Friday, 19 September 2014

problems with drinking milk....

I've heard people joking that, now that the Scottish referendum is over and done with, what the hell are we supposed to talk about now?  Well, let me tell you, that hasn't been a problem in my office, that's for damn sure.

Why?  I'll tell you why. Because they've only gone and replaced all the milk with a powdered skimmed milk, that's what.

I should probably explain: I work in a large office building with lots of other people.  That building is divided up into sections, each section with a hub containing a fridge, water-cooler, water boiler and all that kind of stuff.  Up until a few weeks ago, those fridges were stocked up each day with semi-skimmed and skimmed milk.  Apparently, that adds up to something like £90,000 a year, and the company has decided to make a saving.

I'm with them so far.

Here's what they did: they carried out a trial in a few hubs where they replaced the milk in the fridges with a stainless steel urn which they filled with reconstituted powdered skimmed milk.  The trial went down like a lead balloon.  Well, we're English, aren't we?  How on earth can anyone with an ounce of sense believe that reconstituted powdered skimmed milk is in any way an acceptable thing to put into your tea? We're not fucking barbarians.

They ignored the feedback, extended the trial and rolled the urns out to every single hub in the building.  Almost immediately, it was all that anyone could talk about.  We wondered how buying 50 stainless steel urns, filling them a powdered milk mixture every day and cleaning them every night could work out cheaper than filling the fridges with bottles of milk; we wondered how skimmed milk powder was an adequate substitute for semi-skimmed milk; we marvelled at the communication that told us that, although the powdered milk mixture was perfectly safe, because the urns weren't chilled, it was probably better not to use them before 8am or after 5pm.... in fact, we talked about this all the time, around the printers, in meetings, over coffee....  It was the number one topic of conversation, especially when they confirmed, on Monday this week, that they would be making the trial permanent.

By Wednesday, all the urns were empty and we had proper milk back in the fridges again.  Why?  Because a member of the executive team exploded in a meeting, marvelling that we were approaching our most important trading period of the year and, instead of concentrating on that, we were all talking about bloody reconstituted powdered skimmed milk.  She apparently stormed out of the meeting immediately and demanded that this nonsense was brought to an end and that proper milk was brought back.

I reckon she's a tea drinker, don't you?

Thursday, 18 September 2014

let's talk about it....

How's my evening going?

Oh, you know.  The usual.  Arguing with a friend of a friend on Facebook about Scottish independence.  As you do.

I got sucked in at the point she said:

"Well, the one thing I will say is that if past is prologue and "Aye" carries the day, there could well be outbreaks of Loyalist violence not just in Glasgow/Edinburgh, but in Belfast and adjacent areas as well. I hope that doesn't happen- but that community doesn't like it when uppity Celts insist on their Independence"

Loyalist violence, "that" community, uppity Celts.


When I suggested that this referendum was a triumph for democracy and pointed out that the history of the English in Scotland is hardly the same as the situation in Ireland; that the Scottish king became the king of England in 1603; that the acts of Union a century later were passed by the Parliaments in England and in Scotland; that the Scots had hardly been subjugated by an invading force....

I was wasting my breath.  She put up a wikipedia link to the Highland Clearances, which proves everything.

I pointed out that, in all the coverage I've seen of the campaigning, I've not seen a single mention of sectarianism or the threat of violence over the result.  The campaigning has been passionate and occasionally fractious, but the issues under discussion have largely been about the challenges facing a modern Scotland, and not so much about the past.

But what would I know?  I only live in Britain and have visited Scotland in the last month or so, where I saw largely Scottish crowds in quintessentially Scottish arenas like Hampden and Ibrox chanting for England and English athletes.  I'm a citizen of Great Britain and could easily wake up tomorrow with the map of my nation literally redrawn.

How could my insight on this subject possibly compare to that of a Californian? (who is, of course, entirely entitled to her opinion).

If you've got 15 minutes to spare, I would encourage you to watch this clip of John Oliver on the subject. "Scotland and England have been involved in something of a 300-year arranged marriage... and I will be the first one to acknowledge: England has been a little bit of a dick since the honeymoon...."

Very funny.

People, eh?  Fascinating.  As my friend said in her original post that started this little disagreement, whatever our views on Scottish independence, let's celebrate that we can settle this kind of question without bloodshed.  You're very wise, Kari.  Apologies that I seem completely unable to bite my tongue.

Let's see what tomorrow brings.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

follow that unicorn on the road to love....

The national animal of Scotland is the unicorn.

Honestly.  It really is.  I'm not making this up.

I don't imagine there's anything in the rules that says you have to pick a real animal to be your national animal...after all, get past the lion of England and you quickly encounter the dragon of Wales... but the dragon is big and breathes fire, whereas the unicorn is probably mostly useful if you have some poisoned water you need to drink...providing you can find a virgin to help you pacify the beast in the first place, of course, which may be no easy task in some parts of Glasgow.

Mind you, as well as symbolising innocence and purity, Scottish folklore holds that the unicorn was a dangerous beast, which is why in heraldry, the unicorn is usually shown chained.  In fact, it appears exactly like that on the royal coat of arms of Great Britain.

The lion of England, the unicorn of Scotland and the harp of Ireland.

If Scotland votes for independence, they will apparently retain Elizabeth as their queen.  Perhaps that means the coat of arms won't have to change, but would queen become Elizabeth II of England and Elizabeth I of Scotland (in the same way that James VI of Scotland became James I of England)?

Never mind what happens to the oil revenue, the currencies or our Olympic team for Rio, these are the real, pressing questions that we need to have answered.

In all this uncertainty, at least we can be sure that Scotland's national drink will remain unchanged:

Whatever happens in tomorrow's referendum, I wish my Scottish brothers the very best of luck.  There's nothing wrong with having a made up animal as your national symbol.  Nothing at all.  In fact, it's pretty similar to North Korea's Chollima, and that's never done them any harm, has it?

There's nothing in the least bit batshit crazy about North Korea, is there?


Tuesday, 16 September 2014


One of the most common symptoms of MS is fatigue. For me, this manifests itself as a deep-seated weariness; as if someone has flicked a switch and the power to my body has somehow been turned off. It doesn’t happen to me all that often, but when it happens, pretty much the only thing I can do is to go to bed. It starts with a tightness across my chest and shoulders, and a sense of enormous effort to even bear the weight of my shoulders; I’ll gradually stop talking and slowly withdraw into myself.

Odd though I know it sounds, this sense of fatigue is almost never brought on by exercise*. I flog myself into the ground on a regular basis and I’ve cycled over 1000 and run nearly 550 miles since the start of the year. I’m planning to run a marathon, for goodness sake. Actually, don’t ask me how this can possibly work, but going out for a run is one of the things I do that can shake off a sense of fatigue. I know, that makes no sense, but there you are.

Sometimes though, fatigue hits me right between the eyes. It’s an easy symptom to misunderstand because everyone feels tired occasionally. This is different, though. It’s hard to explain and probably difficult to understand, but this isn’t the kind of tiredness that willpower and a can of Red Bull can see you push through. I was out on a team leaving do on Friday night. We met reasonably early for a nice meal and then pushed on to a series of bars for a few drinks. As we walked from the restaurant to the first bar, I knew from my shaking shoulders that I was in trouble. I managed to stay out for another pint, but even by 10pm I knew that the only sensible thing to do would be to get a taxi home and hit the sack. I’ve no idea why I felt tired – and apart from my cycle to and from work, I hadn’t even done any other exercise – but my body was entering shut-down mode.

Before I left, I had a bit of a dilemma: what to tell the guys I was out with. On the one hand, I don’t owe anyone an explanation for why I was cutting my night short, but on the other, saying that I was “tired” didn’t seem to really cut the mustard. My MS isn’t really a secret from my colleagues, but neither is it something that I care to advertise, nor is it something that I ever want to use as an excuse for anything. Hmm. In the end, I just told most of them I was tired and was heading home. Needless to say, most people take that at face value, and only one seemed a little disgusted that I wasn’t coming out on a bender with him. One of my colleagues, who apparently knows me – and my condition - better than the rest, was concerned enough to actually ask me if I was okay and to offer me a lift home. Bless her, but a cab was fine. I’m not quite that much of an invalid.

I don’t like my MS to dictate anything to me. It occupies enough of a central position in my life as it is and I am reluctant to allow it to determine anything at all. Not surprisingly then, I hate the fact that it was effectively my condition that sent me home early on Friday night. Sometimes though - and this is a hard thing for me to accept – the better part of valour is discretion. Although the 4.5 mile run I did on Saturday, the swim on Sunday and the 8 mile run on Monday might indicate that I’m not going down without a fight.

...Or it might just indicate that I like to punish myself.

* In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably add that the 8-odd mile run I did yesterday evening completely wiped me out. After first crying out for calories to fill the void left by my blast furnace metabolism, my body went into shutdown fairly quickly after I’d eaten. Sometimes exercise does trigger a fatigue response beyond aching muscles.

Monday, 15 September 2014

lost in the dangling conversation....

I was minding my own business in the canteen at work the other day, waiting patiently for a friend to join me so we could have a coffee and a bit of breakfast at the end of a long week, when a voice hailed me:


Naturally, I turned around, only to see a young lady, perhaps in her early thirties,  bouncing enthusiastically towards me with a huge smile on her face.  I didn't immediately recognise her, and from a surreptitious look at the (upsidedown) ID card clipped to her belt, I didn't seem to recognise her name either.

I smiled.  Winningly, I hoped.  God, I hate small talk.

"You probably don't remember me, but we worked together a few years ago, in the offices in town.  I was temping, and it was my first ever job.  I was there for about eighteen months in all, but then moved away from Nottingham.  I've just moved back and started a new job here.  Today's my first day!"

I looked at her and, now that I thought about it, she did look kind of distantly familiar.  She was now looking at me expectantly, and it dawned on me that it was now my turn to say something to hold up my end of the conversation.  I decided to pitch at something welcoming, but slightly off-hand and debonaire with perhaps just a hint of insouciance.

"That was twelve years ago!"


To be honest, I was a bit taken aback.  I'm not wonderful at making small  talk at the best of times, but I'm absolutely terrible at it when I'm taken by surprise.  That job seems like a lifetime ago, the other girl we both worked with back then now has two children and lives in Madrid.  What with the passing of time and me growing a beard, losing weight and most of my hair falling out, I was somewhat surprised that she recognised me at all.  I was certainly surprised that she apparently thought of me fondly enough to bound over to say hello.

She was perfectly delightful.  If I see her again, I shall make a point of asking her about her new job or another normal conversational builder like that.  With a couple of week's advance warning, I should be able to come up with something spontaneous.  It probably would have been better if I could have thrown those in when she re-introduced herself to me like any normal person might, but it's better late than never, eh?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na.....

I see plenty of idiots on the road.  We all see them. I've always known that they're there, but somehow now I'm spending so much more time on the roads on my bike, or out running, I seem to suddenly be much more aware that they're there.

I went running this evening, just as the sun was setting but before it got dark.  The roads were pretty quiet on the whole, so the idiots stood out all the more clearly when they went roaring past me.  All the roads around here are 30 mile an hour limits; they're residential roads.  Some of these morons, all of them driving large-exhausted cars with unmuffled engines, and all driven by young men, were travelling at probably double that.


My favourite idiot today though was one that I saw a little earlier, when I was cycling home from work.  I heard him before I saw him, his stupid engine growling as he pulled out of a junction.  When I looked over,  I saw a pimped up Range Rover; black with tinted windows and decorated so that it looked like a Batmobile, complete with the bright yellow bat symbols.  It was quite the most ridiculous car, and looked like it had been designed and decorated by a seven year old.  It must have cost an absolute arm and a leg, and yet every penny spent on it was surely actively taking value off it.  It was an extraordinary car.

It was driven by an adult male.

Well, I say adult.  Only chronologically.

People are fascinating.

...or maybe it *was* Batman?  Gotham is only around the corner, after all.  And Wayne Manor.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

be the nation again....

When it comes to the idea of Scottish independence, I was initially instinctively opposed.  Perhaps I'm naturally a conservative-with-a-small-c, and maybe I'm just  resistant to change... but I've grown up as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and I didn't see any particular need for change.  After all, they've got their own parliament, they've got their own football and rugby teams, they compete separately at the Commonwealth Games.  I get to cheer Chris Hoy at the Olympics.  Win: win.  What more could they possibly want?  We're better together, aren't we?  It was the English defeats to the Scot at Falkirk and Stirling Bridge that taught us how to stop the French heavy cavalry at Crecy and Agincourt. We're just made for each other.

With the referendum only a week away, I've changed my mind.  I don't get a vote, but my views have shifted.

I find myself deeply uninspired by Alex Salmond, and if I was Scottish, I'd want to know why a man who has spent his whole life campaigning for Scottish independence seemed completely flummoxed by the idea that an independent Scotland would not automatically be granted entrance to Europe and would not automatically be allowed to use Sterling as their currency.  Um.... shouldn't you have thought of that eventuality at some point in the last thirty years or so?  You know, maybe come up with a plan b or something?  No, he's a little too self-satisfied for my liking.

That said, there's a fundamental principle at stake here: the citizens of Scotland have an opportunity to vote for independence.  If the majority says "yes", then I think we -- all of us -- should do everything we can to support them as they set up their newly independent nation.  That's how self-determination works, isn't it?

I might criticise Alex Salmond (when asked to name the three greatest Scotsmen, he apparently went for Robert the Bruce, William Wallace and himself) but look at what we've got in Westminster: David Cameron and this government of old Etonian cronies.  Any better? No, didn't think so.  Eton is an awfully long way from Gorbals, isn't it?  Hell, it's a pretty long way from anywhere normal.

Flying a saltire over Downing Street and desperately cobbling together a last minute set concessions towards greater Scottish autonomy within the union fools nobody.  It's pathetic and it's embarrassing: if the Scottish people want independence, they'll vote for it.

Save yourselves, Scotland.  It's too late for us, but you can still save yourselves.  Who knows: perhaps Scottish independence will lead to genuine electoral reform in England, then we'll all be better off for the change.

I can still cheer for Chris Hoy, right?

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

time for primal concrete sledge....

I've been watching a documentary on Sky Arts called "Metal Evolution".  I stumbled across it completely by accident, and it was originally aired in 2011, so it's not exactly new, but I've been watching it avidly ever since.  Basically, it's a guy who drew out a series of family trees of where he thought heavy metal music came from and how it developed, and then went around the world interviewing the people involved.  Each programme is based around a theme: new wave of British heavy metal or thrash or grunge or hair metal or whatever and then tells the story, tracing the origins of the sub-genre and working through the key bands and how it developed.  The theme music is "The Trooper" by Iron Maiden.  I was hooked immediately.

The first programme I watched (episode 3) saw the presenter in England following the thread of bands in the late 60s and early 70s who evolved from the Blues into something much heavier: Deep Purple, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Cream, Led Zeppelin.  It's gripping stuff, although I've particularly enjoyed the episodes on the NWOBHM (inexplicably pronounced as a word by the presenter, and sounding something like nu-wob-ham) and on thrash, where we follow the bands that I grew up with and who formed my gateway into metal: bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica and Anthrax.  Even the hair metal programme was interesting, if only to remind you how ridiculous and vapid most of those bands were, but also to see how the emergence of a "real" band like Guns n'Roses killed the scene almost stone dead overnight and how the members of those bands then really struggled to make ends meet.  I ended up having real respect for some of the survivors (if not for their music or their fashion sense).

The episode on grunge was fascinating mainly because of the way that almost every grunge band went out of their way to deny any metal influence (which is clearly nonsense when you listen to something like Alice in Chains or Soundgarden).  It seems that hair metal made a lasting impression on these guys, and in their jeans and plaid shirts, they were keen to avoid any comparison with their spandex-clad near contemporaries.  Also amusing was the scorn of these guys for the second wave of gruge bands who followed once the record companies went sniffing for more of the same in the wake of the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the like: all tried to sing like Eddie Vedder (apparently that's called "yarling") and all were fairly crap.  Creed seemed to be the subject of the most scorn, which reminded me of the story of when their fans who tried to sue them after a live show because they were so awful.

Anyway.  It's a good show, and the next episode I have on my sky box is about "Nu" metal... Rage Against the Machine and the likes.  Should be good.  Worth checking out.

One consequence of watching the show is that it's had me scurrying back to my old CDs and loading the likes of Anthrax, Slayer and Pantera onto my iPod to listen to at my desk at work.  I first heard Slayer back in about 1988, and they're not half as heavy as I remembered them being, but they are seriously good.  I'm not sure that being caught singing "Raining Blood" out loud at my desk would be a good thing, but on balance "Fucking Hostile" might be worse.

Rock hard, rock heavy, rock animal.


Monday, 8 September 2014

the monkey wants to speak, so speak monkey, speak....

If you'll forgive the indulgence, a quick post about football.

I would describe myself as a follower of football rather than a fan.  I'm more than happy to watch it, and I have a team that I support... but I increasingly find myself distanced from it by all the hoopla that surrounds it.  It's not even particularly the way the clubs and the players behave, for me it's the way that Premier League football seems to command saturation coverage in the media.  Even more specifically than that, the coverage seems to mostly rotate around about five clubs at the top end of the table (and Manchester United).  It doesn't matter what else is happening in any other sport, if there's some top division football on, or a transfer or sacking in the offing, then the rest of the world might as well not bother for all the coverage they're going to get.

I like to listen to BBC 5 Live, and they're increasingly guilty of this.  Their anchor, Mark Pougatch is particularly guilty of this. I heard him the other day trying to put forward the theory that Arsenal have started signing English players because Arsene Wenger was stung by the "betrayals" of players like Samir Nasri or Baccary Sagna, who took lucrative contracts to play somewhere else, and thinks that English players -- who are apparently all great mates -- just will not behave in the same way.  Even allowing for the fact that this theory conveniently forgets an English player like Ashley Cole, it's complete and utter speculative cobblers.  And yet, there it was, being passed off as insight.


Anyway.  England are playing Switzerland this evening, in their first competitive match since the World Cup, when we were eliminated in the group stages before most of the other teams present had played their second game.  The expectations surrounding the English national football team are remarkable: the only tournament we have ever won was our own World Cup, back in 1966. and we've never really been close since.  Has this stopped the expectation that we should be winning more, even when our world ranking would suggest that a quarter final is about the best we ought to be hoping for? No.  Of course not.  We went to Brazil with the media saying that we had no chance.  This quickly became a way of everyone saying "we have no chance", whilst all clearly thinking that somehow this meant we would slip under the radar and win the tournament.

In fact, we had no chance.  We were abject and thoroughly deserved to go home when we did.  So why is it then, if we really went to the World Cup with no expectation, why is the media suddenly all over manager Roy Hodgson's back and have the knives out for Wayne Rooney, probably our best player?  Listening to 5 Live over the last few days, and even the BBC seems to be sharpening the knives, saying that we're never going to achieve anything as long as he is manager.  Pougatch can barely stop talking about it.  I think he imagines that he's the voice of the fan, or somesuch.  He was rather knowledgeably suggesting the other day that Hodgson should be immediately replaced with Gary Neville and that Raheem Sterling is now England's main man and not Rooney...

The grim reality is that the England football team just isn't that good at the moment.  Many of our established internationals - underachievers at international level to a man themselves - have retired and the next generation of players are barely holding down first team positions for their teams in the English Premier League.  We look turgid, tactically rigid and inexperienced.  Frankly, what else is new?  When do you remember England being anything like the sum of their expensively salaried parts?

It's just tedious to hear the media jumping on the same old bandwagons and offering up criticism but not solutions.  It's boring and it does football no favours.  I just can't be bothered with it. Football might be the beautiful game, but it also really is the game that ate itself.

Sepp Blatter is a venal, corrupt man who sits at the head of the worm-riddled organisation that runs international football.  It's hard not to wonder if football hasn't got exactly what it deserves.

Friday, 5 September 2014


I caught up with one of my friends last week.  She's got a two year old son and he's clearly the centre of her world, so naturally quite a lot of the conversation revolves around him....and that's fine by me.  It's nice to see her light up as she describes the joys of parenthood.  We worked very closely together for a number of years, and during her pregnancy, I seemed to spend an awful lot of time doing various bits of lifting and carrying for her as she stocked up before her maternity leave.  It's nice to catch up.

At the moment, her little boy is a proper little sponge and apparently developing so fast that you can almost see the change on a day-by-day basis as his brain grows and absorbs information from the world around him.  His latest thing, I learned, is to hold proper running conversations with himself about what he's seeing as he processes it and tries to describe it in terms that he understands.  Usually, this is charming.... but apparently, on occasion it can also be mortifyingly embarrassing.

Picture the scene: you are just finishing up at they gym, and you are standing at the counter in reception waiting to be served.  You have perched your little boy on the top of the counter so that he can see what's going on.  As you wait, a personal trainer wanders behind the counter and starts browsing through a filing cabinet or something.  Your little boy sees him and says:
"Oh look.  Big monkey"

The personal trainer is black.

You don't think anyone else apart from you and your husband heard this, but not quite knowing what else to do, you pick up your child and walk quickly out of the gym, all the while hoping that the ground will open up and swallow you.

My friend told me how horrified and embarrassed she was, but that she didn't want to make too big a deal of it with her son because all that would do would be to imprint the incident on him as being significant (another friend of mine backed this up by saying how he had once said "Oh, fuck off!" out loud in front of his toddler and then spent the next six months managing a child who would say that loudly, in public at every possible opportunity, knowing that he wasn't supposed to but delighting in the attention he got for saying it).

Being the supportive friend that I am, I simply told her that she seemed to be doing a bang-up job of raising her very own little racist.  Mind you, what this incident really shows is that the average racist has a mental age of approximately two.  At least this little boy will move past this; the average UKIP member apparently does not.