Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born to the Duke and Duchess of York at 2:40am on 21 April 1926, the eldest daughter of the second son of King George V.
Third in line to the throne at birth, she was never expected to inherit any title beyond the Duchess of York. The young princess was the third grandchild of the King and his eldest grand-daughter. ‘Lilibet’ formed a close bond with her grandfather, whom she called “Grandpa England”.
At the age of 4, she gained a younger sister, Princess Margaret. As the two young princesses grew up, the young Elizabeth showed early signs of understanding duty and leadership. Their father noted this character trait and referred to his two daughters as his “Pride and Joy” – Elizabeth the ‘pride’ and Margaret the ‘joy’. Winston Churchill marvelled at her “air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant”.
On 11 December 1936, at the age of 10, her life changed irrevocably when her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne in order to marry the divorced Wallis Simpson. Instantly, her father ‘Bertie’ became King George VI and she became the heir to his throne. Her family moved from the relative calm of Clarence House to Buckingham Palace.
Her own sense of turmoil at these events was heightened by the instability in Europe at the time. She was 13 when Britain declared war with Hitler’s Germany. As bombs fell across Britain, her parents resolved that the whole family would remain in the country, despite offers of safe passage to Canada.
While many children were evacuated away from Britain’s cities, the teenage Princess Elizabeth spent most of the war in and around Windsor Castle. In early 1945, aged 18, she was appointed to the Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she trained as a lorry driver and mechanic.
Two years after the end of the war, aged 21, Princess Elizabeth became engaged to Philip Mountbatten, a Naval officer descended from the royal houses of Greece and Denmark. On 20 November 1947, they were married at Westminster Abbey.
Almost a year later, 14 November 1948, she gave birth to a son, Charles. At the age of 24, on 15 August 1950, she bore her second child, a daughter, Anne.
Not for the first time in her life, the idyll of a young family life was interrupted by fate. In early 1952, her ailing father was at London Airport to wave off Elizabeth and Philip as they left to represent him on their planned tour to Australia and New Zealand. Days later, with the young couple still on the African leg of their tour, in Kenya, George VI died and the 25 year-old Princess became Queen Elizabeth II.
Once again, her life would change irrevocably. The young queen returned home to a future for which she had been undoubtedly prepared but was perhaps not expecting to occur so soon.
Her coronation took place the following year, when still aged only 26, she took the oath to serve her realms across the Commonwealth for the rest of her life. Shortly afterwards, she and Philip embarked upon a seven-month world tour, visiting 13 countries over 40,000 miles. It’s estimated that three quarters of the population of Australia saw her during that particular leg of the tour.
The accession of a young queen was seen by many to be symbolic of a new Britain, rebounding from post-war austerity and leading the world in many areas of technological development. The new Elizabethan era seemed to represent a forward-looking contrast to the traditions and protocols of previous generations.
In the earliest years of her reign, she was guided in statecraft by her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and learned how to re-define not only her own role, but that of the wider royal family as well as re-engineering the purpose of the Commonwealth.
Towards the end of her first decade on the throne, she and Philip chose to add to their family, with the birth of Andrew in 1960 and Edward in 1964. At the age of 37 and now a mother of four, she became the visible matriarch of the nation. And visible she was – decades before the world knew what an image consultant was, she favoured a wardrobe of bright, solid colours, famously declaring “I need to be seen to be believed”.
The 1970s brought challenges as Britain experienced economic and social challenges. Closer to home, her daughter Anne was the subject of a failed kidnapping and Phillip’s uncle, Louis Mountbatten, was murdered by Irish Republicans. Britain was becoming a les class-riven, less deferential nation and Elizabeth once again had to steer a path of both constancy and modernity to ensure that the monarchy retained its relevance. The success of her Silver Jubilee, despite negativity and even hostility in some quarters, was another major milestone in the life of a monarch who was by then 51 years old.
As the 1980s dawned, the Royal Family was once again at the centre of worldwide attention with the engagement of her eldest son, Charles, to Lady Diana Spencer. Their wedding in July 1981 was another era-defining event and an opportunity for the profile of the monarchy to be raised to levels that it routinely held decades before, especially following the birth of her grandsons, William and Harry, in 1982 and 1984.
The wedding of her second son, Andrew, to Sarah Ferguson later in the decade and the addotion of their two daughters meant that by the end of the decade, the Queen, by now 63, was a grandmother to three girls and three boys.
In Elizabeth’s own words, 1992 was her “annus horriblis”. It was to be the year of her 40th, ‘Ruby’ Jubilee but ongoing negative press about her daughter’s divorce and the failing marriages of her eldest sons led to her deciding to scale down the significance of the event. Before the end of the year, even worse was to follow, when a major fire broke out at her beloved Windsor Castle, causing extensive damage and concern.
As the world began to enter the Internet age, Elizabeth was once again required to re-define her role. Many felt that her greatest challenge was in 1997, following the death of Princess Diana in Paris. Having delayed her return to London, for family reasons, she gave a rare address to the nation to re-affirm her connection with the grieving population. In doing so, she demonstrated that, even as she entered her 70s, she retained her willingness to learn and adapt.
As a new millennium began, Elizabeth completed her transformation to become, effectively, the nation’s grandmother. The loss of her younger sister and her own mother re-iterated her seniority. Her 2002 Golden Jubilee signalled a return to the levels of public affection that she’d enjoyed in 1977.
As Elizabeth approached her 80th birthday, the marriage of her son and heir to his long-time companion, Camilla, was thought by some to be a divisive, even unconstitutional union. Instead, it signalled a more mature, more modern face of royalty that was seen as more reflective of the lives of many British people. The wedding of William and Kate in 2011 was also seen by many to elevate the status of the monarchy still higher. When the Olympic games came to Loindon in 2012, the 86 year-old monarch proved that she could still surprize and amaze, with her playful participation in Danny Boyle’s epic opening ceremony.
By her tenth decade, Elizabeth continued to negotiate with skill the twin forces of fate and ever-shifting public opinion, just as she had done since the age of 25. The impact of Harry’s marriage and subsequent withdrawal from royal duties, of Andrew’s legal difficulties and of a global pandemic continued to test her resolve to do her sworn duty. Even the loss of her husband Philip, her greatest supporter did not deter her from fulfilling her lifelong oath. This year, another Jubilee, celebrating an unprecedented 70th year on the throne gave us the chance to reflect on her remarkable service and unstinting grace.
Even at the age of 96, she was able to meet and advise her fifteenth British Prime Minister, an unbroken span of influence that included every post-war UK leader except Clement Atlee.
Queen Elizabeth II was a unique monarch. Not just in terms of longevity or even length of service. Her reign coincided with unparalleled levels of change. As a consequence, she has travelled more miles, met more people, seen more history and touched more lives than perhaps any human being who has ever lived.
Elizabeth inherited an ancient institution and ensured it was relevant, respected and loved for 70 years, more than any other monarch. She did this in a world that has developed at dizzying speed, compared to any other period in human history.
As a young lady, Elizabeth ascended to a throne of Empire and Cold War in a country still rationing food after a devastating war. It was a world where older certainties were becoming increasingly uncertain and, throughout her monarchy, she continued to respond to the changes around her. In doing so, to her people, she became the greatest certainty.
We now live in a world where the greatest challenges do not sit neatly within national boundaries and require global solutions. Her unwavering commitment to the Commonwealth shows that she understood that decades before most.
Today, the role she bequeaths is just as relevant and elicits just as much affection as it did in 1952 and yet it is in a world almost unrecognisable to those who cheered her own coronation. Her ability to achieve that single objective may be an accomplishment we can only truly appreciate in the years to come.
The summer holidays stretch out, seemingly forever, like a long, sun-lit footpath. They may herald the endless, golden summers of childhood, past or present but for parents of school-age kids, they can easily become an endurance course of daily pressures.
It’s early August and, across the country, an annual ritual is taking place. Days have been crossed out on kitchen calendars, past favours counted up and the number of ‘sleeps’ counted down. There are few weeks in the year that can generate as much excitement – and trepidation – as those upon us.
Many of us think of our own childhood summer holidays as sun-kissed, worry-free and filled with endless possibilities. Perhaps the truth wasn’t always like that – we also like to think all our Christmases were adorned with snow – but for most, our long summer holidays tended to be a mostly magical time that still hold a special place in our memories.
Ask a child about their summer holidays this year and the answer is likely to be even more vociferous. They’re anticipating six weeks of ‘freedom’ from teachers, homework and ‘school nights’. With so many electronic temptations, they even have less to fear from a summer of terrible weather than the generations before them. But even the most gaming-addicted kids may admit it’s difficult to beat the allure of balmy evenings in the park, amongst friends, under a setting sun.
And yet, this magic tends to fade when we approach the early years of parenthood. As the school year ends, working parents realise they have an ocean of time ahead of them that will demand their involvement. Days are taken off, schedules are stretched and, wherever possible, remote working is requested. Deals are struck with friends and neighbours: “I’ll watch them on that day if you can do the week after” and grandparents acquire levels of popularity they may not have for the rest of the year. Of course, not everyone has the option to work from home but even if you do, trying to participate in an important meeting from home, sharing a house with bored kids, isn’t always ideal.
With so many weeks to fill and with so much reliance upon factors beyond your control, it’s almost impossible to organise the whole stretch in one go. Even those lucky enough to have lots of help will still mostly operate from week to week. It’s important to put this on record because it can be easy for any parent to feel as if they’re not handling all these demands as well as everyone else – and they shouldn’t. Most who’ve ‘been there’ will readily admit that they often struggled with the logistics during school holidays. It’s perfectly normal to say so.
Considerate employers, helpful neighbours, flexible routines are all hugely helpful but you’ll still never be able to be in more than one place at once. It’s an awesome task that almost always seems to just about work out in the end. And when it does, you should congratulate yourself for achieving the seemingly impossible. Again.
Of course, it’s not just about time. Inevitably, money is also a factor. Summer grocery bills can quickly reflect the fact that those five school meals a week (per child) have mostly been replaced by ‘something from the fridge’. At times like this, you can really appreciate just how efficient school meals can be, compared to the local shop – or, worse, a fast-food outlet – five times a week. If yours happens to be the house where groups of friends congregate, your cupboards can be cleared even more quickly.
Beyond food, there’s the cost of entertainment. Days out, events, even a trip to the cinema are all expenses that arise from the abundance of time to be filled. This year especially, the school holidays are likely to add yet more pressure onto already-stretched household budgets.
There are ways to offset the impact of school holidays on your time and money. Many schools offer holiday clubs of some description and a growing number of towns have their own Youth Zone, offering subsidised activities, often for age 8 or above, in a safe, supervised environment.
Even if time and money aren’t an issue, there’s also the worry that, for some, the whole holiday can become little more than a six-week gaming stretch in a room with closed curtains. School is about far more than just learning; it imposes a healthy structure on young lives. When school’s out, it can be helpful to look for a similar level of structure elsewhere.
Check what’s available in your area. Even one day a week of organised supervision removes 20 per cent of your availability problem, guarantees the expense for a fifth of the time and removes your worries about time spent unhealthily for one day in five. We’d all love to think of summer holidays as being filled with mythical Enid Blyton-style adventure but we live in a different world to that of the ‘Famous Five’, over half a century ago – and it was probably an unobtainable fantasy for most, even then.
As with almost every other aspect of being a parent, navigating the summer holidays is, more than anything else, simply about doing the best you can. It might not always seem that simple but when you’re the grandparent and your kids are themselves facing those same age-old pressures, you’ll remember that even a little help and encouragement could make a world of difference.
Check your local schools’ websites for details of summer holiday clubs and activities. To find your nearest Youth Zone, check online. A good place to start iswww.onsideyouthzones.org
It’s no exaggeration to say that there was a point in my life where nearly everything I knew about Australia, I’d learned from Neighbours. For my first fourteen years, Australia had always seemed unobtainably exotic; otherworldly, even. An upside-down place where our night was their day and our winter was their summer, literally half a world away.
To those of us who loved sport, particularly cricket and rugby league, it was also the place where touring England and GB sides would meet their nemesis in front of unforgiving locals, under unremitting sunshine, via an unsympathetic media. There was, of course the famous bridge, the opera house and (ahem) “Ayers Rock” – don’t @ me; this was still the mid-80s. Beyond that? Not so much, but let’s peer through the mists of time and have a look…
Monty Python, true to form, had been early to the ‘Straya’ culture party. So early, in fact that their two most passed-down Australian skits haven’t aged quite as well as their other Greatest Hits. The Australian Table Wines monologue pokes fun at “Cuvée…Wogga Wogga”, with another example being “compared favourably to a Welsh claret” but in reality, Australia was already becaming a major wine exporter, with Victoria’s Yarra Valley now as well-regarded as Napa Valley in California. The other sketch, about the Bruces of the Philosophy Department at the (fictitious) ‘University of Woolloomooloo’, would certainly now be prefaced with an “outdated references” warning, as you might expect for a script that, in 1970, lampooned the coarseness of certain Australians’ views towards minorities.
My own memory of “Down Under” references probably began with Down Under, the 1983 novelty hit by Men at Work, which ticked all the necessary stereotypes required to explain its popularity. Dame Edna Everage was a UK chat show favourite, albeit one where the ‘joke’ here was as much about female impersonation as the cutting satire about Australian attitudes. We’d had Mad Max but mostly, we’d struggled to separate its well-constructed dystopia from our naive presumptions of contemporary reality. And then there was the largely dull daytime saga, The Sullivans, a 1940s period piece that, for all we knew, might as well have been set in the (then) present-day.
Thanks to Attenborough et al., we knew about the kangaroos and the koalas and, of course, our light entertainers were all over the hats-with-corks imagery but thereafter, (and I’m having to say this), it was left to Rolf Harris to fill in the remaining gaps with his didgeridoo and evocative 4-inch brush paintings to give texture to UK audiences. Australia seemed to us a land of mostly comic stereotypes where even the real people behaved more like cartoon characters – I refer you to Merv Hughes or Angus Young. Beyond all this sideshow stuff, the rest of the country (the real bit) might as well have been a parallel universe.
Introduced to the UK in October 1986, Neighbours quickly became something of a cult daytime TV show; a mid-day ritual for your friends’ mums who didn’t work. It took another 14 months – and, reportedly, the daughter of BBC1’s Controller Michael Grade – before the day’s repeat showing was moved to the more teen-friendly 5:35pm slot. It was January 4th 1988, Angela Rippon’s Masterteam had been binned off and, finally, in that perfect slot between children’s telly and your Dad wanting the news on over tea, we had our chance to see what all the fuss was about.
Yes it was cheesy, yes the sets were as lightweight as the storylines and yes it was parochial and suburban. None of that mattered. In fact, this cocktail probably helped to make it so legendary. Suddenly, we saw a slice of what we considered to be ‘real’ Aussie life, neither historic nor futuristic; stripped of all the glossy tourist sights and scary wildlife. The weather might have been better than here and these neighbours looked nicer than ours but apart from that, it was, well, normal. And for that, with all its universal themes of boy-meets-girl, sibling rivalries and garden-fence-peering, we loved it.
It also furnished us with an extended vocabulary of dismissive terms. “Rack off!” was a classroom favourite, its raffish exoticism rather overshadowing any logical conclusion that it could only be a pre-watershed pseudo-curse rather than a synonym for the thing that we all knew it sounded a bit like. I’d hesitate to add the more authentic Aussie term “flamin’ galaah” on the grounds that it was more famously popularised by ‘Alf Stewart’ in the vastly inferior Home and Away.
Almost immediately, this tear in the zeitgeist unleashed a flurry of Antipodean soap stars upon our pop charts. First, Kylie, then Jason, then Stefan Dennis, then Craig MacLachlan, then Dannii, Natalie, and so on, and so on. It also seemed to fuel a boom in Aussie lager, as first Fosters and then Castlemaine XXXX adverts kept returning to the well of ‘outback’ stereotypes to shift their “amber nectar” onto the willing British palate. Equally incongruously, actual Australian favourite drinks like ‘VB’ and Toohey’s somehow managed not to cross the hemispheric divide.
Back in the world of ‘proper’ culture, Clive James, Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson were all gaining screen time, imprinting themselves further on our national consciousness. Even the self-parodying Crocodile Dundee was proof that, for the first time outside a sports ground, it was necessary for the rest of the world to start taking Australians seriously.
By November 1988, the month of ‘Scott’ & ‘Charlene’s wedding, the whole UK seemed to be enchanted by their fairytale – even with its idiosyncratic Aussie soundtrack, provided by Angry Anderson. To many of us, this ‘water-cooler’ moment (although I don’t think we called it that, then) was peak Neighbours. Our two young lovers, having got hitched, promptly “moved up to Brisbane”, where Kylie & Jason could more conveniently continue their pop careers. ‘Mike’ had also got it together, with “Plain Jane Superbrain”, so all the carefully-built will-they-won’t-they jeopardy was lost. The cycle of character development had to start again with some new neighbours…
As my education moved from school, to college, to university, there was still more ‘Australiana’ to be gained from Melbourne’s greatest cultural export. I was still watching Neighbours, but “ironically” by now – obviously. Okay, I admit, not always ironically. The same was true of my viewing late-night re-runs of its harder-hitting Reg Grundy predecessor, Prisoner: Cell Block H. Even amongst all this ‘irony’, it was still easy to embrace the fandom. Ian Smith (‘Harold Bishop’ on Ramsay Street) had been a producer, writer and even ‘Ted Douglas’, Head of “The Department” [of Correction] in Prisoner. Elspeth Ballantyne, who’d played ‘Meg Morris’ (the “screw” with a heart) in “Priz” then turned up in ‘Erinsborough’ as ‘Cathy Alessi’ in the early 90s. As students and therefore twice-daily Neighbours viewers who considered ourselves immune to all its tweeness, we couldn’t have been more thrilled!
The 90s also saw the beginnings of the web, an explosion of TV channels and a general re-framing of our perceptions of Australia, as part of ‘our universe’. Or, as Michael Hutchence would have put it, “Two worlds collided”. In 1993, I spent a raucous evening with a bunch of real-life Aussies: jubilant cricket fans in a pub in Leeds, after a(nother) disappointing day supporting England, at Headingley. The following year, I hard-wired my bedroom TV to the living room satellite box so I could watch overnight coverage of the Boxing Day Ashes Test, live from the MCG, while in bed. Suddenly, the world seemed much smaller and more connected. The distance remained but the power of the new information super-highway to link the whole planet meant the ‘parallel universe’ was no more.
As the 90s wore on, Kylie became a superstar, Jason not quite so much. Guy Pearce (‘Mike Young’) started appearing in cult films – and later began to appear in bigger films. It felt like the continuing presence of the old ‘Ramsay Street’ gang would be like a reassuring blanket as we all headed towards respectable adulthood, away from the street itself.
I was fortunate to meet and befriend a few Aussies around this time, learning more about the country, understanding the many differences between life in Queensland and Victoria. I remember thinking how unsophisticated it would be to ask “do you watch Neighbours?”, so I didn’t – although secretly, I always wanted to. With each Ashes tour (cricket and rugby league), I amassed a little more knowledge, to the point where an insubstantial soap opera from a Melbourne suburb ceased to be a necessary source of information about this intriguing country that was also, somehow, described as a continent.
At the dawn of the millennium, Australia laid down a marker by having not quite the first but certainly the best of the New Year celebrations. In Sydney Harbour, there was a perfect, iconic backdrop for this young, 212 year-old nation to captivate the whole planet. Sydney was also months away from hosting the Olympic Games and it was clear that the opportunity to demand the world’s attention was not going to be missed. Thanks to rolling news channels, the ‘SYD|NYE’ celebrations have subsequently become a highlight of New Year’s Eve: truly ‘appointment television’ – at 1pm every December 31st if you’re in the UK.
With an ever-increasing roster of live TV coverage from the place (NRL matches, Big Bash League, news throws to Australian Correspondents, even I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!), it became easier to work out the time differences and transpose the seasons. For years, I’d taught myself: New York – five hours behind; California – eight. To that I could add: Sydney – nine hours ahead in our summer, eleven in winter. Melbourne – same; Brisbane – forget the daylight saving; Adelaide – half an hour behind Melbourne; Perth – three hours behind Sydney.
By now, the fact of simply knowing people who lived there seemed to make the concept of Australia as accessible in the mind as other, closer countries. And there was a growing number of them: emigrating friends, business contacts, returning visitors. With the rise of social media, the divide was narrowing further still. When we saw headlines of flooding in Queensland or wildfires in New South Wales, it was no longer abstract; it meant something to someone you know – often potentially life-threatening.
And so, when the opportunity arose for us to make our own Grand Tour of this beguiling place, it was impossible to resist. It’s never not a big deal to go that far so we felt we needed to tick some serious bucket-list stuff. We went in December 2017, timed perfectly to take in (you’ve guessed it) a Boxing Day Ashes Test in Melbourne, a New Year in Sydney Harbour and a bit of snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef. It was an unbelievable two-and-a-half weeks, perfectly deserving of the description “once-in-a-lifetime” – although I do hope that proves to be inaccurate.
What made it even more special was the connection I now had with the place that the 14 year-old me could never have imagined possible. It’s a wonderful thing to realise daydreams and experience sights that were once so seemingly unreachable. It’s quite another when the place itself is not so alien or remote. Melbourne is now amongst my favourite cities and the MCG is every bit as awesome as I wanted it to be but it ‘feels’ infinitely more connected to me because we’re fortunate to have friends who live there. Being greeted at a faraway airport by a familiar face was a memory just as special as everything we’d planned to do. Similarly, Sydney may be jaw-droppingly beautiful but the same sense of connection is also there, thanks to just being able to arrange a meal out with friends in Darling Harbour – or to simply ‘pop in’ to see other friends in the Blue Mountains.
We did as much as, I think, it was possible to do in those 17 days and, inevitably, there’s so much left to see. Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Uluru, Tasmania, Bondi Beach are all on the still-to-do list, as is one other glaring omission…
Disclaimer: You have to remember we had only five days in Melbourne and hadn’t hired a car. We landed on 23rd December and half that day was written off with jet-lag (if you know…you know!). The next day, Christmas Eve, was spent walking around the city. We’d obviously made plans for Christmas Day and we soaked up the summer sunshine of the (to Northern hemisphere eyes) counter-intuitive Australian Christmas. Boxing Day was spent at the “G”, with 90-odd thousand others, watching cricket. Our final morning was spent mooching about central Melbourne: the Sea Life Centre and the Eureka Tower, before we caught the train at Flinders Street Station, to Frankston, to meet up with our old adopted-Melburnian mate, who’d offered to drive us to Phillip Island, to see the Penguin Parade – something you simply have to do if you’re ever in Melbourne!
Have you spotted our omission yet? Sadly, we didn’t have time to venture out to Pin Oak Court – the real life name of ‘Ramsay Street’ – situated about eight miles east of the city centre. The closest I got to considering it was as we looked out over the sprawling suburbs from the top of the Eureka Tower. If I’m honest, I’d ‘moved on’ from Neighbours, years ago. It had served its purpose, both as adolescent entertainment and as a portal to another world. Thanks, in no small part, to the 1980s residents of ‘Erinsborough’, I was there, looking at it – sort of – from 975 feet up.
For many years, I loved watching Neighbours and I was so pleased to see all the old sentiments stirred in its final episode – there was no way I was going to miss that! I felt it was precisely the ‘victory lap’ that the show deserved. What became more important was the real legacy it left me – the door it opened to a fascinating land. And, thanks to the march of time and the increasing ability to connect every part the planet, even people on the other side of the world can be as much a part of your life as those who live in the same street.
That’s when good friends feel like close neighbours…
My email to Simon Mayo & Mark Kermode on the occasion of their last ‘Wittertainment’ film review show on BBC 5Live…
Dear “Goodnight From Me” and “Goodnight From Him”,
I like to think of myself as a LTL (approx. 13 years) but, this being a church, I’m aware that there will always be those, ‘holier-than-thou’ sorts in the front pews who would claim that such a figure makes me, at best, an MTL johnny-come-lately. Irrespective of that, I’d like to thank you for well over a decade of film-based entertainment and belonging that I’ve rarely experienced in all my years as a consumer of content elsewhere.
I must admit that, as a film-review-curious listener in the late noughties, I’d once decided I couldn’t listen to the analysis of a Contributor who was prone to outrageously self-aggrandising phrases like “there are other opinions – but they’re all wrong”. Someone who, it was suggested, looked like both Mark Lamarr and Jesse Birdsall but who seemed to have even less of Lamarr’s accessible warmth or, indeed, Birdsall’s easy charm. Even though the show’s Presenter was that vanilla guy from Radio 1 and ToTP, this show felt like it could only add disharmony and discontent to an already perfectly lovely Friday afternoon.
I’m not sure what was the cause of my Damascene conversion but when it came, I quickly found myself utterly hooked. Perhaps it was the regular in-jokes, combined with a healthy irreverence towards corporate mainstream cinema – ‘Matthew Mahogany’ and ‘Orloomdo Bland’ were notable examples of the genre. Undoubtedly, the reaction and involvement of the audience (complete with their impressive qualifications) established this as a club worth joining. Increasingly, I began to download and save podcasts for long drives – much to the regular consternation of The Good Lady National Accounts Manager ‘Er Indoors.
Over many subsequent years, this addiction has allowed me to discover that the appeal of a good movie show was not simply about citing obscure, nerdy trivia or making fatuous comparisons, beguiling as all that can be. I learned about the importance of the ‘Five Laugh Rule’ – which became adjusted for inflation to the ‘Six Laugh Rule’ – and I learned to listen to films as much as watch them, to find their references and metaphors in all the places beyond merely the dialogue.
I’d like to thank you for giving me the notion of analysing “the heart” of a film, for explaining how science fiction is designed to be a lens through which to examine the most fundamental aspects of humanity and for instilling the appreciation that an ambitious idea that falters is far better than a safe one that succeeds. In all instances, these lessons apply not just to stories played out on film, but to life itself.
Along the way, I’ve become unable to watch most Harry Potter films without interjecting a “Hello!” (code-compliantly) whenever Mr. Isaacs appears on screen, I’ve become much more sensitive to the avoidance of spoilers (even ghosts and sledges) and I believe I’ve learned more about ‘The Exorcist’ than I will ever need to know.
I’d also like to thank you, belatedly, for the most enjoyable lawn-mowing session of all time – as fate decreed that mowing the lawn was what I would be doing when I pressed ‘Play’ on that most hallowed Kermodian rant: the review of ‘Transformers 2’ in June 2013. Like the assassination of JFK, all who experienced it will forever remember where they were when it happened.
And so, as this particular story comes to the end of its Second (or possibly First) Act, the time has come for me to have to refer to my fruit-based device to see how and where I may find the next port of call of the cruise liner that is the Good Ship Wittertainment. I’m sorry that it will not be on Five Live. Even if it was an Itch that occasionally needed scratching, It seems that Crossing The Streams was indeed as “bad” as we were warned it would be, by another Good Doctor, all those years ago.
The last 13 years of being a Wittertainee have flown by but, at risk of achieving total protonic reversal, I must say that, thanks to you both (and all the supply teachers and producers) I have enjoyed myself – and I see that it is, indeed, later than I think.
31 years ago today, I boarded an Aeroflot plane to Moscow, which was then still the capital city of the USSR. Over the next two weeks, I came to understand Russia, her people, history, culture & politics, far beyond the constraints of my Cold War-era preconceptions.
I’d grown up as a child of my time, watching American (and British) films which always seemed to depict “the Russkies” as ‘the bad guys’. I’d seen many news stories about this mysterious place and its lack of freedom and visibility in a world where technological advances were making everywhere else increasingly available. I’d watched sporting contests involving well-drilled, serious-looking athletes, all with ‘CCCP’ on their chests – except when they weren’t boycotting them for reasons I didn’t fully understand.
As a 9 year-old, I’d watched – horrified – ‘QED – A Guide to Armageddon’ (about the expected effects of a nuclear strike on British soil) the night that the BBC had transmitted it on prime time TV. I was so affected by it that, when the USSR beat England 2-0 at Wembley a year or so later, I’d concluded that it was probably for the best that we’d let them win. Out of fascination with this other-world, I’d bought ‘Nikita’ by Elton John – and then bought into the narrative of ‘Rocky IV’ that, despite the state-funded cheating of Ivan Drago’s boxing team, “If I can change…and you can change…everybody can change!”
My 1991 trip was part of a Winstanley College student exchange programme – the second-ever British exchange of its type, we were told. I stayed with “Mike” in his family’s apartment in a Moscow suburb of neat apartment blocks and tree-lined public spaces. His mum was lovely. She must have queued for far longer than I’ll ever know to buy some Earl Grey tea for me, thinking it was what any English person would prefer (I’d never had it in my life and committed the cardinal sin of taking it with milk). His dad was quiet but kindly – looking back, both his parents would have been curious about the ways I, a “Westerner” would have challenged the preconceptions of their generation who’d grown up in Stalin’s Soviet Union. His sister was lovely and her husband gave me the jacket from his Russian army uniform.
Muscovite life was like that of any other city: bustling, energetic and fast-paced. More than anywhere else I’ve been, I found it a very physical place. People physically barged each other in crowds and you had to be most careful of little old women with sharp elbows – as I learned to my discomfort one afternoon. Like New Yorkers, Parisians and Londoners, they were both dismissive of their city’s iconic sites and proud to see the reactions they elicited in others.
We visited the Kremlin, Star City, Leningrad (as it was then), a cavalcade of churches and ‘Summer Residences’. We went to the Moscow State Circus (which, disturbingly, featured a 9-foot trained bear) and the Opera House (to see Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’). We stood in Red Square, marvelled at St. Basil’s Cathedral, wandered through the GUM shopping arcade, drove past the Bolshoi ballet, saw the queues around the square at McDonald’s and watched wedding photos at the point where the road rises above the Moscow river, opposite the 1980 Olympic stadium, with the cityscape in the background. In Leningrad, we visited the Hermitage, drove down Nevsky Prospect, crossed the Neva and admired the gleaming spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
We were liberated teenagers in the land the world associated least with freedom: we had house parties, hotel room parties and sleeper train carriage parties. We bribed Leningrad hotel staff with small amounts of US dollars for whole cases of Russian champagne and stored the bottles in a bath, full of cold water. At the age of 17, it was a true rite-of-passage experience.
At the time, Gorbachev was still in power, firmly within the era of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’. Six months later, the old Union would crumble under the falling iron curtain and Boris Yeltsin would lead a new Russia into democracy – a change that will have scared many of the people I met, who’d grown up under the old certainties of life under communism. Sadly the transition also represented an opportunity for corruption that no stable democracy would ever tolerate and, with Yeltsin’s passing, a new generation of oligarchs (no-one ever mentions that the word is from the Latin for ‘few rulers’) had already claimed the vast resources of the Russian state.
At the centre of this web of deception was Putin, the ex-KGB bureaucrat who’d ingratiated his way into Yeltsin’s circle. He appropriated the ‘will of the people’, rigging elections, altering limits on constitutional powers, controlling the media and reverting Russia to totalitarian rule while being a democracy in name only. Only this was never about ideology: any kind of vision, however misguided, of how Russia should be; this was only about enrichment. Unimaginable self-enrichment, the rewarding of his tame oligarchs to maintain his own position, and the wholesale, industrial theft of the resources of the largest country in the world from its own people. And now, sadly, the same deluded actions of a ruthless dictator that we all thought we’d left in the past.
I think about Mike every day. His family, friends, the others I met in March 1991. Some will have been duped into supporting Putin, others will be quietly hoping for another revolution. I wish them all well – they’re all Putin’s victims, whether they know and accept it or not.
Five or six years ago, I was in a café in southern France and ordered a ‘thé au lait’. The waitress told me that they had no English breakfast tea left – but they did have Earl Grey. Remembering my personal connection, I ordered it – without the milk – and was instantly transported back over a quarter of a century and half a continent away to the last time I’d had it. I don’t have Earl Grey very often, but when I do, I’m always reminded of Mike’s welcoming home.
Today, I’m thinking about Mike’s mum and everyone else I met in Russia, wishing all those under Putin’s control the strength and happiness they deserve. Whether Russian, Ukrainian or Westerner, we’re all being plunged into the same fears and uncertainties of a time we’d all thought was locked in the past. Until Putin is removed and a new era of ‘glasnost’ is allowed, Russians will once again be denied the sight of two dozen British teens, drunk on ‘champansky’ – which doesn’t often sound like much of a loss but it was once a symptom of a much friendlier, more optimistic world.
I wish I could find the pictures I have of that visit – or the army jacket that was too small for me even then. I only have one, terrible photo of me in Red Square to prove that I was ever there, which you may have seen in my ‘Message to Russian Friends‘ post. I wish I could believe this is a short-term fracturing of the West’s relationship with Russia. I wish I was able to make plans to go back there one day. I wish I could offer Russians more support than this blogpost, clouded, as it is, by the grey mist of time and the red mist of anger.
Just know that I’m raising a cup of Earl Grey to you all. Спасибо.
Надеюсь, вы понимаете это. Одна из немногих фраз на русском языке, которую я помню из своего визита в Москву и Санкт-Петербург в 1991 году, это «Мой русский очень плохой». Сегодня мой русский так же плох, но у меня есть Google, чтобы помочь мне перевести.
События на Украине волнуют весь мир. Я уверен, что они беспокоят и вас. Все военные конфликты связаны с болью и страданиями. Все мы люди и мы это понимаем.
Я также надеюсь, что вы понимаете, почему мир обеспокоен. Мы знаем, что Путин ошибается, вторгаясь в Украину, и мы знаем, что он лжет вам. Он называет это «Спецоперацией», но вы должны знать, что это война.
Эта «операция» по любому определению является войной, но Путин никому не позволяет называть это войной. Теперь есть более серьезные наказания для любого, кто сообщает новости таким образом, который Путин не хочет видеть. Иностранные информационные агентства закрывают свои московские офисы, чтобы защитить своих сотрудников, и вполне вероятно, что Facebook и Twitter будут заблокированы российским государством.
Я понимаю, что ваши СМИ будут говорить вам, что Украина является агрессором по отношению к своим сепаратистам и что НАТО навязывает русскому народу «западные ценности».
Вы должны знать, что в ООН 141 из 193 государств-членов проголосовали за резолюцию с осуждением России и призывом к ее уходу из Украины. Речь идет не о НАТО и даже не о «Западе» (что бы это ни значило). Когда большая часть остального мира недовольна действиями одной страны, проблема, скорее всего, будет в лидере этой страны.
Как «западник», я могу сказать вам, что меня не волнует, что мои «ценности» навязываются какой-либо другой стране, и даже если бы я это сделал, я бы ожидал, что Apple или Netflix сделают это гораздо успешнее, чем НАТО. Пожалуйста, спросите, почему вам все это рассказывают. Это не имеет смысла, потому что все это ложь.
Будем честны. Люди во всем мире просто хотят жить в мирном мире. Большинство из нас на самом деле не заботятся о политике и странах; мы просто хотим счастливой жизни. Пожалуйста, не поддавайтесь влиянию того, что другие говорят вам об остальном мире. Мы понимаем, что русские люди не такие, как Путин, но чтобы оправдать его действия, ему нужно, чтобы вы поверили, что в других странах полно людей, которые вас ненавидят. Как и все остальное, что он говорит, это просто неправда.
Мы беспокоимся за Украину, но, пожалуйста, знайте, что мы беспокоимся и за вас. Никто из нас не знает, как долго Путин сможет продержаться, но чем больше вы не верите его лжи, тем меньше у него власти над вами.
Мои самые наилучшие пожелания всем вам,
A Message for Russian Friends
I hope you can understand this. One of the few phrases of Russian that I remember from my visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1991 is “My Russian is very bad”. Today, my Russian is just as bad but I have Google to help me translate.
The events in Ukraine are worrying the whole world. I’m sure they worry you too. All military conflict involves pain and misery. We’re all human and we understand that.
I also hope you understand just why the world is worried. We know Putin is wrong to invade Ukraine and we know he’s lying to you. He calls it a “Special Operation” but you should know that it is a war.
By any definition, this “operation” is a war – but Putin does not allow anyone to call it a war. There are now greater penalties for anyone who reports the news in any way that Putin does not wish to see. Foreign news agencies are closing their Moscow offices to protect their staff and it’s likely that Facebook and Twitter will be blocked by the Russian state.
I understand that your media will be telling you that Ukraine are the aggressors towards its separatists and that NATO is forcing “western values” on the Russian people.
You should know that, at the United Nations, 141 of the 193 member states voted for a resolution to condemn Russia and call for it to withdraw from Ukraine. This is not about NATO or even “The West” (whatever that means). When most of the rest of the world has a problem with the actions of one country, the leader of that country is likely to be the problem.
As a ‘Westerner’, I can tell you that I don’t care about my “values” being forced on any other country – and even if I did, I would expect Apple or Netflix to do that far more successfully than NATO. Please question why you’re being told all this. It doesn’t make sense because it is all a lie.
Let’s be honest. People all over the world just want to live in a peaceful world. Most of us don’t really care about politics and countries; we just want a happy life. Please don’t be swayed by what others tell you about the rest of the world. We understand that Russian people are not the same thing as Putin – but to justify his actions, he needs you to believe that other countries are full of people who hate you. Like everything else he says, it’s just not true.
We’re worried for Ukraine but please know that we’re also worried for you. None of us know how long Putin can last but the more you disbelieve his lies, the less power he will have over you.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to wish a friend “good luck” as they compete at the Olympic Games, so I had the very great pleasure of sending my very best of wishes to Carlos Parro of Brazil – as he competed with his ride, Goliath, at the Tokyo Olympics.
With a young horse against a formidable field and an almost all-conquering Great Britain team, Carlos and Goliath battled the heat, the fences and the occasion to finish 32nd on a score of 62.90.
The effect of the year’s delay on this Games means the next shot at Olympic glory will be in Paris in just three years time – meaning Goliath should be a much more mature prospect by then. Of course, any eventer would add to that, ‘injuries permitting’ because this is such a demanding sport and very little can be taken for granted, even from one month to the next.
July 7th was the twentieth anniversary of this photograph being taken: Helen and me, sitting on the terraces of the old Lansdowne Road, with friends, about to watch a Robbie Williams concert after an all-day drinking session in Dublin.
What Helen doesn’t know at this point is that in the right-hand pocket of my cargo shorts, I have an engagement ring, fully prepared to be deployed during one of the slower numbers.
What I don’t know at this point is that before the main event even begins, Helen and Mel will run off, onto the pitch and disappear into a crowd of tens of thousands. I then have to chase after them and spend the entire gig, on tip-toes, unsuccessfully trying to find them, becoming increasingly disheartened with each passing slow number.
I did eventually manage to pop the question, hours after the gig, in the least romantic way imaginable, involving at least one expletive.
Despite this experience, it’s still the best decision I’ve ever made. We’ve had some amazing times since then, a wonderful son, three dogs and some great friends. I like to think of our engagement ‘misadventure’ as a perfect metaphor for life:
1) Not everything goes as planned.
2) Don’t forget to live in the moment.
3) If you’re not prepared to deal with the unexpected by facing it together, how will you ever know how good it can be?
My speech was entitled ‘How to Run a Successful Equine Business in a Recession’ and, as a speaker, I was asked to meet Princess Anne afterwards – she was very complimentary, by the way. Every year since, I believe the event has returned to its usual venue of the Mechanical Engineers’ Institute on Birdcage Walk (although this year’s event was, of course, virtual) which means I’m also able to say that I’ve spoken at The Royal Society, the very epicentre of science since 1663. From Benjamin Franklin to Charles Darwin to Tim Berners-Lee, the list of people who could say the same is about as illustrious as one can imagine.
A couple of years later, rather less-than-illustriously, the laptop I’d written it on gave up the ghost and died on me. I hadn’t backed it up and, by the time I came to rebuild the data on its replacement, I thought I’d lost the speech. As Edmund Blackadder once exclaimed, ‘Bugger!’
Fast-forward to this morning when I was searching through my archives to find an elusive file for a thing I was doing and what do you know, badly filed in the darkest recesses of a subfolder entitled ‘Meetings’, I found it!
Obviously a lot has changed in the last ten years so I found myself reading it with slightly gritted teeth, hoping that it hadn’t aged terribly. I’m pleased to say that not only was that not the case but the points raised seem as relevant today as they did a decade ago when the world was, in so many ways, such a different place.
Anyway, without further ado, here’s the speech. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it – and perhaps rather more so than I did delivering it…
How to Run a Successful Equine Business in a Recession
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for asking me to come to speak to you today on what was originally going to be the grand and far-reaching title: “How to run a successful business in a recession”. When I first heard that title, I wondered if I should presume to pontificate on such a topic.
By adding the modifier ‘equine business’, the subject moves away from the standard and the mainstream towards the niche, the specialist, the quirky – which is an area I’m much more familiar with!
I also feel that the very notion of an ‘equine’ modifier is something of theme in itself – to which I will return: The distinction, if there is one, between ‘our world’ and ‘the rest of the world’.
I’m sure the academics amongst you would expect a well-prepared student to gain extra marks by attempting to substantiate or even challenge the premise of a question before going on to answer it.
The most problematic of all the terms in the title is the word ‘recession’. Firstly, the UK is not technically in a recession, as I speak – although we’re still wary of a ‘double dip’ taking hold. Whether or not the equine economy is in recession, nobody really knows and yet, for a “£4bn economy”, it strikes me that we should know much more than we currently do. We have a variety of surveys but no real indices of performance.
Does recession put us at most at risk of belt-tightening or will our customers deny themselves everything but their horse? Are any more people taking up riding today or are many riders walking away? I really don’t know. No organisation seems to be measuring these effects in any meaningful way. Whatever is being measured, could certainly be better shared.
Regrettably, there is almost no regular, independent data about the equestrian retail economy. We piece together a permanently changing hypothesis, based on our own experiences and morsels of information from trusted suppliers.
I can’t claim to be too frustrated by this, as it has always been thus but I am a little envious when I see more concerted attempts to quantify the ongoing performance of other specialist markets.
I’d also question what our definition of ‘successful’ is these days. Significant growth is usually the simplest determinant but in the current circumstances, many would argue that profitability will do just fine. To others, it may even be just surviving in business for another year.
If this sounds unambitious, I would urge you to leaf through the Plimsoll Report on our Industry. It paints a grim picture of an industry seemingly over-populated by mediocrity and apparently tolerant of the reduced margins that accompany an over-supplied and stagnant market.
In the quest for success in any economic environment, I’d say that businesses have only three basic forces that operate on us, over which we have some control. The economist’s twin favourites of Supply and Demand are there – as well as the bit in the middle, Operations.
Our Supply trade is still something of a cottage industry which remains heavily skewed towards the small operator. It seems that we are only now at the beginning of a period of consolidation that has been in effect over the last two or three decades in other, comparable, specialist markets, such as the camping and cycling markets.
In a downturn, difficulties are most keenly felt by those who are smallest or least professional – and I appreciate that those two terms do not mean the same thing.
It’s important, then, that every company should tread very carefully in their dealings with any suppliers that are the most susceptible to the icy economic winds. There are too many small companies offering too many alternatives of similar products, resulting in too much undifferentiated competition and resultant commoditisation.
This magnifies the risks of suppliers’ difficulties adversely affecting retailers who placed too much reliance upon them.
Whatever the economic climate, it’s always good business sense to think very carefully before deciding about which suppliers to appoint and which to retain. In a recession, that process becomes even more crucial.
Your operations, literally, are everything you do and ‘you’ is the operative word here. It’s the area over which you have the greatest control. You can have an effect on your processes simply by deciding to have an effect on them. Suppliers and customers can be influenced but very few companies would ever claim to be able to control either party.
In the good times, there is always the reassurance that growth is there to be achieved, as long as it can then be handled. Whether it’s extra computing power, a new fork-lift truck or an administrative position, these are significant step-changes that accompany linear growth. You can very often go from struggling to cope without the resource in question to struggling to justify having it when it arrives. Generally, as long as the problem your new resource leaves you with is better than the alternative you’ve avoided, you’ve made the right decision.
As the economic cycle slowly turns, aspirations for the future are not as easily funded – every resource needs to be justified by the present, in case that’s all you can reasonably expect. If that means the fork-lift goes back and the admin tasks need to be shared out again, that’s not an admission of failure, it’s just a recognition that the context has changed.
The level of demand is expected to reduce in a downturn. When demand reduces, it risks becoming outstripped by supply and so, prices must fall. You must lower your prices and in doing so, probably your margins. It’s simple economics.
Well, I can’t wholly say that’s not true but I can say it’s not the whole truth. Simple economic effects will only be solely in evidence when the world is full of simple economists and, happily, that’s still not the case. The Marketing world is a much subtler and more nuanced place to live than the Economist’s world. We also deal in products that are decisions of the heart more than they are of the head and with customers who have a living, breathing horse to care for rather than an asset to maintain and protect.
Yes, price competitiveness is perhaps of greater importance today but companies ignore at their peril the importance of customer service, whatever the market conditions. Reducing prices and margins is not an adequate justification for also reducing efforts to build a positive customer relationship. If all around are losing their heads in this regard, now is exactly the time to make sure you care more about your customers, if you want to see them more often.
We pay attention to the price points for each category of product we sell. It won’t shock you to learn that we sold far fewer rugs over £100 last year, compared to the year before. Nor will you be astounded to hear that rugs under £50 were much, much more popular over the same period. Such effects have only to be monitored as closely as possible in order that an ongoing strategy can be formulated around them. The effects may seem fairly obvious, but with the benefit of a few specific numbers, you can be surprised to see by how much these ‘obvious’ effects are in evidence.
The absolute favourite tactic of retailers everywhere to stimulate demand without appearing to reduce prices is ‘Bundling’ and it’s used everywhere: 3 for 2 offers, starter kits, family packs and software packages.
Bundling does come at a reduction in margin – the lower unit cost is what makes it attractive to the customer – but it’s a means of eliciting more value more quickly. Who really needs a stock of three bottles of shampoo in their bathroom? Or, for that matter, two? We’ve grown used to it because as consumers, we’ve agreed that if we pay up front for more stuff, we get even more of it free.
I appreciate that not all business are too concerned with issues such as holding stock but even service sector businesses need to understand that price points are vital to continuing to attract customers who now can’t justify the prices they used to pay. If the price tag is the barrier, offer reduced options that are cheaper but at the same margin, one-hour riding lessons instead of two, that sort of thing.
If you want an example of service bundling, how about that idea that was invented to keep football teams afloat in the years before sponsorship and television money – the season ticket?
Whatever the state of the economy, businesses always have to perform or eventually, they will cease to exist. Recession merely brings a heightening of this ever-present reality, a greater possibility that your company will fail. At the same time, it brings a greater possibility that your competitors will fail, which in turn presents extra possibilities that your company will succeed. We tend to think of Opportunity and threat as polar opposites but they never exist in isolation of each other.
I mentioned earlier a theme: the curious relationship between the ‘horsey’ and the ‘non-horsey’. If we are truly to achieve success for equestrian businesses, I must take this opportunity to impress upon us all to better engage with all those in our world and become more inclusive to those from the wider world.
The sphere we inhabit is different from the wider, mainstream world and yet it is a subset of that world. In the horse, we share a key differentiating factor from the rest of the world. We believe it gives us a common reference point and a set of shared values that are distinct to the non-horsey world.
It’s very reassuring to see the equine community gathering together on occasions such as this but like any community, we must acknowledge that ours has had its fair share of net-curtain-twitching and perhaps even the occasional garden-fence squabble over the years. With all that in mind, one might take the view there is less solidarity across our community than we’d like to think.
One might go further and conclude that the very notion of a single, convenient ‘equine’ umbrella to distance ourselves jointly and defiantly from the rest of the world seems more than a little illusory. ‘Riding’ is really a multifarious, mongrel construct, made up of a slew of different disciplines and, of course, the unaligned, much-maligned ‘happy hackers’.
Even if the horse does define us all as an extended family, such a kinship is both a blessing and a curse. Like an island community, we very often seem to draw comfort and strength from our differences from the ‘mainlanders’ who “don’t understand our ways” and we are often quick to highlight our differences from the mainstream.
I’ve heard many ridiculous statements over the years like “horsey people don’t have time for the internet” or “our customers don’t want that kind of service – they can get that at ASDA”.
If you looked at our customer database – of over a quarter of a million people – you’d see that many of them live in normal houses in suburbs or even towns and cities. You’d know that most of them are able to use the internet and you’d conclude that when they’re not around horses, they like to immerse themselves in the subversive counter-culture by visiting such places as Tesco, McDonalds, IKEA…even Primark. I would add that many of them wondered what all the fuss was about during the hunting debate and a significant proportion even believes, quite firmly, that hunting should remain banned.
It’s very easy to overlook the huge number of riders and horse owners who, rather inconveniently, don’t care about any of the disciplines and wouldn’t recognise a British Olympic rider if they met one while out on a hack. This part of the market, our customers, our community views their horse, as an escape from the rest of the world, not as an outward expression of belonging to an artificially-constructed ‘horse world’ or, heaven forbid, any reason to indulge in competitive activity.
Should that really be such a surprise to us? Do we really want our community to consist solely ‘the right sort’ of people if it is to flourish? Can we afford to be too choosy in a recession? In fact, forget the economy. Do we dare risk turning away the very people who may even assure the future of equestrian sport itself?
I’ve always felt that above all else, business in general – but retail in particular – demands and thrives on brutal honesty. If too few people are visiting your shop, who or what do you blame? The weather? The economy? The Government? Suppliers? Perhaps even the stubbornly unco-operative customers themselves? There comes a point where you have to accept that by doing things differently yourself, you can improve the situation.
Honesty itself won’t add a penny onto your revenue but it has a strange habit of pointing you towards the ideas that do put more money in the till.
As a marketer, it’s natural, even tempting to want to segment the market in which one operates and the horse world with its myriad of different sports seems ideally suited to this.
What can be less easy to do is to gain that same level of connection with all customers at the same time, from those who would define themselves by their chosen discipline but crucially, also those whose passion is just as fulfilled by ‘looking after’.
Faced with this challenge, the few elements that I’ve observed to be truly common across the whole of the horse world appear to be grooming, mucking out and a compulsion to support anyone who helps horses. A common denominator seems to be to do with clearing up a mess of one sort or another. It strikes me that it neatly highlights a necessary pragmatism that defines those who spend their time around the horse and it’s very similar to the kind of pragmatism that seems to me to be one of the most vital factors in achieving success in any business at any time, not just an equestrian business in a recession.
I’ve learned to become tolerant of shopkeepers’ misplaced apostrophes on the pluralised goods offered on their signs. My blood pressure now barely registers a response to seeing yet another failed attempt on Facebook to arrive at the correct there/their/they’re form. I even try not to roll my eyes whenever I hear contestants on ‘Pointless’ answering Xander’s “What do you do?’ question with “So…I’m a <insert job title>”.
I know I should do better. Yes, poor punctuation, lazy misuse of homophones and sentences beginning with prepositions are all, strictly speaking, ‘wrong’ but I also accept the argument that English, like any healthy language is permanently evolving – an advantage it maintains over its more atrophied cousins, German and French. Let’s also recognise that we tend to celebrate the genius, rather than castigate the hooliganism of a certain William Shakespeare who, when the language constrained him, simply made up the word he wanted to use, bestowing dozens of virgin terms to the lexicon. I like and admire Stephen Fry and I try to follow his example of celebrating the freedom of the language rather than condescendingly policing those who succumb to its technical imperfections. Put simply, I’m trying to be a better type of pedant.
I freely admit that some breaches of the grammar code bother me less than others, for reasons beyond my explanation. I can’t seem to summon the same objective ire whenever I consider the famously irregular ‘Star Trek’ line: to boldly split the infinitive where no television show has split it before. I’ve even managed to allow myself the licence to end the odd sentence with a preposition. To paraphrase Churchill, this is the sort of English up with which I will sometimes put.
I really do try to be less judgemental and I acknowledge my lack of consistency in the way I choose to prioritise ‘the rules’. And yet there are still examples that I consider to be beyond the pale.
Consider the fate of the word ‘likely’. It’s likely that you might not have done until this point. The likely upshot of me shoe-horning it into another part of this sentence is making it more likely that you’ll stop reading, isn’t it?
Please abide with the over-use. I’m doing it for a reason. Let’s re-run the above paragraph with each gratuitous use of the word ‘likely’ replaced by the adjective ‘probable’.
Consider the fate of the word ‘likely’. It’s probable that you might not have done until this point. The probable upshot of me shoe-horning it into another part of this sentence is making it more probable that you’ll stop reading, isn’t it?
It works. The words are interchangeable because they’re both adjectives – describing words, to use the teachers’ vernacular that you may dimly remember from school. Unfortunately, the word ‘likely’ has a weakness, a design flaw that has led to its wanton misuse – an escalating level of abuse that is likely to show no sign of slowing.
Here’s the problem: the word ‘likely’ is, I think, fairly unusual in that it is an adjective – a word that describes a thing – that ends with the letters ‘ly’. Cast your mind back to that English lesson in which you learned about the adverb – a word that describes a verb. It’s the word form that mostly ends with the letters ‘ly’. Or, to put it more illustratively, mostly, adverbs are identifiably evident by their most commonly seen characteristic.
Remember the replacement exercise above? The adverbial form of ‘probable’ is (of course) ‘probably’. The rules of grammar stipulate that you can’t replace an adjective with an adverb. This is not a denial of your human rights, it’s just a fact. See what happens:
Consider the fate of the word ‘likely’. It’s probably that you might not have done until this point. The probably upshot of me shoe-horning it into another part of thissentence is making it more probably that you’ll stop reading, isn’t it?
Clearly, ‘clearly’ is an adverb but, equally clearly, ‘likely’ is not. And yet the word finds itself repeatedly, undeservingly, incorrectly pressed into such service. It should all be so…well, unlikely.
It may not come as the greatest surprise to learn that this particular disruption to the mother tongue is largely American in influence. For a number of years, the phrase “[X] will likely [do Y]” has peppered American news reports. We’re well aware that Americans long ago decided to spell things wrong on purpose and we’ve seen for some time how advertising has seen the need to wage war on adverbs, for colloquial impact and to save those two extra, cumbersome characters – hence, ‘Eat Fresh”, “Drive Smug” etc.
Unfortunately for our hero, rolling news is, by definition, largely speculative in manner, there’s therefore lots of scope to use, incessantly, any word that conveys uncertainty or inconclusiveness – creating the perfect conditions for this linguistic mutation to take hold in the vernacular.
This has, in turn, enabled a generation of British journalists who prefer shorter words, want to sound more ‘current’ or who simply know no better, to neglect to defend the Queen’s English and yield to the lexicological inexactitude around them.
To its credit, wiktionary deals with the adverbial use of ‘likely’ under its ‘Etymology 2’ heading, rather pejoratively stating “The adverb is a US usage and does not appear in British English except under direct influence of US practice” and asserting that it is “poor style and an artificial, sometimes pretentious way to imply a sense of erudition”. Conversely, the Cambridge Dictionary states more neutrally that “In American English, and more and more in British English, likely is used as a mid-position adverb (like probably in British English), most commonly between will and a main verb”.
We appear to be at a crossroads, in which some in the field of linguistics consider it to be a vulgarity and others a natural progression. It is, essentially, the same argument that purists and pragmatists have waged since well before Shakespeare’s day. The difference is that Shakespeare knew he was concocting a new word – the key tenet of so-called ‘poetic licence’ is that you have to know the rules in order to break them.
I wish I was able to extend such an appreciation to all who interchange an adjective ending in ‘ly’ with an adverb. I wish it bothered me less. We’re all to some extent inconsistent with the bits of English that we preserve and those we choose to reject. Very few people today use the once standard form of the word ‘to-day’, myself excluded, and yet I find I’m still a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to apostrophes used at the beginning of archaic contractions such as ‘phone, ‘flu or ’twas – to the amazement and, occasionally, the consternation of others.
I know the vast majority of people don’t care enough to worry about stuff like this. I suppose to most of us, language is simply a toolbox to be used as required to fulfil a purpose, unencumbered by precedent or prejudice. I still can’t help but see our mother tongue as an heirloom, a thing of value, handed down to be used and respected, upheld and preserved, As much as I accept the need for language to evolve, I suspect I’ll always be wedded to its sense of permanence, even where it has become fossilised. Does this mean I’ll ever be happy to blur the lines between adjective and adverb, between British English and American English, or succumb to democratic change and reflect the new ways some words are used?
Last week, while out dog-walking, I came across kestrel perching on a hedge and then swooping down to find small prey on a patch of grass.
More than anything else, I felt very aware of our proximity to this regular visitor, much closer than the perimeter at which a wild bird would normally take flight. Unperturbed by our presence, she used her position to survey the nearby patch of field, frequently swooping down to pick up a morsel and then duly flying back to the lookout position on the hedge line.
Occasionally, the bird would run about the ground, rather comically – her light-coloured, feathery upper legs emphasised by a brisk, clownish running style.
I’ve lived around kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) for nearly 40 years and I’m still in awe of their legendary ability to hover; their uncanny ability to ride the wind such that, however their body undulates, their head remains absolutely fixed to its precise coordinate. Of course, I’ve seen them perching and surveying before – usually atop telegraph poles or street lights – and it’s little surprise that from there, they will swoop down to intercept any prey they espy. In all that time, I’d never seen a kestrel so close to the ground, for so long, swooping so repetitively and actually running around on the grass.
I was intrigued by the hunting method she employed and I was a little concerned that this individual was either too hungry to hover or possibly even physically incapable. It’s November and it would be hardly surprising if food is less abundant. Worms and insects often have to make up for a shortfall in protein – but was there a reason why this kestrel, usually a master of the skies, should be reduced to hanging around the free buffet?
In it, Table 1 suggests that, over the winter months, farmland kestrels are almost twice as likely to ‘still-feed’ (from a perched position) than by hovering – with the proportions reversed over the summer months. It suggests (not unreasonably) that the need to conserve energy in harsher conditions is the main reason behind the change in strategy.
Hovering is, as you might assume, an energy-consuming activity, requiring kestrels to feed on upto eight small rodents a day, to survive. As long as food is abundant, their expert ability to hunt this way will sustain them. When it isn’t, they still-feed. Their legendary eyesight means that they can spot an insect from fifty yards.
Thanks to simply observing nature and hunting myself on the internet, I’ve learned something quite fundamental about a bird with which I considered myself to be quite familiar.
The real lesson is that we should never stop learning.
One of the reasons I was first attracted to the Tropic range of skincare products was the fact that it was inspired by the tropical coast of North Queensland in Australia. It’s a place that holds many happy memories for me.
In 2018, we were lucky enough to visit the area, to see the Great Barrier Reef. It was a true bucket-list ‘tick’ on an amazing holiday. The only reason I wouldn’t call it a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ is that I’d love to do it all again! We’d just spent Christmas in Melbourne and New Year’s Eve in Sydney, watching the world-famous firework display from a paddle steamer in the Harbour.
We’d been advised by Australian friends that the place to explore the Barrier Reef from is a town called Port Douglas, about an hour’s drive North of Cairns. We picked up our hire car and made our way up the coast road. The stunning scenery, the exotic vegetation and the perfect beaches you see whenever you read Tropic’s literature, or the Tropic website, all reminded me of that wonderful time in our lives.
We had an amazing time at Port Douglas, including a truly magical day snorkelling on the Barrier Reef. If you ever get the chance to go, I would advise that you say yes in a heartbeat. You’ll fall in love with its unique beauty and will never forget that you were part of this tropical paradise.
Maybe, like me, you’ll feel more connected with a range of skincare products that came from the area and that respect the natural world that places like the Barrier Reef require us to, more and more. Maybe the sight of a few palm trees will take you back to being in paradise and maybe you’ll feel a permanently connection with the place, even when you’re taking care of your skin.
A huge part of that commitment is the impact of packaging on the environment. In 2019, 0% of waste was sent to landfill and there’s a conscious effort to consider and maximise the effect of packaging on the environment. When a box of Tropic Skincare products arrives, there’s no damaging plastics to be seen and even the air-filled bubble-wrap that prevents products from being damaged in transit is made out of a specially bio-degradable, potato-based material.
As the message says, simply add this packaging material to your garden compost area, like any potato peelings, and it will simply compost down, helping wildlife – and your garden – to thrive!
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to go whale-watching, in Monterey Bay, California. We’re all now aware of the importance of keeping waste plastic out of the sea but the sight of humpback whales lunge-feeding in the wild was an emotional reminder that we should do all we can to minimise our effect on the sea – and everything that lives there!
On Sunday, the NRL’s Grand Final was played in front of nearly 40,000 fans at a deliberately half-full ANZ Stadium in Sydney and there are now no limits on sporting attendance in neighbouring New Zealand. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that a combination of circumstance and leadership quality has lead to this diametrically opposite outcome on the other side of the world.
I wish my Melburnian friends well after their sacrifices since July but, more fervently, I wish we in Europe were as disciplined as they have been.
In August, I got round to reading ‘From Grange Hill to Bipolar and Back’ by George Wilson. For those who don’t know, George is my wife Helen’s cousin – although you may know him better as ‘Ziggy’ from Grange Hill and ‘Little Jimmy’ from Brookside.
About eighteen months ago, he called me to ask for my thoughts on some things he’d been writing in a blog that had helped him to explain and overcome the mental health challenges he’s faced over the last 30 years. I immediately encouraged him to see if he could write enough material to turn it into a book and then to get it published. I felt strongly that his story is one that would be of great help to people, whether they suffer from, care for those with, or just feel under-informed about mental health issues.
I’m sure lots of others will have said the same to him but I knew that doing so would force him to confront some very dark memories – including being present at the Hillsborough disaster – and that’s a tough thing to ask of anyone, let alone someone with a history of mental ill-health. There would have been absolutely no shame in deciding that such a task was a step too far for him.
But he didn’t. He wrote the book and, towards the end of 2019, he got it published. In January, he went on ‘This Morning’ with Phil and Holly to publicise it. As the 2020 went on, the already important issue of mental health has become an increasingly hot topic.
On holiday in Italy, I finally read the book. As I expected, it’s unflinchingly honest and details a life of heady highs and shocking lows. I’d heard about a lot of these events before and, as a Grange Hill fan, I recognised the actor ‘George Christopher’ in many of the stories but, for the last 20-odd years, I’ve just known him as ‘George’ (although Helen still calls him “our Georgey”).
Last week, he posted on Facebook that he’d got a reply from Buckingham Palace, thanking him for the copy he sent to the Duke and Duchess (I presume of Cambridge – William and Catherine). He’s offered his assistance to them in their capacities as patrons of charities in the area of mental health.
I’m so proud of him for listening to me and to everyone else who encouraged him to write this book. I can’t begin to describe the admiration I have for him for actually writing it and I think he deserves every bit of recognition due to him as he continues to reduce the stigma of a condition that can affect any of us. The heir to the throne could do a lot, lot worse than enlist his help in some way.
Here’s his post of the letter he received from TRH. If you want a copy of his book, I’m not going to give you an amazon link for it – I’ll encourage you to contact George directly through FB and he’ll point you towards one. If you ask nicely, he might even sign it!
This month, I return to one of my favourite subjects – America. All my life, I have indeed been watching America, as the refrain goes. And as I write, the Razorlight analogy extends further because there is trouble and also panic in America.
I’ve been here before. On the eve of the 2016 election, I wrote a letter to my old friend, begging her not to fall under the spell of a man who would charm her in order to abuse her. As you know, she didn’t listen and… …well, let’s just say she’s feeling pretty used right now.
Another obsession I seem to have is for words. In particular their use (and abuse) as labels and, as far as I can deduce it, their etymology. One of the most fundamental principles of psychology, albeit one which is still hotly debated, is this: Language determines Thought. Using the very words that people use, I have always contended, it is possible to form a deeper understanding of them.
Let’s begin with that most American of words: Liberty. Like the statue that bears its name, the obsession with the principle is one with strong French connections – but one re-purposed into something uniquely star-spangled. As is frequently the case with the words we analyse, a greater insight can be gained from the words not used and so it appears to be the case here. As the American colonies were crystallising in their rejection of King George and taxation without representation, revolutionary France was discovering her penchant for Liberté – but as part of a tripartite, together with EgalitéetFraternité. Is it telling that America seems to have cherry-picked one over the others?
This seems less clear-cut on second glance. The cradle of the America we know today was Philadelphia, the site at which the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Tri-lingual word-nerds will instantly know that this city’s name was derived from the ancient Greek words phílos (beloved) and adelphós (brother) – hence its identification as ‘The City of Brotherly Love” – and that, just as France was nearing her revolution, the importance of fraternity was valued equally by both peoples.
And then we get to Egalité. The notion of equality in America has always been somewhat problematical – the fact that the declaration includes the phrase “that all men are created equal” seems to neatly encapsulate America’s rather variable approach to a construct that is supposed to be, by definition, a constant.
Whatever their reasons, by 1886, when France chose to bestow a gift on her anti-royalist co-conspirator, its manifestation was of Liberty, not Fraternity or Equality. The location of the statue, at the mouth of the Hudson, adjacent to Ellis Island, the destination for incoming ships carrying fleeing immigrants provides a clear context for the Liberty it extols. It is designed as a beacon to welcome and reassure those who see it that they are now free of the repression that forced them to flee their homeland. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” says the poem inscribed upon her. Liberty may therefore be viewed more as a defining characteristic of the process of becoming and American citizen than of America itself.
As seems to have been the case with Equality and Fraternity, the concept of Liberty was allowed to shift from this specific context to something wider, more self-congratulatory, more self-serving. America’s eventual anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner was originally a fairly obscure poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, compelling his compatriots to sing with gusto that they inhabit “The land of the Free” but even then, such a sentiment was demonstrably illusory, a perversion of the specific principles espoused by the Statue of Liberty. Doubtless, it was a high-intentioned celebration that American citizens were free of the shackles imposed on the feudal subjects of the Old World. What it doesn’t address is that the citizenry at that time only included white people.
This pre-Civil War self-deluding notion of “the Free” may have simply become a historical quirk, an innocent indulgence from a time that knew no better. We may even have come to see it as a harmless, unknown piece of naive jingoism, were it not for the actions of two Presidents, over a century later. The US Navy had been using the song since 1889 but it gained its first Presidential approval from Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Given that its words were taken from a poem called Defence of Fort M’Henry and with its strong themes of conflict and resolute defence, perhaps its sentiments resonated more strongly at a time when America felt uneasy about the unfolding ‘Great War’ in Europe.
It’s certainly feasible that its images of stoicism through embattlement may have sustained America through her eventual involvement in war – and the beginnings of the Depression a decade later. Seemingly uncoincidentally, President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional resolution of March 3rd 1931 to make The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem of America. At a time of huge economic uncertainty and its attendant tendency for existential re-assessment, there was a clear benefit to reminding Americans, at every opportunity, that they were undeniably “the Free” and “the Brave”.
It’s important to be even-handed at this point. In many ways, pre-Depression America was flourishing and could be slightly forgiven for her blinkered optimism. Already a major military power and the world’s biggest exponent of two of the century’s most defining industries, entertainment and transportation, her riches led her to mount challenges to history’s favourite benchmarks. America was already, the holder of ‘World’s Tallest Building’ – the Chrysler Building’s 1,046 feet would be surpassed within a year by the Empire State Building in a flurry of skyscraper construction in Manhattan. Similarly, the title of ‘World’s Longest Bridge Span’ was held by one American construction after another, with New York’s George Washington Bridge, at 1,067 metres almost doubling the distance of its predecessor, the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit. Plans for even more ambitious projects like the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge were a clear sign of America’s bravery, zeal and intent. Freedom and Bravery: the words seemed to be perfectly apt.
However, Liberty seemed to be in limited supply among America’s black population, officially emancipated by Abraham Lincoln almost seventy years previously. Institutional racism could not be so easily legislated against and over the intervening decades, forced labour and partition remained as prevalent as they had been before the Civil War. And, of course, there were also the lynchings and abuses of justice. Prevailing racial attitudes in the South, together with increasing mechanisation, cheaper transportation and the burgeoning growth of industry in the Northern states had led to The Great Migration – and America’s first real test of her heady aspiration that “all men” should be equal – a test which resulted in racial tensions and rioting in 1919. Not for the last time, the threat to America’s mostly segregated status quo was re-presented as a symptom of the pernicious disease of Communism, by then on the rise in much of Europe, and the racial significance of the unrest was downplayed by the widespread use of name “Red Summer”.
And so, from 1931, it became possible for a whole country to clutch its chest and pledge allegiance to a flag which represented values that were demonstrably inconsistent where differences were only skin deep. It would be another eighteen years before George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four introduced the concept of ‘doublethink’ as a satirical tool of his Totalitarian state but a prototype form of it was already in evidence in “the free world” well before the rise of the great dictators had really begun.
Over the rest of the 20th century, as subsequent American generations came and went, each more rewarded by the fruits of materialism than the last, and with only the concoction of external threat to rally around, the American notion of Liberty seems to have shifted, to mean something else entirely – namely the freedom to gratify the self. In this way, the old notion of American Liberty seems to have become annexed by Libertarianism, the right for the individual to be free in all aspects of life, without recourse or consequence.
The words sound similar and are, of course, related but it is by no means inevitable that the two principles should become so conflated. There is also a word from that same root that describes those who extol the rights of others to be free in all aspects of their lives, without recourse or consequence. That word is ‘Liberals‘ – and it’s a label carries a whole different load of connotations in America today. It’s the reason why we are presented with what appears, to non-Americans, the faintly ridiculous sight of those who value their Liberty decrying with equal passion their vehement disagreement with Liberals, to whom a litany of perceived impositions are attached.
Is that all this boils down to, then? An existential struggle about which ideological group’s right to Liberty (however that may be defined) exceeds the other’s? If X’s right to free speech supercedes Y’s right to be heard? If A’s right to religious expression outranks B’s rights over their own body? If P’s right to love and partnership infringes on Q’s right to their own beliefs?
As valid as they undoubtedly are, the questions are, I venture to suggest, not the sum of the argument. There’s a lot of discussion about rights across this whole debate and very little mention of responsibilities. It reminds me of a teenage conversation I once had with my Grandmother when I was fixated on and certain of my rights – a conversation teenagers are still having today – and I found I was unaware that there even needed to be a relationship between one’s rights and one’s responsibilities. It’s a conversation I was reminded of the first time I saw Spiderman and Peter Parker’s teenage reasoning with his Uncle Ben – a conversation that uses his “powers” as a metaphor for one’s rights and draws a similar relationship with one’s responsibilities. Societally, Western culture seems to have done a generally poor job in underlining this principle, leaving the job solely to caring older relatives to attempt to establish it as a fundamental value. As one generation replaces another, what if that role ceases to be filled?
The correlation with teenagers is, I believe, of some relevance. Occurring roughly a fifth of the way into a human lifetime, it’s a fairly universal expectation across most cultures that such coming-of-age conversations become necessary. Would it be therefore hugely amiss to suggest that America herself, at the tender age of 244, is still in her late adolescence? That the child prodigy who once mocked her slower, more ponderous elders with her youthful brilliance is beginning to understand the limitations of her own mortal capabilities? Like a star student who suffers their first disappointing grade, she must now ask fundamental questions about herself, in order to learn from the experience and face the future with renewed confidence.
‘Liberty’ as she stands, looking out to sea, was always supposed to represent freedom from persecution elsewhere. The principle of Liberty was never about the right to simply do as one pleases – and it certainly wasn’t a cipher for a particular kind of government. Even in a truly equal society, the rights of the individual are not inalienably superior to the rights of one’s fellow citizens and, as any properly-raised teenager should eventually attest, the freedoms of others occasionally have a detrimental impact on the freedoms of the self.
This is not a broadcast on behalf of the Democrats or the Republicans and neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden approve this message. It’s merely an attempt to illustrate how the misuse of language and the absence of objective, critical thought have led to a meta-situation where the ultimate freedom seems to have become the very right to define what freedom is.
Check your history books and see what Orwell has to say on the subject and you’ll find that such a freedom is a symptom of the least free societies in human history.
I was nominated by Helen for this ten favourite travel images ‘challenge’ thing on Facebook. Unlike everyone else, I’ve decided not to string it out over 10 days – and I thought I’d compile all ten images on here.
Photo 1: Red Square, Moscow, (then in the Soviet Union) – March 1991.
In the days when cameras were cameras, you either didn’t take photos or accepted that rubbish ones came along when they did. I managed to get this utterly terrible photo in one of the most amazing places on Earth and it’s my only photographic record that I was ever there. The resolution is shocking, the fashions are highly questionable and I offer no excuse at all for that bum bag. To the right of the picture is Lenin’s mausoleum (I didn’t bother viewing the body), behind me is The Kremlin, specifically the Spassky Tower and just perfectly out of shot to the left of the frame is St. Basil’s Cathedral, one of the most astounding sights in the world.
All things considered, this is a truly awful photo that just happens to remind me of an amazing, unique two-week coming-of-age experience. BTW, I’m stood next to Mike, my Russian exchange student host, whom I still haven’t managed to find on Facebook.
Photo 2: 107th Floor Observation Area, South Tower, World Trade Center, New York City, USA – January 1994
That’s me with the hair, looking through the binoculars north to mid-town Manhattan, at 1,310 feet. Shockingly, the guy in the baseball cap behind me, who looks like he’s about to mug the lady in the headscarf, is Martin.
I’m not going to lie: it was 1994, still in the pre-digital, pre-social world so, in lieu of an actual photograph, this has been screen-grabbed from a very shonky home video recording, hence the stunningly poor quality (again) of *another* world-famous landmark.
Famously, just over seven and a half years later, the ‘Twin Towers‘ would be no more, making this an especially poignant memory. Hopefully, there are places in eternal Hell for all those involved in that atrocity. I’m tempted to wish for the same fate for all involved in developing the ludicrous ‘white balance’ setting on 1990s video cameras that just loved to reset to default and white out priceless experiences like this. Most of our NYC footage is next to useless because of it. If you thought John Lennon’s house in Berkshire looked eerily white in the video for ‘Imagine’, it’s nothing compared to our footage of his place at the Dakota Building, overlooking Central Park.
Kinda kicking myself that we did’t stop for a photo more. A quick pose on the helipad at the Manhattan helicopter tour would have been a great idea. Good times, though…
Photo 3: The Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA – November 2002
You may be tempted (again) to mock my sartorial style – who wears a fleece and a Bez hat to the desert? Before you do, you should know that, as a result of some unfortunately-chosen breakfast items in Las Vegas the day before, I’d contracted food poisoning and spent most of the preceding night wondering which way to point in the bathroom. As a result, my internal thermostat was all over the place.
Having cleared out the system, I’d taken nothing but water and Pepto-Bismol for the six hours before having to get into a light aircraft for the short flight over the Hoover Dam and on to the edge of the Canyon. Predictably, it didn’t go well and I can now claim to be one of a select number of people who have sprayed fluorescent pink liquid into 3 or 4 sick bags inside a small plane over the location once voted Number 1 in the list of ’50 Places To See Before You Die’.
I believe we were near Eagle Rock at this point but to be honest, I could just about stand up, let alone remember many details. Even in my highly diminished state, it was still one of the most magical experiences of my life.
Photo 4: The Eiffel Tower, Paris, France – August 2013
Finally, a photo in which the photographer, the technology and the subject are all fully functional. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to Paris but I’ll never forget my first visit there, on my 18th birthday, in the year of its 100th anniversaire. This sojourn in 2013 (en route back to Calais from Bordeaux) was an opportunity to go to the top of the famous Parisian landmark for the first time since my very first visit, over twenty years previously.
Once we’d returned to ground level, we decided to take this picture to mark the occasion. I have loads of pictures of the Eiffel Tower but this unusual angle of its familiar shape illuminated against the night sky is my absolute favourite.
Photo 5: Villa del Balbianello, Lago di Como, Italy – May 2014
I really can’t say what part of the world makes me happiest but Lake Como has to be in the Top 5. The food, the pace of life, the scenery and the micro-climate make this such an enchanting place to be. This picture was taken in our first visit there, in 2014.
We’ve been back twice since then and I can’t imagine ever not wanting to go back again. It’s an achingly beautiful place and, if you like Italian food and wine, you’ll find it impossible to resist.
Star Wars nerds should recognise the location of this photo as being the place where Anakin and Padmé were married at the end of ‘Episode II: Attack of the Clones’. The same location was also used in ‘Casino Royale’ for the scene where James Bond is convalescing after rolling his Aston Martin at speed. In reality Villa del Balbianello is a former holiday home of the Rothschilds which is now a museum with the most manicured gardens you’ve ever seen.
Photo 6: Slane Castle, Co. Meath, Republic of Ireland – May 2017
Travel isn’t just about going somewhere, it’s also about what you do when you get there – or why you even go. This was certainly true of our short 2017 trip to Ireland – to watch Guns ‘N Roses on their ‘Not In This Lifetime’ tour.
I’m sure this might not be for everyone but the chance to combine a one-off experience like this while sampling/becoming re-acquainted with another culture (I mean, who doesn’t love Ireland?) is an intoxicating mix. The Emerald Isle is doubly special to us as it’s the place where we got engaged, after another concert there. Find someone or something you want to watch in a part of the world you want to visit and you’ll know just how rewarding it can be.
We also had time to nip in to Dublin, which, if you’ve ever been, you’ll agree is no hardship, either.
Photo 7: Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Marina Bay, Singapore – December 2017
We were only there for 36 hours and much of that was spent fighting off jet-lag but Singapore certainly left a lasting impression – not least because it gave us the chance to sample the famous roof-top swimming pool on the 57th floor of the city state’s most recognisable building.
We were also lucky enough to be able to meet some old friends there, to catch up and to gain an insight into this heady fusion of a place that many tourists never get to see.
Photo 8: Sydney Harbour, Sydney, Australia – December/January 2017/8
The most expensive night out I’ve ever had – but a pretty good one! This was pure bucket-list stuff: to be in Sydney on New Year’s Eve and to be among the first in the world to welcome a new year. With all the flights and hotels booked, there just remained the question of how we’d spend the evening.
Well, one thing led to another and we ended up booking ourselves onto one of the flotilla of boats that take in the famous light show from the middle of the harbour. Five hours, three courses, lots of wine, twelve solid minutes of midnight fireworks and lasers and one fight later (not us), the whole thing was well and truly ticked off the list. You know what? Looking back, it all seems like an incredible bargain.
And then this: an important by-product of any travel experience is the chance to re-live it whenever you see the place on TV, thereafter. I’m sure I’ll always tune in to the Sydney New Year display, covered in the UK at 1pm on New Year’s Eve. With every passing year, I’ll continue to receive ever-greater value for money. How many times can you truthfully say that a night out is really an investment?
Photo 9: Monterey Bay, California, USA – August 2018
Increasingly, the chance to see more of the natural world is a major motivation to travel. For this, I could have chosen any number of birdwatching reserves we’ve been to, or the Penguin Parade on Phillip Island. Or even the Great Barrier Reef. In truth, nothing, I repeat, nothing will compare with – or prepare you for – whale-watching.
When in California, we got the chance to see a pod of humpback whales feeding on anchovies, less than a mile from the coast. The sights, the sound, the smell, the size of these amazing creatures is something so awesome to behold, you’ll find it impossible to compare it to any other experience. It’s nothing short of an epiphany.
We tend to compartmentalise our travel dreams into simple lists that can be simply chalked off and that’s largely true of mere places. I’m not sure it’s just as easy to say the same of true experiences like this. We could have seen blue whales, grey whales or orcas that day. Given the chance, I’d go back there like a shot – and do it all again.
Photo 10: San Francisco, California, USA – August 2018
Travel teaches you the understanding that you will, at some stage, have to reconcile expectation with reality. Once you’ve arrived, some places will surprise you and others will disappoint you. Just occasionally, you find a place that is everything you always wanted it to be. I’ve felt it in Amsterdam, in Melbourne and here, in San Francisco. And then you’ll always love them and hope they never change.
As in most parts of life, timing is as important as any other factor: your own time of life, your motivations and aspirations – together with the point in the cycle of fortunes that affect the places you see. I’m sure Moscow has changed hugely in the last 29 years – but then, so have I. I could easily have listed a completely different list of 10 places I’ve loved to visit: Barcelona, Prague, Gothenburg, Hong Kong, Austin, London, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Denver, Munich are all fascinating in their own right and no less worthy of a visit than the 10 I did choose.
Currently, with travel restricted, we should treat this time as a reminder not to take our world for granted – and never to stop feeling the need to explore beyond the horizon. To continue to share the sights it holds and the people and the nature you can find there. In the end, when your time on Earth is coming to a close, will you regret the amount of stuff you owned – or the number of places you got to see?
If you were asked to name five things you know about CSG, you’d probably list our reputation for excellence in waste treatment, our Hampshire base, our long history, our nationwide reach and our family heritage. You’d be right on all five counts, of course, but could you keep adding to that list – and how far down the list would you get before you mentioned CSG’s strong advocacy of apprenticeships?
To many people, the word ‘apprentice’ can summon images of a bygone age and long-forgotten trades. The implementation may have changed over the years, but the basic premise never really went away and there’s much to suggest that it should form a vital part of the knowledge economy we’re shaping. At CSG, a commitment to apprenticeships is more than just a way of developing skilled workers that offers benefits for all concerned. It’s deeply embedded in the most dearly held values of the company. Take a look through these pages and you’ll see how CSG have been strong supporters of apprenticeship schemes for years, offering industry skills and opportunity for young workers.
As you may imagine, there are many good reasons for advocating apprenticeships but chief amongst them is that the principle is embraced at the highest level – and for Managing Director, Neil Richards, the attachment is personal. Asking him to recount his own experiences as an apprentice, you soon realise that this is a subject that continues to inspire him.
“In Spring 1972, I was a sixteen-year-old lad, only bothered about kicking a ball around with my mates and wondering which girl to go out with on a Saturday. My time at school was coming to an end and I’d had enough of being taught subjects that didn’t interest me. I knew I needed to get into the world of work, and I was fortunate to live in a town where I could be taken on as an apprentice by the local employer.”
The town was Connah’s Quay, a port on the mouth of the River Dee in Flintshire, North Wales and the local employer was Shotton Steelworks. At the time, it was part of the nationalised British Steel and employed over 11,000 workers, a huge proportion of the local workforce. In order to be taken on as an apprentice, school leavers had to meet a certain grade standard at the preliminary level of examinations (CSEs), rather than attaining a certain number of final O-levels (GCEs).
“I knew I wasn’t interested with further education, so I was determined to become an apprentice at Shotton’s. I knuckled down and studied hard for my CSEs and, when I got the results [successfully, and with final exams still to take], I didn’t bother after that. I started as a General Engineering apprentice in the September with 44 other lads and it was the most valuable four years of my life.”
The scale of the steel-making operation at Shotton’s was huge – mind-bogglingly huge – at 470 hectares or nearly two square miles, the site was as large as Hyde Park and Central Park combined. Each year, workers in variety of different trades were required across a number of different processes. Apprentices were rotated around the operation in order to gain experience of the blast furnace, precision engineering, locomotive maintenance, the coke ovens, the main steelworks, the hot mill, the cold mill and the finishing plant. As a result, each would have practical, on-the-job experience of boiler making, electrical engineering, mechanics, fitting and machining. After two years, each retained apprentice was asked to specialise in one of these fields. Neil became an apprentice fitter and served another two years before he was automatically taken on, at almost three times his initial wage.
It may seem that these basic facts sum up the process just as you’d expect: a school leaver, a selection process, an amount of time served, learning about a variety of technical processes and a skilled job at the end of the process. While all that is true, Neil is quick to explain how the real benefits of his apprenticeship went far, far beyond that.
“We were trained by people who cared deeply about us, about our ability to do the job well. I never questioned it at the time but it’s clear that they were keen to pass on the quality of their own training to those that followed. Of course, you were also exposed to a wide variety of types of people: there were hard workers, slow workers, charmers, sulkers, academics and BS merchants. Without realising it, you were gaining the mental tools to be able to deal with all these different types, to work with them or to resolve a problem.”
The most obvious benefit of the system was that it instilled in each apprentice a sense that, when qualified and working as a senior employee, the same quality of instruction and advocacy was passed on (or ‘paid forward’) to the next generation of apprentices, continuing a cycle intended to keep going in perpetuity.
As most university students would agree, Neil’s story highlights that fact the subject of the apprenticeship may have been the area of study but the life lessons that came with it were the true education. Unlike the graduates of those days, being parachuted into management roles, it would take several years and a great deal of upheaval for the true value of that education to become apparent.
The 1970s had dawned still with the optimism of Harold Wilson’s “white heat” of technological revolution. England were football world champions, standards of education were improving, unemployment was falling, and social mobility was arguably at its highest-ever level. As the decade wore on, it became clear that the good times couldn’t last. A combination of loss-making across most of the UK’s nationalised industries, plummeting productivity and increased industrial unrest had made the large, monolithic plants like Shotton Steel vulnerable. With the availability of cheaper alternatives from abroad in an increasingly global market, there could be no return to profitability. In March 1980, British Steel closed the plant, with the loss of 6,500 jobs, an event described by some media reports as the biggest industrial redundancy on a single day in Western Europe.
With the certainties of a ‘job for life’ at Shotton’s in tatters, Neil had to change his own career trajectory. Instead of specialising in engineering, he soon became a foreman at the Rolls-Royce-owned Deeside Titanium, making turbine blades for jet engines from the strongest metallic element in the table. This change of direction required him to gain a degree in Chemistry but also saw him develop his people management skills. The Open University took care of the degree, but the understanding of motivation and management all came from the lessons he’d learned as an apprentice on most of the shop floor at Shotton’s.
Suddenly, the early 1980s had become a very different time for school-leavers seeking job skills. Without the same level of large-scale industrial employers, required to think long-term, the economy had become largely comprised of smaller, more agile businesses in retail and service sectors, with a much shorter-term outlook and far less need for formal apprenticeships. It meant that just as many school leavers each year were added to the job market, but skilled labour was dwindling and where unemployment was rocketing. The net effect was that the role of apprenticeships had less to do with preparation for a fulfilling trade but often as a cover to replace mature workers with lower-cost teenage alternatives under the ‘YTS’ or Youth Training Scheme, a practice Neil Richards describes as “cynical”.
If the effects of Thatcherism had reduced the currency of apprenticeships, a further blow to the practice came from a more surprising source over a decade later. In September 1999, Tony Blair told the Labour Party Conference, “today I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century”. It was an ambitious statement, and doubtless a well-intended one, but by overtly valuing higher education above vocational training, it seemed to have the effect of dismissing the value of apprenticeships, further reducing its image to one of out-dated irrelevance.
Over twenty years on from Blair’s announcement, Neil is still animated in his disapproval of that policy: “Of course we need better-qualified workers, no-one would suggest otherwise. Higher education is a wonderful thing. I have a degree and CSG can only function as it does by the number of people here who are qualified to the level that they are – but they will always only be a proportion of the workforce. We’ll always have a need for people who understand the practicalities instead of the theory – and there’ll always be a proportion of capable youngsters who won’t want to carry on informal education but have their own contribution to make and are just looking for the opportunity to be trained. I firmly believe that policy set back apprenticeships for a long time – but now, I sense, it’s coming back.”
The figures suggest he might be right. Despite several calls from various groups in the intervening years for Labour’s symbolic 50% target to be abolished, it was reported last year that it had indeed been reached, according to figures from the Department for Education, which placed the number at 50.2%. This suggests that vocational learning must have diminished but between 2013 and 2017, the number of vocational qualifications awarded went up by over 50%. In the same period, the number of apprenticeships around the country have remained static at around half a million each year, with the average duration increasing from just over a year to over eighteen months.
Neil’s experiences – and those of his colleagues from those days – are a testament to the value of a solid grounding in a nurturing environment where skills continue to hold value, all elements that should be just as relevant today. Interestingly, there was one aspect of those 1970s apprenticeships that did need to change. The fact that they were designed for huge, inflexible corporations meant that their aim really extended only to developing the operating skills of the apprentice. In a time when ‘Management’ and ‘Staff’ were kept entirely separate, there was little expectation that even the best operator could be considered for anything other than an operator’s role. The strong unionisation of such places also meant that there was a ‘pecking order’ to determine career progression, which often overlooked ability in place of ‘time served’. Neil’s experiences show that the ‘soft skills’ he acquired almost as a by-product of his apprenticeship were just as much of a driver of his career as his technical abilities. We’d all like to think that we live in a more merit-driven world these days; one in which there are no closed routes to management positions or diversification. Today at CSG, there’s no expectation that better qualification can lead to managerial roles, but neither is there any sense of a glass ceiling to anyone with management aspirations.
CSG now offer apprenticeship schemes, wherever possible, across the business. Currently, those who’ve been through the process account for approximately 25% of our technical positions. We’d like those numbers to be higher. Quite apart from the importance of apprenticeships as a means to add skills, they’re also a way to demonstrate worth and this too is one of CSG’s core values. Where many employers circumvent minimum wage obligations to operate unpaid internships, CSG is determined to offer positions of real value, with real prospects.
The nature of most businesses today means that contemporary apprenticeships are necessarily narrower in their scope than in days gone by – but the possibilities they can lead to are now generally wider. Does that make them better or worse than those offered in the 1970s? Perhaps that’s a misleading question – we can’t turn the clock back to those days, even if we wanted to – the real comparison should be that a world of today’s apprenticeship schemes, informed by the best practices of those from the past, must be infinitely preferable to one in which such schemes do not feature.
As we enter a new decade, it’s fair to conclude that CSG is keen to continue to pay forward the benefits of Neil’s own apprenticeship experience, tailored for the demands of today’s workforce but still intrinsically offering the same slice of opportunity. The idea has survived many changes to the economy, but its basic tenets remain. Thanks to the whole notion of apprenticeships, the future will always benefit from the investments of the past.
On Tuesday 14th January 2020, I watched ‘1917’, the Oscar-nominated film by Sir Sam Mendes. The next day, I sent this email to ‘Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review’ – “The BBC’s flagship film show”, known to its army of fans as “Wittertainment”. If you’re familiar with the programme, you’ll be aware of a) the conventions of the letters they receive and b) the fact this one did not get read out. If you’re not familiar with the show, you’ll have no idea whatsoever why I’m taking this opportunity to say ‘Hello to Jason Isaacs’.
I’ve been looking forward immensely to watching ‘1917’ ever since I first saw the trailer, several months ago (back when it was the work of plain old ‘Mr. Mendes’) and, like many others, I was particularly struck by the revelation that the whole film is played out “in a single shot”. As an admirer of his last notable example in the oeuvre (the opening sequence of ‘Spectre’), it seemed an impossibly bold ambition for a mainstream action film to have; one that would have to be seen to be believed.
Tonight, I went along with my Mum and my 15yr-old son to the local complex to see if the film could possibly live up to, not just its own considerable hype, but also a level of expectation commensurate with its now double-Golden-Globe-winning, ten-times-Oscar-nominated status. Bitter experience has taught me not to expect anything so exalted so readily and I sat down with my code-transgressive nachos (eating them compliantly quickly, before the trailers started), steeling myself for a certain level of inevitable disappointment.
I needn’t have been so cautious. Barely a few trenches into our heroes’ mission, I felt quite able to ‘pack up my troubling concerns in my metaphorical kit bag and smile, smile, smile’ – except when I wasn’t grimacing, jumping or otherwise emotionally investing. The accuracy of period detail seemed incredibly high, a task made all the more difficult – and necessary – by the fact that so many 2020 film-goers who watched ’They Shall Not Grow Old’, in 2018, are now far better informed of the most intricate elements of this century-old period in time.
At times, I must confess the ’continuous shot’ schtick did feel more like a burden than a device – I occasionally found myself unable to forget about its existence, waiting for the next cleverly-masked transition or spending more time thinking ‘how did they do that?’ than, I’m sure, would otherwise have been the case. I then realised that even these distractions were not that different to the ‘what-have-I-seen-this-actor-in?’ kind of reactions that can impede the suspension of disbelief in any film. Perhaps a second viewing would see this effect lessened.
Eventually, I was able to ignore the technical appreciation enough to inhabit the world with the characters – ironically, just as the technique is designed to encourage. The experience was, at times, not that dissimilar to watching someone playing a ‘first-person shooter’ video game – which I’m sure would add to the level of peril and investment for many viewers. Another point to make is that the ‘real-time’ plot delivery necessarily requires more exposition, which I found I could forgive more easily than I would for a more conventionally-edited film.
Given its specific slice of time, the film noticeably comprised a rich tapestry of landscapes, colours, settings and textures. The twists were well-disguised and profound and, even when the MacGuffin quest had reached its conclusion, there was still time for one last revelation to encourage a reappraisal of the whole thing.
Perhaps a less generously-spirited review may suggest this is a film that’s a little too clever for its own good. However well acted and choreographed, It’s possible a more orthodox telling of the story would have felt less obtrusive in many ways – but it’s also likely that it would also have made for just another war movie. Ultimately, I felt relieved that the boundaries were challenged and that Sir Sam was fully justified in making such an audacious production constraint his hill (or should that be ridge?) on which to die. As The Good Doctor has often said: “I’d rather see someone try – and fail – than not try – and succeed”.
I’m not sure it’s the best film I’ve seen all (Oscar) year – ‘Joker’ asks more profound questions and answers them more adroitly – but it’s certainly deserving of its ‘Best Film’ nomination for realism and ambition alone. All in all, we all agreed it was a fine use of two hours and, like many of the best film-going experiences I’ve had in recent years, the ability to say I wasn’t disappointed was all I’d hoped for – and the most pleasing thing to be able to confirm.
The countdown is on to another Black Friday, which for many retailers and e-tailers, is still the most frantic, most lucrative day of the year. Throughout its relatively short existence in the UK, it’s a date that has brought about opportunity and controversy in equal measure. And yet, despite the countless headlines generated, only now is its greatest controversy truly coming into focus.
How did we get here?
If you’re unaware of its provenance, “Black Friday” was once just one of many terms used in America to describe the day after Thanksgiving (held on the fourth Thursday of November). The following day became regarded as the official ‘start line’ of the pre-Christmas shopping binge – the point when retailers often began to make a profit for the rest of the year. In accounting, negative figures are entered in red and positive ones in black, and the expectation of profit explains the relevance of the word ‘Black’.
Before long, the day became a chance for competing retailers to gain custom, increase revenue and gather sales momentum. By the 1980s, the practice had become well-established in the Eastern states but was relatively unobserved elsewhere. As recently as the end of last decade, you could see bargain-hunters setting up camp on Thanksgiving Day in the parking lots of most malls and stores across the US but still the term ‘Black Friday’ was all but unknown in the rest of the world.
By 2010, the effect of the internet, and the ‘credit crunch’ on consumers and retailers meant that ‘Black Friday’ had become a fixture in the British retail calendar. With the loss of Woolworths, MFI and Kwik Save, it was viewed by many retailers as the right idea at the right time.
Significant ‘one day only’ discounts very quickly led to unseemly scrambles and even scuffles around the UK, as shoppers surged to claim genuine bargains before Christmas. Suddenly, Black Friday was considered a necessary fixture in the shopping landscape, but it didn’t take long for a backlash to occur. Principally, most retailers would prefer not to give away discounts before Christmas at all, if possible. To some, there was even concern that such naked November salechasing hinted at desperation, even a lack of liquidity – a suspicion no business wants to bring about.
Others were concerned about the additional operational effort and cost, even the health and safety overhead that came with the need to provide crowd control. Notably, Amazon felt they could do better by holding such an event on their terms at a more fallow time of year – ‘Amazon Prime Day’ in July.
Very low down the list of reasons not to participate in Black Friday was the sense that the whole thing might be harming us all by fuelling overconsumption. With such significant change, there is almost always a ‘law of unintended consequences’ to consider. The whole thing started merely as a competitive device to win sales from others. Within a year or two, as it became clear that the buzz generated by Black Friday was too big to leave unexploited, leading to a ‘mission creep’ of more products, cheaper variants and more frivolity. The addition of the adjacent ‘Cyber Monday’ extended the principle further. Retailers found themselves able to predict a planned orgy of purchasing – a phenomenon that people in Sales and Marketing spend most of their careers trying to bring about.
The problems started to occur with what happened next – the effect on consumption. The Black Friday vehicle would lead to consumers being urged to replace or upgrade more ‘stuff’ with more abandon. Prices plummeted – and so, it seems, did shoppers’ inhibitions.
More Sales = More Consumption
Where extra purchases led to knock-on effects in waste, it started to become clear there would be an environmental price to pay for all this extra acquisition. Electronics had become a particularly favoured category for discounters and shoppers alike, but with e-waste already becoming the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, clearly, the compulsion to throw away old tech to allow for a Black Friday purchase has hardly helped to arrest that problem.
There was a similar effect in the area of clothing, already threatening unsustainably high carbon and water footprints to make the product. Black Friday added to the pressures, increasing the amount of clothing added to landfill sites to 350,000 tonnes each year. With consumption bolstered by cheap product, not expected to last, the problem of ‘fast fashion’ became even harder to combat.
The growing debate about the wisdom of Black Friday became further complicated because, naturally, cheaper products offer a greater incentive to less wealthy people. There’s a danger that any concerns can sound a lot like better-off people telling less well-off people that they’re spending their money on the wrong things. Unsurprisingly, where that suspicion takes root, the urge for consumers to act sympathetically is often strongly resisted.
Reversing the Effect
Just when it began to seem futile to expect people to act against their short-term interest, a growing counter-narrative finally began to take effect. The effect of the BBC’s Blue Planet II on attitudes to single-use plastic was particularly notable. More recent activism by Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for the Climate and globally co-ordinated action by Extinction Rebellion further elevated the issue and this year, the Glastonbury Festival took steps to discourage disposable tents and dispensed with disposable water bottles.
As we in the UK look towards the second decade of Black Friday, we now seem to do so with a far greater level of environmental concern. It may not stop us buying, but even if it doesn’t, we’re likely to experience a little more guilt about that purchase than ever before. Does this extra consideration mean we give more thought to the product it replaces, with donating or other forms of re-use being more fully explored?
Until now, our choice between a tempting offer and a responsible attitude to the planet has always seemed to be one-sided. With extra encouragement to think longer-term, how far away are we from reaching a tipping point? Have you had cause to reconsider your company’s position on Black Friday, based on its environmental impact? As a shopper, have you changed your views about participating? Or is it still a fair way for savvy Christmas shoppers to get more value for money? Perhaps the responsibility should lie elsewhere: why should the shopper bear all the guilt from a process that offer such companies great benefits with little additional responsibility? Ultimately, is this all a symptom of a global problem that prizes economic growth over sustainability?
2019 is an important year for CSG – it’s the 85th anniversary of our birth! ‘Hampshire Cleansing Service’ was founded in January 1934 by Edgar ‘Bunny’ Hart, the patriarchal figure of the family that still owns the company today. In that time, while so many aspects of daily life, business and waste processing have changed beyond recognition, the basic principles of the Cleansing – and the Service – remain very much in evidence today.
In 1933, Bunny Hart was a man in a hurry. Born in 1898, the seventh child of a successful butcher in London, he’d already crammed a lot into his first thirty-five years. He’d served in The Great War from 1917, become an expert skier in Kitzbühel, graduated as an engineer in 1923, taken a job in Chile in 1924 and, when the post became untenable, worked his passage as he toured around North and South America for the next two years. Upon his return to Britain, he started work for a tanker manufacturer in Southampton and began to court the woman he would eventually marry.
Despite the respectable job and steady relationship, his independent spirit hadn’t waned – he wanted to control his own destiny. The contacts he’d generated around Hampshire had convinced him that there was was a business opportunity for emptying the contents of the products he’d previously sold. Collecting sewage could never be described as attractive work but he would almost certainly have been encouraged by the old adage “where there’s muck there’s brass”. The growing levels of regulatory reform, even then, were an encouraging sign that unprofessional competition would be prohibited and it meant that, if Bunny could earn a carrier’s licence, he was sure he could build a healthy business.
Evidently, Bunny’s acumen and professionalism were impressive enough to convince the licensing body to award him a licence towards the end of 1933, sufficient for his needs. Now, all he needed was a vehicle. On 2nd December, he managed to procure a second-hand, solid-tyred 800-gallon Dennis tanker from Wokingham Rural District Council for the princely sum of £5. It’s difficult to imagine a real-terms value of such a figure without knowing the effects of over eight decades of inflation so you may be surprised to learn that £5 then was the equivalent of just £250 today. Compared to the 25 guineas (the equivalent of £1,330 today) to buy the latest ‘2 in 1’ gramophone and radio set from His Master’s Voice, Bunny’s £5 tanker still seems like a real bargain.
Of course, it wasn’t quite as cheap as it sounds – the ancient tanker needed to be updated and that’s where the real costs were. Renewing the old hose cost £47 7s (£2,400 in today’s money) and replacing the impractical solid tyres with a modern, practical pneumatic set cost a rather eye- watering £104 18s 4d (£5,300). Finally, sign-writing costs were £4 2s 6d (£209), a canny bit of marketing spend to publicly announce the new company everywhere the tanker went. The legend of the ‘£5 tanker’ sounds romantic but in reality, it represented what might today be considered an initial investment of over £8,000. Not a lot to start a business, perhaps, but quite a lot of money to stake on a firm belief of success.
On January 1st 1934, with his Dennis tanker upgraded and his ‘B’ licence effective, Bunny was ready to take on the waste disposal industry. It has to be said that 1934 wasn’t the most encouraging time to start a business. The Wall Street Crash was only a few years before and Britain had endured three years of economic decline as a result of the Great Depression. Then, just as the economy was recovering, tensions began to rise again in Europe as a resurgent Germany fell under the spell of Adolf Hitler, barely fifteen years after the Armistice was supposed to have put an end to the threat of more war. Perhaps this all seemed a world away from rural Hampshire as Bunny pursued his ambitions. Whether or not such concerns formed part of his thinking, they would not stop him trying.
He knew that, as they said about the Gold Rush, a century earlier, there was money in them there cesspits – but unlike 1840s California, the ‘gold’ was being constantly replenished. And so it proved. As the 1930s went on and the world moved inexorably towards another war, Hampshire Cleansing Service had indeed begun to grow as Bunny had intended. At the outbreak of war in 1939, six vehicles were operating around the county.
It couldn’t be denied that the war footing was good for business. With so many army bases, airfields and camps becoming established in the area, a huge increase in demand for sewage collection was, literally, a natural consequence. By the end of the war, the company employed a hundred people, the fleet had risen to thirty-five vehicles, and coverage had extended to three counties.
Unsurprisingly, the post-war years saw the military sewage collections dwindle but crucially, the company had become capable enough to replace that revenue with work from schools, factories and holiday camps. The fleet extended to a range of different vehicles, capable of extracting and dispensing the matter in different ways but the same basic principles of ‘Cleansing’ remained – and wherever people were gathered, the potential for another sewage collection existed. It may seem to have been a rather rudimentary business model but it’s easy to overlook another vital element – ‘Service’.
It’s unlikely to have been by accident that Bunny ensured that the word ‘Service’ remained in every iteration of his company’s name. His years as a salesman will have convinced him that sales do not just happen mechanically; they are agreed to by people, placing their faith in the quality of a job done well, assured that the experience will offer the reward of diligence and integrity beyond the basic process. Particularly in the case of domestic customers in remote areas, with their cesspits, the regular, reassuring sight of a friendly driver has defined their relationship with our company, retaining their trust and their custom over many years.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the company continued to seek out further opportunities to grow but by the beginning of the 1970s, Bunny had become gravely ill. When he died in 1971, he left a hugely successful legacy – a company that had begun to develop its capabilities and diversify into other areas of waste disposal. For some time, it had became necessary to add ever more specialist knowledge in order to operate in each specific sector of the wider waste industry.
In the years that followed, a wave of new regulations on employee health & safety, pollution, the deposit of poisonous waste and many more must have seemed frustratingly restrictive, compared to the ‘good old days’ of simply dispersing sewage into the field of a friendly farmer – but it was a benefit in disguise. Just as Bunny had benefitted from the the protection from unprofessional competitors that his licence gave him in 1934, the industry was challenging its most competent exponents to expand at the expense of those who could not adapt to the tighter regulations. Few companies were better placed to meet these challenges than the newly-assembled ‘Cleansing Services Group’.
Over the last five decades, the market has continued to sub-divide into more distinct specialisms, regulations have continued to strengthen, CSG has continued to add greater capability to the group and performance has continued to grow. Were he alive today, Bunny Hart may be amazed at the depth of knowledge now required in order to operate in so many sectors, the level of expertise in chemistry, logistics, environmental law, employee training – let alone the disciplines required to support it all, such as funding schemes, HR policy, social media management and many, many more. Given his fore-sightedness, perhaps he might not.
In 85 years, CSG has undergone a metamorphosis from a small, local provider of a specific service to a huge, diverse amalgamation of a wide variety of specialisms, all loosely connected with the world of consumption and waste. In a quirk of fate, one of the most innovative areas of our operations today is the same, necessary removal and treatment of sewage. Now, as it ever was, there’s still ‘brass’ wherever there’s ‘muck’.
In 1934, a very different Britain was still shaped by her Victorian heyday, in the twilight of Empire. The country mourned the passing of two of its greatest composers, Elgar and Holst, a 19 year-old called Stanley Matthews made his England debut and a writer from Australia called PL Travers published a book called ‘Mary Poppins’. It was, in so many ways, nothing like the Britain we inhabit today. And yet, the basic rules of business apply today, as much as they did then – the vital importance of doing a job well, to the absolute satisfaction of the customer.
May those fundamental guiding principles continue to guide CSG over the many decades to come!
March 1979 was an uncertain time. Emerging from the ‘Winter of Discontent’, James Callaghan’s government had lost a conﬁdence vote, forcing a General Election. Airey Neave MP was killed by terrorists with a car bomb in the House of Commons car park, police in Yorkshire were searching for a killer they believed to be involved in the murder of ten women and economists were widely predicting that Britain was heading for a recession. Appropriately, perhaps, the two number one singles in that month were ‘Tragedy’ by the Bee Gees and ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor.
It was against this dispiriting backdrop that a 19 year-old called Mike Wright from Cadishead was at a crossroads of his own. He’d left school with ambitions of a career in engineering but the fragile economy of the late seventies meant that apprenticeships in the car industry were few and far between. A short spell working at the steelworks in Warrington was restricted by unhelpful train timetables which saw him struggle to arrive at work on time every day. As a remedy to this problem, his mother arranged an interview for him at Lancashire Tar Distillers on Liverpool Road, where she worked as a secretary to one of the directors.
Mike recalls his interview with a smile:
“A man called Harold Rutter met me. ‘Hello Mike, please take a seat. Now, tell me, do you mind getting covered in [Northern word for excrement, rhyming with ‘white’]?’. I said ‘No’ and he just said ‘Well, I’ll look forward to seeing you ﬁrst thing, Monday morning.’”.
Clearly, It was, as the saying goes, a simpler time.
Mike’s ﬁrst role was one of the ‘Yard Gang’, a group of six men whose job was to ﬁll drums of creosote and liquid tar, ready for them to be collected by customers. Another oil product, pitch, was produced at very high temperatures, which, once poured onto the ﬂoor and cooled, had to be broken up with jackhammers and shovelled into drums. Unsurprisingly, health and safety standards in those days were not what they are today. It’s not an exaggeration to say that risks were mostly assessed by the men advising each other simply to avoid repeating the actions that had maimed or killed previous colleagues.
In truth, the tar distillery operation was by then in the throes of a long decline. The nearby Manchester Ship Canal had ceased to be a signiﬁcant means of transport, all the machinery was driven by steam and an antique locomotive was still occasionally used to move materials from one part of the site to another.
After two years in the yard gang, Mike moved to the storage area, loading and unloading products for customers. As custodian of the stored inventory for the next ﬁve years or so, it was also Mike’s job to assist whenever Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise came to visit, to check and meter the accuracy of the record-keeping.
By the 1990s, the Lane brothers had sold their stake in Lancashire Tar Distillers and the operation was renamed Lanstar by the new owners. Amid the many changes around this time was the end of tar production and a focus on chemicals and waste treatment – and one change in particular was to be to Mike’s beneﬁt.
“One Christmas, the chemical operators decided to go out for a few drinks at lunchtime. When they came back, ﬁlled with ‘Dutch courage’, they demanded to see the bosses and ask for better pay. The result was that they were all sacked and I got one of the jobs in the new team.”
This was a much more technical job that required constant monitoring as various materials were distilled, pressurised and mixed to make detergents and wetting agents. Even so, there was little or no oﬃcial documentation to cover the processes involved in working with a wide range of diﬀerent materials, some quite hazardous. Mike was tasked with creating a clear guide to each of the nine diﬀerent major aspects of his role, a project that today, we might refer to as Process Mapping, which also began to inform the emerging health and safety requirements of working in such an environment.
His diligence and growing experience saw him promoted to foreman of the chemical operation at Lanstar. Suddenly, he was on call 24 hours a day, dealing with incidents as and when they occurred.
His abilities were further recognised when he became Plant Manager of the Hydrocarbon section, in overall charge of the collection and storage of the waste oil being processed on the site. In order to fulﬁl this role, Mike needed qualiﬁcations. For ﬁve years, he studied in evenings and at weekends, passing sixteen exams and eventually earning a City & Guilds Level 3 qualiﬁcation in Process Plant Operations.
Unfortunately for Mike, after all that eﬀort, plummeting oil prices put a stop to the viability of Lanstar treating waste oil, resulting in the closure of its Hydrocarbon division. Instead, Mike moved to the Solid Fixation Plant, supervising the diﬀerent processes of making cake for landﬁll.
By this point, the new millennium had dawned and things were about to change again. Lanstar had spent years trying to make the most of their investment in the former Lancashire Tar Distillers site but economic realities had made them an attractive takeover prospect and in 2000, the company was acquired by CSG.
Immediately, eﬃciencies were made, which included a number of redundancies. Recalling the uncertainties of the time today, he’s quite sanguine: “I reckon I dodged redundancy a couple of times”. It’s likely his wide experience was seen as an asset at the time as his new role of Shift Leader of a reduced workforce meant that he needed to be versatile enough to work on all the remaining aspects of the business.
Another stint followed on the ‘Solid Fix’ plant, while Mike worked to obtain a Diploma in IT, furthering his interest in the maintenance of the computers which were starting to become a central part of every workplace.
For the last four years, Mike has been tasked with overseeing CSG’s innovative nickel and copper reclamation processes, as the valuable metals are separated from scrap material using a process called electrowinning. It all sounds deceptively simple but daily exposure to the hazards posed by electrical currents and sulphuric acid suggests it’s a job for someone with lots of experience of following safely procedures: “I watch what I’m doing.”, Mike says, modestly. “Slower is usually safer.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) his seniority, Mike’s adherence to safety protocols has led to him receiving his fair share of ribbing from his colleagues. One notorious gag that did the rounds for a while was this: ‘What do Michael Wright and Michael Jackson have in common? They both wear gloves for no reason!’
Despite the notability of the occasion, Mike recalls the ups and downs of his career over the last forty years with little ceremony.
“It all seems to have gone past pretty quickly. I’ve always said that working here has been like playing a game of snakes and ladders. I’ve been up a few ladders and down a few snakes – and now I’m happy to stay out of the way of them both. I have looked at other jobs over the years but this is local and you’re never sure what might happen at a new place. I look at some people who are always swapping jobs but it never seems to make a lot of sense to me.
“I’m happy where I am.”
The world has changed hugely in the last forty years. Technological and social changes have seen our lives become hugely diﬀerent from those in the late seventies – for better and, in some ways, for worse. March 1979 was an uncertain time but despite the many improvements we’ve experienced in the interim, uncertainties about the future have always remained. One lesson from Mike’s story is that, when he started work at Liverpool Road, Cadishead, even though so much in the world seemed like a tragedy, he did survive.
After all the seemingly pointless Strava updates about random cycling sessions you may have seen, it’s time you all knew the truth I’ve been keeping under wraps – I’m going to do the Manchester to Blackpool bike ride.
I’ve been asked to ride to help raise money for the iMRI Scanner Appeal at Manchester Children’s Hospital. Aaron’s colleague Gary learned that his 13 year-old daughter Olivia was diagnosed with Ependynoma, a rare brain cancer. As Olivia is currently receiving treatment at the MCH, she’s hoping to raise as much money as possible for this appeal.
You don’t know Olivia. Neither do I. It doesn’t matter. We all know people with children and it’s one of nature’s cruellest tricks to afflict young people like her with conditions like this, indiscriminately. Think about Olivia as any teenager you know and about her family as their family. Wouldn’t we all be happier in the knowledge that places like Manchester Children’s Hospital have all the technology they need to fight and beat horrible diseases like this?
*Serious Face Bit*
I only need to cycle 60 miles – hopefully a few hours in the saddle – which might smart a bit for 24 hours. If you can endure the pain of giving up a few quid, you can help alleviate the difficulties of Olivia’s family and many many others for years to come. Please give what you can to the just giving page below. Thank you.
We’re back from the Lake District after another successful Great North Swim weekend. The caravan’s been emptied, the roofbox has been removed from the car and nearly all of the washing has been done. There’s just one more job to do – to say a massive ‘Thank you’ to all of you who gave your support.
This year was the fifth year we’ve attended the ‘Great North Swim’, held around the north-east shores of Windermere. With the exception of the 2017 event, we had some of the worst weather we’ve experienced there. Lower temperatures, higher winds and heavier rain all made for a more challenging weekend – and that’s before anyone got in the lake! With higher waves for the swimmers to contend with, the organisers took the decision to reduce the length of each event, to allow them to be set out over a more sheltered part of the course.
As Charlie’s only fourteen, even though he began the weekend a veteran of two previous GNS events and countless training swims over the distance, he was still only able to enter the half-mile distance. The organisers insist on a lower age limit of 16 for the mile swim so the same issue will occur next year.
Unlike the last two years, where he was ably escorted around the course by Warren and Aaron, this year they’d decided to swim at their own pace. That made things slightly trickier for spectators and photographers because in a field of mostly front-crawlers, Aaron’s breaststroke always made it easier to spot the three of them. As they were cheered into the water and began to swim away from the watching crowds, it was clear that they were swimming apart and both Charlie and Warren would be harder to spot.
The high winds had led to the course being reduced to 500 metres, approximately two-thirds of the scheduled distance. With Charlie hoping for a sub-twenty-minute half-mile, maths suggested that we could expect him home in thirteen minutes. Interpolating further, that would suggest, he’d reach the turn on the course at around six and a half minutes.
I trained my binoculars on the turn at around the six minute mark and looked for any of the three of them. Separated, as they were, there would at least be three times the chance that I’d see one of them, I thought. And yet after a whole minute had gone by, none of the swimmers I saw looked familiar.
Wondering what the problem was, I began to track my sights backwards along the ‘back straight’ and drew a similar blank. The only other thing to do was pan along the ‘home straight’ to the finish line. Surely they couldn’t be that far into the course with only seven minutes gone. And then I saw the unmistakeable bobbing action of a breaststroker.
It was definitely Aaron. Surely, Charlie would only be a short distance from him – but again, logic seemed to be a stranger to the unfolding events. I scanned the waters behind Aaron, to the left and then to the right. We were coming up to eight minutes on the timer and neither Charlie nor Warren were anywhere to be seen.
And then I looked in the waters ahead of Aaron. There had been a few training swims where he and Warren had said they’d struggled to keep up with Charlie but I’d expected that they were mostly saying it as motivation. Surely, today, with all the adrenaline pumping, that wouldn’t still be the case – would it?
It was. Far further ahead of Aaron than I’d dared imagine, I finally spotted his laconic crawling style. Not only was he so far ahead, he was actually nearing the finish. I trained the camera on him and began to click away, making up for lost time.
In no time at all, he reached the ramp that leads to the finish line, got to his feet and virtually sprinted to the line. His official time was ten minutes eighteen seconds but his time in the water was nine minutes forty. A combination of the shorter distance, the watching crowds and perhaps a little competitive spirit enabled more of a sprint but even so, it was an impressive time.
Minutes later, Aaron and then Warren crossed the line and all three of them gathered in the finishers’ zone for the obligatory photographs. Once again, they’d all completed the course!
As a result of their efforts, I’m delighted to confirm that Charlie and Warren have managed to beat their £500 sponsorship target for Amelia’s specialist support. As I type, the appeal has reached £665, a third more than they’d hoped to raise. Of course, don’t let that stop you adding to that figure, if you wish to. Every pound raised is as important as every other. Once again, thanks to all of you who made that happen!
If you’re even a fairly regular visitor to this parish, you’re probably familiar with my god-daughter Amelia, her special needs and the various things that we, her support network, join in with to help her every year. If you’re not aware, here’s some examples, from previous years:
Okay, so you’ve got the picture. Basically, it’s *that* time of year again so you know what’s coming next: I’m asking for your support, as much or as little as you feel able to give – it’s all massively important and so very much appreciated.
Just like the last two years, Charlie (now aged 14) will be swimming the half-mile course at the Great North Swim, in Windermere. The actual lake, not the town. He’s more than capable of swimming further than that but the organisers don’t allow mile-swimming (or further) until after a sixteenth birthday has passed. Just like last year and the year before, he’s done many evenings at Pennington Flash in Leigh, getting the miles in, to ensure he can do a half-mile (that’s 805 metres) on the day, with relative ease.
By rights, that should be all I can tell you – it’s the same deal as last year, please sponsor him, all contributions etc. etc. but it tends to harm the sales pitch when you say everything’s the same. For that reason, I’m going to divulge something else. Something that, once you know, might get me in trouble. Don’t tell him I told you this but…
Last year, he did the half-mile in something like 20 minutes and 30 seconds. It may have been eight minutes quicker than his 2017 effort and it was a good time but *whispers*, he was a bit gutted that he hadn’t gone “sub-twenty”. This year, he’s made it his mission to beat that benchmark, swimming further and harder to ensure he can do it. He’s another year older, more experienced and with slightly longer limbs so he should achieve his goal but we won’t know until he’s got round again. If you want to support him for anything, it’s this effort that will define his 2019 swim, not the distance.
Alternatively, you can support his determination to swim around the ‘Penny Flash’ course quicker than I can cycle around the whole park (he has) or the resilience (and Coca-Cola) required to combat all the bugs that inhabit a lake filled with wildfowl…foul. Open water swimming is certainly not for everyone but for that reason, those who do it deserve anyone’s admiration.
Right, I think I’ve ladelled that on heavily enough.
Please consider helping Charlie and Warren as they raise funds to help with Amelia’s progress for another year. The link is below. Oh, and as Warren works for United Utilites, we’re hoping that every pound that he and Charlie raise from this page will be matched by UU – so for every pound you donate, you can get two pounds’ worth of feelgood.
As you probably know, we take our Health & Safety responsibilities very safely, here at CSG. In April 2018, we held our inaugural ‘Health & Safety Week’, an initiative we repeated this year. As part of our developing focus, we’ve decided to turn this very broad topic into four more clearly defined categories: Safe Processes, Safe Equipment, Safe Environment and Safe People. Concluding the series, we’ll investigate what is covered by the Safe Equipment element of our policy.
You’d think it might be a simple job to determine the safest equipment necessary to perform a task. On one level, it is. When faced with a simple choice of having a piece of equipment to perform a specific task, it’s fairly straightforward to decide that it becomes a standard requirement of the job.
Things can get slightly more complex when the task is less specific or the environment less controlled. For example, ensuring that PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is worn at designated parts of a treatment facility is relatively simple to enforce when any infringement happens in full view. It’s not always as simple to achieve compliance when there’s no-one around to watch.
This was the situation that Kevin Mooney, our Health & Safety Manager faced, recently, when he investigated incident reports involving manhole covers. Despite the fact that tanker drivers had access to a device to help them safely remove them, the equipment didn’t seem to be entirely preventing injuries. Naturally, the matter required closer attention.
“I found the manhole cover-removing device that we affix to our tankers was quite heavy and difficult to manoeuvre, which led to it becoming almost a safety risk in its own right. The incidents naturally arose as some operators had decided not to use it – leading to minor injuries from removing manhole covers by lifting them with the conventional handles.”
It was clear that a different, lighter device was necessary, something that was easy enough to use that it would become the most obvious, most preferable way for anyone to do the job. Kevin knew he had to source an alternative.
“We thought we’d found a better version, which was lighter and could be lifted onto the truck much more easily but unfortunately, during testing, we bent it while lifting a stuck cover.”
The answer was to amend the design of the newer model slightly, to give it both the strength and lightness Kevin required. Only then, could it be useful and user-friendly enough to be trusted by all operators to do the job better than the more strenuous ‘traditional’ method.
In the end, a simple modification, borne of a fair degree of management time and attention has led to a better solution – and one which should further improve our safety standards. Also, with the development of the equipment being visibly driven by management, it further encourages a safetyfirst culture, which is vital to gaining universal compliance.
The same can be said of another of Kevin’s projects: a remote control unit for a device that jets water into a channel and uses the power of the water to propel itself along. Described as a ‘bombjet’, it could only have its water supply turned on by someone stood by the tanker, which meant that a single operator would always have to leave it unattended when turning it on. A remote control unit will ensure that the device can be better controlled at the moment of ‘launch’, avoiding accidental damage before it happens.
Such instances allow Kevin to warm to his theme: “Proactive measures are always better than reactive ones. Preventing incidents rather than just seeking to reduce them is a sign of a journey to a positive safety culture. Equipment will always help us achieve better safety but it has to be the right equipment and it has to be so easy and effective that there’s no way it won’t be used in all circumstances. Simply put, the more that the right safety equipment can be used, the safer people are.”
As you probably know, we take our Health & Safety responsibilities very safely, here at CSG. In April 2018, we held our inaugural ‘Health & Safety Week’, an initiative we repeated this year. As part of our developing focus, we’ve decided to turn this very broad topic into four more clearly defined categories: Safe Processes, Safe Equipment, Safe Environment and Safe People. Continuing the series, we’ll investigate what is covered by the Safe Processes element of our policy.
If you were asked to give a single word that defines our age, you might be tempted to suggest a some technological term, perhaps a word not old enough to be listed in the yellowed pages of a fifty year-old dictionary, like ’internet’ or ‘micro-chip’. It would be a good answer – understandable but perhaps not quite defining enough.
Ask anyone who’s done a similar job of work over the last four decades and they’ll probably agree the biggest difference between today’s world and the one in which they started in the job is the infinitely greater importance placed upon Process.
We live in an increasingly process-driven world. Tasks that, years ago, were often left to the operator to be performed in the most obvious or intuitive way are now invariably the subject of a multi-page document, outlining in forensic detail the parameters of each stage. Yes, digital technology has influenced our lives greatly but perhaps the greatest effect, even now, is the way
that so many of our ‘analogue’ tasks can also be broken down into prescriptive lines of instruction, just like a computer program.
Frustrating as it can sometimes be to accept that our lives are more mapped out than they have ever been, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In hazardous industries such as our own, it’s long been understood that you can’t compromise safety by performing a certain task in whatever way you happen to prefer. When the stakes are high, there has to be a certainty that safety is assured at all times – and that means ensuring the process is pre-determined, often to the most minor detail.
Of course, the stakes don’t get much higher than ensuring the safety of hundreds of employees and many, many more visitors, contractors, customers and neighbours and it’s the responsibility of Kevin Mooney, our Health & Safety Manager, to ensure that our processes get the job done in the safest way, every time.
In one form or another, we’ve been adopting ever-safer processes in the ways that we work for decades. Responding to the ever-shifting balance between the services we are able to offer and the way we expect our colleagues to perform them has become a process in itself.
Today, Kevin and our Compliance Manager, Sarah Taylor and their teams are continuing to evolve the way we control our processes, to ensure the very best combination of operational excellence and safe practice. Like any form of evolution, the task will never be finished; there’ll always be some characteristic that requires an adaptation to ensure greater success in future.
This year’s focus is on those we’ve always been less able to control: contractors. Whether they’re working with CSG to look after our facilities or they’re sub-contractors doing work on our behalf for the customer, we’re now ensuring we can exert the same levels of control over their processes. This will allow us to expect the same level of safe practice already shown by our own highly compliant team.
“We’ve created an ‘Approved Contractor’ list”, explains Kevin. “It’s a means for us to ensure we know the capabilities of each of the external companies we use: their accreditations, the standards they can meet, even the renewal dates of their insurance”
“Having contacted each of our contractors and obtained all that information, we’ll then make it available to our Operational teams and give them the ability to update it continuously.”
Such visibility of our partners is regarded as ‘best practice’ in other industries and it ensures that all processes carried out on CSG’s behalf, can be seen to adhere to our own internal Health & Safety standards. Isn’t it all a bit onerous, adding another layer of bureaucracy to a dynamic commercial environment? You sense that Kevin has already anticipated the question:
“Simplicity has to be the guiding principle here. We know that there can’t be any encumbrance on operations because our policies need to be applied one hundred percent of the time. The moment there’s a complication, there’s a temptation not to comply so the whole thing needs to be kept as simple as possible.”
What about smaller, trusted contractors? Doesn’t it penalise them to give them greater expectations to meet?
“We’ve always recognised the need to avoid being over-zealous and creating rules for the sake of having rules but on certain issues, like accreditations, we mustn’t compromise. Of course, we’re willing to give assistance to any contractor trying to obtain the standards we’re asking of them. If they can comply, we’ll still want to work with them so it would be in both our interests to help where we can.”
It’s another way to ensure that our processes are as safe as they can be and to ensure that the often necessary practice of contracting out work doesn’t create a reason for our internal safety standards to be upheld any less, whoever it is that’s performing the task.
Once the ‘Approved Contractor’ list is established in CSG’s way of working, there’s an intention to develop it further, to extend the principle to greater levels of safety assurance. You might say that the very process of ensuring safe working processes goes on.
As you probably know, we take our Health & Safety responsibilities very safely, here at CSG. Last April, we held our inaugural ‘Health & Safety Week’, something we’ve already planned to repeat this year. As part of our developing focus, we’ve decided to turn this very broad topic into four more clearly-defined categories: Safe Processes, Safe Equipment, Safe Environment and Safe People. Continuing the series, we’ll investigate what is covered by the Safe Environment element of our policy.
Ensuring safe conduct of large numbers of people in an area where lots of hazardous things happen every day is a demanding task. It’s an obligation in which everything has to happen correctly, all the time, to ensure success – conversely, only take a few transgressions can result in a serious incident. When the stakes are this high, even being almost perfect just isn’t good enough.
Much of the risks we manage can be mitigated by providing clarity about the ways we expect people to behave, in the guise of training and rules. As comprehensive and as sophisticated as they are, ultimately, they’ll always require each individual’s compliance to have the desired effect. What if, for whatever reason, those control measures are ignored or overlooked, even accidentally? What else can be done to convey vital information quickly and effectively?
One answer is to control our environment, all the areas in which we operate, to reinforce the requirements and principles, clearly and consistently, that underpin our Health & Safety policy. From ‘softer’ measures to achieve this control, like signage all to ‘harder’ measures like restricted access areas, essential safe practice can be governed by the organisation of the very place that requires it.
Sarah Taylor, CSG’s Compliance Manager describes the scale of the issue:
“This consideration is both complicated and made more necessary by the fact that we have such a wide variety of workplaces to cover, from offices to laboratories to workshops, as well as plant areas and the waste handling areas themselves. Each type of location will have its own hazards and procedures to ensure safe working where they exist.”
You might conclude that the challenge here is similar to safe road use – passing a driving test may give you the ability to drive on any road but it gives you little or no insight about the various hazards and limits that exist on every motorway, mountain pass or one-way system in the country. Only by a combination of your knowledge of the rules, together with a consistent approach to information of the requirements and restrictions specific to every area, can safe road use be assured. As a driver, you must learn the wide variety of road signs because you’re expected to obey them. In return, you can expect signage to be present at each and every location in which those rules apply. Similarly, physical features such as speed bumps and barriers can enforce restrictions beyond simply informing users of the rules.
In environments such as those which CSG operate, the process of restriction can go much further than public roads can. If you’re determined to ride a bicycle on the motorway, there’s nothing to physically stop you – the Police will soon find you and advise you that you have broken the law in doing so, but realistically, that system can only be run on a ‘first failure’ basis – with suitable deterrents. At our sites, considerations of public access don’t apply and, crucially, ‘first failure’ isn’t an option. This means that we can design our layouts and add manned checkpoints or doors operated by keycards in order to stop even those who may deliberately wish to ignore the restrictions.
As with other aspects of CSG’s Health & Safety policies, there is an unwillingness to confine the scope simply to that which is expected of us. We believe there should be expectations above and beyond the obvious and necessary. This year, there’s an emphasis on ways to replicate the safe working measures that employees can expect at CSG sites to be applied when they’re working off-site, as Sarah explains:
“On any given day, so many of our people will be working at locations not operated by CSG, and, of course, driving from one site to another. We’re keen to ensure that we look after the health and safety of these colleagues as much as any other.
“It’s less easy because, unlike at our own sites, we do not have ultimate control of the environments they will face – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to exercise our influence, where we can. We encourage any of our colleagues working off-site to report any concerns and ensure we raise them with the local operator, as encouragingly as possible. Generally, companies do try to avoid being thought as ‘unsafe’ so where measures are suggested, they tend to be addressed in good faith. We may only be able to influence rather than control but the value of influence is often under-rated. As with other areas of our Health & Safety practice, we find time and again that avoiding a culture of blame is a very important way to make a real difference.”
As in other areas, that word ‘culture’ appears – and seems to be key to success. We may all presume that only an iron grip of rule enforcement offers the surest way to achieve total compliance but there are softer benefits that a clearly-controlled environment can bring.
“It’s just another way to be clear with people, to make the point that this all stuff really matters – and that your adherence is vital to its success. We hold a log of unsafe acts in order to understand how each instance could have been avoided and to monitor improvements once we’ve addressed each issue and we consistently find it’s much easier to effect change when we can prove to people the need to ‘buy-in’ to what we’re trying to achieve. The more that people want to do that, the easier it is to ensure that everyone makes the right decisions.”
Marley was born, we believe on 7th July 2007 (7/7/07) and was ‘put to sleep’, aged 11, on 3rd May 2019.
Marley died on the day that news broke of the death of Peter Mayhew, the man who gave life to Chewbacca.The coincidence was a fitting one: both were synonymous with a lifetime of faithful service and companionship, the best sidekicks anyone could ask for, whether you were walking in the woods or infiltrating an Imperial base on a forest moon.One was described as a “walking carpet”, the other donated his fur to carpet several generations of birds’ nests.
It all started so improbably.It was March 2008 and we’d heard from a friend that her colleague had an eight month-old golden Labrador pup that she needed to re-home.Just as we had done with Sam, our first dog, three years earlier, I’d agreed to go along to “have a look” in the laughably naive expectation that such a measure would constitute no form of material commitment.Just like the last time, we may as well have bought the dog bed on the way there.
He wasn’t badly behaved but he was young, restless and wilful, a little too much for this rather unadventurous middle-aged couple and their pension-age Jack Russell.Having just built our house and deliberately carpeted it in the same colour as our black lab, this golden upstart was clearly the wrong colour.He also had the wrong name – ‘Charlie’.Obviously, there was no way we could have a house in which a child and a dog could share the same name.No, it was a nice idea but not possible.Again, logic seemed to be absent because by the Easter weekend, he was with us, subtly re-named Marley (after John Grogan’s ‘Marley & Me’, which I’d read the year before), nervously and deferentially trying to find his place in our young family.
My memory of his first day with us was at tea-time.Helen had been watching a fly-on-the-wall show about an animal rescue team in Dallas and noted that they would often gauge the character of their intake by deliberately taking their food away from them.She had a point, of course: we had a three year-old son and had to be sure that the newcomer’s temperament could withstand even an accidental provocation.I put down his bowl of food and watched as he ravenously began to devour its contents.
“Now pick it up”, Helen ordered.“Like they do on ‘Animal Rescue’.”
I hadn’t seen this part of the show but I’d like to think I know dogs well enough to be able to judge their nature fairly accurately so I went along with it.Even though I was almost certain that he’d react perfectly to the test, as I edged my hand forwards to take away his meal, it still occurred to me that I didn’t actually know how he was going to react.Slightly nervously, I removed the food.The young dog went instantly from frenzied eating to silently pleading for the return of his meal.The test had been comprehensively passed and we’d both gained each other’s trust.
A week or two later, the aforementioned TV show was on and the latest resident was to be tested.Meal prepared, placed on the floor, dog allowed to start eating, bowl removed -using plastic ‘hand’ on the end of a long stick, just in case….I looked at a now giggling Helen.“You kept that bit quiet!”
Marley’s story (and this obituary) could easily have been written into finality only a few weeks later.It was summer 2008; I was on my way to drop Charlie (still pre-nursery) off for the day, before driving to work.At the time, Helen’s horse was stabled at home and she was feeding him before going to work.I was just driving over Parbold Hill when my ‘phone rang.It was Helen and her tone was urgent.
“You’ll have to come home.Marley’s tongue is blue”
The inquisitive young dog had discovered a black plastic box, a supposedly tamper-proof container in which rat poison could be safely placed.Having successfully opened it, he’d found a strange blue substance which must have looked interesting enough to eat.Fortunately, he was so proud of his exploits, he’d decided to show Helen how happy he was.If he hadn’t, or if Helen had decided not to hang back to feed the horse that morning, it could have been a very different outcome.
Naturally, we acted fast.Within half an hour, we were at the vet, signing consent forms for antidotes, vitamin K, to induce sickness, to clear out his system and a full day of observation.We were reasonably confident he’d survive but we were told to expect him to be affected by the medication for another twenty-four hours.When I got home from work at six o’clock that evening, he bounced towards me with all the vim and vigour of a dog still pleased with himself for breaking into an ‘unbreakable’ container.He seemed indestructible, an irresistible, if idiotic, force of nature.
Marley was always a team player, happy to play second fiddle to the more dominant Sam.It didn’t take long for the older dog to impress upon him that the bit of bedroom carpet by my side of the bed was very definitely Sam’s night-time spot.Marley’s response was simply to wander round to Helen’s side of the bed.
Nocturnal politics aside, Sam always identified as Charlie’s dog, his protector and permanent shadow.This left open the position of a similar companion for me – an opportunity that Marley was only too happy to fill.Even a quick trip to get something from the garage or to take empty milk bottles to the end of the drive was a chance for Marley to pad along, dutifully, at my heel.
He was quite the athlete in his younger day.Utterly fixated on catching and retrieving a tennis ball, we soon realised the most efficient way to meet his need to let off steam was to stand at one end of the field with a tennis racket and keep hitting it to the other.Within seconds, he was back, ready to go again.After ten full-length belts of the ball had been retrieved, in no time at all, I’d worked out he’d run a mile.Only after another twenty or so repetitions, would he start to calm down.
We’d find ever more inventive ways to harness his energy and enthusiasm.I remember several times when I’d deliberately bounce the ball in such a way that I could photograph him leaping acrobatically for it.There was also one occasion where Martin made a point of bouncing a ball in front of a massive puddle in the water-logged field, so the act of jumping for it would lead to him landing in the small lake.The first I knew of it was when I received a photo of a sodden, mud-encrusted dog, absolutely focused on the out-of-shot ball, desperate to be asked to fetch it again.
As the pair matured, their tendency for hi-jinks finally diminished.No more playing on the other side of the dual carriageway or disappearing to play in the mud a few fields away, they eventually succumbed to respectability.Barbecues and birthday parties were their favourite times, a field full of kids to play with, with plenty of available food (either offered or unguarded).
Throughout his time with us, we’ve never had a doorbell, yet any similar sound on TV always made Marley bark as though someone must be at the door – presumably a throwback to his previous family.We also wondered why similar depictions of reversing lorry alarms elicited the same response – until we realised one Thursday morning that, to him, it was a trigger that the bins must be being emptied.
He loved walking over the fields, crossing the motorway bridge and exploring the woods that lead almost to Appley Bridge.Even in his final weeks, he was always giddy with excitement every time it became clear that we were about to go for a walk.Tennis ball exploits aside, he tended more to be a keen spectator than a participant of garden football matches and, whenever the chance arose, was surprisingly reticent to show off his fishing-dog heritage in water.We did once harness him to a sledge to see if he’d play along but he spent most of the time barking – probably protesting that the whole thing was beneath him.
At the age of eight and a half, his appetites and toilet habits suddenly changed.He’d always been impeccably behaved in the house so clearly, something wasn’t quite right.George, our vet, suspected canine diabetes and soon enough, the results confirmed it.The symptoms were reversible but the condition was “life-limiting” and it would require him to be injected twice-daily.
As the aphorism goes, dogs are “98 percent wolf” and most, however domesticated, do not take kindly to being jabbed in the neck – understandably so.If it had been Sam, the most ‘human’ dog I’ve ever encountered, I still think he’d have struggled and resisted in the way that dogs can only be expected to, which would effectively have been a death sentence.Even life-saving treatment has to be weighed against extreme distress and the potential for biting injuries.
Marley was different.Possibly because he was the runt of his litter, he possessed a legendarily meek nature and always accepted his obligations without complaint.His reward for compliance was the years it added to his life.Without doubt, the biggest hurdle in owning a diabetic dog is overcoming the natural reluctance to believe that you can inject an animal so regularly.You just have to – but it’s so much easier with a compliant dog.
Not only did he make the process as easy as it could be made for us, he also ensured that we could more realistically ask others to administer his insulin, which meant we could still go away for weekends and holidays with minimal effect.To everyone who has ever stood in for us to inject him and allow us not to be tied by his condition, now is a good opportunity to say thank you.He was our dog and our responsibility and it takes a lot to act outside your comfort zone for someone else.Marley may have made it easier but you made it possible.
When Sam died, in 2016, we put our name on the Labrador Rescue register, expecting that it would take some time before a suitable dog would become available.Less than a fortnight later, we’d been chosen.Marley had probably just got used to the benefits of being the sole dog in the house when, unfortunately for him, his world was turned upside-down by the arrival of Hurricane Elsa.
Suddenly, this immature, fourteen month-old, neurotic pup was sharing his space, interrupting his routine.For the first time ever, we heard him growl in frustration – at her persistent attempts to goad him into playing with her when all he wanted to do was lie in his bed.In this instance, his benign nature probably didn’t help.Sam would have had her up against a wall in no time, instilling his disciple in no uncertain terms.Marley just wanted a quiet life and only complained as a ‘last straw’, to remove the irritation.If anything, his tolerance only encouraged her mischief.
Eventually, the relationship calmed and, with Elsa’s worst excesses (mostly) abated, Marley accepted the situation and was happy to play second fiddle again – as he always did.
Time and diabetes were beginning to conspire against him.His eyes began to cloud, his legs weakened and his gait became more uncoordinated and wavering.Despite it all, his appetite remained undiminished.He loved to be outside but walking any distances took more out of him than before.He slept a lot more.This time last year, I would let him out and encourage him to lie in the sun, to rest with its warmth on his back.Since his diagnosis, it had seemed realistic to make the assumption that each summer could be his last.I remember hoping that 2018 would be a good summer.It was.I hope he thought so too.
At our three-monthly veterinary check-ups, George and I would monitor his weight, his progress, his fructosamine and glucosamine levels.We were controlling the diabetes well but as he aged, it began to occur to me that he may not outlive his primary condition – that other factors may claim him before the diabetes.In recent weeks, we talked about ‘the sign’, something that assures you it’s time to make the right decision.As long as Marley was keen to drag himself along on a walk or bark his disapproval that five o’clock had passed and he’d still not been fed, his zest for life couldn’t be denied.In both respects, this remained the case, even as recently as the Easter weekend, the eleventh anniversary of his arrival in the house.
Two days before he died, he chose not to go on a walk and we allowed him his uncharacteristic reluctance, an unlikely anomaly.A day later, he wouldn’t get out of his bed for his tea.For a dog almost defined by his love of food, this could be no acceptable exception.It was the sign we were waiting for.His breathing was suddenly shallower and his visits to the water bowl were almost constant.I suspected, needlessly, that his kidneys were beginning to fail.The last words he heard were from George, from Helen and from me.
As we did for Sam and then Ben, we dug him a grave by the lawn and laid him to rest in the shadow of the rhododendron bush.The memorials that mark their resting places reflect their lifetimes of service.
I remember saying once of the young Marley, when he arrived, in a flurry of uncertain outcomes, in 2008: “if he’s half the dog that Sam is, I’ll be happy with that”.Of course he turned out to be so much more than meeting such a modest expectation.In many ways he was the polar opposite of his predecessor and his marked differences removed the possibility of direct comparison, an unnecessary exercise at the best of times.Marley was every bit Sam’s equal, in lots of ways, more understated but no less worthy of note.Perhaps one day, we may even say the same of Elsa.
In the end, Marley was happy with being a dog, happy to be part of our family, happy in his routine and, ultimately, happy with everything else that life gave him, good or bad.He was loved and he gave every appearance that he knew how loved he was.
As you probably know, we take our Health & Safety responsibilities very seriously, here at CSG. Last April, we held our inaugural ‘Health & Safety Week’, something we’ve repeated this year. As part of our developing focus, we’ve decided to turn this very broad topic into four more clearly-defined areas: Safe Systems, Safe Equipment, Safe Environment and Safe People. First up, we’ll investigate what is covered by the Safe People element…
There are few words more entwined within our company’s DNA than ‘people’. We recognise People as one of the four ‘pillars’ that support the CSG brand, making us what we are, defining our success. If you spend any time with our MD, Neil Richards, you’ll soon learn that his mantra “it’s all about the people” is more than just a handy catchphrase, it’s a deeply-held philosophy. With that in mind, it’s inconceivable that we wouldn’t dedicate a quarter of our focus on the way our people can contribute to ever-higher safety standards.
Our Compliance Manager, Sarah Taylor explains further.
“The obvious way to bracket the issues raised by Health & Safety considerations with the people who are relied upon to enact them is to provide lots of training – to simply ensure that people know what’s expected of them. Of course that’s important and we can all agree that an element of training will always be necessary but we believe the answer goes much further than that.
“Anyone who works in Health & Safety will tell you that proactive measures are better than reactive so we’re always looking for extra ways to improve everyone’s health and safety, avoiding the need to react to a future situation. For the first time this year, we’re also developing a structured approach to supporting mental health as well as physical health. Not only is mental health becoming a better- understood topic in the wider world, it’s also increasingly clear that a healthier workforce demonstrably acts in a safer way.
“There’s been a lot of emphasis placed on the impact of good mental health on Behavioural Safety. We rely on our people to make good decisions, every minute of every day and, given the hazardous nature of much of our operations, so many of those decisions can directly affect the health and safety of others. The more we support the mental health of CSG employees, the more safely we operate.”
Today, as mental health is better understood, the issues it raises are more openly discussed in the media, with Stephen Fry and Alistair Campbell among the most prominent advocates for changing attitudes. It’s therefore no surprise that Matt Haig’s personal account of his struggles – and his approach to confronting them – Reasons To Stay Alive, remains a bestselling book, almost three years after it was first published. Since last year’s inaugural Health & Safety Week, all employees have been given the opportunity to receive counselling, in the strictest confidence, via a third party company – a facility that will continue to be provided in 2019.
CSG also offer opportunities to work on physical fitness (a 5-a-side football team established at our Cadishead depot is still going strong, a year on) and various work-shadowing schemes, to build understanding and engagement between different departments. Together with the necessary training and the focus on mindfulness, it’s a comprehensive approach to ensuring that meeting Health & Safety objectives really is something in which every employee has a stake.
And yet there is one final stage that shouldn’t be overlooked – creating a culture that allows everyone to feel their perspective is important – and that has led to an effect you might find surprising. Sarah explains:
“We have to empower our people to exercise judgement whenever they feel safety is compromised – no-one can accurately predict every single risk and even a huge set of prescriptive rules will never lead to a safer outcome in all cases. A fear of being blamed for stopping a process can be a disincentive to Behavioural Safety so the only way to counter that is to create and reinforce a strong ‘no-blame’ culture.”
When employees at our Cadishead plant were interviewed as part of our Investors In People accreditation, it was notable how many of them were able to give examples of safety concerns being reported and resolved. The trend is reflected in our ‘Accidents, Incidents and Near Misses’ statistics, which show a distinct increase in reports logged. At first glance, doesn’t this seem concerning?
“It’s actually evidence of the opposite. It’s a sign that people are more encouraged to act positively, take ownership, rather than wait for something to get worse. The fact that our number of RIDDOR incidents has also come down is, I believe, evidence of the shift to a more proactive footing, which is something the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is very keen to see.”
With issues of Health & Safety – and of corporate culture – the ‘task’ is never completed, it will always require careful maintenance of standards. We will always need to keep re-defining what “safe” looks like and relying on our people to ensure that our operations never fall outside of that definition. The engagement of our employees in expecting – and achieving – higher safety standards is yet another indication that it really is “all about the people”.
I understand your discomfort at dealing with the legacy of divisive, binary choices and your concerns of holding Yes/No referenda on deeply nuanced matters. These are uncomfortable times which seem to be filled with binary choices to navigate a way safely onwards.
The piece suggests you have accepted that the moral rather than the ideological imperative renders the ‘No Deal’ outcome unsupportable, particularly with regard to protecting the peace process in Northern Ireland. For this reason and all the concerns about protecting health and prosperity that you have cited, it would indeed be an act of gross negligence to facilitate our withdrawal from the EU without an agreed structure. There’s nothing wrong with removing an unacceptable outcome – but it does have the effect of increasing the probability of a further binary choice to come.
By your own admission, this morally unacceptable outcome is one which polls suggest around a quarter of the public would support – logically, around half those who wish the UK to Leave. Unfortunately, this presents you with another binary choice: simply ‘respect’ the most recent democratically-expressed view of the electorate or explain the consequences of blindly following a potentially self-destructive path before we all have to follow it, knowing the proportion who favour an unworkable solution.
Given the unhealthy closeness of the June 2016 vote, the changes in the demography of the UK in the two and a half years since then, the huge gulf between what was promised by Leave and what we now know may be possible to negotiate (and the fact that some promises were demonstrably untrue), it’s impossible to claim there is insufficient evidence to re-evaluate the whole issue.
The argument against a second referendum cannot, in any sense, be that it is “anti-democratic”. Disobeying a referendum would be anti-democratic. By definition, asking people to vote again is the very essence of trust in democracy. Those who would have you believe otherwise must be viewed suspiciously in only asserting so because they feel they have something to lose.
Obviously, such opponents of a 2nd Referendum are likely to be the evangelical Brexiteers, those who believe they “won” and have now been granted a mandate to pursue EU withdrawal with barely-limited gusto, based on a tiny majority, zealously guarding the interests of “17.4 million” by seemingly seeing fit to ignore completely the expressed view of 16.1 million fellow citizens.
There are other opponents: Remain-leaning MPs of all hues who sit in strongly pro-Leave seats, whose vacillation may potentially be influenced by the fact that publicly disagreeing with a majority of their constituents may not be the most advantageous career move. Such a description may or may not apply to a number of Tory back-benchers who can find comfort in diligently obeying the whip and conveniently avoiding a confrontation with their own voters. On the Labour benches, the Member for Don Valley seems to be the most notable example for such a potential conflict of interest.
Finally, of course, there are the stealth Brexiteers, those who secretly always wanted out but who sit back and allow events to take their course with a suitable amount of shoulder-shrugging and token opposition around the margins of the debate to be seen to have done just enough not to have exposed their own duplicity. I speak, of course, of your own Leader and much of his inner coterie.
This week, following the 230-vote defeat of ‘The Meaningful Vote’ and the 149-vote defeat of ‘Meaningful Vote II’, there is, we are informed, likely to be a third attempt for the Prime Minister to scrape her ill-conceived, ill-begotten, ill-starred deal into UK policy – I’d like this one to be called ‘Meaningful Vote – With A Vengeance’. Among the amendments it will face, we expect the Kyle-Wilson Amendment to be debated, in which May’s faltering, diluted position, if passed, must be put to the people as a “confirmatory referendum” and against which the option to Remain must feature.
As a concerned constituent, someone who has met you, has always found you to act very impressively and who has always been proud to say that you are my MP, I implore you to abandon the position in your Guardian piece, of hand-wringing deference to a single vote on a once-in-a-lifetime issue, in the name of ‘protecting democracy’.
This decision must be guided by the most fundamental principles of parliamentary representation – with which I trust you will be more than familiar. I won’t insult you by quoting Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill at you but I think it’s fair to ask that, given the clear distinction between ‘representative’ and ‘delegate’, your vote for Kyle-Wilson demonstrates your willingness to provide representation for all the constituents of Wigan, not simply act in delegation of its (suspected) majority.
I trust you to put clearly-delineated national interest above those even of most of your voters. I trust you to disobey your party whips if the country’s future depends on it and, just as Jess Phillips has already stated, I trust you to have the integrity to accept that in doing so, you accept all consequences that your most noble actions may invite, should the majority of the people of Wigan then disagree.
Yes, it’s a binary choice but leadership often requires the conviction to make a choice and argue for it – and it’s disingenuous in the extreme to ignore that inconvenient truth and continue to act as a leader of the constituency you represent.
I wish you well this week and I hope you can be part of the change that sees this whole ghastly mess turned around, allowing the whole country to concentrate once again on the real problems it faces. I also believe that, in due course, the failure of both front benches over the last three dismal years will be corrected and younger, more reasonable, more resonant voices such as yours may be heard, from positions of greater seniority. I’d very much like one day to claim that I’m proud of you not just as my MP, but as the holder as one of the Great Offices of State.
Please seize this opportunity to better define the future for us all.
As any young lover will know, February 14th is St. Valentine’s Day, traditionally the day of the year where proclamations of love are offered to the object of our affection. Older lovers will also know this but some may appreciate the reminder not to let the day pass by unnoticed.
According to Wikipedia, 25 million cards are sent to commemorate the day in the UK alone – with around £1.3bn spent on cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts. That’s a lot of love, you might conclude – but, come February 15th, it becomes a whole lot of a waste.
Segregated properly, much of this waste needn’t cause much of a problem – card is not difficult to recycle and most plastics can be reclaimed using well-established processes. Even the flowers can be composted and put to use to encourage future bouquets to grow.
Unfortunately, we all know that some people try harder than others to segregate recyclable from general waste so inevitably, a proportion of all that extra card and plastic will not be recycled and will become needlessly added to landfill.
The problem of missed recycling increases as a result of the, well, sparkly nature of the event. Glitters and foils may make your offering more visually attractive to your intended but their complexity means they’re far less attractive to Mother Earth. As we’re becoming increasingly aware, the same is also true of black plastics – something that tends to make up the trays lurking inside most chocolate boxes. The more environmentally-aware we’re becoming, the more we feel under pressure to cut back on the more obvious bits of eye-candy at times like this.
Unfortunately, commercial pressures aren’t easily denied and before you can say, “Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle”, another controversial case of ‘consumer excess’ can arise. This year, that particular spotlight has fallen on Poundland for offering their ‘gift of nothing’ for £1, designed to elicit a cheap laugh for anyone who’s made this humble request on the lead up to the special day. Critics have described this example of, literally, packaging for its own sake as “a symbol of everything that is wrong with our view of the world”.
Why not display your sensitivity this year by making your own tokens of appreciation (minus the non-recyclable elements) instead of merely consuming more resource-hungry bought versions? For additional environmental kudos, you could even repurpose the materials from previous uses – or if that sounds too risky, you could ensure that the paraphernalia you use can itself be repurposed once the day has passed.
It may all sound boring and a little old-fashioned but perhaps a simple gesture like cooking a special meal or just watching a film together might be much more appreciated, better signalling your true feelings. Whether it leads to more enjoyable Valentine’s evening or not, the environment will certainly feel more loved, as a result!
I was saddened to read this post from our local pub, earlier today. I don’t know what happened but I have no reason to disbelieve the account given. I also know that in the year or so that Gareth has run the pub, he has returned it to its former glory, making it a place you want to visit, rather than just put up with going to. I was sure he’d make a success of the place when his first act was to re-instate its traditional name after the sacrilege that was ‘The Silver Tally’.
Anyway, It’s a lovely pub these days with a good beer selection and a wide choice of good food that’s very reasonably priced. Now, with staff reportedly out of pocket, it needs your help to trade its way out of the fate that has befallen it. With the weekend upon us, why not go there for a meal and see if you agree with my recommendation? If you can’t make it this weekend, there’s always another chance to go to a pub!
We happened to go there for a meal last night, for the first time in a while, and had no idea they were facing this awful situation. Needless to say, we won’t leave it as long before we go back. I hope this setback is short-lived and that, in the longer term, the change of structure becomes a change for the better for all concerned.
Good luck to Gareth, Minnie (the Rottweiler) and the rest of the team as you make The Foresters such an asset to our local community. Let’s hope the wider community can do their bit to increase its value to the surrounding area!
Ben wasn’t even our dog but, for well over a decade, he was part of our family. He was as much a participant in our daily life, our annual celebrations and our most treasured memories as all the dogs we could call our own.
It hardly seems like much time has passed but it’s now over twelve years since Martin confided to me that he’d chosen a border collie puppy with which to surprise Vicky on Christmas morning. Upon collecting him a few days before the big day, we all colluded in the secrecy, stealing clandestine visits to see this new ball of black and white fluff.
Martin and I grew up with border collies. If you’ve ever owned one, you can’t fail to be impressed by their high intelligence and strong work ethic. Within weeks, Ben had been trained to do a number of increasingly complex tricks, demonstrating his obedience and a clear willingness to please.
Border collies are perfectly suited to their traditional purpose of rounding up sheep on remote hillsides and directing them into a specific holding area. Naturally fast and agile, they also have deep reserves of endurance, combined with a level of mental commitment to achieving an objective that you’d expect of an Olympic athlete. Other breeds outwardly enjoy fetching balls and waiting for the next one to be thrown. With Ben, a session of ‘fetch’ was more akin to watching a highly-trained operative at work – enjoyment seemed to be a secondary consideration to simply completing the task as quickly and as efficiently as possible. You had to assume he was enjoying it, or he wouldn’t keep doing it, but it was clear he had little time for pointless tail-wagging when there was the serious business of another ball to retrieve.
He would transfer his highly-motivated, highly-disciplined approach to all aspects of his life. When told it was time to go in, there was no sense of objection or ‘just one more’ lingering in the field, like most dogs would; he’d diligently trot to the back door and wait to be let in. For Ben, clocking off one job did not mean switching off his default, obedient setting.
As you’d expect for such a focused individual, he was happiest when accompanying Martin wherever he went. For most of his life, he was able to, from a standing start, spring into the back of a Range Rover and then settle straight down until he was next required. Unlike our dogs, whose life in a secure, extended environment had inevitably blunted their ability to be ‘street-wise’ beyond the gates at the end of the drive, Ben had that rare ability to combine the best of both worlds.
As Max and Abi came along and grew up, Ben found he was being asked to divide his focus to include additional family members – now with slightly different expectations. Young children are more prone to spending time petting a resting dog and Ben accepted the unfamiliar extra attention and allowed himself to be a regular pet as well as a ball-retrieving team member. He’d also indulge in games that didn’t require his fetching talents, circling and intently observing games of three-a-side football as if we were merely six unruly sheep who consistently defied his control. When it snowed, we’d tow each other around the field on sledges and, while the whole thing must have made absolutely no sense to him, his work ethic decreed that it would always be necessary for him to run behind, as closely as possible for as long as he could.
As I’ve noted previously, it seems the cruellest long-term effect of incorporating dogs into a growing family is that their physical prime occurs when their young human companions are well short of theirs. As the wheel of time turns and the kids’ speed and energy increases, the canine life-cycle means that they will eventually fail to keep up. Even an intelligent animal who develops an ability to pace their exertions (as Ben undoubtedly was) will only be able to delay that inevitable day for so long.
The addition of a variety of smaller, furrier companions provided him with a less strenuous outlet for his livestock-wrangling instincts. Rabbits, guinea pigs and, latterly, a pair of degu all required, in Ben’s mind, unflinching observation lest they break free from their cages and terrorise the household. Not on his watch, they wouldn’t.
In his final year, Ben found he had a room-mate, another border collie: younger, faster, more headstrong, more unruly. It’s a testing time for any older dog: a trial of both patience and ability to adapt. Ben graciously allowed Meg into his house, delegating fetching responsibilities under his watchful gaze and tolerating her youthful boisterousness. We’ll never really know if Meg has allowed herself to be influenced by Ben’s stoic example as she has grown from young pup to ebullient adolescent. When she acts on her best behaviour, it’s easy to believe that perhaps she has.
Over the years, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune had begun to take their toll on Ben’s health, particularly the ability of his heart to function as fluently as it once had. Naturally, his exertions became rationed for his own good as his condition was managed. His quality of life was undiminished but, for his own good, his capabilities had to be thought of as reduced.
While he was as keen to participate, we let him but we knew he couldn’t be exhausted. Similarly, he knew how to pace himself and his condition caused little concern until very recently, when, uncharacteristically, he chose not to take part in the ball games. For such a driven and disciplined dog, it was the clearest message he could give that he knew his lifetime of service was coming to a close.
Today, his message was heeded and, after consultation with the vet, the decision was taken. We buried him by the front lawn, in the shadow of the rhododendron bush, next to Sam. It’s a cliché but it’s true: there’s always sadness at the passing of a loved one but you have to load the other side of the scales with the gratitude that they enriched your life and, hopefully, you enriched theirs.
Rest well, ‘Benny Boy’, you’ve worked hard for it and you earned all our affections.
Among the first names on the Peace Gate list of Standish men lost in the First World War is that of Charles F. Asbrey.Despite the fact his death occurred on 2nd December 1918, almost a month after the Armistice, he was still on active service in France, which is why his name appears alongside those killed in action.His story seems therefore just like the many stories of lost men from that war – but it could hardly be more different.Today, the centenary of his death is as good a time as any to tell it.
Charles Ford Asbrey was born in Charnock Richard in April 1879, the son of John Asbrey, a butler from Kettering, and his wife, Jane, from Wavertree.He was christened at Christ Church, Charnock Richard the following month.The 1881 census shows the family had moved to Prestwich, presumably due to John’s employment.Ten years later, the family had moved to Standish and John had become the publican at the Black Horse pub (now the Lychgate Tavern) on Church Street.
After spending his teenage years in Standish, Charles trained as a saddler and harness-maker with a Mr. Gordon and became engaged to Mary Jane (‘Ginny’) Bentham of Broomfield House, Bradley Lane.Ginny was my great-grandfather Ernie’s youngest sister.
On 6th March 1901, Charles and Ginny were married at St. Wilfrid’s church in Standish with Ernie Bentham one of the two witnesses.The census of that year, taken a few weeks later, shows the couple visiting the home of a Mr and Mrs Reppin in Leicester, possibly on their honeymoon – or, with the addition of a little more information, perhaps not.
Their first son, James was born on 7th October 1901 in Leicester, suggesting that their marriage, seven months previously, had been a ‘shotgun wedding’, hurriedly arranged to legitimise the coming birth.The move to another part of the county may have been an attempt to obfuscate the fact that James had been conceived out of wedlock.
Two children followed: Norman in 1903 and Jane in 1905, both in the Manchester area.It’s unclear what Charles was doing for a living at this point but by 1911, the couple had moved to Spendmore Lane, Coppull and Charles had become the Manager of a Brickmaker’s works.The 1911 census even shows that young Norman happened to be staying at his grandparents’ house in Blackpool that night.
Charles was 35 by the time Britain entered the First World War and would not necessarily have been expected to volunteer for service, initially.As the war wore on and ever more new recruits were required, remaining men in their late thirties were increasingly expected to join up.From a distance of over a hundred years, it’s dangerous to draw conclusions about Charles’ motivations for what followed but the facts show an unusual and ultimately tragic sequence of events.
Fast forward to January 3rd 1917, over two years after the outbreak of war.The previous summer had seen the horrors of the The Somme and almost a year earlier, the campaign at Gallipoli had cost almost 57,000 Allied lives, among them over 11,400 from Australia and New Zealand.With such mounting losses from a conflict on the other side of the world, the ANZACs had been forced to recruit wave after wave of new personnel.It was amongst the list of recruits for the 9th reinforcements to the 45th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force that the name ‘Asbrey, Charles Ford’ rather surprisingly appears.
According to army records, Charles had been working as a harness-maker in Mayfield, New South Wales, about 70 miles north of Sydney on Australia’s east coast at the time of his enlistment.It’s tempting to conclude that he had fled his home country to avoid the war but it’s also possible that he was simply working away to seek his fortune – or that he and Ginny had found a way to separate with minimal dishonour.The same records show Ginny as listed as living at 31 Hawthorne Road, Blackpool (although another document has that address crossed out and 3 Eaves Street, Blackpool given as an alternative), no doubt to be near her father, James Bentham.Her mother, Alice, had died in 1913.
Within three weeks, Private Asbrey (service no. 3350) and his 45th Battalion reinforcements left Sydney Harbour aboard HMAT Anchises, bound for Plymouth, arriving back in his homeland on 27th March 1917.Records show that the battalion was held in reserve, behind the lines near Ypres, during the battle of Bullecourt in April and May, without entering the combat.
In June, the unit saw action in the Battle of Messines in Flanders.It’s not known if Charles was with the unit by this time but if he was there, he may well have been fighting alongside his brother-in-law’s brother-in-law.The 25th Signals Company of the Royal Engineers, probably including one Harold Latham, a fellow son of Standish, was also engaged at Messines.Harold’s sister, Margaret had married Ernest Bentham, Ginny’s elder brother, in 1907.It’s tantalising to contemplate that the two men, members of the same extended family, representing different Allied armies may even have encountered each other in the trenches in 1917.
After Messines, the action shifted to Passchendaele and both Harold’s and Charles’ units saw action at this most fearsome of battles, between July and November of 1917.The 45th Battalion was one of a significant number of Australian forces in the various engagements that became known as the third battle of Ypres, together with a strong contingent of Canadians.
The 45th formed part of the 12th Brigade, which itself was a part of the Australian 4th Division and was held in reserve at Polygon Wood in September 1917, an exchange which resulted in 1,700 casualties in the division.
On 12 October, the Charles’ 12th Brigade was assigned to protect the 3rd Division’s flank during the First Battle of Passchendaele, and took part in an effort to capture the Keiberg ridge. Although, elements of the 3rd were able to enter Passchendaele, and the 12th gained their objective, both groups were eventually forced back. The unsuccessful effort cost the 12th Brigade around 1,000 casualties.The losses were considerable enough for the Australian authorities to at one stage consider breaking up the whole 4th Division to provide reinforcements elsewhere.
Having survived Passchendaele and seen out the end of 1917 with his battalion still in operation, Charles would have spent the winter rotating between front and rest areas around Flanders and northern France, with the severe weather and battle-scarred landscape making trench-foot as dangerous a consideration as the enemy.
In March 1918, Charles’ division was rushed to the Somme region to stem the German Spring Offensive, which had been launched on 21 March and was threatening Amiens. The 12th and 13th Brigades established themselves south of Albert, around the railway embankment and cuttings of the Albert–Amiens railway at Dernancourt, where they joined British troops. The 12th Brigade was positioned forward, taking over from the British 9th (Scottish) Division, while the 13th held a support position around Bresle and Ribemont-sur-Ancre.On 28 March, during the First Battle of Dernancourt, the 12th brigade helped fight off an attack by the 50th Reserve Division, with 137 Australian casualties.A week later, on 5 April, the Second Battle of Dernancourt was fought. In the lead up, the 13th Brigade moved forward beside the 12th, taking over from the 35th Division. Together, the two brigades faced an attack by two and a half German divisions in what was described by historian Chris Coulthard-Clark as “the strongest attack mounted against the Australians in the war”.
In early May, the 12th Brigade carried out a follow up attack around Monument Wood, to the east of Villers-Bretonneux, which made little headway against the defending Jager troops; nevertheless, the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux had restored the Allied line in the sector.
Following the defeat of the German Spring Offensive, a brief lull followed while the Allies prepared to launch their own offensive, which ultimately would bring an end to the war. During this time, the division went on to fight in the Battle of Hamel in July. The 4th Division was responsible for planning and commanding the attack, but the decision was made the only one of its brigades would take part with the 4th Brigade being reinforced by brigades from both the 3rd and 5th Divisions, as well as four companies from the US 33rd Infantry Division for the attack.
After the Allies launched their Hundred Days Offensive in August 1918, the division took part in the Battle of Amiens, the Battle of Albert, the Battle of Épehy and the battles against the Hindenburg Line outposts, finally reaching the town of Bellenglise.Withdrawn in late September, the division was replaced by the 3rd and 5th Divisions, althoughthe 4th Division provided 200 advisers to assist the inexperienced US troops that were assigned to Monash’s corps.
In early October, the remainder of the Australian Corps was withdrawn from the line for rest at the insistence of Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes.After the armistice in November 1918, the division was not selected to advance into Germany with demobilisation due to commence before the end of the year.Unlike 10,973 of his comrades in the Australian 4th Division, Charles had survived the Great War and his service was almost at an end.
Unfortunately, Charles was never to return to Australia or even to England.On 2nd December 1918, with Germany defeated and after serving in the most deadly theatres of a war he may well have attempted to travel half-way around the world to flee from, Private Charles Ford Asbrey died, according to army records, of ‘sickness’ in France.It’s unclear if his illness was a result of his service, linked to an injury or, like one of millions of others in 1918, a result of the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic.
He was buried at Saint Sever Cemetery, across the river Seine from Rouen, in Normandy.In August 2012, I happened to drive through Rouen, en route from Calais to Bordeaux and must have passed within a few miles of his final resting place.
Ginny Asbrey née Bentham was re-married in 1924, to a man called Gerald Wadeson who was fifteen years her junior and only six years older than James, her and Charles’ eldest son.They lived for a time on Talbot Road, Manchester, near to Lancashire’s cricket ground although her residence was listed, perhaps unsurprisingly, as Blackpool when she died on 17th April 1964.Gerald lived on until 1980.
With the centenary of the Armistice almost upon us, this year’s Remembrance Day will be especially poignant.Anyone with strong family links to serving personnel, especially those who were killed in action, will be keen to participate in the many commemorative events that will be held.
I grew up believing that no-one from my family had served in either World War.As far as I was aware, my forebears were farmers and thus likely to have been deemed more important to the war effort to remain at home than shipped to some foreign shore to fight for King and country.I always observed Remembrance Day silences and the like from a sense of public duty rather than any personal connection.Being generally disinterested in the ghosts of generations past, I barely gave the matter much more thought.
Then, last year, I spent a little time helping out with a family genealogy project.I thought it was just a one-off, at first.I told myself it would be a laugh and I only did it because others were encouraging me.Do they sound like the reasons addicts give?They should do because suddenly, the whole thing seemed to become very addictive.I was spending more time discovering details about ancestors I didn’t know existed on ancestry.co.uk and when I wasn’t, I was thinking about the next time I’d be doing it.
Before long, I’d discovered all sorts of priceless things.One of the most surprising was that my paternal grandfather had had not just one but two older brothers who had died in their infancy – both called James – which explained a long-term curiosity of mine: why it was that the family tradition of including the name James had mysteriously seemed to skip his generation.Ernest, my grandad, died in 2005 and I’ll never know how much he knew of the existence of his two tragic lost siblings.
I also looked deeper into one branch of the family tree that I did know something about.My grandad’s mother was born Margaret Latham and an impressive sepia photograph of her wedding to my great-grandfather Ernie Bentham has hung on one wall or another for about as long as I can remember.Decades ago, in moments where my apathy towards our family history must have seemed less apparent, I dimly remember being told that it was quite the social event of the year in Standish and that the place where the guests were assembled was in fact the lawn at The Beeches – the Latham family home.
Filled with a new-found fascination for the past, I decided to focus on this pivotal moment in our family’s history and find out more about that day and all the characters it brought forth.First, the basic details.The year was 1907.Edward VII was on the throne, the Liberal Henry Campbell-Bannerman was Prime Minister and Britain was arguably at the peak of her imperial prowess.Rather ironically for a period often romanticised for having endless golden summers, the country had spent much of the year with below-average temperatures, with June being a particularly dismal month.The wedding took place on 3rd September and was conducted by the Reverend Charles Hutton, who would become one of the longest-serving rectors in the history of St. Wilfrid’s church.
Most people in Standish will have heard that The Beeches was the home of JB Almond, of the brewing family but it was actually built for Thomas Latham, a mining magnate from Orrell who had worked his way up from driving pit ponies to owning his own string of collieries from Ince to St. Helens.He’d moved his wife, eight sons and three daughters from Gidlow Lane in Wigan to The Beeches on its completion in around 1903.Margaret, his eldest daughter, had agreed to marry Ernie, the son of James Bentham, a cattle farmer who lived at another of Standish’s more desirable residences, Broomfield House on Bradley Lane.It looked every inch the perfect union of two upstanding families – with all the conspicuous trimmings of industrial and agricultural wealth.
On another wedding photo, among all the starched collars and overflowing bouquets, sat rather awkwardly on the ground in front of the newlyweds, is 14 year-old Harold Latham, Margaret’s youngest brother.Unlike many of his brothers, who joined their father in the mining industry, Harold was determined to enter the legal profession.He’d been educated at Wigan Grammar School and was later to attend the highly-rated Kilgrimol School for Boys in St. Annes. Three and a half years after his sister’s wedding, during the 1911 census, he was recorded as being a Law student, boarding at the home of the Reverend Henry John Ferrall at The Parsonage, Heckingham in Norfolk.
1911 was a terrible year for the Latham family.Reportedly, a downturn in fortunes had forced Thomas to sell The Beeches to his friend, JB Almond some time after April – the 1911 census shows the Latham family were still living there on April 2nd.There’s no record of whether or not the stress of his financial situation affected his health but on November 26th, Thomas Latham died, aged 60. Just as the death of Edward VII the year before had done with the Royal family, the baton was passed to the next generation of the dynasty. After the comforts and certainties of the Edwardian age, they were all about to face a very different, very difficult decade.
By the summer of 1914, Harold was aged 21 and in the process of pursuing his vocation.Working under the Town Clerk of Wigan, he’d passed his intermediate exams and had only his final exams to pass in order to become a qualified solicitor.Upto this point, his life had been filled with privilege and opportunity – at a time when living conditions were decidedly less comfortable for the vast majority of those around him.He’d lost his father at 60, a brother aged 27 and at least two nephews in infancy so he was not untouched by tragedy – although life expectancy and child mortality in those days would have meant such experiences were far less remarkable then, than now.Barely eleven weeks after coming of age, he was tantalisingly close to joining his chosen profession and making his mark on the world.
Unfortunately, in a distant country, a man called Gavrilo Princip was also about to make his own fateful mark on the world – by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.With Europe controlled by four huge colonial superpowers, each protective of their interests and mostly ruled by related monarchs, jealous and distrustful of one other, the ensuing diplomatic crisis created a chain reaction of measures, pushing the whole continent ever closer to the brink of war.When German troops marched into Belgium, Britain was forced to honour her 1839 treaty with the Belgians and declared war on Germany at 11pm on 4th August 1914.
Initially, Harold and his brothers were under no obligation to sign up to fight.Patriotic fervour was such that almost half a million men enlisted within two months, added to whom were another quarter of a million underage boys, seeking either adventure or an escape from poverty, or both.Lord Kitchener, War Secretary (he of the iconic recruitment poster) felt it vital to treble Britain’s army, expecting a long conflict, and pushed to sustain recruitment at 92,000 a month.They were ambitious numbers and conscription was the obvious solution but the Liberal Government was uncomfortable with the idea and instead sanctioned a huge propaganda effort to compel more men to volunteer.
An unlikely ally in the recruitment drive was a section of the women’s Suffrage movement.It became not uncommon for patriotic women to approach men of military age in the street and present them with a white feather, a symbol of cowardice, as a means to shame them to enlist.There’s no evidence that any of the Latham brothers were approached in this way but knowledge of the practice was widespread and any man, particularly from affluent, influential families who had chosen not to volunteer did so in the knowledge that he was inviting public questioning of his honour.
Whatever their motivation, Harold and four of his six surviving brothers (Jack Latham had died in 1906) volunteered for service in early 1915.Frustratingly, there’s no mention of which of his brothers joined up with him.Logic would suggest it was the youngest four of the six: eldest brothers William (40) and Daniel (38) were possibly considered too old for service.Furthermore, both were active in coal-mining, which meant they could have been included among one and a half million men who were “starred” – designated as working in an essential occupation.If that supposition is correct, Harold would have enlisted along with Dick (24), Edward (25), Ernest (31) and Thomas Jr. (33).Harold’s record shows he joined the Royal Engineers, was given the Service Number 72750 and was posted to the 25th Division Signals Company.
In May 1915, Harold and his unit moved to Aldershot to begin final war training. They received their service rifles in August and early in September, the Division was inspected by King George V.On 25th September 1915, they were deployed to France but the first mention of their engagement in battle was eight months later, holding ground captured weeks earlier at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The Signals fulfilled a vital communications role between front line and command.Attached to the Royal Engineers, it’s almost certain that they would have been conveying messages to and from the specialist and newly-expanded tunnelling units as they fought to repel the German offensive Operation Schleswig-Holstein.A total of 2,475 British casualties were suffered over three days, including 637 from the 25th Division.
If that was a brutal introduction to the war, Harold’s next documented action, a few weeks later, was to become even more synonymous with carnage.The 25th Signals are recorded as being deployed at the Battle of Albert at the beginning of the Somme battles on 3rd July 1916, two days after its commencement on 1st July, still the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army with over 57,000 casualties.When Harold’s unit arrived, they were to spend the next two weeks in an environment in which a further 25,000 British casualties were suffered – and this was only the opening phase of one of the defining battles of the whole war.
The next three months were spent in a succession of battles around the Somme, supporting General Haig’s autumn offensive.His Company was involved at Bazentin Ridge, Pozieres Ridge, Mouquet Farm, Ancre Heights, Thiepval Ridge and the capture of the Regina Trench.
It’s unclear if Harold and his comrades were then allowed any R&R in the months that followed The Somme or if the onset of winter merely ensured hostilities slowed while both sides dug in.The Company’s record shows their next engagement was The Battle of Messines in Flanders in June 1917, a result of some gained ground over the winter and spring.The battle was significant as it represented a successful British intervention after the failure of the French-led spring offensive, which had resulted in demoralisation and desertion in the French ranks.
What followed was another posting at a battle whose very name was to symbolise the carnage of the war – Passchendaele.The 25th Signals’ record refers, more prosaically, to the Battle of Picklem Ridge, Ypres but the date – 31st July – leaves no doubt.Harold’s company saw action again at the capture of Westhoek in August but seemed to remain absent from the rest of the battle, which ran until October that year.
Again, there is no record of the Company being involved in combat over the winter months but in March 1918, Harold’s comrades were engaged in the Battle of St. Quentin, thus described by the Forces War Records website: “German artillery launched the largest artillery bombardment of the war, swiftly followed by rapidly advancing shock troops, against the British Fifth Army, Third Army and units of the First Army stationed in and around St. Quentin”.With the subsequent loss of ground to the German advance, fighting continued on to Baupame on 24th March.
Throughout April, the unit were engaged in various activities in the Battles of the Lys, towards the Belgian border.In May, the unit travelled further south to Huit Voisins, just outside Reims to assist French efforts to repel Operation Blucher in the Battle of the Aisne.
A further gap appears in the record of the 25th Signals throughout the summer of 1918, implying R&R (troops were supposed to spend equal amounts of time rotating between front line roles, in support roles, in reserve or resting) with their next active service on 4th October 1918 at the assault on the Hindenburg Line, as part of the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, alongside the Australian 2nd Division.
With the Armistice only 38 days away, Harold Latham had now been stationed in France for over three years.Records show his unit had been present at two of the most fearsome battles of the war – possibly of any war – and while the records only detail the Company’s movements, not that of each individual, it’s more than likely that Corporal H Latham was there to witness it all and survive.From today’s perspective, it’s easy to look at this date and presume that after enduring so much, with so little time left in the war, he must surely have made it back to Blighty, to Standish and to a rewarding legal career.Unfortunately, this was not to be.
On 6th October 1918, as the 25th Division were about to capture the town of Beaurevoir, Harold was severely wounded and taken to a casualty clearing station behind the front line, just one of 8,802 British casualties in the battle.Sadly, he succumbed to his injuries and died the next day, aged 25.Sunday 7th October this year was the centenary of his death.
Harold Latham’s untimely passing occurred barely a month before the end of the war in a battle that historians have suggested was so pivotal to the campaign, it began to convince the German high command that there was now little hope of overall victory.It seemed that, apart from the beginning of the Western Front conflict, Harold had been present at many of its most significant moments.Cruelly, he would be denied the chance to see it to its very end.
On November 2nd 1918, following the official process of notification and with a mere nine days of the war left, the Wigan Observer posted notice of Harold’s death.His mother, Catherine was by then 65 and living in Southport. The report also mentions that one of his four serving brothers had been discharged while the other three were still in France.
Cpl. Latham was buried in the Tincourt New British Cemetery at Tincourt-Boucly, approximately 40 miles east of Amiens, 40 miles south of Lens. He was one of 1,114,914 British soldiers to die in the “Great War” and one of seventy-eight from Standish.When the Peace Gate was completed in October 1926, his name was duly included in the list of the local fallen.
It’s also fitting to mention that during the First World War, Harold’s adolescent home, The Beeches, was commandeered and converted to a Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital, known as “Woodlands No.3”, administering aid and recuperation to returning injured personnel – including, perhaps, Harold’s discharged brother.Last year, at the start of our genealogy project, I was fortunate to visit The Beeches and meet the new owners as their renovations began.The plans for the restaurant look exciting and I’m looking forward to dining there when it opens.
As a footnote, I now wonder if any aspect of this new use for the old building could be named after or inspired by Corporal Harold Latham, reflecting its proud wartime connections. It would be a fitting tribute to a man whose life story deserves more recognition and a timely way to encourage the people of Standish to welcome the new venture.
I believe it was Søren Kierkegaard who once said “If you label me, you negate me”.Already, I’m sensing you’re rolling your eyes at the audacity of my quoting a 19th-century Danish philosopher, without any warning.“Oh no, here we go.What an absolute [insert insult of choice]”.Hold on a moment, though.Wouldn’t your chosen term of abuse be a label, meaning you’ve rather spectacularly missed our Scandinavian friend’s point?
You’d also be falling into the trap I’ve laid for you.It was a pretentious quote but not entirely in the way it seems.I’m pretending to quote Kierkegaard but it’s actually a line from the 1992 film ‘Wayne’s World’, a far less academically significant (therefore a more socially acceptable) source.If I’d said I was quoting “Wayne from ‘Wayne’s World’”, would that have made the label any more flattering? Would it negate me any less if it was?
In recent years, as the public discourse in the UK, the US and elsewhere seems to have grown more adversarial and unsophisticated, I’ve found myself reminded more and more of Wayne Campbell’s unsuccessful chat-up line.Maybe I am a little over-sensitive to the choices of words used by anyone in power whose intentions are unclear – or conversely, as seems to be increasingly the case, perhaps most people aren’t sensitive enough.
The Scientific Case
“Of Course It’s In Your Head – Why Would That Mean It’s Not Real?”
For over a century, the disciplines of Psychology (the study of the mind) and Linguistics (the study of Language) have found themselves frequently intertwined.The central argument that has always drawn these two distinct areas of study together is this:Language determines Thought.It’s important to say that I’m in no way posing as an expert in either field.I did a little Cognitive and Social Psychology at University and for a year, I lived next door to a Linguist – and no, he wasn’t a cunning one.I can google ‘psycholinguistics’, read about Piagetian cognitive determinism and name-drop the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but I won’t pretend to understand any of it fully and it won’t make much difference to my basic premise that you or I don’t.It’s just important that you keep in mind the widely-supported proposition that the words we use and hear used go some way – perhaps a long way – to influencing the way we think.
I have, however, worked in Marketing for over twenty years so it’s fair to say that I’ve written enough copy to know how to use language to seek to gain acceptance and approval from the reader – the keys to being able to persuade them.I’ve been to seminars in which eminently more experienced wordsmiths than I am have forensically deconstructed their craft as part science, part art – often a dark art.We’re all consumers of products – which makes us all consumers of advertising.It shouldn’t be hugely controversial to suggest we’re all to some extent aware of it when others are trying to change the way we think about something and yet the practice still works remarkably well for it to continue to exist.If you don’t just love a McDonald’s meal but you’re “lovin’” the experience of going there, that word has influenced, possibly even determined, your thought.Yes it’s a free country and you may have been free to make the choice to visit the ‘Golden Arches’ but how free were you to arrive at that thought?Consequently, if 300 million people don’t hear the name ‘Hillary’ without it being prefixed by the word ‘crooked’, what is that going to do to the unconscious opinion of her with a large swathe of them? It’s what psychologists (and marketers) call the ‘mere exposure’ hypothesis.
The Historical Case
What about when the same techniques are applied even more nefariously?Let’s not mess about here, I’m going to go all ‘Godwin’s Law’ at this point and use one of the most chilling, notorious, shameful examples of persuasive writing – just to prove that it actually happened: “Arbeit Macht Frei”.It’s German and it translates as “Work Makes You Free”.Have you remembered where you’ve seen it, yet?It was (and still is) written above the gates at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, possibly the site of the very worst of humanity’s depravity.The context is clear: those that were sent there, arriving in a state of fear, were met with a message of promise and a condition.“You may feel trapped and persecuted right now but if you work hard here, you’ll actually be free”.Even without knowing what happened next, it’s an incredibly shocking attempt at a strapline.When you then consider that “Freedom” seems to be a deliberate euphemism for the reader’s impending death, it’s breathtaking in its soul-crushing brutality.The real lesson that this example teaches us is not just that it’s a fairly crude attempt at thought control but that such a crude phrase was used so brazenly, so utterly cynically.
Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, where we all feel we know better and could never possibly return to those sick, twisted days, there’s a small, nagging suggestion that we may not be as wise as we think.Arguably, we’re still happy to support those who would use our language against us, so have we really learned from our species’ mistakes – and is our complacent belief that we have aiding and abetting aspiring thought-controllers of the future?
The Literary Case
“The Right To Tell People What They Do Not Want To Hear”
At the forefront of the effort to ensure that the horrors of totalitarianism must never be revisited was, of course, George Orwell.In his scathing critique of the subject ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, he shrewdly included the vital role that the distortion of language could play as a means to facilitate and perpetuate an all-powerful state.“Newspeak”, the name given to the dangerously re-defined, state-approved form of language was the means by which concepts such as “doublethink” (a means by which one fact simultaneously demonstrates the opposite) could possibly exist.Logically, it seems perverse to assert a patently self-contradictory statement such as “War is Peace” but the practice of doublethink, delivered in the approved guise of newspeak, would eventually compel Orwell’s oppressed inhabitants of “Airstrip One” to agree that it must be the case.
You may think this is all a little extreme and scare-mongering but the context is vital.It was written in 1948 and propaganda was a huge part of the war effort on all sides.It had long been understood that to control what is believed to be “the truth” is to control a war effort and, by extension, a war – the famous quote about the truth being “the first casualty” of war was anecdotally attributed to Californian Governor, later Senator Hiram Johnson, in about 1916.Orwell’s genius suggestion was that by maintaining a perpetual state of war, his totalitarian regime was able to maintain a permanent control of truth itself.
Today, it’s a rather sad irony that, rather than his masterpiece and its darkest ideas being fully understood by all, they have, for many, become trite buzzwords from TV shows in which mildly perilous situations occur – an undesired form of newspeak, you might conclude.Viewers of ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ may know of the Orwellian connection but without having read the book, can have no grasp of the gulf that exists between the plight of Winston Smith and that of the guests of Frank Skinner or Davina McCall et al.
The Semantic Case
“Warning: Implicit Content”
As our friend Søren would no doubt agree, the problem with labels is that they are generally one of many ways to describe a person or a group which can be used wholly to define them, removing natural complexity and using a simplistic shorthand instead.Too often, we don’t really identify it’s happening when others use labels and we rarely notice when we do it ourselves.Labels allow unspoken connotation to fill in the gaps and strip out context and nuance.It takes effort to realise that there’s more to the simplistic description than is being made explicit and it’s too easy to derive a wider, unsaid, implied meaning.
The other problem is that we all have many applicable labels at all times; some of which present us positively, many of which don’t.I’m a father, a husband, a dog-owner, a tax-payer, a voter and a graduate which I would hope all sound like good things to be.I’m also an SUV-driver, a cyclist, a caravanner, a Libran and a football fan, descriptions which do not always meet with universal popularity and can be used, in isolation, to undermine.Furthermore, depending on your particular perspective, my applicable geographic labels of Lancastrian, Northerner, Englishman and Briton may or may not derive positive acclaim.Subjectiveness, relative to an audience hugely affects the positivity, or otherwise, of a label.If someone wanted to create antipathy towards me from a Yorkshire audience, guess which label would be most useful in achieving that aim?What if the audience was from London?Or Wales?Or Germany? Labels make it easy to discredit and are too easily met with unquestioning acceptance.
The Pragmatic Case
“That’s No Way To Go, Does Your Mother Know?”
To a certain extent, none of the above should be that surprising.Most parents will recognise the important distinction between the justifiable chastisement “you’ve behaved stupidly” and the altogether more dismissive “you’re stupid”.We take care not to label children when they err because it’s unfair and it sets a poor example – yet we seem to forget all that when it comes to the behaviour of adults.Anyone can behave idiotically.It’s a complicated world – so we tend to simplify idiocy by distributing it at the individual rather than the event level.
Social psychologists have observed from studies that people tend to attribute judgements of others due to “dispositional factors above situational factors”.Mothers have long discouraged their children from taking such a disposition-centric view by encouraging the more situationalist “they can’t help it and probably didn’t mean it”.When we grow out of childhood, such guidance shouldn’t need to change – but as we become more hard-bitten by life experience, it just seems as if it is advice more appropriate for children.
The Logical Case
“Therefore, My Dog Is A Cat”
There’s also the issue of flawed logic to consider.Mathematicians have long known about something called the Conditional Probability Fallacy – a logical trap that suggests that if one thing is represented in another, the opposite must also be true.As a species, we seem to be innately disposed to accept certain binary truths and it’s logical for us to attempt to apply that trusted model wherever we see two states in a relationship.“Darkness equals night” so it’s obviously equally true that “night equals darkness”.The fallacy exists when such a relationship between the two states is implied, hence: “All fathers are male” – so all males are fathers?A simple logical ‘sense check’ is often enough to debunk the flawed conclusion here – our own experience tells us It’s obvious that the inverse cannot be true.
What if there’s insufficient personal experience to undermine the proposition?What if the intricacies of such logical traps are exploited to an audience largely unaware of their existence?Can we be conned, en masse, merely by implication?For example, it’s easy to imagine the suggestion raised by the logical relationship ‘All jihadists are Muslim” – so are we being invited by anyone who asserts this point to conclude that “all Muslims are jihadists”?Why is their religion suddenly important in this context, anyway?Where is the consistency with other descriptions of terrorists?When the UK was beset by horrifying attacks by the IRA, a supposedly exclusively Catholic Irish Republican militia, they were never described as “Christian terrorists”.Is it fair to surmise that there’s a reason for such inconsistency? Is there a justification for it?
The Legal Case
“You Can’t Handle The Truth!”
We trust our politicians and news outlets to deal in the truth but from a legal standpoint, that’s only a third of the requirement.Any witness in a court of law – arguably the arena where words matter most – must swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.We’ve heard this seemingly quaint legalistic phrase so often that its incredibly profound meaning tends to be lost.It’s of huge significance that there are three strands of truth in this well-worn saying and they absolutely do not mean the same thing repeated twice merely to add gravitas.Logically speaking, there are three very distinct requirements to be met by this oath.Firstly, there’s “the truth”:Is X factually correct, yes or no?In answering this point, is the requirement for the statement to be comprehensively true: does it explain all facets raised by the question truthfully or does it omit any elements that are also true and inconvenient to include?Finally, the need to strip away misleading detail: does the answer include other, spurious information, implied by its inclusion to be equally true and relevant?
In law, circumstantial evidence is deemed to be be flimsy and generally inadmissible.In the media and, far too often, in public debate, little distinction is drawn between material and immaterial fact.One provides insight to a story, the other adds innuendo. Guess which of the two additions tends to be most commercially attractive?
There’s a reason that physical representations of Justice are traditionally depicted as ‘blind’, her eyes generally obscured by a blindfold.It’s precisely because the Law is expected to ignore such spurious details as may be supposed just by looking at a person (i.e. “nothing but the truth”).A verdict must be based solely on the facts presented, in the expectation that they are exhaustive and untrammelled by concoction, regardless of wealth, power or any other supposedly irrelevant factor of those on either side.No politician or news outlet is bound as strictly to these principles and, by extension, their ability to convey what might be termed ‘absolute truth’ is inevitably inferior.
The Digital Case
“A Binary Expression”
In an ever-more inter-connected world, words travel further and elicit more words of riposte from more respondents than ever before.With such inordinate possibility and reach, has humanity used the adolescent phase of the internet principally to broaden its mind and further its understanding?Sadly, the evidence suggests, in the main, that it hasn’t.Indeed, we’ve tended to deal with the exploding plurality of opinion and viewpoint by most commonly retreating to the comfort and solace of people with whom we are most in agreement, like disparate prehistoric tribes retreating to their various, demarcated caves.
In our ‘echo chambers’, our digital ghettos, we appear to be doing what social psychologists have always observed in group dynamics: emphasise intra-group similarities and highlight inter-group differences, like opposing sets of football fans.Here again, language is a useful stick – striking a drum to emphasise unity and beating those to whom that unity does not apply.With all the zealotry of the Spanish Inquisition, those who are judged to be heretical to the orthodoxy of one side or the other are denounced as ‘snowflakes’, ‘libtards’, ‘fascists’, ‘leftists’, ‘Blairites’ or ‘TERFs’ to name but a few epithets.Similarly, the mere mention of these terms of heresy is sufficient to remove any further right of explanation or mitigation to be heard, like the man being branded a blasphemer in the always-relevant ‘Life of Brian’.In short, the process of labelling doesn’t just negate individuals in these circumstances, it can defenestrate them of their credibility.
A clear example of the ease with which negative labels can be proliferated in the digital age is the much-discussed ‘Centrist Dad’.Aside from the fact that it is principally designed to trivialise and undermine a particular assumed set of views, like any other label, it would appear to take the principle a stage further.To its proponents, the term generally represents a frustration at a perceived lack of radicalism that they would believe is necessary, a dismay at the supposed reliance on much of the status quo.Aside from the implied sexism and ageism of the term, it is essentially a disapproval of ‘Centrism’.The trouble with this term is that it is only really clearly defined by that which it is not – radical leftism or indeed rightism – rather than that which it can be said to be.Centrism is therefore analogous to atheism, which is defined merely as the absence of a belief system rather than an ‘active’ position in and of itself.So-called ‘centrists’ subsequently find themselves being thus defined more for a set of values that they don’t hold rather than any that they demonstrably do.This appears to be clear with-us-or-against-us posturing – and history holds dark warnings for that kind of simplistic tribalism.
And then there’s the media in the digital age.Like any other consumer product, media proliferation has led to a huge increase of news providers, each subsisting on ever-narrower niches of audience type.Unlike things like breakfast cereal, which has also found itself in a market in which it must accommodate more choices, tailored more closely to a more specific clientèle, it seems questionable whether news should operate in this way.British newspapers always represented a fairly diverse range of readers but reporting of facts generally superseded the in-house interpretation of their significance and so the Guardian and the Telegraph, while ideologically opposite, would report essentially the same stories, albeit differently paginated and analysed according to their (and their readers’) politics.
When the world wide web was barely a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye and I was but a sixth-form student, I tended to spend my Monday mornings trying to avoid doing my Maths A-Level homework by reading each of the day’s newspapers in the library.Today, I believe that the appreciation it gave me of the role of a broad yet largely responsible media landscape was the best education I received at that time, consistently far more meaningful than my questionable ability to perform differentiation from first principles or indeed identify a Poisson distribution.As a result, I find myself suitably dismayed and alarmed at the willingness of a legitimised partisan press to use the language of their own tribal agenda, abandoning the media’s traditional role of observer and analyst, in order to become a willing participant.Most depressingly, those outlets that attempt to retain a vestige of objective detachment are now being demeaned by the dismissive label “Mainstream Media”.Somehow, this is what we seem to believe to be progress.
Words are also being used accordingly to reinforce another growing social trend: the rise of simplicity or – as it’s described by Stephen Fry – infantilism, of debate.Nuance seems to beyond the grasp of many, brought up on oversimplified phone-in radio debates and most issues find themselves being reduced to saccharine Good/Bad questions.Is this helpful when debating the most difficult questions we face? Complexity is an inherent component – or should be – to any far-reaching question. For that reason, the answer is not simple and anyone who claims otherwise is likely to be doing so for expeditious reasons.BAD! – with a commensurate level of qualifiers…
The Evolving Case
“If You Tolerate This, Then Your Children Will Be Next”
There have always been ways for the unscrupulous in power to self-aggrandise or denigrate those with whom they would disagree and, as Orwell and many others have shown, attempts to distort the meaning of words to suit an agenda is a recurrent one.Of course, they aren’t all as pernicious as newspeak.Some methods are older and simpler than others but they’re all employed with the same aim in mind – to influence our perception.
The old favourite among politicians is to speak with such eloquence and articulacy, that most people won’t stop to wonder if they’ve been lied to.It’s therefore no surprise that when everybody’s favourite Victorian throwback MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was invited to admit his investment company’s stance on the financial uncertainties of Brexit seemed at odds with his stated political position, he merely brushed off the matter by suggesting there was “terminological inexactitude” in the assertion (a phrase first adopted by Churchill in 1906 to circumvent the prohibited practice of using the term ‘lying’ in Parliament).Just as he expected, the country sniggered at the archaic delivery and chose largely to overlook the suspicion that ‘Jaunty Jacob’ had been putting his money somewhere other than where his mouth was.
I suspect you’ve been waiting for the next bit.I hope you’ll agree I’ve tried to restrict myself from returning to the Trump well of lexical chicanery thus far but then I’d hate to disappoint you so here it is, probably his most egregious example.When an earlier video emerged, during the 2016 US election, of Donald Trump’s startling boasts of what he felt his fame allowed him to do and say around women, the matter was then raised at the second televised Presidential debate.Famously, his main defence was “It’s just words, folks. It’s just words”, an astounding attempt to discredit his accusation by simply dismissing the importance of words – the very currency with which he was attempting to ascend to the office he holds today.Protectors of the power of language were horrified – notably JK Rowling who later tweeted that “If they [words] don’t matter, we’re all lost” – and then were further horrified to note that a wide section of the American public were happy to accept the explanation, uncritically.Once again, the most shocking examples of the abuse of language are not the most sophisticated examples but the brazenness with which the most crude versions are employed.
Finally, it’s important to note that the powerful do not have the monopoly on distorting language to further their own causes.Recent years have seen those with less power adopting a similar technique – with concerning implications.No-one should want to undermine the experience of minorities in their struggle to gain equal recognition and representation but to a language purist, it’s equally unedifying to see certain groups explaining their experiences and situations with the phrase “my truth”.It’s understandable that the assertion is that their perspective on issues is different and needs to be more widely understood but can it be right that the word ‘truth’, which is supposed to be an absolute, can now be treated like any common noun and fall under the auspices of a possessive?This isn’t merely a point of grammar but one of meaning itself.Surely there can only be one truth, however many interpretations of it there may be.If we complicitly downgrade the term ‘truth’ to mean little more than ‘opinion’, aren’t we devaluing the very concept of truth itself?
Such concerns are brought into sharper relief when, inevitably, the language of the powerless is then appropriated by the powerful.During the furore that surrounded Serena Williams’ conduct at the 2018 US Open Final, opinions swirled that she was both a powerful, millionaire athlete or the victim of sexism and racism, depending upon the level of support or condemnation being proclaimed.Headlines such as “Serena Williams is being punished for speaking her truth” legitimise the concept in the vernacular and will offer those who seek to further themselves by factual obfuscation with another useful tool to achieving it.
No wonder we’re being described as living in a “Post-truth” world but the very existence of such a phrase is, to my mind, hardly a portent of promise.If nothing is going to mean anything anymore, shouldn’t we be more worried that the most basic principles that anchor our hard-won rights are under the same threat of being erased?
Today, I went to Chorley. Nothing particularly noteworthy or even relevant in that, on this day of all days, you might think. In fairness, you’d be right – unless you’re aware of then significance it has to me.
What’s the tale? Okay, ‘long story short(er)’ version: It’s Euro ‘96. I’ve managed to get corporate tickets to Old Trafford for the first semi-final (France v Czech Republic) which went to penalties and even then ‘sudden death’ penalties. Eventually, the Czechs managed to win, which meant we had less than an hour to get in front of a TV to watch the other semi – England v Germany – from Wembley.
I decided to eschew my lift back to the nice Cheshire hotel which had been our earlier rendezvous, calculating that to get there would mean missing the first 20 minutes, and take my chances in getting a tram into Manchester. I joined the hordes thronging around Old Trafford (cricket ground) station and, soon enough found my way on the Metrolink into town.
Only days beforehand, Manchester city centre had been attacked by the IRA and all the way from Deansgate station there were boarded up windows and a sense of being in a war zone. I chose to get off at Piccadilly Gardens and find a pub showing the match.
It was still the mid-nineties so not every hostelry was equipped with a television, although it was easy to spot those that weren’t – they were empty. Conversely, the rest were jam-packed. After trying a few – and with kick-off approaching – I decided I’d have to cram myself into the next available bar, which I did in a place my failing memory tells me might have been called the Brunswick Tavern. As I squeezed my way in, the place erupted. Alan Shearer had scored in the first minute.
As you’ll almost certainly know, the next couple of hours consisted of a German equaliser, numerous agonisingly close chances for an England winner and a penalty shoot-out that was lost when a young centre-half called Gareth Southgate had his kick saved. It’s written deep into English footballing folklore.
As the game had worn on and tensions had increased, the dozens of random strangers had begun to forge a bond and, once poor Gareth had enshrined his place in Pizza Hut ad ignominy, the numbers had shrunk such that those that remained were now buying each other drinks and communally crying into them. I have no idea now who I was commiserating with but, more to the point, at that juncture, filled with numbness, I had no idea (or interest) what time it was.
Of course the important temporal issue was that of the last train home (to Wigan) and by the time I got to Piccadilly Station, it became apparent that I’d missed it. The only alternative to a night on Manchester’s streets or an embarrassing call to my parents was the last service to Blackpool, which stopped at Chorley.
Quickly sobering up, I caught the Blackpool train and managed to stay awake to alight at Chorley – where I realised I had nowhere near enough money to get a taxi home.
Filled with the fatalistic hubris of alcohol and existential angst, I decided to sod everything and walk the seven or so miles home. It took me three hours and I only got to bed at about four o’clock (in the daylight) with sore feet, a degree of dehydration and a heavy heart. Despite the years and the inebriation, I still remember much of that walk home.
I remembered today, as I drove past Birkacre Garden Centre the (probably long-departed) guard dog that barked at me as I trudged haplessly past its domain 22 years ago. I remembered my frustration and empathy for Southgate, knowing he would be portrayed as a villain of the piece but, even then, knowing that he was one of football’s good guys and ill-deserving of his inevitable notoriety.
Today, en route to Chorley and, in particular, as I drove past Chorley Station, I reflected on Gareth’s redemption, his reassuring example that nice guys don’t always finish last and hoped that, this time, England’s semi-final would end in easy victory, not in unedifying dismay.
In the end, it was neither. Clearly, victory has eluded Gareth (and the rest of us) again but this time, abject desolation in defeat has been replaced by dignity and optimism. It may be another four years of ‘hurt’ but it’s an interlude that has given the nation a prevailing sense hope rather than scorn. Above all, it has vindicated Southgate, resurrected him from the grip of those dark days and left us wanting him to be the man to inherit the mantle of Alf Ramsey – as with Sir Alf, a knighthood has already been suggested.
England fans don’t expect to win tournaments – we just would rather not be significantly disappointed. We tend not to set our sights too high, usually settling for quarter-finals as our ‘par’ score. In reaching the semis, you could say we’ve gloriously over-achieved. That didn’t feel particularly true in our home tournament in 1996 but it is now. Above all, I hope we can find the stability to give these players – and the manager – the chance to do this again and perhaps fulfil the fleeting promise they gave to go even further.
It didn’t feel like much fun at the time but that long walk home is now a cherished memory – and I’d happily walk further, if it was as a consequence of winning a semi-final.
If you’re in business, you’ll probably be aware of the impending changes to data privacy law (known as GDPR), about to take effect. You may also have noticed lots of companies have recently started to ask you to continue to opt-in to their emails. If this is all news to you and you don’t know about GDPR, it might be a good time to read up about how it will affect your business.
Basically, the new law effectively resets many of the permissions we currently have to hold and use your contact data. If we’ve been emailing you for many years, it’s possible that we’re holding your contact data without all the permissions that GDPR now requires – which means we won’t be able to contact you from May 25th without good reason to do so, or your given permission.
Obviously, we don’t want to lose contact with any of our valued customers so between now and then, like many other companies, we’ll be encouraging as many of our contacts as possible to re-subscribe to our emails. We apologise in advance if it looks like we’re over-doing the reminder activity but we expect every other business to be doing the same – and we’ll all have to stop doing it by May 25th!
In order to keep receiving a our important industry and CSG related information via email, all you have to do is visit our Contacts page and fill in the brief form, confirm you’re not a robot and click on the red button. To make it interesting, we challenge you to see if you can do the whole thing in under sixty seconds. Are you up for that?
CSG have been working in field of waste removal for over 80 years but even that proud figure is dwarfed when you compare it to the hundreds of years of combined personal experience of all the people who make up our team. The greater the level of regulation and expectation imposed upon our industry, the more valuable this expertise has become. Almost without realising it, we’ve amassed a huge knowledge base that consistently adds extra value to our operation. Now, for the first time, we’re going to make it commercially available in the form of operator training.
Darren Bennett and his team are our Service and Performance Auditors and between them, have decades of time served in the field, encompassing all aspects of day-to-day experience, from HGV driving to spill handling and a variety of Health & Safety considerations. Not only are they CSG’s in-house driver training team, they are also our own internal auditors, checking out the processes a driver follows on a given day.
Much of what the CSG fleet achieves is as a result of the patient training and diligent attention to detail that Darren, Les Denham and Chris Hanrahan are able to provide. For a reasonable rate, all that expertise can now be made available to anyone who wishes their team to have it.
As you’d expect, the very process of training others has itself been something that we’ve trained at – it sort of defeats the whole argument for training to suggest we’ve suddenly become able to do this competently, overnight. For many years, we’ve offered a range of bespoke training sessions both internally as part of our wider service to our clients. Now, we believe this capability is something we can offer to new or existing clients as a stand-alone service.
Darren has frequently noticed the the value of extra training benefits all concerned – not just with those people being trained:
“Through offering training to our clients over the years, we’ve often found that greater understanding, not just of the people we train, but of the others in the organisation who they share that knowledge with, can lead to a closer working relationship and the opportunity to work more beneficially with each other”
If you’re interested in harnessing the expansive knowledge and clear delivery offered by Darren and his team, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 0800 048 0622.
Between 3rd and 6th April, we held our first ever Health & Safety Week, across the 27 sites that make up the CSG group. Designed to promote awareness of the issues of health and safety at work, the initiative also included a schedule of staff training and activities centred on maintaining the highest possible standards of assuring health and safety.
Sarah Taylor, CSG’s Compliance Manager, explained why we felt it was important to take a fresh approach to addressing the subject.
“Health & Safety is always highlighted strongly across CSG so the aim of the week was to really provide another way to encouraging our staff to engage positively with the whole topic. We wanted to ensure that everyone feels that it’s part of their work, re-iterating CSG’s aim to empower all members of staff to take personal responsibility for their health and safety.”
As you might expect, more practical, day-to-day considerations were covered by themes such as Vehicle and Pedestrian Safety and also Risk Assessment but the initiative also addressed more wide-reaching, fundamental issues like the importance of a Positive Health & Safety Culture and even Health & Wellbeing.
“When we talk about Health and Safety, naturally, we focus on maximising safety – and that’s understandably important – but there tends to be a lack of attention within industry on the importance of promoting health. This was something we were determined not to ignore because all the evidence suggests a healthier workforce tends to be a happier, safer workforce.”
This additional consideration meant the week would see a host of health-related features to illustrate those issues. Among them were the distribution of re-fillable water bottles to staff, to highlight the importance of hydration, and the provision of fruit at break times, rather than less healthy alternatives.
The importance of exercise and fitness were underlined during ‘bootcamp’-style exercise classes and there was even an opportunity for employees to take up a package of Occupational Health programmes from HealthShield, a society specialising in health and wellbeing at work.
With so much effort necessary to hold such an intense week of events (thanks to Sarah, CSG’s Health & Safety Manager, Kevin Mooney and many others), now it’s over, can it be said to have been a success?
“I think it was a different way of delivering some key Health & Safety messages and it provided a special time of focus, with people across the company talking about the issues all week so in that basic sense, it achieved exactly what we wanted it to.
“Beyond that, we found it brought people across the company who don’t normally work with each other started to work closer together. This resulted in a lot of unexpected team bonding. As a result of one of the ‘bootcamp’ sessions, one of our teams was prompted into starting up Friday night 5-a-side football matches! More generally, it’s been good to see a wide range of our employees realise that exercise of all forms is something they could do, even at their age or level of fitness.”
It’s interesting to note that a week of Health & Safety awareness, especially one in which the subject individual health was covered, one of the main additional benefits we found was the fact that people from very different parts of the group were encouraged to work more closely together, learning and even exercising together, which can only be of benefit to the whole company.
Improving each the health and safety of our workforce was one thing, improving the health of CSG itself, as a consequence, has been quite another.
“…Oil…Black Gold. Texas Tea.” – maybe you’ll remember the TV show that included that line in its opening credits.
Back in the monochrome 1960s when ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ was made, the world seemed a much simpler place: find oil, make millions, never need to worry again. Even twenty years later, we were still being enthralled by all the scheming and back-biting at the Oil Baron’s Ball in ‘Dallas’. For most of the last century, the very mention of oil in the media has usually been as a shorthand for money, power and glamour.
Today, as we all know, when it comes to oil, there’s a lot more to be considered than just the trappings it brings. Emissions are monitored as never before and the quest to replace it with more sustainable energy sources has become the new frontier for the century ahead.
For that reason, oil has entered a phase in which it expects to fall from the favour it once had, a process that’s already beginning to be mapped out. Last year, the UK government announced it would ban the sales of all new cars, powered by petrol or diesel, from the year 2040. This is a date which may still conjure images of floating buildings and flying cars, reminiscent of that other big hit of 1962, ‘The Jetsons’ but when you do the maths, it’s a different story. 2040 is only 22 years away – which is probably less than the amount of time it’s been since we last saw repeats of Jed, Jethro, Granny and Elly May on terrestrial TV.
More pressing is the recent announcement from the World Bank that it will cease to finance fossil fuel extraction from 2020. Forget the undated, stereotyped “future” that old TV shows used to promise us, of silver jumpsuits and Moonbases, this is a date that’s more or less in the here and now. Inevitably, similar deadlines from other regulatory bodies will follow and many will have a similarly short horizon.
It all adds up to a warning to all those who’ve defined themselves by their involvement in the oil industry that the heady days personified by the Clampetts and the Ewings are starting to seem as dated as the width of JR’s lapels.
Naturally, at Willacy, a company once inextricably linked with the oil industry, it’s clear that our growth is unlikely to arrive as a result of us depending solely upon oil. While we will of course continue to provide all the services we’re well known for to those in the oil industry, we have to recognise it’s a sector that many people may feel is one whose days are numbered – even if that number is still in the many thousands.
Over the years, we’ve developed a number of unrivalled technologies and techniques to survey, treat and rejuvenate oil infrastructure in Britain and many other countries around the world. In recent years, we’ve increasingly transferred that capability to water-based applications. Our recent development of sonar-driven tank surveying is a prime example of oil-based technology being adapted for use in water-based environments.
With our competence in the aqueous sphere established, the door is opened to other establishments that store and process matter of various descriptions. Already, we’re working with abattoirs and other food industry sites. Research from The Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA) suggests there are now over 250 sites in the UK where food waste can be processed to provide biofuel and other resources. The growth and proliferation of this sector, still in the early stages of its development contrasts markedly with the consolidation and concentration of the much more mature oil industry.
As we’ve learned from various instances over the years where our services have occasionally been required in other fields, while the medium (the type of stuff in the tanks) may change, many of the problems and processes involved – the basic practicalities of getting the job done – are exactly the same. Different substances may alter the operational parameters but fundamentally, it’s not that different a task – if you know what you’re doing.
Aside from maximising our potential by applying our skills to other, more abundant, less restrictive markets, we’re actually making the most of the knowledge and capability that we have – and that others struggle to match. In modern parlance, it was indeed a ‘no-brainer’ for Willacy to diversify in this way but even so, is there a helpful sign, a handy lesson from history to encourage us in this strategy?
Interestingly, ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ (1993) and ‘Dallas’ (2012), were both re-booted many years after the height of their success and in each series, the main characters, Jed Clampett and JR Ewing were relieved of their fortune, facing an uncertain future, without the security of a status based on oil. Could that have been a warning, perhaps? Neither sequel did well in terms of reviews or ratings but you can’t help wondering if the storylines at least got that bit right…
As you may have seen previously on an earlier blogpost, we’ve been awaiting the arrival of the brand new CSG website and we’re finally pleased to say: here it is!
As you’d expect, the site is designed to smartly alter its layout, depending on the dimensions of the screen on the device you’re using so it looks equally impressive whether you’re accessing it on a 27-inch desktop machine or an old iPhone – and everything in between!
The information is designed to be easier to navigate, immediately helping you to distinguish between our commercial and domestic services. Further innovations such as a quote calculator for domestic collections (similar to the function on our Oil Monster site) are expected to be added in due course.
The new site features far more interactive information about CSG, especially our four core values: Customer Service, Innovation, People and Heritage. We’ve even commissioned a short video to explain our commitment to each of these ‘pillars’ that hold up everything else that CSG does. You can view these short vignettes on our About CSG page.
You can read more about the innovations we’ve developed that mean we can treat some waste streams that others can’t. In addition, there are case studies that highlight the ways we fit the needs of two of our most high profile clients and there are lots of short, informative biographies on various members of the CSG team.
As before, there’s also a comprehensive list of our accreditations and other documentation for you to download – as well as a handy guide to finding the right EWC codes for your waste requirements.
Last (but by no means least!), this very blog is now fully incorporated into the site, giving you a thoroughly seamless experience whenever you check back here every Monday morning, keen to catch up on our every blogged word – that is what everyone does, isn’t it?
However you choose to use the CSG site, it’s here for you and always will be – and we hope you like it!
“Knowledge is power”. “Data is value”. “If you can’t monitor it, don’t do it”. We’re probably all familiar with these rather trite sayings because aspiring managers everywhere love to sprinkle them into their meetings and briefings. It’s tempting to treat them as a fashionable irrelevance, like more notorious examples such as “blue-sky thinking”. However, just because a belief in number-crunching is so closely associated with management-speak, it doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. Far from it; unlike the more cringe-worthy sayings like “sweating the asset”, there’s lots to be said for, er, sweating the data asset – so to speak…
CSG is one of those businesses for whom more data is better than less. Financial performance, tendering capability, regulatory compliance and many other aspects of the business are all governed by clear, accurate, day-to-day data-gathering. Crucially, in order to operate with distinction in the waste sector, we also need to be able to practice what we often preach – a commitment to environmental excellence – and that means we need to be able to point to some impressively green statistics.
In 2015, we signed up to the Government’s Energy Saving Opportunities Scheme (ESOS), having met the quite stringent criteria, to apply. The following year, we joined the Logistics Carbon Reduction Scheme (LCRS). Both initiatives require us to manage and reduce our carbon impact and demonstrate more efficient ways of doing business. In order to start to do that, first, you need to know what your starting point is, which means – you’ve guessed it – closely monitoring our energy usage.
The font of much of our statistical knowledge is Antony Gerken, our Permitting and Compliance Manager. It’s Antony who ensures that our many and varied accreditations are attained – and then retained – amid ever-tightening regulations. When the time comes to renew an ISO certificate or add another to our long list of accreditations, Antony’s our go-to guy to get the job done!
In order to achieve better carbon efficiency, several years ago, we took the decision to refresh a large proportion of our fleet of lorries, a process that came to the end of its cycle last year. Now, with enough time having passed to generate enough usage statistics, Antony is able to quantify the effectiveness of our fleet investments of the last few years. A combination of newer, more efficient trucks, the ability to monitor inefficient driving and computerised job schedules, digitally communicated to drivers, have all promised more efficient mileage and less time travelled between jobs. Antony describes his most impressive finding:
“We usually average between 8-10 miles per gallon for our tanker fleet. In 2017 we hit an average mpg of 10.389, which is a significant improvement on 2016. If you assume we did the same mileage in 2016 and 2017, the increased efficiency works out at around 200,000 fewer litres used in 2017.”
As we all know, the standard unit of measurement for lots of liquid is the Olympic-sized swimming pool (2.5 million litres). 200,000 litres of fuel isn’t nearly enough to fill it, it’s about one-twelfth of the volume. You could try to visualise a depth of 16cm of diesel sloshing around in there but it may be more helpful to think of it this way: an average family car being driven in a way that requires it to be filled once a week uses around 2,800 litres a year. Our diesel saving alone in 2017 would have been enough to fuel over 70 such cars for a full year – the equivalent of a large housing estate or even a whole village’s annual use!
Another way to look at it would be to say that it’s the amount of fuel our more efficient fleet now requires to travel an extra 500,000 miles – the same as fuelling 20 CSG trucks to travel around the world!
In addition to the reduction of fuel being consumed, less diesel in also means fewer emissions being released. Antony calculates this figure to be 528 tonnes of CO2. Again, this isn’t an easy thing to visualise but there are ways to understand what that might be equivalent to, thanks to websites like yousustain.com. YouSustain suggest that the CO2 reductions we made through our fleet in 2017 are equivalent to the emissions of 104 cars for a whole year. Or 40 houses. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, one whole 747 flying from London to New York – and back.
Of course, while environmental benefits are their own virtue, let’s not forget the fact that using less fuel costs CSG less money. The more financially efficient our operation is, the more competitive our prices can be. As is most often the case, if the environment gains as a result of someone saving money, it tends to happen more quickly and, as savings are there to be passed on, everyone can gain from the initiative.
As you can imagine, the quest for greater sustainability and better efficiency won’t stop here – to many people, the challenges of environmental responsibility have barely begun – but we believe it’s an important step and one that demonstrates our credibility to adopt the most fundamental principles of the Waste Hierarchy. In operating more efficiently, we’re preventing the consumption (and emission) of a significant amount fossil fuel. That’s got to be something worth “running up the flagpole”!
In earlier blogposts, we’ve examined how CSG’s Heritage, Innovation and Customer Service make up three of the ‘pillars’ identified as upholding our brand values. In this, the final part of the series, we focus on the fourth pillar, our People.
Accountants are often quick to remind business owners that ‘wages’ constitute their greatest expense. Unfortunately, while one of the fundamental principles of accountancy is to ensure assets and liabilities are listed and balanced, a company’s workforce isn’t ever given the status of an asset. Looking at the ways certain companies seem to operate, that one-sided view of employment can appear to sum up their relationship with those they employ.
At CSG, it couldn’t be more different. Across the business, there is a strong sense that the people who work for CSG are not just considered an asset but are very much the company’s greatest asset. You only have to flick through the pages of ‘The Hart of Waste’, the updated edition of the official CSG book and you’ll see that photographs of people from all parts of the business today (captioned with their names and their roles) are interspersed with all the significant events you’d expect to read about in an ‘Official History’. This focus on the importance of ‘The Team’ doesn’t happen by accident – it requires a strong ‘people’ culture, something that can really only be driven by a Board who truly believe in it.
Today, CSG has a turnover of over £65m but it is still a family-owned business. Through Heather Hart, CSG’s Chairman the founder’s daughter, there is a deep connection to the days when ‘Hampshire Cleansing Service’ operated from a single site, where the owners worked side-by-side with the staff and where every member of the team knew each other well. Today, with sites all over the country, spanning various different sectors of the market, clearly, that level of closeness is not possible – but it doesn’t mean that the same basic relationship between the company and those who work within it should change. In fact, one of Heather’s recollections explains much about the way her influence has set this tone.
“My father was always ‘Mr Hart’ and when I started, it was natural to everyone that I’d be greeted ‘Miss Heather’. I was never comfortable with that and preferred just ‘Heather’, so we began to adopt a first-name culture, which still exists today.”
The chief defender of the faith in the basic decency and unlocked potential of people is CSG’s Managing Director, Neil Richards. Disarmingly engaging and frank, you don’t need to be in Neil’s company for long to see how passionate he is about the importance of people to a successful business. Just one question about his personal management style is all he needs to warm to the subject.
“I learnt early in my career that a business can only be as good as its people, that most people are good and just require the right management. As a manager, you have the choice to release their potential or dumb down their abilities. I’ve always tried to empower people, to add enjoyment to what they do. I believe the potential of a workforce is huge so it’s not just something I do because it’s ‘a personal style’ – it’s an approach that’s good for business!”
CSG and Neil seem to be made for each other. He frequently refers to the people at CSG as the “brain power”, even the “horsepower” of the company, a central metaphor in his philosophy that good people, managed properly can add significant value. It’s hardly surprising that in Neil’s six years at the helm, the company has grown from 382 employees to 482 and its revenues from £44m to £65m.
“The first time I met Heather, I knew we had the same values. I saw how the family ethos was most evident at our Hampshire office and I wanted to ensure it was felt as strongly across the wider organisation. The waste industry is all about dealing with and benefitting from change. You can’t manage change any other way than with people”
But surely there’s a limit to all this new wave of collaboration and inclusivity, isn’t there? Hasn’t it all gone a little too far from the autocratic days when “everyone knew where they stood”? Presumably out of habit, Neil is quick to spot the counter argument of ‘old school’ management thinking – and quickly debunks it.
“It’s a fallacy that a ‘people’ style is all based on just being nice and offering incentives and rewards. There’s actually more conflict, more harsh exchanges of views when you empower people – which usually results in the right decision being made.
“In management, you mustn’t ever believe in your own propaganda, you need to be self-aware and a positive influence – you get more from a spoonful of sugar than a barrel of vinegar. It takes character and humility to do that, as well as common sense – a quality, which, unfortunately, isn’t that common! I’ve also learned that you know the culture is right when people begin to coach each other.”
There’s a simple reason that it’s important to see people helping each other, people empowering each other, even people occasionally arguing passionately with each other. They’re all symptoms of a workforce that cares about the work they do – a commodity that can sometimes seem to be vanishingly rare in the wider economy.
Hard-bitten traditionalists may smile and say that’s all very well but such observations amount to little more than anecdotes, circumstantial evidence. Where are the facts that support the assertion that there’s such a thing as ‘people power’?
You need look no further than our HR team to find the answer. The data they administer shows the number of people whose length of service runs into the decades and, perhaps most persuasively, the number of employees who apply to re-join, having previously left the business. Such statistics simply don’t occur at organisations where the workers feel they’re little more than a number.
Of course, you’d expect any company who claims to be committed to recognising the potential of its workforce to hold the ‘Investors In People’ accreditation, something which CSG has done for many years. Then, consider the number of apprentices CSG has developed into full-time employees in recent years and the many and varied ways the company supports the personal charitable efforts of its team. Finally, look at the number of retirees with at least ten years’ service who continue to benefit from the activities of The Margaret Hart Trust – a possibly unique fund, created to assist those who have helped to make CSG what it is today.
Neil Richards’ mantra is “it’s all about the people” and there are few companies in the UK today who can claim to be as focused on making the very most of their human resource as CSG.
It’s 6am and another day begins for Ben Tully at our Botley depot. Ben is 21 and has just completed his apprenticeship and is ready to make the next move to become a tanker driver. Until he’s qualified to drive, he will remain a ‘second man’, assisting drivers in their daily rounds of collections from domestic and industrial customers across the Hampshire area, and beyond.
Before he even gets in the lorry, there are checks to make to today’s vehicle. First, tyre pressure and wheel nuts, then oil and water checks, before lights and then the pipes and equipment involved with pumping the waste. Finally, a top-up of the diesel tank, if necessary and it’s time to get started on today’s list of jobs. On most days, it’s 6:15 as they leave the yard.
CSG’s innovative PDA-based system arranges the jobs for all our tanker teams and so they consult the electronic device to see where they will be headed first. Like a SatNav, the system will expect the journey to take a certain amount of time and their ETA will be the similar to the time given to the customer to expect them. As long as there are no significant traffic delays, it all works perfectly.
Once they arrive at each job, Ben and his driver will work together to prepare the site for the collection, using cones to cordon off the area, where necessary. Pipes are laid out and manhole covers are lifted and fitted with our unique safety barriers while the collection takes place.
If the site is a petrol station forecourt, the brief closure of the station can sometimes visibly frustrate the odd motorist but the occasional over-reaction is something Ben has learned to take in his stride:
“You get used to it. I’m just doing my job but people don’t always see it that way. I’ve found that the best thing to do is just smile and wave.”
Lunch can be taken anywhere but the timing is dictated by the lorry’s tacograph, which must show that a 45-minute break has been taken after six hours. Like most drivers, Ben takes his lunch with him, together with a flask of tea and a bottle of water.
It can make for an unusually close working relationship, spending hours together in the confines of a lorry cab, driving from one job to the next. As with any working environment, some people may be easier to work with than others but such proximity often means that drivers and their assistants will very quickly get to know each other quite well – a closeness that can be quite helpful when the two are dependent upon one another once they arrive at the next site.
“It’s great when you can have a laugh together but whoever the driver is that I’m working with, I always find something to chat about, whether it’s football or things going on at work.”
The job can be quite physically demanding and being able to do the job in all conditions is essential. Ben takes it all in his stride.
“I often go to the gym after work but I don’t mind missing a day if it’s too busy because just doing the job can be like a workout. Cold weather is one thing but it’s better than working in the driving rain. Even then, I’d still rather be too cold than too hot because you can always put on another layer. We make sure we have spare clothes in the cab.”
Most days, Ben and his driver are back at the depot at around 4:45 but if the schedule and traffic dictate otherwise, it may be later than that. Again, the ‘taco’ has to be obeyed so timings have to be quite precise.
The next move for this former apprentice is to progress to driving a tanker himself. That means passing an HGV test and also attaining a CPC (Certificate of Professional Competence) qualification for drivers. Having gained both, he will then initially drive on his own and can eventually expect to have his own apprentice. And so the cycle will start again.
CSG are a firm supporter of apprenticeships and have found the scheme beneficial to the development of many individuals in roles across the company. Our Managing Director Neil Richards is firm advocate and has in the past stated that investing in programmes that develop skills is a great way to counter perceptions that the waste industry is too reliant on low-skilled labour.
“Our apprentices are encouraged to develop skills and earn good qualifications with the prospect of a career with us, and earn a wage at the same time. We aim to steadily increase the number of employees following apprenticeship schemes in all areas of our business”
We wish Ben the best of luck in his forthcoming test and we’re sure it won’t be long before he’s working with his own apprentice.
1976 was an awfully long time ago. Looking back at some of the events of that year – the first commercial flight by Concorde, The UK winning the Eurovision Song Contest and inflation hitting 16.5% – one can easily feel as if it all happened in a parallel world to the one we inhabit today.
If you remember living through it, you will no doubt recall its long, hot summer but even that memory, vivid as it may seem, cannot change the fact that it happened half a lifetime ago. It’s easy to believe such anecdotes are little more than curiosities of a bygone age: footnotes in a textbook rather than relevant to 2018.
At CSG, something of real significance happened in 1976 – something to confront issues that are relevant to any age, to the present day. Margaret Hart, the wife of our founder, Edgar ‘Bunny’ Hart, had inherited his shares upon his death in 1971 and decided to use a substantial number of them to create a means to provide help to CSG employees and their families, current or retired, wherever it was needed. The aims of the project were formally drafted and the Margaret Hart Trust came into existence.
The Trust was founded to provide assistance where health problems result in financial difficulty and to help ensure that those who have retired can continue to live independently in their own homes. In addition, every Christmas, dozens of beneficiaries now receive a hamper of goods to ease costs at an expensive time of the year and every August, each retiree is invited to an annual Tea Party in Hampshire, giving them the chance to meet, share stories and partake in a magnificent tea. Holiday contributions are also made available to those who would struggle to afford quality time away from home.
Margaret Hart lived through two world wars and a depression, experiencing both the hardships they presented as well as the stoicism of people of those times to suffer in silence, rather than ask for help. She felt strongly that well-being was too important to sacrifice in the name of pride but she also understood that providing help must be done sympathetically, without intrusion on dignity. For this reason, the Trust’s very existence is placed into a wider context, the ongoing relationship we have with those who have contributed to our success.
Today the Trust’s Chair is Margaret’s daughter, Hilary Hart, who describes the very reciprocal ethos it still embodies.
“CSG’s growth over many years has brought increasing comforts to employees and shareholders. It was Mother’s wish – and ours today – to be able to share this good fortune with those who are in need.”
The “ours” in that statement refers to the seven trustees who meet regularly to guide and instruct the Trust’s Co-ordinators, Fred Pothecary and Diane Lane. It’s also a nod to Hilary’s sister, Heather (CSG’s Chairman) that together, they have continued to fulfil the objectives of their mother’s far-sighted initiative. Heather has also spoken of being “very proud” of the Trust’s achievements.
It’s difficult to disagree. The activities of the ‘MHT’ are tangible examples of the widely-held sense amongst the CSG team that they belong to an ‘extended family’, with Hilary and Heather to be greeted on strictly first-name terms. It enables those who may have once believed themselves to be simply “employees” to become more akin to life-members of a club. With UK workers in the same job now for only five years, half the figure it was in 1976, the permanence of the Trust’s outlook offers an appealing alternative to the short-termism that today’s workforce is commonly supposed to hold.
Day-to-day Trust activities largely comprise of gardening and home visits to retirees. Where personal mobility issues exist, they have been addressed with the provision of electric scooters. There’s also a constant administrative overhead in which information on forthcoming events is disseminated and queries are fielded. When misfortune intervenes, the Trustees convene quickly decide upon the appropriate level of support offered – sometimes, assistance with hospital parking fees is all that’s required but often, it can be much more than that.
Margaret Hart died in 1994, having seen the Trust play an important role for the last eighteen years of her life. Today, almost a quarter of a century after it became part of her legacy, what does Hilary believe her mother would make of its various activities?
“I would hope she’d be really pleased to see all the things the Trust has continued to do and I’d hope she would feel that we’ve honoured the principles she established. I know for certain she’d have loved the tea parties!”
And what of the future? Can an institution that appears to have more in common with Victorian philanthropy than business in the 21st century continue to do what is has always done? Hilary is unmoved by the suggestion that material change is inevitable – or indeed, likely.
“I think the Trust will build on its current principles of helping individuals and maintain the quality of assistance it offers. Enabling people to remain independent is hugely important – it preserves their dignity and allows them to continue to contribute to their community. Things will evolve, I’m sure. As our retirees are now more technically literate than was the case years ago, we’re able to make better use of digital communication. Not only is this more efficient for the Trust but it allows us to maintain a better level of contact. It’s important that we hold people together, recognise what they’ve done and never forget to appreciate them.’
While Partnerships and Co-operatives may offer similar support systems to their employees, Hilary and Heather still believe their mother’s brainchild to be a unique example of its kind amongst privately-owned companies.
The Margaret Hart Trust continues to be a triumph of corporate social responsibility but the fact it is still so unusual is perhaps an indication that the world may not have changed as much as we like to think. Forty-two years on from its inception, it continues to forge its own path, providing an example to other employers that the key to the future can very often be found in the past.
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” wrote the Roman satirist Juvenal around the turn of the 2nd century, raising questions of the capability of those in authority to discharge their duties responsibly. It’s a question that for the almost two thousand years since, civilisations have grappled with, resulting in the notion of auditing – to ensure that others can see that responsibilities are being met, as they should be.
Auditing and compliance are terms that every business has had to embrace more fully over many years, with ever-stronger obligations in areas of employment law, health and safety and day-to-day environmental standards. Beyond those more mainstream areas, a company like CSG, operating within a tightly-regulated arena such as waste processing and hazardous chemicals, you can imagine the sheer volume of regulation (and the consequences of getting it wrong) can be mind-boggling.
Of course, as a large, reputable company with many years’ experience in the field, this isn’t quite as daunting as it sounds – very many systems, processes and job roles have evolved over time to enable the management of the multitude of technical and bureaucratic requirements required of us. For the last ten years, though, we’ve felt it necessary to create our own extra layer of applying checks and balances, in order better to understand the way we continue to work within a constantly-changing regulatory landscape and, of course, to minimise risk.
That layer is the IAG, our Internal Audit Group, a committee of several Senior Managers and Directors who meet every two months and report to the CSG Board on all areas where compliance with regulations is a necessary requirement. Central to that mission is CSG’s Permitting & Compliance Manager Antony Gerken.
“The IAG came about as a result of our drive to gain ISO accreditation”, Antony explains. “From that initial requirement, it was clear that best practice involved learning from mishaps made by other people – to prevent issues from happening, rather than cure those that have happened.”
It is a sign of CSG’s stability and competence that most of the matters the IAG oversees are generally delegated back the team directly involved – it means the IAG’s principal role is an advisory one, where consultation from within CSG is sought and given.
“The very existence of the group is a means to encouraging the culture of every part of the company to continually accept and work better within our regulatory parameters”, adds Antony. “We’ve found that simply by raising the internal profile of the IAG within CSG, all the external audits we are regularly subjected to have become much smoother.”
The ‘box-ticking’ nature of ensuring compliance, especially with the more technical, seemingly less urgent areas of ‘red tape’, like Financial Compliance, gives the impression that this is very dry area of operation, suited to diligent bureaucrats with little need to apply ‘real-world’ understanding of the rules, like the Vogons of Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ – but that rather harsh stereotype falls down when you hear why it’s of interest to the IAG.
“Financial compliance sounds dull but it can often be the opposite: for example, one of our chief requirements is to be seen always to be working within the auspices of anti-bribery and anti-[money]-laundering laws”, Antony explains before adding, with a knowing nod, “which is especially important a consideration in certain other countries”, neatly making the point that, where compliance is required, the very nature of the exercise is to guard against problems and abuses that the rest of us, naively, would barely consider.
There are other advantages to all this watching. On a very basic level, having a broad range of experienced professionals to assess operational processes, bringing their collective experience to bear, means the remit goes beyond mere compliance. Inevitably, it leads to suggestions that make processes quicker or easier and therefore more efficient. Many times, real efficiency savings have occurred simply because a process has been more effectively scrutinised.
There’s also the secondary benefit of being better able to deal with upcoming rule changes from bodies such as the Environmental Agency, which is this: being seen to be better able to predict and respond to rules that affect the industry makes CSG stand out from its competitors. In other words, just being known to be more diligent is its own virtue, offering us a commercial advantage.
The nature of auditing is about understanding the fine detail, the micro-level of day-to-day matters but there’s one macro-level looming uncertainty that threatens to change so many areas of compliance that it’s already occupying much of the IAG’s thoughts – the expected impact of Britain’s impending exit from the European Union. It threatens to be a subject so wide-ranging, it will undoubtedly require its own blogpost, possibly several, and it’s still an area that offers so many unanswered questions.
Juvenal’s words are most commonly associated with the need to apply visibility to those in power. In order for the IAG’s questions about compliance in the world after Brexit to become answered, we’ll all have to watch a different set of watchers…
Our recent blogpost about CSG’s heritage showed the importance of history to this company. Developing the idea, we thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at one of our sites, our processing facility in Cadishead, near Manchester.
Like many towns in the swathe of territory between Manchester and Liverpool, Cadishead became thrust into the heart of the Industrial Revolution by the construction of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway from 1826. In fact, Chat Moss, an area of marshland just north of our site became notable for the challenge it provided to the railway’s engineers, led by the renowned George Stephenson. Four years later, on September 15th 1830, the new line, a marvel of the Victorian age, opened to wide acclaim – with Robert Stephenson’s famous Rocket among the first locomotives to run on the line.
Cadishead’s significance was further assured in the late 1880s, with the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal. On the day it opened, January 1st 1894, it was the largest canal of its type in the world and would enable Manchester, a city located some 40 miles inland to become Britain’s third-busiest port. With such strong transport links, this previously agricultural area had, within a couple of generations, become one of the most strategically important locations in the country.
If you’ve ever used the stretch of the M62 between its junctions with the M6 at Birchwood and the M60 at Eccles, you may have noticed just how uneven the road can be – and how often it seems to be re-surfaced. Local wisdom suggests that the ground beneath is so criss-crossed with mine shafts and extracted coal, even after over a hundred years, the soil is still settling into place, disrupting the surface. In the early 1890s, with the advent of the Ship Canal, nearby Cadishead suddenly became a hugely important location to load millions of tonnes of coal onto waiting barges.
An early map of the canal shows a high concentration of recently-laid railway lines nearby, crossing the canal and terminating at a loading areas on both banks – the viaduct remains today, albeit unused. It also indicates that while the immediate area around our Liverpool Road site remained quite agricultural in nature, even then, a mineral line ran alongside the canal, where today’s Cadishead Way by-pass (A57) begins.
As the area began to prosper from its now enviable location, it was clear that the site around Hayes Farm was far too important to be left unexploited and a local railway historian suggests that around the turn of the 20th Century, it became the home of the Lancashire Patent Fuel Company, a manufacturer of fuel briquettes. Around the time of the First World War, the company was acquired by the Manna Oil Refinery, a name which would make newspaper headlines in 1915.
It was on the 8th October that year that a fire broke out at the refinery. With highly flammable liquids stored on site and no public fire-fighting service in the vicinity, there was grave concern that a deeper tragedy may occur. Quickly, the Works Fire Brigade of the nearby Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), a volunteer force of 25 men and their horse-drawn appliance. With seven police constables holding back growing crowds, they were eventually supported by the Eccles Fire Brigade with their more modern, motorised, fire engine.
Thankfully, no lives were lost although three of the men who fought the fire were severely burned. The damage to the site resulted in a £3,500 insurance claim (£370,000 at today’s value) and the resulting inquest decided that the Eccles Fire Brigade should take responsibility for Irlam and Cadishead. It would be another eight years until Irlam was afforded its own Fire Brigade and Engine.
In 1916, British Tar Products opened a site at the end of Hayes Road, making explosives for the war effort, gaining a capability that extended beyond the war with the production of other oil-based products. Tar became an even more important part of the local economy when, a few years later, the Lancashire Tar Distillers opened a plant in the shadow of the Cadishead Viaduct.
In1932, the then Duke of York – later to become King George VI – the father of Queen Elizabeth visited Irlam to be given a tour of the nearby CWS Margarine factory and Steelworks. Around the same time, this aerial photograph of Cadishead was taken – our Liverpool Road site is unfortunately just out of shot to the left of the picture.
With the country at war once again between 1939 and 1945, the area was vital to the war effort, supplying coal, steel and household goods to power and sustain the country. The strategic importance of the Manchester Ship Canal was not lost on the Luftwaffe, who repeatedly bombed Salford Quays, famously damaging Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground in the process. With so much vital industry and infrastructure, Cadishead did not escape the bombing, with properties on Liverpool Road amongst those hit by the bombs.
By the end of the war, Cadishead was given an eerie reminder of the reason behind the hardships of the previous six years. With victory in Europe declared, the U1023, a 500-ton German U-boat, captured by the Royal Navy, embarked on a tour of the country to raise money for the King George’s Fund for Sailors. She was sailed along the Manchester Ship Canal, passing a matter of yards from our Cadishead site, to Salford Quays, where she was on display between 6th and 11th July 1945.
With the war won and, eventually, rationing over, Britain began to recover her prosperity and, by 1957, with the words of the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan that “most of our people have never had it so good”, Irlam and Cadishead was indeed teeming with industry and opportunity. Aerial photographs of the time show a thriving steelworks in Irlam separated from the British Tar Products site in Cadishead by the Cheshire railway line approach to the Cadishead viaduct. Britain’s post-war resurgence was quite literally forged in places like this.
On the morning of Tuesday April 14th 1970, five men were killed while being ferried over the Manchester Ship Canal by “Bob’s Ferry”, a service that had existed for almost a hundred years, which operated from Bob’s Lane, adjacent to our current site. Further upstream in Partington, a Dutch vessel was being loaded with 1,800 tons of petrol and, due to the negligence of those who should have been supervising the operation, upto 14,000 gallons had overflowed into the canal. It was never known what sparked the fuel but within seconds, upto a mile of the canal became engulfed with flames upto 60 feet high. On April 30th, a sixth man died, as a result of the injuries sustained.
In the 1970s, times were changing and Cadishead seemed to be a perfect example of the transition from one era to the next. Like many heavy industries in Britain in the that decade, it was clear that decline had set in and in 1979, the Irlam Steelworks closed, resulting in redundancy and uncertainty for hundreds of local families. In the same year, a Cadishead-born graphic designer called Ray Lowry saw the release of his most famous work – the iconic cover of The Clash’s most famous album, ‘London Calling’. The demise of heavy industry coinciding with the rise of the creative economy and popular culture were apparent in many places in 1979 but in this respect, Cadishead seemed to be a microcosm of the whole country.
In 1981, the Manchester Ship Canal railway closed, leaving the British Tar company to operate its own rail connection. By the mid-1990s, the Tar production stopped and the site was cleared, eventually used for housing development a decade or so later.
Our site at Liverpool Road in Cadishead was by this point operated by Lanstar, a derivative company of the Lancashire Tar Distillers who had occupied a site in Cadishead for over 80 years and had developed an expertise in treating industrial and hazardous waste.
With the emergence of ever-tightening restrictions on waste, this was an industry in its own throes of revolution and opportunity, just like Cadishead had seen with coal, oil and then steel over the previous century. With its enviable facilities and strategic location (although now, proximity to the motorway network had become more important that the Manchester Ship Canal), it was a prime candidate for acquisition and in August 2000, Lanstar Holdings was acquired by CSG.
With such a rich history, and a key part in the Industrial Revolution, the Co-operative movement and then the subsequent decline of mining and steelworks, Cadishead and Irlam’s development has, to a large extent, become a textbook example of the very history of industry in the UK over the last two hundred years. With CSG’s focus on recycling and commitment to development to achieve better waste outcomes in future, it combines two of the most sought-after elements to meet the challenges ahead: environmental sustainability and the so-called knowledge economy.
In many ways, this part of Cadishead is as well-placed to meet the needs of the future as it was when Stephenson’s Rocket raced past, all those years ago.
Travel. It’s such a short, functional word which has come to represent something far more profound than its brevity implies, like ‘time’, ‘life’ and ‘politics’. Too often, it’s a word associated only with the mechanics of moving around the world, rather than the effect of doing so. Perhaps the term ‘transportation’ would better describe the simple relocation that is the very minimum requirement of ‘travel’ in its correct, widest sense.
Still, we’re in something of an etymological mess when it comes to finding the right words for this rather modern phenomenon. Our default choice in Britain is ‘holiday’, derived from the Victorian practice of visiting a coastal town en masse on a “holy day” – hardly relevant to today’s more secular, less patriarchal society. Even in America where adopted terms are simplified (‘sidewalk’?) and tend to concentrate on the benefit they provide, the best they can muster to describe the act of leaving home is the effect it has on the home itself – ‘vacation’ – rather than the effect on the person doing the vacating. It all means that in little more than a few generations, the prevailing notion of travel has grown far beyond the capacity of any pre-existing word adequately to portray it.
Like most normal kids from a normal background, thirty years ago, my ideas of travel were shaped largely by the narrow band of TV shows dedicated to the subject. While otherworldly figures like Alan Whicker bestrode the globe and sardonically described its most esteemed sights, regular, affordable travel tended to be defined by the more accessible, stereotype-laden clichés of ‘Duty Free’ and ‘Wish You Were Here?’ on millions of screens each week. The average pre-teen of the early 1980s would have felt destined, almost consigned to a future of sangria-fuelled straw donkey collecting on a diet of burgers and chips while being careful not to order ice in the drinks.
It’s precisely this mindset that Peter Kay channels when he riffs on calling home and telling everyone there that ‘Les Fingres’ abroad taste exactly the same. We laugh at that routine because we’ve lived it – and we sort of expected that always to be the case. We knew we were unlikely to become smooth, debonair operators like the aforementioned Whicker, with his unlimited budget and James Bond-like ability to infiltrate the world in which ‘the other half’ lived. And yet, Whicker was every bit as much a stereotype as the cheap-gag Spanish waiter, albeit a much more alluring one. Our diet of travel-based entertainment seemed to consist only of hotel paella or QE2 caviar. In the aspiring Eighties, it soon became clear that such a narrow menu would not be enough.
In the 1990s, various TV chefs became credited with creating a new genre of entertainment by breaking the mould of unnecessarily fussy and unattainable representation of cookery. Ten years previously, the same thing happened to travel TV. The year was 1988 and the person was Michael Palin. It was the “former Python” who reprised Jules Verne’s fictional quest to travel around the world in eighty days – an assignement widely believed to have been previously turned down by Whicker himself. In doing so, Palin carved a secondary career, arguably redefining the concept of travel for an entire generation.
It was travel television presented by a comedian who was famous for being in a show I didn’t remember, re-tracing the plot of a book I hadn’t read, in places I was sure I’d never visit. In theory, it should have held no appeal to me at all. And yet, Palin displayed his trademark avuncular silliness, laced with disarmingly profound observations in often gritty or unlikely surroundings. He was the very antithesis of the emblazered Whicker or the perma-tanned Chalmers, a refreshing antidote to the established pomposity of most TV travel show presenters. I was hooked – and found myself counting the hours until next week’s episode.
In Verne’s novel, Phileas Fogg’s eponymous challenge is perfect example of a ‘MacGuffin’, a classic literary device in which a character’s compulsion to do something provides the motivation for a story to develop. Fogg’s desire to win a ridiculous bar-room bet is therefore little more than a thin excuse for him to visit lots of places and give Verne the makings of a plot. From a writer’s eye, Fogg – and indeed Palin – seem to reinforce the sense that in travel (or indeed, depending upon your philosophy, in life itself), the destination is not as important as the journey.
Looking back, there was more than met the contemporary eye to commend Palin’s ’80 Days’ – it would take decades for us to realise it. Before setting off from the Reform Club, Palin had already involved two other Pythons, Terrys Jones and Gilliam, discussing their thoughts on his epic quest, with each setting him a challenge to bring back a specific item (one being a Chinese roof tile). I’m sure this was simply a blatant attempt to add another couple of ‘star’ names to the billing in an attempt to garner a few more viewers but their mutual regard, unforced humour and Pythonesque (can you use that word when it’s actually used to describe the Pythons themselves?) randomness showed that travel didn’t have to be so very serious and, given a little education and inquisitiveness, could become a source of entertainment in and of itself.
The second revelation, an altogether more prescient one, came when Palin arrived in Hong Kong. There, he was met by an old friend, Basil Pao, who showed him the sights of his home town. Like most people watching, I didn’t imagine I was ever likely to meet an old friend anywhere overseas – any more than I ever thought I would visit Hong Kong. This was simply something that only famous, jet-set people could ever do. It seemed like a reminder that Michael, for all his accessible celebrity-next-door persona, was, after all, far more likely to be found in real life flying to New York on Concorde than on the Dover to Calais Townsend Thoresen service. We still watched and forgave what seemed like a lapse into more conventional, idealised travel programming because we knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d be standing frustratedly at another dockside, worrying about missing his next connection.
If you never saw the series or don’t remember the outcome, our Mike did eventually manage to succeed in his challenge. While the twist in Fogg’s circumnavigation was the overlooked ‘extra’ day provided by eastward travel that Verne cleverly added, Palin’s last-minute complication was the more prosaic and altogether more dispiriting combination of rudeness from British Rail and intransigence from the Reform Club. After a wonderful celebration of meeting people from many other countries, once back in Britain he could do no more than rather anti-climactically wrap up the story in front of the closed doors of the spectacularly out-of-touch establishment. At least he managed to bring back that roof tile.
Fast forward almost thirty years and the whole concept of commercially-available travel has been largely transformed, thanks in no small part to the man upon whom John Cleese once bestowed the title The Nicest Man In England. Palin then went on to travel from one Pole to the other, circumvent the Pacific, cross the Himalayas and do a plethora of other “boy’s own”-type voyages, building a career as a travelogue presenter that now almost eclipses his status as a member of one of the greatest comedy acts that ever drew laughter. Looking back at ATWIED (as we must now abbreviate TV programme names), many viewers today may completely fail to understand the relevance of the whole ‘lumberjack’ segment he did in North America. Philistines.
If Michael Palin opened the door to what travel might become, he didn’t exactly enable it. Greater levels of aspiration, driven by steadily increasing levels of affordability have led, inevitably you might conclude, to an Experience economy. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to simply be somewhere else, you had to do something different and noteworthy while you were there. As with TV channels, types of car, supermarkets and cuisine, travel options to the masses began to proliferate, with ever-smaller, more specific segments of the market being catered for. It didn’t matter if you wanted to go wine-tasting, take in a safari, spend a week on the slopes or find an all-inclusive that specialised in entertaining small children, there was a holiday brochure for you.
Another ingredient in the changing face of travel has been the huge increase in interconnectedness we’ve seen in the new millennium. In years gone by, people had the default and noble option of simply neglecting to stay in touch with their classmates or former colleagues. There was of course a hand-written alternative to losing contct but it was generally too labour-intensive to sustain for all but the closest friends – and even then usually around Christmas when it was deemed worthwhile and socially acceptable. I was fortunate to be on the cusp of this change: I discovered email before it became fashionable, while still at University and was therefore able to maintain a digital proto-social network with my friends from Uni after we left – almost a decade before anyone had heard of ‘The Facebook’. Today, we friend request people we haven’t seen in the analogue world for over a quarter of a century and become, by extension, a small part of each other’s lives again.
In the same time, there’s been an increase in migrant working which means that if you have a hundred Facebook friends, the odds are that at least one of them will be living abroad – or may be someone you met while you were overseas. Either way, if you ever visit that person’s country, you’re now much more likely to make the effort to meet up ‘IRL’. What no-one saw, Michael Palin included, I’m sure, was that his rendezvous with an old friend in Hong Kong would in time become less the preserve of well-heeled journalists with impeccable connections but a much more commonplace occurrence in a more connected world. We truly are a more global species today than we were in 1988, a year before the end of the Cold War. Even those of us who have never ventured beyond their own borders have become so, by proxy.
So where does all this cultural and societal progress leave the already ill-defined notion of what travel is, what travel should be? And what will that word come to represent to the next generation of travellers?
Perhaps part of the reason for the ambiguity is that “travel” has come to mean whatever you want it to – a beach holiday on the Costas or a year’s back-packing around Asia. The extent of our travels may always be limited by our funds but we will become less and less limited by the availability and therefore opportunity to choose how we travel. For that reason, we’ve seen a rise in eco-tourism, pilgrimages, be they religious (Mecca), secular (Machu Picchu) or sporting (international tournaments) – as well as innumerable other niches in the market.
Then of course, there’s the effect of the good old internet. Comparison sites for flights, accommodation, car hire etc. have flattened the many-tiered vertical model of agents, removing margin and lowering end user prices. The removal of the heavily-formatted product via an intermediary has brought about the seemingly modern (but actually quite old-fashioned) concept of the independent traveller, a return to the days of real-life Phileas Foggs and Doctor Livingstones, you might presume. Then, as now, travel did not have to be simply a pre-ordained itinerary of critical-mass conveyance and accommodation but, cliché aside, a true voyage of discovery. Without the one-size-fits-all approach of the traditional agent model, it’s now much easier to travel like a Victorian gentleman – with the assurances of today’s communications as our latter-day Passepartout.
The flexibility of options has also extended to the levels of communality we may prefer – travel with friends, extended family, other like-minded souls. Nor do we all have to move around together; we may choose to overlap our schedules, make rendezvous plans, even choose to synchronistically exchange the use of our houses. It’s all a far cry from the group-booked coach tours that communal travel implied in days gone by.
In a world where you can choose from thousands of possible combinations every time you order a coffee, it’s no surprise that travel too has metamorphosed from a curated and prescribed activity to an utterly personalised one. It’s now not just about where you go or for how long, but with whom, for what reason and in order to take in which experiences.
We may well extend our physical travel horizons even further over the next decade or two, with sub-orbital or even inter-planetary options potentially on offer but it’s difficult to contend that the most profound revolution in travel isn’t already taking place, here on earth, right now. Phileas Fogg may have become, by a Python’s extension, an inspiration for the travel aspirations of millions today but when he was created, his adventures were just as unlikely, just as much a part of the realm of science fiction as Verne’s other work, including ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’. That Fogg’s grand touring is so widely available today is travel’s ongoing legacy. Anything else, intra- or extra-terrestrial, is simply a matter of geography.
And so, as 2017 draws to a close, the time comes, once again, to wish you a Merry Christmas, to reflect on the year just gone and to look ahead to what may lie instore in the New Year.
With the festive season upon us, there’s also the more practical consideration of our Christmas opening times – which can be found here…
2017 has been another busy year, here at CSG, with more customers served, more volumes moved and more satisfaction with our services than ever before. It was a year that saw the launch of ‘The Hart of Waste’, the second edition of the book, which contains the official history and current portrait of CSG. It was also a year in which we strongly identified the four pillars that make our brand so strong: Customers, Heritage, Innovation and People.
More awards came our way in 2017, including the ‘Best Use of Technology’ in the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce Awards.
We’ve seen many great strides in the CSG family of businesses, not least the opening of our new, ground-breaking sewage treatment plant in Worcester. We’ve also seen the addition of more Oil Monster trucks, covering a greater portion of the UK. At Willacy, we’ve seen a greater emphasis on overseas work and a move to apply their market-leading oil-based lagoon survey technology to water-based applications.
We’ve made donations to numerous charitable organisations and made meaningful contributions to the communities in which we operate. We’ve continued to develop the careers of the hundreds of people we’re proud to call colleagues and we’ve supported our local economies wherever we can.
In 2018, we plan to do it all again – with some significant advances along the way. In the New Year, we’ll launch the new CSG website, featuring a host of extra information and functionality – together with a brand new corporate video, to help spread the word of our accomplishments even wider.
Until then, it only remains for us to show our appreciation for your support and custom this year, to thank you for reading our blog and wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a happy, prosperous New Year!
We like a good fancy-dress-related fundraising effort at CSG and this Christmas is no different. In fact, we’re so keen to don the festive knitwear, we’re helping two Christmas charities, this year!
Today, our staff in various departments and depots have been wearing Christmas jumpers to raise money for Wave 105.2FM’s ‘Mission Christmas: Cash For Kids’ appeal, as well as Save the Children’s annual Christmas Jumper Day.
All in, we’ve raised over £160, which will be split between the two great causes. Thanks, as ever, go to our wonderfully caring team who keep turning up in all manner of costumes throughout the year – and donate to show their support for a number of very worthy initiatives.
Here’s a brief run-down of the year’s other charity and community efforts:
In January, CSG donated £1,000 to contribute to a fund for a statue to commemorate the efforts of Tom Dresser VC, a hundred years after one of Middlesbrough’s most distinguished sons was awarded the Army’s highest honour.
In February, we marked Valentine’s Day with a cake bake and a ‘wear something red’ day, in aid of the British Heart Foundation.
In March, there was flower power and shell-suits aplenty – and more besides – at our Cadishead site as the team there dressed from the decade they were born in, to support Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day.
In June, we were proud to pledge £500 to sponsor our own Cheryl West as she cycled from London to Paris, in memory of her friend, Angela Sharples.
Every day, the staff and visitors signing in to our Cadishead site have the option to buy sweets and soft drinks from Phil Jones in the weighbridge office, something that contributes hundreds of pounds a year to the British Heart Foundation, amongst other charities.
We currently sponsor three junior sports teams: Woolston Rovers Raiders U-8s, Cadishead U-8s and Grangetown Boys’ Club Academy U-10s in the North East.
Through our Landfill Tax initiative, we were also pleased to contribute £20,000 to the River Bourne Community Farm in Salisbury, Wiltshire – a sum which has helped them to build a new café, allowing for a warmer, more comfortable environment in which they can raise more funds for their own cause.
Corporate Social Responsibility has always been an important issue at CSG and, after so much effort supporting so many deserving causes in 2017, you can be sure that we’ll keep up the good work in 2018.
We’re pleased to announce that we’ve added a brand new centrifuge to our mobile fleet – and it’s available for you to hire!
Designed and built by GEA Westfalia, a world leader in process technology, the unit is able of take in upto 50 cubic metres an hour or, if you prefer, 50,000 litres. At that rate, it can go through an Olympic-size swimming pool in 25 hours!
Using GEA’s new scroll drive system, it produces upto 15,000Nm of torque – roughly 10 times that of the fastest supercars – and it’s capable of removing upto 1,700Kg of dry matter every hour.
It’s not all about brawn, there are brains as well: the system continuously monitors torque and will automatically change the differential speed in order to ensure maximum dry solid content at all times.
Aside from the impressive performance, it’s also one of the most efficient models on the market, with energy consumption now 40% down on previous generation machines. It also rather conveys all the dewatered solids into a separate area, ensuring it can be removed more conveniently – which is very sensible when several tonnes can accumulate after just a few hours.
Pete Smith, Willacy’s technical expert hailed the arrival of the new machine, saying “This unit brings hired centrifuge reliability to a new level and places Willacy Oil Services at the forefront of the UK hire market”
If you’d like to find out more about our new mobile centrifuge and how effectively it can help you maintain your systems, contact us today. You could soon be the beneficiary of our state-of-the art cleansing power.
It’s been an enjoyable month of compliments and affirmation, here at CSG – and an important reminder of the importance of recognition.
What started with a speculative conversation in early summer eventually led to us attending a prestigious formal event in London, surrounded by many of the UK’s most go-ahead businesses. How did that happen?
We’ve recently become a member of our local Chamber of Commerce as well as others around the country to help support our local economies; something we’ve found to be tremendously useful both for supporting our staff and also for developing contacts with potential customers. When we received a communication from the Greater Manchester Chamber, inviting us to consider entering their annual awards, we wondered if we should.
At this point, all the usual negative thoughts tend to fight for attention: ‘we won’t win’, ‘there’s bound to be somebody better than us’, ‘it’ll take up more time than we can commit’ or ‘it’ll cost too much for very little benefit’. None of the above is to say we’re not proud of our capabilities and achievements but when surrounded by the unfamiliar, it’s naturally the safest course of action not to be taken in by the allure of glamour and glitz. After much conversation about the chances of success in the various categories, Louise Holgate, our Marketing & Tendering Manager decided we should go for it – in the ‘Best Use of Technology’ category.
Over the next few weeks, with the Chamber’s very specific brief as our constant guide, we lifted the lid on all aspects of the whole CSG group, interviewing a range of knowledgeable people from all parts of the company, understanding all the technical processes we undertake. We asked questions about the technology involved: why it improved things, how long it had been done this way versus that, what difference did it make? One curious discovery we made was that very often, the people closest to the technology were so used to its capability, they didn’t always recognise the significance of what it enabled them to do. On several occasions, impressive processes that are done every day were seen as ‘everyday’ in nature – and that’s nowhere near the same thing! Using the freshness of a different perspective, we were able to remind ourselves – and, importantly, the very people who use the technology – just how amazing it all is!
Very quickly, we realised that all the examples we’d found tended to fall into two basic categories: principally, the technology necessary to do the job itself and then the technology to help us run the operation that supports the services we offer. Basically, What We Do and The Way We Do What We Do. At that point, we realised that not every competing organisation would be able to have that dual reliance on technology. Suddenly, we began to wonder if our chances of winning the award were better than we’d previously imagined.
With the information gathered, written up and the entry submitted, the use of time was already justified by the deeper understanding we were able to convey to the rest of the business about so many practices within it. As an exercise in internal PR alone, we felt it was time well spent.
Then, one day in September, we were contacted by the Greater Manchester Chamber to inform us that we’d won the Regional Award! We were invited to collect our award at a lunchtime presentation at the Chamber itself, on Deansgate in Manchester. Excitingly, this also meant that we would be automatically entered, as a Finalist, in the National Chamber of Commerce Awards in London, in November.
The Manchester presentation was an informal affair, a chance to talk to the winners of the other categories in a relaxed atmosphere, comparing experiences and making useful contacts. Each winner was announced and, in the customary way, representatives were invited to the podium to receive a framed certificate, naming their company as the award winner. A Chamber-branded backdrop and official photographer lent a little extra ceremony to the proceedings. Once all the categories had been awarded, each winning company wished each other luck for the National Awards in London, together with best wishes to the Greater Manchester Chamber, which was itself in the running to win the prestigious ‘Best Chamber of Commerce’ at the awards night.
A few weeks later, it was time for the main event, a black-tie occasion held near the Barbican Centre in London’s financial district. The winning companies from each of the various Chambers across the country assembled and took the opportunity to share stories and experiences in a rather more formal setting. We were welcomed by Francis Martin, the President of the British Chambers of Commerce and reminded that, as regional winners, we represented the very best of British commercial expertise before handing over to the host for the evening, TV presenter Kate Thornton.
And so to the main event of the evening: the awards themselves. Tension filled the air around the CSG contingent when the time came to announce the winner of the ‘Best Use of Technology’ category… …and unfortunately, it wasn’t us! No matter; the experience of getting this far had proved invaluable, providing a huge amount of positive publicity for CSG along the way. Added to that, the chance better to understand the finer details of many of the processes across the company and, by doing so, recognising their importance – and, by extension, the contribution of those who are closest to them.
It’s fair to say that most people in most companies would have asked themselves the same rather negative questions when faced with the opportunity to make an award submission. There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic and unwilling to be distracted from more important day-to-day matters. The underlying message from our experience is that the true importance is the value of recognition – especially internal recognition. Of course, the ultimate accolade, the Award itself, was the most obvious form of recognition – and that’s a great thing to have – but perhaps it’s more important to be able to recognise the excellence that’s before our very eyes every single day – and ensure that recognition is acknowledged.
In that sense, just as the saying goes, our experience of the whole exercise shows that it really was the ‘taking part’ that was more important that the ‘winning’.
You may have read about the way we’ve defined the four main aspects of CSG, our brand pillars – and perhaps read more about two of them, Customer Service and Heritage. In this, the third of the series, the focus falls on another of our pillars: Innovation.
Most companies will claim to be innovative and, while many are, few will be as indoctrinated by the principle as we are – and with good reason. Since the early 1970s, when dumping of hazardous materials led to major regulations of the waste industry, environmental legislation has been made ever stronger. While we can agree this is to all our benefit, such stringent rules have forced those who make waste their business to think differently about their processes, their capabilities, even the very point of their existence.
In such conditions, innovation became essential for CSG to survive and flourish over the last 45 years, which is why it’s something we hold dear to this day. Here are a few innovations we’ve recently made:
Twenty years ago, one of our subsidiary companies (Willacy Oil Services) developed a sonar tool that charts levels of sediment in oil tanks, ensuring that the costly process of emptying and cleaning them is only done when absolutely necessary. This year, to enable diversification, we have been able to adapt this technology to water-based tanks and lagoons. It gives visibility of the extent of an inevitable problem, which allows customers to decide when (and when not) to commit to the cost of a full tank or lagoon clean, a unique selling point.
Our new sewage treatment plant in Worcester was uniquely designed to minimise manual effort and use a combination of technologies to ensure that the raw sewage is processed almost fully automatically into water that can be discharged back into a water course. Only the removal of solid ‘cake’ matter is now done manually. A more efficient process means fewer overhead costs, which can be passed on to the customer with a lower price.
We have developed unique and innovative processes for recovering precious metals from aqueous wastes including Nickel, Copper, Silver and Aluminium. We’ve added a service that uses industrial washing machines to clean ‘hazardous laundry’ – oily rags, wipes and spill mats for our customers – to avoid them being illegally disposed of. We also offer a fuel polishing service, in which contaminated fuel oils are passed through our specialist rig to remove the contaminants and return fuel that will not pose a threat to any pumps, engines or generators it is intended for.
All this innovation is a great way to offer unique or unbeatable services to our customers and, as you’d expect, innovation never stops, which means that our most important innovations are those we haven’t yet implemented.
We’ve also learned that it’s not enough to be innovative merely in the services we offer. Perhaps more importantly, we must also embrace innovation in the way we carry out our services, to increase both our capability and our efficiency – innovations like these:
Each of our hundreds of tankers has a device fitted to allow communication with Head Office. This allows jobs and routes to be sent to each driver to ensure more jobs are completed with the lowest-possible mileage – which means more happy customers and a significant saving on running costs. This fine level of control of our logistics gives us the opportunity to encourage online bookings for collections, something our Oil Monster site has already started to offer.
The trucks themselves are ‘smarter’, with driving data able to be monitored centrally. Greater visibility of driving style encourages safer, more efficient driving which also saves fuel and ensures a greater degree of Corporate Social Responsibility.
Innovation isn’t just a device to maximise opportunity. Our Health & Safety Manager Kevin Mooney recently demonstrated how it’s also a great way to reduce threat; his Manhole Safety Barrier is a fascinating invention, which may see a wider application than just CSG’s requirements.
Email, social media and web-based technologies are no longer considered ‘new’ but the way we ask our domestic customers for feedback, track the usage of our site and ensure we address the issues they raise is an innovation in our ability to respond effectively, enabled wholly by the Internet.
Finally, the very obsession and desire to constantly innovate are vital to CSG’s core strategy, driving most of our decisions to acquire subsidiaries and allow them to reach their potential.
We may think innovation is something we’re good at but it appears we’re not alone. Embracing any technology requires innovative thinking and earlier this year, we were delighted to win the ‘Best Use of Technology’ award by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, making CSG one of the seven finalists in the country.
As with any award, nice as they are to win, the real prize comes in the popularity and commercial success that an award-winning capability can attract. In future, we expect the demands of best practice to continue to increase processing costs for everyone in the waste industry – our continued success depends on our ability to maximise efficiency and minimise wasted materials and effort. Today, possibly more than ever before, our future depends on our ability to keep innovating.
The greatest misconception of evolution is that it adheres to a plan. We largely believe that opposable thumbs occurred because they were a good idea. It’s hogwash: it was actually via a series of accidents and mutations over countless generations that they ever existed. The fact they then proved to be advantageous kept them in the gene pool while countless other, less successful, thumb configurations were forgotten. Generally, because the timescales and variations involved are difficult to conceive, we prefer to employ the notion that evolution is a pre-ordained process as a kind of metaphor – and then forget it’s a metaphor and start using the term “designed”.
The same is true of anything that can be said to have evolved – and it’s largely the way a supply chain works. We may think we’ve designed it, rationally and earnestly but in reality, we’ve only really done more of the things that gave a good return and less of the things that threatened our existence.
It always used to fascinate me how many pairs of hands a product went through from factory floor to the consumer’s door, each adding a layer of margin but reducing affordability and competitiveness along the way. Each (opposable) thumb in the pie claims to “add value” but is that always the case or is there a lot of money for old rope being paid? And, according to the ‘law of the jungle’, for how long will that remain to be the case?
Here’s my basic summary of the traditional supply chain:
Manufacturer: Owns factory, makes stuff. Production requires that volumes are huge. Often more obsessed with improving the product than finding a route to market for it. Historically tended to be the ‘brand owner’.
Wholesaler: Owns warehouse, professional ‘go-between’. Sees promising products and buys in bulk, to offer to a roster of retailers. Justifies ‘middleman’ cut by offering exclusivity and/or continuity of supply by investing in large quantities, stocking it “so the retailer doesn’t have to”.
Retailer: Owns shop, cultivates goodwill with local clientele. Needs broad range of competitively-priced items that local clientele demands/will tolerate. Accepts Wholesaler’s higher price for small-volume supply flexibility with implicit promise that no-one else uses their lower cost prices to engage directly with ‘their’ end user.
Yes, the landscape has become complicated over time, with the addition of Distributors, Agents, Buying Co-operatives, Marketplaces, Franchisees and Affiliates (did I forget anyone?) but still, you can’t make stuff economically without great depth of units and you can’t be the place to go shopping for very long without a great breadth of range. The Wholesaler always was – and usually still is – the solution to this Depth-to-Breadth conundrum, explaining why there are three or four lots of profit margin on the same item between creation and consumption.
Here comes the “but”: …but the supply chain as we recognise it today is not a product of immutable parameters. It merely evolved as an adaptation to limitations on communications and the logistical solution to production in great depth and re-selling in great breadth.
There have always been temptations to miss someone out and pocket their margin as well as your own. Retailers have been at it for years, doing supply deals with manufacturers when MOQs allow, much to the chagrin of Wholesalers. Then again, Wholesalers haven’t always played a straight bat, occasionally offering price reductions they wouldn’t tolerate of their stockists or (gasp) “going direct”. As in the evolution of life itself, much of the last epoch has seen one type of life-form or another attempting to assert its dominance over the whole ecosystem.
Evolutionary theory also warns us to expect, eventually, an extinction event, an inevitable occurrence that becomes a game-changer. It’s believed the Chicxulub asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period (thus creating opportunity for the dominance of mammals) and it’s worth considering what the next asteroid-scale event might look like. Having scanned the skies, I wonder if I might have found it. It’s a bit scary and Retailers in particular may wish to make sure they’re sitting down at this point.
Some American retail analysts now predict a quarter of all consumer ‘retail’ spend will take place online within six years (perhaps 30% in the UK) in an online space that will be 40% controlled by the combined might of Amazon, eBay and Alibaba. In addition to current trends, the growing ‘internet of things’ (if that’s a new phrase to you, Google it!) will offer a multitude of self-ordered replacement items with shoppers merely ‘signing off’ auto-suggested purchases rather than actively shopping.
Better, cheaper communications (social media, email, apps, digital ads) have strengthened direct engagement for all; the part of the equation that was traditionally the brands’ biggest weakness – plus the virtual nature of shopping means that breadth of offering isn’t as vital as it always was. With the gloves off and everyone approaching the punter, the brands can now circumvent the distribution network and communicate their message to the end user without the distortive prism of stockists and distributors. Brands may already fulfill orders directly to their “customer” so they’re increasingly less reliant on the old-fashioned retailer for shifting the units. There’s even a belief that surviving retail stores in future won’t be places to physically procure products any more but to simply ‘experience the brand’. 4.6 million people work in retail in the US and their long-term career advice is to find another sector before they’re replaced by Amazon-style automated stores.
If you’re frantically clutching your chest at this point, it may help to point out that we’re not in the most cutting-edge of industries – and that’s probably a good thing. Remember, sixty million years ago, while 75% of the planet’s fauna was being wiped out, only the most durable species, able to live on the most meagre of diets (notably, sharks and crocodiles) survived – and continue to thrive today. The ability of the equestrian industry to make a living in an environment most others would regard as infertile may yet see it outlive the real dinosaurs of mainstream retail.
Kevin Mooney is not a man given to taking ‘no’ for an answer. As CSG’s Health & Safety Manager, it’s a necessary virtue to have – it’s an area where tenacity can be repaid by life and livelihood itself and where meekly avoiding the occasional resistance can invite real danger.
One of his recent projects is a perfect example of that will to demand constant improvement, even where standard practice seemed to have decided progress had gone far enough. In the summer, Kevin unveiled his self-designed Manhole Safety Barrier. It works by temporarily removing the ability of a Manhole to fit a human through its aperture (something a manhole is, by definition, designed to do) at times when the cover needs to be removed but when human access is not required, such as emptying or jetting the tank below.
As CSG carry out over 55,000 tank clearances a year, the issue is clearly one to merit such consideration. While CSG have never documented a case of an operator falling down a manhole, it was still deemed an important issue to address – using the core Health and Safety principle that prevention is always better than ‘cure’.
The device consists of a straight bar with two hinged arms, forming a cross, which can be securely fixed into the four corners of a manhole. Effectively, the ‘X’ shape turns a manhole into four ‘hose-holes’, ideal for getting the job done without leaving a hole large enough for a human to fall through.
It’s no surprise that Kevin has brought a hands-on approach to his work. When he joined CSG, earlier this year, he revealed that he’s a keen restorer of classic cars, spending many an hour on his beloved MG BGT. That practical approach, combined with a professional understanding of what’s necessary to minimise risk, has led to the invention and subsequent development of this handy implement.
“I enjoy tinkering with things so it was quite satisfying to be able to use that approach to a work-based project” he enthuses. “As well as being able to secure the manhole, I knew the device also needed to be light and compact enough to be conveniently stowed on the lorry and easily carried by the driver.”
Having made and tested a prototype, Kevin then worked closely with a manufacturer to ensure every element of his design was adhered to during the production process. The first batch of 50 has now been made, with another 100 to follow before each CSG tanker is thus equipped. Interestingly, a number of other companies whose activities involve working around manholes have also shown an interest in the barrier, suggesting the development of such a product was perhaps overdue.
Kevin remains unabashed about his self-engineered solution: “I identified a risk and found a solution to the problem, which, in a nutshell, is what I’m here for. We looked at things in the market but nothing suited so the only difference was that I had to adopt an engineer’s view in order to find it.”
With the success of this project and, given Kevin’s practical capability, is it possible he’ll bring these skills to bear again?
“I would imagine so. If the need exists, I’d be happy to build something that reduces the risks we ask our staff to work under.”
‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, as the saying goes. It would be difficult to find a better real-world example than the MSB – the Manhole (or is it the ‘Mooney’?) Safety Barrier…
It should be safe for me to assume that you have some idea of the existence of BETA. It may be something of a leap to expect that, as a consequence, you’re reading this as a representative of a BETA Member company. I hope you are but you may not be. You may not even know, one way or the other. Whether member or not, do you feel confident that you know enough about the body that represents your industry?
I sat on the BETA Council for over twelve years and, to me, it’s a quintessentially British institution that manages to combine world-leading expertise and professionalism with a noble, amateur ethos. Like Schrödinger’s cat, it exists simultaneously in a competitive environment and the realm beyond mere commerce. It’s a benefit-laden private members’ club, an upholder of safety standards and a powerful lobbying force for an entire industry. It stands up for the interests of the retailer and also those who would supply them, even when the two positions can seem incompatible. BETA is, in many ways, a litany of contradictions that defy simple definition. For all of these reasons, it seems that it has an unrivalled capacity to polarise opinion, “damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t”.
I’ve met non-members who’ve claimed it’s an ineffectual body that’s happy to charge for membership but offers little value and questioned if they’d done enough research to justify that position. I’ve also encountered staunch members who were frustrated at the limits of BETA’s influence or what they deem to be its over-inclusivity and wondered if they think they’re paying to be part of a cartel. Like the BBC, BETA only seems able to demonstrate its impartiality by displaying an uncanny ability to court equal dissatisfaction from all sides – which, when you think about it, takes some doing.
To me, it’s a telling comparison because there are lots of similarities between the two institutions. I love the BBC but I’m well aware that there are many who do not. I’ll be the first to admit the Beeb is not perfect but I wish it wouldn’t spend so much time justifying itself to those who happen to dislike paying for it. Of all the taxes I’ve ever paid, my ongoing contribution to maintaining it is the one I make the most gladly. Having done so, I still accept that merely buying a TV licence gives me no divine right to complain the second the schedules include something I might not want to watch, however expensively-produced. The BBC is consistently included in independently-compiled lists of the world’s most-trusted brands and it seems to command a level of affection overseas that’s wholly disproportionate to its reach and appeal. Does any of this sound familiar?
There’s also the issue of ‘mission creep’ in a changing world. Yes it’s important to have a clear vision of one’s raison d’être from the outset but robust self-definition can be a hampering factor when changes occur that the writers of the constitution couldn’t possibly have foreseen. The BBC’s website has undergone several culls of material since deemed ‘non-core’ to its Reithian principles in order to demonstrate value and retain overall relevance. Equally, BETA has had to exercise some re-enlightenment from time to time to accommodate an explosion in the number of forms of selling. Both institutions must also tailor their offering to a changing demographic, continually challenging all the safe assumptions of the past. In the case of ‘Auntie’, it’s all about ensuring minority communities are commensurately given a voice. Similarly, today’s less stereotyped horse world must be more effectively understood and represented. I remember one particular late-night debate at which I argued about the dangers of BETA aligning itself too closely with the pro-hunting lobby simply because that’s what it had always done.
And then there’s the issue of what BETA doesn’t do. When commercial disagreements occur between parties, I’m afraid “it’s business”, governed ultimately by the law of the land. There’s obviously a limit to what BETA can do in such disputes. It can advise its members but don’t expect it to stand in binding arbitration. BETA can’t enact any level of direct enforcement beyond rescinding a membership – and even then only where clear infractions have occurred.
I suppose the most easily-thrown hand grenade is the belief that BETA is somehow a secret club, more interested in its own self-enrichment than fulfilling any greater purpose. Again, just like the BBC, BETA’s stakeholders are entitled to regular disclosure of all the finances, something that, oddly, most conspiracy theorists seem not to have taken the trouble to establish. When I was first invited onto the Retail Committee by BETA’s founding father, Antony Wakeham, he promised me no benefit from my involvement beyond “altruism” and, I have to say, he was true to his word. For each meeting attendance, I was able to claim the princely sum of £35 in expenses – if you think that’s a sign of a gravy train, try getting from Wigan to London and back for that amount!
We live in an age where information has never been more freely available so there’s really no excuse for not knowing more about BETA and what it can do for you. As this is an opinion column, I’ll end by giving you mine: BETA is run by a dedicated team of talented, knowledgeable people, led for almost twenty years by, Claire Williams, who, I assure you, is nothing less than an absolute star. It is guided by a broad selection of highly-experienced, poorly-rewarded Council and Committee members who, above all else, care deeply about the future of your industry – perhaps occasionally, a little too much. BETA may not be perfect, it may cost a little more than you’d prefer and it won’t ever be a panacea to cure all ills but it’s what we have – and, I might add, it’s an asset much-envied by those in many other industries. Please don’t ever take it for granted.
We’re surrounded by technology from our smartphones we carry to the cars that we drive. Each new version knows it must out-perform its predecessor and therefore offers ever-greater levels of capability. We used to be amazed if our mobile ‘phone had a camera in it – or if our car told us what the outside temperature was but now it seems we feel cheated if we can’t check our front door camera from a train in a tunnel or set our SatNav to an airport of our choice within ten seconds.
Technology is great but it must be harnessed on order to be useful. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve all become accustomed, in varying degrees, to adopting strategies to make the most of the technology we use every day, whether that’s understanding which Google search terms are likely to provide the most success or discovering the fewest keystrokes necessary to set a microwave to cook on full power for sixty seconds. In our need to master our technology, we often have to adapt our very understanding of the world to its languages and protocols. It’s often said that the true test of being bilingual is the point when dreams take place in the second language. The tech equivalent of that is the moment after a mishap has taken place in the analogue world (like spilling a cup of coffee) if your first thought is ‘use the Undo command’.
The same is true with industrial technology. It’s one thing for Willacy Oil Services to design and build world-leading tank-cleaning machinery but all the capability in the world isn’t really worth having if it isn’t being used properly. There are many customers all over the world who have benefitted from buying our unrivalled technology and all the equipment we deliver is accompanied by a team of our staff to give on-the-job training to the customer for the first few days of its operation. Usually, by then, the customer’s team are keen to put their new purchase into action. At that point, everyone is happy. But what happens next?
A combination of a number of factors can soon lead to a usage problem. Our machinery is built to last and is invariably used for infrequently-performed tasks – some tanks may be cleaned only once every fifteen years. Meanwhile, recent research has shown that the average amount of time working for a single employer is now only five years in the UK – or four years in the US – and it’s soon apparent that the sophisticated Willacy hardware owned by a company is likely to have outlasted the personnel who last used it – let alone those whom Willacy initially trained. There are obvious implications on the correct usage of such machinery if those using it are trying to remember what they were shown, years ago or, worse still, simply trying their best because they never even met the person who last used it.
With this in mind, Willacy have decided to offer tailored training on all the technology we offer, as an after-sales service option. This is in addition to the wide variety of training available (such as working in confined spaces or working with breathing systems) to ensure the cleaning process itself is carried out as safely and effectively as possible.
“We have knowledge gained from the experience of doing hundreds of jobs and we try to apply as much of that know-how as we can into our training” said Gavin Lucas, Willacy’s General Manager. “The proper use of the machinery we’ve supplied not only ensures the jobs are done more effectively but it also reduces the chances of faults or performance issues occurring on the machinery itself.”
If your company has any Willacy-made technology on its books, whether you’re using it or not, we invite you to contact us to see how we can help you make the most of its capability. Sometimes, it seems you can apply an ‘Undo’ command in the analogue world, after all.
By now, you may be familiar with CSG’s recent efforts to identify the most important elements that make us what we are – which we’ve called our brand pillars. Last week, we examined our unique approach to customer service. This time, the focus falls on another area that makes CSG so special: our heritage and no examination of CSG’s heritage would be worth reading if it didn’t feature our Chairman and the eldest daughter of our founder, Heather Hart.
Edgar ‘Bunny’ Hart had started his Hampshire Cleansing Service in 1934, with the purchase of a single tanker and dreams of greater success, which he was busily pursuing several years later when the time came to start a family. Heather was thus born into a household dependent upon the success of a new business in a world shrouded by the uncertainties of war. It’s likely to have been a time which offered more than a little stress to disrupt this domestic idyll but Heather recollects little about her father’s work, back then.
“I remember knowing that my father was ‘back from the office’, when he arrived home but at that age, I didn’t question what that might mean.”
One reason for that may have been that Bunny was also an active member of the Home Guard, tasked with monitoring enemy activity, principally around Britain’s southern coastal towns. The Home Guard may now be inextricable linked with the hapless efforts of ‘Dad’s Army’ but in reality, their role was one which put them in the front line of any threat to occur on British soil.
Another reason why the two Hart daughters were shielded from the family business was the fact that their mother, Margaret was keen to keep the two spheres separate. She always insisted that they would not be forced into the business, by default. It’s something of a stereotype that family businesses are apt to carry discussions readily from the boardroom to the dining room table but if that ever happened in the Hart household, it was only when the girls were absent, a situation made more likely by their attendance at boarding school.
Heather’s first memory of visiting ‘the office’ (CSG’s original site at Botley, Hampshire) came when, aged “between 12 and 14”, she and her younger sister, Hilary rode their ponies there – literally all the way into their father’s office. When one of the ponies did what comes naturally – and what can always be expected of them at such moments – all over the office floor, Heather recalls “Bill Norton from the yard dealt with it”. As unfortunate as the incident was, at least you might conclude that it was the best possible place to have such a waste removal requirement!
By her mid-teens, Heather had become more aware of the nature and culture of her family’s business. At 15, something happened that was to push her further into the world her father had created:
“One of my father’s employees, Rosemary Rogers (always known as “Ro”) decided to marry Bill Voller, one of the drivers. Unfortunately, her parents disapproved of the marriage and let it be known that they would not be attending the wedding. My father offered to attend in support of Rosemary and, as my mother was ill at the time, I was to accompany him.”
Not only did this more closely acquaint Heather with the business, it was also clear that those who worked there were regarded by Bunny as a kind of extended family. It was a formative experience.
Despite her mother’s concerns, Heather later sought to develop her interest in CSG – to Bunny’s great delight – and began to work in the office a few days a week “learning bits and pieces, shadowing Father and reading lots of Directors’ correspondence”. As her compulsion to join the business had been entirely self-generated, her mother was placated. Heather’s involvement therefore seemed to suit everyone.
Within a few years, Heather had become elevated to the Board, already widely experienced and yet, in her own words, “not knowing I was learning – but then I’ve always underestimated my own knowledge”. Around this time, Bunny’s health was beginning to falter but still, Heather had no expectations to succeed him – “it wasn’t in anyone’s mind, certainly not mine. I was in control of the cash book at that time as we did not have an accountant in those days”.
Upon Bunny’s death in 1971, Heather became thrust towards a leadership role, a mere seven years after her first day in work. Heather refers to her status over the next years as a “gap filler”, diverting her attention variously to Human Resources, Sales and gaining British Standards accreditations. As modest as this description sounds, her approach of adding or enhancing systems to produce continuous performance improvements in different areas sound more like the actions of a trouble-shooter, adding value to the business and maintaining the family interest.
Within months, she and CSG would find themselves at the centre of an emergency making national headlines that many observers, Heather included, believed would shape the very future of the whole waste industry.
It was February 1972 and police were called to a site near a children’s playground in Nuneaton to find 36 drums of highly toxic sodium cyanide ash dumped on open ground. The incident made front-page news and resulted in an emergency debate in the House of Commons the next day. Sweetways, a CSG subsidiary had been engaged by the authorities to move the material to our Botley site, where it was safely treated.
MPs were calling for reform of an industry that had failed to prevent an incident that could potentially have resulted in a major tragedy but many in the industry seemed resistant, aware that stronger regulation threatened to disrupt their livelihoods. CSG had to decide if it was better to position itself as a more responsible operator, with the expectation that tougher legislation would gain more business in the longer term, or add its voice to those keen to maintain the status quo. Unanimously, the Board chose the former option, embracing the brave new world of regulation and greater professionalism.
From today’s perspective, it seems as if it was an obvious choice but ours is a perspective shaped, in part, by that decision. It must have taken a great deal of courage to see through the uncertainties and dissenting voices to choose to reject the comfortable certainties of the past and invite a huge level of change, based on little more than a belief that that’s where opportunity lay.
Today, 45 years on, Heather is sanguine about the seismic shift that she and her fellow Board members saw coming.
“I think we all knew there was a need for the industry to be more responsible. The issues we faced were how to achieve that: via what processes and over what timescale? Many of the changes required increased costs or risked turning away business. Of course, we had to make these changes but we also had to remain in the market long enough to see them through.”
History now shows that this single issue heralded many of the changes the waste industry has since undergone: professionalism, consolidation, specialisation, while not alien concepts beforehand, have all become commonplace in the years since 1972.
One thing that hasn’t changed much in all that time is the strong culture within CSG; where employees are still able to think of themselves as part of the ‘extended family’. As in the rest of society, the style has become less deferential, although here too, Heather can claim to have driven this progression.
“My father was always ‘Mr Hart’ and even the Board used to refer to each other in this way. When I started, it was natural to everyone that I’d be greeted ‘Miss Heather’. I was never comfortable with that and preferred just ‘Heather’, so we began to adopt a first-name culture, which still exists today.”
It’s a culture that’s often remarked upon by new starters and it’s one that’s made more evident by the number of people who’ve been on the payroll for twenty, thirty, even fifty years. To Heather, this is more than just a statistic; it’s part of the very essence of CSG.
“The importance of having a mix of different people, with different experiences and backgrounds, each learning from the other, is hugely underestimated.”
Today, CSG has revenues of over £60m and profits of over £4.5m. In such rarefied business circles, the term ‘family business’ is often derided, as shorthand for parochialism or lack of professional impetus. Is CSG really still a family business?
“We’ve always needed professional management at the highest levels – and we’ve backed them – but the involvement of the family adds focus”, Heather insists.
Perhaps the most prominent evidence of CSG’s unique heritage is the Margaret Hart Trust, set up in 1975 by Bunny’s wife, (Heather and Hilary’s mother) as a lasting tribute to CSG’s Founder. The trust was established to provide later-life assistance to any retired CSG employee with over 10 years’ service as well as any current employee who might be long term sick.
“It assists with gardening, stair-lifts, holidays amongst many other things – and we have a lovely party for all those it helps every year, which is great fun. I think its greatest achievement is that it has consistently enabled people to keep living in their own homes for longer. My sister Hilary chairs the Trust and we are both very proud of it.”
CSG has always tried to combine the best of both worlds: the achievement and capability of a dynamic corporation with the lighter touch and firmer identity of a family concern. It’s a rare combination and one that’s a testimony to the vision, not just of the man who started it all, but to his descendants who have worked to retain the essence of that family business, established 83 years ago.
Simplicity is great. If humanity has one over-riding achievement, it’s the ability to take the previously unknown, simplify it into a concept, give it a name and make it forever understandable.
Intangibles like democracy, supersonic flight and reality TV are not in any sense naturally-occurring yet appear as concrete a fixture of our times as the Classical elements of earth, water, air and fire. The difference is that, as artificial constructs, there must have been a form of process to produce them and define them. Consider the case of ‘Customer Service’.
From the Middle Ages, sellers eagerly cited the Common Law edict of Caveat emptor (literally, “buyer beware”) as protection against costly, unwanted liability. The seller was seen always to be in the right and the buyer merely a challenge to the status quo. It’s not a particularly fair rule but it’s simple to establish and enforce
Basically, the seller’s honesty was assumed and if everybody agreed the buyer had almost no legal rights, no-one should ever be disappointed by any outcome, no matter how disadvantageous. Exhorting sellers to accept any moral imperative to ‘do the right thing’ was like expecting night not to follow day. Rightly or wrongly, simplicity won the argument.
As often seems to be the case where regulation fears to tread, commercial pressures show the true willingness of business to adapt. A shrug and a “you know the rules” may protect sellers in the short term but in a competitive environment, it doesn’t take long for buyers to decide they’d rather not deal with those who simply hide behind convention when things go slightly awry. The issue becomes thornier still for the seller when one considers that people have a habit of telling each other about their experiences – and bad news tends to travel faster than good.
The winds of change were about to bear down on Caveat emptor, spectacularly so, in the late 19th century, with the rise of the American retail magnates, specifically Marshall Field, to whom that most quoted of business quotes is most often attributed: “The customer is always right”. His radical principle took hold elsewhere – most notably at the new hotels of César Ritz in Paris and London. The ethos of the new consumerism could not have been more opposite to Caveat emptor. Revolutionary as the words were, it was however just another simple rule, with all the efficient inaccuracy of the last one.
The deification of the customer assumes their honesty and integrity – hardly a practical concern when selling haberdashery to well-heeled ‘Gilded Age’ citizens of Chicago or afternoon tea to aristocrats in Piccadilly. Transfer the principle of infallibility to a wider audience (including a less-than-scrupulous element) and it doesn’t take long for sellers to retreat to the safety of a legally-upheld disinterest in satisfaction.
Essentially, selling guidance became: ‘legally, don’t give in; commercially, don’t hold firm’. It couldn’t be more bi-polar or contradictory. Only in the years since the Sale of Goods Act (1979), was the matter necessarily complicated, encouraging greater professionalism. For buyer and seller alike, simplicity may have been the best way to achieve clarity throughout the last millennium but it finally seemed to meet its match in the information age.
Simplicity saves troublesome fact-checking, awkward judgement-calling and irksome justification of unpopular decisions so the attraction of a “rules is rules” approach is understandable – yet we live in a world of limitless, ubiquitous competition, we eulogise our brand values and venerate “customer relationships”. Customers are promised not just ‘satisfaction’ but ‘delight’ and have their own social platform, a potential for well-worded complaints to ‘go viral’, however disingenuously they represent the facts of their experience.
The net result is that upholding consistent, mutually-fair customer service is more difficult today than it’s ever been. Some simplicity helps ensure consistency but clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach guarantees that sooner or later, the wrong outcome will be reached.
There will (and should) always be judgement calls. As in judicial process, consideration must be given to things like previous good character and mitigating factors. I recommend you ask yourself these three questions. They’re based on my B2C experience but they’re just as relevant in the B2B world – although perhaps with bigger values:
Who am I arguing with? If you’re at risk of making an enemy, know who it is. It’s up to you to decide how much more leniently you’ll look on your best customer than, say, someone you’ve only had one purchase from (that you know of). What’s their social following? More particularly, do you have evidence that this customer has a history of disputes? Picky people are one thing, serial fraudsters are another. Decide on that before deciding to what extent you are inclined to give them what they want.
What will it cost me to make this problem go away? Are you arguing over a small amount just because you can? Yes, it’s been 29 days since the purchase but is it worth having an argument over a five-pound item? Even if they’re in the wrong, or being unreasonable, how much money is at stake today, compared to what you’re likely to lose by not investing in a “gesture of good faith”? It’s better to lose the battle and win the war.
How often does this problem occur? Even a small monetary loss to resolve a particular complaint can prove unsustainable if it’s likely to recur frequently. You do have to worry about setting a precedent and today’s five-pound concession could easily become a thousand-pound problem if you’re not alert to the issue (begging the question of why your team or your supplier hasn’t addressed it previously). Conversely, a hundred-quid hit can seem like an outrageous amount to get you out of a situation but if your analysis shows a sequence of failures on your part that’s truly a once-in-twenty-years perfect storm of ineptitude, you should probably pay it gladly and trust your attempt to resolve the matter amicably is acknowledged and valued by the customer.
Look out for my next column, about the way that BETA seems to divide opinion, even among those who don’t appear to know enough about it, in the October issue of the ETN, out October 1st.
If you’ve spent any time involved with the Waste industry, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’ll be familiar with the Waste Hierarchy. As long ago (or as relatively recently, depending upon your viewpoint) as the 1970s, the time came for waste to cease to be thought of as something you could just ‘throw away’ – which usually meant simply burying it or burning it (and burying what was left). Disposal as a default method had finally become seen as unsustainable.
In 1975, the EU – or the EEC as it was, back then – announced a directive, which sought to rank the options available to minimise the creation and impact of waste. Like most directives, its guideline status meant that it could easily be ignored and, by and large, it was. Fourteen years later, the idea was revisited and drawn up into a hierarchy of management actions, to encourage its more widespread use.
At the dawn of the 1990s, the concept of recycling began to gain some favour – where conditions allowed – with notable successes in campaigns to use recycled aluminium drinks cans or literature printed on recycled paper but these were examples of ‘soft’ social pressure rather than ‘hard’ legislation taking effect on areas that were, technically speaking, arguably ‘easy wins’.
Only by the turn of the millennium were the principles espoused by the hierarchy finally drafted into UK law, a quarter of a century after the concept was first proposed. To put that into perspective, when in 1998, ‘Bob the Builder’ was first broadcast, encouraging children to “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle”, the mantra was still officially nothing more than an idealistic guideline.
Of course, in the years since then, legal expectations and waste practices have changed almost beyond recognition; the industry has had to re-invent itself from one that largely just ‘got rid of’ waste to one that was willing to go to ever-greater lengths to find a way to reclaim it in one way or another. The relative inertia of the 25 years beforehand has been well and truly washed away with a growing tide of ever-more stringent waste regulations in the 17 years of the 21st century.
Jen Cartmell, our Operations Manager, based at our Cadishead facility explains further:
“Higher landfill taxes not only had the effect of calming the demand for simple disposal but they also encouraged operators to develop alternative solutions and created the conditions for them to invest in those alternatives. That, combined with the higher standards expected of those who make money from waste has led to a far more professional industry today.”
Following on from those ‘easy wins’ of the 1990s, the move to expand the scope of treatment and recovery has led to ever-more intricate processes to extract reclaimed materials in one way or another. Inevitably, the ubiquity and the residual value of oil has led to oil recovery being one of the most lucrative areas in this burgeoning sector, a logical development reflected in CSG’s strategy by our acquisition of Willacy Oil Services in 2015.
With the industry’s successes in extracting waste oil for re-refinery, together with the growing capability for separating precious metals from waste streams to create a ‘circular economy’, it’s tempting to think of waste treatment and recovery as a modern-day form of alchemy, the mythical ancient art of turning base metals into gold. For centuries, many cultures have tried in vain to find a process to do just that. Are we, figuratively speaking, now at that point with a large proportion of our waste?
A qualified chemist, Jen is quick to point out the limitations. Treatment processes are vital to recovering the material but they’re only one part of the equation – and very often, the easiest part.
“In order to have a truly viable treatment and recovery capability, you need three things. First, a guaranteed supply of a particular waste stream, in which there is little variability of supply or composition; second a reliable, process which efficiently allows the material to be recovered in a re-usable state; and third a market for that recovered material. Even if you’ve mastered the recovery process itself, if you can’t guarantee a steady stream to apply it to, you can’t make the investments needed to operate it and, obviously, if it’s too difficult to sell what you’ve recovered, it’s clearly not an economically viable proposition.”
Simply put, even if you’ve worked out the ‘how’ to treat and recover, you always have to be able to prove the ‘why’, the commercial incentive to actually do it. Such pragmatism can seem rather negative but only because it flies in the face of the conventional view that re-cycling is akin to a magic process, capable of solving the world’s consumption needs. As consumers, we’re invited to buy into that rather simplistic viewpoint because it increases the effectiveness of those ‘easy win’ examples like aluminium and paper. If you look at these two cases objectively, they’re both perfect examples of the three-stage rule Jen explained – offering a steady supply of waste and a strong demand for the reclaimed matter. Particularly in the case of paper, if a more digital world significantly reduced the need to buy as much of it, there would be far less incentive for anyone to recycle it.
There are some great examples of advances being made to broaden the principle in other areas – fly ash into bricks and desulphurisation gypsum from power stations into plasterboard. Here at CSG, we’ve been able to develop commercially-viable methods to treat and recover tanalised timber and recover nickel from aqueous wastes, painstaking methods of recovery to sell to a market that was previously less well-supplied. Even so, in both cases, the reclaimed products currently struggle to match the success of our subsidiary J&G Environmental which takes large volumes of rejected egg boxes and merely shreds them in order to make them a valuable animal bedding product. Once again, it proves the process of recovery isn’t everything.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the growth of treatment and recovery is the fact that it’s still in its infancy. As an industry, we’re only a couple of decades into even entertaining the idea that waste materials can be reclaimed and re-sold – and you could argue that so much has already been achieved. Future development will not be without its difficulties – Jen is concerned that the suspension of the Environment Agency’s Definition of Waste panel is currently a disincentive for many companies to invest heavily in treatment and recovery research – but history teaches us that commercial imperative is not to be resisted for long. There are some intriguing areas of opportunity, should the will be there to exploit them, with phosphorous suggested by experts as a particularly lucrative example. Similarly, a means of more finely treating the waste water system to harness microscopic traces of gold that wash from our jewellery could represent a big enough prize for someone to attempt it.
To take advantage of such imaginative thinking, you have to decide what could be achievable if anything was possible. Having identified what’s achievable, you then have to decide how you make the technique possible. Whether in the name of science, discovery or commerce, such ‘blue-sky’ thinking has always been a potent driving force. It’s a sign of how far the waste industry has come in a relatively short time: two generations ago, it was little more than a dirty job for hardened souls, in two generations’ time, it really could be the preserve of alchemists.
You may have read of our recent efforts to define the strongest parts of what makes CSG what it is. After much discussion, we arrived at four distinct elements, what we like to call our ‘brand pillars’ because, together, they hold up everything that CSG does.
With this in mind, we’ve decided to dedicate an entire blogpost to each of the four pillars and first up – arguably in order of importance – is ‘Customer Service’. You may think the way a company treats its customers and responds to them is quite an obvious contributor to their success but if it’s so obvious, why is it that so many of us experience poor service so frequently? What, then, makes it such an indelible part of what CSG does – and why are we so proud of it?
With CSG operating across such a broad range of customer types, the ways in which we’re able provide excellent service can also vary enormously. For example, in the case of our biggest accounts, with huge volumes involved and clarity of purpose vital, the levels of service we promise are often written into our contracts and tenders. Perhaps a more acid test of our ability to offer an unbeatable level of service is in the business-to-consumer (B2C) environment, where we’re usually asked to react quickly to very specific requests by a wide range of consumers, often with very different levels of expectation.
With that in mind, perhaps the best person to ask is Dean Hough, our Telesales Manager, responsible for providing a fast, professional response to all our domestic and small business sewage collection services. He’s the man who’s there to ensure a very specific flavour of ‘CS’ is present within CSG. A veteran of a number of call centres throughout his career, he’s now charged with the task of keeping our B2C customers happy, every time they contact us. How do his objectives here differ from other places he’s worked at?
“You could say it’s essentially the same requirement: handling calls efficiently in order to make sales but in reality, it’s nothing like anything I’ve ever done before” he says, with disarming candidness. “We tend to have a very distinct type of customer with very specific requirements, which are a world away from those of most call centre-based businesses. For that reason, it would be totally wrong for us simply to copy the techniques of even the most successful call centres. Everything we do has to be right for CSG and the customers we’re here to serve.
It’s true that, due to the vagaries of demographics, our base of domestic sewage customers (owners of houses with septic tanks) tend to be, on average, much older than a standard cross-section of the community. Similarly, such properties tend to be rather more remote than usual and that can uniquely influence the conversation with the customer.
“We’ll generally take maybe five calls a day in which we’re just asked for advice about the customer’s system, its upkeep or when it was last emptied. There’s not always an obvious path to ‘convert’ the call into a sale so we don’t necessarily push the conversation in that direction. It’s important that we help when we’re asked but it’s enough that we’re happy to leave it at that and only ‘make the sale’ when the customer is ready. That sort of thinking would be inconceivable in other industries I’ve worked in, like software or insurance, but what they would feel is right for them isn’t necessarily right for CSG and our customers.”
That’s not to say we ignore the influences of so-called ‘best practice’ of the whole call centre sector. Unsurprisingly, there are areas of Dean’s experience that have been incorporated and tailored to the way CSG deliver service to customers.
“Like any professional organisation, we still have processes and targets but we always ensure they’re done in a completely different tone, with a much lighter touch than the more hardened, clinical style that most people would associate with telephone-based customer contact. We’re very aware that to some of our customers, a call to our sales team may be their only conversation that day.
“Our team come from a variety of backgrounds, not necessarily just sales. We find a good grounding within the waste industry helps to foster an understanding of and therefore competence in a subject in which they’re being asked to provide assistance. On top of that, before anyone ever takes a call, we provide a fair amount of training and even arrange for them to spend time out on the road, accompanying our tanker drivers on their rounds. We’ve long known that if you’ve seen at first hand the day-to-day issues that can create problems, it’s much easier to give the right advice when, for example, access to a septic tank is difficult. It’s pretty simple, really – you have a better appreciation of what can go wrong if you’ve already seen it in action. The more appreciation my team has, the less assumption there is – and usually, assumptions lead to problems.”
It’s fair to say that even the briefest look at CSG’s history will show that customer service has always been a strong part of our culture and ethos. As the person charged with upholding, even improving that long-standing commitment, does he find it a daunting prospect?
“I wouldn’t say so. I don’t feel under any extra pressure just because CSG’s standards are already so high. I’m a perfectionist so it’s more the case that my aims and CSG’s are exactly the same. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to admit that we’re not perfect (yet) and there’s lots of things I’d like to do to keep improving. I think the fact that CSG is still a family-owned business is a huge reason for its focus on customer service and I’d say that, while it might be easier for me to suggest lots of easier improvements to a less customer-focused business, the flip side is that I’d expect to find it harder to get the backing I’d need to make those improvements. Here at CSG, that very strong existing focus means that there’s also a much greater willingness to support me in this role – and I find that very motivating.”
Customer service seems a simple enough concept but it’s one that frequently seems to find itself complicated and distorted to meet the eye of the beholder. What’s the simplest way to define good service, in order to ensure that it can always be assured?
“I think, at its heart, customer service is really a question of empathy – the ability to know what the other person ultimately wants – in some cases, even before they do. Of course, people are all different so it’s difficult to demonstrate empathy until you know enough about the person, their personality, what situation they’re in, what’s motivating them at that moment. Even that’s pretty meaningless if there’s nothing you can do with that insight so it’s necessary not to be too governed by hard and fast rules. Experienced people are always an asset, as is diversity within the team, increasing the ability to view a situation from more than one angle.”
What about internally? Isn’t there a danger that very existence of a team specialising in customer service can have the adverse effect of implying to the rest of the company that it’s a consideration they can then more easily ignore?
“Whenever we need to take corrective action, we know we need to show empathy not just to the paying customer but also to our internal customers – all the colleagues who rely on each other in order to get the job done well. Ultimately, we’re all on the same side, trying to achieve the same goal so if something has gone wrong and needs to be put right; failure is failure and we have to take ownership of that. That sort of terrible side-effect doesn’t happen when there’s good communication and everyone is dealing with each other in the way they would expect to be dealt with. We often say we’re ‘Working together for you’ and it’s not just a strapline – we really are.”
In the end, for all the well-intentioned ideas, the refusal to limit to ‘wrap-up’ time (the amount of time spent talking at the end of a call, after the sale) or the removal of counter-productive individual incentives, numbers will still prove the success of the strategy. Customer retention rates, longevity, average life-time value are all longer-term measures of customer behaviour that almost define the very point of offering an unbeatable ability to meet and exceed expectations, consistently. Customer service is not really about what it achieves today but what it continues to enable in future. In an era where we’re used to demanding and delivering instant gratification, it’s worth remembering that its true value is one that arrives very steadily, over time.
Over the years, I’ve spent many a frustrating hour explaining why online selling is coming/is here/is here to stay/is just in its first phase and so on. I’ve debated it internally as a marketing strategy when people were still getting used to email and as a fact of life and within BETA Council meetings when certain people were hoping to ‘ban’ it (how, exactly?!). I even found myself having to defend it at the end of a speech to the National Equine Forum! When it comes to e-commerce, I’m quite firmly planted in the ‘Pro’ camp.
And yet, not everything in the virtual garden is rosy. Chiefly, look at the way digital marketing is measured and made accountable.
Once upon a time, you’d spent £X on a direct marketing campaign, divide the number of orders it yielded into the number of customers contacted and get a Response Rate. You’d also divide the revenue it brought into the aforementioned number of orders yielded and you got an Average Order Value. All you needed was a trustworthy ‘quote the code’ response mechanism. You knew how many copies you were sending out so, aside from all the sales, you also got a lovely source of comparison data. Then, using something called segmentation, you could have even more nerdy fun, all the time seeing how much money you were making.
Compared to retail, which struggled to tie a transaction to a name in a database (although that’s more achievable now), all this customer-centric data was a revelation. Information that became knowledge, which, as we all know, is power.
And then along came the Internet – simultaneously the biggest blessing and the greatest curse to hit direct marketing. Yes, it offered 24-hour, borderless trading, much greater agility in presenting one’s offering, a promise of cost-free mass mailing, something called social media and so much more lovely data! How many people viewed page 26 of your paper catalogue? No idea but I know how many online views we got for each of the products it features.
Online selling offered nothing short of a revolution of data and visibility – if marketing went from the Medieval era of retail to the Renaissance of direct marketing, the web quickly whizzed us through the Industrial Revolution and straight into the Space Age. Cosmic, man! ‘Newer’ equals ‘better’, doesn’t it?
Well, yes and sometimes no. This myriad of metrics may look like your friend but it can often give you useless information – or worse still, misleading data that fails to alert you to a problem. Sure, if customers want to buy online, you have to operate in that space but e-commerce tends to make a huge mess of your internal reporting – for two main reasons:
1) There’s no clear link of ‘cause and effect’ between your stimuli and your incoming orders like there used to be, which means you can’t make solid conclusions about your effectiveness and efficiency quite so easily. Consider the paradox that spending more on offline material increases web orders because, guess what, people will always do what suits them and not follow the ‘rules’ of whatever tidy flow-chart we might be tempted to think they inhabit. Now, if a sale depends upon both a stimulus (to compel a customer to order) and then a referral (where they may need to find your site as a means to place that order), do you credit the offline activity or a Google Adword for that sale? What if there are more than two stages to the process? Even if you know when all of this is happening, how do you decide to attribute each of those sales?
2) Most of the data on which you depend isn’t generated internally any more, raising questions about its reliability. Data collation is now usually subcontracted to the very digital channels you use: Google, Facebook, Twitter, whatever SEO ‘partner’ you’re using, Remarketers, Affiliates, email handlers and so on. At best, they’re all innocently taking sole credit for potentially the same order (see above); at worst, it becomes a case of paying a bunch of turkeys who keep telling you it isn’t Christmas. You can’t replicate their data (which usually forms the basis of their charges) but you do know that if you add up all the ‘sales’ that each of them claims to have led you to, you should be turning over far more than you actually are. Something is amiss but you’re next to powerless to find out any more than that.
You have paralysis by analysis: more information than you can handle and less knowledge than ever before – and a nagging feeling that somewhere along the line, some of this lack of clarity is hurting you.
If you think this is just me checking into middle age by having a rant about the object of my prior fascination, you may have a point but bear this in mind: clients like The Guardian have started to sue agencies that they believe are misreporting their own performance stats. The incoming Chief Brand Officer of Proctor & Gamble recently gave a blistering speech in which he told the digital ad world in no uncertain terms to clean up its act, provide the transparency that clients always used to expect or kiss goodbye to the promotional budget that supports P&G’s $65bn worldwide sales revenue. There’s a sense that a fightback has begun against the charlatans and snake oil salesmen and that, in time, better regulation of one form or another, will follow.
To answer the incendiary question I initially posed, the Internet hasn’t gone too far – it has indeed, as Karen Carpenter once sang, only just begun. The Web has, in a human generation grown from a preposterous daydream to dominating most forms of marketing. Inevitably, its forms of regulation and control have struggled to keep pace. Perhaps they always will.
Whatever happens next, an important lesson is there to be learned: it’s still selling, the same as it ever was. Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean the same basic rules, disciplines, checks and balances that we came to expect in the analogue world shouldn’t continue to apply.
Look out for my next column, about the difficulties of applying simple rules to resolving customer disputes, in the September issue of the ETN, out September 1st.
As a Wiganer, I don’t mind admitting I’m still getting over our 18-14 defeat to Hull in last weekend’s Challenge Cup Final. I feel I probably shouldn’t be so affected by it, these days – I’ve been here enough times before: in 1984 (crushingly), in 1998 (inexplicably) and in 2004 (rather drunkenly). I’d like to think that those experiences, plus of course the very many Cup-winning years (including the famous eight-in-a-row) would give me sufficient perspective to absorb the disappointment a little more adroitly.
Sadly, just like Tony Clubb’s doomed attempt for the line, it was not to be. Now, four days on, the anguish at the outcome has dissipated slightly. I know this because I’ve now come to believe that the scoreline was not, for once, the most significant statistic of the day.
Before I explain what I believe is, I should move to deny any stirring suspicions you may have that I’m displaying sour grapes or even revisionism. Of course I wish we’d won but the day highlighted an issue much more concerning than merely the non-adornment of yet another trophy in cherry and white – it’s an issue that has implications on the future of the sport of rugby league itself.
You may or may not have picked up on the story that the attendance of 68,525 was the lowest at a Challenge Cup final since its return to the re-built Wembley in 2007. There are a number of facets to this simple stat, together with a fair degree of context, to increase or reduce the level of alarm it elicits, depending upon your viewpoint. If nothing else, this is very much a matter of interpretation and opinion, which rather thickens the plot but also fuels the conspiracy theories. It all brings to mind the phrase, often attributed to Mark Twain who believed himself to be quoting Benjamin Disraeli (although no record of Disraeli saying it exists): “There are lies, damned lies and statistics”.
Before we go any further, is this story true and by how much is the figure lower than any before? According the BBC match report, the figure was “by some distance the lowest” but what does the data say? As ever, my friends at Wikipedia are a handy place to check:
So, there you have it: in headline terms, no different to last year (which was itself the lowest post-2007 figure) but almost eight thousand fewer again, quite a significant drop.
The chief reason for the sudden discrepancy appears to be the widely-quoted accounting change that for the first time this year, debenture-holders’ seats were not automatically counted as occupied, giving a more accurate figure. This is basically a way of suggesting that every previous new Wembley figure was utterly fictitious and that in real terms, this year’s attendance figure was no different to any other year. It all sounds incredibly convenient to spare any blushes the RFL may have – but can it be true?
At this point, most people would probably just shrug their shoulders and move on with their life but this requires a level of stadium geekery that I feel able to provide – and to some extent, corroborate. When the current incarnation of Wembley Stadium was built, part of its funding came from a debenture scheme (“Club Wembley”) in which holders were given a middle-tier seat for use at any event held at the venue – a sort of super season ticket. Inevitably, most of these were seen as justifiable investment by companies with an eye on the corporate hospitality opportunities they afforded and they signed up in their thousands. I know someone who did, a print supplier with whom I used to spend a lot of money. In 2011, as I was one of his biggest rugby league-following clients, he offered me his seats to watch that year’s Challenge Cup Final.
You can most easily see the seats in question in the ten minutes after the re-start in any home England football match as the mostly corporate inhabitants struggle to down their half-time pints until about the 55th minute. It was, I believe, at one such occasion that the seat-holders’ conspicuity by their absence provoked Adrian Chiles to give it its most scathing (and most apt) nickname: “the ring of indifference” – perhaps the most John Lennon thing he’s ever said. Anyway, as their debenture holders were seen as ‘customers’, it seems every official attendance at the new Wembley has counted each and every one of them, whether or not they were represented on the day by anyone in person.
I can only presume that in 2017, ten years after the stadium’s opening, the debenture terms have elapsed and different rules now apply. The good news is that 68-odd thousand is not really any lower than any other year so the “lowest attendance” story is (and I hasten to give this term the credence it ill-deserves) ‘fake news’. The bad news, rugby fans, is that for a decade, we’ve been kind of kidding ourselves about the true numbers. The case is perhaps most clearly made by this Getty Images picture, taken during the 2010 final between Warrington and Leeds. The official attendance that day was 85,217, purportedly less than five thousand people shy of a 90,000 full house and yet, despite the tightly-packed crowds in the upper and lower tiers, the whole middle tier appears sparsely populated.
Does any of this bean-counting matter, then, if it’s all built on a farcically inaccurate trend? Clearly, not as much as is being made of it – but it does beg the rather more fundamental question of why we’ve probably now had a decade of Challenge Cup final attendances that were ‘only’ c.70,000. In the days before the old Wembley had its capacity reduced to 70-odd thousand, finals regularly attracted crowds in the 90,000s.
Looking at the pictures from this year’s final, it’s easy to see that this year, the RFL knew the problem was coming. I’d already received increasingly urgent emails from them with various last-minute deals, including “£5 for under 16s”. On the day, this tweet of Wigan legend Martin Offiah in the Royal Box clearly shows the upper tier opposite ‘blanked off’ by decorative red*-and-white/black-and-white sheeting over vast swathes of the seating area which were not expected to sell.
*by the way, RFL, Wigan’s colours are cherry and white, not red.
What’s most interesting about this development is where the empty seats where. If you know Wembley, you’ll know the Royal Box is directly opposite the TV camera gantry. To the viewers at home, it would, for most of the time, seem as though Wembley was full. Depending upon your viewpoint, this is either a case of good PR or managed decline. It’s also something in which the RFL have a fair degree of form. Remember the 2013 World Cup? The opening fixtures were a double-header in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. My son Charlie happened to be a mascot that day and I took as many pictures as I could of him with the England and Australia teams as they lined up before the game. The attendance was 45,052, the capacity in Cardiff is 73,000, leaving around 28,000 empty seats for the organisers to hope no-one sees. From the picture below, would you care to take a wild guess which side the TV gantry is at the Millennium Stadium?
To be fair to the RFL, there are exceptions. For six of the last ten years, the Grand Final has attracted a 70 thousand-plus crowd to Old Trafford (nominally with a 75,000 capacity but slightly reduced for such occasions to allow a stage to be built on the South West quadrant for the pre-show live act). As a percentage of capacity, the Grand Final is now almost always in the upper 90s.
And then there was the success story that was the 2013 World Cup Final – a crowd of 74,468 which is still, I believe, the world record attendance for an international rugby league match. Much as I’d prefer to gloss over the fact that this game didn’t include England (thanks to both a piece of sublime magic and a last-minute try from New Zealand in the semi-final), the absence of the home nation makes the subsequent sell-out for the final even more worthy of praise for the organisers.
The common denominator to both these successes is, it’s safe to argue, the fact that they both took place at Old Trafford, Manchester, set almost perfectly within the very heartland of rugby league. Wembley and Cardiff, on the other hand, are not.
The point is, I would contend, strengthened further by the somewhat chequered achievements of the ‘Magic Weekend‘, the newest kid on the block of annual rugby league showpiece occasions in the UK. The reliance on compound attendance figures for these two-day festivals has more than a whiff of an initiative seeking attention via the biggest number it can lay its hands on, which is why I prefer to look at average attendances over the two days. Over the last ten years, the numbers have barely edged beyond plus-or-minus 10% of 30,000 per day. That sounds great, compared to a regular fixture (in 2016, Super League fixtures averaged 9,134) but for three fixtures in a day (and sometimes, it’s four), 30k seems like a case of negligible uplift. Add to that the fact that the fixtures for these events tend to be ‘marquee’ games like Wigan v Leeds or derbies like Hull v Hull KR which tend not to struggle for numbers when left to be played in their normal surroundings and the whole thing feels like it might just about be ‘washing its face’ and no more.
Of course, all of the above is not the be-all and end-all: the Magic Weekend adds a marvellous sense of occasion to those there, it helps to generate extra national press from a largely union-centric media and it ‘spreads the gospel’ further afield and all that but after all that effort, it’s difficult to claim that, empirically, it’s added even a single extra bum on a seat. Throw in the fact that the venues (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff; Murrayfield, Edinburgh; Etihad Stadium, Manchester and, latterly, St. James’ Park, Newcastle) are all much larger than 30k and you’re back to the same game of ‘hide the empty seats from the cameras’ – average daily occupancy has ranged from 40% at Cardiff to 67% in Manchester. Just how commercially successful is the whole enterprise, really?
It’s an important point to make because one theory I’ve read is that the existence of the Magic Weekend is the most likely cause of the trimming of Challenge Cup final crowds. An alternative away-day at which your team is guaranteed to play does seem like a slightly more appealing alternative to the more traditional, relatively vicarious pursuit of turning up at Wembley in your team’s colours “for the day out” even though two other teams are actually contesting the final. Having been part of the convivial, ‘rugby league family’ atmosphere, it would be a shame to see it lessened but equally, it takes a bit of fortitude to walk proudly down Wembley Way in a Saints shirt, for example, knowing you’re going to suffer a few hours of (mostly) light-hearted ribbing from the assembled hoards of Wigan and Leeds fans milling around outside the stadium when your team isn’t even there. As someone who must admit to being part of that ‘friendly fire’, I can confirm I’d think twice about taking the time and expense of going all that way not to see my team, knowing I’d be on the receiving end of it.