Weekly Pic | 9th Jan | That Time I Was Right Here* 

40 years ago | *ABC Cinema, Wigan, UK | 9th January 1983

The ABC in Wigan, just before the UK release of E.T., December 1982. Photo: Frank Orrell (Wigan Observer)

Forty years ago, we went to the cinema.  It doesn’t sound that big a deal now.  It wasn’t really that remarkable then, If I’m honest – except for the fact that it was only my second-ever trip to ‘the pictures’, to watch the film that everyone was talking about: ‘E.T. – The Extraterrestrial’.

In spring 1981, I’d had my first cinema experience, watching ‘Superman II’.  I remember being wowed by the action on screen and bitterly disappointed by the taste of the exotic hot dogs served in the foyer.  The experience had clearly stuck with me because I distinctly remember giving the same counter a wide berth, this time.  

The other difference this time was that I was very aware that this was not just a film but a major event.  That the mere fact I was going to watch it carried its own level of kudos.  The film had been hyped for weeks and radio, television and even daily conversations seemed to consist of very little else.  It was probably the first blockbuster film release that I was old enough to understand as such.

Predictably, I loved the film.  At the age of nine, I was probably in the ideal demographic for it.  Looking back, there was something else that may seem largely superficial now but at the time felt hugely profound: the chase scene at the end involved BMX bikes, something most school-age kids were very impressed by, in the early 1980s.  

By embracing something that was so clearly part of the zeitgeist, Spielberg was able to make his story all the more compelling to his target market.  It felt to us as if the conversations we were having on our playground were actually shaping Hollywood films.  It may not be too much of a stretch to say that they were – in a way.  Although we, like everyone else, thought it was just our school that was so ‘influential’, when, by definition, it was every school.

I remember getting the novelised version on E.T. in paperback from the school book club, not long after and devouring the written story.  I think I still have it.  It’s still one of a small number of films that, if I happen upon it while flicking around the channels, I will feel the urge to watch it to the end, every time.  ‘Jaws’, ‘Educating Rita’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ being other notable holders of that particular accolade.

It also imbued in me a love of cinema itself.  Even the grotty old Wigan ABC fleapit (where twenty years previously, my Dad had watched Roy Orbison and The Beatles) was enough to light a passion which still burns today.  Only years later did I learn that my Grandad, great-uncle and great-Grandad owned a cinema in Standish (‘The Palace’) for 30 years so it kind of is in my blood.

A pandemic and home streaming have reduced my cinema-going in recent years but I’d still rather take in a quirky movie in a theatre than watch a so-called ‘must-see’ series.  Unlike E.T., ‘Home’ is not my preferred venue, when it comes to film consumption.  Given the chance to go to a cinema any day – and ‘I’ll be right there’…

[Redacted] Employee Awards Ceremony Script

<[Jane Surname] and [Peter Surname] introduce themselves and start the ceremony>

[Jane]:  Good afternoon, everyone and thank you, [Redacted], for that warm welcome. 

In case you don’t know me, I’m [Jane Surname] and I’m [Redacted]’s [Redacted] Director

As I’m in charge of compliance and rules, I tend to spend a lot of my time telling people they can’t do things.  

So it’s wonderful for me to stand in front of you all, in these challenging times, and be able to bring a bit of happiness, this afternoon.

[Peter]: And I’m [Peter Surname], the Chief [Redacted] Officer at [Redacted].  As I’m in charge of systems and technology, I’m often busy working out how things have gone wrong, so we can fix them. 

So it’s also great for me to take part in this celebration of the many things that have gone really well, this year – and to recognise the fantastic people who made them happen.

[Jane]:  So without any further ado, let’s bring on the awards, applaud the nominees, cheer the winners and spend a little time enjoying the warmth and positivity of their achievements. 

Are you ready to do that, [Peter]?

[Peter]: I think we should, [Jane]. In fact, I’m positive!  Let’s get started!

Award category 1: Most Supportive Colleague

[Jane]: The first award is Most Supportive Colleague.  It’s an award that recognises the true essence of being a supporter.  

You could describe supportiveness as a long-term commitment to offering positivity, without any expectation of a reward. 

[Peter], you’re a Blackburn Rovers supporter.  Would you agree with that?

[Peter]: I certainly would, [Jane].  I haven’t had my support rewarded since 1995. 

But not all supporters are long-suffering, like me.  Some are truly appreciated by all around them, for being unfailing beacons of positivity. 

Here is [Alan Surname], our [Redacted],  to tell you about five of them:

<Music & Applause>

[Alan]:      

The nominees for Most Supportive Colleague are:       

[Looks at outside of envelope]

  • Nominee 1
  • Nominee 2
  • Nominee 3
  • Nominee 4
  • Nominee 5

            And the award goes to…

            [Opens envelope, takes out note]

            Nominee X

<Music & Applause>

Music Sting TBC:

Award category 2: Best Demonstration of Leadership

[Peter]:  Next up is the Best Demonstration of Leadership award.  I found a great quote about leadership on the Harvard website, [Jane]. 

“A leader is best when people barely know they exist.  When the work is done, and the aim is fulfilled, people will say: ‘we did it ourselves’.”

You’re a great leader, [Jane]so I was wondering:  Does anyone know if you exist?

[Jane]:  Sometimes, I wonder if I do, [Peter]. 

But even if “barely anyone” knows about my existence – or yours – this award is to ensure that we celebrate the existence – and the leadership contributions – of five very special people. 

Here is [Brenda Surname], our [Redacted],  to tell you who they are:

<Music & Applause>

[Brenda]:      

The nominees for Best Demonstration of Leadership are:

[Looks at outside of envelope]

  • Nominee 1
  • Nominee 2
  • Nominee 3
  • Nominee 4
  • Nominee 5

            And the award goes to…

            [Opens envelope, takes out note]

Nominee X

<Music & Applause>

Music Sting TBC:

Award category 3: Best Value for Money Initiative or Idea

[Jane]:      Our third award of the evening is for Best Value for Money Initiative or Idea

We’re all very aware of the rises in cost of everything this year so, more than ever before, it’s so important to recognise anyone who can think laterally, to save the business money or get the very most from everything pound we spend.

[Peter]:     That’s right, [Jane].  Who doesn’t love the idea of attending an important seminar on cost-effectiveness, in the Seychelles?  But these days, you’re more likely to be invited to an economy drive in a Starbucks. 

But if you think that’s a radical idea, here are three nominees who have had an even greater impact on providing value for money, this year. 

Here is [Colin Surname], our [Redacted],  to tell you who they are:

<Music & Applause>

[Colin]:     

The nominees for Best Value for Money Initiative or Idea are:

[Looks at outside of envelope]

  • Nominee 1
  • Nominee 2
  • Nominee 3
  • Nominee 4
  • Nominee 5

            [Opens envelope, takes out note]

And the award goes to…

Nominee X

Music Sting TBC:

Award category 4: Best Safety Initiative or Idea

[Peter]:     Our fourth award is Best Safety Initiative or Idea.  We often hear how ‘ensuring everyone’s Health and Safety is paramount’ – which means it’s more important than anything else.

But this award recognises people who have actually improved the safety of colleagues.  Which makes it even more important than ‘paramount’ – but how would you describe that?  

I was watching TV the other day and suddenly, that answer came to me:

‘Paramount Plus’.

[Jane]:      That’s not really the kind of safety idea that will win you this award, [Peter].  In fact, you should have risk-assessed that joke before you told it because I think you’ve just been ‘burned’. 

While I report this incident in the Accident Book, here is [Debbie Surname], our [Redacted],  with the nominees for this award:

<Music & Applause>

[Debbie]:      

The nominees for Best Safety Initiative or Idea are:

[Looks at outside of envelope]

  • Nominee 1
  • Nominee 2
  • Nominee 3
  • Nominee 4
  • Nominee 5

And the award goes to…

            [Opens envelope, takes out note]

Nominee X

Music Sting TBC:

Award category 5: Outstanding Individual

[Jane]:      Our next award is our Outstanding Individual award. This is our Employee of the Year award, awarded to somebody who consistently exhibits each of our values: Passion, Pride, Creativity and Accountability – in everything they do. 

It’s a huge accolade to be nominated for this award.  Can you imagine being that highly regarded, [Peter]?

[Peter]:       I can [Jane], but you’ll be pleased to learn that, this year, I’ve decided to rule myself out of the running for this award – to let somebody else have a go.  And five of our colleagues now have exactly that chance.

Here is [Eric Surname], our [Redacted]  to tell you who they are:

[Eric]:        

This is one of two categories where the judges’ decision was so close that we have chosen to give a Highly Commended recognition to a nominee who came very, very close to winning the award.

The nominees for our Outstanding Individual award are:

[Looks at outside of envelope]

  • Nominee 1
  • Nominee 2
  • Nominee 3
  • Nominee 4
  • Nominee 5

…and the Highly Commended  recognition goes to…

Nominee Y

The award goes to…

            [Opens envelope, takes out note]

Nominee X

Music Sting TBC:

Award category 6: Excellent Example of Inclusion – All Values

[Peter]:     Our sixth award is the Excellent Example of Inclusion, something that we should all be passionate about.  I could certainly talk at length about how we’re very aware – and proud – of the importance we place on inclusion.  

I could explain in great depth about the need to avoid having the same worldviews dominating our thinking, not allowing anyone else’s voice to come to the fore… 

…[Jane], I think I should probably include you at this point. 

[Jane]:      Yes, [Peter], I think you probably should.

It’s great that we can all agree that a commitment to Inclusion is a vital part of any healthy organisation. 

And to demonstrate that, we’ve excluded all but the following nominees, who the judges feel have demonstrated their commitment to inclusion more than anyone else.   

Here is [Fanny Surname], our [Redacted],  to tell you who’s on this exclusive list.

<Music & Applause>

[Fanny]:      

The nominees for the Excellent Example of Inclusion are:

[Looks at outside of envelope]

  • Nominee 1
  • Nominee 2
  • Nominee 3
  • Nominee 4
  • Nominee 5

And the award goes to…

            [Opens envelope, takes out note]

Nominee X

Music Sting TBC:

Award category 7: Team of the Year

[Jane]:      Our next award is Team of the Year.  The teams we work in form a vital link between ourselves as individuals and [Redacted]as a whole.

 Achieving the goals of the team not only gives more meaning to the things we do, it can be a source of greater satisfaction when we do things well.   

Good teams also ensure that the workload is shared more evenly when one of the team is struggling.  In a world of algorithms and systems, this is still a very human way of working and it’s a part of working life that you can’t simply improve with technology.

[Peter]:     Strictly speaking, the hardest-working team in [Redacted] is Microsoft Teams but the judges felt it was ineligible for consideration because a good team shouldn’t crash unexpectedly and keep putting you on mute for no reason. 

But this award isn’t just about the team’s level of achievement but the way that those goals are achieved.  To quote Bananarama, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it; And that’s what gets results”.

Here is [Gordon Surname], our [Redacted],  to give you that result:

[Gordon]:        

This is another category where the judges’ decision was so close that we chose to give a Highly Commended recognition to a team who came very, very close to winning the award.

The nominees for Team of the Year are:

[Looks at outside of envelope]

  • Nominee 1
  • Nominee 2
  • Nominee 3
  • Nominee 4
  • Nominee 5

…and the Highly Commended  recognition goes to…

Nominee Y

And the award goes to…

            [Opens envelope, takes out note]

Nominee X

Music Sting TBC:

Award category 8: Consistent Customer Excellence by a Team

[Peter]:     Our final award is the Consistent Customer Excellence by a Team.  Many of our customers have experienced more difficulties this year than in any previous year, which often leads to them placing even greater demands on us. 

Against that backdrop, an ability to give great customer service is one thing but doing that – consistently – takes something special.

[Jane]:      Absolutely.  It feels like there’s never been a more important time to offer excellent, empathetic customer service.  And it’s wonderful to see that so many of our people are doing exactly that.

Here is [Hermione Surname], our [Redacted],  to recognise some very special teams.

[Hermione]:      

The nominees for Consistent Customer Excellence by a Team are:

[Looks at outside of envelope]

  • Nominee 1
  • Nominee 2
  • Nominee 3
  • Nominee 4
  • Nominee 5

And the award goes to…

            [Opens envelope, takes out note]

Nominee X

Music Sting TBC:

Recipes for Under a Pound

After the fun and frivolity of Christmas comes the frugality of the New Year – but you don’t have to taste the difference.  Here’s how…

It’s a tale that goes back generations, when even oranges were rare, exotic festive treats and not for everyday consumption.  In recent decades, the importance of ‘a healthier lifestyle’ as a New Year’s resolution led to calorie-denying diets.  But most commonly, our desire to spend a little more in December has most likely led to a need to watch the pennies in January.

Add in a Cost of Living Crisis and the need to ‘tighten our belts’ becomes even more keenly felt.  In recent years, there’s been a significant movement for making quality meals for surprisingly little – often less than a pound per head.  As we head into 2023, with the financial challenges it brings, how can we all eat well, for less?

Perhaps the best-known advocate is Jack Monroe.  Once described as “the poster girl for Austerity Britain”, her recipes fuse classical cuisine with ultra-cheap, widely-available ingredients, batch preparation and energy-efficient cooking.  Every recipe on her website is costed (per head) with the price and source of each ingredient shown.

A great ‘winter warmer’ is her Vegan Moussaka, costed at 31p (in 2018). 

As she explains the ‘hacks’ required to replace traditional ingredients, you always have the option to reverse them and try the non-vegan, non-vegetarian lamb version – which should still come in at under a pound a head.

250g dried green or brown lentils     57p (£1.15/500g, Sainsburys)

2 small onions     12p (90p/1,5kg, Sainsburys Basics)

6 fat cloves of garlic     9p (35p/2 bulbs, Sainsburys Basics)

2 tbsp oil     3p (£3/3l, vegetable or sunflower oil, Sainsburys)

400g chopped tomatoes     35p (35p/400g, Sainsburys Basics)

50ml red wine     23p (£3.50/750ml, Basic table wine)

1 tsp dried thyme or other herbs     <1p (80p/100g thyme, Natco brand)

¼ tsp each salt and pepper     <1p

1 tsp lemon juice or red wine vinegar     1p (£1.15/500ml, Sainsburys RWV)

1 large aubergine     75p (75p each, Sainsburys)

1 slice bread, grated into breadcrumbs*     2p (45p/22 slice loaf, Sainsburys Basics)

For the white sauce:

1 tbsp flour*      <1p (55p/1.5kg plain flour, Sainsburys Basics)

1 tbsp oil     2p (£3/3l vegetable or sunflower oil, Sainsburys)

250ml cashew or soya milk     25p (25p/1l, Sainsburys)

½ tsp mustard     <1p (45p/180g, Sainsburys Basics mustard)

*to make gluten free, simply omit these or use your favourite gluten free bread or breadcrumb mix

Here’s the recipe in full:  Moussaka, 31p [VG/V/DF/GF*]

Jack Monroe’s ‘Cooking On A Bootstrap’ website is full of ideas and advice across a wide range of cuisines and dietary preferences, with a wealth of similar ‘under a pound’ recipe ideas. 

It should also be noted that it’s much easier to bring down the ‘per head’ cost when cooking for larger numbers, spreading the overall cost over more servings.  If you’re cooking for one or even two, in order to keep ‘per-head’ costs down, it’s likely you’ll need to cook for more and batch and freeze the remainder, to eat at a later date.

We all like different things – and we can quickly tire of eating the same thing, even when we like it – so here’s a handy list of helpful websites to give you some inspiration.  It’s also a great way to sample dishes that you might not otherwise have considered. 

Even if you’re a fussy eater, there’s loads to choose from  Alternatively – as you may already have heard – Try it – you might like it!

BBC Food – Great family dinners for under £1 a head

Jamie Oliver – Jamie’s £1 Wonders & more budget-friendly cooking tips

Tesco – Cooking On A Budget | Budget Recipes

Good To Know – Cheap family meals: Budget recipes under £1 per head

More Than A Mummy – 34 cheap family meals costing as little as £1 a head

Weekly Pic | 2nd Jan | That Time I Saw The Future 

5 years ago | The Great Barrier Reef, off Queensland, AU | 4th January 2018

Five years ago, we snorkelled in the Great Barrier Reef.  Let’s just let that just sink in for a moment…

Even as I typed those words, part of me can’t quite believe I’m able to.   It’s a preposterous thing to be able to say.  I grew up in a pretty normal 80s household, watching ‘Russ Abbot’s Madhouse’ and having sliced bananas in milk for ‘afters’ at teatime.  Ten year-old me would think it an impossible thing for grown-up me to have even contemplated doing.

The Barrier Reef was the sort of thing we’d see on a David Attenborough programme.  Of course we knew this was somewhere on the same planet because, well, it couldn’t not be.  But it wasn’t realistically in our orbit.  It existed solely “on telly”, in the same way that JR Ewing or Hilda Ogden did – and it might as well have been equally as fictional.

And so, when the opportunity came to see it ‘in real life’, it had to be taken.  We were on the third leg of our Australian tour.  We’d spent Christmas in Melbourne and New Year in Sydney, with a still-hungover flight up to Cairns on New Year’s Day morning.  An hour’s drive north is place called Port Douglas and it was recommended to me by an old business contact from Geelong as the best place to do the ‘Reef.

He wasn’t wrong.  It’s a small town by a big beach, surrounded by resort hotels and a tropical rain forest, but with a charming main drag of pubs and restaurants.  There’s a look-out point from which to admire the view and a harbour from which to book your Reef adventure.

The parts we’d snorkel in were about twenty miles out to sea and as we skipped over the waves in our 40-foot craft, we were treated to just about the best – and certainly the most Australian – ‘safety announcement’ I think I’ve ever heard:

“If the boat gets into difficulties, we’ll ask you all to put on your lifejackets as we drift aimlessly around.  I’ll send our location on the radio and set off a flare – and then we’ll get the tinnies in while we wait for the Channel Nine news-copter to come and find us”

Anyway, before long we got to our intended location, slipped on the jellyfish-proof ’stinger’ wetsuits and jumped in the ocean.  Reader, I won’t lie, it was every bit the awesome, pinch-me, unbelievable experience that I’d expected it to be.  

The bit that was different to billing was the noticeable lack of vibrant colour that, thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Attenborough, I’d been led to expect.  There was some colour and plenty of exotic species but it wasn’t the rainbow-infused dazzle of colour I’d seen on TV at home.  The fact it was more drab, more monochrome, more – dare I say it? – bleached meant the experience was just as profound as I’d wanted, just not in the way I’d thought it would be.

You see, there’s something else that we know exists because how can it not?  Something that we tend to see evidence of primarily “on telly”, where fact and fiction are less clearly delineated and, much of the time, the endings are already written.  Climate change is that real-life storyline and it occurred to me that this was the first physical evidence I’d seen of it with my own eyes.  

I know none of this should matter.  We can all believe the science, we can all know the issues and we can all understand the choices that climate change forces us to face.  It’s simply a question of logic.  The problem is that human beings are, to a large extent, not logical.  That profound sense of witnessing something I’d only previously experienced second-hand has stayed with me ever since.  

What I saw was the future we’ve been warned about “on telly” – in real life. Maybe if everyone had the opportunity to do what I’ve done, the issue would be more in our orbit and we’d be closer to solving this most real-life of problems.

Weekly Pic | 26 Dec | That Time I Was The Most Southern 

5 years ago | Phillip Island, Victoria, AU | 27th December 2017

Five years ago, I took my Northern-ness as far south as I’ve ever been – to Phillip Island off the south coast of Australia…

At 38°29′S, you can only be stood further south if you\re in other parts of Australia, in New Zealand, Chile, Argentina or Antarctica.  If we’re being picky, you can add the Falkland Islands to that list.

We were there to watch the island’s famous Penguin Parade, a nightly spectacle in which large numbers of the native Little Penguin (Eudyptula novaehollandiae) swim ashore at dusk after a day’s fishing.  As part of the Phillip Island Nature Park, the Penguin Parade is the only commercial venue in the world where you can see penguins in their own environment.

The predictability of the event makes for a great spectacle but it also means the penguins are targets for marine predators so they’re understandably nervous as they approach the shoreline and, as a result, the thousands present are expressly forbidden from any form of photography once the light fades, as inadvertent camera flashes can scare them off, away from safety.  That’s why you can’t see a penguin in this picture.  Sadly not every visitor observed this rule quite as assiduously.

Once they emerge from the waves, they then walk along their well-worn paths to the myriad of nests that pepper the dunes beyond the beach.  The paths are well-lit and allow visitors to watch the penguins closely, with some observation areas dug down, to raise the passing wildlife to eye level.  Wallabies and other local fauna roam around, freely.

It was an amazing experience, well worth the travel tine it requires, being 70 miles south of Melbourne.  If you’re ever in Victoria, it’s an absolute ‘must’ to add to your itinerary.  Luckily, I’d heard about it before our trip to Australia.  Even more luckily, we had a friend who was able to take us there.  

You can view the Park’s YouTube channel (with live coverage of each night’s parade – around 9am in the UK) here:

Christmas Leftover Recipes

We can all be guilty of buying a little too much festive food, to ensure we don’t run out of anything on the big day.  It’s done with the best intentions but too much Christmas Day food can lead to a well-known Boxing Day problem: leftovers.

It never feels right to throw food away, especially when we can less afford to waste it so, perhaps more than ever before, it’s good to think about what we can do with a quantity of turkey and trimmings to turn them into something appetising the next day, beyond the boring turkey sandwiches.  And we’ve found four great recipes to help you do just that!

Option 1: Boxing Day Bubble & Squeak – bbcgoodfood.com

As featured in the latest issue of ‘Your News’, this generic recipe is really simple (and quick) to make and doesn’t require you to have any extra ingredients in.  Better still, if you want to add other things to it (as much turkey as you like), it will still work just as well!  It’s as easy as vegging out in front of a Disney film!

https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/bubble-squeak

Option 2: The Hairy Bikers’ Turkey, Ham & Stuffing Pie – bbc.co.uk

If you fancy something a bit more challenging, this masterpiece from Si and Dave is well worth the effort.  You will need to have a few more ingredients to hand (flour, butter, an egg, lard, cream and, ideally, tarragon) and you also need to have leftover ham.  It should also be noted that there is a bit of actual bakery involved but you get a proper pie at the end of it.  This means you also get the chance to impress anyone who’s lucky enough to be offered a slice!

https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/turkey_ham_and_stuffing_59799

Option 3: Leftover Turkey Madras – sainsburysmagazine.co.uk

If a ‘turkey roast’ is an age-old Christmas custom, a ‘turkey curry’ is fast becoming a modern Boxing Day tradition.  Some might not want venture quite as high up the ‘heat’ scale as madras (if so, google ‘turkey korma’) but a good, strong taste is a great way to help you pretend it’s a chicken curry – and not day-old turkey!  Some other ingredients are needed but it’s really easy to make – and the spices mean it’ll probably keep longer!

https://www.sainsburysmagazine.co.uk/recipes/mains/turkey-madras-with-mango-and-cucumber-raita

Option 4: ‘KFT’ – theguardian.com

This one is not so much a recipe as an invitation to a secret society – and the first rule is that you don’t talk about it, okay? Take this piece of invaluable investigative journalism and substitute the chicken for – you’ve guessed it – strips of remaining turkey.  You will need a quite healthily-stocked herb and spice rack and a fair amount of frying oil but the resulting fusion food of Kentucky and Norfolk is “finger-lickin’ bootiful”!

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2009/jul/24/kfc-secret-recipe-revealed 

Weekly Pic | 19th Dec: That Time I Became A Homeowner

25 years ago | Pendlebury Street, Warrington, UK | 20th December 1997

Twenty-five years ago, we moved in to the first home I owned, in Latchford, Warrington, despite all common sense suggesting that we shouldn’t…

Actually, I’d owned the house since July but we’d spent months having to strip out the electrics, the plumbing and – somewhat dispiritingly – the kitchen floor.  We installed central heating, new wiring, damp-proofing, loft insulation, a new bathroom, a new concrete base and did a lot of re-plastering and decorating.

By December, It was still barely habitable.  The kitchen was little more than a glorified vanity unit with a fridge and an old cooker, most of the furniture was spectacularly mis-matched, generously donated ‘hand-me-downs’ and the bathroom was still un-tiled and missing a door.  It really wasn’t ready to be moved into.

But I’d grown impatient.  Once the wooden floorboards downstairs were all sanded to a point it had been unclear that they could ever be returned to, the last vital job that couldn’t be lived around had been done.  I’d promised myself we’d be in for Christmas and, sensible or not, I stuck to it.

It didn’t make for a classic Christmas but the giddiness of finally having my own place, living – as my Grandma put it – “over t’brush” (old Lancashire for pre-marital co-habiting), outweighed any thoughts of missing out on festive traditions.  

By Boxing Day, I was painting and staining, putting up curtains and planning how to spend Christmas money.  I remember not long after, we blew about £500 in Warrington Ikea on storage boxes, a dining room set, crockery and cutlery and light fittings.

Moving into your first house is a great way to uncovering all the necessary things that you don’t yet own and so began the long process of acquiring them all.  In our case, it led to probably the most boring New Year’s Eve of all time, as we saw in 1998 in bed on an ancient, very grainy, portable TV.

It all sounds a bit depressing now but at the time, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy Hanukkah!

Sunday evening (18 December) sees the start of Hanukkah, the eight-night-and-day festival of the Jewish faith.

Based around the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah can take place any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian (Western) calendar.

Hanukkah commemorates the re-taking of Jerusalem from Greek-Syrian imperial forces, and the re-dedication of its Second Temple by the Maccabees, a group of Jewish rebel warriors, in around 164 BCE.  ‘Hanukkah’ is the Hebrew word for ‘dedication’.

To mark the eight days of the festival, at sunset, a candle is lit on a menorah, a candelabrum which holds nine candles.  Eight of the candles represent the Hanukkah Miracle: the legend being that, despite the warriors only having a day’s worth of olive oil, their flames continued to flicker for eight nights.  The nunth candle is to provide the flame to light the other eight.

Hanukkah is a major Jewish event, marked by music, foods fried in oil (to recall the miracle) and customs such as spinning the dreidel, a spinning toy with four sides, similar to a dice.

“Happy Hanukkah!” is the most common greeting to anyone celebrating this festival but if you want to say it in Hebrew, try “Hanukkah Sameach!” – or simply “Chag Sameach!”, which simply means “Happy Holidays!”

Cost of Living support to colleagues…

We’re making changes to the way you can book space in the [Redacted], making it more accessible, more flexible and more user-friendly!

As part of our cost-of-living project and our commitment to support your wellbeing, we’re making these changes to provide more colleagues with a warm place to work – as well as helping us move towards a more hybrid way of working.

Previously, the [Redacted] was only booked out as a whole, and could only be booked by a small group of people. Now, anybody can book either a single desk or a bank of desks for their team to work from. Bookings can only be made upto 60 days into the future, except for exceptional circumstances.

 All desk bookings must be made via the Go Bright application which can be found in your MS Teams, on the left-hand menu. 

A detailed guide is available to view online or download, to help you with the booking process.

You can use the new system from Tuesday 13 December, however, please note that desks will be unavailable for booking on Wednesday 14 and Tuesday 20 December.

If you have existing recurrent bookings throughout 2023, these will be cancelled and you’ll need to re-book the required number of desks through the Go Bright system.

Please note, If you no longer require a desk after a booking, please be considerate of other colleagues and cancel the booking as soon as possible, to make the desk available for somebody else to use.

In addition to the [Redacted], please remember there may be the option to use desks at our hubs – although these are available on a first-come-first-served basis.

We’d also like to announce that, as well as providing hot drinks in [Redacted] and at our hubs, we’ll also start to provide basic food provisions such as porridge, soups and snack bars over the next week.

Please bear with us as we implement the new booking system.  We may come across some initial teething problems and we will deal with them as quickly as we can, as and when they arise. As ever, any issues relating to the booking system should be logged with ICT.

Weekly Pic | 12 Dec: That Time It All Changed

30 years ago | Old Trafford, Manchester, UK | 12th December 1992

Thirty years ago, we saw a shift in the tectonic plates of English football – and I was there to witness it: a 1-0 victory over Norwich City…

Manchester United spent the 1980s as perennial under-achievers and the 90s as a dominant force.  Many people believe the single turning point was in their Third Round victory at Nottingham Forest in 1990, won by a Mark Robins goal that supposedly saved Alex Ferguson’s job.

While it was certainly a significant moment, it still only led to a Cup win, something United had done twice in their under-whelming previous decade.  Even more elusive, over the previous 26 years, was any sense of expectation of league success.

In December 1992, the inaugural Premier Leagues season, recent Champions Liverpool and Arsenal were in transition.  Leeds United were Champions, Blackburn had arrived as a cash-rich challenger and Norwich had somehow climbed to the top of the league.

Over at Old Trafford, 5th-placed United had been cajoling performances from a team that had faded dismally the previous spring, handing the last ‘old’ League title to Leeds.  There were moments of quality but, as ever, inconsistency seemed to limit the team’s potential.  Yes, the Youth Team had – as is now legend – won their cup, months previously, but it was still too early to see the ‘Class of 92’ realise their potential.

Two weeks earlier, an astonishing transfer coup had taken place, with the arrival of the mercurial Eric Cantona from Leeds.  He’d only in played the second half in the derby victory six days beforehand and was making his first United start against the league leaders.

Played against the backdrop of a half-built ‘new’ Stratford End, with twinkling Christmas lights on the cranes and free plastic capes for fans sitting in the uncovered seats, this was my first sight of ‘King Eric’ in a United shirt.

The game wasn’t a classic but it wasn’t as close as the 1-0 scoreline suggests.  United spurned several chances before Mark Hughes seized on a defensive error to spin and finish in his usual emphatic fashion.  Here’s the highlights:

More impressively, this was a team with the grit to withstand an impressive Norwich team who were eight points clear at the top, after eighteen games.  As we streamed out of the ground after the game, there was a sense in the crowd that Cantona could really be the final piece of the puzzle after so much unfulfilled promise.

The next two games were both away draws (at Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday), with Cantona scoring in each.  The next home game seemed to confirm the optimism of the Norwich game: an impressive 5-0 victory over Coventry City, with that man Cantona scoring a penalty and providing two assists.  I was there for that game too.

Something had changed in this team.  Maybe they were capable of finally emulating Busby’s ’67 team.  An  increasing number of the crowd began to dare to dream again – but it would take another five months before the hope became a reality.  I’ll tell you where I was that night, when we get to 30 years after that event…

Weekly Pic | 5 Dec: That Time I Was A ‘Computer Whizz’

40 years ago | Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor, UK | ??th December 1982

In 1982, we opened a shop next door to a computer store and I was a regular visitor to this new and beguiling place. It may now seem a little laughable to talk with wonder about the Commodore 64 or the ZX Spectrum but in the early 80s, this was quite a heady thing to be able to say. The world was on the cusp of a home computing revolution and ‘computer whizz-kids’ was a phrase that started to appear everywhere in the media and wider culture.

Better still, we got to borrow a demonstrator model of a ZX81, which we immediately hooked up to the ageing black-and-white portable TV in the dining room – the only telly we had other than the main 24″ rental in the lounge.

With it, my Dad and I began to immerse ourselves into this brave new world, anticipating the many doors of wonderment that would open before us, as all the hype was suggesting. The reality was, I’m afraid, not entirely the kind of valuable experience we were hoping for.

We soon learned that we couldn’t just “replace the typewriter” or “control household budgets” because that would require “software”, which came separately (and which we couldn’t borrow). I seem to remember there being a “graphics package”, which was the digital equivalent of attempting to create an image from two-inch painted blocks. In mono. Oh, how our ambitions were stymied – bot on we persevered.

The thing was written on BASIC, which immediately put me at an advantage over my Dad because, aged 8, I’d done one term of night school on BASIC programming, which meant I could do the following:

10 PRINT “Paul is ace”
20 GOTO 10

And for the first time in my life, I learned that new technology was a perfect arena for kids to out-smart their parents. With every derisory sneer from our own 18yr-old, I’m still ‘benefitting’ from that early insight.

The valuable introduction to computing it did give us, was to lower our expectations, engender limitless patience, expect things to go wrong for no discernible reason and always have a Plan B. Not quite what we were hoping for but perennially useful, nonetheless.

As I type this on my MacBook Pro, surrounded by a variety of tech with unimaginably greater levels computing power than every item in that shop combined, the value of those formative lessons remains. Early 80s computing was crap – but it was necessarily crap.

Weekly Pic | 28 Nov: That Time I Won* An Award

5 years ago | The Brewery, London, UK | 30th November 2017

I’ve been to industry awards nights before and even picked up the odd award or two but this was the first time I’d ‘won’ an award for someone else.

Earlier that year, I’d been asked to write the award entry documentation to support CSG’s participation in the Manchester Chamber of Commerce Awards, in the category of ‘Best Use of Technology’. Such is the way of these things, you don’t just type in your company details and hit ‘Submit’. The documentation is more like a bunch of exam questions: “Demonstrate X” or “Show how Y”. Anyway, they won the Manchester award and went through to the National Awards in London. Kindly, I was invited to attend, although unfortunately, we didn’t win that night.

As a related note, I’ve recently submitted an award entry for another client and found out that they too have been nominated for the Award – I’m still waiting to hear if they won it. It would be nice to keep up my ‘success rate’!

* Obviously, I didn’t win anything. The content in the award submission was entirely CSG’s. I merely researched the full extent of their relevant activities and structured the details to their greatest effect in the entry documentation. You could have the best-performing organisation in the world and if that excellence isn’t accurately reflected in the entry process, you probably won’t win. That’s the bit where I can claim a little credit.

Let’s Talk about…

Tuesday sees the launch of Let’s Talk, the first of a regular series of lunchtime discussions.

You don’t have to know all the answers but listening to other contributions allows you to say “I may not know, but I can learn”.

The discussions, about a specific topic, are held in an informal atmosphere, hosted by a colleague with a passion for the subject.  They’re designed to be thought-provoking and may not even provide all the answers but should stimulate a constructive conversation.  The objective is that everyone goes away from the discussion having learned something. 

Subjects for discussion are designed to be topical -which is why the first session is this:

How football can be a power for good in the LGBT+ community

The World Cup in Qatar has raised the issue of that country’s laws against homosexuality and treatment of LGBTQ+ citizens, tourists and detainees.  How far could football go to speak out against the Qatari regime?

Is football culture still inherently homophobic?  Currently there is only one openly LGBTQ+ player in the English professional leagues, Blackpool’s Jake Daniels.  There are still frequent instances of homophobic abuse from fans, at the ground and on social media. 

In recent years, football has worked to counter homophobia, using awareness-raising initiatives such as the rainbow laces weekends and the ‘One Love’ armband.  Is this too little – or worse, simply lip service?  Or, as this week’s German football team photo suggests, is there more that footballers want to do but are being denied the opportunity?

Is it fair to single out Qatar?  There are currently 72 countries (about a third of all countries) who still criminalise homosexuality, according to a recent report.  Should all sporting bodies award international tournaments to countries who have laws against homosexuality, particularly those who enforce conversion therapy or the death penalty?

Or is it simply a matter of football showing more bravery in providing LGBTQ+ support?  The Iran football team’s refusal to sing their national anthem in protest at the Iranian regime’s brutal suppression of women protestors shows that the threat of merely a yellow card for wearing a particular armband is a privilege that pales against the price of allyship elsewhere.

The session will be held next Tuesday 29 November between 12.30 and 1.30pm in the Collaboration Space in [Redacted]. 

All are welcome and there’s no need to book – just turn up.  Please note, if the room does reach capacity, we may have to, in line with fire regulations and people’s comfort, turn later arrivals away.  As it’s lunchtime, all are welcome to bring their lunch with them. 

We can also confirm that “sweet treats” will be provided.  At this stage, we can’t confirm if that means parma violets or a Toblerone – you’ll have to attend to find out!

If you have a suggestion for a topic or theme for a follow up Let’s Talk, then please email your suggestion to [Redacted]

Weekly Pic: w/c 21st November

30 years ago  |  The Sugarhouse, Lancaster, UK  |  25th November 1992

Not a picture from the night itself (it’s ”borrowed’ from the Sugarhouse twitter timeline) but this is exactly how I remember nights in the Student Union-owned nightspot – although slightly more out of focus, perhaps. I don’t know what was playing when this was taken but in my head, all I can hear is ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain, ‘People Everyday’ by Arrested Development and perhaps a little smattering of ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba.

So how is it I knew I was definitely in “The Shagga” this random midweek night in 1992, you may well ask. A diligently-kept diary? The law of averages? Not quite. Some internet research tells me that the following day (the 26th) was the date that Eric Cantona officially signed for Manchester United and I distinctly remember hearing “on good authority” from a fellow-reveller that the rumoured deal was done, while we were in the queue to get in.

Was this just a bit of alcohol-fuelled optimism that got lucky or was there really a direct line from Old Trafford to fist-year undergraduates in Lancaster? We’ll never know. All I can say is that the rumours were right and the next day, it happened and… …well you probably know the rest.

Anyway, let’s raise a 70p shot of vodka to the good old Sugarhouse: the site of many a top night out and perfectly situated for the kebab shop and bus stop afterwards. Cheers!

Weekly Pic: w/c 14th November

10 years ago | Orrell St. James RLFC, Wigan, UK | 18th November 2012

This is a post to mark the dedication of junior sports team families. For nearly five years, our Sunday mornings were mostly dominated by junior rugby. To the uninitiated, that may sound like an hour or so on the touchline but the reality is more like a lifestyle choice.

Two-hour training sessions, twice a week, travel to away games across the North West, pre-match team breakfasts, social occasions, fundraising activities, club outings and parents’ nights out. Then there’s all the stuff you need: the kit, training kit, footwear, safety wear, kit bags, a first aid kit, balls, kicking tees, raffle tickets, club merchandise. And then all the constant, incessant washing, It quickly takes over a large part of your life.

But then you wouldn’t have it any other way. The opportunity to reinforce the importance of achievement, of belonging to a team, the life-lessons of sacrifice and effort, the irregular moments of pure joy when everything goes well and the value of forbearance when things get tough.

It doesn’t end there. There’s a camaraderie amongst parents, a pooling of resources to keep the club functioning well and stories of club events that will only ever resonate quite as strongly to those who were there. What often starts with an invitation to ‘join in’ can become a defining part of family life.

And then one day, with almost no notice, it can all come to an end. You can’t force kids to carry on in a team just because you’ve moulded your life around it. You have to respect that and mould your life around something else. In many ways, it can be like a bereavement. As such, the best advice is not to mourn the loss of what was there but to be thankful that it was ever so special.

Photo of the Week: w/c 7th November 2022

20 years ago: Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA – c.11th November 2002

Part II of our honeymoon was spent in Las Vegas, five weeks after we got married. Things immediately got interesting when we landed in Philadelphia and went to check in to our connecting flight, to be told that “the airline went out of business yesterday”.

Fortunately, for $100 each, we could transfer to an outgoing US Air flight – if we were quick. We weren’t quick because US Airport Security was still painfully slow, over a year after 9/11, and the queues stretched back almost to the main entrance. Even more fortunately, we got through it all in time to take the last two seats on the replacement flight.

Here we are in front of the Bellagio’s lake, the home of their famous fountain display and a location in the recently-released ‘Ocean’s Eleven’. The even more recogniseable Caesar’s Palace is visible behind my right shoulder.

It had been an expensive year so we couldn’t afford to stay on the Strip itself. We stayed just off the Strip at the Gold Coast Resort, on West Flamingo, just the other side of Interstate 15.

We had a week of touring the casinos and various attractions, with a very moderate amount of gambling that reflected our we’ve-just-funded-a-wedding budget. We rode the rollercoaster at New York, New York and the Big Shot atop the Stratosphere Tower, we visited the car museum in the Flamingo, an Elvis museum…somewhere – and we didn’t bother with the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton. I was also gutted tho learn that a bit of pre-trip internet research (it was only just becoming a ‘thing’) would have told me that Aerosmith were playing the MGM Grand…

One morning, I was. a bit too keen to hit the breakfast buffet at [name withheld] and I think I might have had something that had been there a few hours because by that afternoon, I was being violently ill – a lot – with suspected food poisoning. To make it more interesting, we’d booked on a flight over the Grand Canyon the next day.

Consequently, I’m now one of a select group of people to have been spectacularly sick in at least three bags in a small plane over the place consistently named as the Worlds Number One ‘Place To See Before You Die’…

Photo of the Week: w/c 31st October 2022

45 years ago: Wigan Infirmary, Wigan, UK – c.5th November 1977

That Time I Nearly Died. It’s not the sort of story you’d commemorate with a photo in the 70s, so this library image will have to suffice.

When I was 4, I used to have a Tonka truck just like this. One day, while running and pushing it around, bent over it, I ran into a real truck and fractured my skull, badly. My memory of the whole thing ends with me thinking to myself ‘it’s a bit uncomfortable to run around and keep looking up – so I’ll just run without looking’. It wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had.

Unconscious, I was rushed to Wigan Infirmary for emergency surgery. I’m told that when a nurse was asked what else anyone could do, she replied “well, you can pray”. Under the care of our wonderful NHS, I eventually regained consciousness, with a significantly dented head – and was kept in for several days.

I’m not sure of the dates but I do remember being in hospital on Bonfire Night and seeing fireworks through the tall Edwardian windows. The scenes in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ where Harry is hospitalised, in an old iron bed in a high-ceilinged ward following a quidditch injury, strongly remind me of those days and nights.

When I finally came home, I’d been given a cool sand-pit play area and, strangely, the Tonka truck was never seen again.

I still have the dented head..

Photo of the Week | w/c 24th October 2022

5 years ago: Houses of Parliament, London, UK – 25th October 2017
Take a close look at this photo: the location of the camera, relative to the Thames. It’s Parliament but not from an angle you’re used to seeing. That’s because this is the Members’ Terrace: to be here, you have to be either an MP or their guest. A trip to Prime Minister’s Questions and some good contacts (Helen’s Mum) resulted in us being invited into the inner sanctum by the then Member for West Derby, Stephen Twigg. I’d encourage everyone to visit the Palace of Westminster and attend a PMQs to get a glimpse of how this country is run (especially at a time like this). And if you ‘know people’, you might even get a picture like this…

Photo of the Week | w/c 17th October 2022

30 years ago: Bowland Tower, Lancaster University, UK – ??th October 1992
I’ll be honest, I have no idea on what date this photo was taken – do I look like I would? From the locked kitchen cupboards, the décor and, yes, the hair, I *can* tell you this was from my first year at university. I’d begun my degree course this month, celebrated my 19th birthday during Freshers’ Week and was firmly on the voyage of discovery that constituted that particular, mostly memorable, year. One port of call in that voyage was ‘Tizer’, the rudimentary home cocktail made from lots of rum, lots of vodka and a small amount of random red-coloured non-alcoholic drink. This, I believe, was an early foray into the world of ‘Tizer’ parties that would punctuate my three years there. Therefore, mid-October 1992 is as good an estimate of the date of this photo as any.

Photo of the Week | w/c 10th October 2022

20 years ago: NEC Arena, Birmingham, UK – 11th October 2002
For two years, we were the main sponsor of the Prince Phillip Cup, the most prestigious competition in the sport of Mounted Games, with the final held at the Horse of the Year Show at the NEC in Birmingham. Helen and I were asked to present the prizes at one of the evening performances, hence the formal attire. I was due to do the same thing a year later but circumstances intervened and I had to decline the invitation – which effectively meant that I ‘stood up’ Princess Anne. Not many people can claim to have done that!

How to be a Mental Health Ally

Here are some signs to look for – and a useful list of things you can do if you see anything that causes you concern.

Today is World Mental Health Day, dedicated to removing the stigma of mental illness and promoting mental wellness through understanding and allyship.

But what if your mental health concern isn’t for yourself but for someone else?  A friend, a colleague or a family member?  The more you understand, the better equipped you are to recognise the signs that someone’s struggling.  The more you know, the better an ally you can be.

They may say:

  • I’m not in a good place right now
  • I’m having a hard time
  • I’m just not myself
  • I can’t focus or think straight as I’ve got too many distractions

They may act:

  • Differently to their usual vocal style, being quiet if they are usually talkative or talking very quickly
  • Low, body language, slumping, moving slowly, having little energy
  • less willing to engage with colleagues or friends, cancelling social events, often at the last minute

What you can do to help:

  • Explain that YHG is a supportive employer and would look to provide the appropriate support for colleagues who are not well
  • Be calm and open to conversation – perhaps suggest going to a quiet space to have a chat
  • Let them speak and explain what they want to share – try not to interrupt or finish sentences with what you think is the issue
  • Try to clarify by repeating the meaning of what they say back to them, for example, “I’m hearing that you’ve got some personal issues with (whatever) and that you’re having difficulty concentrating at work – is that right?”
  • Allow them time to speak and to have a recovery time– so if somebody says they can’t deal with life or work right now, try to make it possible for them to log off or leave work and take some time out for them, so that they can deal with how they feel and come back to work later – if they canAsk how long they would like to take and agree some target boundaries.
  • Remind them that they are not alone, and remind them of our team of Mental Health First Aiders if this is not something you feel comfortable discussing further
  • A useful tool can be found here:
    Depression and anxiety self-assessment quiz – NHS (www.nhs.uk)

Language we can all adopt to either ask for help or check in with someone:

  • Do you fancy a tea or coffee sometime?
  • I’ve noticed you’re not your usual self, shall we go somewhere for a chat?
  • What can I help you with?
  • I’d like you to know that I’ve had some difficult periods in my life, that anything we discuss is confidential and that I’m here to help – not to judge.

SPECIAL NOTE

  • If at any time you have a feeling that the colleague may be considering suicide, please ask outright if they are considering ending their life. Talking openly about suicide helps. You may be the first person to allow them to speak about suicide and you should arrange immediate support from a Mental Health First Aider or a Helpline like:
    Samaritans – You can call Samaritans free on 116 123 if they want to talk to someone now. Papyrus – Contact HOPELINEUK – If they are having thoughts of suicide, or are concerned for a person (up to age 35) who might be, they or you can contact HOPELINEUK for confidential support and practical advice. Call: 0800 068 4141, Text: 07860 039 967, Email: pat@papyrus-uk.org
     

Here’s more information about mental health and wellbeing at [Redacted], this World Mental Health Day

Photo of the Week | w/c 3rd October 2022

35 years ago: Central Park, Wigan, UK – 7th October 1987
I’m almost certainly on this picture. I was one of the 36,895 who packed into Wigan’s old Central Park ground to watch the cherry-and-whites become World Club Champions. That we were packed tightly at the very back of the corner terrace, far behind the floodlight pylon, suggests, as many believed, that there were well over 40,000 present – today, pretty much anyone in Wigan over 40 now claims to have been there! Wigan won a tense, physical, try-less affair 8-2 and history was made. Thanks in part to this game, 30 years later, I took the Manly ferry from Sydney and spent the day there.

Photo of the Week | w/c 26th September 2022

20 years ago: Statham Lodge, Lymm, UK – 29th September 2002
We got married twenty years ago, this week. I’ve previously shared more obvious pictures from that day but this shot is one of my favourites. We’re gazing longingly into each other’s eyes, for a cameraman trying to create an image. We’d argued in that Bentley going from the church to the reception venue and, during the meal, the hotel told us the cream in our profiterole wedding cake had gone off, leaving 150-odd people with tinned fruit and ice cream for dessert. Life is imperfect, often false and, occasionally, gloriously good, especially when surrounded by friends. Our wedding day wasn’t entirely the ‘fairytale’ people tend to want – but the perfect preparation for a strong, loving marriage, which is precisely as it should be.

Photo of the Week | w/c 19th September 2022

20 years ago: Robinsons Superstore, Ashton-in-Makerfield, UK – 19th September 2002
It was just a regular Thursday evening in September and we’d just got back from Sainsbury’s when the ‘phone rang. “The shop’s on fire”. We jumped in the car and drove to Ashton. There were police cordons on the A49 at Haydock Racecourse. We told them who we were and they waved us through. We then spent most of the rest of the evening stood across the road, watching it burn down. Thankfully, no-one was killed or injured but this single event would dominate our lives for the next fourteen months.

Photo of the Week | w/c 12th September 2022

25 years ago: Robinsons Superstore, Ashton-in-Makerfield, UK – 13th September 1997
If you were re-opening a feedstore for horse feed and bedding in the 1990s, there was no bigger equine celebrity to perform the grand opening than Milton, one of the most famous and successful horses in British showjumping. Having obligingly ‘cut’ the ribbon (actually two ribbons tied to a tempting carrot), we posed with the VIH himself. We’d planned the day meticulously and then were suddenly aghast that if Diana’s funeral was to be scheduled a week later, it would eclipse this in-store event. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Thanks also to Adrian (left) for sending me this photo, earlier this year.

HM Queen Elizabeth II (1926 – 2022)

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.

School’s Out (Again)!

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.

Good luck!

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

Photo of the Week | w/c 5th September 2022

10 years ago: Salford Quays, Manchester, UK – 11th September 2012
I took this photo as we climbed out of Manchester Airport on a flight to Gothenburg. You can see the Manchester Ship Canal winding its way past the Trafford Centre to Salford Quays, Media City, the Lowry and then Old Trafford football ground. Behind the plane’s engine is the centre of Manchester. Even though I’ve flown over Manchester more times than I can remember, it’s rarely this clear.

Photo of the Week | w/c 29th August 2022

10 years ago: Hockenheimring, Hockenheim, Germany – 31st August 2012
A 2012 business trip to Germany just happened to be on the doorstep of Germany’s famous racing circuit. When it was time for lunch, our hosts had booked us in “a local restaurant”. We didn’t know any more than that until we arrived at the circuit itself. Between courses, there was the opportunity to watch a succession of race-specification Porsches whizzing past as part of their testing day. Sadly, financial uncertainties have meant that there have only been four German Grands Prix held since I took this picture – with only three of them held at Hockenheim.

Photo of the Week | w/c 22nd August 2022

30 years ago: Monsters of Rock, Castle Donington, UK – 22nd August 1992
I’m almost certainly on this picture.  Two days before, I’d got my A-Level results and learned my offer to go to Lancaster University had been confirmed. I celebrated by standing up all day with 70-odd thousand rock fans at a race circuit in Leicestershire. The bill included The Almighty, W.A.S.P., Slayer, Thunder, Skid Row and the mighty Iron Maiden. During Freshers’ Week at Lancaster, I managed to get hold of a bootleg cassette of this concert, although it’s since been released as an official Maiden live album. Whenever one of the tracks comes up on rotation, I always remark “Oh, I’m on this album”…

Photo of the Week | w/c 15th August 2022

10 years ago: Orléans Cathedral, Orléans, France – 17th August 2012
It’s exactly 10 years since we decided to drive into Europe for our main holiday and Orléans was the stopping point at the end of our first day on the road, en route to Bourg-sur-Gironde, north of Bordeaux. We went inside and viewed the tapestry of Joan of Arc, forever linked with the city. In the decade since then, we’ve ventured further: to Avignon, to Catalunya and, one year, into Italy. We’ve seen so much of these countries that we would otherwise have just flown over. Driving to holiday locations is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

Photo of the Week | w/c 8th August 2022

5 years ago: Mas Bernad, Vilademuls, Spain – 14th August 2017
Five years ago, we discovered this haven in Catalunya, northern Spain. Owned by the charming Ignacio (we get to call him “Iggy”), it has become our home from home. We’ve been back there twice since 2017 and we were particularly sad not to be able to visit in 2020, due to Spanish quarantine laws. This picture was taken during our first visit: with Ursa Major shining brightly in the pitch-black night sky.

Cycle to Work…Even at Home?

Thursday 4 August is ‘Cycle to Work’ Day – and there’s never been a better time to take part!

Would you cycle to work?  Of course, not everyone can – and even fewer will feel like doing so.  There are lots of reasons that make this an difficult prospect: distance, school runs, road safety, the British weather, lack of changing or showering facilities. 

What if all of that was taken care of?  Could you be tempted?  In August, there’s no school run, the weather is better, it’s light for longer and roads tend to be quieter.

The recent rises in fuels costs may be persuading many commuters to think again about cycling to work, particularly in the summer months.  Recently, the Evening Standard reported that cycling around London, from March to June,was 25% up on pre-pandemic levels

So is it worth trying, just for a day, to see if cycling to work is something you can realistically consider for other days in the year?  And what about trading up to an e-bike, to take away the worst of the physical effort? 

As the official website keenly points out:

“Cycling to work helps you stay fit and healthy, burns a lot of calories, and reduces your carbon footprint too. Find out how cycling could benefit your health and environmental impact.”

If you’re working from home on 4 August, you’ll probably be thinking that this has nothing to do with you.  But just hold on a minute – maybe it does

With all the health benefits of cycling, the suitability of the time of year, the fact that you’re already very close to work and you also have changing facilities, why not consider cycling to ‘work’, even when you work from home?  You can choose your own route, as short as you like or as safe as possible.  You can even squeeze a quick shower in, when you get back!  Better still, you can do that any other day, as well.

Okay, you didn’t technically need to ‘cycle to work’ but you do get all of the health benefits and none of the impracticalities.  Suddenly, there just don’t seem the same number of reasons not to!  For more interesting articles, tips and advice about cycling to work, have a look at the scheme’s blog pages.

If you’d like more details about [Redacted]’s Cycle to Work Scheme, to subsidise a bicycle (or an e-bike) for commuting to work, click here and download the guide:

Photo of the Week | w/c 1st August 2022

10 years ago: Headingley Cricket Ground, Leeds, UK – 2nd August 2012
A summer holiday grand day out, to watch England v South Africa from the legendary Western Terrace at Headingley. This was only my second time at the Yorkshire Test venue, having watched an Ashes Test during the one-sided 1993 series – that heralded the rise of some strutting spinner called Shane Warne. We had a great day at the Test and even nipped next door to the rugby ground during a rain delay.

To Absent Neighbours…

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.

Looking eastwards from the top of Melbourne’s Eureka Tower. In the foreground is the MCG (with Day 2 of an Ashes Test being played). Beyond that, among Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, is Pin Oak Court – or ‘Ramsay Street’.

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…

An album of our trip to Australia, via Singapore, can be found on my flickr page.

Photo of the Week | w/c 25th July 2022

10 years ago: Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor, UK – 27th July 2012
In a ‘scene change’ of the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, I made a brew and allowed myself to be caught up in the national-image-reaffirming positivity of the evening. The Queen had just ‘parachuted’ into the stadium and we’d shown the world all that’s great about Britain, from Shakespeare to Mr. Bean, via the NHS. What could be more appropriate than a cup of tea in a Union Flag mug? Can it be just ten short years ago that we had a country we were so proud of – and a flag that we could so unselfconsciously wave? And now? Well you know what they say about pride – and what comes next…

Dharma Day

Asalha Puja – more commonly known as Dharma Day – is a Buddhist festival which this year will be celebrated on Sunday 24 July, the day of the full moon in the month of July.

Dharma Day marks the beginning of Buddha’s teaching, following his own enlightenment, around 2,500 years ago.  Buddhists believe that he told five disciples about his own experience with a sermon, known as ‘The First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’.

In that sermon, Buddha is said to have included his Four Noble Truths, which are central to Buddhism.

Dharma is an ancient component of Indian philosophy which is key to the various religions that have grown from that region.  

Although Dharma Day is celebrated by Buddhists, the principles of Dharma are also important to Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism.  Its symbolic representation, the Wheel of Dharma, is significant to all these religions, originating from the Indian sub-continent.  As such, it can be seen as a unifying symbol across India, which is why it appears on the flag of India.

On Dharma Day, Buddhists express gratitude for the knowledge and enlightenment shared by Buddha and those who have shared his teachings and reflect on them.  To non-Buddhists, it’s also a chance to consider how the Four Noble Truths and other Buddhist principles can be adopted into day-to-day life.

If you’d like to try out one of Buddhism’s most widely-known practices, this five-minute mediation exercise is a great starting point.  If you haven’t got time right now, you can also find this link on our Mental Wellbeing page.

Photo of the Week | w/c 18th July 2022

30 years ago: Frog Lane Guitars, Wigan, UK – July 1992
Not the date of the photo but the purchase of my beloved Cherry Sunburst Epiphone Les Paul from a much-missed back-street music store that also sold prams and cots. I’d mortgaged all my 1992 Christmas present allocation to get a loan to secure this beauty. When I got it home. I instantly took off the scratch plate and de-tuned it a semitone to get the full Slash (Guns-‘N-Roses) effect. It got me through University and has continued to preserve my sanity every year since. I upgraded the humbuckers about ten years ago and still play it to this day. And, yes, it’s still de-tuned a semitone…

Photo of the Week | w/c 11th July 2022

40 years ago: Great Yorkshire Showground, Harrogate, UK – 11th July 1982
This was my view of the 1982 World Cup Final, from a grainy black-and-white portable TV in a caravan on a showground in Harrogate. I was there (aged eight) as we exhibited at the Great Yorkshire Show. I don’t remember much about the game but I do recall that that was the show that I discovered Britvic 55 orange drink, ‘The White Helmets’ motorcycle display team and Jemima Parry-Jones’ falconry display.

Photo of the Week | w/c 4th July 2022

15 years ago: Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor, UK – 7th July 2007
Not the date of the photo but the closest estimate I have for the day Marley was born. He came to us the following Easter and this picture was taken later that summer, when he was just over a year old. Simultaneously the softest-natured dog I’ve ever encountered with the hardest skull you’ve ever been run into by. He was a wonderfully faithful companion and we were privileged to be able to give him three years of extra life when he was diagnosed with diabetes in 2016.

Photo of the Week | w/c 27th June 2022

30 years ago: Old Trafford, Manchester, UK – July 1992
In the close season before the first Premier League season, I made my regular summer trip to Old Trafford to purchase the new home shirt on the day of its release from the Club ‘Superstore’ (the small rectangular building in the bottom-right corner). I remember walking around the ground to see the demolished Stratford End and peering over the construction site wall, to see the interior of the ground. Incidentally, the beige bit of land across the Quays is now the Lowry and the green bit behind that is now the BBC.

Taking Pride in our Pride Credentials

Once again, June brings the return of Pride Month, the annual focus on furthering the causes of the LGBTQ+ community around the world.

You may know that the first Pride marches were held to mark the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York of June 1969.  You may also be aware that a Pride Month was first declared by Bill Clinton in 1999 – but an understanding of history relies on more than just dates and names.  It’s in the details beyond that we truly learn about our changing values.  Did you know that in 1970, the name ‘Pride’ was deliberately chosen to counter the attitude of ‘shame’, that was the widely held attitude at that time?

The world has changed immeasurably over the last 52 years but it’s equally true to say that it hasn’t changed quickly enough.  Today, Pride initiatives are embraced by all sections of the community and attract the attentions of corporate sponsors and politicians, who are keen to display their involvement.  Its very strength is still a reminder that there is so much left to be achieved.

As a responsible neighbour and employer, it’s important that [Redacted] do all we should to recognise this and offer our respect, support and allyship to LGBTQ+ people.  We’re committed to promoting equality and diversity – around this central principle: “driven by good business practice and need – not by legislation”. 

We’re also committed to achieve the [Redacted] Equality and Diversity Charter – a public commitment to deliver an accessible housing service which is fair to colleagues, tenants and communities.  This extends across the tens of thousands of residents of our 29,000 homes and to our 450+ colleagues.  In August, we’ll be proud to add our support to Wigan Pride, through our involvement with [Redacted].

So is Pride an ongoing protest?  Is it a wider cultural movement?  Or a fun way to raise awareness?  It seems Pride will always mean different things to different people, irrespective of their sexuality.  What is clear is that Pride is not going to go away – not just because it now transcends its original community but also because more people are identifying as LGBTQ+. 

Last year’s census was the first in its 200-year history to ask people about their sexual orientation and, ironically, the results will be published during Pride month, June 2022.  It’ll be be intriguing to see if it continues a recently-observed trend.  The Office of National Statistics’ Annual Population Survey shows that, between 2015 and 2019, the number of people prepared to identify as LGBTQ+ rose from 2.3% of the population to 3.4%.  That may look like a rise of ‘just’ 1.1% but it’s an uplift of almost half. In five years.

Unfortunately, we’re still unsure how accurate such numbers are because of the many reasons that still dissuade people from coming out.  The fact that we’ve recently seen the first active male footballer make such an announcement in over 30 years seems an indication of how little some things have changed.  Conversely, the fact that Blackpool’s Jake Daniels is only 17 suggests the emergence of a generation that feels more confident – and more equipped – to face the world on their own terms.

Whatever the 2021 census data will show – or perhaps won’t fully show – the LGBTQ+ community constitutes a sizeable and growing proportion the UK population.  At YHG, we recognise and celebrate this and expect to be an ally for thousands of people who live in our communities and work across our organisation.  And not just over Pride Month, but for the other eleven months of the year too! 

What is Pride?

It’s a Party!

Pride Month is one thing but Pride events are quite another.  For a start, they’re not even necessarily held in June – Manchester Pride takes place over the August Bank Holiday weekend and Pride in London 2022 will happen on 2 July.  Other cities have their Pride events on a range of other dates across the year.  Increasingly, they’ve become inclusive carnival-type celebrations at which everyone is welcome to attend, to soak up the atmosphere and have fun.

It’s Part of the Calendar

If there was no such thing as Pride Month, there’d be less reason for society to consider why it needs to exist.  Awareness-building initiatives invitie us all to challenge our preconceptions and encourage us to keep broadening our understanding.  Yes, Pride Month can lead to accusations of ‘rainbow-washing’ (by organisations who simply adopt a Pride-friendly facade for a month but do nothing more significant than that) but without the existence of Pride, there’d be less incentive for anyone to try harder to be LGBTQ+-friendly – including those who still aren’t trying hard enough.

It’s an Ongoing Struggle

We might all believe “things are better” in the LGBTQ+ community, these days – and of course, in lots of ways, they are.  But is that it?  Just because the arguments for gay marriage have been won, does that mean that other areas of disadvantage are any less real?  The incidence of mental health problems or violent crime is still far greater within the LGBTQ+ community than in society as a whole.  Where inequalities remain, it’s important that the fight to remove them should also continue.

It’s About More than Gay Rights

It may have started out as ‘Gay Pride’ but it’s become so much more than a movement about same-sex relationships.  Pride now incorporates bisexuality, asexuality, pansexuality and, of course, transgender people.  Consequently, many people now consider the Progress Pride Flag (which adds a chevron of white, pink, light blue, brown and black) to be an updated version of the original rainbow flag, as a representation of Pride’s wider role and aims.

Photo of the Week | w/c 20th June 2022

15 years ago: Skipton Horse Trials, Carleton-in-Craven, UK – 25th June 2017
Helen and Nigel take on a cross-country fence at the top of the hill, before turning for home. Of all the events that Helen has ridden at, Skipton was always one of my favourites; the dramatic Yorkshire Dales backdrop added great scenery to whatever level of action photography I’ve been able to conjour. This one isn’t your classic ‘front-on’ jumping pose but the hills in the background and the valley below seem to suit the unusual angle.

Men’s Health Week

13 to 19 June sees the return of Men’s Health Week for 2022

The initiative is symbolically scheduled to occur in the week upto and including Fathers’ Day, which is on Sunday 19 June. 

Men’s Health Week aims to raise awareness of preventable health problems for men and boys, support their engagement in healthier lifestyle choices and activities  and encourage early detection and treatment of male health matters.

The theme this year is the ‘Man MOT’; a brief health-check to see if further attention is needed.  This year’s initiative isn’t just another reminder to men to break out of their stereotype – it’s based on figures that suggest that since the pandemic, men have become even less likely to visit their GP.

In addition to its focus on uniquely male health conditions such as testicular cancer, attention will also be given to conditions which statistically affect men far more frequently than women.  Chief amongst those are mental health issues  – in the UK, men are three times more likely to take their own life than women.  Suicide is also the leading cause of death in UK males between the ages of 20 and 49.

In recent years (and increasingly so, since the pandemic), most responsible organisations have recognised the importance of promoting wellbeing amongst their colleagues.  The Wellbeing Hub on [Redacted] is an imprtant part of [Redacted]‘s efforts to do exactly that, particularly in the area of mental wellbeing.  Here, you can talk to a Mental Health First Aider, find books and articles that may inspire you or find an app to help you make time for yourself.

It also features this great guide to the four ‘happiness chemicals’ – and some suggested hacks to help produce them naturally.  You can visit the Mental Wellbeing page here.

As part of our commitment to the general wellbeing of all our colleagues, we’re once again installing a Health Kiosk at [Redacted], this summer – from 4 July to 4 August.  In minutes, you’ll be able to measure your blood pressure, weight, BMI, body fat percentage and heart rate. You can either print your results off from the machine or have your own personal report emailed to you – a perfect example of the ‘Man MOT’ that Men’s Health Week is encouraging.

[Redacted], our Head of Health and Safety was pleased to announce our support for the ‘Man MOT’:

“Whilst many of us have been focused on the pandemic over the last couple of years, we’ve taken our eye off other potentially serious conditions. This gives us even more reason to take notice of what’s going on in our own bodies and minds, so we can address what we find.”

You may have spotted that both in terms of mental health assistance and general health-checking, much of the resources we’ve made available are there for everyone – not specifically for men.  But then you have to consider that much of the reason that this week even exists is to re-iterate information that isn’t new, to an audience that isn’t statistically great at acting on it. 

Or, as some might say, more bluntly: “Come on, lads – it’s for your own good”…

Photo of the Week | w/c 13th June 2022

35 years ago: Standish High School, Standish, UK – 12th June 1987
Something I never thought I’d see again until an old friend kindly put it on Facebook (and tagged me), a while back. 35 years ago, I stood as the SDP/Liberal candidate in the school version of the 1987 General Election. I came third. Labour won (obviously) but I think I out-performed the Liberal/SDP candidate’s 14% share of the vote for the Wigan seat that year. I wasn’t that bothered. By Election Day, I’d flown out of the country and was on holiday in Corfu…

Photo of the Week | w/c 6th June 2022

45 years ago: Bentham Road, Standish, UK – 7th June 1977
One of my earliest memories: the 1977 Silver Jubilee. Here I am with my cousin Adam, both of us aged 3½, at a street party, in front of his house. I don’t remember much else of the day – it was 45 years ago! 2022 marks the fourth Jubilee of my lifetime, which is about as many as any British subject has ever lived through – apart from anyone now aged 87 or above. They have lived through a record-breaking fifth Jubilee: 1935 was the year of George VI’s Silver Jubilee.

Photo of the Week | w/c 30th May 2022

15 years ago: Wembley Stadium, London, UK – June 1st 2007
I was lucky enough to be in the crowd the night that the “new” Wembley Stadium hosted its first international match: England v Brazil. I’ve been back a few times since then but it was wonderful to be part of such a historic night. Even though it’s now 15 years ago, it’s also notable that such memories are more often accompanied by a photo. The advent of camera phones and the perspective of parenthood meant that, by 2007, I was much keener to record a scene for posterity.

Photo of the Week | w/c 23rd May 2022

20 years ago: Plaça de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain – May 19th 2002

I can’t believe it’s now 20 years since a bunch of mates from University all met up in Barcelona for a stag party. In the days before camera phones, very little photographic evidence exists of such events (thank Heavens!) – the photo doesn’t even include the Stag of that particular Do. We had a wild weekend, partying until daylight and becoming acquainted with one of my favourite cities on Earth. Shockingly, I didn’t visit Barcelona again until August last year. I won’t leave it so long next time…

If It’s Not All Right, It’s Not The End

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.  

Kermode & Mayo on the BBC – for the last time

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.

Tinkety-Tonk etc,

Paul Bentham

BSc. (Hons), [Marketing], orange belt [karate] 

PS I was always with Mark on the ‘WTF’ feature.

To Russia, With Love

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.

Сообщение для русских друзей

Привет,

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.

Красная площадь, март 1991 г.

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,

Павел


A Message for Russian Friends

Hi,

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.

Red Square, March 1991

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.

My very best wishes to you all,

Paul 

Higher, Faster, Stronger

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. 

IMG_7682

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. 

20 Years Engaged…

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.
 
H w M N L and Z 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?
 
 
Oh, and here’s the link to the montage again. #IStillLoveYou

10 Years On: By Royal Appointment

Just over a decade ago, I was honoured to be asked to speak at the National Equine Forum, one of the most prestigious events in the horse industry. The event was attended, as usual, by HRH The Princess Royal. and, unusually, would be held at The Royal Society in London. Here’s the only news source I can find today that verifies this story.

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…

At the lectern of the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011. Photo: Craig Payne Photography

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.

Thank you for listening.

The speakers at the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011. Photo: Craig Payne Photography
HRH The Princess Royal at the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011. Photo: Craig Payne Photography
The programme of the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011.

Whatever Happened to Likely?

I can stand it no longer.

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 this sentence 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 is wrong on so many levels

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”.

Let’s hope this will be wrong on more than one level

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?

Not bloody likely.

Still Feeding on Birding Lessons

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?

When I got home, I did a few google searches and started to read up on kestrel feeding habits. In particular, I found this: The Hunting Behaviour of Some Farmland Kestrels by M. Shrubb (1982).

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.

Tropic with Joy: Where It All Started

Originally posted at https://tropicwithjoy.com/2020/11/21/where-it-all-started/

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.

After a few hours’ sleep, we checked out of our hotel on New Year’s Day and flew to Cairns, the town where Tropic’s founder, Susie Ma, grew up – the place where it all started.

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.

Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas, Australia

Tropic with Joy: Caring – More Than Skin Deep

Originally posted at https://tropicwithjoy.com/2020/11/20/caring-more-than-skin-deep/

If you’re familiar with the Tropic range of skincare products, you’re probably aware of the the importance of creating products that are natural and cruelty-free, in harmony with the world around us. As you’d expect, the commitment to caring doesn’t end there. Tropic has an ‘Infinite Purpose’, a commitment to create a cleaner, greener, more empowered world.

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!

So Far Ahead of the UK

Back in July, I wrote with some concern about the decision to soften the UK’s lockdown measures, citing the fact that Melbourne was about to enter a second-wave curfew. Today, as the UK experiences its highest level of daily deaths since May, Australia’s second city is about to come out of lockdown again, amid international praise for its adherence to disease control measures.

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.

Looking east from the Eureka Tower viewing level, along the Yarra to Melbourne’s CBD, the MCG and AAMI Park. Flinders Street Station is in the bottom-left. Photo: Paul Bentham

From Grange Hill to The Palace – And Back

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!

https://www.facebook.com/George.Willo/posts/10217956381089167

Taking Liberties With Labels

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 Egalité et Fraternité.  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.

800px-lady_liberty_under_a_blue_sky_28cropped29Whatever 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.

5108465b35e6de9a7d065627a00d0a9aThis 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.

Lockdown Challenge: 10 Travel Photos

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.

PJB Red Square

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

IMG_6881

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
P H J P &amp; D at Grand Canyon

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

DSC_5719

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

DSC_0190

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

IMG_3933

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

NOVATEK CAMERA

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

IMG_4721

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

IMG_0802

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

IMG_1799

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?

CSG: Apprenticeships – Back to the Future

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on March 16th 2020

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/apprenticeships-back-to-the-future

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.

NR Blast-from-the-past
Neil Richards (Centre), with fellow apprentices at Shotton Steel, 1974.

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.

Digital Camera
Apprentice Callum HealeyCallum Healy is one of many CSG employees taken on via an apprenticeship scheme.  Photo: CSG

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.

‘1917’: My Wittertainment Email

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’

On with the email…

Dear Triple Alliance and Triple Entente,

[LTL, MTE & great-great nephew of Corporal H. Latham (1893-1918)]

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.

Tinkety-tonk and down with the Kaiser, etc.

Paul Bentham BSc.(Marketing), tea drinker Emeritus.

CSG: Owning the Problem of More Consumption

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on November 25th 2019

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/owning-the-problem-of-more-consumption

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.

untitled-design-13
In less than a decade, we in the UK have gone from knowing almost nothing about Black Friday to having very specific expectations about what it represents.

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?

Unfortunately, only time will tell….

CSG: The First 85 Years

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on November 6th 2019

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/csg-the-first-85-years

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.

csg_lores-5337-800x426
CSG (Cleansing Service Group) celebrates its 85th birthday in 2019.  Photo: CSG

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! 

CSG: Same Place, Different World

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on July 17th 2019

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/same-place-different-world-40-years-at-cadishead

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.

Mike Wright today.  Photo: CSG

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.

60 Miles? Nothing in the Scheme of Things

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.

https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/olivia-allan-scanner-appeal?utm_term=5yARrMzVG

Thanks For Your ‘Great North’ Support!

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.

CJB AF GNS19 Accl
‘Game face’ on as Charlie gets back out of the water, following the acclimatisation phase, just before the start.

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.

IMG_2651
Aaron’s give-away breaststroke action makes him easier to spot – but where was Charlie?  Spoiler alert: see the splash right at the bottom of the picture…?

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.

IMG_2653
Charlie approaches the ramp that leads from the water to the finish line

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!

IMG_6168
The three amigos – in the order that they finished

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!

To see how the sponsorship money helps – and to add to it – have a look at Warren & Charlie’s JustGiving page.

Just When You Though It Was Safe, He’s Back In The Water…

Hi everyone.

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:

https://resonation.biz/2016/06/03/amazing-amelias-amazing-daddy/

https://resonation.biz/2017/06/05/going-the-extra-half-mile-for-amelia/

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.

Really, what’s not to like about that?

Thanks for reading!

>>> https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/warren-and-charlie <<<

CSG: Safe Equipment

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on May 30th 2019

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/safe-equipment-2

Chemical Waste Removal

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.

Safe Equipment

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.”

CSG: Safe Processes

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on May 30th 2019

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/safe-equipment

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.

Safe Processes

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.

CSG: Safe Environment

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on May 21st 2019

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/safe-environment

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.

Safe Environment

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.”

Obituary: Marley

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.

IMG_6086
Pursuing a tennis ball, mid-pounce

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).

IMG_6084
Partners in crime: Marley and Sam

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.

IMG_6085
Reluctant sled-dog

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.

30033867932_d7ac34418b_o

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.

IMG_5790
Enjoying a walk on Christmas Eve 2018

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.

That, to me, sounds like a life well-lived.

IMG_6087
Even when he was asleep, Marley liked to do things his own way.

CSG: Safe People

Posted on www.csg.co.uk/blog on April 11th 2019

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/safe-people

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 SystemsSafe EquipmentSafe Environment and Safe People.  First up, we’ll investigate what is covered by the Safe People element…

Safe People

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”.

My Letter to Lisa Nandy MP: May I Count on Your Support for the Kyle-Wilson Amendment?

official_portrait_of_lisa_nandy_crop_2Lisa Nandy is the Labour Member of Parliament for Wigan and former Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.  

If you agree with the points I have raised in this letter, I encourage you to copy the text and use it as the basis for a letter to your own MP.

Dear Lisa,

I write as a concerned constituent, having read your recent piece in the Guardian: ‘A flawed second referendum could break our democracy’ and the arguments it puts forward to support the position.

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.

Consider also the fact that the last major poll that indicated a Leave majority was conducted a year ago and in recent weeks, the continuing impasse in the Commons has led to a slew of polls showing mounting concern for the current trajectory of the country and growing support for another referendum.  As you can see, I’m using the same source for these polls that you used in your article.

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.

Yours faithfully,

Paul Bentham

CSG Says: Don’t Forget To Love The Environment, This Valentine’s Day

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on February 14th 2019

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/csg-says-dont-forget-to-love-the-environment-this-valentines-day

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.

heart-700141_1920-1

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!

The Forester’s Needs You!

Without prejudice.

44475389_565954213836552_2111173384594259968_oI 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!

Vist The Foresters’ website

Obituary: Ben

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.

image(224)
Ben the puppy, a few days before Christmas 2006

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.

img_5901
Ben and Sam, his first companion, in 2009

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.

dsc_3680
Ben in his favourite place, waiting to chase another ball in the field

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.

img_5900

 

 

 

So Near Yet So Far: The Story of Charles Asbrey…

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.

Bentham Latham wedding 1907
The wedding of Ernie Bentham to Margaret Latham in September 1907.  Mary Jane ‘Ginny’ Asbrey is stood, third from the right, behind her parents, James and Alice Bentham.  It’s unclear who the man is to the left of her but it’s quite possible that it is her husband, Charles Ford Asbrey.  Another casualty of  WWI, Harold Latham, then aged 14, sits on the ground in the centre of the picture.  The two may have fought near each other in the Battle of Messines.

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.

1775307
HMAT Anchises, the transport vessel on which Charles left Sydney, bound for Plymouth, en route to the trenches of WWI

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.

Chateauwood
Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade on a duckboard track passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient

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, although  the 4th Division provided 200 advisers to assist the inexperienced US troops that were assigned to Monash’s corps.

battle_of_the_hindenburg_line
Members of the 45th Battalion at the Battle of the St Quentin Canal in September 1918, just before the battalion’s withdrawal from action.

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.

A Corner Of A Foreign Field That Is Forever…Standish

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.