Thursday, 24 July 2014

No Ordinary Moggy...


He gallops like a foal, he climbs like a monkey, he sits on your shoulder like a parrot. He wrestles your slipper, he ambushes your ankles as you walk along and tries to climb your legs as you serve his dinner, when not weaving repeatedly through them, trying to trip you up. He tears along the corridors playing football like Suarez (he bites!) with a ping pong ball. He 'talks' incessantly. He eats like a wolf and still wants to try everything that we eat. He's fascinated by water and is constantly following us into the bathroom to watch taps flowing, tip-pawing perilously around the edge of the bath or basin and miaows and scratches loudly at the bathroom door if we beat him to it. He climbs into every cupboard. He can take off his own collar and open his own locked cat flap.

At night he trots up from the foot of the bed to sit on my chest, bunt me on the nose with his and settle his head under my chin until I am hot enough to melt. In the day he wants to play - most of the time. He makes short work of any inflatable toys we find left on the beach. He likes walking across computer keyboards and selecting records for the turntable. He has a decided preference for punk. He demands priority over anything else you may be doing, by pointedly lying across newspapers and poking his head over books. His purring is no more than heavy breathing, but his grin is constant. He does his own version of the 'Eric Morecambe' curtain routine by pretending he can't get through cat flaps or out of his box litter tray, pummelling at them like a mime artist, waiting for you to let him through. It is hard to know what manner of beast he is, but he doesn't seem like a cat. He doesn't even sit like a normal cat, but continually sprawls across sofas and beds, long and stretchy.

He is a demanding yet hilarious feline and we suppose that his previous owners must have abandoned him, finding him too much for them. My partner has even written a song about him to which Mr Cheeky listens dutifully.

After a lucky escape following an argument with a car weeks after we got him from Lost Cats Brighton, Mr Cheeky has made a full recovery and goes out in the day to hang out with his cat friends and visit the neighbours, who have found they have no choice but to like cats even if they were ambivalent before. At night it's curfew time, or should I say 'catfew' time and the cat flap is locked after dinner.


Mr Cheeky with a beach toy, shortly before its demise...




Amazing what you get free in the newspapers these days...


Mr Cheeky tries out a neighbour's scooter for size...


Look at me, look at me, look at me, dammit!....What could possibly be more interesting...?

Friday, 4 July 2014

Divas





























In the (unisex) hairdressers the other day I decided to leaf through a cheesy men's magazine for a change. Among the usual motorbike and celebrity features was an interesting interview with 'diva's' - high maintenance young women who gleefully admitted driving their boyfriends crazy by taking half the night to get ready when going out, constantly changing their minds about things and ultimately demanding everything their own way and on their own terms or they would stomp and sulk until he gave in.

Some even admitted to being deliberately emotionally abusive by faking anger outbursts to frighten their partner and then sweetening him up by being nice to him or granting him favours in bed so he eventually assumed there was something wrong with HIM. Some didn't even stop at that, they physically threatened or slapped him, even over minor misdemeanours.

It was, essentially, a control thing, though one used PMT as an excuse.

They seemed to think that their over-processed looks and enhanced breasts commanded such entitlement and he should be grateful that he was with them.

'Girl power' to them clearly meant it was all about them. They seemed to have no concept of there being two people in the relationship and equality didn't come into it - they looked down on their men and criticised and belittled them on a regular basis which they saw as 'keeping him on his toes' and found highly amusing between themselves.

I was amazed by their candour, and how they thought they would ever keep a man with this attitude, but then I remembered how every pink and girly shop encourages girls to be 'divas' these days with Little Princess t-shirts available from baby grow size up, the cultural celebration of the 'Jewish Princess' and TV programme Bridezillas, to name a few. Perhaps the greatest influence has been the rise of a celebrity culture encouraging every young girl to think she can be a celebrity and 'high maintenance' is how their heroines behave. Be selfish. Take selfies. Celebrate yourself, 'cos you're worth it and get everyone else running around after you and treading on eggshells around you.

I recalled a trio of twentysomething former colleagues who each pined for a man, and then when they found one, quickly found fault with him, giving him nought but a hard time with their demands and insecurities until eventually they had driven him away, a factor which never seemed to cross their minds as they sifted through and analysed every word and gesture of his throughout the relationship for signs of a clue that he was going to be such a b***ard, in their post-work pub support group. Then there was the married colleague who insisted on taking her husband's entire salary for the family pot and leaving him with only £5 a week 'pocket money'. When she rang him on the phone as she did several times a day she sounded like she was instructing a servant, not her husband, to do this, do that and do the other, since he was on nightshift and could therefore do his share of the housework during the day. Admittedly she was a very good housekeeper and bargain spotter, but I still wondered how long he was going to put up with that situation before he called time on his emasculation, particularly since she never mentioned a gambling or alcohol problem on his part to justify such an iron fist on the family purse strings. She also didn't like his friends or let him see them more than once a year at Christmas, regarding them as 'a bad influence' as if he were some wayward teenager, rather than a 43 year old man with a mind of his own.

How many 'diva' women would see such behaviour as acceptable if applied in reverse though? I mean, wasn't that the whole point of feminism? To bring about equal power and opportunity in relationships where there was once a great imbalance generally (although that obviously sadly remains the case for some).

Now I note a new term has been coined for it; 'intimate terrorism', made famous by Nigella Lawson's quote regarding her former husband Charles Saatchi and how she believed he treated her during their marriage. It is therefore not a gender-exclusive term (men can be guilty too), but it seems that women are the growing majority according to a recent study from the University of Cumbria, who will employ verbal and physical aggression including shoving, hitting, threats and ultimatums and spying on their man with mobile phone or vehicle trackers.

But ultimately whichever gender is terrorising or attempting to control the other, that does not a happy relationship make.

I would go as far as to say that any relationship where there is a lack of mutual respect is almost certainly doomed, as without this essential element there can be no genuine friendship, trust and empathy, let alone equality and love.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Redundancy, the Rock Opera!

When I was unfairly made redundant some years ago, I started penning 'Redundancy, the Rock Opera', my attempt to salvage something positive out of the situation - namely a vehicle for individuals to learn about their employment rights in an infotaining way, since I had become a reluctant expert on the subject. My fantasy featured such immemorial hits as 'It's Nothing Personal, Just Personnel.' Then life changed and suddenly I was in a happy work situation again where my talents were appreciated and the 'opera' became impossible to finish because I was no longer in the right place emotionally and my brain wanted to forget all the pain and move on. Ok, and there was the minor detail of not being able to write music and the niggling worry of who could afford to buy tickets to come and see my rock opera anyway if they were all redundant.

These days there seems more need for an introduction to Sir Tim Rice than ever as I hear about increasing numbers of situations similar to mine. The recession it seems is still being used as an excuse for many employers to cull perfectly good staff, often using their HR (Human Reaper) bod, even though they may have no genuine financial or business reason to shed staff. They've merely decided that they no longer like the look of someone, they fancy a fresh face or whatever they have decided (often the employee is left none the wiser, bashed into submission by a sea of brain-baffling business bullsh*t.). Some employers too apparently find it easier to get rid of people than actually follow the procedures laid out in their own staff handbooks of raising any issue they have with them and giving the employee the opportunity of rectifying the matter or offering a compromise. Nor do they tend to bother with the verbal warning, written warning etc marlarky that they are supposed to, even when there is a performance issue. The concept of retraining or additional training if someone's performance isn't quite up to scratch are similarly anathama to such employers. And don't even mention 'redeployment' as an alternative! Like divorce, once the 'r' word is mentioned, there is seldom any going back. The general pattern is to put the employee in an impossible position and then try to tell them that they have made their position untenable - ie blame them for it! If of course the employee has not obediently cleared their desk and headed out the door within the hour as all employees are meant to do when informed they are 'at risk of redundancy'.

One former boss had the right idea. He would invite any member of staff he had concerns about out for a coffee in a neutral space away from the working environment and embark on a genuinely friendly chat about work and how the employee was finding it, giving them the opportunity to tell him about any issues or personal problems which may be affecting their work and asking how he could support them if so. And guess what? His yearly HR bill was generally the price of a few coffees and cakes, unless the employee themselves chose to move on or retire and he had to recruit someone new. But generally, it was a very happy and well-run ship under his watch, with no need for underhand tactics or nastiness. By promoting a positive environment, he also had a knack of getting the best out of his staff so that they looked forward to coming to work each day and worked hard.

Quite often you see highly qualified people who specialise in HR with far less idea of how to treat people and resolve issues than my said former boss with no paper credentials. As one genuinely-good employment law expert friend put it recently; 'I never cease to be shocked by how much bad HR there is out there, considering all these people are supposed to be trained in it and it's all they do all day every day.'

Perhaps the rise of corporatism has led to many companies forgetting the fundamental basics such as their humanity. 'I'm a human being, God damn it. My life has value!' as newscaster Howard Beale puts it so succinctly in the cult classic, Network

Ironically, workplace humanity seems to have been seeping away in inverse proportion to the rise of workplace legislation on equality and diversity, grateful as this employee is for any and all protection.

Human beings continue to be treated as if they are more and more disposable in virtually every area of life however and legislation does not stop some employers from running a coach and four horses through employment law and regarding losing a tribunal as an occupational hazard.

No one would deny that sometimes companies have a genuine need to make changes to their organisations. But it is not legitimate redundancies I am questioning but unfair redundancies.

A few European countries have a law whereby a company has to pay an employee a minimum of a year's salary in order to make them redundant for all reasons other than gross misconduct (though they can be more generous if they choose). This buys the employee time to mentally regroup, find another job, retrain or set up on their own and saves the state an awful lot of money in benefits, ill health bills and legal fees. It wouldn't be a bad idea if Britain followed suit as it seems to be one of the better ideas to come out of Europe.

Either that or employment tribunals need sharper teeth to penalise the cowboys and compensate their victims, thrown out of work through no fault of their own.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Brighton - new life

Life has changed a lot in the last six months. I have moved cities, moved jobs, acquired a furry son by the name of Mr Cheeky and most evenings end with a lovely walk on the beach with my partner Oliver before bedtime. If the sun hasn't gone down yet, we also like getting our beach tent out and waiting for the sunset, sometimes with picnic tea. Looking out from the tent in a quiet spot it looks like our own private beach in addition to protecting against the wind and sun.

For some reason, I always thought I'd have to be old to live by the sea and there are certainly an alarming number of funeral directors and crematoriums in the area but Brighton is no sleepy seaside town and not for nothing is it known as London-On-Sea.

Year round, there is always something going on, such as a skateboarding dog, a roller skating man in a tutu, stand-up poets on the beach. Or even a dog eating seaweed (pictured), never mind the second largest Fringe Festival next to Edinburgh and all the culture one could wish for including no shortage of poetry gigs, comedy gigs, art exhibitions and jazz nights the rest of the year. We have also joined The Regency Society which seeks to preserve the USP of Brighton, its regency spa heritage. In a funny sort of way my move has also been a homecoming as my mother grew up in Brighton so I have known the city and been part-Brightonion all my life. It is sheer co-incidence that my future partner turned out to live in the area and love it too, offering the perfect excuse to relocate.

This weekend we are on a stand-up comedy course, the finest in the country, and attended by participants far and wide. We are not expecting to become the next Jimmy Carr or anything, we just want to hone our performing skills generally. I will leave you with a few images of my new life...







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Sunday, 8 June 2014

It's Never Too Late...

Some people worry that their best years have passed them by and perhaps they haven't achieved very much. Or perhaps they've known greatness, but feel their glory days are behind them.

Just to cite the music world for a moment, here are some examples of artists who recorded perhaps their finest work and/or greatest hit just before they died.

Louis Armstrong died three weeks after recording the song he is best remembered for, ironically titled; 'We Have All The Time In The World' which was also a Bond hit in the 1969 Bond film 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. Like most Bond films the music was written by John Barry. Lyrics were by Hal David.


Although he didn't write it himself, Johnny Cash recorded what came to be known as the definitive version of 'Hurt' in the last few weeks before he died. His wife, fellow country star June Carter Cash, had predeceased him several months earlier and all the pain of his loss, his own illness and all the hurt he was sorry for in his life seems to be condensed into this one haunting record with an equally haunting video reviewing scenes of his life.



Otis Redding was only 26 when he died in a plane crash in 1967, and did not even live to see his greatest hit 'The Dock of The Bay' released. Ironically, as with 'We Have All The Time In the World', this song also features a character who considers he has all the time in the world as he sits on the dock of bay 'wastin' time'.
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These are just three, I am sure you can think of many more examples in every field of life of people who achieved their finest work later in life or just before they died. It is never too late to leave a legacy behind, even if you feel you missed the boat when young.

Monday, 26 May 2014

The Boom and Bust of Business

It was a known brand opening on a prime city centre square and no expense had been spared in adorning the building with jolly cartoon balloons to entice the punters and refitting the inside in rustic fashion. It was a proven fact that people liked a pie. What could go wrong? Certainly it seemed to do a roaring trade for the first few weeks. Yet less than eighteen months after opening, my partner and I noticed Pie Society had closed and its catering equipment was for sale.

We ourselves had only visited Pie Society once, as a break from last Christmas's crowds, to find surly staff who took an age to serve, lukewarm, so what? pies and a drafty upstairs room furnished with uncomfortable metal stools. Our hot drinks were unappealingly contained in retro (none-too-hygienic) chipped enamel mugs, supposedly evocative of the past. The loos were also pretty grim. Great as the view from upstairs was, we didn't enjoy the experience, but assumed we were not the demographic the place was appealing to and the youth of the city probably loved it.

Apparently not. The franchise really had gone feral.

As an ardent fan of Channel 5's The Hotel Inspector and Channel 4's Country House Rescue, I take a keen interest in which businesses survive and thrive and which bite the dust. Western Road has a particularly high proliferation of eateries, takeaways and cafes with almost every second premises occupied by one. They can't possibly all make a living, even in high tourist season, and they don't. In fact the national success rate for food outlets is apparently 1 in 7 surviving for up to three years, so it is is a much riskier business than the wannabe eaterie owner seems to consider when they dream how nice it would be to run their own cafe, probably imagining it is almost a failsafe business as everyone needs to eat, much like an undertakers (of whom there are also a huge proliferation in Brighton and Hove), probably assume a high and continuous demand for their services.

The Just Eat campaign has undoubtedly given the eating out and takeaway industry a boost. However eateries still need to raise their game, particularly in an area of intense competition. And sometimes they provide great food, friendly staff and a unique identity and still fail, such as the lovely vegetarian cafe Aloka, which looked more like a high-class chemist from the outside, presumably trying to ape the Damian Hirst 'Pharmacy' look. Then there is a wonderful ice cream parlour which makes all its own ice cream and cakes and has a fantastic premises quite near the seafront with a funky upstairs, but which seems to be largely empty most of the time, apart from closing off the upstairs for the odd children's party. but what is the point of trying so hard with the food offer if it is signing its own death warrant with a dearth of marketing? Our favourite toasted sandwich cafe has been through hard times but has reinvented itself and seems to be doing a little better now, but again one senses that it suffers from little or no advertising budget, no matter that the product is good and it is one of the cheapest places to eat in the city centre.

I would love to go into business myself, so am noting everyone else's triumphs and tragedies with interest and taking lots of notes, but one thing is for sure, when I take the plunge, it will not be in the catering sector. I bet many of those who go into it don't expect it to be nearly as tough a business as it really is. And let's not forget 95% of pubs now offer food (of which there also many in Brighton), making the local market even tougher.

Meantime I am looking forward to starting a new day job next week, in my professional area of expertise, the housing sector.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Self-love and Self-hate

In Louise L. Hay's famous self-help book; 'You Can Heal Your Life' she describes how one of the most challenging exercises for her clients to perform is to take a hand mirror, look at their reflection in the glass and repeat aloud ten times 'I love and approve of myself.' Some can't do it or burst into tears. Still others get angry and fling the mirror across the room, so great is their self-dislike or inability to look themselves in the eye.

Ms Hay was among the first self-help gurus to point out that you had to love yourself in order to love anybody else, and she didn't mean in an egocentric way - which is purely front in any case -  but in a genuine sense. Which kind of parallels; if you value yourself, others will value you, or; you have to feel full as a person in order to have enough or extra to give to somebody else. If you are a yawning chasm psychologically, then your bleakness is what people will perceive when they look at you (though you might be able to fool them for a while if you are pretty) and your vibes are likely to send them running or making their excuses to depart pretty quickly.  I saw a neat example of this phenomenon in a church hall the other day when a disheveled woman in her late 50s went up for a cup of tea after the service, was asked how she was by the kindly server and replied 'Terrible! Things couldn't be worse. I wish I'd never moved to this godforsaken town!' Needless to say the tea server quickly moved on to the next parishioner. The woman then joined a communal table but it was noticeable how she quickly dismissed all polite interest in her and concern for her welfare with almost aggressive negativity about how bad her life was and how much she hated everything. They quickly drained their cups and made their excuses to leave. She ended up sitting on her own, glaring out of the window. Strangely she wore a riot of mismatched fabrics and colours but this had evidently not done its job in jollying her mood.

The good news is that reprogramming your mind from every negative or self-critical thought can apparently alter the vibes and energy you emit, attracting similarly positive vibes and energy to come back to you as you change the course of your life to a direction you really want, though it is equally vital to forgive yourself for everything you are beating yourself up about first, or it is impossible to silence the negative chatter and rebukes in your mind, holding you back.

The self-love that results is said to be the answer to a happier and more fulfilling life. Ever the one for the short cut, I have been experimenting with self-hypnosis lately (meditation takes far too long!), though can attest that positive affirmations can be also very powerful, Much more powerful than I used to give them credit for. Last night I hypnotised my partner into the first restful night's sleep he's had in a long time (long story) using a hypnotic script I had specifically tailored to his needs.

This makes me wonder when I read tragic cases in the newspapers of youngsters who kill themselves through cyber-bullying (but who then turn out to have sent the abusive messages to themselves), whether this warped means of attention seeking/crying for help actually results in young people hypnotising themselves into suicide by repeatedly subjecting themselves to a barrage of negative messages and mantras about what a worthless waste of space they are and worse even though, on the face of it, they are replying to their 'abuser' every few minutes defending themselves. Or could they be recreating online whatever conflict/confusion is going on in their young minds about who they are and what they are worth, with the dark side tragically winning sometimes...?

The human mind is a wondrous thing but perhaps it is a tool we can take more control of than we think. So much of our reaction to life is just a state of mind when it comes down to it. A state of mind which can be caused by so many things from wrong-headed, confused or substance-driven thinking to a hormone or other medical/mental imbalance which can potentially be corrected if correctly diagnosed. In some cases even hunger or lack of sleep can give someone a psychotic or depressive state of mind and influence them to behave in ways they might not if their basic needs had been met. I do believe both sides of our brain deserve to have their say as well in any judgement, decision or dilemma and not just the emotional. Therein balance lies, if not happiness as well.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Co-Operative. 1844 - (2014)...?

















It all began with the Industrial Revolution. Vast swathes of subjects who had lived off the land for generations traded country life in for the attractions of the new cities and towns sprouting up, and more specifically for the less precarious and seasonal living offered by the new factories and mills. However living by the clock, rather than the season, had its own drawbacks. With only half a day off each week for most and crowded living conditions, there was neither time nor land to continue growing their own vegetables and raising their own animals. Some factories took advantage of this by paying their workers in tokens, redeemable only in exchange for provisions purchased in their own onsite 'truck shops' where workers were forced to pay over the odds, often for poor quality goods such as sugar adulterated with sand or flour adulterated with chalk. The fact that many mills and factories also built the housing for their workers enabled them to take advantage of another source of profit from and control over their employees - rent. If a worker became ill or disabled, he or she could then be evicted to make way for an able-bodied worker. Being a skilled weaver or tradesman offered no protection from this exploitation as living conditions were continually driven down for all in the name of profit maximisation.

Against this backdrop, the first trades unions were formed to campaign for basic rights and better conditions for workers and after a few attempts in various areas with mixed results, ten weavers and twenty others scraped together the equivalent of £1 each over the course of four months to form The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers the Co-Operative Society in Rochdale in 1844, the branch that was to become the bedrock of the whole modern Co-Operative Movement. On 21 December 1844, they opened their store with a scant selection of butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and a few candles. Within three months, they had managed to expand their selection to include tea and tobacco, and they were soon known for providing high quality, unadulterated goods. A decade later, the British co-operative movement had grown to nearly 1,000 co-operatives.

Over the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century, the co-op provided more and more provisions and goods until whole Co-Op department stores selling everything under one roof began to spring up and additional services such as banking, insurance, funerals and even adult education evening classes were added for those who wanted to better themselves or had perhaps left school at 12 to go into pits, mills or domestic service and had had little formal education. The Co-Op even ran social activities and had dance halls. The Co-Op were also responsible for one of the first loyalty schemes known as the 'divvy'. Each time a customer shopped at the co-op they would receive divvy stamps which they accumulated into a book until they had enough to buy Christmas treats for the family or saved towards larger purchases such as furniture, though large items were also often available on hire purchase or for rent. Later still, came Co-Op travel and Co-Op development to provide more affordable homes. The people owned the Co-Op and one membership equaled one vote.

The Co-Op first began to suffer when Sainsburys began to expand and Tesco and Waitrose emerged, often selling greater variety of food at competitive prices and then diversifying into fancy goods and offering their own loyalty cards and services.  This process has continued with additional and cheaper supermarkets joining the market with 'metro' mini stores opening on many street corners in addition to hypermarkets and now the rise of online competition. Suddenly the Co-Op seems drab and old-fashioned, Co-Op department stores are closing and the divvy stamp has gone too, though a loyalty card scheme now exists in its place.

Its food often seems pricey for what it is and the food is either very basic and bland such as macaroni cheese or there are a few products in the extra-special range such as chocolate chip cookies or luxury ice cream which are, converersely, superb with little in the mid-range quality stakes. They do however distinguish themselves by being the only supermarket to continue offering cruelty free household products and cosmetics, albeit in limited range, though they are surprisingly quiet about this unique selling point. What there doesn't seem to be is consistency, and many stores Co-Op stores are also slow to replenish empty shelves or serve at the tills when there is a queue, which are essential basics to any supermarket thriving.

However the ethical side and refusal to invest in weapons manufacturers etc kept many of us loyal and for many years the Co-Op provided the first and best ethical online bank, Smile (offering a superb 4% on my current account when I opened it over a decade ago, though this has now eroded to nothing as with the other banks).

Then over the past decade the scandals started to hit after disastrous decisions to try and expand the Co-Op empire with the (failed) acquisition of Summerfield supermarkets, the take-over of Britannia Building Society and the (failed) takeover of part of Lloyds banks. At the helm of the Co-Op bank during the latter mistakes turned out to be an inept banker and drug-addled self-styled methodist minister. Simultaneously a scandal erupted in the Funeralcare side of the business when it was revealed that bodies were unceremoniously stored in vast central warehouses, having to be transported back to the relevant towns and villages as required for cremation and burial, rather than reposing in the local funeral homes prior to the funeral as their loved ones imagined they were and had paid for to be the case, carrying with it, considerable risk of mistaken identity in transit, aside from the indignity of such treatment of the dead.

So instead of pouring its resources into turning its own fortunes around by sorting its own house out first and making the best of its assets and unique selling points, the Co-Op, without any recourse to its members/owners by way of a ballot, or it now transpires, the advice or direction of top industry experts, decided to look outwards to a disastrous programme of expansion and behaved like a corporation instead of a co-operative.

Consequently its members are disgusted, its ethical principals are in tatters (and the Co-Operative organisation had previously received high praise in many quarters including from Kofi Annan) and parts of the business such as the bank are in financial crisis with a 'black hole' of £1.3bn, to the point the bank at least, is unlikely to survive.

The Rochdale Pioneers would be turning in their graves.

Friday, 25 April 2014

'Yours ever and getting worse...!'



















Last week I spent a day going through a lifetime's correspondence as I needed to streamline my possessions following a recent house move (well at least get the lid to fit back on the box!) and was struck by how many letters I used to both write and receive.
Inevitably I found myself re-reading some of them.
Boys whose hearts I broke. Boys who broke my heart. Friends I have lost touch with. Friends and family who have died.

It was very poignant and at times I hardly recognised the 'Laura King' to whom they were all writing.
Curiously I came upon letters and cards from people I could have sworn never put pen to paper when I knew them, including my late ex Don, who had some hilarious sign-offs in true lovable rogue persona such as  'Yours ever and getting worse...!' But for all his bad boy ways, he was solicitor-strict about pagination and dating each page and card and roundly told me off in one missive for not always numbering and dating each page and making sure I had my address at the top (though his changed more frequently than mine). He had also sent me part of a novel he once started which I had duly edited and returned with some constructive comments. Then there were long email exchanges on philosophy and literature (remember the days when we all used to print our emails out as if we didn't trust them to still be sitting in our inbox when we opened it again...?) with a failed mature student I held a brief unrequited level of fondness for, but who fancied my uninterested feminist friend more (even reading 'The Woman's Room' to impress her), so that I found myself in a triangle unrequited romance. Eventually they allowed him no further extensions to turn in a non-rebellious thesis quoting Jonathan Swift at length and he left Oxford to be packed off overseas by his family where degree passes were less rated as a means of attaining a good career as long as you were well spoken. It worked and he is apparently now back in Blighty earning a decent living not compromising too many principles.

The letters from my late English teacher Mrs C were particularly hard to read as she took early retirement and then almost immediately found herself diagnosed with terminal cancer, just as she and her husband were building their dream home to enjoy in retirement. She died two days after her 53rd birthday. She was pretty well the only adult who could command my respect and really make me sit up and take notice growing up, aside from V, the wonderful woman and artist who was like a second mother to me, a large sheaf of whose letters and cards of distinctive 'dear heart' spiky handwriting I also tidied. Thankfully V is still very much around, albeit having had the most horrendous five years recently owing to a personal trauma.

I seemed to have the largest number of letters from my sister's best friend from school, a lovely girl called M who wrote incredibly long and newsy missives immaculately polite in asking just as many questions of and taking just as much interest in her correspondent as talking about herself and her own doings. Then there were witty postcards and notes from another M - a talented young writer I knew through a writer's group in Coventry whom I eventually fell out with when she started dating a guy who turned out to be a drug addict and I couldn't keep my judgmentalism to myself. Having won a place on the prestigious UEA literature course after Warwick Uni, she then worked for a charity and is now a teacher (and mother) up north, I believe.

One or two people I couldn't even place, so they were easy enough to dispose of. As for my ex-fiance, his cards were so obtuse I couldn't even understand most on re-reading them. But since I discerned an unhealthy pattern of complimenting me in one and putting me down in another and he had also rather insultingly put in the box all the cards I had ever given him, they too made themselves an easy decision to dispose of. Thank goodness we never got as far as marrying...
Christmas cards were filtered down to a favoured few and Good Luck leaving cards from various workplaces retained, if only to remind myself of all the names.

But oh, the thrill of all those letters and cards landing on the doormat - evidence that friends and loved ones had gone to real trouble to contact me. How can email, text and social media ever compete with that?
I am now making a concerted effort to use the postal service again - several times a week - before it disappears completely.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Spirits - a Short Story

And now for something completely different...
                                       Spirits
Fergus McCullen wended his uncertain way back to his bedsit illuminated by sulphur street lights forming orange pools on the pavement, the rain driving so hard it splashed back up off the slabs, but Fergus didn't mind. It was summer and the rain was almost warm for once, echoing his own warm and wet state of mind. He pished himself and the rain obligingly washed his trousers. He didn't have any underpants on. In each of his hands he held a flimsy loaded carrier bag, perilously close to disgorging its contents at any moment. He breathed a sign of relief at making it over the flyover, liquid sustenance intact. He should be home soon. Perhaps he would take that short cut across the wasteland. There shouldn't be anyone to give him gyp or rob his cannies at that time of night what with the rain pishing.
He trudged off the road just before a clump of trees and onto the unlit muddy path by the stream that led to the arse end of his estate. He felt weary and suddenly quite tired. These week long seshes were starting to catch up with him. He wasn't as young as he used to be.
Next thing he knew he had tripped over a tree root on the path and head first into the congealed stream, hitting his head on a half-submerged supermarket trolley on the way down. Somehow he managed to scrabble back onto the bank where he fruitlessly searched for his carrier bags, before realising to his dismay that they must have landed in the stream. 'Aye f***!' he exclaimed, sinking to his knees.
Fergus didn't remember how long he had been searching the stream using a large branch he had found nearby but he was sick of it. To make matters worse, some eejit was lying on the path getting in his way every time he tried to progress along it and giving the prostrate figure a kick didn't make the slightest difference.
The rain petered out and dawn slowly broke. A couple of drunken youths sauntered along. Fergus shouted out to them to help him find his cannies but they ignored him. They had however acknowledged the figure lying on the path and given it a testing kick. When the kick was answered with no response they searched the figure's pockets and relieved him of his loose change and a watch. Fergus watched them in disbelief as he recognised the watch. It was his pirate Rolex from his former landlord's trip to Spain. He looked at the figure on the ground. Same shirt as him, same trousers as him, same shoes as him, same face as him…? Fergus felt his face with his hands in growing alarm. 'Jeez, I am still me.' he thought with some relief. 'But who the f*** is that?' His relief quickly evaporated as a terrible realisation dawned upon him. 'Oh ma God! I'm deed and that's ma body o'er there!'
Fergus spent the next few hours rooted to the spot watching as a brown boxer dog eventually lolloped along the path and licked his body's face, shortly followed by its owner, a stout florid man with a shaven head and neck tattoos who, after prodding the figure with a Doc Martin, rang the Police on his mobile, his boxer dog still trying its best at resuscitation. Fergus watched as first the Police arrived, shortly followed by the Paramedics, and he was photographed, tagged and put in a body bag to be trolleyed into the ambulance. He snuck into the ambulance unchallenged and hitched a ride next to the CPR trolley to Glasgow Royal Infirmary where he was admitted to the Mortuary.
'Well that's a tenner you owe me Angus. Didn't I tell you we'd have the first one by 8am?'
'We don't know it's alcohol yet.'
'Ha! Smells like a brewery! Though it'll probably be the fall into the stream that killed him granted, but it wouldn't have happened if he hadn't been drunk.'
'That's cheating.'
'No, just extenuating circumstances. Tenner please.'
Fergus watched in horror as, bet honoured, they cheerfully set about scissoring his clothes off and joking about his lack of underpants and the urine they found in his shoes.
'We've got a right one here Prof. Can't even be arsed to go in the bushes. Bet his flat's in a right state.'
'Well PC Kirsty will soon find out and give us the low-down. Here's his ID in his coat lining. An off licence loyalty card, surprise, surprise. Looks like someone's already helped themselves to a watch and any small change'
Fergus watched as they set about disembowelling him, de-braining him and putting various other bits of him in specimen jars. His liver was a particular cause of jocularity, being enlarged to over twice its normal size, though his shrunken 'pea' brain was also scorned. They then added insult to injury by speculating his age at 55.
'But I'm 43!' he wailed.
He thought about his bedsit and suddenly found himself there amidst a scene of domestic devastation, no sheets on the stained mattress, old newspapers and dirty food containers everywhere, health hazard kitchen and bathroom, cigarette butts and pennies strewn, threadbare curtains dotted with cigarette burns from hours standing at the window. An absurd thought about 'tidying up' before PC Kirsty arrived occurred, but when he tried to open the cupboard under the sink to locate a decade old bottle of bleach he dimly remembered, his hand went straight through the knob and nothing happened. PC Kirsty arrived with a female companion and they both changed into white protective suits and, much to Fergus's affront, face masks, before beginning to root through the pathetic remnants of his forty three years, taking photographs and bagging and tagging anything either suspicious or otherwise of interest. They were more respectful than the post-mortem surgeons, albeit repeatedly marvelling at how people could get themselves into this state and how sad it was they seemed to be seeing more of this sort of thing these days, if somewhat disparaging about Fergus's evident inability to pay for his own funeral, judging by what they found. 'Well how was I supposed to know I was going to die at 43?' he thought bitterly. 'I'd have tidied up, bleached the sh*te out the bath and left you some friggin' teacakes if I'd known!'
Fergus's funeral at the local crem two weeks later was no less a grim affair, only PC Kirsty, her companion and a locum vicar present as the service was mumbled with the greatest economy of tribute paid to a deceased known only in name and cause of death before the red velvet curtains finally closed on Fergus's life.
Having watched his bedsit being stripped into a skip, fumigated and redecorated ready for the next occupant and then the said new occupant whooping with glee at opening the door for the first time into their new bedsit before starting on the whiskey, Fergus found himself at a loose end. He was getting used to being dead now and rather bored. And god, did he need a drink, especially after all he'd just been through. He also found himself increasingly angry at being dead, and so prematurely, none of his childhood dreams of becoming a trucker realised. To the point he gave old Tam the hobo a good shove for outlasting him as he drifted towards his old haunts in the city centre. That man had hung about the precinct like the bad smell he was since Fergus was a nipper and must have sunk twice as much booze as Fergus including meths. How the f*** did HE get away with it?
Fergus finally entered the Mackintosh Arms, his favourite drinking den of old, until his friends de-friended him one by one forcing him to embark on a solo drinking career.
And blow me if that wasn't Bill Dunstan at the bar with a whiskey in his hand and wearing a pale blue suit. What was that b***ard doing in a suit? Bill had actually been that trucker that Fergus aspired to be. Before it led to an argument from which their lifelong friendship never recovered, that is. Fergus found himself salivating at the sight of Bill's whiskey. He could see it, he could smell it, he could almost taste it. It was within his grasp. He reached, but as usual his hand went straight through. 'Bill!' he shouted! 'Bill! Gi' us a drink, you tight b***ard!'
But Bill of course could not see Fergus, though he felt a shiver in the warm-bodied bar he couldn't explain as Fergus drew near.
'Bill!' Fergus struck him on the back, and again his hand went straight through. He thought he saw Bill's eyelids flicker involuntarily as he half turned. A thought occurred to him. 'Well ah'm no nancy boy, but ah ken what would happen if I walked into him.' Fergus tested out his theory and walked into the broad expanse of Bill's back.
Much to Fergus's amazement he could suddenly feel the glass as a real solid glass and pick it up with his hand. His hand??? He looked down and saw a far chubbier hand than his own and with cleaner nails lifting the glass to his lips. He drained the contents in one. Whiskey had never tasted so sweet. He ordered another and another, revelling in his new physicality. He ordered a home made lamb and ale pie. It was so long since Fergus had last tasted food, real food, even when alive. 'Steady on Bill. Dinnae forget that round of golf tomorrae' a face he did not recognise chided him. 'F*** off.' He replied cheerfully in Bill's voice then laughed manically at the sound of his new self. The strange face looked taken aback and then scared before hastily making its excuses and leaving. Wise man, thought Fergus. Then he went through Bill's pockets to find out how rich he was. He was gratified to find a roll of notes in his breast pocket. Several hundred.  And then another roll of notes in his trouser pocket. 
'Trucker, my arse!' he thought. 'But this one's for you Bill you old b***tard.' And with that, Fergus drained his sixth whiskey of the night, impressed that his new body was holding up so well. Several drinks later he treated himself to a local hotel and drank the mini bar dry, staying for weeks and taking full advantage of room service and satellite TV. A wife and some children he did not recognise eventually began visiting and repeatedly pleading with him to go home, telling him he wasn't well and that he'd had a breakdown. He laughed and eventually agreed to go home with them. He hadn't had sex for years after all and Bill's wife wasn't a bad looking hen. Let the revenge go on.
Fergus was impressed to find that he owned a fine 1950s art deco style home in the suburbs with a swimming pool, everything white and brand spanking new. His wife Kaitlin was pleasantly easy on the eye, her aquiline nose and short dark bobbed hair set off by designer suits which neatly encased her petite but bosomy figure. Way out of his league, he thought with satisfaction as she swept their people carrier into the driveway, he in the passenger seat. He could take or leave their two chubby couch potato boys whose only interest in life it seemed were x-boxes. 'They'll be boozers' he thought with satisfaction as he showered later in the en-suite, his unwitting wife waiting for him in the bedroom. He felt suddenly excited as he towelled himself dry. He had purposefully drank little this evening. It had been so long. At least five years. He cuddled up to Kaitlin in bed. 'I'm not sure about this Bill.' She whispered. 'You've been behaving so oddly lately and I still haven't forgiven you for abandoning us like that. You haven't even had that appointment with the shrink yet'
'Ssssshhh' he replied kissing her.
Suddenly there was a whoosh and before Fergus knew it he was ousted and standing outside the bed watching Bill whispering strangely emotional-sounding reassurances and promises into Kaitlin's ear as he slowly began to make love to her.
'You b***ard!' he screamed and launched himself onto the bed, but he fell right through it and the floor into the kitchen below. He was a mere spirit again.
He never saw Bill in the Mackintosh Arms again and eventually found through trial and error that the only drinkers whose bodies he could hi-jack for any length of time before eviction were those of truly hardened drinkers whose strength of character and personality were too compromised and weak to fend off or eject him. Fergus took maximum advantage of his next joy ride - Pete, an out-of-work postman - jumping off the top of his tower block once he had run through the man's redundancy payment. He had once raped a girl anyway Fergus realised with a jolt when he had taken him over body and mind, so he deserved everything he got.
A retired Judge who had once given Fergus Community Service for theft and a binge-drinking female student followed next, whom he forced to turn lesbian for his delectation, greatly surprising the male students in her circle whom she had previously been both generous and enthusiastic about bestowing her sexual favours upon. Both ended up felled by alcohol poisoning and Fergus took great delight in visiting the local Infirmary to find out what the post-mortem surgeons made of both of those. Quite a meal as far as the girl was concerned, her pretty face making the national papers as a tragedy, not to mention a disturbing comment on our times. Fergus chortled to himself and resolved to look out for similarly stunning female students to hi-jack and hit the headlines with.
If Fergus had been better educated he could have fantasised that he were Zeus assuming different bodies and shapes, except they weren't exclusively his and moulded for his express use, but other peoples' and taken without their permission, but either way he was having a ball! Who would have thought that death would turn out to be the best thing that had every happened to him? Sometimes he didn't even drive his hosts to an early grave, but merely traded them in when he grew bored or their health started breaking down and he just couldn't be arsed to put up with a failing body, too sick even to enjoy a jar.
Regrettably his own neglectful boozy parents were long dead as he'd have enjoyed taking his revenge on them too. All those hours locked in his room and days only fed when they sobered up enough to remember. That was the thing about booze or even drugs. Children only get fed when their boozy or trippy parents are hungry and remember, and since they seldom are, going without becomes an occupational hazard. Eating out of neighbours' dustbins, or better still, from the bins behind cafes and restaurants almost became a way of life for Fergus.
But the Head Teacher who didn't believe him when Fergus tried to tell him what his home life was like was probably the next best thing. Thus was Mr Trevor Pangbourne's fate sealed. Luckily he turned out to be all too ready to have his retired body hi-jacked, having retired to the South of France for the sole purpose of drinking himself to death at a leisurely rate amid convivial ambiance and within sight of a mediaeval castle. The worst of it was, no ex-pat pal even raised an eyebrow as they toasted their late friend, which irked Fergus no end as he left the provincial graveside.
But his spell in the South of France gave Fergus an appetite for the travel he'd never experienced in life and he found that just by imagining a place he could be there, an advantage he didn't have when inhabiting an earthly body.
He was shocked to see how narrow his life had been in his filthy Glasgow bedsit on the dole and on his tod. Now he felt even more angry and cheated. The only certificate he had ever attained was his birth certificate. Ok, and death certificate. But what had his life amounted to? What had it all been about?
He felt an urge to return to the city of his birth. He felt sure that's where the answers lay. Invariably he ended up in the Mackintosh Arms eyeing up a brash shiny-suited young prospect who was regaling the saloon with his mobile phone Salesman of the Month coup, but whom Fergus sensed was already out of control. Multiple jars later and after a thrilling high-speed Police chase weaving dangerously around the ring road in the young salesman's Fifth Series convertible (Fergus had never learned to drive), he rounded the evening off in a head-on collision with a bus, hardly a dent incurred by the bus, but the poor salesman's bragging silenced forever in the concertina'd car, Fergus felt slightly guilty as he regarded the smoking wreck. How could he continue doing this having met the Pope on his astral air travels?
He shrugged. The salesman had annoyed him, rubbing his failure's red nose in the salesman's precocious success. He deserved it.
He wandered the streets and entered a hotel, peeking into various rooms for vicarious thrills. Then he came across an empty one and decided to treat himself. He had no physical need to lie on a bed but it was kind of nice anyway, so he did. Suddenly he noticed arms and legs emerging from the walls and as their faces appeared he recognised the victims he had joy-ridden into the ground, including the salesman from earlier that evening. They crowded in on him until their faces seemed only inches away from his. He felt suddenly fearful, then laughed. What were they going to do to him? He was already dead. Play their cards right and he might even show them how to enjoy themselves and dispel their bitterness towards him.
'McCullen!' exclaimed Mr Pangbourne, his face looming the largest. 'I think you'd better come with me young man. The headmaster wants to see you.'
'But you are the Head Teacher.'
'I refer to a headmaster of far greater authority than myself McCullen, for it is St Peter himself who wishes to see you.'
'And what if I refuse?'
'You'll be incarnated as an amoeba and have to start your chain of personal evolution all over again. An average of 10,000 lifetimes until you graduate to even the most primitive human life form again. And you know how you always hated doing homework.'
'Oh.' Fergus replied and, meek as a lamb, rose from the bed to follow Mr Pangbourne into the tunnel of light which now emanated from the hotel room's flat screen TV, his other victims forming a human cortege behind.
©Laura King

Monday, 31 March 2014

The 'Cinderella Law'

The emotional abuse or neglect of children is to become illegal if the proposed new 'Cinderella Law' is introduced. Crimes such as the withholding of love toward a child could become an imprisonable offence, carrying a sentence of up to ten years!

Goodness knows where this would have left my late father who, by and large, could only show affection to cats and whom I now firmly suspect was on the autistic spectrum. Would my sister and I have been taken into care?

On a more serious note, while the sentiment of stamping out emotional abuse and psychological harm is admirable, how on earth would it be policed and established beyond reasonable doubt, let alone enforced? Prior to which would be the more pressing urgency to have 'neglect' and 'abuse' legally defined and categorised, to exclude the parent who makes their child do its homework each night, refuses to buy it the latest branded trainers and disallows it to live on ice cream and marshmallows! (always a childhood dream of mine). Notwithstanding, there are plenty of parents who are simply not very good at parenting or have psychological impairments to expressing emotion like my father. They may not mean to ignore or act inconsistently to their children and their children may love them in spite of their shortcomings or, what may appear to outside eyes, a latter-day Dickensian scenario. Then there's the opposite scenario of 'loving neglect' - where children may have all the gadgets, holidays and ponies that money can buy - and a whole string of au pairs or nannies - just very little time spent with their actual parents. Sending children to boarding school too could potentially be classed as emotional neglect or abuse, depending on who you ask/which boarding school (an ex of mine was very badly affected by being packed off to boarding school from the age of eight). And what of all the ill-educated parents who have little idea of how to stimulate and intellectually nourish their children and consider that to feed, clothe and send them off to school each day is enough? From what I have read, this law almost assumes that all parents are middle-class and well educated, therefore any neglect must be deliberate.

Curiously however, there is no mention of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), the syndrome in which the resident parent effectively coaches or coerces a child into hating a formerly beloved non-resident parent (and sometimes that non-resident parents' entire side of the family) post divorce/relationship breakdown, using much emotional manipulation up to and including threats of dire consequences if the child defies them. Some resident parents even make false criminal allegations to paint their former partners in the darkest possible light or get them into trouble with the law.

PAS can happen to children of any age - it is merely the tactics which change. The good news is that PAS is provable by means of The Warshak Test, a psychological test developed by leading PAS authority, Dr Richard Warshak, which could easily be insisted upon by a judge in cases where mediation is refused or a child is reported as not wishing to see the non-resident parent. The resident parent could then face losing their maintenance payments, and potentially custody of the child or a prison term in extreme cases if it is proven that they are deliberately psychologically harming their child by obstructing a relationship with the non-resident parent out of their own need for revenge or spite, rather than acting in the child's best interests, (and why on earth are children still not required to appear in UK family courts?) How is a judge supposed to establish the truth from a third party report, or even the hardly unbiased word of the resident parent, who may be largely responsible for the child not wishing to see the other parent?!

I believe that stamping out the emotional abuse of PAS would be a much easier ask for the family courts to address than the decidedly grey and uncharted territory of how much parental love and attention is enough to produce a healthy, happy and productive new member of society.

Some childcare experts would furthermore argue that, at the lower end of the scale, being allowed to get bored or frustrated sometimes is an essential part of child development in its own right as the child who is never allowed to grow bored or frustrated never fully develops their creative side or the resilience and independence they will need to survive adult life.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Slain by Mr Brutus (for daring to ask about a pension)!

It's been a harrowing few weeks. First I was jubilant at landing a Property Manager job in charge of 121 properties in Brighton and Hove on two sites (one a former Victorian seafront hotel), office to myself, entirely in charge of my own workload, minimal red tape, ok starting salary and commission.
My new employer? KF Properties, owned by Keith Freedman, devisor of Brutus jeans and Trimfit shirts in the days when teenagers were newly invented and needed something to wear in-between Teddy Boy and New Romantic, who subsequently decided to go into property and now owns properties in a number of locations including Germany - strapline - 'accommodating the world'.
Then, just as I was getting my teeth into the role and getting to know my new residents and contractors, dismissal, purely because I dared to ask if KF Properties provided a pension (would this even have happened if I were a man?). On this basis, I was told that I 'obviously wasn't going to be staying if I wasn't happy and should therefore leave as my line manager Jitendra Patel ('JP') did not want to have to keep recruiting new property managers'. This made no sense to me as what did he imagine he would have to do all over again by dismissing me? And I was later informed he had already gone through four in two years, so surely it must have occurred to him that there might be a long-term staff retention issue which needed addressing.

But needing the job I was still happy to sign the contract and commit to staying for the foreseeable future (no employee can surely promise to stay beyond the foreseeable future), not least for the sake of my CV and not wishing to look like a job hopper. As for how long I stayed after that, well that was surely up to my new employer as much as myself, commitment being a two-way street.

Maybe I should have spotted the warning signs. It was a strange interview. I had been told in two separate emails to wait in my car outside the premises and Mr Patel would come and summon me when he was ready. I duly replied with details of what car I would be waiting in and arrived ten minutes before my interview. I waited, and waited, and waited. Until 20 minutes into my interview, I ventured out of the car, walked up to the office and tentatively rang the bell, expecting that the previous interview must have overran. Mr Patel answered the door looking harassed and told me I was late. I apologised and told him I had been advised in two separate emails to wait for him to collect me from my car. He then said he had been out looking for me (not true as I had anxiously been checking at momentary intervals to see if anyone was approaching the car). We moved on to discuss the job and he showed me round. Before the end of the interview he invited me for a second interview, after which he spent five minutes advising me on how to buy the cheapest rail ticket to reach their Head Office in London,

During the second interview at their head office in London, I met JP and Mr Brutus himself, Keith Freedman, who displayed the laconic air of a retired rock star who didn't have to try too hard, in a black laminate and leather-chaired board room whose walls were lined with Trimfit shirts and Brutus products. The interview was fairly informal, more of a chat about what they needed, rather than a grilling. After Mr Freedman left, Mr Patel detained me in the boardroom to tell me about the problems he had had with his previous property manager. Apparently she had thrown out all the office furniture and replaced it without his consent, double-locked him out of the Brighton and Hove office when he tried to visit and refused to meet with him on Saturday mornings as required. Moreover he alleged she had done very little of the work he had asked her to do and standards were sliding and the property vacancy rate was rising. I was suitably appalled and assured him he would have no such problems with me. He did look a bit pained when I presented my full-price rail ticket for reimbursement, though I explained that I might not have made the interview on time if I'd waited for an off-peak train.

I was told I would know by the end of the week if I had the job. On Friday at 4.50pm, I finally had the call saying I had the job and could I start the following Tuesday? I said yes and accepted the emailed offer letter in writing (no mention of pensions), but it did state that that there was no sick pay scheme, which didn't bother me unduly as I am seldom sick. JP seemed delighted and said he would have my contract ready in a few days, but not to worry, he would make sure I got paid. He had also arranged to have the property manager who had retired a few years before to come in two days a week for the first month to help train me.

I started on the Tuesday and met Peter L, a charming gentleman of retirement age who had apparently left because he wanted to go part-time and they wanted someone full-time. He seemed to think that KF Properties were a good employer once you got used to their 'funny little ways', but had always had his own property management business with his son as well and also wanted to spend more time with his wife in their retirement, so full-time was not for him.

The first few days were pretty full on as I got on top of all the phone messages, emails, assorted admin and building works and then proceeded to get to grips with the lettings side as well. I let my first flat within days and was busily getting all the other vacant flats up to scratch. Some things about the job surprised me such as the website inferring that all KF properties were high-end, but the Brighton and Hove ones were actually quite basic and the former seafront hotel had faded floral communal carpets which looked forty years old if they were a day and were curling at the edges and worn on the stair treads, a scruffy carpeted 60s lift, mismatched chandelier bulbs and a rear elevation which had not been painted or had its windows cleaned in years. (strangely, the tenants seemed to be expected to clean their own exterior windows, even at high level, and quite rightly were complaining about this). However I thought better of tackling anything more than the chandelier bulbs in my first week, most of which were not working in any case, leaving one lobby in almost complete darkness and a risk to Health and Safety.

 JP seemed pleased with my progress and I met with him on Saturday morning. He brought my contract but neither of us had time to look at it as we had so much work to discuss. He asked me to check it and I could return it the following Saturday when we met again. I finally had time to read it after the weekend and was surprised to find there was no pension provision and no mention of one for the future, not least in light of government requirements to bring one in. I questioned this and a few minor points in a friendly letter making it clear I was entirely open to negotiation, albeit letting a duty phone allowance (for the phone I was expected to carry and respond to 24/7) and the requirement I could do no work for any other party while I worked for KF Properties pass. I was also apparently not allowed to take a day off for the three months of my probation, which seemed a little unreasonable, but a job was a job and a recession is a recession. However the codicil asking me to sign away my 48 hrs European working rights was labelled as 'optional' and I was invited to cross it out if I did not want to sign it so I did. JP later let it slip in a somewhat hysterical phone call that this clause had been rather less than optional.

I emailed my points to him and went to work next day, thinking no more about it, then at the and of the afternoon read his reply, which answered each point until the last point about pensions where he gave me one week's notice to leave!

I pleaded with JP to reverse his decision and then received a phone call in which he seemed to assume that because I had only served a week and was on three months probation, I had no employment rights and he could treat me how he liked with no comeback. I pointed out that he still needed a valid reason to dismiss me and there was such a thing as an 'automatically unfair dismissal' and he shouted me down on this.  Plus how could he dismiss me for wishing to question a contract (which he had asked me to check) when I was presumably expected to negotiate rent raises from the tenants? There was no reasoning with him though. Apparently the great man had also spoken and dismissed I was.

However being tighter than his own 'crotch-crushing' jeans, I was still required by Mr Brutus to work my week's notice rather than being paid to leave immediately.

That last week was particularly difficult as I served the tenants and contractors each day trying to be cheerful and professional and solve as many of their problems as I could and accomplish as much work as I could until the end (it wasn't their fault they were about to lose their latest property manager after all), but the few people I told at the end were extremely shocked. As for me I am still in shock and my polite request for a settlement agreement has fallen on deaf ears.

I certainly never expected a multi-million pound jeans tycoon and property mogul to behave like a cowboy. Then again, with no mention of Health and Safety either (normally the legal bane of one's life in property management) perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Nicer Than PIE

All kids knew who Mary Whitehouse was when I was growing up. She was that interfering old biddy-body (and self-appointed chief of the Viewers and Listeners Association, which she founded), forever on the telly with her 'Clean Up TV' campaign railing to stop us kids hearing any rude words or watching or hearing anything else we shouldn't. In short she was out to spoil our fun and make us conform to white middle-class Christian values just like hers.
She was a figure of widescale derision, perhaps hardly surprisingly when she demanded that the word 'knickers' be removed from the Beatles 'I Am A Walrus' prior to broadcast on TV, complained about Mick Jagger's suggestive microphone positioning and as for Chuck Berry - he could keep his disgusting 'Ding-A-Ling!' to himself, stateside! All these and more legendary demands for 'public decency' long before two young comedians thought to wind her up with their TV comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience.
Now I read we children had reason to be more grateful to this retired RE teacher than we imagined as she was the one who exposed that PIE (the Paedophile Information Exchange - yes they really were that blatant back then) was being partly funded by government money and even had supporters from within the Home Office. Not only had PIE hitched its bandwagon to The National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) where it found naive support among some now-senior political figures (sic recent scandal), it had attempted to do the same with feminism and the Gay Liberation Front. In an age of 'anything goes', it chanced its arm to sneak in and pretend to be a valid maligned minority group arguing for its rights to be recognised and enshrined in law just like any other. Not to mention the rights of children to sleep with ancient raddled adults (don't remember waving my junior placard on that particular protest).
Had Mary Whitehouse not shone a timely torch on PIE and their activities, who knows how much further PIE might have got?
Here is a chilling BBC interview with two of the proponents of PIE arguing for the age of consent to be abolished, incest to be legalised, and claiming that it is child molesters who are the dodgy ones out to exploit children - 'paedophiles love children' - the term paedophile meaning 'lover of children'. The interviewer seems worryingly out of his depth too in coming up with effective counter-arguments or killer questions.
Of course even in this area Mary Whitehouse did not always get her moral compass right.  When her National Viewers and Listeners Association decided to dish out annual awards to what they considered fine and upstandingly wholesome British TV shows, Jimmy Savile won one for 'Jim'll Fix It' and Mrs Whitehouse was quoted as sighing; 'If only they were all like that nice Mr Savile.'
How she must be turning in her grave now, poor dear.
At the end of the day though Mrs W was proven right in her suspicion that standards were in steep decline. Nowadays you don't even have to wait for the 9pm watershed to witness scenes of gratuitous sex, violence and swearing on TV. Then computer games, the internet and mobile devices came along. Now any individual of any age can watch anything, anytime, almost anywhere. It's like the nation has lost any sense of responsibility towards its young or vulnerable. Either that or I am getting old and this isn't really happening. On the flip side at least most youngsters know what a paedophile is these days (without it having to be explained to them by a broadcaster) and forewarned is forearmed. The law also takes paedophile crimes seriously nowadays as oppose to just sweeping them under the carpet and encouraging any victims brave enough to come forward to just forget about it as the law would have done in the 70s and 80s. Though as broadcaster Matthew Parris opines, plenty of right-minded individuals were as horrified by PIE in the 1970s/80s as we would be today, and it is thanks to their efforts then that PIE was eventually forced to officially disband in 1984, mission for acceptance, legal rights and protection for their activities unaccomplished. Thankfully.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Afternoon At The Psychic Fair

I've always been fascinated by saints, angels and all things spiritual or psychic, so naturally I felt compelled to go along to the Mind, Body and Spirit Show at Hove Town Hall last weekend when I saw it was on.

Happily my boyfriend is willing to try most things once, not least where lunch is involved! Having dandered around all the crystal and angel stalls and consumed said lunch, we decided to have a reading with one of the psychics, Ann Sinclair (pictured). Unfortunately she didn't do couples, so since my boyfriend has had such a tough time over the last few years I gave the reading to him in the hope he might derive some comfort from it.


He received advice that a deeply worrying situation at work should be resolved by early summer and also that his estranged daughters had been misinformed about him, even more so than he knew, with one of them more set against him than the other.

Ann went on to say that one daughter would eventually realise that all was not as she had been told and want to see him again and that the other would follow.

He left feeling comforted as he has effectively been denied a voice where his children are concerned and has never been given an opportunity to talk to them.

On their side it is entirely understandable how his daughters would never consider their own mother might be less than honest with them, presumably in a bid to deter them from seeing their father and cause them to believe he was a worse man than he is.

We then bumped into some old friends of my partner's at the fair whom he hadn't seen for ages, so a very pleasant afternoon.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Universities - Widening Horizons or Offering Narrowing Horizons...?


















It was fine for academics to engineer university education to suit themselves and their research, writing, lecture tour and sabbatical activities in the past when Universities were free for students to attend and even paid students to attend them via the student grant
However now that British Universities are not free to attend and fees have recently risen by 200% for the majority of students, and the process of turning students into those demanding creatures known as consumers is well underway, how much longer will students put up with the fact that a three year degree could easily be condensed into two years for most degree courses, thus saving students precious money and resources? 
Not least when you consider that with holidays taken out, most British universities are spending no longer than six months of the year engaged in actual teaching/lecturing activities and even then, not equivalent to the timetable demands of a school, unless of the intense nature of a medical degree, which may require placement shift work in addition to conventional tutoring.
Some OxBridge academics in particular teach for as little as 15 hours a month on full-time salary, with the rest of the time devoted to their own academic activities. They are not even required to share the financial fruits of any academic success with their College or University, much though their College may benefit from the kudos of their incumberance. 
Would it also surprise people to know that the majority of OxBridge academics are not actually OxBridge graduates themselves? Which isn’t to say they are not generally high-quality academics, but it’s the brand that you are primarily buying into with OxBridge, and the networking towards your future you will be doing whilst there. Elitism? Certainly. But that is the brand being sold here. You want redbrick values?  Choose a redbrick! Don’t choose Oxford and then bleat to the Daily Mail about its inherent social unfairness, though things have opened up somewhat for those lacking in silver spoons at birth over the last 30-40 years.
While the cost of becoming a graduate has gone up, the value of being a graduate has simultaneously gone down, resulting in higher numbers of graduates flipping burgers or emigrating. Ten years ago a typical graduate starting salary was £21k. It is now £14k. If they can get a job. Supply is beginning to exceed demand as the rate for university entry carries on rising though demand for graduates of the less popular subjects such as chemistry is still high.
Meanwhile the international students relied on as cash cows are seeing high-quality universities going up in their own countries offering a cheaper alternative closer to home. There are also internet degrees as well as the more established alternatives such as the Open University. Even home students are noticing they can get an English-speaking university education in the Netherlands for up to two-thirds less cost than in England. Apprenticeships and traineeships are being resurrected with some companies offering new recruits free training to degree level in their field as part of the package, particularly companies such as accountancy firms.
It is time UK universities started waking up and smelling the coffee re the future. The current level of graduates is unsustainable on so many levels, not to mention failing to turn out the right numbers of capable and cultivated individuals in the right areas for the country's benefit, being top-heavy in some subjects and bottom-heavy in others. They also need to decide if they are corporations or educational institutions as the two do not marry well and have completely incompatible agendas. Oxford and Cambridge will doubtless survive, but some will definitely be closing their doors in the coming years if they are not providing the USP of a gold-standard education and have no kudos, quaint pretty buildings or useful social network to offer either.