Wednesday, 13 December 2017

new car, caviar, four star daydream...

Arnold Schwarzengger’s disembodied head has just made me £615.

Although aware of PPI, it never really occurred to me that I might have a claim until I watched an advert featuring the aforementioned head on tank tracks, urging people to put in their claims as the window closes next year and the banks will be off the hook.  Apparently, the Financial Conduct Authority have seen millions of people flooding to their website and making claims since their £42m advertising campaign started.... although you might argue that £42m makes it a very expensive stable door, and that an Authority like that might be better served by actually regulating the banks effectively in the first place.  But anyway....

When I first took out a credit card, back in 1997, it came with a card payment protection insurance policy. It was annoying because I never asked for it, but it was only a couple of quid a month, and as it was my first credit card, I wasn’t really sure if it was something that I needed or not. So I left it. It seemed to be a fairly amorphous kind of insurance. Ostensibly, it was to help me out in the event that I couldn’t pay my bill, but it also seemed to offer lots of other services too. At one point, they sent me a key ring and some stickers to put on stuff, so that if they ever got lost, then they would find their way back to me. It annoyed me, but not enough to actually get around to cancelling it (which, every time I looked into it, seemed harder than it ought to have been). Apparently, it ultimately took me until 2005 to cancel the damn policy, which I think is when I binned the credit card.

I'd long since assumed that this was my own inertia that caused this and that there was no one to blame but myself, but then I saw that advert caught a couple of months ago and it was Arnold Schawarzenegger’s disembodied head shouting at me that finally got me off my (metaphorical - I remained seated throughout) arse and looking at the website of the financial ombudsman to see if I maybe had a claim.

One 16 (sixteen!) page form and a long conversation with a claims assessor from HSBC later, and the result is an offer of settlement of a little more than £615. The statement that came along with the offer showed that I had paid a total of £218.58 in premiums over the time that I had the policy (that's approximately £2.30 a month!), with the rest made up of lost interest and things like that. Given that I wasn’t 100% convinced that this was PPI in the first place or that it was significant enough, this is all something of a bonus.

I wouldn't normally be shouting "where there's a blame, there's a claim" from the rooftops... but this is the banks we're talking about, and who really feels sorry for them? That couple of quid a month really niggled me for EIGHT YEARS.  Not enough to actually do anything, but.... you know.

This definitely counts as sticking it to THE MAN, right? In the most middle-class way possible, but still sticking it to him, one PPI claim at a time....

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

pretty vacant...

There's an episode in the most recent series of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry is introduced to the fiancee of his manager's daughter. This guy, we're told, has served in the US army in Afghanistan. As everyone before Larry is introduced to this guy, they each make a point of saying how nice it is to meet him and thanking him for his service. When it's Larry's turn, he just says "Hi, how are you doing?". Everyone stares at him in horror, and the ex-serviceman has to leave because he is so upset. Larry, of course, cannot and will not accept that he's done anything wrong. He's already been thanked for his service by all of you, why do I need to thank him too?

As the episode aired here in November, it was impossible not to draw the comparison with the increasing fuss people make about the poppy and making an ever-more-ostentatious show of "respect". Not wearing a poppy doesn't mean you don't care about the sacrifices others have made in time of war; not thanking someone for their service doesn't mean you aren't thankful for it, only that you don't feel the need to parrot out an automatic response... so automatic that it is stripped of any real feeling. Are you saying you're grateful because you are grateful or because that's just what you say.

I have a real bug bear about this in the office. Most of the people I work with are in their twenties. We knock along pretty well, in the main, but whenever I ask the simple question: "You okay?", I almost always get the response, "Yeah, you?"... except it comes out as "yeahyou", all one word.

I think it's a millennial thing.

What annoys me about this is not so much that they're asking me if I'm okay, but that their tone of voice and speech cadence changes slightly as they reply to indicate that they're neither really answering my question nor giving me a real answer. It's a totally automated response, and I'm none the wiser at the end as to whether they really are okay or if they're genuinely interested in knowing if I'm okay too.

Or perhaps it's just me and there's nothing at all wrong or unusual about that and maybe I'm just turning into Larry David.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

the summer of the soul in December...

I was very excited to hear the news that The Muppet Christmas Carol would be receiving a cinematic re-release this December.  Whilst I can't honestly say that is my absolute favourite seasonal film*, it's a film that brings back some very happy memories and holds a special place in my heart.  Besides, has Michael Caine - who plays Scrooge entirely straight, with no regard to the fact that the vast majority of his co-stars are muppets - ever been better in all his long and illustrious career?

It's in the singing of a street corner choir
It's going home and getting warm by the fire
It's true, wherever you find love
It feels like Christmas

Irresistible, right?

Well, as I was talking about this with my team at work, whilst Jack was very enthusiastic and wanted to look up when screenings were on in Nottingham, the girls in the team were entirely indifferent.  In fact, most of them hadn't even seen it.  "It's a boy's film", said Alice, dismissively.

Wait, what?

As a man, perhaps it's my privilege speaking here, but I would never in a million years have The Muppet Christmas Carol down as a boy's film.  It's hardly Die Hard, is it?  We spent the next few minutes doing a sampling of all the people around our desks, and indeed..... most of the girls hadn't seen it and thought it was a boy's film, and most of the boys were fairly enthusiastic about it.

Say it ain't so!

Of course, the whole concept of there being "boy's films" and "girl's films" is nonsense, but if you allow the concept, then surely Muppet Christmas Carol would be nowhere near the top of anyone's list.  Even amongst seasonal films, it's nowhere near the top, is it?

I'd be fascinated to hear what you think.

Oh, and guess what I'm giving every single member of my team as a Christmas gift.

* Elf**

** or maybe Bad Santa***

*** probably Trading Places.****

**** Just don't talk to me about Love Actually.  In my view, that's a vile, cynical film where every single male character behaves as though they don't have an ounce of respect for any of the women.  Ugh.  

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

jumble sales are organised and pamphlets have been posted...

Billy Bragg @ Nottingham Rock City, Saturday 18th November 2017 (Bridges Not Walls tour)

I think, of all the people I've seen and all the gigs I've attended, Billy Bragg is the artist I've seen the most often.  Starting at Bristol on the Mermaid Avenue tour in around about 1998, I've probably seen the old boy play at least twice as many times as I've seen anyone else (probably Iron Maiden, if you're interested... but just maybe Thunder, who seemed to support everyone back in the day).  I even saw him four times at one Glastonbury, each time on a different stage and with a completely different set.  It's his Leftfield sets that I remember the most fondly: initially on a Sunday night in the smaller tent just down from the Hare Krishna and then on a Friday or a Saturday night (depending on how big the Pyramid headliners were - he always tries to play against the biggest bands so that the other acts at the Leftfield don't have to).

I remember one hot Sunday night -- 2002, I think -- when Billy played with a completely blank setlist and took requests all night. It was so hot that evening that the security (in the Leftfield, these are always Union staff) passed back so much water into the crowd that every single person in the tent had at least one plastic cup and most people had two.  Good times.

I think I can honestly say that I've enjoyed every single one of all these gigs.  Some are better than others, of course. He's not a nostalgia act and regularly releases new material (he makes a point tonight of saying that he's definitely not part of the December nostalgia touring circuit and that this tour ends on 30th November).  Not all of these newer albums have been classics.  Your mileage may vary, but I would say that my heart tends to sink a little bit when he plays some of his newer, country and western tinged material.  For me, it's just not as good as his "classic" material. That said, I really enjoyed the album of train-based songs that he released with Joe Henry last year.

Tonight... well, he plays a good, 2-hour long set and plays loads of his absolute classics - some on the same guitar he recorded them on, even if "the green monster" is doing his back in.  Is it the best I've ever seen him?  No.  Is he good?  Yes, he is. Rock City is packed and you can tell that we're in the mood, right from the off, when we sing along to every word of opener "Sexuality".  Most people just do the backing vocals, apparently ("Sweden!").  Hmm.  I don't know about that, but we're definitely in good voice and keen to hear what he's got. He's playing pretty much alone, which is how it should be for Billy Bragg... backed occasionally by CJ Hillman on pedal steel and once (on "Shirley") on the Rickenbacker. "If he's Johnny Marr, then I'm afraid that must make me Craig Gannon".  Oh, I do love a nice, obscure Smiths reference.

We have some new songs too: "Saffiyah Smiles" is dedicated to Saffiyah Kahn, the lady who confronted a neanderthal on a recent EDL march in Birmingham with a smile and was captured in a brilliant photograph that shows pretty clearly where he real power lies here.

"King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood" refers to the floods that happen in Florida when the water table rises, causing surges of water even when there hasn't been a storm.  It's a fairly obvious warning about global warming.

Both of these are more successful than "Full English Brexit", an attempt to try and understand the fears of the people who voted Brexit... which means well (something that is often said about BB himself and his political interventions) but mostly just sounds patronising.

There are covers: "I Ain't Got No Home in this World Anymore" (originally by Woody Guthrie), "Why we build the wall" (originally by Anais Mitchell) - both of which I've heard him play before, as well as older BB standards, "The World Turned Upside Down" (originally by Leon Rosselson) and "Power in a Union" (Joe Hill).  Bragg's been changing lyrics around as long as I've been watching him play: he messes about with "Sexuality" and "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" is a joy tonight as he chops it around to make it even more relevant.  I'm not at all sure about taking on Bob Dylan's "Times They Are a'Changing" though.  Some things are better left well alone, I think.

But, you know what?  At least he's trying to keep things interesting... for himself and for his audience.  If he just came out and played "Life's a Riot", "Talking with the Taxman about Poetry" and "Brewing Up with Billy Bragg", I'd be delighted... but would I keep buying tickets to see him play?  No, I don't think I would.

Have I seen him play better? Yes, I have.  But tonight was still a pretty good way to spend a Saturday night.

To be honest, I'd come and listen to him just talking for two hours.  I don't agree with everything he says, and just occasionally he can sound like a well-worn record repeating the same well-rehearsed rants.... but it's becoming increasingly rare to hear a humane voice of reason like this in a world of spouting idiots.  Still, as he'll freely tell you himself (and has the merchandise to prove it), he's like marmite: some love him, some hate him.

Let's cherish him whilst we've still got him and he's still touring, eh? Roll on the next time.

VERDICT: 7  / 10

David Belbin also reviewed this gig for the Post, and you can read the extended version of that review here.

SETLIST: sexuality - the warmest room - I ain't got no home in this world anymore - accident waiting to happen - the man in the iron mask - saffiyah smiles - must I paint you a picture? - Levi Stubbs' tears - king tide and the sunny day flood - shirley (greetings to the new brunette) - why we build the wall - milkman of human kindness - I keep faith - power in a union - full english brexit - the times they are a'changin' (back) - waiting for the great leap forward - a new england
(he played 'the world turned upside down' and "st swithin's day" towards the front of the set too, neither of which appear on the setlist... )

* I was reminded of Billy by the character Korg in the recent Thor film.  Not physically, you understand (Korg is huge and made of rock), but because he's kind and softly spoken and because, as he says,  "I tried to start a revolution... but I didn't print enough pamphlets". 

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

a lovely bunch of coconuts...

There's a lovely chap at our local parkrun: he's in his eighties now and has volunteered nearly 200 times without ever once feeling tempted to go around the course himself.  He's an absolute institution and everyone who comes along on a Saturday morning to walk, run, jog or volunteer at our parkrun loves him.  He marshalls the part of the course we call "the split", where, first time around, runners turn left and then, later on, turn right with a couple of hundred meters to the finish.  We've actually now officially named the split after him and given him some specially personalised signs so that every runner can thank him by name as they go past him.

As a member of the core parkrun team for the last couple of years, I've been lucky enough to get to know this chap quite well.  He's a cheeky sod too, and has particularly taken to teasing my wife at every possible opportunity... pointing her back around the course when she approaches the split for the second time, instead of directing her to the finish.  This week, he directed me into a space as I arrived and then held his hand out for five shillings, which he doubled when he saw my wife was also in the car.  That kind of thing.  He's a lovely guy.

Just recently, he's been particularly kind to me: he knows that I had an operation in the summer that stopped me from running for a while, and he's made a real point of coming up to me every week since and asking me -- quietly - how I am, and telling me to look after myself.  I didn't really think anything of it other than the fact that he's a gentleman.... until last weekend.

Last weekend, as he was quietly enquiring after my health, he went on:
"I had a friend who had a testicle removed, you know.  It took him a few months to get back up to speed. You look after yourself!"

I can't help but wonder exactly he's heard about exactly what I had done over the summer.

Still, his heart's in the right place.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

I got news for you baby, you're looking at the man...

You know you've arrived at work when you're the guy that your boss's boss entrusts with a call at a quarter to six in the evening with an important mission.  The fact that she knew that I would almost certainly still be in the office is neither here nor there; I was definitely her go-to person; someone that she knew that she could absolutely trust in a crisis. 

And now that crisis was here: her boss's boss  - so my boss's boss's boss's boss and one of the most senior people in the company - had lost his iPad and thought he might have left it on his desk. Would you mind going to check?

I checked.  It wasn't there.  Whilst I was there,  I also took the opportunity to have a little spin in his fancy chair... something that didn't go unnoticed by those of my colleagues still in the office, who immediately began hurling abuse about my delusions of grandeur.

I didn't care.  I was on a mission.  Not quite from God, but almost.

This isn't just any iPad we're talking about here, you know.  This guy doesn't even bother with a laptop now (actually, he doesn't even know where it is).  His iPad is everything.  His alpha and omega.  To lose it is unthinkable.  He must have been in pieces on his way back to London, barely holding it together.

Hmm.  So, if it's not on his desk, where might it be?

My boss's boss had a suggestion.  Apparently, le grand fromage thought there was a chance that he might have left it in the old executive toilets at some point that morning.  Worth a look?  Well, why not? Now, these are fancy toilets: the kind that have oak panelled traps, marble all around and ashtrays over the urinals (I'm not even joking about that).  If you're going to leave your iPad anywhere...

So I looked.... and there it was, an iPad mini sat on the marble fittings near the sinks in a sky-blue case tucked underneath a little moleskine notepad (lined, not squared like the cool kids use) and (cheap) pen.  Perhaps if it had been a squared notebook with a better pen, someone would have had it.  Still, it was still there.

My boss's boss was delighted.  So too, I have no doubt, was her grateful and relieved boss's boss.

As I locked them away in my draw, I marvelled again at what a thrilling and fulfilling job I have.

What a rush. 

I'm worth every penny they pay me and more.  Definitely.

Living the dream.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

big guns blew me away

After a month of this damn chest infection, it's fair to say that I've been going a little stir-crazy.  You might think that I'd be able to enjoy a break from running and cycling, but no.... I don't rest well.

My chest X-ray from last week has come back clear, which is great news.  My lungs also apparently now sound clear... but I'm still being bothered by a tight chest and some difficulty breathing.  Not to worry, as well as the two inhalers I'm now using, the doctor prescribed me some steroids.

It's only a short course lasting 5 days, but my imagination is already running wild about the possibility that I'm going to be able to make my return to running cutting much more of a dash in my running vest as I pump my guns on the way to PB after PB.  I may have to start worrying about out-of-competition testing and keeping unadulterated child's piss in my fridge in case the doping police come round unexpectedly and demand a sample... but that's really only a small price to pay for a return to fitness.

After all, the only way to bag a classy lady is to give her two tickets to the gun show [kisses biceps] and see if she likes the goods.

Because that's how steroids work, right?

Wait, what? You're saying that a corticosteroid is entirely different to an anabolic steroid?

Pfff.  But what do you know about it?

Tuesday, 31 October 2017


Sod Halloween, it's exactly 500 years to the day since Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg church and thus started the Reformation.  It might seem hard to believe now quite how earth-shattering an event this was in the European history, but consider this: we're less than a week away from Bonfire Night, when we celebrate the hanging, drawing and quartering of a Catholic whose effigy we still burn more than 400 years after his death. A Catholic plot to kill a Protestant king simply would not have happened without the events that Martin Luther kicked off 500 years ago today.  Literally hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, have died as as a result of this moment in history. All because of Martin Luther's stubborn, academic determination to prove a point and his refusal to back down in the face of what must have seemed like overwhelming pressure from pretty much everyone else in Christendom.

I studied this period of history, and I've always found it fascinating.  I can distinctly remember a particularly purple passage that my friend Mark, a fellow student on my undergraduate history course, included on an essay on the reformation: "An especially virulent strain of protestantism was now coursing through the spiritual veins of Europe".  Even before then, as a particularly pompous teenager, I can remember grandly announcing to some baffled and uncaring kids at school that I would not back down over something that seemed terribly important at the time because, "here I stand, I can do no other".

One of my first arguments with my now-wife involved whether or not Martin Luther grew a beard when he was in hiding as Junker Jorg at the Wartburg.  He did.  I was right.  Yeah.... we've always had that kind of relationship.

Martin Luther. With a beard. Just sayin'.

I might be an atheist, but I'm also a historian and it's impossible to avoid the historical significance of this particular moment in time and its reverberations down through history.

Not this Luther.

So, whilst huddling in my house with the lights off and the curtains shut in the hopes of avoiding any trick or treaters, I've spent a little time today thinking about that momentous moment of history that has played a small but important part in my own life.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

shake it off....

One of the drawbacks of injecting immune-suppressors every week is that they suppress your immune system. I never used to get colds at all, but since I began injecting these disease modifying drugs (designed to slow down the progression of my multiple sclerosis) they seem to hit me harder every year.

The sniffles I can manage, but I now seem to usually get a secondary infection in my lungs that lasts for ages as my body lacks the tools to fight it off - it took months to finally shake it off last year. The current infection is about 3-4 weeks in and has completely stopped me running (well, apart from two predictably difficult half marathons and a couple of parkruns that I stubbornly insisted on running).

I've had one course of antibiotics already and just started the next one; I'm using a brown inhaler twice a day and I'm supposed to be using a blue one 4 times a day; I'm also now having a chest x-ray. Good times. The doctor today saw me chafing at the bit to get out running (I've got two half marathons, two 20 mile races and a marathon in the diary to train for, you know!) and warned me to be nice to myself.


That's the hard part.

They say you should never run if a cold descends into your chest, but I'd be interested to hear the views of the people who say this on running when you can't feel your feet and have widespread numbness throughout the muscles of your thighs; or when you've lost 15% of the muscle mass on your left side and a good deal of the flexibility in one ankle.

Let's be honest: if I listened to my body, I'd probably never run at all.

Not that I'm planning on going out for a run.

Before Saturday, anyway.

*** I feel I should say that this post isn't supposed to be a pity party. I sometimes get accused of being overly rosy about MS and presenting a view that applies to very few people. I can, after all, run a marathon. I suppose this means I feel a bit of responsibility to show the other side too. MS can be an invisible condition, and for every time I'm shown as #inspiration, smiling as I finish a marathon or something, I feel I need to be honest about the rest of it too. I know that I'm still relatively very lucky with my MS. I'm not really looking for sympathy because the only thing this infection is stopping me doing is running, and I'm still doing a bit of that. It's frustrating, especially after my 4 week layoff in September, but it's hardly the end of the world.

Incidentally, I also know that my loss of sensation and muscle are nothing at all like running with a chest infection.  I'm just blowing off steam.  Probably best to ignore me, really.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

draw the line...

A Facebook friend of mine posted this on their wall the other day.

She's a perfectly decent, reasonable person.  No, actually.... that's not fair because she's much more than that: she's one of the most community and family-minded people that I know who is constantly putting herself out for other people.  She'd probably be the first person to tell you that she's not a particularly deep thinker, but she's always seemed open-minded and prepared to listen to other people's points of view in case she might learn something.  She's a nice person; one of life's good eggs.

And she posts this.

This is nasty, pernicious and ignorant rubbish. It's clearly offensive - and not just in its use of exclamation marks.  I don't know if she has any relatives or friends who served in the armed forces, but this friend often posts up things about war heroes and military stuff on her Facebook wall. Just today, she posted something from the local paper about a veteran of WWII stepping back into a Lancaster bomber for the first time in 60 years. She clearly cares about these issues, but is also clearly part of a generation that seems to take it entirely for granted that France and Germany aren't constantly at each other's throats and that wars like these are passing out of living memory.

I imagine she'll proudly be wearing a poppy over the next few weeks and will see no dissonance in that show of respect with the contempt shown by the makers of this picture towards the sacrifices of those soldiers who gave their lives fighting for freedom in Europe.


I suppose I should no longer be shocked to see this sort of stuff.  It's been more than a year since the referendum, and our national political debate has been bumping around at about this sort of level since before the 2015 general election.  You want to know where the line is? Look behind you - we crossed it some time ago.

I think what shocks me the most is the good-hearted people - like my friend - who are taken in by this sort of garbage.  Referendums, eh?

Clearly, I'm naive, but surely some things should be way beyond the scoring of cheap, reductive political points, shouldn't they? Speaking of which, it's nearly time for my annual rant about the poppy....