29 February 2012


This week's assignment over at The Gallery is Friends.

So I decided to dig one out of the archives which I've not uploaded before.

At Dungeness
Click the image for a large version from Flickr

This is our friend Katy (left) with her three children and Noreen. It was taken close to the late Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage at Dungeness (with the hills of the Weald of Kent in the background) during our break in Rye in September 2010. We had a fun week sharing a cottage and doing a bit of exploring.

29 February

Today, 29 February, is a unique day. So unique it happens, to a first approximation, only every four years.

But that, of course, depends upon what value unique has in your philosophy.

Scientifically today is indeed unique, in the formally correct sense. There is no other like it, for it will never occur again, at least as far as we currently understand the laws of physics which govern our universe.

Why? Because time, that ethereal quantity we measure in todays and years, is unidirectional and ever progressing. This time, this very instant, can never occur again. Hence it must be that this, and every other, today must be unique.

Enjoy your once in a lifetime experience!

Not Even Wrong

Various newsfeeds (eg. here) this morning are reporting that the Archbishop of Canterbury has said he believes the law has no right to legalise same-sex marriage.

While the reverend Archbishop has every right to believe whatever the hell idiotic notions he likes — well he believes in God, Hell and the Resurrection, so why stop there — he is factually wrong about the law.

"The law" is a civil process, enacted by the government of the day on our behalf. It is not an adjunct of the Church. Therefore the government of the day has every right to legislate for whatever it likes — save only for the approval of parliament, international law and a major peoples' revolution.

Who taught the reverend gentleman politics and constitutional history?

(By the way, look at the photo, he's even already growing Devil's horns from his eyebrows!)

28 February 2012

In Case You Missed ...

OK, so here are a few amusements I've come across recently which you may have missed.

First, one for all you book lovers: the 20 most beautiful bookshops in the world. And only two are in North America!

While on words, you can test your vocabulary online. It takes about 5 minutes and you're on your honour not to cheat!

After that you'll need your 8 hours sleep. Except that apparently needing 8 hours is a myth.

So guys, you lie awake at night. You're not really worrying about the size of your dangly bits, are you?!

And as if that weren't worrying enough it has now been found that there at least five kinds of fungus which farm animals — and we're one of them!

Finally we return to books. Books with leather bindings are generally rather nice. But human leather? Yep! Here's a short history behind anthropodermic bibliopegy. And there's another here.

Sweet dreams!

Thought of the Day

Courtesy of Thoughts of Angel ...

If heat makes things expand, then I’m not FAT ... I’m just really HOT!

27 February 2012

All Over the Garden

Oh God it's going to be a day of giant rhubarb news stories.

Following on from Chancellor Osborne's apparently sudden realisations, our beloved Metropolitan Police have issued a list of plants we should all have to deter burglars.

Yeah OK, so far.

The news report finishes with the Met's advice that Hedges and shrubs in the front garden should be kept to a height of no more than three feet in order to avoid giving a burglar a screen behind which he can conceal himself.

Leaving aside, for a moment, the implication that female felons don't try to hide, there's a problem with this. The list of suggested plants includes Gunnera manicata (above; deciduous and grows to 2.5m), Golden Bamboo (grows to 3.5m) and several conifers, none of which are susceptible to being pruned or trimmed successfully to under 1 metre nor are really suitable for the average suburban garden.


<Paging Alan Titchmarsh>


So UK Chancellor George Osborne has come to the dramatic conclusion that the UK has run out of money. I wonder where he's been for the last several years that this has only just dawned on him? Worrying!

26 February 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 15

Experiment, week 15. This week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Coleslaw. I've always liked coleslaw; good commercially made coleslaw. Home-made somehow just doesn't work as well for me.

  2. Bacon & Avocado. They're nice individually but also make a great combination in salad. I wonder why we've eaten this twice in the last week?

  3. Confit of Duck. On Tuesday we had lunch with our friend Patric (see below) at Café Rouge near St Paul's Cathedral. The confit of duck was most excellent, although I wasn't struck on the plum sauce that came with it which was sweet rather than sharp.

  4. Solving Family History Problems. I've had a couple of breakthroughs this week on my family history. One was courtesy of ...

  5. Clarenceux King of Arms. I'm lucky to know Patric Dickinson who is Clarenceux King of Arms, England's second most senior Herald (and not to be confused with the deceased poet of the same name). Now that sounds grand and as a title and position it is. Although he spends a significant part of his time involved with royalty (as a herald he has various ceremonial roles in the Royal Household), Patric isn't at all grand. Like me he's a grammar school boy and a normal human being. And as a professional genealogist he is fascinated by families. Consequently some while ago he wrested from me a copy of my family tree and quite unexpectedly and unbidden went about solving a conundrum about one set of my very ordinary, working class great-great-grandparents. He explained all this to me on Tuesday, prior to lunch together. It is a tale of non-marriages, second families and unexpected connections from the 1840s and 1850s. A fascinating piece of detective work which had defeated me. Many thanks, Patric!
[Both pictures culled from the internet. The top one is Patric being his normal self, albeit at a formal function. The lower is of Patric, enrobed, in procession at Windsor in his role as Secretary to the Order of the Garter. Sadly I don't have a picture of him in his herald's tabard.]

25 February 2012

Spring Rolls

Well, we're rolling on towards Spring anyway. And just to prove it here are some photos from our garden today.

First the snowdrops. We have only a couple of small clusters under the apple tree but they're still looking good ...


Most of the early mauve crocuses are now past their best, partly I think due to last week's breezes knocking them over. But here are a couple that are still good.


I especially like this one ...


And finally a feral pigeon enjoying the Spring sunshine between bouts of feeding and rutting.

Feral Pigeon

The photo doesn't show off the wonderful iridescent pink and green shades on their necks and breasts which are really stunning when they catch the light right. Well who wouldn't want iridescent pink breasts?

Cynics Are Us

A handful of recently discovered, somewhat cynical quotes ...

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.
[Soren Kierkegaard]

Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.
[Robert Heinlein]

If you can’t convince them ... Confuse them!
[Harry S Truman]

What is the difference between unethical and ethical advertising? Unethical advertising uses falsehoods to deceive the public; ethical advertising uses truth to deceive the public.
[Vilhjalmur Stefansson]

Lent On, or Off

OK, so it's Lent. At least they tell me it is. Not being of a religious turn of mind I really wouldn't know — or care.

But I keep being asked what I've given up.

Answer: Nothing.

I gave up giving things up years ago. Just as I don't do New Year resolutions (see here and here).

Giving things up is a synonym for misery. For unnecessary guilt. For unnecessary mortification of the brain as well as (sometimes) the flesh. It isn't good for you.

Doing things like giving up stuff because someone tells you to takes you a long way towards having your mind controlled for you. Change has to come from within otherwise it is pointless and destructive.

In fact thinking back, I never did do Lent. Even when I was purporting to be a Christian. The whole idea always did seem pointless and even dangerous.

As my friend Katy says (specifically of her children, but equally appropriate to anyone in my view):
I really am not sure what not eating chocolate does for a person’s soul and their general state of grace, frankly. Does their abstinence from spending every free hour glued to CBBC mean that they are a better person at the end of 40 days and nights?
No. I don’t think so.
I don't think so either.

And in case anyone thinks I'm being specifically anti-Christian, I'm not.

I feel the same about the Islamic adherence to Ramadan, which in my view is positively dangerous medically as it specifically involves the absence of food and drink during daylight which must have a major effect on one's ability to function safely.

And the totally a-religious New Year resolutions are no better; they mostly achieve nothing except increasing the adherent's level of guilt when they (almost inevitably) fail.

Let's keep things in perspective and balanced. Let's just take things as they come, ride the storm waves and (if feeling philosophical) contemplate the meaning of life.

Surely, if you must follow a religious dogma, then some quiet contemplation of what it means, and why, and perhaps doing something practical (for someone else or the environment) to further those ends is a better way forward? Just giving up some random thing "because it says so in the book" doesn't achieve any of that.

And if you're not religious why are you even bothering with this religious stuff anyway?

23 February 2012

Buggered Britain 1

This is the first in a new occasional series in which I photograph the underbelly of Britain which we wouldn't like visitors to see and which we wish wasn't there. The trash, abused, decaying, destitute and otherwise buggered parts of our environment. Those parts which symbolise the current economic malaise; parts which, were the country (poetically I just typed "country" without an "o"!) flourishing, wouldn't be there, would be better cared for, or made less inconvenient.

So here is the first in the series ...

Buggered Britain 1

This row of semi-derelict houses was seen in Slough. The photo is a composite of two shots taken from the (stationary) car.

22 February 2012

Fukushima Revisited

In yesterday's Daily Telegraph there was a very interesting perspective on the Tōhoku earthquake disaster, almost a year on, from journalist Michael Hanlon in which he argues:
The world has forgotten the real victims of Fukushima
A natural disaster that cost the lives of thousands of people was
ignored in favour of a nuclear 'disaster’ that never was

In the article Hanlon says, and I quote directly as I cannot say it with such conviction ...
Most terrible of all, was the black wave, a tide of death which we saw apparently creeping over the landscape ...

Hundreds, thousands of people were being killed before my eyes [and] like all journalists, I began writing about the disaster much as I had written about the 2004 earthquake and tsunamis which had devastated the coasts of the Indian Ocean.

But then something odd happened. When it became clear the waves had struck a nuclear power plant, Fukushima Dai-ichi ... it was almost as if the great disaster we had witnessed had been erased from view. Suddenly, all the reports concentrated on the possibility of a reactor meltdown, the overheating fuel rods, and the design flaws in this ancient plant ...

[A]round day three ... I realised that something had gone seriously wrong with the reporting of the biggest natural disaster to hit a major industrialised nation for a century. We had forgotten the real victims, the 20,000-and-counting Japanese people killed, in favour of a nuclear scare story ...

[N]ot only was the global media’s reaction to the Tohoku earthquake skewed in favour of a nuclear “disaster” that never was, but that this reporting had profound economic and even environmental implications ...

[A]lthough outdated, riddled with design flaws and struck by geological forces that went way beyond the design brief, the Fukushima plant had survived remarkably intact.

There are bitter ironies in all of this ... governments in Europe, including ours, were offering to fly expats home from places where the radiation levels were lower than the natural background count in Aberdeen or Cornwall.

As Wade Allison, emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University, says: “The reporting of Fukushima was guided by the Cold War reflex that matched radiation with fear and mortal danger. Reactors have been destroyed, but the radiation at Fukushima has caused no loss of life and is unlikely to do so, even in the next 50 years. The voices of science and common sense on which the future of mankind depends were drowned out and remain to be heard, even today. The result has been unnecessary suffering and great socio-economic damage.” ...

[P]olicymakers should have waited until at least some science was in before cancelling programmes which, in the case of Germany, will lead to some 70 million metric tonnes annually of increased CO2 emissions, because the shortfall will almost certainly be met by coal-fired power. Nobody, to date, has died as a result of radiation leaks at Fukushima Dai-ichi. Zero — a number you will have read even less about than the 20,000 dead.
Yes, OK, I'm guilty as well. But then as a scientist I was at least concerned to try to keep the nuclear problems in perspective — as my posts over the months will testify. Nonetheless there has been a humanitarian disaster which we have all quietly forgotten. Shame on us!

Armco Sundown

This week's challenge at The Gallery is Landscape. So I'll contribute this ...

Armco Sundown

There's no real story attached to this. It was just a grab shot from the car (no I wasn't driving!) on A11 on the way home from my mother's an evening in February 2009. I saw the picture but didn't expect to get it across the traffic and from a moving car, let alone for it to be as successful as this. Driving from Norwich to London in the evening is driving into the sunset — and East Anglian sunsets can be spectacular even on a grey day such as this. I love the silhouettes of these trees and although I almost always look at them for picture, I've never yet seen anything nearly as spectacular as this.

21 February 2012

Listography: Happiness

Kate is making life difficult! Her Listography this week is asking that we tell the top five things that make us happy.

No, Kate that isn't easy! It's hard. It's hard because either lots of things make me happy or nothing really does at all. And being a pessimistic old git I lean towards the latter view.

No seriously, and despite my weekly experiment, I really don't know what truly does make me happy. It's a bit like Noreen and I always say: we don't do panic and we don't do really excited; we just get on with whatever life throws at us. That doesn't mean we don't do a certain level of worry or pleasure; just that we don't do the extremes. Bugger it, I'm just too controlled; the emotions don't get enough of a look in?

Anyway, let's try to find five things that actually do make me happy. Whether they're the top five, I dunno!
  1. [[REDACTED]]. Yes, that's right you really don't want me to go into the first one, if only to protect your sensibilities! :-)

  2. Beer. I always enjoy a good pint of beer, preferably English bitter, but also preferably not traditionally warm; slightly chilled is better.

  3. Mother & Son
  4. Being Nude. And warm. As in being relaxed in the sun. Regular readers will know I was brought up by bohemian parents, who viewed nudity as no big deal: it's normal and doesn't per se have any sexual implication. We even had a couple of holidays at a nudist club (the photo is me being watered by my mother on one of these holidays) when I would have been about nine or ten. The ethos has stayed with me. And it hasn't damaged me!

  5. Summer Sunshine. Well sunshine at any time, but especially that lovely warm English Spring and Summer sun when one can sit and relax in the garden and feel at peace with the world.

  6. The Sea. Or perhaps I mean the seaside. Not the ghastly English seaside resort crawling with brats of all ages type of seaside. I mean more the quiet English seaside town with beach and harbour type seaside. The smell of the sea. And the ability to lounge on the beach in the sun and again be at peace with the world.
But then again maybe I'm just being too romantic?

20 February 2012

Collop Monday

Thanks to IanVisits for reminding us yesterday that today is Collop Monday. I agree with his suggestion that it should be restored as a festivity.

For those who might have not forgotten about Collop Monday — or more likely have never heard of it — this is the day preceding Shrove Tuesday when the remaining pieces of bacon or pork from the winter store, which would be "life expired" by Easter, were traditionally eaten. It was sort of the feast preceding the feast before Lent.

As Wikipedia says "The British name Collop Monday is after the traditional dish of the day, consisting of slices of leftover meat (collops of bacon) along with eggs".

So having been reminded of the feast what could we do but ... feast! After all one never needs much of an excuse to eat bacon.

We always have a large pack of smoked bacon offcuts in the freezer. The local supermarket near where my mother used to live nearly always has these packs. They're cheap and usually contain lots of half rashers and/or thick ends of bacon: brilliant bacon but not uniform and nice for supermarket packaging. Who cares?! They're tremendous for just about anything you want bacon for: there are scraps for quiche or risotto or to use as lardons; rasher-ettes for bacon butties; and chunky bits you can chop up, fry for jumbo bacon butties, for breakfast or, well, just eating. So whenever we're there we buy a couple of packs.

This evening we cracked open a pack of said bacon offcuts. It contained the usual selection. So we ate our fill of a good English fry-up of bacon, eggs, tomatoes and mushrooms; with lots of bread and butter; and a couple of beers.

What better way to celebrate an old English tradition!

19 February 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 14

Experiment, week 14. This week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Free Bus Fares. I don't like buses, but occasionally I have to use one. One thing I do like though is having a Freedom Pass: the London Boroughs' free bus pass for us wrinklies. Yes it provides free bus fares. But it also provides a lot of free tube and rail fares within London. It feels good to get something back for all the times one has had to pay full fare.

  2. Sleep. I like my sleep; I always have done. For some reason I seem to be sleeping much better recently with very few nights where I wake up in the small hours and can't get back to sleep. In fact I've been sleeping so well that if we don't have to set the alarm I'm likely to sleep soundly well into the morning. Guess it's probably catching up on all those early mornings over the years.

  3. Hypnotherapy. I've mentioned before that I've been having hypnotherapy for a year or more. It's slow progress, largely because my brain is so analytical that it is forever butting in and trying to work out what happens next. But finally Chris thinks he's found a way in, and when I saw him this week he was able to hypnotise me to a deeper level than ever before. Which was interesting. In fact the hypnotherapy has always been interesting as well as very relaxing. But there's a lot to do yet.

  4. Snowdrops & Crocuses. Spring must be well on the way because the snowdrops are out; so are some of our purple crocuses. We have only a small clump of snowdrops under the apple tree, but the woods out at Dorney, near Eton, were just a sea of snowdrops when we were there on Thursday.

  5. Oriental Tree. Three or four times a year we have dinner with our friends Sue & Ziggy and (usually) their two boys. More often than not we go out to a local restaurant. So it was that last night we went to their local Chinese restaurant, Oriental Tree in Northfields. And I have to say the food was most excellent as well as being substantial. The prawns and the beef, especially, were to die for. The menu is Chinese based but with Mongolian, Vietnamese and Thai dishes and not expensive — Ziggy's and my wallets ouched a bit but that was largely due to the amount of drink we consumed as much as the food! The restaurant is small (barely more than 40 covers) and was full all evening as well as doing a steady stream of take-outs. Having met at 7 we had eaten ourselves to a standstill by 10 — perhaps more to the point 9-year-old Harry (a child who loves his food and would have ordered everything on the menu, if allowed!) had almost eaten himself to sleep! I think we might be going back there!

17 February 2012

Questionable Meme

OK so I got a covert tag from Katy over at Katyboo1 to do this meme. I can't resist a good meme.

What I have to do is ...
  • Post 11 random facts about myself.
  • Answer 10 questions set by the person who sent me the meme.
  • Pick 10 people to tag myself.
  • Set 10 new questions for the people I tag to answer.

11 Random Facts
Those who read here regularly will know quite a bit about me so some of this may be duplication; can't find 11 totally new ones if only because don't remember what I've used already! So ...
  1. I've worn glasses since I was 14 (that's nearly 50 years! Eeeek!) 'cos I'm short-sighted.
  2. I have a residual third nipple.
  3. I have never broken a bone — and have no wish to! — although I've had a couple of close calls.
  4. I have known as many heart transplant patients as kidney transplant patients (precisely two of each). Odd considering the high number of kidney transplants compared with heart transplants.
  5. I hate formality and dressing up so I've never worn a DJ/tuxedo in my life and I don't intend to start now.
  6. I read very slowly; I always have done, and I've never managed to master speed-reading.
  7. I have never learnt to drive.
  8. I was born in University College Hospital (in London's Gower Street) so on a very good day I'm a Cockney.
  9. I terms of doing anything practical I have 10 left thumbs. I can put paint on walls and doors and that's my limit.
  10. My parents were somewhat bohemian so I had a very liberal upbringing which included nudism, being allowed to read whatever I wanted and being allowed to make up my own mind on most things.
  11. Consequently, although I have investigated several religions, I'm now an atheist libertarian myself and believe freedom of speech, sexuality, religion, body freedom and lifestyle are all fundamental rights.

Here are my 10 questions from Katy:
  1. Cute pictures of animals on the internet, nice or insanely annoying? Cute pictures of anything are insanely annoying.
  2. What is your favourite meal of the day, and why? All of them; I just like food. But anything with chips or full English breakfast or curry. That's why I'm obese!
  3. What is your stance on swearing in front of children? They have to learn the words, and they'll learn them soon enough at school, so better they learn them from me and can then understand when to use them, what they mean and when they shouldn't use them. And for what it's worth I feel the same about sex and nudity — they'll (half) learn soon enough from their mates so better they learn the truth from their parents/friendly adults.
  4. Beatles or The Stones? Late Beatles (ie. Sgt Peppers et.seq.) every time.
  5. Are you a morning person? If not, what time of day sort of person are you? Neither. I'm good in the morning if I wake up early and I'm wide awake; then I can get going and get lots done. Otherwise forget it. Evenings? Not for anything brainful.
  6. Croutons in soup, right or wrong? Yes, but they have to be proper fried croutons; bits of dry toasted bread are just pointless.
  7. Favourite moustache. The one I don't now have. I once had a moustache for about 5 years; it even got on our wedding photos. I grew it for no good reason and shaved it off because I got fed up with it.
  8. What do you wear in bed, and why? Occasionally my wife, otherwise nothing. I stopped wearing nightclothes when I was a student. Skin is so much more comfortable than clothes that just tie your dangly bits in knots.
  9. Lace curtains or let ‘em look? Lace curtains are the work of the Devil. I need daylight. Al fresco lifestyles are us. If anyone looks too much they get a wave or a finger.
  10. Will rockeries ever make a resurgence in these modern times? Probably when some poncy "garden chef" decides they're fashionable.

Tag 10 people
Like Katy I don't generally tag people by name. So anyone who wants to do this can post their answers on their blog and post a link in the comments. I promise I'll come and read yours if you do.  But to encourage you all, if ten people contribute (and do it properly) I'll give £10 to a UK charity nominated by the 10th contributor posting a link to their contribution in the comments.

10 New Questions for Anyone Accepting a Tag
  1. When did you last go to the dentist?
  2. Your favourite poem?
  3. Something that made you happy this week?
  4. Soup or sandwich?
  5. What's the furthest you've ever travelled from your home?
  6. What's your favourite sex toy?
  7. Science or God?
  8. Are you vegetarian? Why or why not?
  9. One thing you consider to be a work of the Devil?
  10. What would be your one desert island luxury?

15 February 2012

Oh Dear Me

This week's challenge at The Gallery is an Embarrassing Outfit.

Hmmm. I don't generally do "outfits". They're not my style. Besides men in skirts tend not to be understood, unless one comes from the heathen lands north of Hadrian's Wall. Despite being a southerner, there is a tradition, which I've never proven, of some Scots ancestry and I did have a kilt when I was young. But I can't find a photo of me then; even my mother doesn't appear to have one. That surprises me, but it's probably just as well.

The best I can do for an embarrassing outfit is me leading off the East Hertfordshire Scouts' St George's Day Parade at Turnford in 1964.

St George's Day Parade 1964

Yep that's me, aged 13, at the front in the poncy white gloves — God they were uncomfortable: thick, stiff leather and whitened to death. And just look at those awful shorts! I led that parade for two or three years; this was probably the first occasion.

I dare you all to show me your embarrassing outfits.

14 February 2012

Curing the NHS

Recently I've been looking at the NHS as an outsider and a user. This has led me to think about the organisation, it's shortcomings and whether anything really can be done to improve it.

The Health Service is something that we all want, and for which we all pay taxes. So we expect that when we need it not only will it be there, free at the point of use, but we will get the best possible treatment, speedily, in a good environment, from professional people and a professional organisation.

Sadly one or more of those elements are nearly always lacking, often conspiring to make patient care less than optimal.

Don't get me wrong. Many parts of the health service are excellent. And in an emergency they generally work brilliantly, at least in the short-term.

Recently Noreen and I attended a Patient Participation Group which our GP practice has started. Everyone there was self-selected and had volunteered; they were not "yes men" hand-picked by the practice. And everyone there had nothing but praise for our excellent GPs, nurses and admin/reception staff — indeed we found it quite difficult to come up with anything major we thought they needed to improve. The only significant thing we homed in on for improvement was some of communicating with the body of patients as a whole. But our doctors are lucky; they have excellent staff throughout the practice and new-ish purpose-built accommodation. Nevertheless they are now short of space to do all the things they want to do.

Many parts of the Health Service are not so lucky. Visit the average NHS hospital and you'll find a run-down building containing a large number of staff many of whom (especially at the lower levels) appear poorly paid, poorly trained, poorly managed and demotivated, giving off an air of being oppressed and disinterested. One suspects there may also be bullying by both management and unions. They seem ground down and struggling to do a good job against a background of inefficiency, waste and the awfulness of the people (mostly patients!) they have to deal with.

And that's a two way thing. Staff (and an organisation) that don't care about patients encourage patients to not care about how they treat the staff.

This has to lead to an attitude of unprofessionalism. As an example I am continually horrified by the awfulness of the communications I receive from all parts of the NHS. They are written in poor English (GOK what their Gujarati translations are like!); poorly typed; poorly designed; poorly printed. One recent letter I received was offset such that the right hand edge of the text was missing, it was faintly printed, poorly worded and covered in printed-on splodges of toner. It looked slapdash and unprofessional; the work of a not very careful 10-year-old. Frankly I would have been ashamed to even put it in my rubbish bin, let alone send it to anyone. And yet this was an important communication.

Go to a private hospital and you generally find exactly the opposite of all this: personable, helpful, interested, caring and motivated staff at all levels and good communication.

Why does the NHS have to be this way?

The simple answer is that it doesn't.

Whilst bringing the whole of the NHS up to the standards of the best private hospitals may be neither achievable nor affordable, it should be possible to achieve a 500% improvement. (And this doesn't mean US-style healthcare where one has to pay for everything or go without.) It won't be easy; but if there's a will I believe it could be done. In broad terms this is how I see it being done ...
  • The NHS always maintains it is short of money. It isn't; it has shedloads of money to do everything it should (and we want it to) sensibly do. But ...
  • It also has too many meaningless, politically imposed, targets.
  • In consequence there are also far too many managers.
  • It probably also has too many (non-productive) admin staff. There always seem to be lots of people walking about carry pieces of paper but apparently doing little else. I'm not saying they are all unnecessary, but does anyone really know?
  • On top of this there appears to be an especially corrosive and pervasive culture; a culture of mistrust and of doing the minimum necessary; a culture which generates unprofessionalism and a couldn't-care-less attitude.
So what can/should we do about it?
  • Well first of all there has to be a real will to do something and act sensibly, not just out of short-term political expediency or protecting one's backside.
  • Then the budget has to be maintained at least at current levels, in real terms.
  • In doing that there has to be a vast improvement in cost control (yes, drug spend does need to be monitored, but hopefully not rationed), which means good stock control and the reduction of waste.
  • Scrap all but the most essential of targets and have what targets there are set by the clinicians for it is they who really understand what the patient needs. One target which must remain is to ensure the service is the same across the whole country; there must be no postcode lottery.
  • That should mean a reduction in the number of managers required, which will free large sums of otherwise non-productive money for patient care.
  • Then we need to look very critically at the number of non-clinical, non-managerial staff required. Reductions, where sensible, should be achievable by streamlining much of the (still largely paper-based) admin. That doesn't mean an all-singing-all-dancing ginormous IT system; it means a large dose of analysing what really happens, what needs to happen and lots of common sense.
  • Much of all of this can be achieved by empowering all NHS staff to make the right decisions for the patients (both individually and collectively), empowering the staff to help improve their environment (why shouldn't they repaint a wall or fix a door handle? — they'd do it at home!) and take pride in what they do.
  • All of this will only happen with a major change in culture to one which cherishes and values both the employees and the patients; a culture in which the staff treat the patients (and each other) as they would wish to be treated themselves. That has to start at the top: the top of each hospital/practice and the top of the NHS, ie. with the politicians and Civil Servants. Lip service won't do; management have to demonstrate that they mean what they say. It also needs the staff — and the unions — to engage with, and believe in, the process and have an element of trust in it.
None of this will be easy. I've worked in an organisation where it has been done. It is difficult, painful and takes time. It needs a determination from everyone to make it work. Heads will have to be banged together. It almost certainly means shedding staff: if nothing else the non-believers have to be encouraged to change or move elsewhere — for their good and that of the organisation. It needs good, no-nonsense, management at the top; management with a long-term vision, a determination to make the right things happen and the charisma/skills to be able to fully engage with their staff at all levels. It also needs the unions to be willing to embrace the change (or be sidelined).

What is not needed is what we currently have: short-termism, poor management, bullying and continual change driven by political expediency.

Someone has to get a grip. Sadly I don't see who that someone is.

13 February 2012

Listography: Mugs

How do you view your coffee (or in my case, tea) mug? As something boring and utilitarian? Or as something joyful and artistic?

In essence that's the question Kate is asking this week in her Listography. She wants to see five of our favourite mugs.

Well you'll be glad to know I'm not going to show you five of mine. I'll show you one, because I tend to the view that the coffee mug is something utilitarian and generally boring.

As far as I'm concerned a mug has to fulfil just a few simple criteria: it must be dishwasher proof, fairly straight-sided (I can't abide flared or fancy shapes), with no daft slogans or girlie pictures, made of pottery (unless for the consumption of alcohol when glass is de rigueur). Most importantly they must hold a pint of liquid.

Yes, I drink everything by the pint. I can't be doing with silly little cups that hold half a mouthful.

So here is the tea mug I'm drinking from while writing this ...

John Leach Mug

This one was made by John Leach at Muchelney, Somerset. I have two or three of these mugs (which hold about a pint) and we also have a selection of other Leach kitchenware pots, all of which are used. I do love John Leach pottery which is fired in a Japanese-style wood burning kiln to give it those wonderful colours and a rough finish. It is wonderful stuff to look at and to use; it is about my only concession to the arty in mugs — well in china at all, really. And no wonder. John Leach is the eldest grandson of master potter Bernard Leach, and son of David Leach. So pottery is in his blood; it has been his life's work and passion.

If you're anywhere near Somerset, do go to John Leach's pottery at Muchelney where they have a shop and a small art gallery. You might well meet the potters too. And while there make sure to visit Muchelney church to see the wonderful décolleté angels on the ceiling.

[Hint: Take your satnav. Muchelney is one of those places that is impossible to find. I think we've got lost every time we've been there!]

Apart from these by John Leach my other tea/coffee mugs are all plain boring pottery. And you all know what a plain boring pottery mug looks like.

12 February 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 13

Experiment, week 13. This week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Green Woodpecker. I've always been one for watching the birds — both feathered and primate varieties. One of the feathered type which I've always liked but seldom seen is the Green Woodpecker, colloquially know as a Yaffle from its laughing call. I'm lucky as I now see them irregularly but several times a year going through the garden. We had one hunting for food in the snow earlier this week. They're extremely handsome.

  2. Fresh Snow. I don't know why, but there is always something slightly romantic about seeing snow fall and fresh, virgin snow on the ground.

  3. Baked Ham. I love home cooked, succulent ham. However I tend to avoid buying gammon joints as these days I consider gammon lacks flavour and has always been over-priced. When I can get one I buy a smoked collar joint. Collar as a cut is greatly under-rated. Collar rashers are larger and for my money much better value than the ubiquitous back bacon. Even better, if you can get it, is a large collar joint; it makes an excellent ham. (Waitrose normally have collar joints but they are mostly too small; you really need one about 1.5 Kilos — that's the size they should be if the pig has been grown fully.) Noreen has a great way of cooking it in a plain flour and water (huff) pastry case which you discard afterwards. Eaten hot with roast or jacket potatoes, veg of choice and parsley or mushroom sauce it is great comfort food. Or eat it cold with salad, or mash and pickles, or between bread.

  4. Redwings (right) and Fieldfares (below right). These two birds are both members of the thrush family which we don't see regularly in gardens in the UK. They are birds of open countryside where they gather in mixed flocks. They are winter visitors to the UK and only come to gardens in the hardest of weather. So we've had a few around over the last few days and this morning there was a mixed band of at least 60 birds sitting in our silver birch trees. Lovely to see.

  5. Fish & Chips. Yesterday we had the quarterly Anthony Powell Society London pub meet at the Audley in Mayfair. This is always a convivial and informal occasion where we enjoy good beer, good pub food, good company and interesting chat. I try not to eat much fish unless I know it is farmed or sustainably caught, but the Audley's fish and chips is an exception: it is always good and a popular choice amongst the regulars at the pub meet. More comfort food!

Where do they get it all?

As regular readers will know I always keep an eye on the catalogue produced by our local auction house (who naturally also do house clearance). Over the years they have produced some corkers by way of inappropriate or ambiguous descriptions, strange things and odd combinations of "miscellaneous toot" into a single lot. It's not always the strangeness of what they sell but the perversity of the combinations which amuse me. One wonders who buys the stuff.

But they must have been reading here because since I've been writing about these oddities their descriptions have improved greatly in quality. Maybe they're just going up-market. So the catalogue for their upcoming sale ha produced fewer amusements than usual. However there are a few ...

A World War II leather flying helmet, marked Frank Bryan Ltd 1939, a German military wristwatch — Urofa 58 668903, and a German dagger with stag horn handle in leather scabbard.

A tin containing old clay pipes.

Two bowler hats, a quantity of Royal Worcester Evesham, Sylvac Fauna jug, Wellington china tableware, yellow, black decoration, two metal figurines on marble base; Homepride flour man, Villeroy & Boch ware, egg coddlers, etc.

A pair of antlers, two pairs of binoculars, convex mirror with gesso frame, carved box, fur coat and stole, metal mesh handbag, framed map, silver plate items including teapot, serving spoons, ladles, etc.

A tribal animal skin shield, two clubs and a spear.

A large carved wood tribal mask with bone inlay, and a metal cow bell.

A large brass eagle.

A percussion cap musket, 18th/19th century.

A reproduction Black Forest cuckoo clock, in elaborate carved wood case with revolving figures, three train movement.

A German rare porcelain satirical Suffragette tobacco jar with cover, modelled as a passionate female head and inscribed ‘I say Down with the Trousers’

A Clarice Cliff Bizarre plate ...

A Baxter print of a portrait of Nelson in period mahogany frame

A foldable bike, trailer and stroller in one, apparently unused, a wine rack and two Samsonite suitcases.

A Crimplene drop waist dress, other ladies’ clothes, three pairs of boots, Sinclair miniature tv, perfumes, etc.

A charming mink shoulder shrug ...

A silk Victorian mourning dress and poke bonnet, consisting of cape/jacket, laced bustle, waistcoat, lace mob cap and silk material remnant.

Four cartons including old hats, metal figures, Steins, marble table lamps, an early German medical box, dressing table items, barometer, carved figure of an immortal, old beer pumps, old newspapers, horse figures, a lead bear, cigarette lighter missing strike, a carved water buffalo, storks, a crumb brush, whisky water jug, convex mirror, etc.

Having said that they do also have some rather nice things. The upcoming sale has a large number of lots of what looks like rather good antique silverware.

Word: Bromide

Bromide is interesting in that it has both scientific and non-scientific meanings, although the non-scientific are derived from the scientific.

  1. An anion of the element bromine, element 35. Several metal bromides (most commonly potassium bromide) are used medicinally as sedatives.
  2. A reproduction or proof on bromide paper; a bromide print, or the developer used to create such.
  3. A commonplace saying, trite remark, conventionalism; a soothing statement which has little purpose except to make you feel better; eg. "take things a day at a time", or "go with the flow".
[The element bromine (shown above) is nasty stuff. It is just about liquid at room temperature and evaporates easily as a brown vapour. It smells like chlorine (think swimming pools and loo cleaner) only worse as like this you get it in a higher concentration. I had to work with it in my undergraduate research project. I assure you it is not nice; you always use a fume hood. Happy days.]

11 February 2012

Wise Words?

A selection of recently culled amusing words from the wise and wise words from the amusing.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
[Steve Jobs]

I am not lazy ... I just rest before I get tired.
[Thoughts of Angel]

Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don't want it. What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.
[Miller Williams, The Ways We Touch]

Everything will be OK in the end ... if its not OK, its not the end.
[Thoughts of Angel]

10 February 2012

There were two parrots sat in a tree

We awoke again the morning to a scattering of snow making the trees look pretty. Then I spotted these two Ring-neck Parakeets sitting in our apple tree.

There were two parrots sat in a tree

Needless to say Ring-Neck Parakeets aren't native to this country. Originally they come from the Himalayan foothills of India so they are quite unperturbed by the snow and the cold.

They appear to have originated as escapees some time in the 1950s or early 1960s (there are several urban myths as to how this happened). Now there are several large colonies around London and they're gradually spreading — mainly because they have few natural predators here except Sparrowhawks.

There is a large roost (I'm told 2500 birds!) just a handful of miles from us at Wormwood Scrubs which is where our birds seem to belong as we regularly see them and others flying off in that direction at dusk.

We have a pair (sometimes more) around our garden several times most days. Whether they are always the same birds I don't know, although I suspect pairs/small groups may well have defined feeding territories so I could be seeing the same birds regularly. They're colourful, comical and acrobatic birds which makes them fun to watch.

They're always chattering and calling to each other, especially in flight. And they don't half get through the bird seed!

Their bodies are noticeably bigger than a Blackbird but much smaller than a Magpie. And they have those superb long green tails, which make them quite distinctive in flight. As one would expect from their size they definitely rule the seed feeders. One Parakeet will defer to a Magpie, although it isn't normally scared right away, it just stands aside. But two Parakeets will stand their ground against a Magpie.

I know many people think that, because they are invaders, they should be culled. I don't agree. I think they are a delightful, colourful and exotic addition to London.

As well as the usual selection of birds, this morning I've also had small numbers of Redwing and Fieldfare in the garden. It must be cold!

09 February 2012

I doubt the mean that ...

Seen today on a tub of MYCIL Foot Powder:

Possible side effects:
If anything unusual happens, stop using the product and talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

Anything? Are they really interested in my cat catching a parrot in the snow with a butterfly net?

Blue Poodles

Book titles can be an endless source of fascination. What makes a good title? When does an amusing title work and when does it just become droll. Why do publishers change your amusing or off the wall working title into something more descriptive but boring? Isn't Blue Poodles a much better title than The Semiotic Use of Color in Californian Dog Parlours?

But one always wonders how many of the odd titles one comes across are real and how many are accidental. Do publishers and authors really have no sense of the ridiculous? Or are they actually out to lunch?

Grubbing around in the intertubes the other day, the way one does, I found that Horace Bent, the pseudonymous diarist of The Bookseller magazine, has been collecting, and awarding an annual prize for, the oddest book titles.

While not all appeal to my strangely warped sense of the ridiculous, many are brilliant. The list includes:
  • Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way
  • Baboon Metaphysics
  • Strip and Knit with Style
  • The Industrial Vagina
  • The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification
  • Tattoed [sic] Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan: Magic Medicine Symbols in Silk, Stone, Wood and Flesh
  • Bombproof Your Horse
  • Living with Crazy Buttocks
  • First You Take a Leek
  • Whose Bottom? A Lift-the-Flap Book
  • Guide to Eskimo Rolling
  • American Bottom Archaeology
  • Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality
  • Optical Chick Sexing
  • Penetrating Wagner's Ring
  • Waterproofing Your Child
You can find the full list here.

08 February 2012

Grandma Marshall

This week's theme over at The Gallery is A Family Story. As Tara says
This week I want you to dig back into your archives — be that last week, last year or the last century — and tell me a story. You know those quirky little stories you pass on from generation to generation? Every picture tells a little story, but some tell a really special one. I want to see THAT photo.
So ... This is an oil painting of my father's mother done by my mother, probably in the early 1960s. I photographed the painting a couple of years ago.

Grandma Marshall

It is a scarily accurate representation. Yes, she was as miserable as she looks; I never recall her being in the least bit fun — but that's what strict Baptism and being left by your husband for a young floozy during WWII does for you, I guess. (Somewhere I have three illegitimate half-aunts by my grandfather.) Only now am I beginning to understand some of what happened and the ramifications — but that's not itself the point of the story.

My grandmother died in 1973. I had no contact with her, or my father's brother and sister, after the mid-60s (when I would have been in my mid-teens). My father more or less disowned his sister when she married her (widowed) cousin (she knew she could never have children so that wasn't a consideration).

My grandmother's death brought about the final rift between my father and his family. My father understood that his brother and sister were accusing him of only being after his mother's money (there wasn't any!) when he was asking questions merely because he was his mother's executor. He stood down as my grandmother's executor and a rift was created. A rift which was never healed.

I missed my aunt. She and I had always got on well and she took a keen interest in how well I was doing. To be honest I didn't miss my grandmother or my uncle, but then I saw little of them anyway. I knew I dared not re-make contact while my father was alive as that would only make matters worse.

When my father died in 2006, at the age of 86, I figured that if they were still alive his brother and sister (both younger than my father) deserved the courtesy of knowing. I had to do some research; I knew only my aunt's and my uncle's approximate addresses from my teenage years. Where were they now? Were they even alive? I thought my aunt probably wasn't — a gut feeling which turned out to be wrong; it was my uncle's wife and their eldest son who had died.

I found addresses; I hoped they were correct. I wrote them both a short letter with a Christmas card. In it I said that I hoped they would excuse my intrusion, that I thought they should know what had happened and an invited them, if they chose, to get in touch otherwise I would remain silent. The most I expected was a return Christmas card with a polite note. But within 24 hours I had both my aunt and uncle on the phone. They were delighted to remake contact. So after a gap of well over 40 years I met up with both of them, and my cousins plus some of their children.

As a result of healing the rift I have learnt a lot more about my family, and especially the circumstances surrounding all the angst. There was, of course, far more than met my teenage eyes. I am in the process of putting together all my aunt's and my father's papers. I can now see why my grandmother, my grandfather, my father and his siblings were as they were/are — and some of the joins that weren't made thus causing the rift. Luckily my aunt decided at a young age to rise above it, and did so. She became a very senior nurse and declined more than one appointment as a Matron. Despite my father I too have mostly managed to rise above the negativity although somewhat later in life.

As to the painting, Noreen and I discovered it amongst my mother's art work when we were clearing out her bungalow after she moved into a care home a couple of years ago. (My mother is now 96 and still drawing and painting!) Knowing my aunt (the youngest child) was close to her mother, I sent her this photograph of the painting.

In June 2010 I was invited to my aunt's 80th birthday party. Not knowing what on earth to buy her I thought she should have the painting. Luckily my mother agreed. We had it framed. You cannot imagine how delighted she was! Here she is, looking unnaturally solemn, after being presented with the painting.

Jessie with Portrait of her Mother

07 February 2012

Swarovski Crystal Butterfly

For the amusement of all and especially you, Katyboo. :-)

[NSFW] Swarovski Crystal Butterfly

06 February 2012

Ridiculousness on Toast

As so often the RMT is taking the p*** as reported by Ian Visits.

For once, words fail me.

Quote: Experiencing

The primary difference between the western and indigenous ways of life is that [American] Indians experience and relate to a living universe, whereas western people reduce all things, living or not, to objects.

Vine Deloria

05 February 2012

Listography: It's guaranteed to wind me up!

In this week's Listography Kate is asking that we write down the top five phrases which drive us crazy.

Only five Kate? I could write a whole book!

Anyway here is a selection of five.

He should be there. The immortal words of every taxi controller when you ring up to find out what happened to the car that you booked for half an hour ago. Yes, I know he should be here, but guess what? He isn't. Which is why I'm ringing you, dickhead!

People are confused. So frequently heard in the media these days. It seems to be polite-speak for "We think people are terminally thick so we're going to condescend to them and tell them what to do". People usually aren't confused. They may not know. And they may not be intelligent enough to understand. But they aren't usually confused, unless you deliberately confused them to start with.

You'll have to phone X. Why? This is your problem as it is you I'm complaining to. You should be owning the problem and getting it sorted for me. Why do I, the customer, have to do the running around — and paying for phone calls — when you've screwed up?

It's not my fault. Another refuge of the inadequate call centre** droid. Yes, I know it isn't your fault, but you are representing your company and it's you that I, the customer, am asking for help. Now own the problem and do something.

My system is going slow or We're having IT problems today. Yet another refuge of the call centre assistant. What you mean is your company doesn't invest properly in its IT infrastructure. Makes me wonder why I do business with people who can't run a business properly!

Oh and a bonus for good luck ... Can I just pop you on hold a moment? Another perpetrated by the call centre. Translate as "I haven't got a clue what you're talking about so I'll let you pay to listen to crap music for 10 minutes while Tracey tries to explain it to me for the third time today". This is yet another sign that your call centre is being run on the cheap: the people aren't well enough trained and there aren't enough of them for the volume of calls. It would be more polite to say "I'm sorry, I don't know. Please may I get someone to call you back"? — as long as they do call back promptly!

Oh God, they're all about poor service, which makes me sound a real grumpy old git. I'm not really. And I'm usually fairly forgiving, if only because I know what it's like manning a call centre (and being a checkout assistant)! As well as being a customer, everyone should have to spend time working the other side of the counter and dealing with the awful public. It might make people a bit more polite to call centre staff, but maybe less forgiving of poor management.

It's such a delight when one does come across someone who is friendly, does know and really does help fix the problem. I try to make a point of thanking them and telling them how good their service has been.

So what gets right up your goat then missus?

** I use "call centre" loosely to include all those counter assistants one dreads having to deal with in computer stores, home appliance stores, banks etc.

Reasons to be Grateful: 12

Experiment, week 12. This week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Purple Sprouting Broccoli. Unlike most people I do actually like almost all the brassicas. I'm not so fond of kale, which is generally a bit tough and bitter, and I can take or leave broccoli. But one that I always enjoy is purple sprouting broccoli which is now in season.

  2. Garlic Potatoes. Roast small (ping-pong ball size) potatoes in a foil parcel with lots of chopped garlic, salt & pepper and a drizzle of good olive oil. You should be the potatoes crisping up and some pieces of caramelised garlic.

  3. Norman Architecture. Our trip to Chichester on Tuesday reminded me how much I enjoy Norman architecture compared with the later styles — although fan vaulting is always a wonder!

    Norman Triforium Arch, Chichester Cathedral
    Norman Arch in Chichester cathedral. Click image for larger view.

  4. Alpine Days. I quite like winter when it is cold, frosty (or snowy), bright sun and blue sky. It is all the cold, damp, grey and miserable I find depressing. I always feel better for sunshine.

  5. Curry. I hardly need say more!

04 February 2012

Did You Know ....

There is a brothel in Prague where the "services" are free, but live video streams of the "activity" in the brothel are shown on their website (for a fee).

Male chimps, bears, dogs — indeed almost all mammals except humans — have a bone in their penis, called the baculum (photo is a raccoon baculum). No-one knows why it was evolved out of humans.

In the US, of those men who take paternity tests some 30% find out they are not the father of the child concerned – although of course these are cases where there is doubt to start with.
[Sheril Kirshenbaum, The Science of Kissing]

03 February 2012

London for Beginners

Following her recent trip to London our blogging friend Katy has written a series of three posts of hints and tips for those visiting London for the first time. They are excellent advice even if you've been to London before. I recommend that you go and read them.

And when you've read them, come back here for a few things I, as a Londoner born and bred, can add.

London Transport
London for Beginners – The Basics
London for Beginners – Tourist Attractions

OK. In general I will echo everything that Katy says in these three posts. But here are a few additional thoughts which I've arranged roughly by each of Katy's posts.

London Transport
Although Katy isn't a Londoner, she's been visiting London for many years and has lived here, so in many ways she knows more about travelling around London than I do.

Driving in London
My first piece of advice here would be what Katy doesn't say in as many words: DON'T. If you thought the one-way systems, restrictions, traffic etc. were bad in your city they're worse in London.

If you must drive in central London then something to watch is fuel. Fill up before you get into the centre. There are very few petrol stations in the central area. OK I'm not a driver but I can think of only two fuel stops in the West End area: one on Park Lane and one on the Marylebone Road. Doubtless there are others, but they're pretty well hidden.

Take Katy's words about parking restrictions to heart. Yes you can find convenient on-street parking but it is rare; near Oxford Street you can try Manchester Square which sometimes has available parking especially at weekends. (And while you're in Manchester Square visit The Wallace Collection.)

Do not dice with the parking/traffic restrictions. Not only are there lots of Traffic Wardens, but there are lots of cameras, including on mobile vans and buses. If you get caught (and you will be) flouting parking restrictions, stopping in yellow boxes, jumping lights or using bus lanes you will find you're stuffed with a £100+ ticket. Don't risk it.

If you are eligible, get a Senior Railcard. They are £28 a year (£65 for three years) and give you around 30% off many train fares; you could save the cost on your first train trip to London.

London Underground (The Tube)
As Katy says: get an Oyster Card, if possible before you arrive. This will allow you to swipe through gates and will save you money as Oyster fares are significantly cheaper than paying cash for single tickets. Once you have the card you can also top it up online as well as at stations.

If you have a Senior Railcard, take it with your Oyster Card to any Underground Ticket Office and ask them to attach the Railcard to the Oyster card. This will save you around another 30% on all your tube fares. Many people do not know about this facility!

If you have a "granny free bus pass" issued by your local authority then it may also give you free travel on London buses.

If you live in one of the London boroughs and are over the female pensionable age (its moving nationally from 60 up to 65 at present, so you'll have to check) or have one of a range of disabilities you are entitled to Freedom Pass. This is the London-wide version of the "granny free bus pass". But it does a lot more. You don't just get free bus travel at any time, you also get free tube travel and mostly free rail travel (there are a few restrictions) in the London area; also free trams and free DLR. (But note freedom Pass doesn't cover Inter-city journeys from the mainline termini.)

There are over 600 bus routes in Greater London. Where they start, finish and the routes they take are often far from obvious. You need to do some research before you arrive if you're planning to use the buses.

You can find out about almost all London travel, including Oyster cards, on the Transport for London website.

This is something Katy didn't cover. Everyone knows about the London Black Cab, which is ubiquitous in the central area. Use them. Yes they are more expensive than the tube if you're on your own. For two, or especially more, they could work out cheaper than the tube. All Black Cabs are metered and you pay by a combination of distance and time, so the meter keeps ticking even if you're sitting in traffic. Cabbies know this and while a few will use it to their advantage, in my experience most won't. They know where the bottlenecks and roadworks are. And they are masters at knowing every back double and cut-through going so they generally will do their best to get you to your destination quickly — after all the sooner they drop you, the sooner they get another fare and most would prefer to keep moving.

If a Taxi has it's yellow light on it is plying for hire and you can wave it down, or you can pick up a cab at a Taxi Rank. A cabbie is required by law to take you to any destination within 6 miles (25 miles from Heathrow Airport, I think) regardless. If it is over 6 miles he may refuse if he has a "reasonable excuse". You will find a few ladies driving cabs and the vast majority of cabbies are London born and bred.

All taxis in London are registered with, and regulated by, the Public Carriage Office and the incidence of problems is rare. The London Black Cab driver is in general very knowledgeable not just about what's where and how to get there but they often have interesting historical/trivial facts about places. I'm a great admirer of the London Cabbie; I don't know how they manage to learn all this stuff — and they do have to learn it thoroughly (it's call The Knowledge) to get their licence. They really are a breed apart, in the nicest possible way.

Outside the central area Black Cabs are rarer and you'll likely have to know where the nearest cab rank is, which may be only the nearest decent-sized station.

But outside the central area there are also minicabs. These are the private hire cars; they are not allowed to ply for hire and by law all journeys must be pre-booked — which means you have to call their office and ask for a pick up. They'll want to know where you're going and will generally quote you a price. Be sensible with minicabs: when your car arrives ensure the driver really is for you: ask him to tell you the name of the person he's picking up and if in doubt don't get in. If necessary call his office and ask for the details of the car (make, model, registration number) picking you up, and check they match. Many firms are now converting to a computerised system and if you have a mobile will text you the details of the car they're sending to you.

Minicabs are also licensed by the PCO and generally use saloon cars which can be identified by round yellow licence tickets on the top near-side corner of the windscreen and rear window. Minicabs are not metered but charged by the mile (as registered by the car's trip meter) so it helps to have an idea where you're going before you start.

Apart from the need to book a minicab the downside is that the vast majority are driven by immigrants who don't have to have a good knowledge of their area (although many do); most do satnav. On the upside, they are generally around 30-50% cheaper than Black Cabs.

Frankly, DON'T unless you have a death-wish. Yes, you can hire bikes from the organised stands (the so-called Boris Bikes, after the current Mayor, Boris Johnson, who introduced them). But frankly the London traffic is so horrendous that I think cycling in London is no longer safe, especially if you're not familiar with the roads. The same goes for rickshaws. And I say all that as a long-time cyclist.

London for Beginners – The Basics
Buy a good London Street Map before you arrive! A-Z and AA maps are both good. Make sure it covers the area you will be trampling over. Maps are good if you want a view of a wide area. Map books, where you get a small area on each page may be larger scale and more detailed, but you won't get the wide view and they aren't as comfortable/easy to carry.

Also get a tube map, you can download one from the Transport for London website.

As Katy mentions, things in London are expensive so be prepared to pay. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world; nothing is cheap unless it's free! Even Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral now charge for entrance. Expect any exhibition to charge at least £10 per head and £15 or more is not unusual.

Remember too that London is one of the biggest cities in the world. The central area is 5 miles from east to west. And it is almost 10 miles, in a straight line from the Tower of London to Kew Gardens. Do not underestimate the distances you may have to cover or the time it will take.

Keep tight hold of your valuables and luggage. Like all cities there are some very clever pickpockets around. And if you are unlucky enough to be the victim of crime, do report it to the Police. It's a pain but the Police should give you a record number which will help you with any insurance claim. And they might even be able to take the perpetrators off the streets.

Yes you will want to eat out, sometimes at least. See if you can get recommendations for good places to eat. Most pubs will allow children in if you are eating, but under 18s are not allowed to buy or drink alcohol. Most pubs these days do reasonable, if basic, food at reasonable (for London) prices; some are absolutely excellent.

If you want a sandwich lunch then Marks & Spencer (M&S) probably do the best take out pre-prepared sandwiches. And with a bit of looking you can often find a garden or park where you can sit and eat your sandwiches — although if you do this be prepared for an audience of hopeful sparrows and pigeons.

Yes, you'll need loads of this. Personally I don't like cash machines as they are too open to criminal minds, but you may not have a choice. If you're happy with cash machines then there are lots around; you'll seldom be more than a few minutes walk from one!

If you need to change foreign currency you will often get the best deals by going to a Post Office. Their rates, certainly for Euros and US Dollars) tend to be reasonably good and they do not rob you of a commission!

I would say don't give money to anyone begging on the streets. Yes, London does have a problem with the homeless living on the streets. While some of those begging are genuine, many are known not to be. In my view it is better not to encourage any of them.

London for Beginners – Tourist Attractions
Katy provides a pretty good list of the things to go and see. I would add:
  • Westminster Abbey
  • National Gallery
  • National Portrait Gallery
  • Tate Britain
  • The Wallace Collection
  • Borough Market (especially on a Saturday)
  • Hampton Court
  • London Eye (it isn't cheap for a 30 minute ride but the views are worth it)

But I would also add a list of things that really are not worth bothering with:
  • Madame Tussauds Waxworks (boring and unreasonably expensive)
  • London Planetarium (part of Mme Tussauds and thus also a gigantic rip-off)
  • London Zoo (interesting if you like zoos, but in their small space not outstanding and another which is very expensive)
  • Personally I won't go in churches & cathedrals that charge on principle. I'd give St Paul's Cathedral a miss anyway because I think it's hideous, but not many agree with me.
  • London Aquarium (which I thought was pedestrian compared with many other large such)
  • Oxford Street (yes, it's the iconic shopping street but frankly it is mostly just the usual chain-multiples, with just a couple of good department stores: Selfridge's and John Lewis)

Katy mentions the round London bus tours. Yes they aren't cheap, but the tickets are valid for a whole day (so start early to get best value) and you can hop on and off most of them repeatedly. They are a good way of seeing lots of the sights and deciding what you want to come back to — or if you have only one day of getting a glimpse of a lot. They are also very good at helping join together all the different bits of the city.

Finally as Katy also says, don't buy tickets from ticket touts. The tickets may well not be valid (they are often trackable and non-transferable) and touts are often operating illegally. If you really want tickets for a particular show you may have to depend on one of the ticket agencies, or queue on the door on the night for returns. Almost all London shows get sold out.

Don't let any of this deter you from coming to London. Most of what is less than positive really is only good common sense which should apply anywhere. Use what Katy and I have written and enjoy your visit. You won't regret it; almost everyone ends up loving London!

Good Badness

Both Katy (Katyboo) and Emma (Belgian Waffle) have invited us all to document what we are good and bad at. So who am I not to comply with such royal command.

So here goes ...

Drawing and painting
DIY — actually anything dexterous
Anything athletic
Reading quickly
Complaining about service
Being active & getting out
Respecting management
Suffering fools & the pretentious
Saving money
Phoning people
Foreign languages
Logic Puzzles
Navigation & map reading
Project management
Maths and science
Analysing situations, quickly
Being idle
Eating and drinking
Bending the rules
Telling it like it is
Sleeping in late
Arguing & disputing
Computery things
Making decisions
Being stressed
Being overawed by the great & good

So how about you all tell me what you're good at — either in the comments or on your blog and leave a link in the comments?

Now I'm off to the supermarket.

01 February 2012


Yesterday we had an awayday. As part of her Christmas present I said I'd take Noreen to Chichester before mid-February to see the Edward Burra exhibition at Pallant House Gallery. I also knew we'd also get at least a wander round the cathedral and a sniff round any bookshops we stumbled across. And of course there's always lunch and coffee and cake and ...

So yesterday was the day. Although we didn't spend quite as long poking around Chichester as I'd hoped (the decrepit old knees won't take a lot of it these days) it felt like a bit of a marathon, what with living the other side of London.

We left home just before 8am, took the train into Marylebone and a taxi across to Victoria where we were eventually allowed onto the train to Chichester. ETA 1115. (Coming home took just as long.)

The first stop was the cathedral which was welcoming and actually quite busy for a winter Tuesday. The heart of the building is Norman and there are some lovely decorated arches. But to be honest beyond that I didn't find it one of the most entrancing cathedrals I've visited, although given that there are gardens (not visited) it would probably be much better on a summer's day.

There is a (Victorian?) stained glass window and a memorial tablet commemorating the Tudor/Jacobean composer Thomas Weelkes and another tablet commemorating Gustav Holst. The stained glass window by Marc Chagall is also worth seeing.

There is also a rather lovely and unexpected piece of Roman mosaic which was discovered under the foundations and is now visible, in situ, behind a glass viewing panel in the floor. The cloisters, with their wooden vaulted roof are unusual and rather rather nice.

Roman Floor below Chichester Cathedral Cloister, Chichester Cathedral
More photos on Flickr

Lunch in the cathedral café was simple, good and welcomly warming on a bitter January day. Noreen had a pasta bake with veg and I had a fish bake also with veg. With a soft drink each this was, I thought, good value at under £18 for the both of us.

After lunch we wandered slowly past the market cross to find the Pallent House Gallery which was staging the Edward Burra exhibition. We hit a day when the gallery were doing half-price admission. Unexpected result!

I've never been sure about Burra's paintings but he was a friend of Anthony Powell, especially pre-war, so a viewing was a necessity. Having seen the paintings in the flesh I'm still not sure about them; to be honest most of them really don't do much for me. Many were smaller than I'd imagined, although there were also some which are much larger than expected. One or two of Burra's late landscapes were rather nice, but his earlier work is extremely "disturbed" being often a cross between Heironymus Bosch (a known influence on Burra) and Salvador Dali. All in all his paintings look better in reproduction. Having said that Burra is probably more important than is often credited, under-rated and under-exposed — but this latter is doubtless because most of his surviving work is on private collections.

By now it was early afternoon and still bitterly cold. A meander through the town unearthed a secondhand bookshop, but nothing interesting to spend our money on. So we whiled away an hour drinking coffee and eating cake then made our way towards the station.

We just missed a train. This meant an amusing but cold 30 minute wait for the next one. I don't know what it is about this area of the country but the train stations seem to be populated by a peculiarly local inter-mix of teenage school girls, low-life and the inhabitants of the nearest loony bin. At least it makes for an amusing way to waste the time between trains.

Nutter Triptych, Chichester Station
More photos on Flickr

The train back to Victoria was another amusement. It consisted of a 3 year-old who insisted, despite his mother's instructions, on working the squeaky hinge of the lift-up tray on the seat. Two lads of about 20 who were Tottenham Hotspur supporters going to see Spurs play and who in 90 minutes managed to drink four cans of premium lager each! How they were standing by the time we reached Victoria GOK; but at least they were harmless. Although best of all was a large group of sub-teen French school-kids who at one point broke into a rendition of Queen's I Want to Ride My Bicycle in cracked English. I was waiting for them to do the 'Allo 'Allo version of The Wheels on the Bus but sadly this never materialised. It would have been a fitting end to an interesting day.

The Tea Drinker

This week's photography challenge at The Gallery is for us to throw away our habits of smartening ourselves up before being photographed and snap ourselves as we are when we first read the posting.

Oh well ... Not being one to be vain, here is The Tea Drinker.

The Tea Drinker 2012

And yes, I took this immediately after reading the message (well I couldn't take it before as I didn't know what it said!). It was mid-morning and I'd just got up after a non-alarm clock awakening. Undressed, unkempt and not even been as far as the bathroom, but I still have that all-important giant mug of tea attached to my face! This is the tradition of my people.

Luckily for you I cropped the image. :-)