Hello? Hello...?" (perhaps thinking that by repeating this word several times, the signal that was lost as the train entered the two mile long tunnel will be miraculously restored)
"Sorry about that - we went into a tunnel" (generally somewhere around Dunton Green where the signal returns briefly before the train enters the Sevenoaks tunnel)
"Hello?....Hello? (Sevenoaks tunnel)
"Sorry about that - another tunnel - hello?....hello?" (the Weald triangle, signals disappear....)

2. Unfunny "entertainers" - particularly Jonathan Ross, Phil Jupitus, Andy Parsons, Vernon Kay, "Comedy" Dave Vitty, Ainsley Harriott and Davina McCall. If I had to choose one though to put on the gallows, it would be Ross. I cannot stand that man.

3. Mark Chapman and Colin Murray. I've forgotten more about football than they have every known. Oh - and Andy Townsend - the master of the statement of the bleedin' obvious.

4. People who stand on the left hand side of escalators.

5. People who carry filthy folding bikes on packed rush hour trains (and who continue wearing their cycle helmet on the entire 45 minute journey).

6. People who tut and roll their eyes when you ask if you can sit on the seat on which they have placed their handbag/brief case or when you ask them to move so that you can occupy the inside seat to which they are blocking access.

7. People who pay for a single drink at a pub using a credit card.

8. Shopkeepers (and certain Tunbridge Wells taxi drivers) who ask if you have anything smaller when you try to pay for something inexpensive with a high denomination note and who then open the till to reveal about a billion pounds worth of change.

9. People who pick all the bits of chicken and croutons out of the chicken caesar at the salad bar so that all that is left is some wet cheesy lettuce.

10. People with wheelie cases who stop right at the bottom of an escalator to pull out the extendable handle causing everybody behind them to pile into each other as they try to get round them.

11. In fact people with wheelie cases full stop.

12. People who wear Bluetooth earpieces other than while driving a public service vehicle. Especially in shops. Or the gym (I kid you not...)

13. The increasingly prevalent warning on TV that the following item contains some flash photography. I have a mental image of hundreds of people rolling around on the floor foaming at the mouth every time Kate and Will's engagement photo call is shown.

14. Programmes (especially ones late at night when you are about to switch the telly off and go to bed) that are preceded by a warning that they they contain strong language and scenes of a sexual nature from the start. But then don't.

15. People who don't seem to be able to use a petrol pump unless it's on the same side as their car's filler cap.

16. OAPs who use Sainsbury's on a Saturday morning.

17. Any TV programme that contains the word "Blooper". And any show presented by Denis Norden.

18. People who drive cars with "Baby on Board" signs in the back window. We recently followed a car with the sign "Small Person on Board" in the back window and when I made my usual hurrumphing noise, my 16 year old daughter made the valid observation that it could of course be referring to a dwarf. I had never thought of that.

19. The use of "smiley faces", "cheeky winks" and text speak such as "LOL", "PMSL", "LMAO"and "ROFL" by anyone over the age of 13.

20. People who eat on public transport. My views on this are well rehearsed. I have experience of a range of foodstuffs being consumed on trains, from the normal burgers, pasties, chips etc on the "Vomit Comet" (as the last train to Tunbridge Wells is affectionately known) through to Cheesy Wotsits on the 07.36, a range of fruits (mostly noisy ones) and - my favourite of all - a tupperware container of muesli complete with milk (probably soya) being slurped noisily by a bloke wearing a cycle helmet.

LOL ;o)

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The power of positive eating. A short rant about Wagammama.

I quite like Wagamamma – the food is quite tasty, there is generally a buzz about the place, you can generally get a seat reasonably quickly and it is family friendly. It's quite expensive for what it is, but the kids love it. But why oh why do they:-

1. Feel the need to scribble your order on your place mat when they have already tapped it into the little Nintendo DS that they carry in a leather holster around their waist? It is done in such a way as to be indecipherable in any event. When your food has been safely delivered (eventually – see below) they come along and make another indecipherable scribble. If you want to cause chaos take a pen with you next time you go to Wagammama and scribble lots of hieroglyphics on your place mat. "Does not compute, does not compute..."

2. Always tell you that as your food is freshly cooked the dishes will arrive as they become ready rather than all together. Everyone nods, but no one asks why. Why, when most other restaurants that cook fresh food seem to be able to deliver everyone's food at the same time, can't they? It is not complicated food and it is not even fresh – it's stir fried noodles and pre-prepared breaded chicken in pre-prepared curry sauce on pre-prepared rice for heaven's sake. Even I could deliver three lots of that at the same time. And do so most nights. Without having to write on the table cloth.

3. Insist on calling you "you guys" (a massive pet hate of mine and another potential rant all on its own). It is not an American diner. In fact what exactly is Wagammama? Is it Japanese? They describe themselves as being Pan-Asian – what the hell is that supposed to mean? Do they have no idea how big Asia is? What is "positive eating"? And "positive living"? It's interesting that they don't publish any nutritional information on their website (I just checked) which probably means that it is not as "positive" as they like to make people think. Couldn't they just drop all that pretentious bollocks and channel more effort into serving you all your food at the same time?

4. Not offer you complimentary green tea any more? I used to think that was a nice touch.

If you want food that is better, tastier, cheaper and less pretentious than Wagammama, go to Kitsu in Tunbridge Wells. And you can take your own booze. And they don't scribble on your place mat either. Which is nice.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Oh! Dr. Beeching, what have you done?

One Saturday afternoon last winter, when it was pissing with rain outside, the sun never rose, the kids were under blankets on the sofas watching telly, Palace were playing away and there was literally nothing else to do, I decided to trace my ancestors. I used one of the web based facilities ( or something similar) and after a couple of hours of discovering that – as suspected – I was 5th generation Welsh on one side and (perhaps more worrying) 3rd generation Norfolk on the other I decided to call it a day. Not for me a hitherto hidden letter that confirmed that – after all – I was the last known blood relative of the last emperor of such and such a place, or the descendant of the undiscovered bastard love child of the king of somewhere exotic. No – my great, great paternal grandfather came from Cardiganshire and my maternal great grandfather (and indeed grandmother) both came from Shelfanger in Norfolk (and yes, before you ask, I have only ten digits and ten toes and I feel nothing when I see a tethered sheep – even if it is wearing naughty lingerie). My episode of Who Do You Think You Are would be over before it began.

But actually, the most interesting and influential part of my heritage is only two generations back. My paternal grandfather, George Thomas, died when I was very young and though I vaguely remember him I never really knew him. The interesting connection between him and me is that he worked and I now work very close to each other on the south bank of the Thames near Tower Bridge. He was manager of a wharf in Bermondsey. I am a lawyer working in an office on the site of a former wharf sandwiched between another law firm and two of the world's largest accountancy firms (and Boris' office). Two generations and a world apart. He would have looked out of his office, like I do, at Old Father Thames, the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, but not the Gherkin, the Shard of Glass, Tower 42 and the Heron Tower. But it's a nice connection and one which gives me a strange but tangible sense of pride and belonging. He lived in Catford and during the war my Dad and his siblings were evacuated to Hildenborough, not far from where I now live. I and several of my cousins have gravitated to the area over the years. It is a lovely part of the world. Unless you happen to be a commuter....

My maternal Grandfather, Harry Rout, was a railwayman. He worked on the London and North Eastern Railway in the latter years of the steam era. He lived in Bishop Auckland, near the birthplace of the steam railway (Locomotion, the first passenger train, was made in Shildon and the Stockton to Darlington railway was the first commercial passenger steam service in the world). He was an inspector on the Flying Scotsman on its last commercial passenger journey (according to my Mum, and who am I to doubt her) and his old house was crammed full of railway memorabilia – he even kept chickens in an old station waiting room and rabbits next door in a hutch made of sleepers. His journey to work in the morning was to open the garden gate, walk down the embankment and walk along the tracks to Bishop Auckland marshalling yards. After Dr Beeching wielded his axe in the 1960s the line that ran past the house closed (in 1968) and fell into disuse and he use to take me (and my sister and cousin) for walks along the old tracks and through the Old Town Head tunnel up to the Newton Cap viaduct – both remarkable works of civil engineering rendered redundant by the savage cuts inflicted by the good doctor.

The line has long since gone and the tunnel has been filled in but the memories still remain. The smell of steam, the sweat on the coal smudged face of the train crew, Jenny Agutter waving her red petticoat to warn the approaching express train of a landslide? Isn't it? Hmm?

Britain's railways are therefore in my DNA which goes some way to explain, perhaps, the strength of feeling that I have about the parlous state of our railway system today.

Regular readers of my frequent Facebook rants on this subject will be all too familiar with the emotion that this subject evokes in me, partly out of sorrow for the loss of an intrinsic part of this once great nation's heritage, but partly because I have the misfortune to live on one of the crappiest rail routes in the whole of England – the London to Hastings line, operated by Southeastern Trains (the Dick Turpin of Britain's transport network).

Everything about my daily commute has the potential to make my blood boil. Here are a few examples:-

1. The station car park. In keeping with everything to do with purchasing tickets to use Britain's railways (see below) Tunbridge Wells has the most arcane car parking arrangements imaginable, seemingly designed to catch out the unwary user. Car Parking arrangements on Southeastern Trains are outsourced to Meteor Parking who, as far as I can make out are a bunch of licensed cowboys whose sole raison d'etre is to slap £40 fines on cars which are parked in the wrong place or in the right place but at the wrong time, but who are very slow to clear snow from their car parks, mend ticket machines or come up with a system which is both comprehensible and workable. I just don't have the mental strength right now to explain how crap their system is, though they have of course received a long letter/diatribe/spewing rant full of invective from me pointing this out and suggesting ways in which they could improve their arrangements. I have not had a response as yet, nor even an acknowledgement of receipt. I wrote the letter last September.

2. A couple of years ago, in a crack down on fare dodgers, Southeastern (or Network Rail – don't know which, but it really isn't relevant) decided to install automatic ticket barriers at Tunbridge Wells station. This entailed a huge amount of work and disruption, the erection of a steel fence around the base of the footbridge which linked the two sides of the station to stop people escaping and the funnelling of embarking passengers through a tiny ticket hall and two single width doorways through two ticket barriers as disembarking passengers battled against the tide in the other direction. Whoever came up with this idea should be publicly flogged. Notably, the expensively installed barriers have been left open now for about the last six months, presumably as a result of concerns over potential crushings or public order offences. Why not rip them out altogether on that basis and restore the station to its former Victorian glory, bringing back the frisson of excitement and anticipation of seeing the hit squads of Southeastern revenue protection officers awaiting the arrival of the next consignment of fare evaders and imagining yourself as Gordon Jackson in the Great Escape......

3. Ticket pricing. Go onto the National Rail website and try to work out how much a f*cking ticket to anywhere costs. Ridiculous.

4. Punctuality targets. Southeastern Trains seem to view timetables as something with which to decorate their station walls. And to view their obligation to provide a reliable transport service as entirely optional, particularly if it is snowing. Southeastern Trains have an obligation to refund 5% of the price of a season ticket if they fail to meet their punctuality targets. That punctuality target was set (for 2010) at 82%. Despite not running a single train on time for virtually the whole of January or December on our line, which was the icing on a great big juicy cake made up of signal failures, points failures, train failures, staff sickness, cows on the line, track adhesion issues (leaves on the line to you), parking over the magnet (what?!), failed rebooting of the traction unit (cover your ears, Grandad) and just about every other excuse you could think of (and some you couldn't) Southeastern smashed its punctuality target by 0.04% thus not only enabling it to avoid paying refunds but also to hike fares up by 13% for this year. You couldn't make it up.

5. There has been a campaign running this week in the Daily Telegraph to eradicate muzak from restaurants, with the Master of the Queen's Music reportedly flouncing out of his local Italian in protest at the canned opera muzak (I love that word) that was offending his sensibilities. I am going to start a similar campaign to eradicate pointless and useless announcements on trains and stations. While waiting for the train the other day i was told in the space of less than three minutes that the station is patrolled 24 hours a day by the security services for the purposes of security and safety management, that due to today's wet weather I should take special care on the station platform as surfaces might be slippery (it wasn't raining, by the way), that smoking is prohibited on all parts of the station (usefully adding that this includes the station concourse - I don't smoke, but it is nice to be told what the station comprises) and that I should keep my baggage and personal possessions with me at all times (and that anything left unattended would be removed and could be destroyed by the security services).

What they failed to tell me was that the train that I was waiting for on platform 6 had just left from platform 5.... They were probably too busy blowing up briefcases left behind by people who had snuck outside for a crafty tab.

When announcements are made they are invariably wrong, comprised of tortuous grammatically incorrect gibberish, made at minimum volume, often in a thick foreign accent, crammed full of excuses and completely uninformative. And then repeated, just to rub salt into the wound.

6. Fellow passengers and their eating, drinking, nose picking, ipod listening, laptop using habits. Another blog all on its own. Watch this space.

But what is the alternative? The short answer is that there isn't one. And Southeastern know it. Complaints fall on deaf ears and are never dealt with - I am still awaiting my refund for the first week of snow last November. Passengers (we were called "customers" for a while, but that would mean that we are always right, so we are now called "passengers" again) will be treated with contempt and disdain until there is an effective and independently verifiable way of penalising the rail companies for under-performance. And until that time we will, like so many sheep, continue to squeeze past the obstacles, physical and metaphorical, that are placed in our way every morning and evening just so that we – unlike our uniformed tormentors – can get on with an honest day's work.

Oh! Dr. Beeching, what have you done?
There once were lots of trains to catch, but soon there will be none!
I'll have to buy a bike, 'cause I can't afford a car.
Oh! Dr. Beeching! What a naughty man you are!"

Bring back Bernard Cribbins with his pocketwatch and cheery wave.....

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Health and safety intolerance

The modern (and predominantly British) phenomenon of the health and safety culture is a target rich environment for anyone with an interest in or propensity towards intolerance. The thousands of pointless rules, regulations, signs, items of apparel, announcements, pieces of equipment, restrictive practices, and so on and so forth that have permeated our everyday lives in the name of health and safety in the past ten years or so have reduced modern society to the collective equivalent of a deranged, gibbering, strait jacketed loon.

Health and safety has infiltrated everything that we do. You can't even sneeze in an unregulated manner – the government has spent millions of pounds on advertising campaigns which tell us how to sneeze properly. And as the rules have become ever more omnipresent and bizarre, so have those who enforce them. Tufty and Green Cross man have long since been put out to grass. Stripped of discretion and common sense, the Health and Safety brigade have become hi-viz vest wearing, tannoy operating, walkie talkie carrying automatons, themselves in turn intent on stripping society of any self accountability. Reminding a bunch of be-suited Telegraph clutching commuters at 7.30 in the morning at Tunbridge Wells station that it is illegal and dangerous to use skateboards, bicycles or rollerblades on the station is unnecessary and patronising. What about other dangerous activities? They do not warn us that it is illegal and dangerous to bait bears, tame lions, swallow swords, eat fire, breed fighting dogs, chase the dragon, paraglide or free run – so why pick on cyclists, skateboarders and rollerbladers?

Not being heavily involved in construction or catering, both of which have been strangled almost to death by health and safety regulation in recent years, the areas in which I am most affected by all this nonsense are public transport (but I've bored you to death on this recently, so will save this for another time as it is a topic all in itself) and any sort of public event – particularly sport and music. Why can one not drink within sight of a football pitch, whilst being permitted (nay encouraged) to drink one's age in pints at cricket or rugby matches, and indeed anywhere out of sight of the pitch at football stadia? Why do security personnel require you to remove the top from any plastic drinks bottles when entering a public arena, but don't then conduct a full body search to make sure that you are not smuggling in any spares (which I always do)? Why is a capped bottle of Evian a more potentially potent weapon than a golf umbrella (which can be taken in)? And why am I not allowed to take my motorcycle helmet inside the stadium at football matches? In case I go on a frenzied headbutting spree after first temporarily blinding my victims by splashing mineral water in their faces?

One of the most bizarre incidents that I have suffered in my adult life came about when I took my teenage daughter to a music festival at Earl's Court. My daughter had just discovered a genre of music commonly known as "emo" which is characterised by a mixture of full-volume thrash guitar and even-fuller-volume screaming, which even I with my liberal musical tastes could not tolerate for more than about five seconds. As my daughter was too young to go unaccompanied (and not, at the time, realising the consequences of my misguided largesse) I bought a ticket for myself too, thinking that once we had secured entry I could then disappear to the pub/shops/park and do my own thing until I was recalled to the venue either to pick up the pieces of my daughter's lifeless, trampled body or – more likely – to give her a lift back home to Tunbridge Wells.

Being a lawyer, I have never been one to read small print (though will generally charge for not having done so when acting on someone else's behalf) so when I went to leave the pitch black, cacophonous cavern of Earl's Court for a spot of lunch in the sun in a nearby pub garden I was a little taken aback to be informed by a man in a high viz vest (and one of those clear plastic coiled earpieces) that there was no readmission. So I was there for the duration. Another six hours.

As the enormity of my situation slowly dawned on me, I sat down on a step in the otherwise deserted foyer to assess my options. At this point, hi-viz man approached me again. I looked up expectantly at him, thinking that – being of similar age, maybe with teenage daughters of his own and therefore sympathetic with my plight – he would turn a blind eye to the "no readmission" policy, we would have a bit of banter about how awful the music was and I would disappear for my liquid lunch. Not a bit of it.

"You can't sit there mate – it's a fire escape route". I looked round incredulously. I have always prided myself on my snake like hips and the step on which I was sitting must have been 15 feet wide, as well as being part of one of four similar sized staircases leading off the foyer (which was empty apart from hi-viz man and me). "You can't be serious" I protested. His facial expression confirmed that he was indeed serious. Very serious, in fact. Defeated (though to be fair I didn't exactly put up much of a fight) I dragged my sorry ass back into the bear pit of sweaty moshing teenagers and set about trying to find whatever refuge I could find from the dreadful din that was assaulting my senses.

That refuge eventually came in the shape of a loading bay at the back of the building which was designated as a smoking area. It was not exactly an English country garden, but it was out of range of the "music", so I found myself a perch on a wall and sat down to soak up the warmth of the early summer sun for a few hours.

Suddenly I was cast into shadow by a hi-viz vest clad form.

"You can't sit there mate – you're not smoking"
"You can't sit there mate – you're not smoking. This area is for smokers only"
"But I don't smoke. It's bad for you"
"In which case you can't sit there"
"Are you serious?"
"Yes – you can only come out here if you want to smoke. And once you've finished you've got to go back in again."

No amount of reason, logic, appeal to better nature (if any) was going to work here. It was death by a thousand screamos or death by smoking related illnesses. Even Mr Hobson would have had difficulty choosing between the two. No amount of thought and analysis could enable me to come up with any logic behind this bizarre – surreal, even – situation in which I found myself. Was he just bored and looking to pick a fight – a sort of hi-viz of equivalent of "are you looking at my bird"? Or were these actual rules and he was just in the unfortunate position of having to enforce them. With no flexibility or common sense applied – "befehl ist befehl" as they used to say in Nuremberg.......

But that is the point, isn't it? No latitude, no ability to let logic or common sense prevail. The nanny state. I once ordered 6 drinks at a complimentary bar in the hospitality area at Wembley stadium, only to be told that there was a maximum order of four drinks. But there are six of us - look there are my five friends just there. You can only order four at a time. Why? Because we can't serve you on any other basis. Why though - I am the only person at the bar (true) so it's not to avoid congestion, I am clearly not drunk, so it can't be down to public order concerns and there is no limit on individual consumption? Sorry – that's what we've been told. Health and Safety. So I ordered four drinks, handed them to my guests and then went back and ordered another two. Crazy.

Impose stupid, needless, patronising rules and people will try to find ways of getting round them. Just for the hell of it. It is antagonistic. Treat us all like adults, credit us with some common sense. Trust us to look left, look right and look left again and to use the Green Cross Code. Trust us not to go rollerblading on the station. Trust us to move from the step if the building has to be evacuated. Lay down your hi-viz vests and walkie talkies. Becoming free thinking, accountable citizens. Liberate yourselves.

Anyway – got to stop there. Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992, regulation 4. Got to take a keyboard break.....