Tuesday, 26 August 2008

How Long (Has This Been Going On)

“If you feel the need to go cheese-rolling before next spring, why not visit Canada?”

The offer is intriguing. Though I notice on further examination that I am, sadly, too late and said event has already passed into history (16th August 2008)

I am not aware that there has ever been a point in my life where I have felt the need to go cheese-rolling. Nor, as far as I can tell, is this desire ever likely to arise in me. If I were to visit Canada (and such an event does seem attractive) then it is unlikely to be for the rolling of cheese for any purpose whatsoever.

And yet every year hundreds of people arrive at Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire (next event 25th May 2009) and chase a whacking-great cheese down a hill.

The website is vague as to the origins of this particular pastime (in short: a cheese is released to roll down a very steep hill, people chase after it and the first to the bottom wins – it is rare for the cheese to be caught, though this has happened) – though the event is said to date back 200 years.

One is forced to wonder how such an event came to pass – perhaps two stout young fellows were out walking with their pet cheese (very easy to look after a pet cheese – no exercise or feeding required) when it got off the lead and rolled down the hill. Very possibly they chased after it and had such a whale of a time they decided to invite some friends along the same time the next year…

Or maybe not.

When you think about it it’s weird the things that we do purely because “It’s traditional”. For instance – fireworks on November 5th (celebrating failed attempt by the French – well, a French man - to destroy parliament), Christmas trees (brought in by Prince Albert because it was popular in Germany) and Morris Dancing (people in baggy white shirts desperately trying to dry their handkerchiefs through the medium of dance – presumably so they can wipe the black make-up off)

Weddings are another example - a positive minefield of Traditions That Must Be Followed from the Stag Night (bridegroom to either be found naked handcuffed to railings, or - increasingly - go on an army weekend to prove manhood prior to wedlock), on to the Bride wearing white, borrowing something blue and all the way through the ceremony to the Tradional Not-Remotely Amusing Nor Interesting Speeches Which Must Last 12 Hours and the DJ playing "Come On, Eileen" (curse you Kevin Rowland!)

And we all do this without question (with the exception of Morris Dancing, which is only performed by those ignorant of personal embarrasment in public) – often creating our own superstitions: throwing spilt salt over our shoulders to blind the devil, avoiding stepping on the cracks in the pavement in case the Bears come to get us (a genuine problem in some parts of the USA, but not generally in the streets of Croydon.

More recently, and timed to coincide with the end of the Olympics, England was home to the annual Ditch Snorkelling event – where swimmers must traverse a specially dug trench through peat bogs using no recognisable swimming stroke (and I’d like to see Michael Phelps have a go at that one!)

Also – the traditional British Barbeque. Men who wouldn’t be seen dead in front of the cooker can’t wait to don an Amusing Apron (either depicting a skeleton or a pair of breasts – this is also Tradition with a capital T) and prepare a Salmonella Special at the first hint that the August rain will hold off for half an hour.

And in every small village of England we keep these daft old traditions rolling year after year, despite the fact that we will never catch the cheese and despite the attempts of Health & Safety to stop us making stinging nettle stews to an age-old recipe (one lady was nearly thrown out of her local competition for producing a vegetarian version, but they let her off in the end)

I even started my own – the traditional New Year’s Day cycle ride, though sadly this year I had to break the 3 year old tradition when I had a bad cold. So far it has not caught on outside my own street and I can only think I need to add some spurious element for this to happen – i.e. the New Year Naked Cycle Ride, or the New Year Clown Costume Ride (this would probably be preferable to my neighbours)

I can only hope that when generations ahead people set out on their bicycles across the Mendips, clad only in a funny pointed hat and white baggy suit with pom-poms they will take a moment to wonder which stupid bugger it was that started this particular tradition and thank that lost name for keeping another slice of “Britishness” well and truly alive.

Friday, 22 August 2008

We hate it when our friends become successful….

There’s been something missing from my life this year. Not missed, but definitely missing.

Usually from around St George’s Day onwards my street is festooned with the England flag (not to be confused with the British Flag, as worn by Especially Useless Spice back in the 90s) and the night skies are rendered with the cries of eng-er-land, eng-er-land as 11 of our most inept sportsmen head towards another crushing semi-final defeat (preferably via penalty shoot out)

England haven’t won anything in football (or soccer as it’s also known) since 1966 when we beat West Germany in the World Cup - an event that has passed into our national psyche like no other to the point where it seems to have surpassed The Battle Of Hastings, the Works of Shakespeare, the constant expecting special treatment abroad on the grounds we had an empire once and Hugh Grant films as our defining moment - and so we have gathered our gallant losers to our collective bosom, forever hoping that one day they will rise again.

However, I do wonder what fate would await our players were they ever to start actually bringing home the trophies. As a non-believer in football I was secretly pleased when England failed to get past the qualifiers – resulting in a quieter and far more sober summer for our street than had been expected without a single flag waving from someone’s window…and yet we have been doing rather well elsewhere recently.

At the time of writing this Team GB (as we are calling them to make them somehow sound more cool) are third in the Olympic Gold Medal tables. Only Russia stands any chance of catching us and whatever happens we have had our best Olympic results since 1908.

So you might expect the streets to be festooned with flags. You might expect the streets to be full of enthusiastic English people cheering on our athletes as they start bringing home the medals. You might expect the same kind of hero worship that is currently being thrown at the feet of Michael Phelps – the only man who could take on Marina the fish-girl from Stingray and win.

What we Brits are actually reacting with is sarcasm, cynisism and bad jokes. Fairly typical for a country that has national heroes and stars that include Captain Scott (died coming second to the south pole), Tim (out in the quarter-finals without fail) Henman, Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards and Jade Goody (don't ask - just be grateful you don't know who she is...)

Earlier this week I saw a cartoon in a free newspaper where a billboard was showing “Team GB Wins Gold In Cycling, Riding And Rowing”. Two men were shown walking past, saying, “I put it down to the price of fuel”

This is typical of our reaction to the Olympics. Over the last two weeks I have heard comments along the lines of “We only do well at the sports where we have something to help us” (IE boats, horses, cycles) and “We only do well at the sports that other countries are too poor to enter” (this joke was broadcast on the BBC)

And whilst it is true that we have done rather better at the sports that are played by the kind of person who went to Eaton, speaks like Joanna Lumley (in posh mode) and owns half of Buckinghamshire this does not detract from their hard work and dedication – so maybe we should ditch the negative response and try being proud of them for a change?

The truly sad part is that in a couple of weeks there will be another Olympics. We will do rather better at this one, bring home medals in almost every sport and probably set a few records along the way.

But there will be no all-day TV coverage of the Para-Olympics on BBC1 – in fact they’ll be lucky to get half-an-hour of highlights on one of the secondary channels, and the medallists will return home to little or no heroes welcome.

Surely the spirit of the Olympics is not just to be the fastest and the strongest, but the battle to achieve and be more than we thought we could be.

Meanwhile, in a corner of the sofa, my cat is competing in the Cat Olympics. He makes it through to the final of the All Day Snoozing Event, but looses out in the finals to the Chinese (or Siamese in this case). I give him a hug and tell him I’m proud of him anyway and together we fly a small flag for the cats of the world. I’d play him the Cat National Anthem – if only I knew how it went!

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Safety In Numbers

If it were possible to do such a thing I would issue a restraining order against maths

Algebra would have to stay 50 metres away from me at all times, Isosceles and Pythagoras would have ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) keeping them indoors at night and long division would only be allowed to visit on the grounds that it brought its own calculator with it. Negative numbers would just be put in front of a firing squad with no last requests.

Maths and I have never got along. Despite all my best efforts I have never memorised my times-tables and I still have to count on my fingers for anything more complicated than six times nine equals forty-two (think about it…and go read The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy books if you still don’t get it)

Thus when I was at school – which, as we have already established, was a long, long time ago – my hands became all to familiar with visits from Mr Ruler and his family as teacher after teacher slapped my knuckles for being so stupid.

We had different coloured wall-charts every month with different sets of times-tables written on in huge marker-pen. The idea of this was that we would gaze at them inbetween reciting the tables by rote and it would somehow wedge into our brains. No SmartBoards and interactive web-page answers from Google for us in those days - the home computer was still an iceage away (infact in my next school there was a lad whose dad worked for IBM - practically promoting the lad to God overnight) - back then the nearest we came to an Interactive Board was using a piece of chalk and a rubber.

But the problem for me has always been that it is not sufficient for me to learn that 7x8 = 56 (I had to get a calculator out for this, but would normally subtract 7 twice from 70 on my fingers) – I have to understand the why of why 7x8 = 56 – and get very frustrated with stuff like algebra, fractions and negative numbers where they keep changing the rules dependant on what you are doing to the numbers.

This was something that my teachers, so ancient that they remembered when Everest was a molehill, could not understand – and so they assumed that it was my inability to learn.

Now I know that when you are young everyone over 20 seems ancient, but I had one teacher at junior school who had taught my mother and uncle years previously. He was of the Old-School Child-Hating Mortar-Board And Cape wearing teacher that you see in history books and always assume to be fictional. I won’t name him here, but he had a famous rugby playing son and was an Evil Bastard with a capital E, B and every other letter in both words. Quite frankly: burning in hell would be a let off as far as I’m concerned.

So there was this one time when I got a sum wrong – just one of many really – but this one particularly sticks in my memory. It was a hot day and a dark classroom with rows of single desks – the old kind with inkwells. He called my surname and summoned me to stand at the front.

Without even looking at me he barked, ‘How many pennies in a pound you stupid boy?’

Now I was pretty sure that it was 100 – but I was scared witless and I didn’t want to look like a know-it-all in front of the class, so in a quavering, uncertain voice I said ‘ninety-nine?’

Still refusing to look at me he called out “tell him the answer’ to the class and they called the answer I had known all along.

Cut ahead some years and you may begin to see why I still had a fear of maths – to the point where every time I heard a maths question part of my brain would shut down. I’m not saying that one incident made all the difference, but it didn’t help – I came out of school with a borderline pass at the lowest level you can enter.

And many people, some of my friends included, remain very bitter about this and spend the rest of their lives complaining that if someone had only spent a bit more time with them it would make all the difference.

And whilst I can be very pessimistic and spend many hours in the company of that inner voice saying "you can't do this" (as most of us do) I also know better – I know that if you spend your whole life stuck in the past and moaning about the fact that you never achieved anything then you only have yourself to blame – so I decided to set out to prove them wrong.

So about 2 years ago I grabbed Maths in a headlock and dragged it kicking and screaming into evening classes. The teacher still couldn’t understand why I couldn’t easily grasp the things that were crystal clear to her, but this time I was old enough and stubborn enough to know that it was her failure as a teacher and not my failure as a student – so bloody well made her explain it again and again and again until I could put it into a language that I could understand.

I came out with the maximum pass I could get in the exam. Maths and I will never be friends, but I’ve got it worried now and on the run!

And the moral of the story is: never let anyone tell you that you are stupid and never be afraid to keep on asking when you don’t understand something. Sometimes knowledge is given, sometimes it seems to arrive by osmosis and sometimes it has to be bludgeoned into your brain - but the best kind of knowledge, the kind you really appreciate - is the kind that you earn for yourself.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Radiator Blues

Almost 12 months ago now a company saver-scheme came to an end.

The idea of the scheme was that, for a given period of time, you sacrificed a percentage of your salary (anywhere up to £250 per month) – at the end of the scheme (usually 4 years) you had the option to buy shares in the company at a fixed rate (the rate they were at the start of the scheme)

I had a nervous few days where our shares slumped precisely at the point in time that I decided to sell, but still made more money than I would otherwise have done.

Being on a single income I had no choice but to buy a house that needed “work” – and for work read “knocking down and starting again”. Whereas the ancient Egyptians had built great edifices that stood straight to the skies with little more than a weight, the north star and a piece of string the Council builders of the 1950s had abandoned such methods for the tried and tested “Get it up quick and deal with the problems later” approach which led to every house in the street being papered with luminous yellow wall-paper containing blue, green and red flowers (in fact this seems to have been an area-wide campaign, as every time I see council housing on the local TV they always ALWAYS have my wallpaper)

However, the problem with being on a single income is that all the money goes into keeping the bills paid – so the scheme coming to an end finally meant that I had some money to spend on doing up a few rooms. I decided to get the box room/office, the whole of the landing (upstairs), stairwell and entrance hall plastered – as well as to fit a proper radiator into the office.

It so happened that my neighbour had recently had a lot of plastering done (which looked reasonably good), so I took the details of the man doing the work – who we will call Oscar to avoid nasty litigation later in the story.

Oscar came, gave me a reasonable quote, and left. I then called Trevor the plumber – who had previously saved a radiator from falling off a wall when I first moved in (No, not joking – it was at 45 degrees and held on by a cobweb. Another radiator was later found in a cupboard, along with half a Ford Anglia in the roof)

Trevor came, removed the office and hall radiators, and left. I measured the office radiator and found it to be 600 x 600, then drove to a big DIY Warehouse to buy a replacement.

Oscar returned and did what initially looked like a really good job. In fact he did a merely reasonably ok job – plastering over a nail that he couldn’t prize out. In the process of which he had to pull off the skirting boards in the office.

For which I needed to get a quote for a carpenter…but this was ok because Oscar had a mate. These people always have a mate.

Cue Obligatory Weekly Phone Call From My Mum:
MUM: You should try Gerry’s son Michael
Gerry is someone my mum has known for years through her local church. He did DIY jobs until he retired and his son, Michael – who was at school with me – has followed into carpentry. I explained that I already had Oscar’s mate coming round, but would consider Michael if he was no good.

At this point Trevor the plumber came back to replace the radiators and announced that I had the wrong one. I mentioned that I had measured the old radiator and they were the same size – but apparently new radiators hang higher than the old-style ones, which would have meant that my radiator cut into the windowsill. Cursing under his breath Trevor sloped away, still unpaid.

I re-measured the space and found that I needed a radiator that was 600x400 and promptly took the radiator back. Trevor returned, took one look at the radiator and announced, in tones that suggested I had less intelligence than the average Amoeba that I had the wrong one. What I had was a 600x400 radiator, whereas what I needed was a 400x600 radiator – subtle difference I know: surely, I thought, this is the sort of thing they should have taught me in school instead of all that nonsense about the effect of crop-rotation on Yams.

Trevor stormed off, swearing quite freely now at my mistake and at having made yet another long journey without payment. I returned to the DIY store.

This time I managed to buy the correct radiator and took it back to the car – only to find myself parked next to a carpentry van. I was in the middle of taking the man’s name and number when he returned and gave me a card. Now it so happened that although Oscar’s mate had not visited yet I had spoken to him on the phone and was not sure he would be any good – so when this man was polite and professional I resolved to give him a call if Oscar’s mate turned out to be shifty in person.

Cue Obligatory Weekly Phone Call From My Mum:
MUM: You should try Gerry’s son Michael

My mum is a simple soul and once she has an idea lodged in her head it is not easy to dislodge it. I responded that Oscar’s mate had yet to visit, plus I now had the card of this chap I had met at the DIY store – but if neither of them was any good then Gerry’s son Michael would be my next port of call.

Oscar’s mate finally turned up a few days late and gave the general impression that he really wasn’t interested in getting the work – so I decided not to give him any and fished out the man from the DIY store’s card…and it was at that point that the name of the company rang a bell…

Yep – it was Gerry’s son Michael. Turned out he’d recognised me in the car park from school, but had been too polite to say anything.

The story ends happily, however, as Michael did a sterling job at a reasonable price. Now all I need to do is get the rest of the house done!

Friday, 15 August 2008

Believe It Or Not

True Questions asked of staff in public places:

A woman came into a local branch of Waterstones, pointed to The Diary Of Anne Frank and asked "Have you got anything else that she wrote?" (I kid you not)

A tourist at Osbourne House, Isle Of Wight: "Is this where Sharon and Ozzie actually live?"

Another tourist to English Heritage: "How long does life membership last?"

At Whitby Abbey: "Why did they build so many ruined castles?"

At Kenwood House: "Does my ferret need to be on a lead in this area?"

A tourist came into a castle in the UK and asked what the unusal object on display was:
GUIDE: That is the death-mask of Oliver Cromwell
TOURIST: Wow!...and on what occasion would he have worn that?

And you think YOUR job is bad...


Wednesday, 13 August 2008

An Empty Desk

Day One – and this week I’m determined to make the Post Room do their own job for a change. 100% determined.

So I’m slightly dismayed when, within half an hour, I get a call from reception about a package that’s been delivered to an unused section of the building (the project closed down about 6 months ago) which might be for our department. Only there’s no name on the package.

So I go down and speak to the receptionist and we open the box – sure enough it’s full of computer parts which are probably destined for the Engineer who sits on the far side of my office. So I run back upstairs and ask him if he is expecting said parts. In fact, no, he isn’t – because he actually packaged the parts himself and was under the impression that they had been sent out. So somehow our post room had managed to sign out a package to the courier and deliver it all of 30 metres across the corridor. Genius.

Day Two – and the Nice But Slightly Dim Spanish Lady (NBSD:SL) who comes around with the post trundles her trolley towards me: wearing a slightly worried expression. She has several varieties of worried expression which range all the way from Mild Paranoia to The Building May Be On Fire. Today she is wearing Number 3 expression – the “Did I remember to put my trousers on?” look.

On this particular day she is trying to palm off several bunches of payslips – only one of which actually has my name on it. I point this out to her and she counters, “But it’s got your department on it”. I’m far too polite to point out that the only reason it has our department on it is because someone, probably her or her boss, has written our department name on in blue biro, which has been circled twice just to make sure I don’t miss the point. Sure enough when I open it after she is gone I find that the package is not for me – so I wonder over to HR/Admin and ask them to ensure that it gets to the right people.

Day Three – NBSD:SL has two Letters With Random Names on today, as well as three that I recognise as having moved to other projects and can be re-addressed. One of the random names appears to be for our client, who have a small office on the ground floor – so I underline the department and put it back in the post. The second Random Name becomes the subject of our near-daily conversation which goes:
NBSD:SL “This person is on my list as your department”
ME: “Well, I’ve been here 12 months now and I’ve never heard of them”
NBSD:SL “But it says your department on the envelope”
(yes, but only because you’ve written it on I think) “Tell you what” I respond, “why don’t I check on the global email address?”

For those of you who don’t work for a company with lots of different addresses, we have a “global” email finder – into which you can type the name of anyone working for the company and it will find them and display details of where they work. For some reason, still a mystery to myself, the Post Room seem unable to use this tool. Sure enough I locate the person’s name and see that they are now based elsewhere
ME: “Look, they’re based in Edinburgh now”
NBSD:SL: “Would you be able to re-address it then?”

Fine, whatever…

Day Four – and NBSD:SL has been replaced by Cornet Playing Lady. At least I think it’s a Cornet – I forget. She’s in a Brass Band at any rate and, at the drop of a hat, will reveal all sorts of details about how the theme to Raiders Of The Lost Ark is bloody difficult to play. My only recent experience of a Brass Band involved the local Police band: who only seem to know “One Moment In Time” by Whitney Huston and play it repeatedly at local functions, but she doesn’t seem too impressed when I tell her this. So anyway, the letter for our client is back, with my underlining scribbled out and my department written on in blue biro – circled three times.

As the letter is a certificate and also says “Customer Services” I walk over to HR/Admin and ask them to check their staff lists just to ensure that the person on the address is who I think they are. Turns out that the Post Room tried to deliver to HR/Admin first and it was them that have been writing my department on when they can’t be bothered to investigate something themselves. So, knowing that the only alternative is to see this same letter in my in-tray tomorrow morning, I trundle down to our security room, who have a full list of staff, and ask the long suffering guards to check. Turns out I was right after all and the certificate is safely delivered.

And as I walk slightly wearily back to my desk I pause to ask myself, yet again, why it is always me that takes responsibility for making sure a job is done correctly when it is so much less effort just to do a job properly and get it right first time - and I think about what my friend says about work. He says that he gets sick of people coming up to him and remarking on his empty desk, saying “You must be quiet”

In fact – the truth is that any idiot can have a full desk. A full desk takes no effort whatsoever. It’s having an empty desk that takes work.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Coming To A Cinema Near You…again...

Over the weekend I watched “Jumper”, starring the young Anakin Skywalker and that chap from “Billy Elliott” – sadly not a film about warm woolly garments as the title suggested, but about people who can “jump” from place to place seemingly at will.

An enjoyable piece of nonsense, or was there some deeper references to religious persecution? It was a shame that this aspect of the film wasn’t investigated in some detail, but on the whole (and with brain firmly switched off to the cavernous plot holes) this was ok. Young Skywalker was out-acted to the power of 10 by the Tap-dancing one, whereas Samuel Jackson seemed to have decided that changing his hair colour was all the characterisation he needed to do…and there was no doubt that the ending had been deliberately left open for “Jumper 2 – The Cardigan” in a few years time.

Much as I’ve enjoyed watching the Spiderman trilogy, the X-Men trilogy, Shrek trilogy, the Alien Quadrilogy and the various other Sequels and Prequels I do object to Hollywood taking the “money for old rope” route so many times. Every couple of months we see a re-imagining of an old formula or a totally unnecessary re-make and the truth is that this is for very sound financial reasons. Far less people will go to see a new film about some new unknown character uncovering ancient relics as opposed to yet another Indiana Jones film, regardless of how daft the central premise (come on – can anyone explain the ending of part four?)

The market then seems open to cross-over films; we’ve already had Alien vs Predator in two of the kind of films that make you understand why people used to rip up cinemas, there’s talk of Wolverine spin-offs and Superhero combo films – but I’d like to briefly suggest the idea of cross-genre movies with concepts a little more off the wall.

Instead of crossing the Hulk fighting Spiderman or making yet another re-imagining of the Star Trek universe (please leave it alone – whilst it retains the tiniest shred of decency – whoops too late: Enterprise!) why not try combining the classics with something a little more up to date:

Sense And Sensibility meets Rambo – don’t push me Mr Darcy!
Romeo Versus The Terminator – prithee, I shall return!
Dirty Dancing meets Silence Of The Lambs – No one puts baby in a Korma!

OK, I apologise for the last one, but you get my point. It’s been said that there are only six or seven story lines from which all stories begin, along such lines as overcoming some monster, the quest, journey and return and so forth…but even so it should be possible for some more original ideas to come forward…even if they are not such a safe bet.

Friday, 8 August 2008

T’was A Stark And Dormy Night…

If you look back far enough every story has a beginning – except of course they don’t.

Your story didn’t begin with your birth; it began with your parents and their parents and so forth back to the first fish that decided that fins were so passé and beyond.

Even in the world of the novel and the film there is an unspoken past, sometimes only briefly mentioned, that has made the characters into the people we meet on the printed page and the silver screen. Batman’s story begins not with him fighting the Joker, but with his protected upbringing ending in the murder of his parents – Ripley (Alien trilogy before they went stupid) is a career woman who can fight so hard because she’s always had to…and so forth and so on

So it’s always a challenge when writing a book to come up with that immortal first line that will grab the audience and make them long to read on to the final page.

In a recent blog on “Life: The Dynamic” the Clandestine Samurai wrote about beginnings, http://transcendanxiety.blogspot.com/2008/07/first-line-grabbers.html and how they can affect the way you react to a piece of text or a lyric.

And there is a school of thought that says that someone who is truly awful somehow comes out the other side into a warped form of genius – hence the success after their time of Edward D Wood Jr (named the worst director of all time) and William McGonnagall (worst poet in the English language).

But bad as they are only one writer was so bad as to have a competition named in his honour – and that was Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Responsible for creating such classics as the following:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

To be fair Bulwer-Lytton also created the oft-use phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”, but every year since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University sponsors a competition in his name: challenging writers to come up with the worst possible start to a novel (in one sentence only). The results for 2008 are now out and viewable on http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/ if you want a good laugh. The contest is divided into several sub-divisions, so that writers can try more than one genre. There is also a separate “bad sex in literature” link on the same site.

Sadly my entries did not come anywhere, so I will include a few of my sillier suggestions below and allow you to judge for yourselves. PS – if you can do any better please do, because I could do with a laugh. Those of you with a nervous disposition should look away now:

Tom, in his flibbertigibbet, whimsical, relaxed approach to the world, was – and indeed still is to this day, prone to – and by prone we mean prone as in the sun is prone to rise in the morning – splitting, as it were, his infinitives.

Whereas the boy named Sue had due right to complain to his pappy, Joe-Bob Jimmy-Jo-Jimbob Jones The Third always felt he owed his daddy a debt of gratitude: if only because he always had time to draw his gun and shoot before the lawman could finish asking if it were he.

Science-Fiction #1
Deep in the cavernous mountains of Articulous 5, sitting under a purple moon in a suit made from Teflon fibres and breathing air that was recycled from his persistent flatulence the evil Professor Watusi regarded his finished life-work and, for a brief second, wondered if a Limbo-dance-Inducing-ray really was the best way to conquer the Universe.

Science-Fiction #2
By the turn of the 28th Century the Eight-Headed Flesh-Eating Gargle-pukeathons of Splatticon Nine had been campaigning for a change of name by deed-poll for over seven hundred and fifty years as they felt it was having a negative impact on tourism and, besides, they hardly ever ate other life-forms these days.

Children’s #1
A long time ago in Austria a lonely girl named Maria, with a penchant for bursting unexpectedly into song about brown-paper packages and the like, got bored of kicking around the Nunnery and met a Captain with whom she could climb every mountain and ford every stream: however she was dissuaded from doing so by the National Rivers Authority, who are generally against that sort of thing.

Children’s #2
Parry Hotter realised that he was late for the Bogwinks express when he slammed head-first into the wall of Platform 49-D cup and fell into the arms of the lady from Parcelforce holding a box for him – which he opened to see a small bird rising from the flames, causing him to remember that he had forgotten to cancel his Order of the Phoenix.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Internal Conversations (or how my memory chooses to work)

Oh good grief what a dull day
You should buy yourself a chocolate bar
No, no I shouldn’t – I’m trying to keep to a diet
Yes, but you deserve a chocolate bar after today
Look, it’s only half-an-hour till I get home now, I can make it without chocolate
Half-an-hour on a bus with bad music playing loudly from a mobile phone – chocolate will make you feel good
For about 10 minutes, then I’ll feel really bad for having given in
Yeah, but chocolate – where’s the downside?
I really should save the money
Go on, go on, go on – mmmm chocolate. After all, it’s your first bar today.
Oh very well, it’s only 50p or so. (Later, having purchased and eaten chocolate bar) hang on you liar! I had a bar this morning!
Ha, ha, ha! I win again!

Monday, 4 August 2008

Feeling Charitable?

I very rarely buy The Big Issue.

I know, I know – it’s a great idea: the homeless person is able to make a living, prove to employers that they are making an effort to improve their situation and also to win back some self-respect. It’s a worthwhile cause.

However, here’s my problem: I don’t actually like to read it.

Now you can argue that this is a bad reason not to buy it – it is, after all, for charity. Maybe you’re right. But to me there are a number of issues with doing something just for the sake of being charitable

Firstly – if I buy something that I don’t want just because it’s for charity am I doing it to actually help the person or just to ease my own guilt at having more than this person? Am I doing it to look or feel good? To what extent does the famous rock star support a given charity, as to appearing at an event in the hopes of helping sales of their back-catalogue?

Secondly – by buying this product that I don’t want am I, in fact, patronising the person selling it?

Thirdly – and this is a big one – what happens when I reach the next Big Issue salesperson? I helped the last one, but now I’m refusing to help this one? Hardly seems fair and I can’t help them all.

On one of his many trips around the world writer, performer, comedian and presenter Michael Palin asked the same question whilst in a taxi in India. He was surrounded by children asking for money and he asked: but what about the next one, and the next one and the next one? Can you ever make a difference?

Fourthly – the charities themselves worry me. I went for an interview some years ago with a charity. I was supposed to phone companies and persuade them to make corporate donations. For every “sale” I made I would have received 10% commission. The same company also employed drivers who got paid 10% for picking up the donations in certain timeframes. That’s 20% gone before you even factor in salaries, office space and administration costs. I turned the job down.

There are plenty of phone-in charity based TV shows where callers vote for their favourite act (Strictly Come Dancing etc) where the presenters never fail to remind us that 10p from every call goes to charity. What they don’t mention is that this is a premium line and you, the caller, are paying anywhere from 35p to £1 for the call – nor do they mention where the rest of the money goes (IE profit)

To be a registered charity you only have to give about 1%-10% of your income to the charity and you can pretty much start a charity based on anything. For instance the institute that sets examinations in British Sign Language is a registered charity, but it’s very unclear exactly what they do that is “charitable”

What’s worse is that if you give your money to a hospital in the UK there is no requirement for them to spend if on your requested area: so if you asked for the cancer ward to receive your donation, but the cancer ward has already had a certain amount of funding that financial year then the hospital are perfectly at liberty to spend the money elsewhere. Someone I know actually donated some money to a local hospital to provide some screens for a private area for parents – they came along some months later and there were no screens: the hospital had taken a cut of the money, leaving the ward without enough to buy the screens.

But this isn’t meant as a negative post – because over the weekend I saw a documentary.

It was about an orphanage in a place called Agape in Africa, where a young choir was putting together a CD, just to raise money to keep going. Very few people in the UK will have to have buried both their parents due to HIV. In fact the truth is that our western world we have forgotten that HIV kills, we think we can just take a pill and live quite normally. Not so for these children.

Some of these kids were having to look after their whole families by the age of 22, others were too young to understand that their parents were never coming back. And the thing was that no one had ever told them that one person can’t make a difference - so they were headed out to do it regardless

Pretty moving stuff – but again, that voice of doubt was in the back of my mind: so I sent an email to the charity to find out how much of the money from donations actually reached the end point. Here is the response:

The RISE Foundation partners with the production company, RISE films. RISE films produced WE ARE TOGETHER but on a completely not for profit basis. 100% of all the profits go directly to the RISE Foundation. For over a year now, we have been paying the school fees of all the kids at the Agape orphanage. Each month we directly pay these school fees. We are setting up an Education Trust Fund that will offer many orphaned and disadvantaged children a bursary to attend school and empower them to pursue a brighter future. It will be a permanent endowment, so that the project is sustainable and the chidren’s futures are secured in perpetuity. The fund does not just pay the children’s school fees; they also receive their own tutor to help provide them with the encouragement and support that they would normally have received from their parents.

The RISE Foundation has very few running costs. In fact, last year, our expenses made up 11% of our revenue. I am the only full time employee and work together with the board of trustees. I share an office with RISE films who covers the majority of our running costs. The remaining costs (posting, subsidized phone bills, my salary etc) are covered by 15% of the donations. The remaining 85% goes directly towards the kid’s education. A certain percentage sits in our current account, from which we pay the school fees on a monthly basis and the rest goes into our savings account which will form the Education Trust Fund.
As you will see, our running costs are very low but if you are still concerned, please do let me know. It can be arranged for 100% of your donation to go to our education trust fund and to by pass the 15% running costs.

So anyway, i bought the CD & DVD, and with a relatively clear conscience. Music is something that i am deeply passionate about - so, unlike The Big Issue, it was both a product and a cause that i felt able to support. Plus there were no nasty Corporate Directors taking their cut

Now – I’m not going to ask you to follow the link to http://www.wearetogether.org/ and buy the film or CD as I have (readily available from amazon), I’m not even going to ask you to go to http://www.justgiving.com/rise/ and make a donation there either – what I’m suggesting is this:

We all want to make a difference, but let’s make sure we make it the right way. Next time you think about giving to charity get in touch with them first – ask them where the money is going and make your decision based on that.

One person can’t change the world, but if we think about things a bit first then maybe we can change a life and maybe that's a good place to start.