Doubly Liebstered

I have been doubly pleased that in the last few days I have been passed the Liebster Award baton by two new friends and bloggers: Jackie Buxton and Louise Walters.  Thank you, ladies.

A little bit overwhelmed I have debated how to handle the need to answer 22 questions and provide additional random facts, as well as pass on the prize to other fantastic bloggers……


I’ve decided to answer all the questions,by which time I’m fairly sure I will have run out of steam and you will have lost interest.  In ‘old’ days of chain letters, I was often the end of the line, usually too idle or distracted to pass them on.  Now it’s all electronic, I’m even worse, so I will suggest a list of my favourite bloggers, even though I know that some of them tend not to participate in the awards round robbins; that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them a little visit.

Both Jackie and Louise are new friends whom I met (both online and in the ‘Real World’) indirectly through Twitter, and the networking skills and tremendous generosity of Jane Rusbridge, Isabel Costello and Gillian Stern; one in the eye for the naysayers still doubting the benefits of social media networking.

So to Jackie’s questions first:

  1. Cheese or chocolate?  Both, although at the moment I’m trying to avoid cakes and sweets, so cheese has the upper hand just now.
  2. If you had to go on Britain’s Got Talent, what would you do? (Apart from run away …) Play dead.
  3. What’s your best childhood memory? Too difficult….one of my earliest is wandering off on my own at Butlins and winning a penny out of a one armed bandit.  The shine was taken off this at the time by being arrested not long after by the busybody woman from the chalet next door who took me to the nursery from which I had to be liberated by my mother.
  4. Favourite song lyric?  I’m hopeless with lyrics; I like the sounds of the words in my favourite songs rather than the meaning, which I frequently mishear anyway.  If pushed it would have to be Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘He thinks he’ll keep her’, or anything by Stephen Sondheim, my particular favourite from Follies being:  In the depths of her interior, Were fears she was inferior,

    And something even eerier, But no-one dared to query her superior exterior.

  5. If you could ask one question of your great-grandmother, what would it be?  Tell me a story from your childhood.
  6. Have you ever lived abroad?  When I was a child my family lived in the US, first in Bethesda, Maryland and then in St Louis, Missouri for two and a half years.  I lived and worked in Moscow for a couple of years in the mid 1990s.
  7. What’s your dream job?  Casting director
  8. What job couldn’t they pay you enough money to do?  Call centre ‘operative’
  9. If you were prime minster, what would be your first priority?  Find some people who’ve had proper jobs to work in government.
  10. Twitter or Facebook?  Twitter for the people I have met through it; but there are a couple of people with whom I communicate mainly through Facebook.
  11. What would your perfect day look like? Leisurely breakfast on a sunny terrace by the sea, a walk along a high ridge for fantastic views, jolly conversation with friends, champagne and oysters and finally a night at the theatre seeing an engrossing play which might bring a discrete tear to the eye before the lights go up.

And now, if you’re still with me,  Louise’s questions:

1. What’s your favourite novel and what do you love about it?  It depends on the day of the week and the period of my life.  As a teenager I devoured the Russian classics much more readily than Dickens and Austen, so although I probably didn’t understand the philosophy or history in it, I loved War and Peace, and read it sitting with my back against the radiator in my bedroom with Jethro Tull on the record player.  It was the attraction of the individual human stories set against the sweep of history that has stayed with me.
2. Do you have any pet peeves in fiction? Writers who should know better using non standard spelling and punctuation (Ever tried to read a James Kelman? and don’t get me started on The True History of the Kelly Gang….)
3. What are you most proud of?  Doesn’t that come before a fall?
4. Your most and least favourite people in history?  Impossible… so today I’ll plump for Marie Curie and Stalin if only for the fun of juxtaposing them in the same sentence.
5. The country, city or other place you’d most like to visit? Iceland has been on my list for years, and Buenos Aires,  Santa Fe, Chicago, Alaska and Rajasthan ……..
6. Which five people would you like to meet (dead, alive or fictional)?  Vanessa Bell, Maggie Smith, Edith Wharton, Iris Murdoch and Damian Lewis would make for a pretty interesting dinner party……
7. What makes you laugh the most?  Life
8. If you could know the future, what would you wish for?  That I could see my novels published, and that me and mine will live long and healthy lives.
9. If you won the lottery and could donate money to charity, which charity would you choose and why? Cancer Research because of those I know affected by the disease, and NDCS (charity for deaf children).  My first primary school had a special unit for deaf children who were also taught in my class.  At the time their hearing aids were huge boxes hanging round their necks and bouncing off their chests, but the children never seemed to be able to keep up with what was going on. As a child I thought they seemed to miss out on so much fun even with the conspicuous and ugly hearing aids, and it has left a lifelong impression on me.
10. Do you suffer from any little phobias or superstitions? I’m a bit claustrophobic and would never go pot-holing, the very thought makes me feel a bit peculiar.
11. What’s your favourite guilty pleasure?  At the moment it’s True Blood the HBO series; I’m up to Season 5 .  I love the pure over the topness of it.
Aach, now you can’t possible want to know anything more about me.
So away and visit these blogs:

Thatcher Years

The last 24 hours has seen blanket news coverage of the death yesterday of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman Prime Minister and one of its longest serving.  Winner of three General Elections, her name has been attached to a monetarist economic theory, as well used as a chant of derision in demonstrations and protest.  She was a controversial figure in her lifetime and the recent comments and debates show that she still manages to excite both admiration and loathing in equal measure.

My views fall somewhere in the middle.  Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1979, in the first election in which I was old enough to participate.  I remember voting, and it feeling both quite exciting and a bit anti climactic, but have no memory of for whom I made my mark.  Watching the news clippings of the major events of her premiership, of the 1980s I see the background to my early adulthood, and it seems both like ancient history as well as not much longer ago than the day before yesterday.

While those who have popped up on the screens spouting paeans of praise for her greatness and leadership, have set my teeth on edge, the embittered ones who opposed her and lost, and are still eager to say something disobliging, were even less interesting.

If I never see that clip of film of her on her first arrival at No 10 in 1979 reciting the quotation from St Francis of Assisi again, it will be too soon, but not every policy she followed was bad; and while she may have been the clear leader, making the most of the power of the role of Prime Minister, she won a majority in three elections – someone was voting for her party and not for the other ones.  Everyone who was active during that decade contributed to the unfolding events through either co-operation or opposition, be it the trade unions or the barrow boys in the City.

Much of what has been shown has highlighted the divisiveness of the time, but it was one of great change; and many of those changes were retained by subsequent governments, even those from the opposite side of the debate.  The comments that I have found most interesting are the more nuanced ones: she was good at this, and horrible about that.  She got this right, but misjudged that.  She retained loyalty for these periods and then alienated everyone for that.  She clearly got grander and grander as the years past, and probably served for too long; her ‘we have become a grandmother’ comment being particularly unfortunate, and perhaps a signal that her political end couldn’t be far off.

I felt sad when I heard the news, largely I think, because her death represents the passing of a large segment of my life, and makes me doubly aware of the passage of time.  But I think it’s unlikely I’ll watch her funeral.

Coincidentally, I have recently read Damian Barr’s memoir of growing up in the west of Scotland during the 1980s ‘Maggie and Me‘ in which he describes, as a child,  being both inspired and appalled by Margaret Thatcher in equal measure.  (A review of the book will follow in due course….)

Trapped in an Inefficient Routine

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my battle with BT to get them to explain why my broadband stopped working twice a day according to a mysterious, not entirely predictable, timetable.  The problem has now been fixed, some 12 weeks after it began, but in that intervening period I had an insight into how the truths of the dystopian worlds portrayed in novels like Brave New World  survive and flourish; where it is the system not the individual that has value, and where, with enough conditioning, people can be convinced of nearly anything.

It turned out that a road accident at the end of December had damaged the junction box in the street and disconnected it from the mains electricity supply.  As a temporary measure, the box was powered by a battery which had to be changed twice a day. If the battery changer arrived late, the power ran out and I (and many others) had no broadband for a couple of hours.

I had had two visits from BT engineers and four extended telephone conversations with a call centre in India before anyone was able to furnish me with the explanation of the problem.  Instead, each of these people followed the routine of steps that they did every time, for every customer with a problem: they checked the line, they instructed me to press reset buttons and checked the line again.  They were deaf to my explanation that this was a regular but intermittent problem; nothing in their on screen prompts allowed for this.

While it was a relief to finally hear a logical explanation for the regularity of the broadband failures, it was also infuriating that an issue which was clearly known about somewhere within the BT organisation, as someone must have arranged and been paying for, the battery changing routine, took so long to be explained, and that there seemed nothing within the business to stop the call centre employees and the engineering team from wasting their time on utterly pointless line testing,when there was nothing wrong with the line that a little electricity couldn’t fix.

It was the chronic waste of time, both mine and the BT staff members’, that prompted me to write my earlier blog post.  Surely a well run organisation, and one in the information and communication sector, one that uses the strap line ‘we’ll never slow you down’ on all its advertising would be interested in knowing how poorly their ‘Customer Care’ systems looked from a customer’s point of view?


Or perhaps a well run company might…….

Out of pure mischief I sent a link for my blog to the BT chief executive, and was astonished to receive a reply from him.  I’m fairly sure it was from him rather than a polished PR; it had the look and feel of something typed out on a blackberry in the back of a taxi on the way to something more interesting.  I was even more surprised at the gist of his reply, which was to blame the electricity company for failing to fix the supply.

There was no acknowledgement that there might be team members within BT who were performing entirely pointless jobs, spinning their wheels wasting time to no end, and that a review of the process might be in order to perhaps initiate a a simple notification flag on their system to prevent a recurrence  no acknowledgement that as my service provider BT is responsible for maintaining robust contractual arrangements with third party suppliers, rather than simply blaming them.

I subsequently received a more polished response from a member of ‘BT retail Executive Level Technical Complaints’, which I assume is the code name for the team who have to deal with people who have managed to complain directly to the chief executive. This explanation repeated back to me the things I had been telling the company for over 2 months, and then blamed the electricity company, yet again glossing over all the time wasting.

The whole experience has painted a perfect image of a dystopian world in which what it important is to follow the procedure, to feed the machine, to give the appearance of doing something, no matter how pointless, rather than to address the real underlying problem; and the people who are inside this system don’t see anything wrong with it, in fact they may even like the comfort of it.  It’s easy: you follow the rules, do what you always do, and if that doesn’t make the problem go away, blame someone else, because it can’t be the system that’s wrong.  Because if the system is wrong, what is there left to believe in?

With my old professional hat on, I would rail at the management’s responsibility for the  reduction in shareholder value because of the fundamental  inefficiency in the company; but I’m not a shareholder (and never will be), and these days I look upon these sorts of experiences as great material.  There’s definitely the grains of a story in it…….

A Lovely Surprise

2013-03-19 15.10.42Just look at my lovely new slippers.

They have arrived by post in a envelope from South Africa, but mainly through the great generosity of my friend Jill.  We’ve never met each other in person, but we have been corresponding via the internet, through our respective blogs and more directly, for the last couple of years.  In response to something I had written about slippers or the lack thereof, Jill offered to make me some.

And here they are, and so well colour co-ordinated for lounging on my sofa.

It’s like a little bit of magic.

It’s one in the eye for all those who lament the dehumanising effect of spending  time on the computer.

Do go and visit Jill on her blog Nice Piece of Work; you  never know what will come of it(!).

Technology Eating Time

IMG_2979As a late adopter of most technology, when I do finally take the plunge it usually means a massive leap in sophistication which then involves me in a massive amount of learning and time wasting.

I’m currently in the middle of one of those phases, where time disappears into the jaws of feeling utterly incompetent, watching online instructions and the locating of long forgotten passwords, trying to get a new bit of kit to work.  It’s shiny, with a swishy swipy screen and I expect I’ll be able to use it fairly soon, fat fingers notwithstanding.

So, in the meantime here’s a photo of Hungerford Bridge by night(!)

The Wait Goes On…..

This is a new experience, searching for wifi internet access close to home.  I should never really need to do it, should I? I pay a reasonably hefty monthly subscription  to have access to the information superhighway from the comfort of my own sofa.

It should only be when I’m away from home that I have to worry about tracking down a hot spot; and I do have a fairly extensive repertoire of places I know which will accommodate me in central London, both north and south of the river(!), in Scotland when I go for visits and in other random places around the world.  But close to home?  I’ve never had to think about it until now.  I don’t often go out for a cup of coffee. Wwhy would I when I have a nespresso machine at home which makes better coffee than is available in most cafes?  So I have no idea if any of the locals offer a wifi side order. If the current technological breakdown continues I may have to start research.

In the meantime, I’ve come to  the gym, where I’m sitting in the lounge area.  Although I am a frequent user of the gym, I usually walk straight through this area and into the studio for a class, and then go straight home afterwards.  It’s not a place I would ever have thought of sitting for any extended period of time.  And the things you see.  Who knew?  All of human life is here, albeit clad mainly in sweat pants and training shoes (although some would benefit from a little more cladding.)  There’s some vigorous vacuuming going on above my head, which is nearly, but not quite, drowning out the tinny sound of the high tempo music pumped out to encourage increased effort, and the television is showing what looks like an Indian/Pakistan cricket match of some sort. It’s unlikely to divert me from the task in hand….

And even doing nothing more than sitting still typing, I’m too warm.  Imagine what it’s like when there’s actual exercise involved.

There’ is no news on my home internet yet, apart from a text message last night informing me that the fault is affecting ‘many people’ which is delaying the repair.  Clearly any assumption that because it is affecting many people the repair should be expedited, is a foolish fantasy.

Through the local grapevine, however, I have heard tell that the problem is a result of a car accident on Sunday evening.  Apparently a BT box was knocked over.  So for all the fibre optic, infinite capacity, expensive technology, fancy modem and little flashing lights, the phone company still has metal boxes on the pavement at the side of the road which are susceptible to being knocked over and rendered useless by a driver taking a wrong turn.  Maybe the next technical upgrades could be to move the boxes somewhere safer?

So much for good intentions….

I have been foiled at the first hurdle of regular posting into my third year by an annoying technical failure. Both my telephone landline and my broadband ceased functioning on Sunday evening. Several calls to the tortuous ‘Dial 1 for this, dial 2 for that, dial 3 to be plunged into the abyss…….dial 9 if you’ve given up hope’, has, so far, yielded nothing more than several text messages saying it should be fixed by January 8, maybe.

Meanwhile I am reliant on my mobile telephone, which is a good country mile from being technologically up to date, and which is very grudging in its online access.

It has, of course, made me realise how hopelessly dependent I have become on the internet, and also how much time I probably waste checking on the weather, the running of the trains and the news headlines before I even step outside of the house.

My regular trips to the spare room to check on the indicator lights on the modem, to see if service has been miraculously restored without me noticing, reminds me of my summer routine in my flat in Moscow. For six or seven weeks each year the centrally supplied hot water was switched off, and the quickest way to check if it had been restored while I was out at work was to feel the temperature of the towel rail in the bathroom which was right by the front door. It became my routine, close the front door, turn the key in the lock, and reach out with my right hand towards the cylindrical bars of the rail. How happy I was when it was warm to the touch, and I didn’t have to rely on boiling the kettle to do the washing up, or on the electric shower that either scalded or froze me with water like needles.

I’m anticipating that same happy relief when in see that little blue ‘b’ lit up on the modem again.

Until then, I will attempt to keep in touch by either locating a currently elusive wifi I can use, or pick my way through the odd post on my complaining telephone……

Traveller or Tourist?

Are you a traveller or a tourist?  If an item I heard recently on a radio programme is to be believed, this is an extremely loaded question.  It seems that the majority of people who write about travel on their blogs describe themselves as ‘travellers’, and rarely as ‘tourists’.

A couple of things interested me about this report, and the interview with the academic sociologist who had undertaken research on the subject.  The first was the discovery that there was an academic sociologist making a study of travellers’ tales blogs. I’d never really thought about what such a researcher actually does, but if they can study this, there must be no end of things to which they might get to the bottom.

The second was that the research was done entirely by studying posts published in blogs; very specifically, the academic had no direct contact or conversation with any of the writers.  What she discerned from her reading was that those who believe themselves to be ‘travellers’ also believe they are having a more ‘authentic’ experience, and rather look down on ‘tourists’, which is generally used in a pejorative way.

By the written word shall ye be known.

My elderly Concise Oxford dictionary offers little help in distinguishing between the two vying words: to travel is to make a journey, especially one of some length to distant countries (and, to act as a commercial traveller, or door to door sales man), while a tourist is a person who makes a tour, traveller, especially for recreation; however ‘tourist class’ is the lowest class of passenger accommodation in ship train etc, and a ‘tourist trap’ is a place that exploits tourists.

I’ve never thought much about how I would describe myself when I am at large in the world; but now that I’ve posed the question, I think I’d say I’m a tourist when I travel through one place after another.  The subjective judgemental distinction I draw in not that between tourist and traveller, but between those who travel in a group, and those who do not.  I’ve done both, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each of them.

When I did my trip around the world on my own, I treated it as a full-time project, almost as a job of work, to do the research, see the site and record my impressions; periodically I joined a group, and felt like I was on a holiday, I had to pay much less attention, I went along with the flow, I did what I was told, I ate and slept when and where I was delivered.  I relaxed, until I started feeling antsy wanting to be on a solo jaunt again.

Recently I’ve been undertaking a periodic effort to visit places in London that are on the ‘tourist trail’ but which I’ve never been to before.  One noticeable thing about most of these outings is that, as a resident Brit, I have generally been in a minority; providing anecdotal evidence that we tend not to visit the sites of interest on our doorsteps.  If we didn’t go on a school trip we may never actually visit our own national patrimony.

The only occasions I can recall rejecting being designated a tourist was when I lived in Moscow.  At the time, the entry price for many museums and galleries was one thing for Russian residents and something 100 times greater for foreign tourists.  There was always a dispute at the ticket office and we would have to go to the supervisor’s office, show the residents stamps in our passports and argue that just because we were foreign didn’t mean we were in the tourists price category.

So what are you, tourist or traveller?  And what makes one experience more ‘authentic’ than another?

Mind the Gap – The Olympics and Social Media

Apparently activity on Twitter reached some kind of peak during the recent Olympics, and WordPress has posed the question of whether our own appreciation of, or engagement with, the Games was impacted by this or other social media.

Because this blog, if it’s about anything, is about my interaction with the world, I have written a couple of posts about my attendance at  Olympic events, as well as my impressions of the impact of the Games on my city.  I’ve also been to Cultural Olympiad events and written about them; but I wouldn’t describe writing about these things as anything particularly remarkable.

Where perhaps I have participated in the boom in social media is as a reader, not necessarily of blogs on the events, but in checking out comments on twitter.  On the couple of evenings when I was out and interested in the results achieved by Team GB, in the theatre interval or on my way home before going underground, I checked out if anyone was tweeting about success or medal count, an occasionally tedious process if it required too much scrolling back through time.

I follow a couple of athletes as well as a couple of the BBC’s journalists on twitter, and if they were ‘cheering’ or ‘congratulating’ that was a fair indication of good news.  Silence was a bit harder to interpret, as in the heady days of exceptional British success, sometime a bronze medal didn’t always receive the unbridled appreciation that it deserved.

My main interaction with twitter was on the night of the Closing Ceremony, which I watched on my own, cringing, barely able to watch it even through my fingers, so embarrassingly awful did I find it.  I logged on, my PC on my lap to see if I was alone in my opinion of the lamentable occasion.  It was the entertainment of the debate over just exactly how terrible it was that stopped me switching off, and then after a while I had invested so much time in the hope that it might improve, I didn’t want to stop, in case the moment after I turned off, it suddenly got better.

When I was bored by the events, I looked to social media to make it more interesting, but while I was properly engaged, as during Mo Farah’s races or Jessica Ennis’s heptathlon I didn’t even think about the online buddies;  so I don’t think I’m properly of the social media set…yet, and didn’t really contribute to the Olympic inspired spike.


Addendum – I’ve just discovered that this post has been Freshly Pressed.  A huge surprise, so welcome to all new readers.  As you’ll have seen, I’m really only on the fringes of social media, so this it feels quite odd to receive such extra attention for a post on this subject.  I hope you’ll leave a comment if you’re more savvy about it than me!

A Lesson in Networking

I think I may have finally joined the internet age, and it has made me reflect on how nervous I have been about engaging too much with the virtual world of social media networking.  I’ve been taking dolly steps in my online adventures; I started this blog without thinking that anyone would actually read it, my Facebook account is set to ‘private’, and when I signed up to Twitter I was  very slow to build up the list of the people I follow, and would investigate somewhat suspiciously when people I didn’t know started following me.

But then last week I went to the launch for  Jane Rusbridge‘s second novel ROOK.  I’d never met Jane in person before.  In fact I didn’t know anyone at the party, the prospect of which was decidedly daunting, as walking into a room full of strangers doesn’t really play to my strengths.  But I took courage from an article I read on Isabel Costello‘s blog saying that her experience of attending launches at which she knew no-one before she arrived was entirely positive in that she’d found writers to be very welcoming and friendly.

So I took my courage in my hands, put a smile on my face and launched myself into the room…….. and it all lived up to everything Isabel had promised.

But how had I got there?

When I first joined Twitter I sought out women writers to follow.  But as I still had reservations about the rather negative connotations of the word ‘follow’, I felt that I should do more than passively lurk around shadowing them.  I therefore sought out the books of writers I knew only through their presence on Twitter, read them, enjoyed them, and then wrote a review here on this blog.  This did, as I had hoped it would, create a ‘proper’ sort of exchange.  I learned that writers love to have their books read and reviewed (of course it’s obvious, I see that now!) even if the review is only on my blog. Jane was one of the first people to teach me this.

Once I had started receiving thanks and positive reactions to my occasional reviews and gathered my own very modest following, I started to follow more people, but although I have learnt lots and picked up many interesting links through tweets, hitherto I’ve not been a frequent tweeter myself.  Part of it is that if I have an idea for something I’d like to say, I tend to save it for use here, and part of it is that residual feeling that it’s rather an odd thing to be doing.

But I can see it’s a powerful tool now, because one of the consequences of my rambling and stumbling about online is that at the party I didn’t not know anyone; instead I found myself in a group of extremely friendly people enquiring of each other ‘Do I follow you? I think you may follow me?’  and then talking about books and writing and how each of us is learning how to do this social media networking thing; and I discovered that I was not the only person who had arrived at the party knowing no-one, but who was leaving having had real world conversations with people who until then had only been known 140 characters or less at a time.

It’s scary, but there are tremendous rewards.

Thank you, Jane.

%d bloggers like this: