Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Nuisance calls

In the absence of a sponsor for my Grand Tour with Hats, I must settle back into the reality of November. I am a little grumbly - not ranty, but grumbly - because it's cold and the days are dark and that brings me out in grumbles.

Nuisance calls. I've had one too many - and am beginning to lose my sense of humour. So this is a post to ask how everyone else deals with them.

They fall into distinct categories:

The computerised call suggesting I press button whatever in order to claim compensation for my mis-sold PPI. What cowards, not even putting a real person on the end of the phone! So there's not even the satisfaction of answering back.

Then there's the personal approach, my name in Fred and I'm just calling from SuchaCompany - and here I ask him or her to repeat the name and the company, and get a phone number, and then remind them that I've registered with the telephone preference service and so I'll be reporting them. Responses to this vary from, 'I'm sorry, I'm amend our records to make sure we don't contact you again,' (which is a lie) to, 'You do that, and see what good it does you.'

Then - recently - and at the most inconvenient times of the day, have come the calls that claim to be 'lifestyle inquiries'. 'How are you?' I was asked. 'What business is it of yours how I am?' I said. 'I am not selling anything,' said the voice, taking no notice of my questions, launching into a script.

For me, these calls are an irritant, and inconvenience. Occasionally I put the phone down. Sometimes, I tell the caller I'm putting him/her on hold, put the phone on the side and walk away - and wait several minutes until whoever has rung me had completed his/her spiel and realised I'm not there. I report as many as I can - but it's a faff, turning the computer on and fiddling about with forms. (You can find out how to do this here.)

But what really worries me - these calls must work, often enough, to make it worth while for companies to keep making them. While the majority of us are irritated, there must be enough people who are vulnerable or gullible enough to be taken in by them.

How do other people deal with them? (And if anyone has clues how to stop them altogether - that would be truly wonderful!)

Sunday, 24 November 2013

A Grand Tour? With hats?

Val Poore has asked me to blog this. (If you don't know Val - you can find her at her Watery Ways, here.)

Some years ago a daughter gave me a book, not just any book: "The Queen Newspaper Book of Travel" - the 1905 edition. It includes some wonderful advertisements, for cruises, for costumes that do not cockle, for Mrs Pomeroy's toilet preparations, for Ganesh Chin Straps (no, I've no idea what those are either.)

And it tells you all you need to know about undertaking your Grand Tour - where to go and at what time of year, which hotels to stay in, where to catch trains or carriages, how many hats you will need. So I know that 'Avignon cannot be recommended as a winter resort', that 'Rouen is a healthy city for residence on the high ground.' I know that Oberstdorf is '2660 feet above sea level, a climatic air station and whey cure'. (A what?) I know that March is 'probably one of the best months to be out of Great Britain.' The steamer fare to St Petersberg from Hull cost £5 5s. There are maps and routes an illustrations - and it's wonderful.

Would it be possible to do such a tour now?

Yes, it would. Some things would be different - I can't imagine the response to the polite letter to the hotel requesting rooms, so bookings would have to be be email. Travelling by train with Serious Jewellery would be bonkers - though piles of hat boxes might be possible. But the routes - they're still there. The towns and mountains haven't moved since 1905/

So go, said Val - she'd even help me organise it. I am sure there would be a loyal band of you cheering me on.

So why not?

I think a project of this kind needs a sponsor. In Cuba (and on previous trips), once I've paid for my flight the day-to-day expenses are not much more than I'd spend at home. A Grand Tour, staying in Grand Hotels and eating in Grand Restaurants wearing Grand Frocks, would be outside my price range. Stay in cheaper places, I hear you say - and of course that's the sensible way forward. But, even so, three months travelling in Europe, with hats, would be far more expensive than staying at home, and if too many financial corners were cut it would miss the point of trying to recreate the Tour in the first place.

On top of that - the point of it would be to publicise it, make sure plenty of people knew what was going on - and that needs sponsorship. It needs a newspaper, or journal, or publishing company with an advance to fund it. And most of those, as we know, believe that the shenanigans of celebrities make more exciting copy than some woman wandering round Europe with hats, even if she can string a sentence together.

So that, Val, is why it's a dream. But, as you said, it doesn't have to be. You never know ... maybe a sponsor will creep out from somewhere ...

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

More money - Cuban money this time.

This news may have passed you by:

In the past, Cuba has worked with a dual currency, one for tourists and another for local people, effectively ensuring that tourists pay higher prices.

This dual-pricing system is common in developing countries. There has been much discussion on travel forums about this - for what it's worth, I don't have a problem with it. If I can afford to fly there, it's reasonable to assume I can pay a little more for my museum entrance or my supper.

Yet Cuba is the only country to enshrine the practice in two currencies, and now it is to be fazed out: the details are on the BBC website here. It's very unclear when the process will begin, or how it will happen -  but I recall similar concerns prior to decimalisation and that worked out ok.

Yet I do foresee some confusion when I go there in January - for me and for the Cubans. For I've met complex currencies before.

Let me give you an example: in Cambodia they have three currencies, the Cambodian riel, the Thai baht and the US dollar. It is common to be paid in one and get change in another. In the process of this exchange it is also common for the rate to vary, thus ensuring the tourist is a cent or two worse off than he or she ought to be.

Does that matter? There are those who believe that it does: ripping people off is always wrong, and tourists should make a point of challenging this process to promote a fairer cross-cultural exchange. Then there are those who recognise that a cent or two means little to the tourists, but - added to the next cent and the next - can buy a meal for a family, and they shrug off any discrepancy.

And now I shall probably be faced with this dilemma in Cuba. Which side of the fence do you sit?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Authors for the Philippines

We've seen the pictures. We've heard the stories.

It's too far away - so we wring our hands and say if only, if only there were something I could do ...

You may have raided your piggy banks and sent a donation to the Disaster's Emergency Fund ... and still wished there was more you could do ...

Well, I don't know who set up Authors for the Philippines - but I've been in contact with a woman called Keris Stainton - and dare not imagine how hard she has worked to set up this site, market it, get the whole auction-thingy up and running - all in less than a week!

Writers all over the country are rallying round to do their bit - we can make a difference, if we all pull together. Over the Hill is there - but so are hundreds of other books, editing offers, mentoring, courses - you name it and writers have given in.

So go, browse, see what you can find - there must be treasures ... (but give it a couple of minutes because I want to get there first ...)

And then flop back and raise a glass to Keris Stainton and all those working with her - this site is a huge achievement. If I knew where they were I would send cake.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The bedroom tax

Karen, commenting on my last post, asked if I'd write about the bedroom tax.

So - taking a deep breath - here I go. Those of you in the UK with probably know all this - I'll be interested to see what you think. I shall try to be impartial - well, I'll try to present the reasoning that underpins the wretched tax, and then its unintended (but predictable) consequences. All this without using the word 'ludicrous.'

Here in the UK we have, since 1945, tried to provide social housing for those who, for whatever reason (generally poverty) are unable to buy their own homes nor afford rents in the private sector. This is meant to ensure that everyone is adequately housed, has access to clean water and sanitation - that sort of thing.

Then along came Margaret Thatcher who decided it would be a good idea if people who lived in social housing had the opportunity to buy their own homes, at reduced rates, thus allowing them to join the property market - founded on a belief that private ownership is good and social housing is inferior. Significant numbers took up her offer - thus reducing the number of houses available for those who need them.

Our current government, anxious to reduce public spending, noticed that some people living in social housing have a spare room. Sometimes this is because children have grown up and left home; sometimes it is because they are disabled and need space for specialised equipment; sometimes they are foster carers leaving a room free for emergency placements.

Not good enough, said the government - there are people who need these houses. They are right - the waiting list for social housing grows and grows. Families linger in unsanitary conditions waiting for houses to become available. So surely, if people with rooms to spare could move somewhere smaller - then this would free bigger homes for bigger families? But no one is asked politely to move, for the general good. No - everyone with a spare room MUST move to somewhere smaller (no, there can be No Excuses), or lose some of their benefits that help towards housing costs - effectively taxing them for having a spare room.

Which might be fine if there were flexibility - for the elderly who have lived in their homes for decades, for grandparents needing a spare room for children to return home, for those with offspring in their twenties who come and go for years before finally setting up their own homes, for the disabled ... On top of that, even if people agree to move, there aren't enough  smaller properties for people to move into. Because Margaret Thatcher thought it was such a good idea to sell them.

So how are people managing:

Some are turning to food banks, or payday loan companies, or going without meals or heating, and trying to pay the tax.

Some are simply unable to pay, and are evicted. But the Council have a responsibility to help them, so they are moved into Bed and Breakfast accommodation - which is more expensive than any tax that was saved - until smaller properties become available.

Which, to me, looks totally bonkers. But what do I know? (Karen - I'll be interested to hear what you think?)

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The tyranny of money

I'm changing tack a bit here, but recent news about bankers and bedroom taxes and food banks has got me thinking.

Money - we don't have to like it but can't live without it. Yet it's no more than a means of exchange. When Pol Pot abolished money in Cambodia men and women bartered: I'll swap you half my bowl of rice for your shoes, that sort of thing. In our prisons, cigarettes are used in much the same way.

So, if money is no more than a means of exchange, how have we reached a point where the value (as opposed to the worth) of anything is measured be something that is, effectively, nothing more than a piece of paper? Just suppose - bear with me - our means of exchange were ears of wheat, or mittens. We could have green mittens, blue mittens, red mittens - I'll swap you three blue mittens, or ten ears of wheat, for that sparkly iPad.

Wheat, mittens - neither intrinsically beautiful in themselves yet both have value; and both are fundamentally useful.

For how have we - a wealthy country (I'm in the UK) reached a state where there are people with insufficient money (which is simply paper) to heat their homes and have enough to eat? They are cold and hungry, for want of enough paper. If mittens were our currency I could unpick an old jumper and knit a pair or two. Wheat - my cooking is truly rubbish but I have a friend who can make bread. Neighbours could pool bread, or mittens - unite and make sure no one went cold or hungry.

But we don't. Instead we have paper money. We count it. We put it in banks. Some people have so much of it that they think it makes them better, or more important, or worth more, than those who have less. The Government measures wealth by it. Yet, for want of paper, our poor and vulnerable are abandoned.

Where did our priorities go so awry?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Let me introduce you to ...

My granddaughter. You know of the boys - but I rarely write about her. She lives closer; I see her regularly, so the world doesn't stop for her visits.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't know of her wonderfulness.

She's three. And I think this episode will tell you all you need to know:

My daughter and I were driving (I forget where) and the little one wanted to get out to play. No said my daughter, explaining - with extreme patience and clarity - that it was raining, and we had other things we needed to do.

The child asked again, and again. And my daughter explained, explained - there was no question of her changing her mind, so this wasn't a child carrying on in the hope of getting Mum to let her out to play anyway. Rather, she wasn't actually listening - explanations, for her, are not the point. She wanted to get out, discover the rain for herself.

I flashed back to her mother, as a little girl. To my explanations, to the endless questions, to the not listening. To her overwhelming need to explore the world for herself, to make her own mistakes. She needed the rain on her face, not on the windows.

Like daughter, like granddaughter.

She stands up to face the world with the clear expectation it will welcome her. Luck girl: she has a family to cheer her on, and pick her up if the world lets her down.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

How do you do mornings?

It's November, and some of you will be up before dawn to write you 1500 words or more for your NaNoWriMo. (If that's a mystery to you, check it out here.)

Others, of course, will be up early for work - you are on the early shift at the hospital or steel plant (do we still have any steel plants?), or have babies who wake at any hour of the day or night. You have no choice but to crawl from the covers before the lark.

So - do you growl, then creep from under the duvet, dress without speaking, drink tea or coffee without thinking and force your body into the street believing that your head will wake eventually and catch up? Or can you rub your eyes, turn the light on, and welcome the new day with a stretching exercise or two?

You NaNo writers - how awake are you at this early hour? Some are probably writing in their sleep while others fire on all cylinders. (I salute you all!)

Me - I'm not NaNo-ing. I'm a tea-in-bed-before-I'm-human sort of woman. I scribble a page of rubbish while the kettle boils - it's handwritten, and reminds me that I love to write, rather than a glimpse of insight or literary merit. Then I read until hunger drives me from my bed in search of breakfast. Even then I can linger, stare from the window - I have a view across the valley to the forest from my bed. The beech tree just beyond my garden tells me all I need to know about the seasons and the weather - today it is still, and somewhat forlorn.

But, last week, when grandchildren were here, all that changed. Daughter hemmed them in until seven o'clock; then they were told to tiptoe into my room to see if I was awake. My bedroom door was flung open; crash. GRANDMA!!!!!! Three small boys piled in. I made tea (of course), taking a cup in to daughter in the hope that she might have twenty minutes peace (she earns it!) and we watched Bob the Builder and Postman Pat, in bed, the boys eating bowl after bowl of dry cereal, cuddled beside me. (Two days later and I am still finding Cheerios in the folds of my duvet). There are worse ways to start the day.

How does yours begin?