Friday, 22 December 2017

now years have gone by and we’re all so much older...

You might remember that I'm a big fan of Christmas music, but not a big fan of the same old songs we hear every single year. With that in mind, here's my seasonal playlist for you to enjoy. I've shared it before, but it changes a bit year to year, depending on what I discover, old or new.

There was a real run of great albums around 2011/12 with "This is Christmas" by Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler, "Funny Looking Angels" by Smith and Burrows and the gorgeous "Tinsel and Lights" by Tracey Thorn, but it feels like I haven't had anything really good since.

This certainly isn't a comprehensive list, so if you've got any suggestions to add to the playlist..... fire away. Try and avoid the obvious ones if you can!

It's hard to choose a favourite. Predictably, I like the sad ones: River by Joni Mitchell, Joy by Tracey Thorn or This Ain't New Jersey by Smith and Burrows.

What's yours?


Amazon Music

Compliments of the season to you and to yours.  See you on the other side.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

the beauty in the spark...

It was the last day of Hanukkah yesterday, and I listened to a man on the radio his morning (he was a writer from the Jewish Chronicle) discussing how his family didn't celebrate Christmas at all because it's not a Jewish festival.  Apparently, there's some concern that the Jewish festival of lights - which generally takes place around November/December time - is in real danger of being swallowed up entirely by Christmas, with Jewish children and parents under pressure to take part in the all-consuming traditions of  the Christian holiday at the expense of their own customs and exchanging presents and so on.  This chap was saying that he enjoys carols and the lights and things, but he's Jewish, so tries not to get too caught up in Christmas.

It got me thinking: I'm atheist, although brought up in the Christian tradition.  I don't believe in God and have no desire to worship anything or anyone, but I very much enjoy this time of year.  Late December is a time when people seem to be generally just a bit softer around the edges than they are the rest of the year. Perhaps it's just that most people have been out on the sauce, but I prefer to think that it's a time of year that has people thinking about their friends and family and other people who are near and dear to them, and this smooths off a lot of our prickles and edges as we huddle together in the depths of winter. I like the lights (be they for Hannukah, Diwali, Christmas or whatever) and I like the songs (well, some of them) and I like much of the rest of it too.

As Tracey Thorn sings in "Joy"

"It's because of the dark
We see the beauty in the spark"

It's no coincidence that pagans celebrated at this time of year too. (Yes, OBVIOUSLY Jesus was actually born on 25 December and it JUST HAPPENED to be an existing festival).  People like a party in the depths of Sister Winter.  Can you blame them?

I don't believe in God, but I do exchange presents and I do wear a Christmas jumper and I do eat mince pies and have that extra glass of booze.  The fact that this all happens around a Christian festival is neither here nor there to me... although I suppose that's an easy thing for an atheist to say. Is it much harder for someone brought up in the Jewish faith to hand presents over when it's part and parcel of a different tradition?  I think back to when I used to help primary school children with their reading on a Wednesday morning.  At this time of year, most of the pupils I would be reading with were the children of Jehovah's Witnesses from the Kingdom Hall over the road.  Why was I reading with them? Because assembly would now mostly consist of singing carols in the run-up to Christmas, and their particular brand of religion wouldn't allow them to take part in that. I always thought that was a really hard sell to a small child, and I imagine that many Jewish children also find it difficult that they don't get Christmas presents.

Carols are overtly religious, I suppose - even if the Holly and the Ivy demonstrates just how much the Christian religion adapted pagan rituals... the rising of the sun and the running of the deer? Where's that in the Bible? - but presents?  Does the ritual of exchanging gifts at Christmas really have anything to do with the Three Wise Men?  And Santa?  Where does Jesus stand on Father Christmas? It's a constant source of irritation to me that otherwise sane people seem to get genuinely excited at the first time they see the Coca-Cola "holidays are coming" advert on the television each year, and that traffic grinds to a halt when the truck visits our town. They really do seem to think that Father Christmas as we currently imagine him was an invention of a corporation rather than a reflection of the red and white bishop's robes worn by Saint Nicholas in the Fourth Century.  You can buy Coca-Cola Christmas jumpers, of course.

So Christians didn't invent the party at this time of year, but frankly, what does Christmas really have to do with their tradition any more anyway?  Remember that Donald Trump made a huge song and dance in his campaign about how his administration wasn't going to be messing around with any of that "Happy Holidays" inclusive nonsense.  Oh no!  Christmas was coming back in a big way and political correctness could go hang.

Well, guess who made a point of saying "Happy Hannukah to our Jewish brothers and sisters" the other day? (read the full statement here: you won't be surprised to learn that it's entirely crass and tactless).

I suppose that I can understand why some people feel that their own traditions are under threat, and why that Jewish chap on the radio was worried about the erosion of Hannukah traditions.... as John Lennon once sang:

"Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace..."

And, lest we start thinking about what can be so wrong about children dreaming about receiving presents at this time of year, remember what Lennon went on to say:

"Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people"

Lennon was a damn fool idealist, of course.  Ha!  World Peace?  What are you jabbering about, man?  Still, how about we just try and live our lives for the next week or so by the prime directive: don't be a dick.  That's basically what all religions boil down to, isn't it?

We can at least try that, can't we? Even if it's just for the next few days until the turning of the year.  Who knows?  Perhaps 2018 will be the year we finally make it stick past the end of December.

Monday, 18 December 2017


As it was a little bit warmer this morning, I wrapped myself up in a few less layers for my bike ride to work.  Although I'm generally a bit nesh and feel the cold, I've actually not been too bad this year... I've been mostly running in shorts and have only worn leggings for my bike ride over the last week when it turned really cold. Maybe I've lost more sensation than I thought.

Still, today felt a bit warmer, so I left a couple of layers at home and set off at about 06:45 as usual.  It's been absolutely gorgeous at this time of the morning recently, and today was no exception: crystal clear skies with a sliver of moon and all the stars on display, with dawn just barely brightening the furthest edges of the eastern horizon.

It might have been a little less cold, but there was also still clearly a pretty hard frost on the ground.  You're pretty vulnerable on a bike at the best of times, but ice is a particular menace: once your wheels start to slide, you're on the ground before you've had a chance to react.  I'm never a particular speedy cyclist, and it sometimes feels like I'm being overtaken by old ladies with baskets on the front of their bicycles.... but on days like this, I cycle even more slowly than usual.

My commute is a little under 4 miles, and it's mostly along cycle paths and away from traffic.  Usually, that's a good thing.  Today? Well, on icy mornings, there's a lot to be said for a gritted road.  Less than a mile into my ride, I cross the river Trent on a pedestrian suspension bridge at the Embankment.  It's has ridged wooden slats on the main span that always seem to catch the frost.  I'm always super careful along here, today that meant riding along at about 1mph.  I still overtook a lady doing about 0.5mph, but both of us were being very cautious in the pre-dawn light.  As I eased down the ramp on the other side, I contemplated my turn left onto the road.  I always take this slowly anyway, because I'm afraid of coming off and shooting out into traffic.  There was no traffic at this time of the day, but I applied my brakes and slowed down even more.  I made it around the corner, but as soon as I applied power to my pedals, my wheels slipped out from under me and I was down.

Apparently, no matter how careful I thought I was being, I clearly wasn't being careful enough.

As I lay on the side of the road deciding how I felt about this with my wheel spinning comically in the air on my bike beside me, my mental inventory of my limbs was interrupted by the lady I'd overtaken asking me if I was okay.  Um, yes.   I think so.  I'd hate to have been travelling any faster, but I seemed to be bruised and grazed, but otherwise alright.  I thanked her again when I cycled past her a couple of minutes later.  Apparently, the council put a man on that slope later on in the morning to warn people about the black ice down there because lots of people had been coming off their bikes (well, they could also try gritting it....that would be cheaper than manning it for a couple of hours, wouldn't it?).  All things considered, I guess I was lucky to escape with a slow-motion tumble and a couple of grazes.

As this happens at least once a year, I keep a roll of plaster in my desk drawer at work for exactly this reason (and it never fails to amaze me that I can have big grazes on my knees and elbows even though the layers on top don't seem damaged at all.  Friction burns, I guess.

Still, given that I've cycled over 1,000 miles to and from work this year, and I think this is my first fall...maybe this was coming.  Some people look out of the window at a frost and decide to get the bus to work.  I do not (because I'm stubborn and stupid, as we all know).  Well, it's a few more interesting scars to add to the pile, if nothing else.

I might walk the bike down that slope tomorrow though, eh?

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.