Friday, 31 December 2010

Desktop Meme

Having been tagged by JuliaM I must cheat; I'm travelling in search of England - always - and am camped out on a kitchen table. It looks minimalist and organized, which is a lie. I have therefore included my handbag, which is the back-office. Over the years the bag has got bigger, like my waist. Hmm.

While the rest of the world is wondering about Julian Assange's sex-life and his chances of surviving the fury of half the political world, I just want to know: how does he live out of a suitcase? What is in his wash bag, or does he rely on stocking up on mini-shampoos and disposable razors when someone pays his hotel bill? How many socks and underpants does he carry, what does he use in the way of notebooks and pens and novels - and don't tell me paper is redundant, it obviously isn't, you've only got to look at the meme pictures.

I have stared at the pages of the Rohan catalogue until the images fade. I still can't see how putting packing packs inside suitcases helps, although I have used cheap laundry nets to separate underwear etc, just to stop things tieing themselves in knots when I'm not looking. My favourite part of LOTR is where Galadriel gives the Fellowship of the Ring miraculous travelling cloaks which weigh nothing, wash-up a treat, are warm and waterproof but have superior wicking ability, have protective colouring and roll up to the size of a hanky. I've got a space blanket - the silvered plastic membrane - but it's not the same thing. Looking like a giant oven-ready chicken fillet is going to attract orcs.

I'm not a hiking traveller; I'm the sort of traveller who wears Cuban-heeled shoes and a jaunty hat. My natural habitat is at a tea-table, next to a log fire, looking through the window at the marvellous landscape full of booted fools. I do not approve of stamping all over the landscape, rubbing holes in it. That's my version of conservation and I'm sticking to it.

The leaflet is from Daleside Bungalow, Masham, North Yorkshire. I haven't stayed there - I just scooped up the information. Masham is a town blessed with magical water which is converted in to mysterious beer at the Black Sheep Brewery. There is also the Theakston bewery and some disagreement which we need not go in to. Bygones.

On the corner of Masham market square, huddled next to the church, is the Suncatcher Cafe. In contrast to the frilly tea rooms and restaurants, the Suncatcher is a memory of hippie holidays. The open log fire is hung about with beads, silk bags, masks and modern paintings you may wish to own rather than run screaming from. The coffee and food is good, the music is cool.

Masham distills a working vision of England. It has hardly any national retailers and still has locally run butchers, bakers, greengrocers and general grocery/deli stores. A bigger range of locally-produced goods is available than is normally the case - and it is local rather than just badged products, which are the cuckoos in retailing. They look like local produce but many of them come from the same factory in Leek, Staffordshire. The market square is used for parking when the market is not on; it is paid for by an honesty-box.

It's important not to get carried away with a romantic idea of honest yeomen dancing round a Maypole, tra-la, because mains water, electricity, and emergency services don't happen by magic. They happen because we have put vast energy in to massive engineering projects, then do our best to make that technology invisible. It is far too easy to become confused between the theatre-set and reality. Let the safe treated water stop and we soon see how keen folks really are to go back to the days of a strip-wash in a bowl of tepid pond water and no heat until you've made up the fire.

Having said that, if the world is going to become a difficult place in 2011, there are few places better than Masham to ride it out. Maybe Leyburn or Thirsk, if you want more shops.

I tag The All-Seeing Eye. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Rock 'n' Stroll

Over in Ishmalia, Mr Smith is musing on the meaning of furniture; its significance beyond the functional which often turns out to be the least of its jobs.

This piece, however, is all about function. It is a rocking shoe box. You keep your gear in it - brushes, polishes, cloth, special magic things for making shoes fit, spare shoe liners - hence no more lost shoe-care frenzy.

Before you go out you step on it, one foot then the other, and give the show a quick once-over. The rocking action immediately demonstrates its superiority over fixed shoe-boxes; it adjusts easily to your stance. It is light but strong. Best not to use it on a highly-polished floor, though, as there is a chance of it skidding away.

The box has the air of a successful woodwork project by somebody - look, it's obviously a male manufacturer, it just is - who wanted to learn how to cut, join and fit wood. It is the next project on from making a simple rocking crib; it has two hinged lids which shut snugly. It is the way it shuts properly, has not warped or split, even after many years of being stepped on, which suggests that it was done with pride. The person wanted to make a really useful thing while learning the craft, and they did.

I don't know who it was made for or what happened to them, but I do know who it was made by because their neat pencil name is still in there. M. Chamberlain.

It's possible "Mike" - that's how I think of him - was a 4th former when he made it, but the number might just be a note to himself for some other purpose, such as assembly order or project number.

Woodwork projects are often given away, usually to mothers, but it is possible M Chamberlain kept his box and used it for his professional footwear. The neatly folded cloths, the sets of shoe laces, one tube of sports white and the parade gloss which were already living in there were huffy when I introduced suede-cleaning blocks, a nu-buck cleaning spray and gel footpads.

Now, after finding it in a charity shop, it is back where it belongs, where it ought to be and where it deserves to be, sitting in front of a mirror so that it can supervise that all-important wardrobe check before facing the paparazzi : Have You Cleaned Your Shoes?

Thank you, M Chamberlain.


The solstice will be on Tuesday 21 December at 23:38.

If the sky remains clear it may be possible to see an eclipse of the moon from Britain. Just in case it clouds over, I took the picture on the early hours of the 21st.

"The eclipse runs for three and a half hours, from 0633 GMT to 1001 GMT, although the stage of total eclipse -- when the Moon heads into the "umbra" cast by the Earth -- lasts from 0741 to 0853 GMT."

Normally sounds wash around here; water, planes, distant traffic, trains, the wind tells a tale it has carried for a while. Once I heard it singing in Russian.

Tonight there were no flights, no cars or lorries moving, no sounds from the rails and the wind is holding its breath. The moonlight was so bright everything was casting sharp moon shadows and the silver trees were full of fairytale forms.

It is about minus 12 degrees Celsius and even sound is frozen.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Vote H'uh, What ever is it good for?

FTB has returned to his excellent blog to muse on what has happened to the country since the election and wonders why he has found it so difficult to address urgent matters which need public illumination.

"it might be that I am still in shock that so many people voted for the Labour Party at the General Election in May."

The following observation will not cheer him up.

In the constituency of South East Cambridgeshire the election was unusual in that it wasn't possible to vote Labour at all as the candidate, John Cowan, had the Labour whip withdrawn just before the election. By then the slips had been printed so although his name went forward and was tagged "Labour", he wasn't really.

It might have been more honest to put a black line through the word "Labour" but they don't allow officers to tamper with the voting papers. If he had carried the vote, he would would have been the duly elected.

In practice, in that constituency, Labour fielded an outsider because they were never going to win it anyway. It turned out, however, the candidate was not just an outsider but a liability with whom they did not wish to be associated and about whom they had already been warned.

Asked for quote so close to the election, the Labour party spokesperson said they hoped people would vote Labour. This was despite the fact that they obviously couldn't because there was no Labour candidate on offer.

Still 4,380 citizens either didn't know this or ignored the short statement at the polling station. The results were:

Conservative James Paice 27,629
Liberal Democrat Jonathan Chatfield 21,683
Labour John Cowan 4,380

The numbers would not have swung it for the Lib Dem chaser but if a Labour voter is going to move, it is not going to be all the way to the other end of the political spectrum (not that that is very far these days) but to an intermediate "stop the Tories" point i.e. the Lib Dems. Some of them must have made that move because the Lib Dem vote increased by about 6%, although we cannot know if the vote came from people who had moved from the Conservatives to the Lib Dems either.

The mystery remains: why didn't the Labour vote collapse to about 500 people, in line with the other independent?

Some of it will be down to ignorance and a determination not to read any papers, blogs, listen to the radio or tv, read any election material frantically shoved through the door by the hopeful Lib Dems, or even to bother reading the notice at the polling station, which I'm told was displayed on the desk where the slips were given out.

Perhaps those voters came down determined to register a preference for Labour, despite the fact that our parliamentary system requires you to vote for an individual and exercise your judgment on the basis of what you think of them personally. It is in fact impossible to "hold your nose and vote Anything" because the Anything party does not stand. All you have are individuals and you either like the cut of their jib or you don't.

It is possible that some of those votes were postal and may have been entered before the row broke out, but after all this there is still the ritualistic core vote. They vote Labour because they do and no amount of facts - such as there being no Labour candidate - will shake the belief that it is the right thing to do.

If they are prepared to vote for a non-existent Labour candidate, it is logical to vote for an existing one - even Phil Woolas - as that at least represents an improvement over an imaginary candidate. Arguably.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The "Can't Do" Culture

MPs famously bought goods from the John Lewis list for the same reason the rest of the Waitrose-classes do; they are supposed to make the whole business of buying homewares very simple. You - or we- pay them, they deliver and set up.

Hoping to experience what life is like in the Nomenklatura, I purchased a washing machine and paid the fees accordingly. Could I have got the machine cheaper by going through the warehouses? Yes, and saved at least £84, but the point about John Lewis is they are supposed to make life like their adverts.

The store offered me a delivery 'slot' of 7 hours, somewhere between 7am and 2pm. Fortunately, I don't have anything else to do but wait for deliveries - it's not like I've got a life or anything - and, anyway, the weather is a reasonable excuse for delay.

At just before 12pm - note, five hours in to the delivery 'slot' - they called and so when they arrived the door was open, the old machine had been drained (as far as possible) and disconnected, ready to go. The space was clear and clean, all the little valves were turned off.

The new machine was brought in, unpacked, the hot-fill pipe capped off with a brass screw-cap (it's all cold fill now) and the cold-fill hose offered up to the opening in the side of the sink unit. Due to an anti-flood device on the hose, the hole was approximately 3mm too small and need to be relieved .

"We can't do that, we aren't qualified" said the man. Things went very bad from there on.

It inspires utter contempt when a grown man says he can't file the edge of a hole in chipboard. It's not cabinet making. It's not even woodwork. It doesn't matter that strictly speaking, it's not their job. I could not hold myself out as a man, allegedly the possessor of a gentleman's plumbing, if I were unable to slightly enlarge a hole in a material which is only one-up from cardboard.

I would not expect to seduce women if I could not do even that. Heck, I would not expect to seduce men if I could not do even that. I would expect even the dogs and sheep to run away laughing, spurning my sexual advances when they found out I could not ease a hole in chipboard in a non-visible part of a kitchen.

We aren't talking about 3ml all the way round or making a hole from scratch; we are talking about nibbling at a couple of points on an existing hole so the anti-flood device - roughly the size of large matchbox on the end of the cold-fill hose - goes through.

"We can't do that" repeated the mis-named installer, sticking rigidly to the John Lewis liability line.

Thoroughly bad-tempered words were had with the customer service moppet at John Lewis, who asked if I didn't have somebody who could help me make holes in chipboard? I told her that as I had been waiting for five hours, if they had said they needed a 7.5mm hole, I'd have nibbled it out ready with a junior hacksaw.

We were talking, I repeat, about removing a couple of millimetres of chipboard on the edge of an existing hole. You could probably do it with determination and steak-knife. A century of feminism and 130 years of public education for all, and somehow it strikes an otherwise capable young woman as inconceivable that a mere female could slightly enlarge a hole in chipboard for herself if given due warning of the necessity of access. No, she must perforce throw herself on the mercy of her saw-bearing male relatives.

Miss Customer Service has probably passed all the customer communication courses but still failed to predict that "Haven't you got anyone who can help you?" is a) beside the point and b) tantamount to calling the customer an ugly old bag who can't get a man. This is unlikely to elicit a warm response, especially if true. We aren't here to argue about how well-connected I am to a tribe of obliging hole-enlargers; that is irrelevant. JLP charged a premium for the machine plus an installation fee then, faced with a few millimetres of awkward chipboard with photocopies of wood on top, gave up and ran off for an early lunch, looking for an excuse to not do their job but still get paid.

I then proposed to enlarge the hole myself and wanted to know when they were sending the installers back.
"They've gone to the next job now" said the woman.
"No they haven't. They are having a shufty fag as they've got some spare time now and I can see them over the road".

The young woman then made an offer she obviously thought was supposed to have me grovelling "Well, provided you can do it Right Now, we'll send them back".

I got the saw from the tool box and set about the nibbling. Thirty seconds later the installer appeared at the front door and asked when I'd be finished. I said - and I accept this was inflammatory - "Between 12 and 2" and told him to wait in the van until I called him. For some reason, JLP does not seem to like waiting for the customer, although of course, it's alright if you wait five hours for them. He very well knew it was about a ten minute job. He was scheduled to run a test wash - to make sure nothing was leaking - so all that stuff about having to go immediately was utter bollocks. He was skiving and was narked about being caught out.

"Well, if that's your attitude, I won't try to help you"

At this point I just stared and said "Help?"

Did this man think was doing me a favour, that he had not in fact been paid the agreed price to install a machine but was here as a voluntary washing machine installer. How he was helping? Helping would have been to whip out a Stanley knife such as they use on the van to slit the packaging (not that he thought to bring in a pair of scissors to cut the polythene) and set to relieving the hole that few millimeters, possibly whilst saying 'This is not really my job, but if you don't tell anyone, I won't'.

Or, if feeling very worried about the company line and possible liabilities, then he could have said 'Look, can you cut out that bit quickly? Only I'm not insured. I'll have a sandwich as it is snap time, then do the installation'. A brave man would have done the former, even a lawyer would offered to do the second.

This was waiting for the customer to sort it out and then trying to act like the big man for finally, finally condescending to do one's job, but only under perfect conditions. This is the Can't Do Culture.

I've known fey gay hairdressers to have more guts. 'Pass me the Big Rasp, Julian, the one we normally use for your toenails, I just have to adjust this access port'.

You wouldn't get a Pole talking cobblers about it not being his job; he'd punch a hole with his bare fist and then shrug: 'You want hole bigger, I make hole bigger. In Poland we have hardwood kitchen, not chipboard, not since Soviets.'

You wouldn't get an Afghan tribesman taking nonsense from a kitchen fitment. Admittedly their standard answer is to shoot the hole bigger with a Kalashnikov and then wonder why the cold water is spraying everywhere, but they would hold their manhood cheap if intimidated and defeated by 3mm of compressed sawdust.

Since I refused to give his ego a blow-job and be abjectly grateful for being allowed a few minutes of his valuable time, the installer flounced off. I'm not really sorry; I didn't trust him to do the job at all.

This is the job being done. I nibbed out the unwanted material, cutting it in little triangles. Following the installation instructions I completed the job (the transportation bolts had already been removed but I found I could have managed it as they give you a special spanner) then called a grown-up plumber who stopped by to check I'd done it correctly. It is three connections, four if you count screwing the cap on to the redundant hot water valve. Anyone can plug in the electricity. Screwing in the cold valve is fiddly, but no worse than a bottle-top. Connecting the waste hose is just pushing a hose on to a tapered pipe so that it fits snuggly. A spirit level helps tell if the feet need to be adjusted. You can tell when it is working properly; the clothes get washed and the floor does not flood.

The most difficult part turns out to be the sheer handling of the weight and tomorrow I will get glides to help move the machine in to its housing.