Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 10.3

The final excerpt of a verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Friday 1st April 1994,  18:30 (CST) / Saturday 2nd April 1994,  00:30 (GMT)

OVER LAKE MICHIGAN AND CLIMBING

With a setting red sun on the left and what seems like an ocean on my right, we’re climbing out of Chicago, out of the USA and out of my Easter adventure.  The good news is:

I have a window seat

There is no-one next to me

Filet Mignon is still on the menu

The bad news:

‘Beethoven’s 2nd’ is the film.

Ah well, maybe I will sleep well.  As always, travelling eastwards, the dusk is short.  At a rate of climb, this is negated but at 26,000 feet, we only have 11,000 left to go.  We’re an hour ahead of schedule (07:50 ETA) and heading for Detroit.

sunset-above-the-clouds-from-an-airplane

The reason I said “seems like an ocean” is because Lake Michigan is huge, about twice the size of Wales*, by my reckoning and therefore, you can’t see the shores — I guess they don’t call them “Great Lakes” for nothing!  It’s practically dark outside now and hopefully, it may induce some sleep!

The flight time is approx. 6½ hours as opposed to 9 hours westbound.  That’s the Jetstream for you!

I see land again. We’ve crossed Michigan lake…  …into Michigan state (presumably).  I see lights below but we have absolutely no idea what town it is!  The sky behind us goes red, orange, yellow, green, blue; while in front, it’s a sort of murky navy blue.  It’s still very clear and, from the black floor, you can see lights arranged in that familiar criss-cross pattern Americans call towns and cities.

The colours behind fade as the navy blue consumes all.  And yet, looking along the plane (inside), there is illumination, a duty-free video, a hive of steward(/ess) activity and the occasional remark (or child’s shriek) of those adjacent.  Eventually, the sky will darken (inevitably), the ground will darken (in Canada) and even the cabin will darken as people decide they would like to be awake during their first day in England.

What have I learned in Austin?

Despite my insistences that the US is not to be viewed as a single entity, I think for the purposes of this observation, I should contradict myself.  Therefore, we have the UK and the USA.  In many ways, Austin is extremely similar to Lancaster.  Lancaster does not have a cityscape skyline, a ‘downtown’, an airport or any shopping malls.  The similarity lies in equivalent terms. Austin, like Lancaster, is an historic, provincial capital.  It is now a university town, partly dependent upon the adjacent campus for its wealth.  It is relatively of similar proportion (in relation to overall population) although Austin is slightly proportionately bigger.

So what?  If we see Austin and Lancaster as equivalents, microcosms of the United States and United Kingdom respectively, here’s the difference: the amazing things I’ve seen and written about — the stadium, the airport, the shopping malls, the trading and commerce therein.  The number and variation of food emporia, the transport systems and the television channel variation.  That is the distance between us and them.  I haven’t mentioned the weather because that’s not Lancaster’s fault, but it does make a helluva bonus!

America is a place where, if you have the money, you have the choice also.  Attempt to draw me into an argument about the ethics of wholesale commercialism if you may, but I warn you: it’s not nearly so linear as you think I mean.  Yes, there are people without.  Yes, it does not prohibit the creation of an underclass.  It is not, however, simply a case of more money = more fun.  While I concede that money increases the choice of fun, you can still exist in America on a moderate allowance.  The temptations to overspend may be greater (who is this addressed to?) but I can testify 2 weeks of US living for under £200 — and that’s a holiday.  Ask Paul or Rice how much you need to *live* in America.

The inherent advantage of the American Dream is not simply to earn more money.  The financial motivations act as a catalyst to self-improvement, the desire to ‘make it’.  If everyone believes this, life improves.  Even the postage stamp salesman knows that if he strives, he can sell more stamps.  By striving, he improves his standard of service.  If everyone’s service improves, so do expectations.  Then the stamp salesman must strive further.  Some dismiss this as greed or money-grabbing.  Does this negate the value of a country where motivation to please the customer is almost a religion?  I say no.  Yes, there are dangers in the plan; aren’t there dangers anywhere?  “Try telling that to the people who have to work Sundays”. you cry.  I agree.  No-one should be *made* to do what they don’t want to do.  Isn’t life about compromises, though?  Do these people consider that their inconveniences are a by-product of a system which offers greater potential for them than any other country on earth.

Do you realise the cost of living in the States is remarkably low?  Fast food, borne of competition and old-fashioned economics, much cheaper than at home — because it *has* to be.

I’m not trying to indoctrinate anti-Marxism onto the globe but remember this message the next time your meal is under-cooked or your train has been motionless for an hour.  Something has gone wrong because someone has let it go wrong…  …de-motivation.

I hope I’ve motivated you to understand why I never tire of the USA.

I’m sure your next question goes like this: “If you’re so bloody enamoured with the USA, why don’t you sod off there, then?”.  The answer is simple.  As Roy Walker puts it: “It’s good but it’s not right.”

The United States has achieved so much in its 200 years-plus of independence.  Without the constraints of tradition or nepotistic perpetuation, it has excelled on its own merit.  It has mineral wealth, room to spare and (if necessary) waste, a variety of climes and a massive resource of labour.  We have a lot to learn from America but it does not embody utopia.  We may not be able to match its impressive wealth of resources but what we can match and in many ways improve upon are much more important than mere commodities.  We need the attitude of success if we are to succeed; how many champion athletes just walk onto the track and simply run?  None.  They have the attitude for success.  We have the foundations for success: the best and most respected education system in the world, a history of innovation in science, technology and arts.  Yet all this from a small, seemingly inconsequential nation.  We have got something in the system right.  What we do not seem to have is the knowledge of what is right, what else needs to be right and the belief that it can be made right.  We tolerate ineptitude, we limit our ambition, we pretend to be the poorer cousins of the fold and we spread pessimism like a plague.  We can never compete with the acreage-related strongholds of leading agricultural produce worldwide.  We can use our advantages properly and have faith in our ability.  This sounds like an assertion seminar because we need one.  If this was a preach to the converted, the message would seem as regular as the Queen’s speech.  America has these advantages but they are not exclusive.  And the sooner we learn to appreciate this, the sooner we can stare them, as a nation eye-to-eye, instead of squarely in the navel.**

I’m sorry if this sounds like a combination of ‘Mein Kampf’ and the American constitution but a visit to America provides so much insight as to what we in Britain lack.  It is only through reflecting on the successes across the pond that we can be made to fulfil our own potential.  Just as denial of what we take for granted helps us appreciate it so does exposure to that which we choose to ignore in the pursuit of ‘fitting in’, which is fine as a day-to-day existence but limits the horizons to which you can aspire.  Travel, as they say, broadens the mind.  Does that go for travellers too?

POST-SCRIPT

03:25 (BST) <— Yes!

Yes, it’s completely black now (as promised).  The steak was divine, as was the caramel ice cream which followed.  I’m hoping that the Bailey’s that I’m now sipping will facilitate my quest for sleep.  It’s been a pleasure talking to you.  If you do feel preached to, there remains one final piece of advice: go to America.  See for yourself!!

In the meantime, here’s to being British and being in Britain.  Cheers!

Thank you; Goodnight.

PB (SOMEWHERE OVER CANADA)

* My reckoning was a little inaccurate: Wikipedia says Lake Michigan has a surface area of 22,404 sq mi and Wales covers an area of 8,023 sq mi.  Lake Michigan is therefore 2.79 times the size of Wales.  I’ve no idea why Wales is considered to be a standard unit of measurement for such purposes.

** Is any of this any less true in 2017 than it was in 1994?

 

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 10.2

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Friday 1st April 1994,  16:14 (CST)

TERMINAL 3, O’HARE AIRPORT, CHICAGO, IL

Flying into Chicago was equally as impressive as flying over Dallas.  Marginally cloudier, it was still easy to pick out O’Hare as we flew PAST it!  Why?  Because we had to approach from the east.  This meant flying over Chicago itself, five miles out over Lake Michigan, and turning around, thus presenting a near-perfect view of downtown Chicago.  Remember ‘FlightSim’?  Taking off from Meigs airport on the lake shore?  Past that tall , black building with its two antennae*?  I’ve just re-lived it — for real (except we didn’t take off from Meigs**) — but I did see it!

133259-fs4meigs

My flight is at 6:10 and there’s an aeroplane to Paris at my gate (K11) right now.  I’m still in Terminal 3 so no need to take the monorail today.

I’ve made the customary ‘phone call to ensure Dad gets to bed early — it’s 20 to midnight there, right now.

I met a bloke on the last flight from Cleveland, Ohio who was thinking about holidaying in England.  Naturally, I did my bit for the North West Tourist Board but I still had to tell him: “Manchester — it’s 200 miles north of London”.  GRRRR!!

He went to University in Columbus (Ohio, again) and we swapped student stories.  He asked me how well-travelled I was and I think I surprised him with the ensuing list — especially Moscow!!

Looking around this place, it’s scary.  As I’ve mentioned, this airport is unbelievably large but so is its volume of traffic.  For example, when we landed, we crossed (at an altitude of lower than 50 feet) another runway from which a plane, in the distance, was in the process of taking off!!  I’m surrounded by stationary ‘planes, there are more taxi-ing behind them and yet more swarming around, incoming and outgoing.  It really is like a bee-hive, with continuous, seemingly ad hoc arrival and departure.  I’d just rather not try and think about how difficult it is to co-ordinate a place like this!  And then there’s Heathrow, which although (or is it because) it is smaller, it is the busiest airport in the world.  Now, there’s a comforting thought, and that’s not even accounting for the IRA!!  God, I’m glad I’m flying into Manchester!

By the way, ‘Cowboys from Hell’ was sold out and just in case you think we deluded ourselves in assuming it was Pantera, Rice saw their drummer in Town Lake Foods — ordering nachos!!

“Nachos rule!!”

[I think I’ll check in now, as Paris has gone and the board now says “Flight 54 Manchester” — Yes!!!]

18:00 (CST)

ABOARD FLIGHT 54, STATIONARY

Sunset in Chicago.  We take off in 10 minutes.  It’s going to be a long flight (believe it or not).  I may sleep.  I’ll try to watch the film (which looks crap) but I am planning a finale to this, an all-consuming Palinesque summary of the US, warts and all, but to also attempt to quantify the expectations one should have if you are planning to visit.  I know I’m waffling a bit but I feel I should depart from Chicago first, before I depart on my journey into the life of a Texan traveller.

The sun has gone down now; only a red hue exists over Chicago — and the vapour trails of another plane as presumably, others are going home too.  The seat-belt sign is on, the (video) emergency performance is about to begin and we’re asked not to use electrical instruments until we are in flight.

Did I mention I got another window seat?  3 out of 4!

I’m also praying that no-one comes and sits next to me.  That vacant seat here would be very useful if I fancy a sleep.  We’ve had the “prepare for departure” notice; I think I’m sleeping on a padded surface again!  Yes!!

There goes the door — it’s official — we’re moving!

Time to conclude *this* entry.  A handful of boiled sweets and a peep out of the window are on the agenda now.

See you later!

* The John Hancock Center.

** Meigs Airfield was a single-strip airfield on a man-made peninsula in Lake Michigan, just south of Chicago.  It closed in 2003 and the land is now used as parkland.

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 10.1

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Friday 1st April 1994,  13:53 (CST)

37,000 FEET, JUST NORTH OF DALLAS, TX

This is (if you hadn’t already guessed) the flight to Chicago.  As I mentioned, we’ve just flown directly above Dallas, Texas.  Virtually cloudless, you could see downtown Dallas, Texas Stadium and DFW Airport right in a straight line together.  In fact, you can again because I took a photograph of it.  Hope it comes out*.

DFW Area Aerial

Last night, we went to Double Dave’s again.  In a bout of wanton decadence, I bought us two huge pizzas – unlimited toppings.  We all but demolished them, leaving enough only for breakfast this morning.  Ahhh, wake up and smell the pizza!

We got a lift to the airport from Frampton in his bright blue GMC truck, with as much power in the stereo as presumably there is to be found under its considerable hood…   …bonnet! (I’m nearly in England now)

Anyway, I glimpsed my last of Texas, and now I’m looking forward to the aforementioned list which in its entirety is only to be found in bonny England.

* I don’t recall ever developing any of the pictures I took on this trip (I must have done, but can’t remember). but this image from Google Earth (1993 satellite imagery) is an accurate representation of the view I have described.

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 9

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Thursday 31st March 1994,  12:56 (CST)

DIGESTING A TUNA CURRY*, AUSTIN, TX

Well, what happened since the last time I wrote?

Tuesday: woke up and met Paul on campus at 4:00 in the Longhorns souvenir shop.  I’d (thankfully) got some money and already bought some souvenirs.  We went and sat in the Memorial Stadium to watch the Longhorns (American Football team) in spring practice.  Then we went to Dishwasher, sorry, Disch-Falk Field to watch the Longhorns (funnily enough) play San Antonio Roadrunners at baseball.  Anyway, the Longhorns (!) won 9-6 and we got some groovy photos.

Crown and Anchor Austin

Wednesday: awoke to find Paul and Rice were still asleep (as usual).  Eventually, they got up and we went to campus, as always.  We then went to the Crown & Anchor**, followed by a few bars to take in the stereotypical bar-life of Austin.  Imagine the bar in any Burt Reynolds film, the bar out of ‘Terminator 2’, the bar off the Carlsberg ad: (“You English”?***), blur them all together and there you have it; a stereotypical American bar.  After five pints of assorted American beers, we’d had as much gas as we could take and came back.  I’ve just rung home and ‘Beavis & Butt-head’ is on soon.  There’s talk of us going to watch Pantera tomorrow****, which would be pretty good as a final fling for the vacation.

The main thing, though, is to make sure we front up for the All-You-Can-Eat at Pizza Hut tomorrow.

Still, seeing as I’m returning home soon, I should really be thinking of the things that I’m missing, then I’ll look forward more to going home (theoretically).  So, here’s a brief list, just to give you an idea:  Fish & chips, brown sauce, Old Peculiar, ‘Coronation Street’, right-hand drive cars, ‘Match of the Day’, a real bed, MY GUITAR, my dog, correct spellings and grammar, any mention of cricket, people who don’t say “Ohreally”, adverts that don’t suck, my guitar, Old Peculiar, the weather (only kidding) and that good old Englishness that is there when you wake up in the morning, that you can breathe, and surrounds all that there is to behold and appreciate — no, not the cold, the indescribable entity, the ‘je ne sais qui’ (English version), the feeling that you only recognise when it isn’t there.

* Cheap student meal: 1x tin of tuna, 1x tin of tomato soup and curry powder to taste (lots)

** Great to see the Crown & Anchor is still there and still serving the JCB, looking just as I remember it, from the look of it on Google Street View (Sept 2016)

*** A quick Google search suggests this was the advert I was probably referring to, featuring Angus Deayton.  The ball stopping on the pool table does seem like the kind of point I was trying to make.  As I remember, it was largely a student hang-out so the comparison would have been a little unfair.

**** It didn’t happen, sadly.

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 8

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Tuesday 29th March 1994,  13:12 (CST)

WATCHING MTV (AGAIN!)

Well, what a whirlwind of activity and excitement today was…   …not exactly!  I had a totally lazy day here today, checking up on a few things such as flight times, how much money I have left and ‘America’s Most Wanted’ top 10 (MTV again).  I wouldn’t have minded a little sunbathing quality time but unfortunately, the weather wasn’t up to it — sunny but a mere 65°!  What is this place coming to ?!?  Anyway, the old forecast says it’s going to warm up more during the week, so there’s still time to make it look like I sunbathed non-stop!

Last night, Paul and I went onto campus for a kick about with the football.  More or less as soon as we ran onto the field, four other lads asked us did we want a match.  Paul had played them before and before you knew it, we were away.  I had originally assumed that they were Americans and was looking forward to skinning them but Paul told me that one of them was from Argentina, which made me think twice.  Obviously, I needn’t have worried, they weren’t outstandingly good, but good enough for us to have an enjoyable match.

Today I got my first real “gee you have a really cute accent — are you English?”.  This is a much stronger form of accent recognition, more than the generic “Are you from England?”, especially in this case where the woman in question asked me to say her name — presumably so she could hear it pronounced properly!  Unfortunately, she was an assistant in ‘Jack in the Box’, a burger bar.  Oh well…

meh-ro2594

Yess!!  Beavis & Butt-head!!  Cool!

[There may follow a slight distortion in the logical thread of the narration as I watch this…..]

…Sod this, I’m going go to bed!

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt.7

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Sunday 27th March 1994,  11:47 (CST)  [17:47 GMT]

INSIDE MY RED MAN UTD TOP

I know the Coca-Cola Cup final has already been played; let’s just get that one thing cleared up before I begin.  It’s driving me mad enough as it is!  Of course, I fully intend to ring home within a couple of hours.  As long as somebody taped it – Oh yeah and as long as we won as well – there is no problem.  Anyway… [change the subject, change the subject!]

What happened yesterday?  Well, I have missed out Friday evening as well.

Friday, we walked to the Holiday Inn and had the Mexican buffet (‘Fajita Friday’) — damn hot and only $3 for the pleasure of having one’s internal organs systematically corroded.  We came back and caught a bus into downtown Austin.  It was Friday night and we checked out Emo’s, a live act night spot, one of many on 6th Street, for which Austin is apparently quite famous for <— oops, double prepositioning!

p-emos-austin-tx-usa-nightlife-live-music-live-music-1526051_54_990x660_201406011101

Anyway, Friday was pretty quiet so we returned fairly early (about 1:30) and resolved to try the Saturday experience.  This we did and (last night), we had a more definitive tour of the city’s entertainment venues.  There is the Bates Motel; a small, mirrored rectangle which, in low lighting, looks like an organised Brooks*.  The chairs are easy chairs (padded, armrests, casters etc.) and flanking the stage are two TV monitors showing ‘Psycho’, on a loop, presumably.  We also went to a ‘shots’ bar and has ‘Sex on the beach’, a cocktail comprised of I know not what**, but Rice recommends it, and hearing him order it, reminded me of Westbrook UCI***: “can I have ‘A Few Good Men’, please?” — use your imagination.  I have to admit, I’d never had (a) sex on the beach before but it’s great and if anyone can remember how to do it, I’ll have it again (I think I got all the comic potential out of that one!)

Verily, we arrived at Emo’s again and it was busier than the night before but not, according to my companions, at its best.  Do I believe them or shall I nod and inwardly smile at such an obvious opportunity for them to tell me that Austin really is quite good, actually.  The thing was, deep down, I agreed and therefore why shouldn’t I believe it?  Besides, I’m not a cynic, am I?

Kicking out time from Emo’s was just after 2.  We walked to a dance club and decided to finish the night off in a state of cramp and breathless exhaustion — this predictably became a reality and at 4 o’clock, we took the now familiar route following the I35 over the river, turn left, left again and into the apartment.  4:30am, completely spent and CRASH, I fell asleep.

And now my mind turns to football again.  Actually, there’s a match on HSC, Channel 39: USA v Bolivia at 6 o’clock.  Hope someone else wants to watch it!

Oh ye; I forgot to mention we went on campus yesterday afternoon and we decided to sample the (get this) Union Bowling Alley!  Now we’re not talking GX or Superbowl 2000 but despite the pencil-scoring system, it was a great time and quite ridiculous that there should be a basement bowling alley beneath the Union building****.  In addition, we played 5 games and I won 3!  Watch out Adam/Catherine/Suddy — I’ve been practicing!

14:15 (CST)

SUPPLEMENTARY: WATCHING MEXICAN FOOTBALL

OK, so United lost, 3-1 apparently.  It’s a bit of a sod but life goes on.  Take this, for example: on Channel 12, Mexican football.  It’s America 3 Veracruz 0.  America have just score their third to the accompaniment of “GOOOOOAAAALLLL!”.  Sunday is sports day here, whatever your heritage is.  I have already watched Orlando Magic v New York Knicks (Shaquille O’Neal v Patrick Ewing).  There’s also been a bit of ice hockey (Channel 3): Detroit Red Wings v Chicago Blackhawks.  Channel 2 is college basketball — Florida Gators v Boston College.  Not forgetting PGA golf on Channel 4 and on Channel 24, preseason baseball — Chicago Cubs versus Oakland A’s.  Tennis on 39 and motor racing on 40.  Does that cover it?  I think so…

“GOOOOAAAALLL!!!”… It’s 4-0.

Bloody hell, not 2 minutes later, Veracruz get a consolation — 4-1

Final score 5-1.

* Brooks was a nightclub in Lancaster, which (and I’d forgotten this) had a lot of mirrors in it.  I say ‘was’ because a Google search today yields no mention in a dated article since 2006 and the only social footprint it has is a Myspace page.  If that’s not a sign of demise, I don’t know what is.

** According to Wikipedia, there are two variants.  I’m pretty sure we had the one with peach schnapps in it (vodka, peach schnapps, orange juice, and cranberry juice).  I’m actually quite tempted to have that again some time…

*** Cinema complex in Warrington, still going, I believe.  We once went to watch the Tom Cruise film ‘A Few Good Men’ there. Being right-on students, we asked for tickets in the obvious ‘comedy’ way.  What larks!

**** So pleased to see this still exists!  Long may it continue.  It was one of the best afternoons of that year.

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 6

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Friday 25th March 1994,  12:05 (CST)

WATCHING MTV, AUSTIN, TX

Yesterday was a full day and so there was little time to pause for the purposes of this book.  We went to the Mall and I bought the jeans that Andy and Martin ordered*.  Well I did owe them a favour.  I just hope they fit. 

In the evening, we went to this place called Double Dave’s, a pizza place that serves beer for 25 cents!  Rice and Dan disappeared early so when Paul and I walked back and found no-one in, I remembered that Rice had been chatting to this lad (Frampton, everyone calls him).  Anyway, he told Rice he was having a few people round and to stop in.  Sure enough, we called and found them there.  I also found a custom-made yellow Ibanez and huge amp.  Immediately, the common axemanship removed my already lowered inhibitions and in the flick of an amp switch, I was there, wearing it, playing it, willing my obstinate digits to co-ordinate properly, struggling to overcome the ‘like poles’ magnetic effect induced by the outlay of a couple of dollars at Double Dave’s.  The sound was amazing — more to do with the impressive array of effects, boxes and pre-amps than my fumbling ineptitude.  I have resolved to return, if only to prove I really can play ‘Live & Let Die’ and possibly attempt to re-acquaint myself with ‘Estranged’.  God I need a guitar!

I just watched an advert for a guitar shop in town.  I think that if I find myself with nothing to do next week, Austin will join the list of Wigan, Lancaster and Leeds; I’ll go and do my “prospective buyer” act — 10 minutes can be so therapeutic.

13:08 (CST)

[STARDATE 5109.39  SUPPLEMENTARY]

American TV has to be seen to be believed.  In a quiet moment on MTV, I travel through the lost passageways of daytime television.  Ch 2, 3 and 4, there are the usual crappy soap operas that all seem exactly the same; flicking through them, you see an identical man/woman scene with a sort of strained silence, with slightly different variations in the room and in the faces.  Its quite amusing to flick back and forth through them; all the mush blends into on huge entity, like a barrel full of different flavours of the Slush Puppy.

finaljenny

On Channel 5, there is an even more ludicrous specimen.  An Oprah Winfrey derivative — Jenny Jones** — considering the case of the man who proposed to two women in the space of a month.  The conversation progresses and the audience gasps or cheers ever-louder.  Apart from the traditional objections about these programmes, issues such as “all men are bastards”-type mentality, of dysfunctional people or that it becomes a moral court of judgement, the one thing I’d like to know most is: where the hell do they find the audience for these things?

Ahh, they recruit from feminist groups (by the sound of the last questioner)

What a freakshow!

Oh no!  Channel 13 is even worse: “You don’t have peace, brother”

What is happening here?

Oh shit!  I’ve been missing ‘Moonlighting’ (Channel 27)

On CNN (Ch 31), there’s an English reporter.  After all this US crap, I really miss the BBC.

* As soon as I’d told my friends at Lancaster I was going to Texas, I was met with a barrage of requests to buy Levis 501s, American prices being significantly cheaper than those in the UK. 

** Her show, ‘The Jenny Jones Show‘ ran from 1991-2003.

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 5

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

14767409950_56b297ffd0_o
The University of Texas campus in Austin.  Photo: UT Austin

Wednesday 23rd March 1994,  16:53 (CST)

COMPUTER LAB IN LIBRARY, UT, AUSTIN, TX

Well, here I am, replete with new pen and ready to take on the world in my “journal” as Chris puts it [Reminder: Chris’s email number is IFZE530*].  This is going to be a waffly entry, I can tell.  Here, seated in between Paul’s and Chris’s monitors, and I’ll get distracted a lot…    …(see!)…

Anyway, I went for a wander round Austin today and bought a Charles Manson CD**.  I’ve just emailed Matt and written a couple more postcards.  It’s possible to play a CD and listen to it while you work on a computer here…   …That would be cool; if we could only do it at Lancaster!***

(Chris has just disappeared for a bit so I’m now writing this whilst listening to said CD)

(Ah, now he’s re-appeared, and I’ll have to stop now) — see, I knew I’d get distracted…

I can’t believe I’ve actually got very little to say at this juncture — this is a new experience.

Oh yes…   …soap-box time.

Without getting all political on you, cherished reader, I’d just like to point out a sinister side-effect of Americanisation.  We don’t have this in Britain right now but we might soon — after all, we didn’t have Sunday trading or car-jacking until not very long ago.  The point is the open warfare that most natives refer to as ‘TV advertising’.  Whereas in Britain, firms are not allowed to say things like: “Fly British Airways because Virgin is shite and Richard Branson is a tosser”, this is standard practice over here.  Granted, Richard Branson is not the Nobel award winner for being an OK bloke but when this type of message is dumped into the houses of a nation, the underlying message is one of a twisted sense of morals.  It isn’t really cricket.  In principle, the idea of slagging off your bitterest rival is the commonest of common sense but when you get the ‘bickering’ effect of AT&T appearing, saying “MCI is crap, they don’t really save you money”, immediately followed by MCI saying “AT&T is useless and they charge more than they should”, it all gets a little shambolic.  I’m all for free enterprise but negative advertising is depressing to the intelligent viewer, not just because of the infantile method of reaching the masses.  The really depressing thing is the masses actually lap all this up; i.e. it is their lack of intelligence that dictates the parameters of the marketing battle — if everyone was intelligent enough to see through the pantomime, then AT&T and MCI aren’t stupid enough not to change tack.  No, America is (has been and always will be) market-led and it is the ignorance of the public in general (i.e. the marketplace) that is to blame.  That is ultimately what is so depressing about it all.  After all, it is not merely the cable & wireless companies; everyone is at it: Coke v Pepsi, all the car manufacturers are after each other.  All the insurance firms are in there — everyone.  Where it gets absolutely ridiculous is during election time, when believe it or not, even the political parties get involved!

Sheesh, sometimes this place is so unbelievably over-the-top, I just laugh, be glad I’m British and try to imagine John Major and John Smith**** appearing on adverts saying nasty things about each other…   …Oh no, Party Political Broadcasts!  What are we turning into?

At least it’s not:  “That John Smith, he’s so stupid, he’s fat, he’s bald, he wears glasses, er…   …he’s Scottish” etc. etc.

Except in John Major’s case, it may give him a little credibility!

Anyway, enough of these musings.  Beware, Britain.  Beware of the demon negative advertising, for it will try to encompass us all!!!

<<That was Paul’s soap-box for the day.  Tomorrow at the same time, he will investigate the disturbing plight of misogyny amongst the tree-dwelling Indians of the Venezuelan Amazon.>>*****

I don’t think I did so badly for someone who didn’t have much to say, did I?

PS JCB = Jalapeño Cheeseburger.  Jalapeño = VERY****** hot Mexican chilli.

* …@utexas.edu

** Yes, you read that correctly.  Charles Manson, convicted multiple murderer had a song, ‘Look At Your Game, Girl’ covered by Guns ‘N Roses as an unlisted bonus track on their 1993 punk covers album ‘The Spaghetti Incident?’.  I was browsing in Tower Records on Guadeloupe St. (more commonly known as “The Drag”) and found it.  I had to buy it and still have the CD.  Occasionally one of the tracks on it pops up when my iDevices are set to ‘Shuffle’.

*** Wow!  Playing a CD in the CD tray of a computer while working on another task on the same computer!  Imagine that!!

**** John Smith MP.  Remember him?  He died less than two months after I wrote this, creating a vacuum in the Labour leadership – which would be filled by an up-and-coming politician by the name of Tony Blair.

***** To be clear, this was the most random thing I could come up with, in the name of satire.  It’s not really a thing.  Or at least I’m not aware that it is. 

****** See earlier post for relevance of this post-script.  Not that hot, relatively speaking – as I’ve since learned…

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 4

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Tuesday 22nd March 1994,  11:15 (CST)

LYING ON THE FLOOR IN FRONT OF THE TV, AUSTIN, TX

I didn’t have time to write yesterday because I was up early and went on campus with Rice.  I went to Physics lectures , walked around campus, went with Rice to check his email (nothing from Matt!!).  In the afternoon, I decided to have a look at this stadium of the University’s.  It was no secret that Texas University has a 75,000 seater stadium; I’d seen it on Paul’s prospectus last year.  I’d also heard about it at Christmas from Paul & Rice.  I’d seen it from the plane when we came in to land and it wasn’t exactly anonymous by the time I’d got to campus.  It’s about 5 minutes’ walk from the Physics building (where I’d left Rice to enjoy his fourth lecture).  The main stand is absolutely enormous, towering above campus along with such structures as the main admin building and only one or two others (one’s called ‘Dobie’ and is their equivalent of Bowland Tower, said Rice).  Anyway, I walked up 10 of the 11 levels of the *bottom* part of the main stand and couldn’t get any farther.  Undaunted, I walked around the other side of the stadium and got in.  I sat on the back row, facing the main stand, exactly on the 50-yard line.  The twist is this: the main stand is so huge, it gives a 75,000 capacity…   …and yet it is only 3-sided!  I sat there in awe for about 20 minutes, trying to take in a stadium the size of Wembley, built exclusively for the use of students!

 

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The West Stand of the Texas Memorial Stadium (now the Darrell K Royal Stadium) dominates the skyline around the University.  In 1994, the stadium had three sides and a capacity of over 75,000.  Today, the capacity is over 100,000.  Photo: Daniel Drier

No matter how often you visit America and think you’re prepared for any excess it can throw at you, you’re never quite immune.  I’ve now seen Cape Canaveral, the World Trade Center, Denver’s doomed Stapleton Airport* and DisneyWorld.  Surely I am beyond such schoolboy wide-eyedness.  I am the last person to be shocked by the American capacity to get something so ridiculously right, and yet, even through all my experiences and knowledge of the American Way, when it’s there in front of you (or if you’re sat in it), its compulsion to amaze is irresistible and the inevitable symptom is that annoying British trait of staring like tramps at the feast; a combination of the innate comparison with home and the knowledge that, try as we might, there can be no way we in Britain will equal this.

Anyway, I’m not going to write any more on that stadium — so it’s impressive but just because I’m British, doesn’t mean I have to look like a dumbstruck tourist!

We went to watch ‘Wayne’s World 2’ again last night but there was an unfortunate side-effect: I wanted my guitar by the end of it and I also realised I left my amp in Lancaster…   …oh well, writing about it isn’t going to bring it all here!

I’m starving now.

[having eaten, later]

Paul & Rice have gone only campus — I decided to stay here because I’ve got a few things to do.

It’s 1:15, 7:15 at home — I’ll ring today.

I’ve just been flicking round the channels: MTV, Prime English Soccer, the evangelical channels and of course, not forgetting the, shall we say, liberated attitude to advertising.  Anyway, I’ll resist the draw of the soap-box for another time…   …but it would suffice to neatly contrast the phenomenal ability of this country to impress with its attitude to exhibit, against its phenomenally sad unimpressive class of inhabitant.

* At a time when arguments and protests about a second runway at Manchester Airport had raged on for years, Denver, having outgrown its own airport, Stapleton International, simply demolished it and built a whole new airport (Denver International Airport) on an entirely different site.

 

 

 

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 3

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Sunday 20th March 1994,  11:39 (CST)

PAUL’S FLOOR, AUSTIN, TX

Well, early to bed, early to rise makes Paul a dull boy!  No question of that particular accusation applying.  Yesterday, we did what most people go abroad specifically to do: we swam and sunbathed, played pool rugby, hung out next to a river, ate inordinate amounts of various fast food and sat outside until the early hours, watching the world go by.  I’m sure there’s one missing there…   …I don’t think we did anything else, though.

Well, apart from the fast food reliance, this *is* European too.  Granted the scenery is not up to Italian Alp/Dolomite standard but since when did they have 24-hour supermarkets, eh?  No, I won’t open up that old debate but I will say the two sides did seem fairly well reconciled here last night.  Dan* brought his (American) girlfriend to see us last night (the English one doesn’t know about her yet).  She was born in Greenwich Village in Noo Yawk.

I really wish I’d rang Dad on Friday night — not only because (whoops) I woke him up but also because if I’d rang him yesterday, he would have told me the scores.  Well, I won’t be making *that* mistake again.  We found the channel on the TV that shows English football (remember Keystone**: United v Spurs).  Yesterday was Sheffield Wednesday v Newcastle United.  I knew I was at home for this match and confidently told Rice et al it was 1-1, Cole for Newcastle, Andy Preece sent off, and I can’t remember who scored for Sheff Wed.  Well, Rice was predictably jubilant (again!) when Andy Cole’s goal went in; Paul muttering something obscene and magpie-oriented in the corner***.  Then the final whistle went and he (Paul) looked painfully at him as if I’d denied him the pleasure of seeing Wednesday equalise.  All I could say was “That’s why I couldn’t remember who scored!”.  I was right about the rest, though.

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I’ve cultivated the beginnings of a rather nice tan in one day, which I’m afraid means cream and T-shirts for a couple of days and hopefully, I’ll look like Grandad after a month in California by next week.  To all the detractors reading this, I’d just like to say a quick ‘I’M NOT BURNING’, so there.

Although this is a Sunday, it will not, I know, carry the atmosphere of a Sunday because Sundays are not allowed in the States, at least not Sundays like I or Luke know them (side-swipe)****.  There will probably be a doubling of evangelical TV programmes and that’s all.  Can’t hear any lawnmowers, though.  Sorry, Luke, it had to be said!

* Paul & Rice’s room-mate.

** Keystone was the place we stayed in when we were skiing in Colorado, two months earlier.

*** Rice is a Newcastle fan, Paul is a Sunderland fan.  In football terms, the two are sworn enemies.

**** I think this stems from a late-night, drink-fuelled ‘debate’ Luke, Matt and I had in our student house in Lancaster about the pros and cons of the American lifestyle (freedom from restriction) versus the European model (where some areas had by-laws that could force residents to cut their lawn each Sunday). 

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 2

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

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Saturday 19th March 1994,  08:39 (CST)

PAUL’S FLOOR, AUSTIN, TX

Firstly, this isn’t the important announcement I was going to make*.  Would you believe it, my pen exploded shortly after I wrote that.  In fact it wasn’t really yay important anyway; I’d just taken a photo of the Mississippi/Missouri and was thinking how it must have dried up because it seemed to be but a trickle in a really wide river bed, but no.  The ‘really wide river bed’ is where the flood** happened.  Anyway, it doesn’t require any more about that story.

I arrived at Austin Airport, picked up my case (which came out early, for a change) and just walked out.  Austin is not an international airport so there’s no passport control and certainly no deluded customs officials who think everyone nipped over to Holland for some contraband before they left for America.  Anyway, Paul & Rice were stood outside and after the customary greetings, everything instantly became normal — only it was in 85° heat.  Well, 98° was a bit ridiculous.  Bloody exaggerating Americans!!

I dropped my stuff off at Chris’s — the guy with the ‘phone.  He’s actually really cool — he’s got an acoustic and a bass.  His mate’s got an Epiphone telecaster.  Yeah, so we walked to this ‘English Pub’ place for a — I’ve forgotten what Paul called them, the initials I definitely remember — JCB and why do I remember that?  Because it’s a chilli burger and JCB is about right, ‘cause it’s that powerful!

I picked up my bags from Chris’s place and we bussed it to Paul’s (shit, my jeans are still at Chris’s — they were the first things to go in this heat!).  As we approached 1333 Arena Drive, it was sort of how I imagined it, except the apartment complex is on the right hand side, yet I’d somehow imagined the left.  Actually, ‘complex’ is a good word.  It must be the size of, say, Fylde residence rooms*** — much bigger than I’d expected.  Anyway, as we approached, there was a police car stopped, but with lights flashing and two cops talking to two guys.  Paul said “Oh crap, there’s not been another shooting, has there?”, at which point, I nearly did (crap).

The apartment, I can tell you, has charms beyond the capability of a camera lens.  Of course, I probably will take some photographs**** but I think people should read this first — to be warned, as it were.  It’s very modern, both in the fact that the building is new and that there’s no furniture.  The living room consists of a TV set and what I would call a viewing area — i.e. the rest is just floor.  Paul, Rice and Dan all have mattresses  now — I don’t but hey!  Who cares?  I’m writing this in ‘bed’ — lying on a cotton sheet on the floor.  It’s a good job I brought this pillow!

Just a couple more things of interest: when it came to the gift-giving, Rice looked like a seven year-old on Christmas morning and because it was from (lickle, ickle) Lyndsey, he had the inevitable inane grin from the rest of the evening.  Paul was a little less overt — well, he’s like that, isn’t he?  You know on the Pink Panther when you can see what he’s thinking in a bubble above his head, well when he got his salad cream and curry powder, I could just envisage salad cream and curry powder sandwiches over his head…   …don’t ask me why.

Also (and I kick myself for not staying awake throughout) was a new episode of ‘Beavis and Butt-head’(!!) where Beavis gets bitten by a dog and pretends to have rabies.  Yes, I slipped in and out of consciousness and didn’t last much longer than 10:30 — but I had been up 22 1/2 hours by then!

Anyway, it’s apparently going to get pretty warm so I’m afraid, girls, I shall be forced into getting a sun-tan!  Ha ha ha ha ha!

Oh yes, Paul & Rice found Luke quite amusing when I told them about Vicky — I wonder what happened on Thursday night.  I’m praying that Matt emailed the night’s events through.*****

Well, gotta get up!

PS Sorry for waking you up, Dad.

* See final entry of ~Pt.1.  There are lots of back references so it’s probable best to read all the entries in sequence.

** The ‘Great Flood of 1993‘.

*** A reference to part of the campus at Lancaster.  According to Wikipedia, there are 16 blocks of student accommodation within Fylde College.

**** I’m sure I did take photographs on this trip but I can’t remember seeing any of them developed – another sign of the time!

***** I have no memory of this at all.

Diaries Of A Texan Traveller – pt. 1

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

 

Synopsis:

I call this account “a video diary in non-video form” because ‘diary’ sounds…   …well a little drab and soft really, doesn’t it?

I aim to make the reader feel part of every entry.  I hope to match the style of Michael Palin or Clive James* but I’m not sure how that will go.  I aim to include the unexpected aspects of visiting America, to educate, evaluate, criticise, elucidate, inform, encourage and probably mislead your perception of real life in this nation look upon as some sort of elevated monolith of the world community, when basically its peoples are the same as us with ambitions, fears, traumas and ‘Roseanne’…   …just like we are!

I also aim to stop writing like I’m at University – this is my holiday for God’s sake!!

Finally and most importantly, I would like to share my most fundamental motivation with you.  As Garth Algar** once said: “I just hope you didn’t think it sucked”

I think there’s a lesson there for us all…

Enjoy.

PB

* They both were, and still are, amongst my greatest influences of travelogue writing.

** sidekick to Wayne Campbell in ‘Wayne’s World’, 1992 film.

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Friday 18th March 1994,  16:49 (GMT)

MID-ATLANTIC – ACTUALLY, MORE LIKE SOMEWHERE OVER CANADA

Took off from Manchester this morning with no problems.  As always*, I had the filet mignon for lunch; an American Airlines speciality I must say.  The film (‘The Addams Family Values’) has just finished.  This means I have successfully endured the first 6½ hours without turning to this diary to keep me occupied – I thought I would have written reams and reams by now!  Well, there’s always the Austin flight (in addition to the 1½ more hours here!)

The reason I have not yet got bored is partly because of the bloke I met.  An artist from Huddersfield** no less!  More later – snack time!

* Stretching credulity a little!  Two months previously, I’d flown to Denver, via Chicago, also with American Airlines for a skiing holiday.  I’d had the filet mignon on that flight as well.

** Another friend from University (Matt) is from Huddersfield.

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Friday 18th March 1994,  17:40 (GMT)

PROBABLY STILL OVER CANADA

The Immigration and Customs forms have just been filled in.  Still just over an hour to go.  Everything looks white down below but as I do not have a window seat, I can’t confirm what’s happening right now.  The newspaper says ‘unseasonably cold’ for Chicago.  Oh well!

Austin is supposed to be 29°C – Chicago’s probably going to be 29°F!!  Anyway this bloke (Andrew) lives about 3 miles from Highburton*.  He’s into skiing and has watched Manchester United for over 20 years — now is it obvious why I haven’t started ‘The Liar’** yet?!  He’s going to Toronto to sell his paintings and we had an interesting chat about marketing art — you learn something every day!

* Matt’s family lived in the Highburton area of Huddersfield at the time.

** Semi-autobiographical novel by Stephen Fry.

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Friday 18th March 1994,  13:46 (CENTRAL; GMT-6)

CHICAGO O’HARE AIRPORT (T3)

I don’t fly to Austin for another hour yet so there’s plenty of time to hang out and take in the scenery — again!

Yes I’m once again sat in the little café in Terminal 3.  Everything is the same (Michael Jordan is everywhere!) — except it’s not snowing.  Little things spark off my memory like those bending iron columns — what were the initials again?  Must remember to ask Martin!*  Well, yes, they’re still here, not surprisingly!

It was a weight off my mind to ring Chris (whoever he is!)** who confirmed that Rice and Paul will be at the airport in 3½ hours’ time.  I think Dad was pleased I rang — from the very same ‘phone booth from which he rang Grandma only 8 weeks ago!  Not that he was to know that, but it sort of seemed right.

Blasé as I appeared before I left (well I probably was blasé), I’m not now; I can’t really comprehend that I was sat in that very yellow plastic chair 2 months ago (unless they swapped them around for some reason) — but the effect is just the same anyway!

OK: an in-joke for anyone who has been to an American airport before:  “Mr Bloggs; Mr Joe Bloggs.  Please contact the information desk.” — it really is the little things, isn’t it?!!

[Somebody’s just sat in my chair — the yellow plastic one!]

I wonder why that Customs official was convinced I’d been to the Netherlands***.  I don’t look like Jan****, do I?

Actually, I didn’t handle that very well.  We both knew it was kidology but instead of being British and saying “I’m sorry but I’m afraid there’s some mistake here”, I overdid the staunch defence bit and sort of whined “but I havennn’t been there!!!”  Oh well, better luck next time — there probably will be a next time.

At least I didn’t bleep here.  In Manchester, I couldn’t believe being bleeped a second time!  10 years of air travel… (sigh)

Oh I think I found some Pepsi in my regular cup of ice cubes! — oh no, it’s just a trick of the light.

5 past 8 now at home…   …I wonder what happened on Coronation Street…   …Shit!  What time did I ring?  25 past I think…   …well that was a close one!  I know I’m in Chicago and all but CORONATION STREET!  Sorry Mum!*****

* My brother Martin and I had discussed the RSJs visible from the departure gate area (for some reason) during my previous visit, two months earlier.

** Another British overseas student at the University of Texas who had become friends with Paul & Rice,  Crucially (and a sign of the time), he was the only person among their circle who had access to a telephone.

*** Looking very bedraggled and student-like as I did, it’s no surprise that I was spotted by a US Customs official who came over to ask me if I’d “brought anything in from Amsterdam”.  I took him literally because I couldn’t believe that he would need to speak in euphemisms, even though it was perfectly clear what he meant.

**** Another friend from University, Jan came from Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire but had a Dutch mother.

***** My Mum was a regular ‘Coronation Street’ viewer then.  She isn’t now.

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Friday 18th March 1994,  15:03 (CST)

CLIMBING OUT OF CHICAGO

As I see the last, faint cloud-obscured features of Illinois disappear, my mind turns to filling the time on this 2hr 20min flight.  It hardly seems worth starting ‘The Liar’ now.  There’s certainly no opportunity for conversation as there’s no-one next to me — but I got a window seat!

I realised that, unlike many of the passengers, admittedly American and ‘frequent flyers’; who were perhaps nervy about the take-off, I was hugely relieved, probably because I know Paul and Rice are waiting for me and that after a 9hr flight, this little ‘hop’ is a mere formality.  OK, so I’m blasé again!

Sometimes though, I sort of catch myself off-guard and have to remind myself that I’m now in the USA all alone (for the time being) and despite the facade of casual ‘shit happens’ acceptance, sometimes it is all a little unreal.

I heard a Texan in front of me chatting to an Illinoian (?)*, saying that they wouldn’t need warm clothes as it’s (I’m sure he said) 98°!!  So that’s what “damn hot” means!

The captain just said there’s some “bumpy air” on the way, although it’s pretty clear right now.

What can I see?  Well, a large, (very) straight road, probably an Interstate and just lots of fields, like the plains of Eastern Colorado — no circular fields here, though!

There is a grid of roads at right angles separating the fields and tiny houses are dotted randomly about.  In the distance, I can see a small town where two roads cross.  It just looks like a gigantic patchwork blanket!

Well we are in the Midwest here.  Agricultural heartland of the US.  There’s absolutely no variation for as far as I can see (probably about 40 miles) and it’s completely flat.

Whoahh!  A large town *quick look at the map*.  Could be Springfield, Illinois — I dunno!

8:25 at home; I wonder what’s happening at home.  More to the point, I wonder what’s happening in Lancaster.  Hmmm… Paul & Rice will be told.  Oh yes, Paul & Rice *will* be told**.

This clock-watching is a bad idea.  I’ll have to do something or this flight will seem the same as the other one — which for a 9-hour flight, wasn’t that bad, but for a 2½?!

Wait!  Captain announced we’re going over St. Louis.  I can’t see it but I can see a river.  Mississippi or Missouri, I don’t know.

<<Important announcement coming up!>>  (hereafter referred to as !*!)

* Actually, it’s an “Illinoisan”, according to statesymbolsusa.org.

** I have no idea what this was specifically a reference to, although it’s worded in a ‘Wayne’s World’ style.  I think it had something to do with a rumoured sexual encounter of one of my house-mates.

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Archive: The Importance of Being Honest…

First published on 17th October 2012 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

…or ‘Who on Earth are Feefo and Why are they Emailing Me?’

If you’ve placed an order from Robinsons this year, it’s likely you’ll have received an email from a company called Feefo in the days and weeks that followed to ask you to rate the items and the service you received. Of course, I expect many of those who received this email chose not to respond.

Let’s be real for a moment, there’s no way we should expect otherwise – we’ve all done that, haven’t we?  With that in mind, I extend my sincere thanks to anyone who did take the time to complete the short survey, however you chose to rate us and whatever you said about us, good or bad.  Without your honesty, we wouldn’t have the same ability to grade the quality of our service – and we wouldn’t have the chance to put things right if they’ve gone wrong here and there.

In the past, I’ve blogged about improving our commitment to transparent behaviour and since then, I’m pleased to say that we’ve been far better able to react to occasional problems and we now have much more confidence in our ability to consistently provide the level of service we expect of ourselves.  We’ve also (touch wood) not encountered any instances of severe chat room criticism since the one in June last year that made us change the way we think about this subject.  Please let me know if you know different, though! I don’t want you to think that all this makes us complacent, that we can consider the job is done and just concentrate on something else now.

Transparency is an all-or-nothing commitment and it’s now something we look at every day, to measure not just the usual performance stuff, like how many orders we sent out but how well we’ve done impressing the people who received them. And so, before I finish this post, I must ensure you know how we are now more honest with you, as a result of our kind Feefo respondents.  To quote Jack Byrnes (Robert de Niro’s character) in ‘Meet The Parents’, I need to complete the “circle of trust”.

The performance data from the Feefo emails is freely available at any time on the Robinsons Review page on the Feefo website for anyone to view.  It’s also used to add details to our Google listing, to indicate that our service levels might make us a better choice for anyone searching for the things we offer.

In the old days, Marketing Managers tended to be cautious of such measures because the rating might go down.  Today, we accept that we have to ensure that it remains as high as we can be because we’re aware (and we’re also very happy) that everyone can see it. As I type, the proportion of people who rated us as ‘Good’ or ‘Very Good’ is 93% – which is about the same level as M&M Direct, Joe Brown’s and other large mail order companies that most people have heard of.  It’s reassuring to know that our customers rate us so highly but of course, we shouldn’t be really happy until it’s trending at 100%. I honestly hope you feel this is as important as we do.

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Paul

Archived: Fancy an early night? ;-)

First published on 15th December 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

If you’ve received your Sale Catalogue and you’ve found something you like, I invite you to go to bed early tonight, just like I’ll be doing. As you’ll no doubt already know, our Winter Sale starts online tomorrow morning at the less-than-Godly hour of 3am and we all need to be up and fresh in time for it. Why on earth do we put ourselves (and you) through this inconvenience?

The simple answer is that we’ve found over the years that it’s the safest – and fairest – time of day for us to start a sale. Here’s a little of what we’ve learned over the years: I’m afraid to say that starting an online Sale in working hours has proved to be a complete ‘no-no’. We tried it one Christmas Eve and it instantly killed all our systems. It meant that I had slightly depressed Christmas that year and I’m sure lots of customers were disappointed.

Unfortunately, the fact that it was so easy for everyone to access the Sale was precisely the reason it was so difficult for us to handle. We had to find a way of ‘frightening off’ some of the initial surge in demand. The obvious solution is, I’m afraid, unsociable hours – which is why we’ve started our Sales overnight for the last few years. In fact, midnight used to be our preferred time but even this could lead to problems. If the site still ran slowly over the first hour or so, customers who had planned to stay up until midnight to spend half an hour shopping online were still up at 2am and starting to complain that they hadn’t been to bed yet.

We felt that not only was 3am even more inconvenient (and therefore even safer), it also meant users are more likely to have had some sleep and therefore any delays (perish the thought) should be less troublesome – we hope… There’s also an inherent fairness in making things really awkward for everybody. It means that those who inconvenience themselves the most are most entitled to the deals which are least commonly available, so morally, it seems to work well. It’s the same ‘law of the jungle’ that governs other areas where demand hugely exceeds supply, like tickets for Cup Finals or Glastonbury.

It sounds like Customer Service heresy to say so, but it’s the simple fact that few retailers will admit – even though everybody knows it: If you want something enough, you’ll do what it takes to get it. There, I’ve said it. Please don’t think less of me. I’m just trying to be honest with you!

All Sales are naturally very busy times and to an extent, we as customers do with in reason accept that fact – don’t forget, we’re all somebody’s customer, so I feel I can say that. When Next (for example) hold their retail Sales (ususally from 5am), there are almost always long queues at every store. The thing about Sales at retail is that it’s obvious to all how many people are there – because you can see them all. While each person has made the effort to travel there, I’m sure that if the event was ridiculously over-subscribed, the fact that such a crowd would be obvious to others often serves to make some of them think again and drive straight back home. Retail Sales are therefore self-limiting to some extent.

On the web, it’s not that straightforward – for anyone. We have a good idea of the number of people who visited the site on the first day of each of our previous sales, so it would be inaccurate to say we don’t know what to expect, but that doesn’t mean to say our estimates will be right this time. It’s also a lot easier to join in as a customer, because you don’t even need to leave your bed, so even our best estimates could be way out. Of course, this has a bearing on the amount we invest in our systems to accommodate this expected demand.

From the customer’s viewpoint the unpredictability will be even more frustrating. Over-subscribed websites work slower (or fall over completely) and items sell out sooner, all things likely to frustrate people and understandably so. At least the company holding the online Sale will know why things are slow – or worse – because they can see the visitor stats. The poor customer may appreciate it’s busy but they won’t know the just how many people are also online’, so there’s a chance they’ll get even more frustrated. Unlike with retail, this self-limiting factor just isn’t there. I should pause here to point out that I appear to be painting a very negative picture about the process. That’s because we try wherever possible to bear in mind a ‘busiest day imaginable’ scenario – so we can prepare to handle it. I refer you to my earlier blog about store openings The Perils of Success, in which a similar theme is explored: being too busy can be worse than not being busy enough.

Yes we’ve had our moments over the years where our online Sales have sailed close to the wind of disappointment in some quarters and I’m also sure it’s impossible to impress all of the people all of the time – although we’ll never stop trying to do that. Over the last two years, I feel we have got a lot closer to the kind of infrastructure that allows us to deal with such a vastly inflated demand.

This year, I believe we’ve been able to improve our capability even more, so I’m optimistic (make that cautiously optimistic) that this Sale will be our best ever – for all of us! In recent years, we’ve been let down firstly by hardware (the boxes of physical kit we have) and then by bandwidth (the ‘speed’ of our web connection). Consequently, it’s required us to add more web servers and a load balancer to ensure that more people can interact with the site at the same time. We’ve also freed up our systems by removing functions like ‘WebChat’ and ‘Others also bought’ for the busiest times.

The other big difference this year is that we’ve been able to increase our bandwidth by a factor of 12. Does this mean we can handle 12 times the demand? In theory, yes but in practice, we’ll have to wait and see… Eventually, if our IT team have done all they can do and we’re still busier than expected, we will at some point run out of things to sell. In effect, our stock levels will have become the ‘weak link’ in the system. We buy and make available ever more stock for our Winter Sale each year and we’ve done that again this year but obviously no seller expects to hold significantly more than they believe they can sell.

Again, to the frustrated customer, a problem here may look like we don’t know what we’re doing – but that’s because they can’t possibly know how many other people are online – or what they are buying. To give you an idea of our online Sale stock this year, it’s more than we currently have at our Ashton and Cannock stores combined. Will that be enough, just right or too much? My answer today, the day before the Sale is that I think it will be about right – although I’m sure that some of the lines will sell out very quickly. I will however know a lot more by this time tomorrow – if I’m still awake!!

If you’re planning to go online tomorrow at 3am, good luck and email me with your comments either way.

Paul.

Archive: How ‘Antlers for Horses’ Became Popular

First published on 9th November 2012 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

Sometimes, the success of something is all about being in the right place at the right time. We could never have predicted the success of such a silly product as the Horse Head Antler which first appeared in a Robinsons catalogue in 1992. This ‘silly’ product has since stood the test of time and it is likely that not many people have any idea how it all came about. Pauline Bentham, our gift buyer at the time spotted the antlers on a plastic horse’s head at a trade fair in Philadelphia, USA. She bought one pair for the princely sum of $10 and brought it back to the UK.

She made some improvements to its design and commissioned an order of around a thousand pieces from a local manufacturing company. Over the four weeks prior to Christmas in 1992, we sold over 800 units at around £10 each! With the benefit of this experience and a bit of lateral thinking, we added similar products for the following festive season: ‘jingle bell’ nosebands and rein sleeves, matching hat covers, exercise sheets and leg wraps all made from bright red and finished with white fur fabric trims. From nowhere, a new and (very) popular collection of inexpensive fun items had been created.

The following Christmas, about 5,000 of these ‘silly’ products (which were exclusive to Robinsons) were sold. We then attempted to wholesale them to distributors in the UK and because they were still perceived as too silly, nobody wanted to take them on despite our huge success. No-one copied the idea for the next two years anywhere in Europe. In 1994 at a trade fair in Germany one of our international buying group partners was arm-twisted into taking a risk. It took promises of a ‘sale or return’ deal to convince these steely-faced Germans that they had nothing to lose.

After the first year of success they placed an order for the next year for over 10,000 units! Today, the Christmas Antlers live on despite the fact that production in the UK had to be terminated and moved to China and the fact that some competition in the market has also sprung up. It’s difficult to calculate how much this range made since it was inspired, twenty years ago. It did more than bring a smile to someone’s face, it made a statement that Robinsons were innovative and were prepared to offer alternative products which were not always aimed at the serious competitor. It made us look different from our competitors, a difference we’ve been keen to maintain ever since!

Archive: Robinsons Launch ‘Rider Rewards’!

First published on 11th December 2012 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

Robinsons, the UK’s number one equestrian provider is pleased to announce the launch of a new customer points programme to help riders get the most from their horsey purchases – and we’re calling it ‘Rider Rewards’.

We’re all familiar with the idea of so-called ‘loyalty schemes’, many of us will have a Tesco or a Nectar card and more and more of us seem to be collecting points for some card or other. With this in mind, Rider Rewards are intended to be the definitive version of points in the equestrian world.

“We’re really excited by the launch of this, the first phase of ‘Rider Rewards‘,” said Paul Bentham, Sales & Marketing Director. “The structure of earning and redeeming points was designed to be as similar as possible to the Boots Advantage card as we’d all identified it as one of the most popular schemes amongst retailers with a comparable offering. Many of our head office staff are avid Boots Advantage card holders and it didn’t take long to get them to explain why they love it so much!”

“The main difference we’ve decided to make from the Boots model is that you only earn 4 Advantage points with every pound you spend at Boots, but we’ve decided to give you 5 points for every pound you spend. As with Boots, every point you spend can be redeemed at the value of 1p each.”

At this stage, Rider Rewards can only be earned and redeemed for purchases from the Robinsons website. In the coming months, the principle will be extended to orders placed via telephone and then purchases at the four Robinsons stores around the country.

“We plan to launch Rider Rewards across our entire operation in the new year but the chance to launch it online before Christmas was an opportunity we didn’t want to miss,” said Martin Bentham, Operations Director. Here’s a brief run-down on how it all works, with an instance of how one purchase can help you claim other products free in subsequent orders and how you can choose to combine payments between points earned and conventional card payment.

Example
One day, Miss Jane Smith places an order with Robinsons, a pair of Dublin New River Boots, at £109. She has no points previously in her account but by spending £109, she instantly earns 545 points which can be used at 1 point = 1p for future transactions.

Her order arrives and some time later, Jane decides that she’d like a couple of pairs of thick socks to wear with her new boots. She decides to buy a Requisite ‘Pack Of 2’ Argyle Socks, for £7.50. With 545 points to her name, she has the equivalent of £5.45 in her account, which means that Jane has the choice to pay the £7.50 for the socks on her card or redeem any amount of her points to pay for them and pay the difference, conventionally. She chooses not to pay from points and so earns more points for this second purchase. This means her points total is now (545 + 35) = 580.

Six months later, Jane decides she needs to get another pair of gloves. She’s totally forgotten about her points balance but in the process of placing her order, we’re able to remind her. She orders a pair of Harry Hall Glow gloves at £3.50. She notices on the payment screen that her points level is more than the 350 points she would need to get the gloves free of payment. She decides to save herself the £3.50 and ‘pay’ for the gloves from her saved points, which doesn’t earn her any more points and reduces her balance of 580 by 350, leaving her with 230 points remaining.

Shortly afterwards, Jane decides to buy her sister a pair of Requisite Two Tone Jodhpurs for her birthday. At a price of £20, she knows she doesn’t have the 2,000 points she’d need to pay for them in their entirety so she chooses to pay for them by a combination of points and conventional payment. She redeems her full bank of 230 points (£2.30) and pays for the difference on her card (£17.70). The £2.30 redeemed value doesn’t earn her any points, but the £17.70 entitles her to earn another (17 x 5) 85 points for future use. What will she decide to do with them? The choice is hers…

Here are a few restrictions and further benefits of collecting our Rider Rewards:

  • Currently, Rider Rewards can only be earned by and redeemed against purchases on the Robinsons website (www.robinsonsequestrian.com). In early 2013, the programme will be extended to telephone ordering and then to the four Robinsons retail stores (Ashton-in-Makerfield, Cannock, Basingstoke and Cardiff).
  • Rider Rewards points can be redeemed against a part of or the full goods value of an order at the rate of 1 point = 1p. Points can be used as a part-payment method.
  • Rider Rewards points may be redeemed against the cost of products in an order and also against any postage and delivery costs, at the same rate of 1 point = 1p.  Where refunds occur on orders where payment has been split between redeemed points and conventional payment, spent points will be refunded first, then pounds spent until the value of the refund has been reached.
  • Each point earned will expire 365 days after the date it was earned. You can log into the new Rider Rewards area of the ‘My Account’ part of the website to see how many points you have earned and what the expiry status is for each of them. If you have points that are nearing their expiry date, you will be sent a ‘Use them or Lose them’ email alert at the email address held against your account, two weeks before the points are due to elapse (although you have the choice to opt out of these alerts).
  • You can view your points balance at any time by logging into your account from the header area of any page of the Robinsons website and clicking on the ‘Rider Rewards’ option on the left-hand menu. Please keep your login details and your password secure.
  • From time to time, we may operate ‘Double Points Weekends’ or similar activities in which you can gain additional points for qualifying purchases. These activities will be communicated by email and via our homepage.

Archive: Robinsons and the Royal Mail – What You Need to Know…

First published on 15th October 2009 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

As you may have seen on the news, the country is about to face a period of strikes by postal workers. Naturally, you’ll be concerned that all mail order will therefore become totally unreliable and to be honest, who could blame you? If you’re still reading at this point, please allow me to explain what we’ve done to ensure that Robinsons is unaffected by the strikes as much as we possibly can be. I’ve tried to keep this information as short and to-the-point as I can:

Suspension of all Standard Packets sent via Royal Mail

As soon as the Communication Workers’ Union held a ballot which gave them the opportunity to plan strikes, we knew we had to transfer our business to other carriers. From Monday 19th October right through until Christmas (and possibly beyond), we will therefore be sending all our standard packets out via The Home Delivery Network, using their 24 hour delivery service. This decision comes at quite a substantial cost to us, which we will not be passing on to you. We felt that as long as we can keep your confidence, the extra cost will be worth avoiding hundreds or maybe thousands of lost orders. Just to clarify, the 24 hours described above relates to the time it takes to leave our mailing room to arrival with you. It’s not quite the same as our £9.95 Express Delivery service, which for orders placed before 12 noon (Monday to Thursday), promises a 24 hour delivery from the time you order until arrival with you. I hope I’ve been able to explain the distinction well enough.

Where we may still have to depend on Royal Mail

Sadly, it’s a little more complicated than simply transferring all our delivery business elsewhere. There are some occasions where we may have no option but to continue to use Royal Mail. These instances will be quite specific parts of our business like overseas delivery of small parcels, affecting very few customers. Unfortunately, if you’re one of those customers, this comes as no consolation at all. Even then, we will continue to look for alternatives if the Royal Mail service is unworkable. Aside from the goods we send out, I’m sure you’ll also know that we send out catalogues from time to time. In early December, we will produce our Winter Sale 2009 catalogue, as we do every year, mailing it to hundreds of thousands of customers. In recent years, we have moved away from using the Royal Mail to collect these catalogues from us once they are printed. Unfortunately, because this is still standard ‘letter post’, the industry still works on the basis that the Royal Mail always handle the mail over the ‘final mile’ of the delivery. It is financially impossible for us to by-pass them, using couriers, on such volumes and we are just not big enough to use our own network of local agents to deliver catalogues like (for example) Next do. Again, we are looking at our alternatives and we also hope that the dispute – or at least the industrial action – may have been resolved by then. All we can say is that we’ll keep you post… er, make that informed.

Robinsons and the Royal Mail: What We’d Like You to Know…

Okay, this bit is more about how the dispute affects us than about how it affects you but as you’re still reading, I have a couple of things to say that might interest you. Since 2007, Robinsons have been members of The Catalogue Exchange, a not-for-profit organisation which represents the interests of companies who trade via catalogues. By a strange quirk of fate (or perhaps it was deliebrarely done so), the decision to strike was announced on the second day of our industry’s biggest trade fair*. Between us, the members of CatEx (as we all call it) represent hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue to the Royal Mail and our combined voice is being used to pressurise both sides of the dispute. Our very capable President is Nigel Swabey, the Chairman of a number of well-known catalogue companies including, currently, Scott’s & Co and he has done a number of press interviews to put our case. In a recession, every business is expecting to fight harder to even match last year’s performance. Those of us who depend on a reliable postal system face having to do so with a huge extra burden to deal with. For many (like us), the dangers are of wasted opportunities, which is bad enough. For some, it could make the difference between survival and failure. Please don’t take the impression that we (Robinsons) are fighting for survival – As we expect to illustrate quite soon, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Are we concerned that our business could be severely affected by this action? Of course we are. Any other company who depends on mail order (including all the website operators) would be lying if they said anything else. Okay, that’s it. Rant over. Even though this is our blog and in theory we could rant about anything on here, I promise you I’d rather not do that, normally. After all, I would like you to want to come back here occasionally and that’s unlikely to happen if we fill the blog with industry moans when all you really want from us is to know that our range is wide, our prices are reasonable and our service is reliable. I hope you appreciate that these are rather unusual circumstances and it is important to me and to us all here at Robinsons that you do not lose confidence in the service we can provide to you. What use is a mail order service, however good it may be, if it lacks the credibility to inspire your confidence? We never take your confidence for granted and we do all we can to retain it. Unfortunately, we realise that this time, the actions of others may affect that and all we can do is promise you the same level of service you expected from us before. Thanks for reading! Paul.

*If you watched the BBC’s lunchtime 1 o’clock News on October 8th, you will have seen me, just for a second, in shot behind Hugh Pym while he was reporting on the strike story from Earl’s Court. Not that impressive, I know, but true all the same…

Archive: The Perils of Success

First published on 23rd April 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

As seasoned readers of this blog may attest, much of my information from the outside world comes from the BBC website.  On one of my many forays there recently, I came across a story which made me grimace. The story was (believe it or not) ‘Riot Fears Absent Ahead of IKEA Sale‘, which on the face of it seems quite a departure from the concept of news.

Aside from the quite blatant (for the BBC) commercial nature of the story, this story tells you not what has happened, but what was unlikely to happen.  Of course, the reason why the absence of riot fears was news is that in 2005, that’s precisely what happened when IKEA opened a store in Edmonton, North London.  It was this story that was the reason for my cold sweat as it reminded me of the day we re-opened our Superstore on Sunday 3rd November 2003…

As you may or may not know, in September 2002, we lost our retail store in Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire after it was destroyed by a fire.  Happily no-one was injured, but it meant that we had to take over a year to clear the site and custom-build a brand new Superstore as a replacement. By November the following year, the anticipation amongst local riders had been building for weeks and at our Sunday opening time of 11am that day, hundreds of people were there to witness the official opening of the new Superstore which was then, as now, the largest of its kind in the UK and beyond.

As we were sponsors of The Pony Club‘s Prince Philip Cup at the time, we decided to invite the holders of the Cup (Wylye Valley) to open the Superstore.  A stretch limousine, red carpets and a big ribbon were laid on, especially for the event.  As a finishing touch, we even arranged for two mounted police from the Merseyside Constabulary to escort the limo, a gesture we were very grateful to accept as it helped make our opening such a great spectacle.

After such a long time of being unable to serve our retail customers, we had been concerned that we needed to win this custom back as quickly as possible, so the fact that we’d managed to generate so much interest was, I remember, a great relief.  I also recall that weeks beforehand, we had decided after a fair degree of deliberation not to advertise the grand opening, just in case too many people turned up.

In retrospect, that was quite a wise move. Put simply, the day turned very quickly from being a dream to a nightmare.  Once the doors opened, more and more people continued to pour in, so that by late lunchtime, the Nosebag café was gridlocked, queuing time at the main tills had risen to 45 minutes and at least one customer had fainted while waiting to be served.  With so many people inside, we had begun to adopt a nightclub-style ‘one out, one in’ policy of admittance.  Everything we tried to do to maintain the safety of the situation seemed to have a knock-on effect elsewhere.

Ashton Reopening

Outside, things were if anything even worse.  For at least half a mile in each direction along the A49, cars were parked both sides, nose-to-tail – many on yellow lines.  With only enough room for two cars to pass slowly in the space between, every time a bus or a lorry came along, they had to wait for a gap in the traffic coming the other way before they could pick their way through.

Very quickly, tailbacks began to snake back both north and south.  There was nothing else for me to do but to jump into the road and hold back the traffic in one direction every time a bus or a lorry was trying to get through in the other.  My abiding memory in all the gathering chaos was of standing on one of the Queen’s highways, directing the traffic, holding it back so the Police horsebox could pick its way out through the congestion!  I couldn’t help thinking that things were the wrong way round!!

Worse still, there was a Collectables Fair on at Haydock Racecourse that day.  Again, you may or may not know that the entrance to Haydock Park is approximately 400 yards south of our Superstore, along the A49 Warrington Road.  Their traffic was becoming caught up in our traffic and tailing back still further another mile south along the A49…    …where it crosses the M6 motorway!  It was, I believe at this point, where queues were affecting cars attempting to leave the M6 at Junction 23, that the police helicopter was mobilised!

Once you realise that you’ve lost control of a situation to that extent, you have to begin to worry about the consequences.  All I could think was how much more scary the day could have been if we’d advertised our opening properly.  Looking back now, I’m staggered and eternally grateful that it wasn’t worse.

With the ‘benefit’ of that experience, I now have every sympathy for all concerned when stories such as the IKEA opening happen. The moral of the story?  In business, the vast majority of the time, you’re constantly guarding against failure.  It can become second nature to try to maximise every opportunity because if anything doesn’t work as well as one had hoped, the costs can be high, financially, to one’s reputation and – dare I say it – one’s ego.  With shop openings and high-profile promotions, it can often pay to spend a little time guarding against success.  Too much of it can be even worse than not enough.

The cold sweat’s gone now I’ve shared that with you.

Thanks,

Paul.

Archive: Basingstoke – Our Opening Gambit

First published on 13th March 2010 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

Before I talk about our forthcoming store at Basingstoke and our reasons behind the way we do store openings, let me apologise for neglecting to write an entry on here for about three months. Yes, it’s been a busy three months but I like to post something on here about once a month. In my absence, regular blog readers have been in Liz’s very capable hands and I hope you’ve found her articles as interesting as I have.

Anyway, that’s not my real reason for writing this piece. We are now frighteningly close to opening our third store, the 22,000 sq ft Basingstoke store. I’ve been teasing members of our Facebook group with pictures of the building as it has taken shape over the last few months but throughout the whole process, we’ve steadfastly refused to answer the one question we’re asked above all others: When will it be open?

We’ve done this for two main reasons. The first one was simply practicality. Back in October, there was so much work to be done to the place and so much can go wrong in the process, we felt it was foolhardy to saddle ourselves with a needless public deadline that we may struggle to hit. You may have noticed that our estimates started with ‘Early 2010’ (which can mean anytime in a 6 month window) which then progressed to ‘Spring 2010’ (3 months) eventually becoming ‘March 2010’ (one month – obviously). I can now confirm that all along, we wanted to have been open for at least a week before the Easter weekend – and Easter Sale – started.

We chose to keep that bit guarded in case the manure hit the fan and we missed that target. We’d be disappointed of course but at least we wouldn’t look like idiots. I assure you that after three openings in seven years, there are always lots of opportunities for manure to hit the fan – many of them outside our control – so I hope you can appreciate our caution.

The second reason we’ve been coy about opening dates stems from our experience of re-opening our Ashton store in 2003. I’ve blogged about this before but let’s just say we learned a lesson that day about how easily you can lose control of a situation when you’re dealing with high levels of anticipation. That was worrying enough but it involved people and systems that were all tried and tested. With a brand new shop you also have brand new staff using mostly brand new systems.

Of course the egotist in me wants us to hold a Grand Opening but my more sensible side accepts that it’s easy enough for us to create hype but it’s more important really that we create something that people want to come back to again and again long after all the bunting has come down. So, there’s no mad opening ceremonies, no minor celebrities, no ceremonial ribbon-cuttings. They’re nice enough and we’ve done all that sort of thing before – that’s another story for another blog entry – but in the end, they do tend to detract from the point of what you’re really trying to do. So, it seems we’re on a mission to make this opening as boring and as controlled as we can. I’m aware that all this caution may come across as being a little bit dismissive, a bit everything-would-be-fine-if-it-wasn’t-for-the-flaming-customers, taking you for granted. I hope it doesn’t look like that because nothing could be further from the truth.

Throughout all of this very logical approach we do not take lightly the very high level of anticipation and goodwill that so many people seem to have about our opening. I must say that we are very mindful that such genuine interest from so many people doesn’t just happen on its own. It means that we must have done things that are appreciated and that we seem to have inspired some affection. To anyone who has ever said anything positive about our arrival in Hampshire, I really do thank you for your support and for your kind words. From ‘Day 1’, we just really want everyone who visits to feel like the experience is as impressive as we can make it. That means everything running as smoothly as possible and as close as possible to a manageable number of people to avoid it being anything other than fantastic.

Yes, we want everyone to say “Wow” on the way in but it’s more important to us that you’re still saying “Wow” as you leave. To ensure our staff and our systems are ready, this week, we’ll be holding a number of invitation-only days this week for friends and families of our staff, suppliers and press and local mail order customers. Once we’ve done that, we’ll be opening for real.

We’ll deliberately wait until the weekend is out of the way to ensure things don’t get out of hand. So, here it is, I’m guessing probably the main reason you’re reading this. I’ve left it to the end to give myself the chance to tell you all of the above – and thanks for sticking with this for the last 800-odd words, by the way: We’ll open to the public at 10am on Monday 22nd March. I really hope you like it! Whatever your thoughts, please let me know what you think once you’ve been.

Thanks,

Paul.

Archive: Virtual Insanity*

First published on 4th March 2011 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m very conscious that I haven’t blogged yet about our forthcoming new website, in the way that I have about our forthcoming new Cardiff store. There’s so much I’d like to say about our new website, what’s going to be better about it and why we need it to ensure that we remain at the forefront of what we do, I could write for hours.

One reason I don’t have lots of time to write about the new site is…the new site!   The project is taking up so much time for so many people here at the moment – and the next few weeks promise to be nothing short of mad! The amount of work required to find, manipulate, improve all the words and pictures we have is huge and it strikes me that it’s almost as big a project as our last big move, when we shifted our entire warehouse and admin from Rainford to here, nearly six years ago.

Over at Pod1, our web developers, the site is slowly taking shape, with buttons, functions and product details being added little by little.  As with any shop opening, it’s difficult (and risky) to give you a firm launch date but we anticipate early April – which also happens to be our estimate for the Cardiff store opening. I haven’t got much more to add for now but I will, in my next entry tell you much more about the new site and add a few teasing images, too.

Have a great weekend!

Paul 🙂

*The name of this Jamiroquai track seemed very apt for this blog entry – but without the ‘useless twisting of our new technology’ bit, of course!

Archive: All Change Online!

First published on 23rd March 2011 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

What an incredibly mad couple of months it’s been!  We don’t seem to like doing things by halves and here we are about to open a new store in Cardiff and launch a brand new website in almost the same week!  I’ve been promising a blog on our new site about why we feel it’s such a big deal, so here goes…

Some time in April (I can’t say when because at this stage we don’t know), we’ll take the decision to retire our current website, which has served us well for the last seven or eight years and replace it with a new, more powerful, more attractive version.  Not only will it look different and do many more sophisticated things, it will also live somewhere else.

We’ve decided that the new website will live at robinsonsequestrian.com but don’t worry about updating your bookmarks or anything; we’ll do all sorts of linking to ensure that anyone going to our current site will be automatically forwarded to the new site instead. Below, you’ll see a graphic of the new homepage (sorry, we’re not really knocking 50% of Puffa jackets!).  As you can see, it’s visually very different to the site it replaces but the differences don’t end there…

  • Avid web users may be pleased to see that it offers a wishlist function – something that lots of customers have contacted us about over the years, er, wishing for.  I’m a big amazon.co.uk fan and I was delighted to see that Father Christmas had clearly read my amazon wishlist last year, so it was hugely important to me that we gave him the chance to do the same thing with our new site!
  • The search box looks the same but under the bonnet, it’s like comparing a lawnmower engine with a Ferrari V8.  Our old site only searched the titles of our products and a few keywords, this will look at every word we use about it in the copy – it’ll even decide for itself what to suggest if you spell something wrong.  We always had to anticipate that lots of people might search for ‘jodphurs’ and remember to add such keywords ourselves.  Now the search engine will do it for us – wherever it thinks it needs to – which means you should find what you’re looking for much more quickly.
  • In addition to organising our product range by types of product (i.e. footwear, headwear etc.), we will also be able to organise them by the activity you need them for.  The new ‘Disciplines’ menu allows dressage riders to see everything we can offer them that are ideal for their sport, just as showjumpers, eventers and a host of others will be able to.  You can also drill into this feature (and the new and extended Bargain Zone) even further by specifying items for Men, Women or Children.
  • Overseas customers will also have the opportunity to order in Euros or US dollars.

2011 web mock 1

Once you’ve found the item you’re looking for, the improvements won’t end there.  Here’s another mock-up of the product page (I know, clippers shouldn’t live in the T-shirts section!) showing how we’ll convey a wealth of information about each product to you clearly and legibly.

  • We’ll have the ability to display upto eight images or even a video file for each item we offer and all the information we hold can be sorted into sections, like johnlewis.com ond other major retailer websites.
  • You’ll be able to rate an item and write a review, or use the information that others have already left to help decide if a particular product is just what you’re looking for – or not.
  • In addition to everything we can write to describe the items we offer, we’ve also reached and agreement with the publishers of the Threshold Picture Guides to allow us to use some of their information to help you decide what items are right for you.  We’ll also be asking all our suppliers to provide us with as many guides and as much associated information as they can.  We really want our pages to be the source of all the information you’re ever likely to need about each and every product in the range.

2011 web mock 2

We’ll be able to offer you ever more sopisticated offers like ‘Buy three rugs and get the cheapest free’ – which our old site would never have been able to handle.  We’ll also be able to offer – and redeem – online versions of our popular paper gift vouchers, which is another missing feature that has been maddening to customers and us alike for years! All the best functions on our current site will remain – although many of them will be more prominent which should make them more popular.  For example, our Live Chat feature has become a very popular and therefore important tool in a short space of time.

Similarly, the suggestion of related items (which I admit weren’t always that sensible) will also appear on the new site, together with the ubiquitous ‘Share This’ social media links.  You always could post an item that impressed you to Facebook or Twitter but I bet you never have, in part, because the button was designed so appalingly. We’re doing away with a separate News section and incorporating all that kind of thing straight into an upgraded blog area and calling it all ‘News & Events’ and we’re also changing the way the site is hosted to ensure that we can cope much more efficiently with the mega-busy days like the first day of an online Sale.

I hope you can agree, this has all been quite sufficient to keep many of our admin team and Pod1, our web partners quite busy for a number of months now.  We’re sure it will work and feel much better, which is, after all, the point of the exercise.  It may however take us a while to acquire and organise all the extra product details we’ll now have the opportunity to provide.  I’m currently leaning on all our top suppliers to get more words, more pictures and more video and of course, we’ll generate our own content too but with over 20,000 products to populate, that might not happen overnight.

Finally, one last little feature that we felt was important: The Trolley.  What do you call the *thing* that you add items into when you’re ordering online?  Every bit of advice we have been given has been to call it a ‘Basket’.  That’s what everyone else does and it’s what customers expect to see.  If we were aiming the site at Americans, we could get away with ‘Cart’ but here, it should be ‘Basket’ every time.  Why then, did we decide to go for ‘Trolley’?

1980s Shop interior pic

Here’s a picture taken in our ‘New Equestrian Superstore’ when we first opened it in 1982.  The thing that made us different then – and to still some extent even now – was the humble shopping trolley.  It was a time where only grocery ‘supermarkets’ used them and nobody had every heard of doing their equestrian shopping this way and it caused a huge stir at the time.  Some people even thought it cheapened the experience of going shopping.

If you’re under 25, I’m sure you can barely imagine such a ridiculous state of affairs (in fact, I often struggle myself 🙂 *pretends not to be much older than 25*) but it’s true and if I could link to something that agreed with the point, I would. Anyway, that’s why we defied all the advice and we’re going with a Trolley.

Please don’t be confused by this departure from the norm because every piece of website user data indicates that you might be! I’m sure you’ll cope with the Trolley and I hope you’ll love the site.  We can’t wait to get it online and I’m sure you’re looking forward to having a browse around too.

As soon as we have a launch date, we’ll let you know!

Paul.

Archive: Our Leeds Store Will Open… …As Soon As We Announce It!

First published on 15th December 2014 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

Since we announced an intention to open our fifth store in Hunslet, Leeds, we’ve been inundated with questions about when it’ll open. I guess that’s not surprising but it’s still great to see how warmly we’re being welcomed by the local equestrian community.

While we’ve needed a few weeks to turn two bare, empty units into a stunning 15,000 sq ft store, we’re very keen not to disappoint all those who can’t wait to visit by making our opening any later than we absolutely have to. The fact that we’re in December has only added to the pressure with Christmas shopping plans understandably the reason behind many of the queries – although I can guarantee that it will be before Christmas!

What’s our ‘opening date’ going to be, then? The best answer I can give is this: “as soon as possible”. Not only is that the truth, it also handily removes the problem of having a given date known about well in advance.

Why is that a problem? Well, rewind to November 2003, the day that our Ashton store re-opened following a year of re-build after our 2002 fire. We rather inadvisably chose to make our opening date a Sunday, where trading hours are restricted to just six hours, and simply let it be known what date it would be a few weeks in advance. We didn’t spend any money advertising it and there was no such thing as Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking sites, back then. What happened that day involved thousands of people, an ambulance, a police helicopter and literally dozens of technical parking offences – and it all came about just from word of mouth.

I won’t go into it in depth because I’ve blogged about it before but it’s fair to say that that experience has made us very sensitive to what can happen when dealing with huge levels of expectation. Of course it’s lovely to be at the centre of it and we certainly appreciate the attention but it’s also necessary for us to be responsible and avoid problems and poor experiences, when we have already learned the lesson.

Today, social media is vital to our communications. Every day, we try our hardest to gain the most clicks and the greatest level of engagement we can. With things like store openings, I have to be honest: social media scares me a little. We’ve all heard the stories about what can happen when, for example, a teenager’s parents are spending a weekend away; the teenager in question arranges a bit if a party because, well, their parents aren’t there to stop them. Before you know it, the whole thing’s gone viral and the police are being called to remove eight hundred rioting revellers from a sleepy cul-de-sac.

Of course we’d like as many people as possible to visit our new Leeds store, when it opens – but I’d hate for any of them to regret being there. Here’s the deal, then: we won’t have an official ‘opening date’, we’ll just tell you when we’ve opened. If you follow us on Twitter or Like us on Facebook, that’s where we’ll announce it first. If you’re a recipient of our emails, I’m sure you’ll notice it appearing on the odd email too.

I promise there’ll be no celebrity cutting a ribbon (been there, done that – with Milton in 1997*) that you might feel aggrieved about missing out on, just a brand new shop with a fantastic new team of staff and a regular amount of other shoppers to make your visit as pleasant as possible. I know anticipation and novelty are great ways to build awareness and hype but it doesn’t last and it actually counts for very little if we then find it harder to tempt you back to our Leeds store in the future – when all the attention has moved to where (and when) the sixth Robinsons store will be opening… I hope this all sounds sensible to you.

Thanks,

Paul

* Milton?  Cutting a ribbon?  Here’s the proof (we used a carrot):

Milton ribbon cut

Archive: New Catalogue, New Thinking

First published on 25th March 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

One of the pitfalls of being involved in any sort of publishing is that you often forget what the time of year is. The relentless need for monthly magazines to produce next month’s issue (often with the following month shown on the cover) by the end of this month means that to writers and publishers, summer starts in March, Christmas occurs around early October and Easter can be as early as the New Year! When speaking to our friends at magazines like Your Horse, I often feel like I’m entering a strange world where the next six weeks have ceased to exist, kind of like amnesia but in the other direction. When you think about it, the same must be true of anyone working in the soaps. Every so often, you’ll see a giveaway, like evidence of snow in an episode aired in May – look out for that this year! One of the more interesting ‘work’ days out I am fortunate to have is to a venue which just happens to be an occasional location for Emmerdale. I’m told that the continuity people who are there during the shoots are permanently worried about making everything look like it’s a month and a half in the future. In the case of the humble catalogue production department, our timing can be even longer into the future. With Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter campaigns, the deadlines may be less frequent, but the thinking is even further ahead. With that in mind, I was almost going to tell you how we’re very happy with the way our Autumn/Winter ’08 catalogue is shaping up and then I remember that you’ll only recently have received our Spring/Summer catalogue. Do you see what I mean? Time and again, time plays this trick on me.

Maybe I can put it this way: I hope you like our new selection and indeed our new catalogue. We’re very proud of it and we hope it’ll be very popular, but I expect it to be the last of its kind, a throwback to a simpler age. In the evolution of mailorderus catalogi, we’re at the point in time where the species has to adapt to a changing environment. If we don’t develop the equivalent of warm blood or opposable thumbs, we risk becoming a dinosaur and nobody wants to look forward to being a rather famous skeleton.

So what are we going to do next time to make this new catalogue seem like a quaint, old-fashioned relic? Well, I’m sure you can agree that I can’t possibly discuss that here (yet), but I’m also sure you can probably guess the direction we’ll be heading. And here comes the other curse of the publisher: the fact that you hardly ever get the chance to be proud of the thing you worked so hard to create – because you already know that in the pipeline is something that promises to be much, much better. I can’t wait until we can share it with you…

Merry Christmas!

Paul.

Archive: The World of the Smaller Catalogues

First published on 7th February 2013 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

As HMV, Blockbusters, Jessops and many others have found recently, if something can be downloaded these days, there’s far less demand for the physical version of it. While we’ve certainly noticed that we don’t sell the same proportion of books and DVDs that we used to, thankfully, most of our range needs to be a physical item because riding and horse-owning are physical activities – although I’m sure that if anyone was able to perfect a way of downloading a way to a groomed horse or a mucked-out stable, they’d never have to worry about money again!

On the one hand, we’re thankful that we’re not in an industry that is so vulnerable to digital alternatives but on the other, it’s a mistake to think that we’re not in any way affected by the changes to the way that the public consumes information digitally. Take for instance the case of the humble catalogue. Like most companies that were working in ‘mail order’ before the World Wide Web was even a glint in Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, the catalogue still holds a special place in our hearts.

Catalogues gave us the opportunity to find new customers, to try new things – to become the business that we are today. We’re so proud of our roots and the progress we’ve made since then that any visitor to our admin offices today will find our staircase adorned by pictures of every main catalogue we’ve ever produced.

Catalogues on Stairway

On the other hand, catalogues are incredibly time-consuming to produce, eye-wateringly expensive to print and post, they’re always one mistaken detail or broken supplier promise away from making us look like liars or idiots for months on end – and many people would say they’re not particularly environmentally responsible.

As much as we’re proud of our catalogue heritage, only a misty-eyed nostalgic would claim that catalogues don’t have their difficulties. Certainly, there have been many times over the years when looming deadlines or unreliable technology have raised our stress levels and we’ve had to console ourselves with the thought that ‘if it was easy to do this, everyone would be doing it’.

In rather a sharp twist of irony, the arrival of the internet as a shopping medium has all but proved that old throwaway line. Distance selling online is now much easier (and cheaper) for small traders than paper and, guess what? these days, it often does seem like ‘everyone’ is now selling equestrian products online. The battleground for us to compete for your affections these days is, it seems, not in the letter-box any more but in the virtual world.

In the 29 years we’ve been producing brochures and catalogues, we’ve seen the number of other companies doing the same thing go from two or three in the 80s to perhaps twenty or so ten years ago and back to two or three again today. It’s even conceivable that there will be no other equestrian-specific paper catalogue worthy of the name by this time next year. We won’t know until then but the fact that it’s even possible is astounding enough.

This puts us in a tricky position. We know that when we launch a catalogue, sales go up sharply. Would all of these sales still happen if we suddenly stopped putting ink on paper? We’d rather not find out if that’s the case by just trying it, in case it proves to be a big mistake. There’s also the question of catalogue size to consider. It’s great to be able to produce over 200 pages of products and, in doing so, show off the breadth of our product range simply by inviting customers to ‘feel the width’ (which is something that websites still struggle to convey). This is all well and good but at 200+ pages, many of them will contain the same popular-yet-unchanging products that we’ve printed ten or twenty times or more. Should we really worry that you might think that we don’t sell ‘old favourites’ in products like haynets or water buckets or grooming kits if we don’t keep showing you that we do?

Last October, I decided to put a question to the thousands of people who Like our Facebook Page. I created a poll called “What Form Should the Robinsons Spring 2013 Catalogue take?” and gave a choice of three answers:

  • ‘The Same as Usual: A4, about 150 pages, a full selection of Spring stuff’
  • ‘Just new stuff and good ideas – I expect you to still offer everything else’
  • ‘You know what? I don’t even need a catalogue these days. I’d still order!’

FB Poll Screenshot

At the time that I write this, it has elicited 72 responses:

  • 32 people (44%) chose answer ‘a’: keep the status quo.
  • 35 (49%) went for ‘b’: a version with fewer pages and a smaller range in print
  • Just 5 (7%) plumped for ‘c’: the paperless option – no catalogue at all.

While I’d like to thank those 72 people for their help, we have to be a little careful here – it’s not what a market researcher would call ‘scientific’ but it’s interesting, all the same. It proves nothing but it does lend support to the theory that we could significantly cut down on the amount of paper we produce without adversely affecting our ability to tell you what great products we can offer you.

We know what proportion of our orders are placed via our website but we have to be a little careful not to presume that all those orders were only brought about by the website, not the catalogue. In short, we don’t want to take for granted that you will order from us even if we don’t send you a catalogue. Why should you? It’s our job to entice you to order and if we don’t do that bit properly, why should we expect you to order at all? To inform our view, we’ve looked at what’s happening with paper in other industries and other markets.

Catalogue companies like Joe Brown’s and M&M Sports have dabbled in smaller, thinner catalogues. We may not know what those exercises have proved to them but the fact they’re even doing it indicates that they’re at the same crossroads that we are. Where the old-fashioned ‘big books’ still exist, they appear more likely to come with a price, albeit a nominal price and I even heard a rumour (and it’s only that so don’t quote me) that Argos may be getting away from 1,000+ pages, in favour of developing their very impressive smartphone app further. If that does happen, it’ll surely be another nail in the coffin of the old-style ‘doorstep’ catalogue. So, against all this background – and more besides, we’ve decided to keep in step with innovation and produce a smaller, slimmer Spring/Summer catalogue (see below).

It’s probably only a matter of time before we decide to do the same with its bigger sibling, the Autumn/Winter catalogue. Some may suggest that we’re even seeing the beginning of the end of paper catalogues as a means of customer communication. I’m not sure about that; there were many similar predictions about the impending demise of paper around the time of the ill-fated ‘dot-com boom’ nearly fifteen years ago. Just like the famous old Mark Twain quote, it turned out that rumours of the catalogue’s death were ‘greatly exaggerated’, the lesson being that just because someone has said that something is on the way out, it doesn’t mean that they’re right. It’s a good thing to remember but at the same time, let’s not forget that nothing lasts forever. Mark Twain did eventually die, so you could say that those ‘exaggerated’ rumours, although inaccurate at the time, would come true sooner or later…

SS12 OFC
Thanks for reading, as ever!

Paul

Archive: For Those About To Complain – We Salute You

First published on 28th June 2011 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

Last week, we were concerned to read a thread of comments on the Horse & Hound Forum in which we were the subject of some criticism.  Our new website was the topic and it received most of the comments but other points were made which were not particularly complimentary. I won’t pretend it was a wonderful way to spend half an hour but it was a valuable use of time nonetheless.

Yes, it’s fashionable to greet criticism with a fixed smile as “an opportunity to improve” – which is perfectly true – but it doesn’t make the process of reading it any more pleasant.  Having said that, I’ve also felt that any retailer who can’t receive honest criticism, however brutal, shouldn’t really be in retail.  Anyone who sells their products to consumers exists purely because they are able to impress enough people to stay in business.  It’s not a difficult rule to live by – in fact it couldn’t really be any simpler – and you can’t really be surprised at what happens when it proves too difficult to achieve. Actors and other performers have to learn to handle bad reviews when they perform their art to the paying public so why shouldn’t retailers expect the same accountability? Of course, you can’t be in business for very long before you encounter your first criticism.

One the one hand, you have to expect it; on the other, you must never ever dismiss it when it comes.  Any company that justifies doing nothing about criticism because some was expected is on the slippery slope to complacency and arrogance.  Neither can you always just start doing whatever it was that provoked the complaint.  We have a responsibility to all our customers and merely correcting what one person is unhappy about may not necessarily be the right thing for everyone else.  What matters most at this stage is how we respond to our critics and where we can use their comments as a force for improvement, which is precisely why I’m writing this.

It would have been very easy for us to do the traditional, very British thing, which is to close ranks and still attempt to do the right thing, but in a secretive manner, to avoid ‘washing dirty linen’ and to ‘save face’.  In a world of blogging and social media, companies are increasingly finding that that doesn’t work.  We need to take guidance from the experiences of super-injunction-seeking celebrities who find that the harder you try to contain a story, the more you fail.  The sensible alternative, it seems, is to invite more comment and to be seen to respond to it properly.  There is at least an inherent honesty here.  Everything is “in the open” and everyone “knows where they stand”.  When we as customers deal with others, we all want to be able to use those phrases, so why is it so surprising that it applies here as well?

Since last Thursday, we’ve begun to work with Feefo, a company who specialises in providing feedback for mail order and online retailers.  With clients such as MandMDirect and Joe Brown’s on their roster, they have a lot of credibility in the world of catalogues and (I hate this term, but…) ‘e-commerce’. Anyway, we sent them information about some recent orders: customers, products ordered, email addresses.  Feefo then sent each customer the following email.  It was entirely left to each recipient whether or not to respond:

It’s early days I know, but from the results I’ve seen so far, it seems that people are largely satisfied, with around 95% of respondents indicating that they are either ‘Happy’ or ‘Very Happy’.  While this is a little more reassuring to us, I don’t want you to think we’re happy that ‘only’ the other 5% aren’t happy with us.  There are plenty of issues raised in the experiences of the remaining 5% that, once addressed, could be of value to every customer. The secondary benefit to this survey is that it invites you to say why you’re unhappy, which is absolutely vital to us to help us decide what to do about removing the problem, if we can.

One of the problems I have with trusting the chatrooms too much is that people tend to just say that something is bad or wrong without having to explain why they think that way.  I do of course have to concede a point here: why should they have to explain anything?  Chatrooms are for people to say what they like (within reason) and are not there for the benefit of snooping marketers like me, looking for nicely reasoned and qualified feedback.  I appreciate that when we look at these threads, it’s just a digital version of sitting with our ear to the door of your tackroom.  You are of course entitled to speak freely and you’re entitled to your opinion of us and everything else, however you’ve arrived at it.  It is however the worst of both worlds for us to read firmly negative comments and then have little or no ability to do anything constructive to repair the situation.

I’m grateful to anyone who takes the time to explain why they think we’ve done something badly and I extend that gratitude to you, if you wish to share your views. We’ll be looking to do something similar to gauge the views of people browsing the site and I’ll be actively encouraging feedback via our Facebook page and our Twitter account.  I believe that I can also add a polling widget to this blog, although I’d value your comments more.  With regard to our website, our website partners are also closely involved in making whatever improvements we can. Will we always enact every suggestion or remove every irritation we read?  I can’t promise that but I can say that if we know we can’t, or won’t, we should always tell you so.  If we didn’t do something we should have done, I’d also expect that we should be clear and honest about that.  I’m struggling to think of instance where we have failed to be open in the case of any of the above but of course, if your experience is different, I’d be glad to know. Thanks for your time and for any feedback you can give.  It’s always appreciated.

Paul.

Archived: Welcome to the Rob-Blog

First published on 22nd January 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

Joining the Blogosphere

One of our New Year’s resolutions for 2008 was to continue to present a more human face to Robinsons, and I hope you find that to be the case. One way to do this is for us to write a blog. If you’re new to the concept of blogs and blogging, I believe it comes from the words ‘web -log’ and it means a series of articles on a website to give a little more personal insight and information. Have a look on www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ to see how the BBC use blogs. I should also add that normally, Vicky Maylor our Customer Relations Manager would be heavily involved in this sort of thing. As it happens, Vicky is currently away on maternity, waiting for the birth of her first child. As many Americans put it, we’re “missing her already”!

Where Everybody Knows Your (Virtual) Name

So, with all that said, Happy New Year everyone! I hope that 2008 is a good year for you. My theme for this January edition of our blog is the growth of the online equestrian community, which is quite apt as by writing this blog, we have in some small part helped it grow a little further! When I left University in 1995, I was lucky enough to have been using email and browsing the web well before most people because at that time universities were at the forefront of the internet’s adoption. Back then, I could see how it could change the way the world would work but I had no idea whether these changes would be noticeable one year or two decades. Now, thirteen years later, the virtual communities the internet has created are hugely influential and can give an interesting insight into the thoughts of the people they represent. At this point, I’m going to confess to you that from time to time, I make a point of looking for comments about Robinsons on various forum sites because it is precisely this insight that we always need to have. How can any company claim to be in touch with its customers if it is not taking every opportunity to listen to them? Unfortunately, I know that it’s more likely that I’ll read posts where someone’s not happy with us than those where we get praised. I can accept that. As a customer myself, I’d be unlikely to heap praise on Tesco just because they had what I wanted but I know I’d be more likely to tell someone if they’d run out of bread. We all have expectations of the places we shop with and because we expect them to be met, it’s only worthy of note when they’re not. I never like to see evidence of customers being unhappy with us, but I have to remind myself that these instances are in the tiniest minority of cases. Now, I don’t mean that to sound as bad as it might appear at first glance. Of course I don’t mean to say that because such problems are rare, we can just ‘put up’ with them happening. What use is that to the customer that’s not happy? Of course we want to make everyone happy, if we can. Here though lies the curse associated with forum surfing. If I suspect from a forum that a customer isn’t happy with us, what can I do about it? I could post a reply and say “Hi, I’m from Robinsons, let us put this right” and as a commercial posting, it will probably be removed within the hour. Worse still, there is a chance that the customer concerned (and other posters) will take exception to my clumsy interruption and move to another forum. Sometimes, if there are enough details (dates, items, UK regions), we can work out who the customer is from our own records and approach them by email. More often than not, the customer has chosen not to complain to us directly and unfortunately cannot be found. I have to conclude that happy or not, that is the way they want it and we have to respect that. Only when someone says something untrue about us, almost to the point of being libellous will I ask the forum administrator for the right to reply. The reason I’m telling you this is not to frighten posters away from websites, but to encourage anyone who is unhappy with anything we’ve done just to tell us about it – even if you do still want to tell other forumers. I promise you that each of our employees is a human being who wants to make sure that you’re pleased with the service they give and is rightly proud every time they’re able to do so.

Recent Events in Amersham

My thoughts turned again to the online equestrian community recently, following the awful news about the neglected horses in Amersham, Bucks. Both of the main forums that I frequent were filled with outrage and sympathy, and understandably so. With the power of the web and Google Earth at my fingertips, I was soon able to find out the precise location of the establishment and cross check the address with our own records. For what it’s worth, I am relieved to say that the individual arrested in connection with the case does not appear on our customer database. As a footnote, I’d like to add our best wishes to the charities who assisted with the rescue effort. We will be contacting them with a donation to help them rehabilitate the dozens of horses, ponies and donkeys they have taken with them. We all hope they return to full health as quickly as possible. If you’re reading this, perhaps you too could spare a small donation to the charity of your choice. There is a special news page on our website giving further information about all of the charities involved. Thanks for reading. Look out for next month’s instalment! Paul.

Why our future should keep you up all night (on Thursday) – [Archived]

Originally published as a FB Note, on 5 May 2010 at 21:45

Winston Churchill once said “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried”. Considering it was the very system that he so famously fought to defend, it seems odd to see that he would damn it with such faint praise. And yet, Churchill was nothing if not a realist, able to reconcile the seemingly opposable motivations of idealism and pragmatism – he also said (about Britain’s wartime propaganda) that “truth is so precious she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”.

Indeed, there’s nothing like a British General Election to showcase the very noblest and most base elements of political activism and this one has been no exception. The content generated by the party machines, media coverage and workplace water-cooler discussions alike has raged from intelligent debate to bitter class-riven tribalism, from wide-eyed idealism to narrow-minded prejudice. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for better or worse, this is the best – indeed the only – way to elect your government.

So why should you lose sleep on election night? Well, not necessarily in a partisan, what-if-the other-lot-get-in? way (although perhaps you might) but because there is little else that can provide greater drama than watching the immediate direction of the nation unfold before you. Seeing the very tectonic plates of power shifting with all the human reaction at those twin imposters of triumph and disaster reminds you of the power of the people – however we choose to wield it. The very certainty of a voting process provides drama of the highest order, which is precisely why it has become so central to the many forms of Saturday night television in the last decade. Unlike the X-Factor et al, though, the outcome of this talent show really does matter – ‘Britain’s Got Options’, you might say. This always has been and always will be the ultimate reality show.

During the coverage recent Winter Olympics, I and, I’m sure, a good number of others became acquainted once again with the nuances of curling. Before very long, the mists of time had lifted and terms like ‘house’ and ‘Rhona Martin’ began to waft back into the conscious mind. And so it is the same with the process of the General Election. Terms like ‘swing’, ‘boundary change’ and other staples of psephology (the science of elections) begin to re-emerge from the box your mind put them in the last time you took the time to understand them fully.

Except of course, that it is not exactly the same. Olympics are strictly quadrennial, as polls in many countries are. British Elections on the other hand are more like earthquakes, total eclipses or meteorite falls – generally adhering to a pattern over time but not quite following a predictive model. I could go on at greater length about the idiosyncracies of the British electoral term but more important issues should exercise you right now…

In the first instance, I know my primary civic responsibility is to engage in the process, evaluating the merits (and otherwise) of the protagonists and reminding myself of the fundamental, inalienable right a free country has to self-determination. And yet beyond that, I have come to acknowledge in myself that I have also found the process riveting in a secondary role as an observer of the whole process from as detached a position I can find. As a marketer, elections prove an interesting insight into both sampling and attempting to influence public opinion. I spend most of my working life questioning and second-guessing the trends and tastes of the great British public and I have concluded that a General Election may well be the ultimate exercise in brand loyalty.

Along the way then, for many of us, it’s time to return to questions about the very essence of the size and role of the state, the opportunities and security of the individual, the care of the young and the old, the defence of the realm and, inevitably, the scale and method of taxation it all requires. Or do we? Instead, do we just vote the way our parents did, simply choose a leader we like best/dislike least, settle on a convenient minority interest upon whom to endow a protest vote or, worst of all, not bother voting at all?

That is both the blessing and the curse of democracy. The right to vote for any reason, informed or otherwise, frivolous or otherwise. Indeed, unlike Australia, even the right not to vote. Churchill also said the “the greatest argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. For every voter who studies every manifesto and reads between each line of media coverage, there is often another who ‘cancels out’ the considered vote with a choice based on the fact that their chosen party leader’s eyes aren’t too close together – or some other such observation.

With nothing less than the future of the country at stake, isn’t this kind of flippancy frustrating? Sometimes. Is it acceptable? Well no, it’s not ideal – it only reinforces the view of Joseph de Maistre, the 18th/19th century French philosopher: “Every nation has the government it deserves” – but even a bad government, elected as the result of a country’s momentary lapse of reason will eventually be found out and removed. It may last for a number of years in the meantime, but democracy has wider horizons and is too important to attempt to refine or replace, when it fails to provide the ‘best’ choice of direction. Like evolution and geology, the eventual tendency to produce progress in the longer term is more important than the odd fluctuation along the way. Even democracy must be allowed to ‘fail’ sometimes if we believe firmly enough that it is always to succeed.

The alternative is to find a means of bestowing power some other way. Aside from considering the ridiculous options of dictatorship (it’s been tried elsewhere and has tended not to go well), it is often said of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates that their very willingness to seek election should singularly preclude them from participation, such are their (perceived) excesses of smugness and self-righteousness. Take this notion to its logical conclusion and it advocates that candidates should be like the cardinals who surround an ageing pope, where the quickest way to disqualify oneself from ever being considered a successor is to show any sign of desiring the position. This is all very laudable but rather impractical. Someone has to stand and wouldn’t it be rather better on the whole if they actually showed their hunger and qualification for the office they seek before we grant them it? This part is at least intrinsically honest – even God-fearing cardinals may not always tell the truth about their avowed disinterest, you know. I won’t check but I’m quite sure that it’s no coincidence that the words ‘candid’ and ‘candidate’ are so similar.

In today’s multimedia environment, it’s unrealistic to expect that the whole exercise will not be seen by many to have ‘descended’ to some extent into the ‘beauty contest’ or ‘presidential’ vote that it’s often purported to be. While this may now be true in some ways, it is still also true to say that the electorate is increasingly media-literate and to a large extent, actually demand more media coverage, with all its inherent risks of manipulation. Commentators love to imply that in a media-proliferated world, we now inhabit the era which values the soundbite over genuine oratory, that we deal merely in dumbed-down detail. I’m dubious of this. At any time in history, people have always known what it is that concerns them about their future and it is the amalgamation of such concerns that the parties must continue to strive to address, however they can. The difference today is that there are now more ways for each of us to pursue that interest, to find out more. Contrast that with the days of significant levels of illiteracy, or even the days where there were only three television channels and you may conclude that we may not be marching towards a time that boasts a perfectly engaged electorate but neither are we marching away from one.

And yet there is still a question over the the legitimacy of this noble, imperfect process in practice – an inconsistency at its very heart that threatens its idealism but is supposed to ensure its practical application. The Whip. For all we are exhorted to vote now for ‘our’ MP, the individual who will serve his or her constituents’ interests in Westminster, we are offered a choice of largely manufactured candidates who merely act as a representative for a small number of brands of ideology. Once elected, they will then be pressured into taking the ‘party line’ by essentially a small group of corporate bullies behind the closed doors of the Palace of Westminster. And so ‘your’ MP, if guided by his or her own set of ethics and judgement will eventually fall foul of their partisan paymasters – in the interest of party (or even sometimes national) unity. Whither the high-minded morals of democracy at that stage? In essence, we appear to be able to choose the guests to attend our Westminster Function, but the decisions about the buffet and the choice of music are still made for us.

The other interesting contribution of the constituency is in the vote-counting formula that decides the winner. Without the arbitrary groupings that we know as constituencies, our votes would count equally, unencumbered by considerations such as ‘safeness’ of the seat we happen to be live in. Essentially we would all be voting for one UK constituency and it is the overall share of the vote that determines the winning party. This would be the truest form of Proportional Representation. Or, as is currently the case, we ask parties to demonstrate that they can command a majority in a majority of places accross the country – our ‘first past the post’ system. PR is easier to understand, slightly easier to defend on grounds of moral legitimacy but will inevitably deliver an unclear result, which therefore gives rise to questions about the strength of mandate the winning party has. Flawed as our current system may be, it does tend to allow strong government because it only allows demonstrably more popular parties to prevail, quelling claims that their subsequent acts have no clear mandate. Once again, it’s a decision between the idealistic and the pragmatic – unless you have faith in the notion of coalition.

So why not have faith in coalition? Isn’t this notion of confrontational politics a little outdated? Can’t we embrace the notion of the parties working together a little more warmly? Well, even that is for the electorate to decide – albeit effectively, by the absence of a clear majority, not necessarily because we all think it’s a good idea. Certainly, this sentiment could be gaining support – this may be one reason behind the huge growth of support enjoyed by the Liberal Democrats in our post-sleaze, post-expenses jaundiced political outlook but it’s still an idea that is unfamiliar to many of us. “Look at Belgium” seems to be the main rejoinder of the consensualists. I suspect Churchill would have declined the invitation to look at Belgium. Following the bombing of the chamber of the House, he spurned the chance to re-design its geometry from oppositional to semi-circular, believing in the value of oppositional debate to bring rigour to any argument. Ironies abound here, not just because Churchill led a wartime coalition government on the one hand, but on the other, because he ‘crossed the floor’ not once but twice in his career.

Interestingly, when we consider the structure of the other key area where our inalienable rights were hard-fought and hard-won, the judiciary and all its due process, we appear to be keen to cling to the values of the adversarial system. Exactly how would a consensual system of justice work? “We may all think you shouldn’t have done it but it probably wasn’t entirely your fault”? When the stakes are high and it’s just as important that the wrong decision is avoided, it strikes me that in politics, as in law, it is the strength of the debate that is most likely to reach the right decision – or at the very least, one for which those charged with making are then accountable. While I will remain steadfastly enigmatic about my views about which party should be given the right to govern in this election, I am prepared to argue that a coalition, while it may be a necessary recourse in the short term is not a long-term solution in peacetime. Wars aside, all of the 20th Century coalitions seem to have been short, torrid affairs punctuated by inertia and in-fighting. Did you know that the last time a state of emergency declared in the UK was in 1974 – as a result of increasing industrial action, exacerbated by the weakness of our last minority government. Why would it be significantly different today?

So, there you have it, our collective future, laid bare for all to see. Many will place too much emphasis on it; those participants and activists who use it as a tool for self-aggrandisement or those who placing too much faith in the eventual winners to make every aspect of their life irreversibly better. More still will place too little emphasis on it; choosing the easy option of apathy and unconvincingly defending their right to ignore it. Having said that, the result may not affect you hugely, whichever way it goes. Our choice of may not even affect the country all that much, either. We’d find that difficult to prove because when we come to look back on this fork in the road, we’ll never really be able to say if the other lot would have done much better or worse. But then again, it could mean everything. It’s a time of possibilities and, for the first time since 1992 (the very first election I voted in), it’s genuinely unpredictable. The idealist decided long ago that I would watch it all, throughout the night. The pragmatist made sure I took the next day off work.

Whether you sleep through it or not, I wish you pleasant dreams!

 

Life on Mars or Dark Side of the Moon? – [Archived]

Originally published as a FB Note, on 17 July 2008 at 00:06

If you woke up in the 70's, you'd be pissed off, too...
If you woke up in the 70’s, you’d be pissed off, too…

Inflation, oil price rises and public sector strikes. Turn on the news and you’d be forgiven for wondering if you’d suffered the same fate as Sam Tyler in ‘Life on Mars’ and woken up in the 1970’s. Even the England football team are joining in with the nostalgia, resolutely failing to qualify for a major championships.

So what else are we expected to enjoy or endure again, thirty-odd years on? We’ve already seen the return of ‘Swap Shop’, hosted now by that other icon of the 70’s, Basil Brush. The seminal rock act of the age, Led Zeppelin got back onstage, possibly for one more night only and now Channel five have brought back ‘Superstars’. It all sounds so comfy and reassuringly familiar.

Wait a minute, though. We’re talking about a time commonly known as “The Decade That Taste Forgot” in homage to the fashions of the day. A time that Andrew Marr, in his ‘History of Modern Britain’ saw fit to dedicate the title ‘Paradise Lost’. Power rationing, a government emasculated by the narrowness of its majority, the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ and crippling unemployment.

Is this the shape of things to come or a reminder that things may not be as bad as we might think? Unfortunately, 2008 will have entered into history before we’ll know the answer to that one…

Brown Stuff Vol. 1: “Waste Not, Want Not!” – [Archived]

Originally published as a FB Note, on 7 July 2008 at 22:27

"If you don't eat it all up, you'll have it again for breakfast"
“If you don’t eat it all up, you’ll have it again for breakfast”

Rampantly rising oil prices, a swathe of unchecked knife murders, the credit crunch, falling house prices, rising inflation, international terrorism, overflowing prisons – the list of the UK’s current woes goes on and on.

Yes, it’s no fun being Prime Minister right now but Our Charismatic Leader continues to march on where others fear to tread by insisting we all throw less food away. Now, I have no problems with the sentiment here – I hate wasting food, myself – but do we really feel that this is the issue that should be most taxing the man who runs our country?Moreover, by taking on such an issue, one that most of us associate with memories of our childhood, exasperated parents and threats of not being allowed to leave the table, Brown risks becoming seen as the physical embodiment of the Nanny State, surely a public perception that very few leaders would willingly embrace.

I once read an article (which as far as I could tell was apolitical) which claimed that wars and economic crises apart, every Conservative government would eventually fall because after continual cuts in public service, aimed at creating tax cuts would eventually wear out public goodwill. Conversely, every Labour Government, having been elected on a ticket of reform and reinvestment would eventually run out of things to reform or ideas that work. In time, the higher taxes and increased obsession with ever-decreasing improvements would also exhaust public patience.

In other words, so the theory goes, after a number of years, the two main British parties revert to stereotype and almost legislate themselves out of power.

I don’t know if Gordon is familiar with this notion, but it seems as if he is single-handedly trying to prove it, especially with his very earnest insistence that such wastefulness costs each family about £420 a year.

Official National Statistics figures show that the UK has around 17.1m families. Imagine each paying out £420. That’s £7.2bn. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the figure that the Commons Public Accounts Committee accused ministers of spending on private consultants between 2004 and 2007, a practice they described as “sheer profligacy”. It seems, Mr. Brown that miscalculating our own grocery requirements is not the only way we can all cost ourselves £420, is it? And he has the gall to lecture the nation about “unnecessary purchases”!

When times are hard, it’s even harder to countenance waste. With every quarter-point rise, I suspect the nation’s household freshness threshold lowers a little further. We all become a little less extravagant and a little more prudent. The thing is, Mr. Brown, that ethos applies to our vote as much as it does to our shopping basket.

Heja Sverige Euro 2008! – [Archived]

Originally published as a FB Note, on 8 June 2008 at 13:05

http://en.euro2008.uefa.com/index.html

Back in November last year, England lost to Croatia at Wembley and we failed to qualify for Euro 2008. The hapless Steve MacLaren was duly fired (although that may have been a smarter move much sooner) and we realised we would be facing a summer without the relatively recent tradition of decking anything that doesn’t move with a St. George’s cross.

Now the European Championships have started and last November’s wounds have been re-opened somewhat, I’m in the (hopefully rare) position of choosing which team to support instead. Indeed the whole pre-tournament publicity on the BBC has centred around exactly that question. I suppose it’s the only way to make the best of the situation.

So, as a United fan, I have been tempted to transfer my allegiance to Portugal (as many others have), given the link with Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani. They were finalists in 2004, they play attractive football and they have a reasonably good chance of winning. Who else then? Well, let’s just say that it’s rather difficult to want our traditional rivals such as France or Germany to win!

Back in February, when England’s abject failure to qualify was still raw, I found myself discussing the tournament with my Swedish friend, Joachim and I promised then that I would support Sweden. The fans are passionate, the players are capable and let’s face it, no-one predicted that Denmark would win in 1992 – or Greece in 2004.

That’s why I’m flying the Swedish flag at home for the next few weeks!

It’s the Personality, Stupid! – [Archived]

Originally published as a FB Note, on 20 May 2008 at 22:19

So, the local elections have come and gone, Labour has taken a proverbial kicking and Our Glorious Leader, Mr. Brown, has faced calls from all quarters about his suitability for the role and, once again, even his mandate from the electorate. Instead of providing yet another political analysis, I respectfully submit my own apolitical assessment, based on my slightly greater understanding of public relations.

I make this submission contrary to political folklore, which since Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 Presidential election campaign has enshrined the maxim “It’s the economy, stupid”, a phrase that has since become part of the parlance for voters as much as psephologists.

Rewind, if you will a year, almost to the day. On May 11th, 2007, Gordon Brown announced his candidature for the leadrerhip of the party/country in the wake of Tony Blair‘s impending resignation of the posts. In his speech that day, he appeared to make a pledge to reject his predecessor’s well-known use of ‘spin’ by saying “I have never believed presentation should be a substitute for policy”. It was meant to act as a beacon for all those who criticised Mr. Blair’s “presidential” style of politics, where it was often alleged that Parliament and even the Cabinet were by-passed and the unelected Alastair Campbell, the spin-doctor in chief, wielded more power than senior Ministers. It may seem unusual to say so about politicians these days, but you could even believe that it was a stance that even he agreed with. Britain under Brown was, we were assured, to return to the good old days of Parliamentary scrutiny and collective responsibility.While this was all very worthy and even morally courageous, it did overlook one slight flaw – that in politics, just as in business, ultimately, it’s the number of punters that matter. Unfortunately, it would appear – and any focus group would probably confirm this – that there are fewer voters in the country today who are concerned by such dusty concepts as parliamentary process than there are those who care merely about backing the person they want to win. What’s more, all this was true before (New) Labour’s election victory in 1997, which is precisely why the old party needed the ‘New’ adjective back then. It’s hard therefore to escape the conclusion that Tony Blair was perhaps not the pathological egomaniac he was portrayed to be, but that he chose to act like a president because deep down, he knew that’s what the nation really wanted. To paraphrase a line from King Lear, perhaps it was Blair who was “more spinn’d against than spinning”.

While the ‘traditional’ Labour voter might have despaired at the vulgarities of their party back then, the truth is that eleven years on, the same gravitation to gratification is even more profoundly in evidence and seems to permeate every aspect of life. You could speculate that this is due to the increasing Americanisation of our culture or you could blame poorer education standards over-simplifying the question we are asked at each election. The best answer I’ve heard is that a sign of an unthreatened nation is one in which politics plays a less central role – and conversely, where security and even survival is in doubt, the masses are motivated to take the question of their governance more seriously.

So, viewed in the context of the history of British politics, that watershed election of 1997 still seems like a recent development, even after eleven years. In human terms, it’s about a seventh of a lifetime but in the context of social changes since then, it’s almost an eternity.

Since 1997, we’ve seen the rise of the ‘Big Brother’-culture, the spawning of an endless line of so-called ‘reality’ shows in which viewers are invited to ‘call this number’ to choose/evict the contestant they like most/least. By the time of the next General Election in possibly 2009 or more probably 2010, when we would have to have one, there could be as many as 8.3 million voters* in the elctorate aged between 18 and 30, and therefore not old enough to have participated in any General Election before that of 1997.

* based on demography distribution at the 2001 census.

in 2005, around 27.1 million votes were cast, at a turnout of (if memory serves) 59%. This would mean that potentially 18.7% of the electorate have only ever had voting experience of post-1997 electioneering.

Whatever your views on the extent of the increasing ‘celebrity culture’ we have or the youth market that is at its forefront, any would-be or incumbent Prime Minister should ignore either at their peril. Is that a good thing? Well, that’s an entirely different question…

Anyway, enter our hero, Gordon Brown. Bereft of oratory skills, lacking anything approaching charisma or media appeal and apparently eschewing the dark art of ‘spin’. It’s a heady mix for our celebrity age. It’s tempting to compare him with politicians from a bygone age such as Harold MacMillan who appeared equally uncomfortable in front of the camera. In truth, this would be an immense disservice to MacMillan, who for all his obvious discomfort, was arguably the first Prime Minister to recognise the importance of the new medium when it may have been easier for him to have avoided its exacting gaze. Macmillan was a television pioneer because of the age and despite his own limitations, whereas Brown abhors it despite the age and, one has to conclude, because of his limitations.

All of this “what I’m concentrating on” stuff with which Brown fills his rhetoric may be laudable and may even get him elected again, but for that to happen the impact of his actions will have to outstrip the presentation skills of the real heir to Blair’s media-friendly mantle, a certain David Cameron…

Who Will Support the Supporters? – [Archived]

Originally published as a FB Note, on 28 May 2008 at 00:19

Two weeks ago, I was very close to writing a post on the disgraceful trashing of Manchester by Rangers ‘fans’ during and after their appearance in the UEFA Cup Final.  Exasperated in equal measure as I was by all concerned, I saw no real injustice, so I decided to leave the subject alone – until now.
David Beckham on the bus being greeted by upto 700,000 fans after the Treble win in 1999.
David Beckham on the bus being greeted by upto 700,000 fans after the Treble win in 1999.

To recap, where there are 100,000+ Glasgwegians, copious amounts of alcohol and a high potential for disappointment, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what might happen next.  Given what did happen, it’s easy to paint the Rangers following as the villains of the piece.  Of course, they were the ones charging the police and breaking windows so whatever way you wish to look at it, they are hardly able to complain of victimisation.

Consider though for a second the role played by Manchester City Council here. Despite toeing the sensible line of advising ticketless United fans not to go to Moscow the following week, when it came to their own gig, the Council mysteriously and repeatedly trotted out lines beginning with ‘Despite all the advice, we know that more Rangers fans will want to be here than can be accommodated in the City of Manchester Stadium…’

When it comes to the injection of a few Bank of Scotland notes into the city’s coffers, it seemed the Council ‘bottled’ it – rather ironically.  Hey, what’s a bit of extra police overtime against a potential £50m in extra revenues? At the last minute, the City Council decided to lay on some big screens to make “better provision” for these fans that, had they been similarly following United in Moscow, the same Council would have advised not to travel.

So, as sure as a hangover follows a party, we had the flashpoint, the violence, the clean-up and the recriminations.  Another of the ironies of the situation was that the reported failure of one of the big screens was cited as a spark to the flame.  Like a rowdy regular, the Rangers fans took a certain delight in having their pint spilled and so had their fight to make their night. Like a greedy landlord, the city knew who they were letting in and only did it to sell a few more pints.  Both parties deserved what they got.

What about those caught in the crossfire, though? The real injustice only occurred eight days later when Manchester United’s Champion’s League victory was
denied a civic parade by the same Council, on police advice.  That’s right, the same supporters who voted for and pay their Council taxes to Manchester were asked to accept that the previous week’s maurauding Scots had irrevocably changed the risk levels of such a gathering that had caused no problems only eight years previously.

I was in the crowd at Deansgate on May 27th 1999.  The city’s main thoroughfare was carpeted with scores of thousands of people, all waiting patiently for the five minutes or so that they would have to see the team pass by. Aside from the odd over-enthusiastic building-scaler or lamp-post-climber, I saw nothing that would worry a police officer. The mood was overwhelmingly good-natured.  The atmosphere was almost identical to that at a festival or a major concert before the main act came on, euphoric and full of anticipation.

At the time, I was struck by the uniqueness of the situation that combined a Glastonbury feel with a city centre location.  Now the moment has passed and calls for a parade can only diminish to the extent that even if one happens, it will be a pale imitation.  Damn the brainless Rangers fans for their drunken idiocy.  Damn the spineless City Council for their greed and double standards and damn then feckless Greater Manchester Police for having the nerve to suggest that the two situations are even slightly similar.

Sadly, it seems I was right about the ’99 parade, but not in the way that it turned out to be unique. We may have a football team to be proud of , but
Manchester’s supporters deserved much, much more than they got from the people paid to act as a team supporting them.

Marley & Us – [Archived]

Originally published as a FB Note, on 20 May 2008 at 22:16

As I said a while back, I’ll upload details of our new puppy:

It’s the usual friend-of-a-friend story: We got him after Easter from a couple in Crosby, Liverpool. He was giving the lady allergic reactions and, much as they loved him, they decided to give him up. Having seen him and decided that he was just the kind of dog we liked (not that we were looking for one) – a golden version of Sam, not over-bred, still a pup and with a strong personality.

There was only really one problem. At his previous household, he’d gone by the name of ‘Charlie’. If we were going to have him, we couldn’t possibly duplicate a name. With the addition in the last year of two horses, and a dog and a child next door, the number of new names to remember was bad enough without the potential for confusion that this created.

We even considered not taking him, but in a moment of lucidity, I remembered a great book I read on holiday last year, called Marley & Me (look out for the film in 2009 starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston), about the life and love of a golden lab, which really touched me. As the name rhymed and the book was so appropriate, it struck me that the best thing to do for all was to change his name to ‘Marley’.

Once I’d realised that, it seemed pre-ordained that we should get him and in the end of March, we did. After an interesting couple of weeks in which he and Sam discovered the boudaries of acceptable behaviour, they have become inseparable, which is great to see.

At 9 months, he’s still a mad puppy, although he’s nearly fully-grown. If he makes half the dog that we have in Sam, I’ll be happy. He comes when I whistle or shout him and he doesn’t beg at mealtimes. Already, he’s become a member of the family. I’m sure that within a month or so, we’ll begin to wonder what we would ever do without him. That’s the point at which we know he has really made an impact on us.

If you must complain, at least do the math(s) first! – [Archived]

Originally published as a FB Note, on 20 May 2008 at 22:12

Every so often, a story arises that supports my own adage that ‘common sense isn’t that common’. Here’s this week’s new entry:

As you may know, last Saturday was a wall-to-wall Six Nations day on BBC1. Having expensively acquired the rights to cover the tournament, the BBC naturally wanted to extract maximum value for its (make that our) outlay. In days gone by, the games were, rather quaintly, held simultaneously. This of course divides up the viewership over the 80 minutes and requires multiple channels to cover all the games. Obviously the Beeb wanted a better solution than this and presumably, it was agreed during the negotiations that the fixtures would be staged consecutively. A broadcaster-friendly format benefits the paying TV company but it also gives maximum exposure to the tournament.

What we arrived at, then was the inevitable succession of games strung together across the afternoon/evening. Now I’m not a big fan of Union. I’ll watch the odd England international but not that intently. I do however accept the fact that there were three matches on in a row, decided not to watch them and I got on with my life.

What I couldn’t believe was that 124 people complained about this to the BBC. They responded by pointing out that a combined 15m viewers watched the three matches – and then that they apologised anyway!

How arrogant would you have to be to moan at the BBC because they’re not showing something you like on just one of their channels? You can safely assume that scheduling decisions are made for ratings purposes and that viewers will always outnumber complainers overwhelmingly so you can never expect to be in a majority. Of course, you may seek to gain the moral ground of having registered your dissatisfaction but if you’re only posturing, why the hell should anyone else listen to you or take you seriously?

Compare the maths with the 2005 UK General Election. A total of 27.1m people cast their vote, a factor of 1.806(rec) of last weekend’s 15m viewership. The 124 complaints similarly scaled therefore equates to 224 votes in the last election. Not only is that less than half the representation of any party in 2005, it’s only 3.5% of the figure that voted Monster Raving Loony and less than a fifth of the number who voted Communist – and they still got an apology!

Continuing the politeness, the BBC’s Director of Sport, Roger Mosey attempted to draw a firm but diplomatic veil over the issue in his blog. I know we’re/they’re paying his wages and I understand he’d like to avoid appearing unprofessional in any way, but it’s gone far enough. I don’t mind saying it for him:

If you don’t like something on telly, turn it over or turn it off. If you do like something, bear in mind that perhaps not everyone else will. You have no credibility in complaining about sport one minute but expecting us all to watch yet another panel-based ‘celebrity’ format talent (sic) show the next. Guess what? In the real world, all but 9.16m of the country (on 19/12/07)didn’t watch Strictly Come Dancing, but mostly we’re intelligent enough to know that there’s a ratings reason why it exists. We mostly find something else to watch or maybe even do something else.

It may be called Auntie Beeb, but this lot would seem to think of the BBC as more of a nanny. Grow up you sad acts!

Incidentally, I’d love to know what the Male/Female and Age Range split was of these 124 whingers. Please speculate at will… 🙂

Ringo Starr, Man of the People Or What? – [Archived]

Originally published as a FB Note, on 20 May 2008 at 22:09

So, it’s Friday night, Johnathan Ross is back on and his big guest is one time skin-beater Richard Starkey.

As you’d expect, he’s got an album out so it’s hardly like he’s on there because he wants to be anyway and boy did it show. Now the fact that you hardly see him anywhere gives you a clue as to just how in touch he is with the rest of the world.

When I’ve seen him in the past – and it would have been a while ago – he struck me just as the nutty former drummer, the one it seems that everyone loved but no-one fancied. Okay, I’ll say it. The thick Beatle. Seemingly at the the time though, he played up to it and in the public’s perceptual filing cabinet by which celebrities find themselves thereafter defined, all was well with the man.

Last Friday, that Starr faded. He insisted on wearing dark glasses throughout the show. How cliched is that? Of course, we’re told that the really big stars can ‘get away’ with that – whatever that means. I can ‘get away’ with wearing my football boots while shopping at Tesco, but I’d still look like a knob – so I don’t do it.

Further evidence that to Mr. S, the 90’s, 80’s and possibly even 70’s may never really have intruded on his consciousness came with his standard (for his era) two handed post-Churchill V-sign, denoting the accompaniment of the greeting “Peace”. As a bona fideoriginal hippy, you could maybe accept that he’s entitled to use it still, sort of semi-ironically, like Paul McCartney does. A branding tool, if you will. Me, I got the distinct impression that in his case, it was because he figured it still meant we should take him seriously.

What was hardest to stomach was his repeated insistence that he is a musician. Now call me uncharitable, but I’ve never seen him actually play anything other than drums. Call his vocals singing if you wish, but if that defines musicianship, then I invite you, whatever your ability, to warble an karaoke of “Octopus’s Garden” into a tape and use it to apply for any music shop ‘Singer Wanted’ ad. They won’t be calling you. All of this questionable musical calling calls to mind the old joke that band members everywhere still use daily:

Q: What do you call someone who hangs around musicians?
A: A drummer.

I really don’t intend to be mean-spirited here – well, maybe only a little. I’ve tried drumming and it’s bloody hard work for lots of reasons. It takes a fair bit of talent, a lot of dedication and quite some physical endurance to be even a half-decent drummer. Fair play to the lad for making a living out of it. Where he was really lucky, though, and I’m talking unbelievably-fell-on-his-feet-on-a-mattress-in-a-brothel lucky was to happen to be good enough to be in a band with the biggest, most successful songwriters the 20th century would see.

Would it be too much to ask to see a little acknowledgement of this, a hint of appreciation for being in the right place at the right time? Er, no. Listening to him talk, you would think he really was the third member of Lennon-McCartney when if we’re all honest, being the Fourth Beatle would have suited us all just fine.

Perhaps it would be unfair lay the blame for this selective revisionism solely at his feet. I’m sure that for the last, what 40 years, he’s been surrounded by people telling him how cool and smart he is. It’s an extreme existence, and like all extreme existences, we never really know how capable we ourselves would be to lead it without being affected by it in some ways. Yes, we could all lose touch with reality if the reasons to do so are compelling enough. Could we allow ourselves to be so deluded for the best part of the next half-century, though? I’m not so sure. We’re talking about almost clinically insane levels of delusion here. People have been sectioned for less.

Looking at the guy differently, as I found myself inevitably doing at this point, I wondered, if fate hadn’t given him one the biggest gifts it has probably ever handed out, what would he be doing today. A recently-retired hardware shop assistant perhaps. Only then did I really notice how small and frankly puny he is. Of course he would probably say he’s trim from a routine of gym and dietary advice. Looking at his early medical history on wikipedia, on balance, I’d back the puny theory.

Finally, the thing that puts the tin lid on the whole thing was his clear disdain for his roots. In Liverpool more than most places, the rejection or token advertisement of your hometown is a crime for which there can be no adequate recompense. Cilla Black famously plays on her (“Scottee Roawd”) scouse-ness and yet has lived in Surrey or somewhere since 1966. As a result, she is to Liverpudlians what the hairy haggis is to the Scots – something that’s there for the tourists, nothing else. Even Paul McCartney has suffered from this effect to some extent over the years. You can take the star out of Liverpool and there’s a perception that to some, it’s possible to take Liverpool out of the star – whatever they may claim to the contrary.

It all makes something of a mockery of the decision to have him open Liverpool’s City of Culture festivities recently. Read the lyrics from his new record in this light and they merely become lame protestations about having to follow his own path but never forgetting his roots. Even under the unusually benevloent line of Ross’ questions, it didn’t take much probing to conclude that he probably hated his upbringing and everything the city represented. Let’s not be too judgmental here. Either point of view is probably fine – but maintaining both may lead to accusations of hypocrisy.

Anyway, please don’t buy the record. It’s terrible. If I’ve shattered your view of Mr. Starr, then don’t spend too much time worrying about him. I got the distinct impression last Friday that all the time he spends worrying about himself will be more than enough to keep him in the manner to which he has become accustomed.