Friday, 2 December 2011

Humane Shopping

Yesterday I popped into my local WH Smith to see if the latest edition of my favourite magazine had come out.
Lo and behold three quarters of the shop assistants had been replaced by machines since my last visit a couple of weeks ago.
A girl was directing the customers to them.
'If you've only got a few items there's a till free over there.' she repeated breezily at regular intervals.
When it was my turn I replied;
'No thanks. I don't agree with putting people out of work.'
'Oh well, they're here now.' she said, indicating the machines with a wave of her hand no less breezily, as if that were an end to the matter.
'I can still take a moral stance' I replied, waiting for one of the two human shop assistants left to become free. She carried on directing customers to the automatons, though I noted with satisfaction that the three customers immediately behind me also refused to be herded towards dehumanisation. Had they overheard my exchange with the girl, or was it natural repugnance that they no longer warranted a 'Hello, how are you today?

Even more shockingly it seems that Central Library in Oxford has dispensed with almost all its staff in favour of check in and check out machines as part of a radical recent makeover (despite Oxfordshire County Council's pleas of poverty regarding even keeping all its libraries open, let alone finding money for expensive makeovers).

Now you might not expect WH Smith to care that a friendly human greeting might be an elderly customer's only human interaction for the day. They are there to maximise profits after all, but a Library....?

Nor is any payment offered by the commercial concern to the customer for doing all their own checking out and packing, no matter that they have shifted this labour onto the customer and slashed their wages bill, albeit granted investment in the technology will take a while to pay for itself).

And what happens to all the staff who are now surplus to requirements? Where do they go? How do they maintain economically-useful lives without jobs? Is all this redundancy cutting off their former employers' noses to spite their faces? Are not staff also customers who keep the economic lifeblood of this nation pumping round?

On a Radio 4 programme recently I heard a commentator opine that if you give £1 to a working person it will go more or less straight back into the economy. If you give a £1 to a rich person, chances are they will trouser it and find a way of sitting on it for years. On this basis, working people are even more economically vital than wealthy people it would seem. Makes me wonder how many bankers spent their ill-gotten gains in the country in which they obtained them once the world was suddenly their oyster and they could go anywhere and do anything.

A colleague of mine who also enjoyed those heady teen days where you could walk out of one week-end shop job straight into another - if you decided you fancied shoes over greeting cards for example - now despairs of her teen son finding his first shop job as there just isn't anything for him to cut his teeth on to prepare him for adult life and give him the buzz and self-esteem of his first wage packet. He has applied to more than 30 and had only one scant interview with no contact afterwards. The new Asda Living store received over 70 applications for every part-time job it offered. Even adults now struggle to get more than part-time jobs in shops and often have two or three on the go to make ends meet - exhausting and stressful in the extreme - plus they lose out on the perks that their forebears used to enjoy in more secure days, such as Christmas bonuses and promotion to supervisory and managerial roles. The stores in turn lose out on staff continuity and loyalty - which naturally impacts on customer service and satisfaction and the once-happy and secure feel of a store.

No question shops are suffering in the face of internet and out of town shopping, but they do need to sell what people want and be innovative in what they do. Any store which comes up with classic good quality clothing and shoes which actually fit, are comfortable and look good will win my custom, e-bay or not, but so many shops like Next have just lost their way and spend far too much time pandering to the teen market who can no longer obtain shop jobs to finance their purchases than they do catering for older customers who might actually be able to afford what they sell, albeit on an irregular basis in my case.

Automatic tills will not be enough to save them, and are yet another turn-off for customers like me. though I have even heard teenagers opine they don't like them. Quite right too. Why should they harbour any affection for the thief of their start in the world of work, a rite of passage the rest of us once took for granted.

The joy is being extracted out of the shopping experience which used to be a tactile and sentient business - you felt and tried on the clothes, you chatted to the staff. The more dehumanised this element becomes the more terrestrial high street stores lose their advantage over internet shopping.

Is this what any of us want? I don't remember voting for it.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Wool Shop

I cannot now remember what my father was doing in a wool shop as it was not his natural habitat. I can only imagine my mother must have sent him there with a sample of wool to procure some further balls for whatever she was knitting that winter in 1976.

There my four year old sister and I stood in the middle of the shop taking the shelves laden with row upon row of pastel merchandise in and straining to peer over the wood and glass counter, dressed identically in mauve crocheted jumpers with matching belts and check trousers, courtesy of our grandmother, although there were two years between us and we were by no means identical. The shopowner beamed broadly at the two little girls in front of her, bingo wings resting on the counter.

'Are yous luk-in' forrward to Farther Christmas coming?' she asked.

We began to nod enthusiastically, before our father injected in his English accent.

'They don't believe in that nonsense!'

The provincial Ulsterwoman regarded us pityingly, then shifted uncomfortably, evidently out of her depth.

'They're atheists.' my father added for good measure.

The Ulsterwoman looked even more alarmed as she hastily took the sample from his hand and rummaged for some matching wool, wrapping a couple of balls in some brown paper a little more carelessly than was her habit and ringing them up, evidently anxious not to prolong the conversation, though he probably got an advert in for veganism as was his wont in any conversation involving an unconverted stranger before the door jangled our exit.

I didn't really pay much attention to the rest of their exchange as my six year old mind was busy mulling over what an atheist was and why my father had said we were one. Part of me felt a bit put out that he had replied on our behalves. He hadn't asked me what I was, or my sister, though my capacity for theological debate and consideration of the smorgasbord of my religious options was probably somewhat limited in those days.

Not that living in Northern Ireland didn't simplify matters substantially. There were Protestants and there were Catholics. The Protestants had shorter school assemblies but the Catholics were better-looking, with fewer spots and braces and rosy cheeks and glossy locks, so there were advantages to both camps.

It is the wool shop which stands out in my mind as the first moment I began to question things, become the pain-in-the-posterior child of the constant refrain; 'But why?'

The only kid I knew who eventually came to develop a bit of a faith as an act of rebellion. I remember watching wistfully as immaculately-dressed old ladies in tweed suits and wool berets pootled past our gate in apple green Morris Minors towards the village church bells that called them melodiously each Sunday, before sitting in the family Renault 12 in my coat until my bemused mother found me sometime later trying to figure out how to start it without a key with the request. 'Mummy. Can we go to church?'

Notwithstanding, it took me a long time to find better answers to the school bullies who slagged me off as an 'effing who-er' (whatever that was) one day and an 'effing virgin' (whatever that was) the next, and tested me with penetrating ecumenical questions such as 'Who made you?'

'Erm, my mum' I would mumble, as the first thing which came into my pea brain.

'Yurrr maaaa?' they cried incredulously before falling about in fits of snorting as a prelude to showing their god what they thought of my mother's efforts at creation via a good kicking.

Over the years it dawned on me that our father's idea of religion was to live forever through the vegan diet, so religion and spirituality were an irrelevance to him, and should naturally be to the fruit of his loins also. Whenever someone we knew died it was always the fault of their 'rotten diet' and my father would rant and rave about it for a while, pitying their ignorance, particularly when his otherwise-intelligent colleague and talented watercolourist friend Frank Shepherd foolishly succumbed to the effects of pipe smoking in his 50s.

Grandpa Ernest (also a pipe smoker) fared somewhat better until felled by a ruptured stomach at 87 and was duly subjected to a Humanist funeral whether he had wanted one or not, as flat as any delivered by a half-hearted CofE official who had never met him either.

As for me, I drifted through various phases of hanging out with young Christians who pretended to be my friends until they realised I was merely Chris-curious and probably never going to be uncritical enough of badly-written Christian rock music (or indeed any other element which bothered me) to join their ranks, to then flirt with Spiritualism, Quakerism and Catholicism in turn before settling on a kind of cherry-pick deal where I would be interested only in the best bits of religion, the Saints, the angels, the miracles. All that doom and gloom stuff from a God seemingly as egocentric and judgemental as his flawed human creations just wasn't for me.

Knit your own flock has always seemed more appealing...

Monday, 10 October 2011

Has Cheltenham Literary Festival Sold Out?

For the past twelve years, the highlight of my literary calendar has been either to watch or participate (depending on how brave I'm feeling) in Cheltenham Literary Festival's famous poetry slam. Aside from catching up with and watching the creme de la creme of performance poets in action from around the country once a year, it was wonderful to imbibe the decadent atmosphere of Britain's oldest literary festival (founded 1949) based in Cheltenham's stunning Town Hall. This is the main Hall where the slam used to be held, often attracting a near-full house, almost unparalleled in the poetry world!

It is now held in a white plastic tent out the back minus the Stroud School of Samba entering the Hall in Hawaiian shirts on stilts at the end to get everyone dancing, in favour of minor politicians gracing the hall pretending to be anything to do with literature.

The enthusiastic, bright-eyed student volunteers who used to flit around in their Festival T-shirts guiding visitors where they needed to go were nowhere to be seen, seemingly replaced by unsmiling besuited bouncer types with ear mics who look like they'd rather be anywhere else manning the doors.

This year I arrived at the foyer anxious to collect my pre-booked tickets only to find the front of the town hall deserted and the ticket booths closed! Queries eventually led me to one tent after another out the back of the town hall until at the 5th one, on another town green nearly a mile away (and staffed by five surly individuals apparently twiddling their thumbs), finally yielded my tickets with the lame excuse they didn't have 'an agreement' to use the Town Hall ticket booth facilities! How on earth did anyone arriving only a few minutes before an event or with a disability manage to get their tickets, I asked? They shrugged.

My companion and I consumed a reasonably edible snack in the town hall cafe under the incongruous white energy saving bulbs, where once the historic room had been bathed in more apt and attractive candlelight effect.

The poetry slam itself, once we'd negotiated hundreds of yards of confusing plastic tentature out the back was sold out as ever, and as an evening was still well worth attending, if lacking some of its former sparkly atmosphere. However the punters were not impressed to be told they could not bring their drinks in, despite the plastic beakers and the bar staff telling them otherwise! One poor man had to glug the £9 worth of beer he had just bought in the bar with the assurance that he could take it in, in less than five minutes before showtime. Yet none of us in the queue was aware of any previous beer incident which should have led to such draconian rules.

In the interval the town hall bar closed altogether just as the throng went to refresh their glasses, with the promise that more bar staff would be put on at the outside drinks tent. They weren't and at least half of the long queue eventually gave up as the (extended) break ran out! Needless to say there was no time to browse the book tent either. To add insult to injury the door heavy demanded to see our tickets again before returning for the second half, leading to major delays when some realised they had left their tickets in the venue or even thrown them in the nearest bin, never dreaming they would be asked to produce them for the second half of a literary event which made little sense if you hadn't seen the first half!

Worse was to follow at the end of the evening when the event finished and at a mere 10.30pm, we found both the outdoor Portacabin loos closed and then turned back to the Town Hall to find that closed as well! Only a near-riot by the audience coming out forced a member of staff to open the back door with the extraordinary excuse that she didn't know there was still an event going on! My companion asked her did she not read their own Festival programme? Then that she should visit Edinburgh Festival to see how a much larger event is properly run!

After all that, the facilities turned out to be filthy on only the second day of the Literary Festival with not even a free Sunday Times newspaper on the splendid marble centrepiece as one left as some minor recompense for a much-marred evening.

Neither of us could believe how shambolic and badly-run the festival was and how badly-treated the punters were, being shooed around like cattle rather than human beings. The programme boasts of 500 events in ten days, which made me wonder if the whole shebang has grown far too big for its boots at the expense of quality. And they certainly don't seem to be courting any repeat business with their idea of customer service. Even locally, I for one attend far fewer events at my local Literary Festival than I used to. I remember the days when I would actually book a few days off work to go to up to half a dozen events until inflated ticket prices and corporatism turned me off.

Apparently authors are beginning to ask for payment as a massaged ego, a few bottles of vino and a couple of dozen book sales no longer cuts it for them when they see festival organisors raking in vast sums of money while they get little or nothing out of the ticket sales.

Quite so. If creeping corporatism has to be endured, then that entails professionalism for the authors and higher (not lower) customer service expectations for the punters too.

One thing's for sure. Long gone are the days when a poet like yours truly could hang out in the same green room as Jools Holland at Cheltenham, and until 1am.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Everyone's a NIMBY when it's THEIR back yard!

Having ripped out the hearts of our towns and cities with unsympathetic and ill-considered planning, roads and out-of-town shopping developments, often outmoded within a few short years, and often leading to social isolation and social problems in addition to lack of joined-up transport and facility-provision for citizens, the planners of the latter half of the 20th Century and the first part of the 21st Century have amply demonstrated they are not to be trusted with their piecemeal and profit-led ways of deciding what is best for us, let alone making irreversible decisions about the future of this country. Nor is the 'market' to be trusted as any arbiter of taste or 'stakeholder' in and visionary for the long-term.

Planners in conjunction with private developers are now leaning on the government to speed up the planning process, lessen their contributions to local communities in return for being allowed to build in them and water down Green Belt legislation in the questionable name of 'sustainable and affordable housing' and easing the housing 'crisis', hot on the heels of whole swathes of the Victorian north being bulldozed under the misnomer of the 'Pathfinder' Scheme several years ago in favour of unaffordable blocks of characterless apartments. You may recall the famous documentary of several years ago illustrating that a typical Liverpool 1880s terrace (only a street away from John Lennon's childhood home) could be refurbished with all mod-cons for as little as £20k to provide genuinely family-friendly and affordable regeneration WITH the character that 75% of the population profess to love, rather than a small-windowed overpriced human battery-chicken style apartment that they struggle to get their furniture into. All this even without getting the 100% VAT-free perk enjoyed by new-builds but not, for some bizarre reason, restoration projects.

Suffice to say that very few new schemes proposed are genuinely affordable and sustainable, not least considering the carbon footprint required to construct them and the fact that few modern buildings have an anticipated shelf-life of longer than 55 years. However once a piece of land has been built on, it seldom if ever reverts back to greenfield, but is ever after branded 'brownfield', so even though we might feel grateful that few of todays' carbuncles will still be standing 55 years from now, they will most certainly be replaced by other carbuncles.

Aside from the original intention of providing a 'green lung' around each city, town and village following the success of the first 'garden cities' and recognition of the human need to have green spaces, here are the officially-stated aims of green belts, instigated nationwide in 1955, but still as relevant today;

  • To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas
  • To prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another
  • To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment
  • To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns
  • To assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
Once an area of land has been defined as green belt, opportunities and benefits include:
  • Providing opportunities for access to the open countryside for the urban population
  • Providing opportunities for outdoor sport and outdoor recreation near urban areas
  • The retention of attractive landscapes and the enhancement of landscapes, near to where people live
  • Improvement of damaged and derelict land around towns
  • The securing of nature conservation interests.
  • The retention of land in agricultural, forestry and related use.
Not exactly people-hostile aims, as the developers are trying to infer, I think you will agree.

From a personal perspective I firmly believe that human beings have an innate need to be surrounded by beauty, both architectural and natural. There is a reason you do not observe coach parties of tourists flocking to Luton for example. They are simply not attracted to it. Bar the freak characterful building which has managed to dodge the wrecking ball, it is ugly and even repulsive to them as a tourist or holiday destination. Most people who live in such a town or visit it do so because they have either family or business in the area or because it is a bit cheaper to live there than the town or city they commute to for work from there. If they want to see beauty they visit Bath or Buxton or a University town, or a seaside resort, or maybe a tiny tucked away village which has hardly changed since the advent of electricity.

Just as I want to see the nationwide provision of consistent high-quality palliative care for all, sooner than see 'right to die' legislation passed for those with serious illnesses, I would rather see legislation passed to order all empty homes, derelict buildings and sites be brought back into use before planners are allowed to run amok with their schemes all over our green spaces and special places.

The government might also like to consider imposing sensible immigration measures in line with their European neighbours among other measures to reduce housing pressure such as encouraging the elderly to trade down in property size and more companionship and sharing of living spaces by those of all generations, not to mention high taxes on 'second homes' which could be used to finance such initiatives. Fewer people living alone would also help that other social ill, loneliness, which has been linked to depression and all manner of other mental and physical health issues.

To my mind, this whole issue about the future of building is almost public referendum territory, so many of us does it potentially affect. To which end, please sign the government's Rethink Proposed Planning Reform petition here if you agree.



NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard - a prejudice which MPs and local councilors are quick to accuse ordinary citizens of every time they object to a new development, but which they themselves are the first to turn into the moment there is any new building threat within a mile of their own homes.
SUSTAINABLE - a somewhat meaningless term since ALL new-builds now have to comply with strict regulations re insulation and energy-loss prevention measures, if not quite incorporate a wind turbine on the roof. Moreover, 'sustainable' does not seem to take into account the carbon footprint required to construct the property, utilise that piece of land for the purpose, particularly if formerly greenfield, and the short lifespan of the property anticipated (55 years)
AFFORDABLE - anything more than the 1970s/80s calculation of three and a half times an individual's/couple's salary or swallowing more than 33.5% of their monthly income in household outgoings. In other words the vast majority of housing which is not a caravan or canal boat is decidedly NOT affordable to most and may well be unsustainable, resulting in breadline or debt-laden living and eventual repossession. Though this doesn't bother the banks, as having made a tidy profit out of the first unfortunate home owners, they can simply put the property up for auction and move onto the next.
REGENERATION - Demolition of or stripping out of anything historic or characterful to make way for quick-buck, cram-them-in, neo-Brutalism.
HOUSING CRISIS - the building industry is not making enough money.
On a less cynical note, the 'housing crisis' does not account for a great many properties which exist, but which few people can afford to buy and empty properties for which there is currently no proper legislation in place to bring into use, if only temporarily (some properties in the first category being too expensive for anyone to afford can end up languishing empty for months and even years, as the owners wait for the market to 'pick up').

*The carbuncle featured at the top of this post is even worse than it looks as it actually blocks a spectacular sea and cliff view at the far end of the Hastings sea front - a view which should have enjoyed legal protection from such.*

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Hal Holbrook, a real celebrity

One of the worst aspects of this age of celebrity is that the real celebrities seldom get written about any more, not least if they are also over 60 and male, let alone feature on the front covers of celebrity magazines side by side with the upcoming talent, to give upcoming talent something to aspire to!

Hal Holbrook has been a huge favourite of mine since early childhood for his sheer character, dignity and presence. Casting agents obviously noticed it too as his long film career has seen him cast as everything from Abraham Lincoln to fictitious presidents, military leaders, priests and judges, many paragons of everything good embodying the Stars and Stripes, some not so! (sic the corrupt Lieutenant Briggs in Magnum Force). He has also done his fair share of Shakespeare and other theatre.

Meanwhile he has simultaneously spent more than 60 years touring his very own award-winning one man show, 'Mark Twain Tonight!' as a remarkably convincing Mark Twain, though he has ruefully commented that he has needed less and less make-up as he has gotten older! This show is all the more remarkable as Mr Holbrook has painstakingly memorised pretty well every word Mark Twain ever wrote and introduces random selections in every show so that no two shows are ever the same (unless of course he cheated by reincarnating from the real Mark Twain; and watching Mr Holbrooks' performance, you can entirely believe this might be the case!) The show remains a hot ticket to this day, even though several young pretenders have tried to steal Mr Hobrook's thunder with their own versions.

Above is an extract from his famous 1966 recording watched by over 30 million people. I have the full video and it is among my most treasured possessions.

Not a bad litany of achievement for the son of a railroad hobo and I am delighted to note that Mr Holbrook has finally got round to penning his autobiography which will be out next month. I am sure it will be infinitely more fascinating than Jordan's!

A thoughtful interview with him here of the depth and seriousness we sadly now lack on British television.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Great Bread and Circus Cut-Off

I've often wondered if and when every citizen in the country being financially squeezed, cut and taxed from every direction under the current government, except for the 1% superwealthy in secret charge of it all allowed to dodge taxes offshore and preserve and enhance their wealth in every which way (if Michael Moore is to be believed in 'Capitalism - A Love Story'), would lead to civil unrest.

However I hesitate to dignify the current riots as any kind of 'civil war' as they are so random as to cause little but bafflement amidst the general national alarm, not being directed at the obvious targets responsible for our nations' dire state such as the banks, the rip-off energy and petroleum companies and of course the government for treating the country like some giant train set they can play with, trying various things just 'to see what happens' and how far they can push us all before we retaliate, but evidently counting on terminal national apathy until now.

And as so many media pundits have pointed out, the rioters are largely formed of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised on the fringes of society, those who have seldom if ever held down jobs, have an average reading age of around 8, but in possession of computers and mobile phones and the ability to co-ordinate their mayhem via social networking sites. Many of these people are also dab hands at ultraviolent street war games on their X-boxes, so why not take it to the next level and give street fighting and cop killing a go for real?

Since pre-Victorian times, British society has recognised the need for the poor to be granted a certain quotient of bread and circuses if they are to placidly accept their lot, toe the line and be governed, if not granting them an actual 'Welfare State' until 1948 as national reward for WWII victory.

Now benefit cuts have started to bite as many begin realising they will not be able to continue to enjoy their 'bread and circus' quotient without turning to crime to finance it. Nor are they being offered the support, training or jobs they have been directed to obtain to replace their benefits, so what are they to do other than panic?

And let's face it, perfectly job-ready and job-functional individuals are being flung out of their jobs in ever increasing numbers, often without sufficient support and employment opportunities in their own right, possibly to end up joining the rioters, so what chance do the disenfranchised have?

It is a shame the lessons of history are so easily forgotten by governments, even if they live on as gene memories in the populace.

No doubt the army will be drafted in soon with their water cannon and other tactics.

Whatever happened to the dignity of the Jarrow hunger marchers of 1936?
The current rioters will not garner a fraction of the sympathy expressed by the nation towards the Jarrow marchers, even if it did take WWII a few years later to really change workers' lives for the better and see the introduction of a Welfare State intended to make sure no one ever need starve again.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

It's Lonely At The Top of The Food Chain

Whenever I've felt lonely in my life I've always consoled myself with Quentin Crisp's maxim: 'There's no such thing as loneliness, merely people who do not know how to spend their time alone.' Or masked my condition with my own homespun quip: 'It's lonely at the top of the food chain!'

For the past nearly ten years, I have kept myself so busy that any time alone, let alone time enough to grow lonely has become a luxury. Recently owing to various events in my life, I've finally had enough time to find I seem have joined a zeitgeist of people writing about loneliness and being alone, albeit hopefully not for too long.

In a recent blog hit - 'The Plankton' - a woman writes about 'being at the bottom of the sexual food chain' just because she is over 45, though to my mind having read her blog, she is more likely to be alone because she swears too much and has branded herself into a corner. Notwithstanding, she comes across as no less picky than the average 25 year old, despite her perceived diminished status, as it can't just be any old man she hooks up with but the 'right man'.

Sure there are shallow and immature men in the world, but how many can live up to the pressure and expectations of having to be the 'right man' and fit in with a woman's body clock as well as being just a nice, functional man whom one gets on with?

A young female lawyer, Emily White, has also recently written a book about her years of loneliness where her work life couldn't have been busier in stark contrast to the weekends which seem to rather unfathomably have been a black hole of emptiness for her.

Loneliness and social isolation have for several years been recognised as a state with serious health implications for the elderly who, depending on their level of health, do not always have the same choices and opportunities for getting out and interacting as the younger and healthier, and for whom grown-up children do not always demonstrate the same love and dutifulness as previous generations.

In the next ten years, single-person households which currently make up 30% of all households (or 6.5 million) are set to rise by another 2 million, with the bulk of these made up by females under 35, though elderly single households are also on the rise, an environmental disaster when people can't or won't share resources as well as one leading to all the fallout social isolation can bring.

Watch any episode of 'The Real Filthfighters' and they are stripping out and fumigating at least one house or flat where someone has died on their own and not been found for weeks, whether a drug addict or an elderly person who could no longer manage.

So has anyone in good health and under pensionable age got the right to feel so sorry for themselves in an age where we have never enjoyed more social mobility, more opportunities to try different hobbies, careers and classes, more travel, mobile phones, the internet and all its dating and social networking sites?

If it is merely a matter of learning better social skills and self-presentation, surely there's classes for that too. Or failing that, tutorials we can download from the internet, not to mention all the therapists and life coaches we can shake a stick at?

And do any of us have the right to expect our own exclusive (not to mention perfect) human being to address our loneliness for us, if that is what we are waiting/hoping for? And don't we have to be fit to offer a decent exchange in return rather than a depressed, tranquilised, self-pitying or drunken mess?

All this unhealthy self-absorption has also resulted in a dramatic decline in charity volunteering, one of the very activities said to diminish depression and feelings of isolation, though it is also said that turning our back on faith of any hue is also a major contributory factor, adding to the spiritual 'what's the point?' void within.

Before Princess Diana's tragic death, most of the nation retained at least a semblance of the famous British 'stiff upper lip', but now it seems entirely permissable to walk around with a wobbly one and very little self-restraint on the emotional front. But has all this openness really sorted many out or made them feel any less lonely? Or just more desperate-sounding and liable to push away that which we we might most seek even further?

One of the things which astonished me most about mobile phones when they became widespread is how many friends everyone suddenly seemed to have and whom they evidently couldn't live without speaking to at least several times a day! Not least when my own level of friends and frequency with which I talked on the phone with them remained roughly the same.

When all is said and done though, I have been no less guilty than anyone else of shocking levels of 'poor me' at various times in my life, much though I try to rise above it and often succeed, to the point I know it can be done, not least by a veritable youngster blessed with good health and reasonable sanity.

The painting at the top of this posting is by Coventry artist David Hale who has suffered from depression and alcoholism for many years. I consider it one of his most startling and poignant pieces of work.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Twilight Travel

Lest anyone assume I am completely anti-travel following my last posting, in the wake of the Southern Cross care homes scandal among other elderly care scandals, I really hope the following urban legend is true. And if it is, why are Saga being so slow off the mark to add it as an extra service?

'About 2 years ago we were on a cruise through the western
Mediterranean aboard a Princess liner. At dinner we noticed an elderly
lady sitting alone along the rail of the grand stairway in the main dining
room. I also noticed that all the staff, ships' officers, waiters, busboys,
etc, all seemed very familiar with this lady. I asked our waiter whom the
lady was, expecting to be told she owned the line, but he said he only knew
that she had been on board for the last four cruises, back to back.
As we left the dining room one evening I caught her eye and stopped to
say hello. We chatted and I said, "I understand you've been on this ship
for the last four cruises". She replied, "Yes, that's true." I stated, "I
don't understand?"

She replied without a pause, "It's cheaper than a nursing home".

She wasn't wrong. Here's the proof; -

The average cost for a nursing home is $200 per day. I have checked on
reservations at Princess and I can get a long term discount and senior
discount price of $135 per day. That leaves $65 a day for:

1. Gratuities which will only be $10 per day.

2. I will have as many as 10 meals a day if I can waddle to the
restaurant, or I can have room service (which means I can have breakfast in bed
every day of the week).

3. Princess has as many as three swimming pools, a workout room and free
washers and dryers.

4. They have free toothpaste, razors, soap and shampoo.

5. They will treat you like a customer, not a patient. An extra $5
worth of tips will have the entire staff scrambling to help you.

6. I will get to meet new people every 7 or 14 days.

7. TV broken? Light bulb need changing? Need to have the mattress
replaced? No problem! They will fix everything and apologize for your

8. Clean sheets and towels every day, and you don't even have to ask for them. Regular cleaning services and rubbish disposal.

9. If you fall in the nursing home and break a hip you are on Medicare.
If you fall and break a hip on the Princess ship they will upgrade you to a
suite for the rest of your life.

10. Free live entertainment on tap.

Now hold on for the best! Do you want to see South America, the Panama
Canal, Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, the Fjords (insert location here)?
Princess will have a ship ready to go. So don't look for me in a nursing
home, just call shore to ship.

P. S. And don't forget, when you die, they just dump you over the side at minimal cost.

Talking of end-of-life care, recently I had the privilege of touring the local hospice where I marvelled at the facilities and the hospice's ethos that 'if a patients' last wish can be granted, we will.' Stable-wide doors enabled beds to be wheeled round the entire complex including into idyllic gardens or the chapel which was used for entertainment and events as well as multi-faith services. A recent resident, a keen horsewoman had had her horse visit her room to say goodbye! Deathbed weddings abounded. Music therapy rooms and art therapy rooms were on hand as was counselling. Paintings and poems by both patients and their loved ones adorned the walls. At night a drinks trolley did the rounds dispensing comforting nightcaps of patient choice. Palliative care ensured no one died in pain and un-uniformed staff, one with rainbow-coloured hair although she was a trained nurse, ensured no one died alone. Their families were also welcomed back for counselling, sometimes for years afterwards, though some came back to volunteer with the gardens or the hospice bus rota. An incredible sense of peace pervaded, even though it was located right next door to a main hospital. All in all, visiting the facility was a surprisingly uplifting experience, but for the thought; 'It's just a shame people have to be terminally ill to enjoy this level of care and comfort, and among the lucky ones to get in, even then.' All sick or elderly people should be treated with this level of care and respect. I have no doubt Dignitas would have fewer customers if more people had the choice of a dignified and painless end in such surroundings.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

An Englishwoman Not Abroad

It was a staple cartoonist's joke when I was a child that the neighbours who forced you to watch their foreign holiday slides were the neighbours from hell and were really doing it to rub people's noses in it that they were more affluent.

My parents were those neighbours!

Nowadays cheap flights make it fashionable, even de rigueur for everyone and their dog to travel and for travel nuts to bore the pants off their guests by making them watch footage of a Masai tribesman driving his herd of cattle onto a plain or their partner haggling over a garish rug in a Moroccan market, though in what way this is supposed to make the traveller a better person or a person of achievement is hard to fathom, not least when travel has become such a commonplace commercialised activity, open to anyone capable of putting a plane ticket on a credit card.
As the famous scene in the film 'The Truman Show' goes when Truman tells his teacher he wants to explore the world, she counters: 'It's all been explored!'
Sometimes it seems all that remains is to traverse Peru with a table-top freezer balancing on the tip of one finger; ie with a twist!

If anything, travel often makes people more tedious than they were in the first place (sic your average loudly-bragging gap-year student) and contrary to what some evidently assume, is no substitute for a personality, though I don't deny there is interest in travelling from the point of view that another culture might have a better way of doing something than we do, which we can potentially steal toward the rescue of our own failing country. And differing turns of phrase and outlook to our own are also not to be underestimated.

A cynical and unfashionable viewpoint, not in step with globalisation? Certainly. But then I am suspicious of escapism, be it drugs, drink, extreme sports or travel. In other words 'experience junkieism'. My first reaction is what are these people running away from as often as three times a year? Themselves? Their own country? Is all this travel a throwback to imperialism and the need to conquer, if only psychologically?
Are other cultures merely an idle curiosity to be gawked at, photographed, and in the worst cases patronised/exploited, or do travellers genuinely give a damn about them once they've left their shores?

Many gap years in particular have degenerated into little more than year-long round the world pub crawls rather than a genuine attempt to see and engage with the wider world, unless a youngster of lesser-endowed parents is forced to work their passage, in which case they probably taste more of the grass roots experience, leaving less time to indulge the mindless hedonism their compatriots are busily shaming our nation's reputation with. Still other youngsters are charged through the nose to 'volunteer' abroad for a year by cynical organisations out to profiteer from the few left who are interested in putting altruism before themselves.

A former graduate colleague of mine had a more noble reason than most to travel. He not only sought to interact with and learn from other cultures but to experience deprivation. He had always known a warm clean bed, plenty to eat, plenty to wear, central heating and a power shower and he wanted to know what life would be like when thrown back on his own resources. In short to know if he had any, having grown up as a pampered Westerner, and he planned to cycle round the world on a shoestring budget, risking adversity, relying on the kindness of strangers and getting to know what stuff he was made of, standing himself in good stead for any future national emergency. He set off with a neckful of St Christopher medals and a compass two months ago. We're keeping our fingers crossed!

Personally I have never felt the need to go without a shower for ten days to appreciate how wonderful a shower is - I grew up in a one-bath-a-week-with-my-sister household in the 70s/80s, (well my parents had to pay for all those foreign holidays somehow!)

As for knowing myself, I have made this often-painful journey the priority of my life, a journey too often deferred by the distractions of the world including travel (though as you will have gathered, I am not without some experience of world travel). Exploring myself and what I am capable of and pushing my own boundaries has hitherto been the greatest and most satisfying adventure of all and it's not over yet. Better still, the benefits of getting to know and like oneself and working through the after-effects of a difficult childhood last a lot longer than a holiday tan and don't break the bank or enlarge one's carbon footprint either.
And do we not also travel in our dreams? I regularly have fantastical flying dreams for which I need no passport, am not limited to a flight path and can't be charged for excess baggage or refused passage for forgetting to transfer a lipstick to a little plastic bag!

Environmentalists who jet around the world supposedly promoting environmentalism who come back prosleytising to the rest of us particularly make me laugh and I think they need to take a good look at themselves. I once caused consternation in an environmental meeting by opining that never mind the more limited benefits of all the minor measures we were discussing, where was the national roll of environmentalists willing to sign up to no more than one return flight a year and committing to remain child free, flying and pro-creating being the most environmentally-damaging activities of all?

There was a real sense of occasion about flights in my childhood, an occasion which only happened once every two years for us and each airport took a pride in its vast public viewing gallery (now often sadly absent), from which one could watch the majestic air liners take off and land, some children simply brought to watch the big 'silver birds' in action to celebrate their birthdays or for a treat. Airlines made a big fuss of we junior flyers with clubs, free sweets and goody bags on the flight and the odd trip to the cockpit to meet the pilot! Queues and security were virtually non-existent and commercially there'd be no more than a café, a newsagents and a duty-free shop, even in the largest airport. Airport parking was either free or about £2 a week. In Delhi we were even presented with garlands of orange sandalwood flowers when we landed and treated like minor royalty, uncomfortably imperialist as this now feels to my adult self. I retain my complimentary gold Pan-Am lapel badge to this day.

Flying these days has had all the fun extracted and is to be dreaded rather than excitedly anticipated, whatever one's motives.

As for émigrés, those émigrés who move to a country because they genuinely feel an affinity with that country and its culture and intend to integrate, learn the language, obey the laws and contribute to the economy of their adopted land. Well who can argue with that? I am sure that just as there are people who feel they have been born in the wrong body, there are people who feel they have been born in the wrong country and seek cross-border 'reassignment'.

You may assume from all of the above that I don't agree with leisure travel at all. Not so. I merely think we need to travel more carefully, judiciously and fully aware of our motives for so doing and mindful of our effects good and bad on the countries we inflict ourselves upon. Yes, many nations need our tourism pound, but do they need everything else that we bring, and even more importantly, take? And can't we at least reduce our number of flights per year and make travel special again, if for no other reason?

Friday, 24 June 2011

Maternity in the 20th Century

I thought I might share these amusing photos from Grantly Dick-Read's seminal work 'Childbirth Without Fear', first published in 1942. Judging from their eye masks, these women look pretty fearful to me. Conversely, they could be Ninja women!

However, slightly disturbing as these trussed up women look, we should not be too quick to judge Mr Dick-Read, who was actually one of the first childbirth experts to presciently speak out against medicalised maternity and the pregnancy production line which so many maternity hospitals would come to resemble in the 60s and 70s, (he himself died in 1959), reminding the rest of his profession as well as women that actually childbirth was a natural process, and with good management, learning and understanding on the parts of all its players, could remain so for the vast majority of women. And although his book was re-printed for 20 years on the trot and he became the first president of the National Childbirth Trust, he weathered a good deal of opposition and career curbing for his unfashionable views. I mean how DARE he suggest that childbirth was natural? Not least in the days prior to the 1948 foundation of the NHS when a terrified woman had to pay a tidy sum for a surgeon's delivery, even if it took installments to do it.

I don't know if my mother had heard of Mr Dick-Read but my mother also bucked the trend and I was born at home, delivered by our district midwife, Nurse Bell, as was my sister two years later during the latter times home birth was almost unheard of and dire threats issued by 'experts' that the mother would die, or at least the child, if more than a few feet away from a scrubbed up surgeon on standby in his fully-equipped operating suite.

To get back to 'Childbirth Without Fear' (never 'pregnancy'), Mr Dick-Read presents a book both ahead of its time, but still struggling with old attitudes and highlighting the many tragic cases of young women who found wonderful men to love, but then rejected them and marriage or even jilted them at the altar because they were so terrified of that inevitable fate, childbirth, swathed as it then was in gleeful gruesome old wives' tales and widespread ignorance. And even many who'd got as far as marriage and their first child would turn their back on romantic love forever if they'd had a bad experience, dooming their spouse to a sexless marriage and letting him think they no longer loved him rather than admitting they just couldn't face the prospect of childbirth again.

Personally I shall always infinitely prefer the odd hour of other people's children to entertaining any thoughts of my own, even with a world of sex education and pain-management at my feet. A rather cynical Facebook friend recently declared children to be the worst sexually transmitted disease you can contract! Which was rather vicious of him, if also amusing.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Cabaret of Curiosities

Less than two weeks to go and I'm looking forward to my OxFringe gig with Project Adorno on 22nd (think cross between Raw Sex and Pet Shop Boys with some random philosophers and Dr Who's thrown in) and Philip Jeays, an English singer/songwriter in the chanson tradition. And then there's me, The Poet Laura-eate, with her 'inimitable offbeat take on life' as one reviewer put it.

I have no doubts this triage of talent (or 3-for-1) deal will prove a qualitative experience for our audience, not least in the wake of last year's rave review from the Oxford Times for 'Byron, Get One Free', the poetry show I did with fellow poet Oliver Gozzard.

However promoting gigs has become a hard slog in Oxford, not least as the majority of Oxford pubs and cafes have decided to go all minimalist, removing their friendly community 'What's On' boards, partly a response, no doubt, to the rise of the staple-gun terrorist who plasters every available noticeboard in multiple oversized posters of garish hue and even invades Oxford Colleges to staple them all over the antique oak panelling of each JCR/MCR, given half a chance. 'Bill Posters', that much persecuted figure of the 1970s/80s, it seems, is not prosecuted for irresponsible postering any more. Though a well-policed noticeboard with strict rules about single posters of no larger than A4 size with regular weeding for the out-of-date events is all that is needed. Even the scruffiest pub which made a feature of decorating its walls with What's On posters has gone upmarket to paper their walls with replica 1950s film posters instead, promoting films which have long ceased to require any promotion.

I ended up feeling quite dispirited after my trudge around Oxford with a bagful of posters earlier this week as it seems that anyone without a corporate-sized advertising budget to pay the companies who now own many of the poster and leaflet sites is being squeezed out. Nor do I have a convenient celebrity up my sleeve to make a free media splash with!

However a few gems remain such as Green's Cafe, which still rely on What's On posters for that welcoming Oxford feel.

On the electronic front, who looks at their barrage of Facebook invitations any more or notices their weekly e-mails from events listing sites? Needless to say I have spammed all my Facebook and other friends as much as I dare to invite each to either attend or print out a poster for me and put up on their work or public noticeboard as penance if they can't make it. ;- )

Anyway, before you ask: Upstairs at the Copa, George Street, Oxford, Wednesday 22nd June 2011 @ 9.30pm, admission £6/£5 concessions - look forward to seeing you there!

Sunday, 5 June 2011


The theme of this year's 500-word Commonwealth Short Story Competition was 'Women as Agents of Change'. Here's my entry - since I didn't win!

Angela Downie looked out from the rooftop Widow's Walk and noted one of her residents Ronnie catching the surf already. Not bad for 82, she thought, patting her spaniel Oscar. She went into the sun room where another resident Betty was reading and made herself a cup of tea. Oscar bounded over to Betty for a tummy tickle. After tea, Angela embarked on her morning round of greeting the residents, making sure they and the staff had everything they needed, ending up in everyone's favourite place, the petting zoo at the end of the garden, which never needed the slightest intervention from Angela bar the odd vets' bill as the residents looked after the animals as if they were their own children, even those who had professed to be less than keen when the first goat appeared.

This morning, the female residents were gathered excitedly in the lounge awaiting the makeover lady, prized for her independent make-up, hair and fashion advice. Lois touched her arm 'I wish I'd known all this forty years ago you know.' 'Tell me about it' said Angela. 'I didn't realise I'd been wearing the wrong type of foundation and the wrong bra size for years either. Who needs surgery when you know the tricks of the trade?' 'Well we've got the facelifting exercise lady on Thursday' replied Lois 'Ah, so we have.' said Angela 'I shall look forward to that'.

When she established 'Renaissance', Angela had intended to remain a business auditor, appointing a professional management team to run the community. Instead she quickly found herself becoming so bound up in the lives of the residents and her ambitions for them that she had ended up selling her consultancy to focus full-time on her new genre of elderly living which, whilst unlikely to make her a millionairess, paid for itself by a comfortable margin, and inestimably in job satisfaction.

Those long fruitless years of trying to have children with her former husband seemed so far away now. Irrelevant almost. However it was her elderly father Graham's death in an NHS hospital, following the most horrendous ordeal after a routine hip replacement turned infected which led to Angela deciding that if she could save just one elderly person from a lonely end in an anonymous hospital or care home at the hands of abusive or indifferent staff whose idea of withdrawing treatment included 'food and liquids', then her maternal instincts might still have a role.

A national newspaper invitation to form an active and interested 'family' of older citizens in a former Victorian hotel by the sea for no more than standard care home fees had attracted more interest than she dreamed and it took many months of sifting to establish which applicants were most likely and willing to embrace Angela's ideas for living life to the full to the end. She felt bad about those who hadn't made the final interview, but took the pragmatic view that if the blueprint worked, she would in due course franchise it so that many more had the opportunity.

She smiled as she took a photo of Brian and helped him with his profile. 'Be honest now.' She winked. 'Women can't stand liars. Take it from one who knows'.
She went down to the basement cinema to set up for film night, Oscar trotting behind. Tony Hancock's The Rebel had won the hat pick. Jack and Sylvia waved from the gym 'You've only got two and a half hours until the circle dancing' Angela joked, poking her head round the door. Jack and Sylvia chuckled.

©LS King 2011

Monday, 30 May 2011

Walter and Lucy Patching

Above are my maternal grandparents, Lucy and Walter. They lived in Brighton in the 1930s. Lucy was a domestic servant, originally from Cannock and so shy that when her wealthy widow employer invited her to go on a cruise with her, Lucy refused and elected to stay behind and mind the seafront mansion instead. Cue for her family to start turning up to use the bath (indoor plumbing still being a great novelty and luxury in those days) with yet other members of the family turning up to ring the bell and pretend to be her employer back early! A gentle, timid soul, Lucy married a cattleman called Walter in her mid-30s (the one who looks like an accountant!) and they had a child, my mother Margaret.

Tragedy struck when Walter contracted an illness, quite likely bovine TB, and died in 1942 when my mother was only 3 years old. Further misfortune was to strike when Lucy developed crippling arthritis at around the same time which restricted her ability to work and made her even shyer about going out and socialising. They eked out a living on her meagre widow's pension with Lucy doing light work whenever she was able and eventually being able to buy the ground floor of the terraced house which she rented. Many years later when the landlord and upstairs incumbant of the house died, she managed to buy the rest at a reduced rate as she had lived there for so long and he had stipulated she should be able to do such in his will. Resistant to all my mother's teen efforts to match Lucy up with a 'dishy' new vicar at the local church, Lucy lived a solitary life with only her good friend and fellow widow Mrs Tennant visiting regularly, and a few family around her, her one indulgence being a new silk blouse once a year.

Aside from little money, Lucy had little clue as to how to raise her daughter as she was not a natural mother and ideas or ambitions for the future were anathema to her. Luckily my mother had an uncle who paid for her to go to secretarial college so she could avoid domestic service and cousins who made sure she got to a few parties and spread her wings a little. Brighton in the 1950s was not as funky as it is now and my mother quickly moved from working in a solicitor's office to work in a travel agents so she could get subsidised travel as she had always dreamed of travelling. Eventually in the mid-60s she made it to India to study yoga for a year, much to Lucy's complete bewilderment!

Lucy lived until I was 11 and I remember her gentle, almost apologetic, sense of humour, her neat petite figure encased in her customary silk blouses and her stoic efforts to enjoy the simple things in life and pin her hair net on each morning despite the constant pain of her arthritis. I particularly remember her cute terraced worker's cottage in the almost-vertically steep Baxter Street with its sunny postage stamp back garden frequented by numerous neighbourhood cats, the unfeasibly large unconverted attic with its pile of 1930s newspapers which I loved poring over and the old-fashioned dolls house I loved playing with. Then there was her amazing teapot which also looked like a little house and the illustrated 1930s Jane Eyre which had belonged to my mother and which I read at the age of 9. She was not a demonstrative grandmother but showed she loved us through little gestures like buying us I-Spy books and sending us £2 cheques and cards for our birthdays. And of course she lived by the sea, which alone made her popular with us!

Looking through the family scrap books on a recent visit to my parents' house, I see she and Walter managed to enjoy a few holidays and day trips before he died. I am glad she managed to know a little happiness in between being a late spinster and a premature widow, not to mention the war and its losses leaving an undoubted lifelong mark, for she did not have an easy life and I was not old enough to think of asking her about it when she was alive, she was just Grandma Patching.

As a footnote to this family background, my mother's 4th birthday present was a graveyard plot to secure the family spaces by her father, paid for in weekly installments to the 'funeral club'.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Confessions of a Student Housing Officer

Since the only writing I have done lately is to write up my notes from a student housing legal updates conference, I thought I may as well give you an insight into the exciting world of Student Housing and a few of the things we have to worry about!

Houses In Multiple Occupation (HMO's)

HMO's: When people hear the term 'HMO' they nearly ALWAYS think student housing. However the vast majority of HMO's are actually formed by professional sharers who cannot afford to buy their own places, which will increasingly be the case as councils focus on forcing smaller property landlords to register. This move towards extra licensing has been as a result of anti-HMO (usually residents) groups lobbying councils to see students/landlords penalised for 'studentification' of certain areas, blaming them for shops and businesses closing and schools not being built. Councils are often taking their word for it to win votes and hastily putting HMO schemes together without proper consultation, data and procedures, (or analysis as to whether these areas would go back to how the residents' groups claimed they used to be if the student population suddenly departed), leaving councils wide open to demands for a judicial review or public enquiry. Sometimes they are even refusing landlords who live abroad HMO status, although any 'most appropriate person' nominated should suffice. But as a first step the advice is not to challenge Article 4 (which empowers local authorities to remove permitted development rights in defined areas), but rather to challenge Councils to deliver on it. In addition with 1-2 enforcement officers per city, councils need to both identify HMO's which are not registering and then enforce registration/compliance amidst administering all the properties which have signed up and expect a service from their council in return. There is an argument that where Landlord Accreditation schemes exist, extending the HMO licensing as well is somewhat overkill as the first scheme should already be raising standards if raising standards is the aim. Many councils have insisted on expensive improvements to new HMO's above and beyond legal requirements, though they might argue that they are the law in their own jurisdiction, this should always be challenged as there is a suspicion they are trying to reduce the number of rented properties by making it economically unviable or forcing landlords to pass on the costs in rent hikes their tenants cannot afford.
As has been stated so many times at Landlord Forums I have attended, the responsible and good landlords feel they are being penalised with one cost and piece of red tape after another, but what is happening to the truly bad or slum landlords, those that the councils should be devoting the bulk of their time and resources to tracking and enforcing improvements or ensuring they cease operating in the area?


First check contract and ensure terms such as 'single occupancy' 'must not sublet', 'must not share occupation of' are contained within along with the limits for visitor stays.
It then becomes a 'breach of contract' if a visitor stays over the specified period for visitors and they effectively become a 'trespasser'. In addition while there, the visitor is also obliged to behave in a 'tenant-like manner' – ie not causing nuisance, harm or hazard to the other residents or the property.
Then check 'Protection From Eviction 1977' Section 3: List of excluded occupiers, to ensure you are acting properly.
Remedies: You may find you can write to tenant threatening a court injunction if visitor does not move out by specified date (will take several weeks, but often quicker if anti-social behaviour involved). You could further state that if the visitor is noted living there again the tenant themselves will be served with a Notice to Quit for breaching the terms of his/her tenancy agreement. Ensure the tenant contract contains a caveat whereby they sign permission that you can contact the guarantor in the event that breach of contract exposes the guarantor to financial risk, which can cover everything from utility bill default to court costs for eviction of illicit visitors or the tenant themselves. In this way you may be able to bring some pressure to bear by enforcing 'contractual rights and remedies.' Terms such as 'breach of your agreement', 'unfair to other occupants', 'contrary to the requirements of good faith' and 'we will go no further than necessary to protect our other tenants' may prove helpful.
If housemates complain that one of their number has moved someone else in who is using all their facilities/eating their food/not paying any rent/bills or is being anti-social, they must be prepared to jointly sign a house letter stating how long the illicit tenant has been there and how they are being affected by them or the only action which can be taken is if a Housing Officer visits the house and finds and photographs clear evidence of sharing – mattresses together on floor, two sets or sizes of clothing/shoes/possessions.
If an illicit tenant has moved into an empty room, it is permissible to change the locks as they are a 'trespasser', even if paying rent to one of the other occupants rather than to the legitimate landlord, but if they are sharing a room with a lawful tenant it would be unlawful to change the locks as that would exclude the lawful tenant as well.
If an illicit tenant is not paying rent – they are classed as not occupying for 'money or moneysworth' so it is worth using reasonable force to eject them before they become a 'residential occupier' as they have no protection from eviction although a notice of eviction still needs to go on the door.


If No Smoking signs are up, the owner/Manager of the property then has to enforce the ban as they will risk being sued by non-smoking housemates if they fail to. There is no human rights edict which says you have to allow smokers to smoke in their rooms or provide an enclosed area in the premises for them to use. Smoking materials may be confiscated where found in a non-smoking building and it is not unreasonable to ban all lighted materials from student premises on safety grounds unless they have a gas oven which will not light by any other means. Drugs: Work in pairs when looking for drugs and if you find or are made aware of drugs on the premises you then have a legal duty to act immediately. First take photographs. Then contact the Police for them to confiscate the contraband and arrest the occupant. Write incident up with all the details and be prepared to be asked to provide witness statement for the Police. Do not confiscate from room yourself as you could end up being arrested for 'possession'! It is particularly important to stamp out any drugs in Halls as this will quickly lead to dealing when a student realises what a large and captive market he/she has within the building. Sometimes dealing even happens accidentally when a student's friend sees for example that they have a joint, asks for a puff and then spreads the word that so-and-so can sell them a bit, so next thing, so-and-so is a drug dealer! CCTV footage can also help when it comes to tracking comings and goings through certain doors or corridors and unusually high footfall in certain areas. Watch out for any odd incidents such as a student being beaten up or apparently randomly attacked or robbed as this can often mean they've been annoying the local drug dealers by trespassing on their 'manor'. Aside from the legal penalties, most Universities still send students down for drug use and most certainly for dealing, as not to would be to condone (and even be an accessory to) illegal behaviour, which would then impact negatively on the University's reputation.
Educate both staff and students as to the seriousness of the penalties involved, even for cannabis.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Sin Bin

Whilst not the most vocal human rightsist, and certainly no defender of the abhorrent Bin Laden (and not even against the death penalty where it can be proven beyond all doubt that the guilty party is guilty), I still found myself more shocked than I expected by the absence of due legal process in the dispatch of Bin Laden, and it has more or less now been admitted that it was a planned assassination rather than a response to the armed siege first reported. Nor have photographs or film footage been forthcoming.

Perhaps my queasiness lies in the fact that even Hitler would have received a trial as a war criminal had he not chosen to die by his own hand sixty six years ago. Has the Western World really regressed in its observance of civilised conduct since the Nuremberg trials, widely recognised at the time as a real advance for humanity and one of the positive outcomes of six years of horror?

As for making Bin Laden a martyr, there would have been no foolproof means of preventing this nor preventing the risk of violent retribution by what remains of his followers (vastly decimated in recent years by all accounts), whether he was dispatched by cold-blooded assassination or execution following a trial, or even lifelong imprisonment following a trial.

Granted such a trial would have been inconvenient, long-winded and ruinously expensive, but is that any reason to drive a coach and horses through the Geneva Convention and the ideals previous generations strove to leave as their legacy for a better and more civilised world?
Nor were the indecent levels of Western glee about this incident or the strange idea that burying Bin Laden at sea somehow conformed to Muslim burial law likely to appease his remaining followers.

I don't deny that it's a relief this undoubtedly evil man is no longer walking the earth and breathing the same air as me. I just think the Western World could have covered itself in more glory in its conduct and observance of due legal process in its dispatch of him. How else do we hope to set an example to the rest of the world that we in the West really do have the best ideals, the superior justice and the moral high ground generally over non-democracies?

Or perhaps the hope was that this would swiftly become yesterday's news and who cares about legacy and reputation in a fast moving Twitterati world anyway? But actions still have consequences whatever media fashion would have us believe.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

A Short Story about Alcohol

The Set Aside Scheme

It's not something that happens overnight you know. It takes a lot of hard work, determination and dedication to achieve it. I would say it probably took me a good ten years from the time I left school and at first I really hated it and struggled to overcome my barriers. But over time you do. Over time you even learn to enjoy it despite yourself, and you find your tolerance builds and the world seems a better place.

It's true I wasn't much good at exams at school but the DSS put me on a youth training course in metalwork when I left. And then another one in woodwork. I tried for over twelve months to get a job in the conventional way, but an apprenticeship fell through and there just wasn't much around in Kegford. The DSS suggested I should move elsewhere with more prospects but I really didn't have it in me to leave the only place I'd ever known. It also struck me as wrong somehow that I should have to leave my home town to find a job. Then I was asked to attend a special interview with the DSS who threatened to stop my money if I didn't go.

Well this big man in a blue suit, must have been in his 50s, asked me what I planned to do with my life.
I shrugged. He asked me what I knew about politics. I shrugged again. He then asked if I'd ever heard of the European Union Set-Aside scheme?
I said no.
'Well it's a bit like this young man.' He said. 'They used to produce far too much food in the European Common Market and it all got wasted in butter mountains or wine lakes. There was just too much of the stuff, supply outstripping demand and all that. So rather than continue to waste vast quantities of milk and meat and everything else, they decided to bring in the 'Set-Aside' scheme where farmers were paid NOT to over-produce food and to leave a certain percentage of their fields fallow. Ever thought about becoming fallow?'
'You, you, mean, killing myself…?'
'No of course not lad. Mr Major may be anxious to reduce the unemployment figures, but we’re not barbarians.'
'Then what?'
'Are you willing to be set-aside?'
'Set aside…?'
'I mean paid for doing nothing. Your own pad in your home town with all your friends and family around, enhanced benefits and no signing on?'
'What's the catch?' I asked. 'There must be one.'
'Shame' he said. 'You're a smart enough lad - I'm sure you could make something of yourself. I normally reserve this offer for those I can see will be a waste of space.'
'Well the catch as you're sharp enough to register is you'd have to become an alcoholic.'
'Because once you're a registered alcoholic, you can sign on the sick indefinitely and get far higher benefits than being on the dole, aside from not showing up on the jobless figures. This also means less hassle from the DSS as no one really expects an alcoholic to recover, never mind work again.'
I sat in the chair stunned. Would any of my friends believe me? A man offering me money for drinking?
'Look at it this way, girls get themselves up the duff to get a free flat, but that option isn't open to a young man with limited prospects. Look, I don't expect you to make up your mind straightaway. Sleep on it and we can meet again next week. But there is one condition of the scheme you need to be aware of.'
I looked at him in askance.
'Strict and utter confidentiality is required - in fact you must sign the Official Secrets Act to take part.'
'And if I don't?'
'I don't suppose anyone would believe you anyway. But those of our set-asiders who don't toe the line get their benefits stopped immediately. And that's just the start. They can then find themselves accused of fraud and be forced to pay all their benefits back. Lose their flat or hostel space. Prison even.'
'I see.'
'Good. I think we understand one another. I'll get the paperwork prepared.' He said, getting up and shaking my hand.

And that, dear Eileen was the start of it. I had no other notion of what to do with my life so I signed. I'd never been popular at school, never had a girlfriend, never expected my life to amount to much. What was the point? My own dad hadn't had a job since the pit closed. My mother had never worked at all. The scheme enabled me to move into my own place and eventually escape from grim reality most of the time, once I’d overcome my dislike of the stuff and swallowed what pride I had.
I never bargained on meeting you. I was 43 and scarcely been kissed. Always too self-conscious about my pigeon chest to undress in front of a girl. Those couple of kisses with Sharon Flett after the school disco all those years ago was about it. And now my teeth were starting to grey, along with my hair. I hadn’t bought any new clothes for years though I was just about still washing them and myself regularly and not yet p***ing into milk containers and leaving them on windowsills. Then one day I overdosed and landed in the rehab clinic...and met you.'

'Oh Martin.' She held him closer. 'What are you going to do?'
'I don't know Eileen. But you can do better than a bloke in the early stages of liver disease.'
'Suppose I don't want to. Anyway, you've cut down your drinking.'
'As much as I dare. If the doctor should twig any improvement though, the DSS is bound to find out and cut my benefits and no one will want me in the jobs market now.'
'I'll support us both.'
'On your salary as a rehab centre assistant?'
'Just for a while Martin. Until you can train up and do something as well.'
'I honestly don't know if they would let me, let alone if any employer would give me the time of day with a completely blank CV. Don't forget I signed the Set-Aside agreement. I am a man surplus to the nation's requirements'
'Not to my requirements.' She reassured him with a kiss. 'You've got to stop thinking so negatively.'
'If only I could. This is the first time in years that 'Countdown' hasn't been the highlight of my day.'
'I've got you tickets to be part of the studio audience for your birthday' she beamed. 'And the Jeremy Kyle Show. In fact, why don't you sell your story? You wouldn't need the rotten government's money then.'
'I daren't Eileen. I'd get done for breeching the Official Secrets Act plus I'd have to pay back every penny I've ever had. No newspaper is going to pay that sort of money for my story.'
'We'll think of something' she said. 'This evil scheme needs to be exposed. I wonder how many of our clients at the rehab clinic have also signed it.'
'You mustn't even think about it pet. I shouldn't have told you. I just couldn't help myself. I'm so happy to have you in my life. I never thought I'd find someone who didn't mind my pigeon chest. Sharon Flett was very cruel when she felt under my shirt after the school disco.'
'I hope she dies a very lonely old woman' said Eileen.
'So do I.' said Martin 'Just thinking about her makes me need another beer'.

They married two years later in the Hospice as Martin's liver disease finally turned to cancer and set about claiming him. Eileen was devastated when her first task as a new bride was to bury him and, her second, to clear out his flat to give back to the council.
Unable to face returning to work at the rehab clinic for many months, Eileen signed off with depression. One day she idly started sifting through a box of Martin's personal papers and found that he had kept a journal of his life from the day he signed up to the 'Set Aside' scheme to the final days before entering the Hospice. She began typing it up and editing it before submitting it to a publisher. Three rejections and a year later she finally received an acceptance from a Misery Memoir publisher and Martin's journal was published.

'Set Aside' quickly became a publishing sensation and while the current government blamed John Major's government, they were at a loss to explain why the Set-Aside scheme continued to this day, unquestioned and unchallenged, and apparently still accepting new recruits with the addition of an obesity box as a career option for the long-term unemployed.
Eileen found herself invited onto the talk show circuit and received more than a few funny phone calls late at night, threatening her, though whether this was from nutty members of the public or MI5, she wasn't sure and changed her number regularly. She also lost her job at the rehab clinic as a result of all the publicity and trying to counsel clients into admitting they had signed up to the Set-Aside Scheme, which apparently counted as 'political coercion' which amounted to 'gross misconduct.' She considered going to Employment Tribunal to get it back, but was doing well enough out of the book and the whole incredible story as it was. In time, she gave up her own council flat for someone who needed it more and moved to a detached Victorian house in the leafier suburbs, treating herself to a canary yellow Alfa Romeo and planting an orchard in her beloved Martin's memory in the garden.

A year later, the day before Eileen was due to discuss selling the film rights for the book with an option to play herself, she was found slumped dead on her living room settee by her housekeeper. Alcohol poisoning. A shock in more ways than one as the housekeeper had previously never observed more than an occasional bottle of wine about the place and knew Eileen's strong views about excess, having spent her working life observing its devastation every day as well as what it did to Martin.
No further word was heard about the 'Set Aside' scheme, though statisticians noted the death rate amongst alcoholics in their 40s and 50s reached an inexplicably high spike over the following 24 months. Supermarket discounting was blamed.

By L King 2011
Copyright asserted by author.

Sunday, 17 April 2011


When I was 19 I often popped into the local hospital on my way home from work to visit my dying Great Aunt Alice. She slept a great deal so it was not unusual to have to wait twenty minutes or so for her to wake up and realise I was there so I always took a book with me. She was in an open ward with about five other beds and one night I noticed there was a new addition to the ward in the bed in the corner by the window.

Almost spectral in appearance with protruding collar bones, sparse white hair stuck out in all directions, a sunken leathery complexion and no teeth, the ravages of time had evidently been particularly unkind to her. However it was her screaming fits which attracted the most attention as she would scream and flail her bony limbs around kicking all her bedclothes onto the floor revealing herself at regular intervals, at which point I had to turn away, wondering how on earth my Great Aunt could sleep through it all, though when my Great Aunt finally awoke, she complained about the new incumbent and opined she ought to be in another place, not the hospital.

One evening the noisy mad woman was up to her usual antics, with world-weary nurses attending to replace the bedclothes and tuck her in for the umpteenth time.

My Great Aunt sighed equally world-wearedly. Much to my surprise a dapper-looking elderly man then rounded the corner into the ward. Immaculately dressed in a 1940s style woolen coat and turn-ups, replete with trilby hat and well trimmed moustache, he made straight for the bed in the corner with his bunch of carnations. The mad woman stared at him without a flicker of recognition as he laid them on her bedside table, sat down beside her and took her hand. He started talking to her in a low voice as if sharing endearments. She said nothing, except to hold his gaze and lay utterly still, as if completely at peace. Eventually and reluctantly he got up and his last sentence to her after he kissed her was completely and heartbreakingly audible. 'You're all the world to me, Elsie'

Minutes after he left she reverted back into a crazed swearing wailing banshee, scarcely human.

I found myself astonished at his devotion at the time, but over the years I have come to be more and more touched by the memory.

At around the same time I remember reading a local news article where a gentleman in his 80s who had lost his wife shortly after their golden wedding anniversary was asked if he had any regrets.

'Yes', he replied. 'We weren't together for long enough.'