Thursday, March 30, 2006

Quiet Talks and Summer Walks

Governments like to define people, it helps them create rafts of meaningless statistics that help them make some piece of policy or legislation more convincing - they tell us 80% of the population want a better service from government departments which is why they've increased our taxes. No. The tax increase aspect of the deal was conveniently omitted from the original question. We said we wanted a bettter service, we didn't say we wanted a tax increase.

Companies like to categorise people in order to create demographics which will "help them to help you". They tell us 80% of their customers said they wanted a better phone service. So they sacked 400 people and moved the entire operation to Bangalore. No. You didn't ask the same 80% if they wanted 400 people sacked - that was not the question. Your customers said they wanted service, not redundancies. Oh, and it saved you 85 million quid a year as well, so it's a win-win for everyone eh?

As individuals we operate on a microscale of the above. We make any number of judgements on a person often just by looking at them or hearing them make a few abstract comments.

Once you're out of your teenage years, after those desperate early years struggling to fit in, you fight to make your mark. Desperate to conform as a youngster you now realise conformity will never set you apart from the crowd. You need your own little Unique Selling Point.

This USP can take many forms. A discreet tattoo. A striking, some say eye-jarring approach to fashion perhaps. Some will head off to the quack doctors and return to proudly announce a food intolerance that has made them a surly and cantankerous git for the last 20 years. Others will search their past to winkle out some insignificant event in their childhood and use this to account for their failings in later life.

Others are more easily defined perhaps. A physical feature may can make a person yet the same characteristic may blight another person and make them bitter with their lot in life. Whatever it is we're all in some category somewhere.

About six billion people in the world? Are you male or female dear reader? Female - ok, that's got rid of three billion. British? That's now got you down to one in 30 million. Caucasian? Yes - ok so that's probably taken another 2 or 3 million off the stats. More than one sibling? Wow, that's a good one - let's make a wild guess and say that now makes you one of 6 million. So after four aspects of your life you have absolutely no control over, you are now in a club that represents something like 0.1% of the world's population. Pretty exclusive eh? Now extrapolate a little further with some of the lifestyle choices I mention above and you could be one of only a few hundred people like you in the whole damn world.

I flatter myself I like to try and be different occasionally. I stuck to flared jeans well into the 80s. I think free further education for all is a defining mark of an enlightened society, yet I personally didn't get a whiff of it having failed every exam ever put in front of me and leaving full time education at 16. I like to sing along to The Red Army Choir's rendition of La Marseillaise when I'm drunk. There are probably only one or two of us in the whole wide world. No wonder I'm 43 and single.

But finally, tomorrow, I'm joining a crowd with an increasing membership. I've resisted it for a long time. It just wasn't for me. I don't envy or resent people already in that club. I just didn't see many benefits in it for me. Other people swear by it. It has changed their life they tell me. They can't imagine how they survived before they joined this global clique.

Yes, tomorrow I get my first mobile telephone.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?

I'm a consumer. We all are. I think I'm fairly discerning. I like to study what I'm buying, compare it with the competition, make a judgement, and then, I tend to live with my decision. All a retailer has to do is give me a decent product, sell it at a fair price, that turns you an honest profit and gives me the product I want and I'll put my hand in my pocket and everyone's happy. This seems to me a simple way of doing business that makes everyone go home with a result. What pisses me off though, is I no longer believe any of the bull that comes with selling me something.

Everything that is sold these days has to have marketing literature that is riddled with superlatives.

Let's try a few examples. Go into any chain restaurant.....not something I do very often but sometimes, especially where children are involved, you can't avoid it. You're presented with a huge laminated menu with razor-sharp edges and pictures of the food for the hard-of-reading. Let's say I want a steak. The menu will not simply say "10oz sirloin" which is all you really need to know when buying a steak - the size and the cut. Perhaps some information about the provenance and lifestyle of the beast would help but really there's not much more I can think of. No no no. It will say something like "A juicy and tender 325g of prime sirloin, lovingly prepared by our expert chef, coooked to perfection on our flaming grill, served with a sauce of your choice made to our own secret recipe." Right, so your chef's an expert, that's a relief, cos you look like the kind of place where the staff look like one day, they might aspire to the minimum wage. Your steak is juicy and tender? Well, that's the least I fucking expect. Do you have other steaks on the menu that don't reach this criteria because that's the only goddamn reason I can think why you feel it necessary to point out the fact for this one? Cooked to perfection? So am I normally to expect it will cooked to imperfection - do I need to be told it will be cooked correctly? And I'll bet the sauce will be made to a recipe that is more familiar to a scientist than a cook, and prepared in a vat the size of the hold of the Titanic somewhere in a factory in Skelmersdale or some other hellhole.

Why do credit cards all have to be platinum? Premium? Ultra? Fish? Egg? If you ask for the regular credit card you'll be told that the Premium, Platinum, Ultra Fish/Egg credit card is actually the entry-level card. Platinum, despite it's implications of exclusivety and elitism is, in fact, the bottom of the heap. No credit card has ever given me anything more than the ability to buy things and therefore not have to carry around substantial amounts of cash on the hip. That's all I want it to do. But the advertisers think that having their card will somehow give you more. Hell, some of the advertising implies the card is buying the stuff for you - well if you're stupid enough to believe that then you're going to get a shock on the 1st of every month when they start asking you to pay them for all this stuff they were privileged enough to buy for you.

Hyperbole, superlatives and a stunning array of smoke and mirrors now seem to be the norm when deciding to buy the simplest of goods or services. It's all bollocks.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Noises for the Leg

Here are a few pictures I took when I did The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu back in 1998. I spent about 5 weeks travelling through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia with an overland group run by Dragoman. It's a great way to travel if you have a limited amount of time, don't mind the backpacker culture, but need independent transport so you cover plenty of ground. They'll take you off the beaten track, get you a good local guide where needed, and brush up your camp cooking skills when it's needed.

We were a fairly small group. Eight travellers and two group leaders from Dragoman. We all kept in touch for a while afterwards - when you travel as a group for a reasonable amount of time, even someone with my dubious social skills tends to fit in after a while. In terms of bangs per buck, we did plenty and I'd have to say it was the most complete holiday I've ever taken.

I'm always surprised at how few people have travelled anywhere in South America. It's a stunning place, the people are great and there's always something to look forward to even it's just the spectacular scenery that confronts you round every corner. The cities are a bit full-on but once you're out of them you can detach yourself and really forget the other world you inhabit. People tend to assume South America is defined by Rio during Carnival but there is so much more to it than that.

Standing above Machu Picchu at 7 in the morning watching the sun burn off the clouds as they raced up the mountainside and passed over us will be a memory that will stay with me for a lifetime. I'd be back there tomorrow if I didn't have to fix the plumbing.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Labio Dental Fricative

Yes, I know, talking about reality TV is pretty boring but I'm just finding my way here on my nascent little blog and just trying to catch my stride.

Somebody once asked me who I'd least like to find in my local boozer one evening. My answer at the time was a bunch of Premiership footballers out for their Christmas party. I have a new answer to that the question now. It would have to be any or all of the contestants from The Apprentice. The premise of the show is that a top British businessman puts a group of young hopefuls through their paces with the intention of offering one of them gainful employment at the end. The businessman in question is the notoriously testy Sir Alan Sugar. The young hopefuls, despite being described as the cream of young corporate British talent, appear to have all the business acumen of the average Woolworths' trainee. One of them is quite possibly mad. Described as an HR Manager (redundant) she has the interpersonal skills of Pol Pot but without the charm and cosiness.

Each week Sir Alan has to despatch one of the fourteen hopefuls. By the denouement of each show they have been whittled down to that week's shortlist of three. I'm sure he's already decided that at least ten of them were utterly unsuitable for any sort of work that involved anything more challenging than the use of a pencil sharpener. Given that's it's unlikely that all the ones who might potentially have some aptitude will make the shortlist, he has a pretty easy job of winding them up, and then, using fantastically fractured and irrational logic, firing one who he'd almost certainly never planned to employ in the first place anyway. He carefully leaves the loonies in the pack to bewilder and frighten the other survivors and so maintain interest in the show.

I once heard reality TV described as "voyeuristic, manipulative and degrading, but it has it's bad points as well." This show has got all those qualities in shedloads. I kinda like it.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Man with the Trembly Nose

My 5th post and my second obituary - not what I had intended for this blog but the great Ivor Cutler has to be mentioned.

It's easy to say there are no true eccentrics left and we're all homogenised and derivative but Ivor Cutler was a true eccentric. Possibly the greatest exponent of the art in fact. His addictively lilting Scots brogue, half singing, half reciting absurd poetry usually backed by a wheezing harmonium doesn't sound appealing but it thoroughly infested your mind. Lyrically scatalogical he drew you into a strange world mixing bizarre subjects in incongruous surroundings.

Justifiably championed by The Beatles, Bonzo Dog, John Peel, Andy Kershaw and many others he influenced many contemporary musicians and performers.

Try listening to some of his work here - I suggest Questionnaire as an introduction - if that doesn't draw you in to his world then I guess it's just not your thing.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Canyons of Your Mind

2006 is the year to finally fix up my flat. All other capital expenditure has been put on hold and I have forced myself to peruse kitchen catalogues, bathroom suites, flooring products and other related products. I have engaged an artisan, Tony, who will carry out the work once I've decided what I want to do.

Interior design has never been a subject close to my heart. I am sufficiently aware of my own limitations in these matters to know that any bold design statement I make will be hideous and a subject of humour to friends and family once I am out of earshot. I know what doesn't work. The previous residents bequeathed me a bathroom in black and pink. I won't be going in that direction.

Yesterday morning I was in a bathroom showroom in Enfield. I'm relieved to see there no longer appears to be a fashion for coloured bathroom suites - bogs and basins were all lined up like sperm in a Woody Allen film, all gleamy and sparkling white. There were refreshingly few gold bath taps on display. Given that I've never seen one in anyone's house, I'm surprised by the apparent popularity of those baths with little jets and nozzles that give you a bath-time fluffing. The fashion in taps these days seems to be for the monobloc design where you get a single up-down left-right lever to modulate the temperature and force of the water ejected. I thought that style was confined to public toilets but it now seems to be permeating the domestic arena. Still, that's Enfield for you. Next week, kitchens. Watch this space.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Jollity Farm

Tony Blair has said in an interview that he will answer to God for taking us into war in Iraq. The sheer hypocrisy, insensitivity and downright brass neck of this observation by him defies belief. He has consistently insisted that subsequent terrorist attacks around the world would have happened regardless of the war in Iraq and has preferred to blame them on religious fundamentalists and zealots. Yet apparently it is acceptable for him to invoke the word of his God as being the authority he expects will judge his actions. That must be cold comfort for the people who might not share his religious convictions who have lost family members on both sides. The man who has played a major part in their loss does not believe he ultimately has to answer to his peers, or the electorate, but solely to his imaginary friend.

Some of the most despicable despots have used religion to justify their actions. I am not about to place T. Blair in the category of despicable despot but he would be wise to show a little more sensitivity to those who do not share his belief in fairy stories and have to cope with their loss without the delusions that he enjoys.

In the UK, a country where the predomininant religion would best be described as fundamentalist agnostic and whose government has said in the past "We don't do God", I can only hope his party, if it has any nerve, will try to accelerate his exit. At least then perhaps we can hope to have a country run by someone who can make a decision based on events and circumstances and not the claptrap that goes on his head when he shuts the reality out.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Rhinocratic Oaths

I drive to work most days. A 90 mile round trip from North London to a featureless business park just outside Reading. This morning, with a hint of frost in the air I saw two cars get wiped out completely. One was just behind me as we left the M4 at junction 10, took the bend too quickly, lost it and went down the embankment, and the other car following got into a panic on seeing the previous accident and spun hitting the barrier on both sides of the road. I watched all this carnage taking place in my rear view mirror. 100 yards further on there was a four car pile up on the other side of the road and another 400 yards down the A329 were four more cars that had scattered various component parts about the place. It's not unusual to see accidents at this exact spot - every few months someone does something similar. My car got into a slide there a few years back but fortunately I didn't lose it completely and have taken that turning 10mph slower ever since. Life is too sweet.