The end of Guinness

Guinness Pint

Guinness Pint (Photo credit: Stephen Edgar – Netweb)

We discussed it at length and decided that we didn’t want one. We had one at our previous place which disappeared causing us to both be very upset. It was cute, but messy, especially when the woman from the letting agent came around to inspect the place.

The very next day after we made our decision, there was a knock at the door.

My family was outside bearing exactly what we decided we didn’t want, a kitten. It was the tiniest ball of fur you have ever laid eyes on, no bigger than a mouse. Jet black in colour with dainty white feet and a white bib under her chin. Her most distinctive feature was her eyebrows. They were fine, silvery white and arced out high above her head. We fell in love instantly.

“What are we going to call her?” asked my wife.

She offered a few unconvincing kittens names but I wasn’t persuaded. The name needed to fit and as she lay on her back on the floor with her white paws  up, she resembled a miniature pint of Guinness and so she was christened.

We were a bit worried at first because we already had a kitten called Tommy in the house that a friend asked us to look after whilst she was away. Tommy was twice the size of Guinness and was strong-arming her as they played. We needn’t have worried though because what Guinness lacked in size, she made up for in spirit. After they played for a short while, Guinness got the upper hand and from that point on, there was no more bullying.

Guinness was with us for a long time and it’s fair to say she had her fair share of quirks. Like she chose to use the dirt tray that lay just outside the bathroom in a particularly smelly manner when I was relaxing in the bath. She also would choose to noisily slurp out of my cup of water on the bedside table when we were trying to sleep. I used to say to my wife that I would die of some vile horrible cat disease because of the shared cup. She was incredibly good when any children came round, patiently allowing them to tug, prod and poke her with barely any protest.

But after 17 years, we returned to our home to find Guinness very sick indeed in my mother in law’s arms. She wouldn’t eat or drink. She couldn’t walk. We took her to the vets and the news wasn’t good.

Guinness is no more, which is sad. Very sad.

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Southern Comfort

English: Entrance to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth ...

English: Entrance to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although it’s only a couple of hours away, I’ve never spent much time in Birmingham, the UK’s second city. Now, thanks to a recent acquisition by my company, I’ve spent more time in a place I never thought I’d visit, Birmingham Alabama. Not that it’s particularly easy to get to. Despite the nomenclature, I couldn’t find a single International flight heading into or out of Birmingham International Airport, not even to neighbouring countries like Mexico or Canada.

In the absence of direct flights, connecting flights are the order or the day which means a very long journey from the UK. I don’t know whether I’m especially unlucky, but when you have flight connections in the States, you only have a 50:50 chance of making it to where you intended when you intended. The scope for things to go wrong (weather, mechanical failure, long immigration queues, airline incompetence) seems immense. How native US citizens put up with it is beyond me.

I didn’t know much about the place before I got there and a quirk of fate gave us a free day during our business trip. As we were in the centre of town, we picked up a tourist map from the hotel and set off on foot. The closest destination picked out on the map was the Peanut Depot. We had no idea what to expect but thought if it’s on the map, it must be worth a visit. When we found a shop selling peanuts, we assumed there must be more to it. A quick scan around the place told us that the only other thing worth noting was a plaque on the wall proclaiming it a historic building at 115 years old. If that’s what defines a historic building, half the buildings in the UK wear similar plaques.

The next entry on the map was a tower. When we got there, we realised it was just an office block. A tall office block, but an office block all the same.

Clearly, we needed advice. Luckily, the next destination on the map was the tourist information office. Upon arrival, they greeted us enthusiastically and insisted we sign the guest book. Although there was no dust on the guest book, the previous entry predated ours by some margin. The friendly people directed us to the Civil Rights Institute. Inside the foyer of the Institute, we spied a display case containing something both sinister and ridiculous; a Ku Klux Klan outfit donated by an anonymous donor. Wandering through the exhibits was enlightening but also shocking. It’s hard to imagine mistreatment of a whole race on such a scale barely 20 years after World War 2 and only 50 years ago.

Birmingham city centre is a lonely place. We hardly saw a soul and we walked around for hours. There is a staggering dearth of people given that there are over 200,000 residents. As so few Alabamans seems to walk anywhere, it’s also surprising to find so many cobblers.

I have subsequently stayed outside of town where bizarrely, there is more going on. The scenery’s amazing. There are more bars, more restaurants, more shops and more people. The people in Birmingham are very friendly. They did try to poison me once with something called a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. A vile concoction of sweetness and ungodly textures contained between two slices of bread. I’ve forgiven them, for now, but I will be deeply suspicious of any strange-sounding fare from now on!

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It’s all for Charity

Money cash

Money cash (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

A local charity had never received a donation from the town’s banker, so the director made a phone call.

“Our records show you make $500,000 a year, yet you haven’t given a penny to charity,” the director began. “Wouldn’t you like to help the community?”

The banker replied, “Did your research show that my mother is ill, with extremely expensive medical bills?”

“Um, no,” mumbled the director.

“Or that my brother is blind and unemployed? Or that my sister’s husband died, leaving her broke with four kids?”

“I … I … I had no idea.”

“So,” said the banker, “if I don’t give them any money, why would I give any to you?”

Unlike our banking friend, most of us try to give some money to charity as and when we can. We probably do this for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s to ease our conscience or it could be to make a difference to something we feed strongly about. For some it’s about helping others or a form of giving back to the community. Whatever the reason, there are a huge number to choose from. In the UK alone, there are 180,000 registered charities, which is roughly one for every 350 people.

I find that number staggering. It’s certainly good that there’s a lot of choice of where to donate your hard-earned money. I’m sure the vast majority do a fantastic job for their chosen cause. But isn’t it rather too many? Private enterprises merge because they know that the value of the whole is likely to be greater than the sum of the two parts.  Much of the overhead of running the organisation is vastly reduced. You don’t need two lots of HR, Finance and Marketing. You also don’t need two CEOs which can only be a good thing when you consider some of the salaries for charity appointments in the broadsheets.

The granularity is great if you want your money to go somewhere very specific and that could be very important to someone who’s been helped by charity. If you’ve been rescued by the Lesser Piddling-on-the-Marsh air ambulance and that made the difference between life and death, you probably want your money to go in that particular direction. But I’m less convinced about the large generalist charities. Do we really need teabags in need, save the teabags and national society for the prevention of gross insensitivity to teabags?

 

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Siblings

Cherub

Cherub (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We were born in exactly the same place by exactly the same parents almost exactly three years apart and yet you’d never know by observation that we are brothers. We don’t share the same temperament, the same mannerisms or the same taste in clothes or music. He considers himself Irish whereas I consider myself English. We have completely different vocations. Most people’s reaction when they find out we are siblings is surprise.

You’d never guess my nieces were siblings either. Sophie is Maisie’s younger sister. Whereas Sophie has blonde hair and fair skin, Maisie has a Mediterranean look to her with olive skin and dark hair. Maisie is the eldest so it’s no surprise that her vocal skills came to her earlier in life, but as much as Maisie found her voice early, Sophie struggles to find her words. Because she struggles to make herself understood, she gets frustrated. Maisie had her moments but was in general well-behaved. Sophie’s frustration boils over into naughtiness.

She has her moments of cuteness. She will give you this cherubic smile usually a split second before you realise that her finger is reaching for an electrical socket or just as she has your car keys dangled over the toilet bowl. She is good at getting her own way and when she does, she shoots off this look of utter smugness that would make a saint swear.

They say that little girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice. I’m not sure they followed the recipe to the letter with Sophie. She’s more a dash of rock and roll with one part toad to two parts imp. I get the impression that she’s going to lead an exciting life. In the very rare moments when she’s not terrorising the cat or deleting the entire contents of my iTunes library, I contemplate examining her scalp for demonic markings.

She still has the power to melt my heart. When she arrives and comes running towards me arms outstretched shouting “Mart Mart”, all is forgiven.

A few days ago, Maisie and Sophie were joined by another sibling. Eva Louisa was born shortly after Christmas and although she is supposedly the largest at birth of the three, it’s hard to believe. She’s doll-like in size. On first inspection, she seems to be a carbon copy of Maisie. So it seems that the larder has been successfully restocked with sugar and spice and all things nice. Time will tell…

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Happy Birthday sir. You’re under arrest!

Police car emergency lighting fixtures switche...

Police car emergency lighting fixtures switched on. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My wages didn’t quite cover my outgoings at the time, so part-time work was the order of the day. I liked working behind a bar because it gave me the social contact I craved as a young guy. It earned me money and whilst I did it, I couldn’t spend any either. A triple whammy. The Kings Arms in Berkhamsted, an old medieval coaching inn in the high street had an eclectic clientele and the money was good. The only drawback was the adjoining nightclub which I found strangely magnetic at the end of a weekend shift, not conducive to saving money.

During one of my shifts, some of the regulars got wind of the fact that it was my birthday and bought me a drink. Drinking behind the bar was tolerated providing you followed the rules; only halves allowed and not too many at that. I enjoyed a few halves before I had to decline the rest because I had to drive home. Later in the shift, my brother turned up. He worked at the hospital at the time. He came in with two nurses and a crate of beer. I finished my shift as quickly as possible and we set off towards his flat.

As we drove home, I noticed some dazzling lights in my rear view mirror. After a while, they became really annoying. I tried taking a different route, they followed. I decided, with all the foolishness granted by youth, that putting my foot down was the best thing to do. The headlights still followed. As we came into the outskirts of town where the streetlights illuminated my pursuer, I suddenly realised it was a police car.

I slowed right down and straight away, the car raced around me with lights flashing and pulled me over. I won’t say they manhandled me, but I nearly fell over as they pulled me from the car. They demanded my name, which I gave. Once I did, they seemed to relax. I had a nice car at the time. Too nice for someone my age and one of the reasons I was permanently penniless. As they chased me, they obviously thought the car might be stolen.

They asked if I’d been drinking. I nodded. They produced a box and told me to blow into it. The lights on the box indicated alcohol on my breath so they arrested me.

Down at the station, there was a queue for the calibrated breathalyser machine. The man in front of me was plastered. He could hardly stand up but loudly protested to his arresting officers that he’d only had one pint. As he queued up, he was obviously mentally totting them up in his head.

“I might have had two… Or maybe it was three.” By the time he got to the machine, he’d owned up to drinking five.

In the intervening period, I started to chat to my arresting officers. I joked about not having a great birthday and explained about working at the pub. I think they warmed to me because I overheard one of them speaking to the stony faced desk sergeant and asking if I could be treated leniently. The Sargent waved him away and said that I would be treated according to the result from the machine.

As the desk sergeant booked me in, he asked me my date of birth, which I supplied.

“It’s his birthday” said the arresting officer who’d appealed for clemency on my behalf.

The stony faced desk sergeant looked up at the clock which now showed a couple of minutes past midnight. “Not any more it’s not!”

My breathalyser test revealed that I was well below the legal limit and they let me go. My legs felt like jelly as we walked back to my brother’s flat, but I enjoyed the sympathy from the nurses.

How temporary is your temporary solution?

English: A roll of silver, Scotch brand duct tape.

English: A roll of silver, Scotch brand duct tape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To say that ending up with wet feet was a surprise is a bit of an understatement. On the first day in our new place, I did the washing up. When I emptied the bowl down the plughole, I expected the water to disappear, not to suddenly reappear at ankle level. A quick check under the sink revealed the issue. The previous owners had a dishwasher (which they took with them). The drainage from the dishwasher connected to the down pipe.

Now it wasn’t there, a gaping hole stood where the join was. To remedy the situation, we either needed a dishwasher, the right sort of plumbing doohickey to cap the pipe or a plastic bag and a hairband. Guess which of the three we had? The temporary repair did a sterling job of keeping my feet dry and was still there 4 years later when we finally bought a dishwasher.

When I joined BP, there was a carbuncle on the side of the office at ground level. It was one of those temporary portacabin type affairs. I asked someone how long it had been there. 10 years! A whole decade. My school had 2 temporary classrooms when I left 27 years ago. They have 4 now. IBM moved into Hursley in 1958 as a temporary measure. They are still there today.

A temporary solution or workaround can be a Godsend. When you’re about to go live with a big system and horror of horrors, you find a problem. You don’t want to accept the risk of taking a new release where new problems might be lurking. But temporary solutions have a nasty habit of becoming permanent. When you come up with a temporary solution, it’s important to understand the inherent drawbacks of not doing it properly. It’s also good to think about when (or if) it might be replaced. If the permanent solution is not under construction or at least in the planning stages right now, the chances are that workaround could last for a very long time.

If that’s the case, it might well be worth putting in a little extra effort to do a good job. Maybe go the whole hog and fix it properly.

Sometimes permanence is a good thing. The Eiffel Tower was originally built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle but caused such a stir they decided to keep it. Sometimes it’s not. Never believe a politician when they tell you a tax is temporary. As Craig Bruce once said; Temporary solutions often become permanent problems.

An Englishman’s home is his castle

Bart Simpson

Bart Simpson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t stamp my feet or hold my breath, but the petulance was unmistakable. In a way I could understand my partner’s exasperation but the terms of the accord were set earlier in the day. We could plod around estate agents until exactly 3PM when the England game started.

It was Euro ’96 and against all the odds, it looked good for the national team. Of course it all ended in tears but I wasn’t to know that at the time.

I never appreciated how many estate agents there were in Hemel Hempstead. All morning and early afternoon, we traipsed from one to the other looking at the house summaries and booking appointments for the following day. Only one remained. But we had an agreement and I was adamant I wouldn’t miss the kickoff. It was a good game. A lot of drama (as you would expect in an England game) but the boys did well and we won. I saw it as an omen.

The next day, we had just enough time to visit the sole remaining estate agent before our first appointment. We were in luck. A repossession came in as we stood in the branch. It was the right price, in the right area with the right amount of room. As it was just around the corner, we went there first.

We didn’t have a huge budget. We were not perhaps as fiscally solvent as we made out to the bank manager. The deposit consisted of a combination of a short-term loan from work coupled with a small amount of savings. The balance was made up by not paying a couple of bills that month. We certainly couldn’t afford stamp duty which kicked in at a certain threshold.

The repossession was comfortably below our ceiling but as it was the first house we saw, we were ultra critical. It was only later in the day when we plodded around some of the other horrors on our list that we realised how good that first house was. Nothing else was as big nor were they in such a good location. All of them cost a lot more money. I still have nightmares about the house with the bright green kitchen and the 10 foot Bart Simpson painted on the wall.

As we looked around at one more place that could have been the home of the Adams Family, we looked at each other and after a very short exchange we both agreed. We would rush down and put in an offer on the first house. The estate agent explained the special situation regarding repossessions in this country. Our offer had to be published in the local paper and everyone else had a week to put in a higher offer. It was a very stressful week. Luckily, the newspaper had a printing error which made it look like our offer was bigger than it really was.

And we’re still here. The wisest purchase we ever made. And if I hadn’t dug my heels in on that fateful Saturday, who knows where we would have ended up!

The cleanliness or otherwise of boots

English: Excel Cross Country Runner

English: Excel Cross Country Runner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone had a bogey subject at school. The subject that made them reluctant to get out of bed of a morning. Mine was Physical Education. I don’t know why they called it that because in the whole of my school career, I don’t think I learned anything. Unless you can count such valuable lessons in life such as not going outside in shorts and a T-shirt if there’s snow on the ground. Or maybe the fact that if someone twice your size tackles you, it’s going to hurt. A lot.

Childline wasn’t around back then otherwise the first thing on my to-do list of a Tuesday morning would be to ring them. It all seemed so illogical to me. Why do we play outside when it’s cold and inside when it’s warm? Why did the school swimming pool have no roof? Either masochism or economics. They swore blind it was a heated pool. I chose my sports day event based on brevity rather than talent.

It didn’t help that I was the youngest in the year, and therefore the smallest by some considerable margin. It also didn’t help that school rules said no spectacles on the sports field. It’s kind of hard to concentrate when someone’s throwing a rock hard cricket ball at you when you can’t see a thing.

But my nemesis of nemeses was the cross-country run.

I don’t like playing football or rugby, but I at least understand why people do. But why oh why would you want to pick a particularly cold day, especially if it’s raining to go and run 5 miles in a big circle. To add insult to injury, our cross-country route passed through a pig farm. For those who have never had the opportunity to visit one, they stink. Not only do they stink, but they collect mud. Sometimes it came up to our knees.

After 5 freezing cold, rain-sodden miles of traipsing through mud dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, you are cold, wet, tired and most of all miserable. And they had a special punishment for the ungifted cross-country runner. Muddy boots were not allowed in the changing room, so they were left outside for the bloke who came last to clean. And I always came last.

One day I refused. The sports master couldn’t believe his ears. I was a well-behaved, compliant student by reputation.

“If you don’t clean them – you’ll have to go and see Mr Foskett”

Mr Foskett couldn’t believe it either. Neither could the deputy head and nor could the headmaster. I stood in his office still in my muddy sports kit. He threatened to call my parents and when I still refused to clean the boots, he summoned my mother to the school.

She duly arrived and they explained my heinous crime to her. She looked at me somewhat incredulously before turning to the headmaster and saying;

“Clean your own *&£$ing boots!” and she took me home.

Unconscious probability manipulation

English: London Midland Desiro EMU 350125 call...

English: London Midland Desiro EMU 350125 calls at Watford Junction with a service to London Euston. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who has received any kind of instruction in writing will tell you that the most heinous crime you can commit is to open your piece with something as clichéd as “It was a dark and stormy night“.

So I won’t.

But it was.

I was on the way home from work. One day a week, I trek down to our London office. Partly because some of my team work there, but also because it’s good to catch up with the other people who work there. The office in which I’m based is solely a development shop. The London office houses sales, marketing, HR among other things. It’s a trek because it involves planes, trains and automobiles.

A slight exaggeration – it doesn’t involve planes, but it does involve a walk, a taxi, a train, a walk, a tube and a final walk. It’s exhausting, and it adds roughly half a day to my normal work regime.

I was on the tube home. I normally get off close to the London terminus where I can catch a train to my home town. It occurred to me that the final destination of this tube was half way home and I wondered whether going all the way might be an option for when the trains home are stuffed. Every once in a while, signals fail, drivers strike or someone chooses the day I go into London to end it all by inconveniently jumping in front of a train.

The notion was fresh in my mind even as I alighted the train. At street level, the aforementioned dark and stormy night rendered everything wet. Me, my clothes, the pavement, everything. I hurried towards the terminus to catch my train. As I approached the station, I noticed the newly painted thick white lines in a perimeter around the station. Painted in the centre of each line was a no smoking sign. A notion crossed my mind that with all the rain, they might be slippery.

In the split second that the thought crossed my mind, I felt my feet slip out from under me. I saw the sky and the tall buildings around me spin as I went through a dramatic unintended backflip. Through some miracle, I landed unharmed. My pirouette through the sky softened through the willing compliance of my thick coat and my backpack. Several people rushed to my aid, proving the milk of human kindness has not yet gone off.

I’m not a superstitious man, but I thought about the trains being stuffed and verily, they were so. I thought that the new white lines, slick with rain, might be slippery and verily I was upon my posterior. I’m getting paranoid. I think I may have unconscious probability manipulation.

Why are babies so rubbish?

Inglesina 3-in-1 stroller without the chassis

Inglesina 3-in-1 stroller without the chassis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not like babies are new. They’ve been around for a very long time. It seems to me that whilst other creatures were busy evolving the ability to be born walking or swimming, we hardly evolved at all. Slightly less hairy perhaps with a larger brain cavity, but still utterly unable to communicate or move under our own power at birth.

We’re not even very good at producing them in the first place. If childbirth gets a bit difficult, we reach for a vacuüm as if we’re trying to remove a stubborn bit of fluff from the carpet. Or we reach for a pair of tongs that look like something Herr Flick would use at weekends. Failing that, we slice the unfortunate mother from stem to stern to deliver the baby through the sunroof.

But childbirth looks like the pinnacle of human achievement compared to the progress we’ve made on baby accessories. We don’t have children ourselves, but we spend enough time with young relatives to know our way round a car seat or a pushchair. Why are they so poorly designed?

The wheels on supermarket trolleys are universally derided for being unpredictable at the best of times, so who on earth came up with the idea of basing the front wheels of pushchairs on the same design? Who thought it would be a good idea to have a separate brake for each of the rear wheels? The whole point of having brakes is that you want the thing to stay in one place; not in fact to slowly pivot around the locked wheel.

If the people who made my car can design seats that fold in a zillion different utterly intuitive ways, why do manufacturers come up with such unfathomably enigmatic ways to fold pushchairs? Whoever designs pushchairs should have to test them themselves under simulated real life conditions. First of all, they should have to fold and unfold them in the rain. Then they should have to do it one-handed whilst holding something loud, heavy and wriggling, like a bag of cats maybe. Then they need to repeat the test laden with shopping.

There are many hostile environments in the world, but few can compare to the rigours a baby seat has to go through. Even the nicest design will look disgusting after exposure to a child. You will want to clean it, which means removing the cover. This will prove impossible without putting your fingers into every single nook and cranny. Pray that you put your fingers into something hard and dry. Unfortunately, you are likely to put your fingers into something soft, wet and gooey and pray that it’s undigested.

The ideal baby accessory should be easy to get out, easy to put down and completely jet washable, not unlike the perfect baby.