Thursday, 16 October 2014

Sense and Senselessness, or The Day I Realised That Everyone at Vodafone is a Git

With apologies to the Pythons, a conversation between me and a helpful soul at Vodafone in Woking last weekend:

Good morning. 

"Good morning, sir, welcome to Vodafone!"

Ah, thank you my good man.

"What can I do for you sir?"

Well, I was sitting at home just now browsing through this 'ere iPhone and I suddenly came over all irked.

"Irked?"

Vexed.

"Eh?"

Ere, ah'wor fucked off, like.

"Ah, fucked off!"

In a nutshell. And I thought to myself, 'a little finger waggling bleat will do the trick' and I curtailed my browsing activities, sallied forth, and penetrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the satisfactory resolution of my irritation.

"Come again?"

I wish to make a complaint.

"We're closing for lunch."

Never mind that, my lad, I wish to complain about this 'ere iPhone wot I bought a few months ago from this very boutique.

"Ah yes, the iPhone 5C. What's, er.. What's wrong with it?"

I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. It has 8gb of storage, that's what's wrong with it.

"No no, it's, er...it's, er...."

Don't you dare try to tell me it's just resting.

"Wouldn't dream of it. Why is only having 8gb of storage a problem?"

Why is it a problem? I'll tell you why it's a problem. When I bought it you told me it was 'the same' as the phone I upgraded from. 'It's just newer,' you said. 

"Well, it is."

Is what?

"Newer."

Yes. That's lovely, but it has half the capacity of my old phone, so it's hardly the same, is it?

"It is."

It is what?

"The same."

Explain the logic underlying that statement please.

"Well, it's shiny and has buttons and everything."

Yes. Can I store as much stuff on it as I could on the other phone?

"Depends on what you're intending to store."

Tell me.

"Yes, sir?"

Do you in fact believe the statement you just made?

"Yes sir."

Really? 

"No, not really, sir."

You don't?

"No, not a scrap of it. I was deliberately lying to you, sir."

So what do you intend to do about it, then?

"Do?"

Yes, do. Something. About it. 

"Ah, we can't do anything about it, sir."

And why not?

"Well, it's our policy only to offer exchanges or refunds within 14 days. And it's been longer than that, hasn't it, sir?"

I see. So let me recap. When you sold me this phone you told me a lie.

"Yes."

You told me it was the same as my old phone, but in fact it has half the capacity.

"Yes."

But despite having told me a lie and admitting that you told me a lie you don't intend to do anything about it because I didn't come back here within 14 days?

"Yes."

And the fact that I'm well within the limitation period to make a claim for misrepresentation doesn't alter your thinking in any way?

"No."

Well I'm sorry but I'm going to have to shoot you.

"Right-oh, sir."

What a senseless waste of human life.







Sunday, 28 September 2014

Beer, dumplings and concentration camps

The continuing miseducation of La Child continues.

You might think that, having ignored this blog for a good 7 months, we'd be fairly far advanced with our give-it-all-up and go-live-in-a-cave-somewhere scheme but, alas, no. Our grand plans, involving giving two fingers to the day job and moving out to the sticks, haven't yet quite come to fruition; too much to do, too little time, chronic excess procrastination. But the fact that La Child is no longer hampered by school timetables does mean that we can occasionally take her off somewhere without it costing the earth or it resulting in a nasty letter and a fine from an irate headmaster. 

So, here I sit, on the balcony of a rather nice Spa hotel somewhere in the middle of Bohemia in the Czech Republic, sipping tea like a good little Englishman should and enjoying the view over a lake bounded by sloping pine tree covered hills. It's my mother in law's 85th birthday, and as a birthday treat we've brought her back to her homeland. 

My mother in law (or Emily as we shall henceforth call her, because 'mother in law' is too many letters) was born here in the Sudetenland in 1929 and (you may not be surprised to learn this) had to leave in a bit of a hurry back in 1938. Her father was the head a trade union and a member of the social democrat party, which in the late 1930s put him on a collision course with that other lot over the border in Germany. When the Czech government decided that discretion was the better form of valour and went off into exile in England, so did Emily's father, taking Emily, her mother and her brother with him.

Apart from a few weeks in 1946 and a week in 1991, Emily hasn't been back.

All this is really just to emphasise that there's a bit of history here, and La Child has been immersed in it for the past week. In between drinking insufficient quantities of dunkel and eating goulash we've visited Emily's old home (which she left aged 8 in a very big hurry one day back in 1938 without taking anything with her and without realising that she'd never be back), we've had a tour of the town hall (which her father had built and in which he worked), we've met the current incumbent of her father's old office (in her father's old office), we've been given a tour of the town by the director of the local museum, we've learned about the concentration camp that was based here, we've visited the town where La Child's great grandparents were born. Yesterday we drove over the border to Germany to visit relatives that La Child never even knew she had. 

Some of this has been met with, well, a certain studied indifference, but beneath the gruff 'see this face? bovvered?' exterior lies a sponge still and it's all going in somewhere. In calmer moments when she thinks we're not looking she'll quiz her grandma about her family, or in passing will wonder how it is people could be so nasty to each other during the war. When talking to her friends we'll hear her describing her day, telling them all about what she's seen and read and heard. No lessons, no workbooks or formality, she just pretends not to pay any attention and learns.

I have to confess that I occasionally have had misgivings about this whole home ed lark. We started off terribly formally but, like everyone who does this, have mellowed with experience and now do very little formal at all. The timetable has gone out of the window, the workbooks sit forlornly, forgotten in a corner. She plays tennis, she climbs climbing walls, she cartwheels and rounds off in gymnastics, but times tables and spelling tests are a thing of the past. There have been times when I've been almost catatonic with concern about that, so conditioned have I been to believe that the only way to know is to be told. But of course it's not the only way. La Child speaks well, can conjugate verbs, can easily work out what change she's due back when she buys something, has a good grasp of history, is comfortable in groups, whatever the age. She knows how GPS works, she understands about triangulation, grasps the basics of flight and can swim like a fish. 

Point is, the longer we go on the more comfortable I become that we're doing the right thing. As I sit here on this balcony La Child lies, her chin resting on her palms, just inside the open door talking to a friend on her iPad. She's told him about the trip to Germany yesterday, she's given him a grand tour of the hotel, and she's now telling him all about her grandfather, the leader of a trade union in the 1930s and member of the Czech government in exile during the war. I smile, sip my tea, and enjoy the view over the lake bounded by sloping pine tree covered hills.


Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Where's my shotgun...?

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while now (you strange people, you) may recall a post I wrote last summer whilst drinking one too many San Miguel's at my mother's house in Spain. A strange new creature was emerging Gremlin-like from the chrysalis of my lovely innocent daughter; as if in some Faustian nightmare, my little girl's soul was being moulded by a demon's gnarly hands and foul extrusions were beginning to manifest themselves upon a world aghast.

To whit: the teenager. Puberty. Adolescence. Kevin.

Oddly, however, it all came to an abrupt halt shortly thereafter. The physical changes that we were sure would soon accompany the surliness and the antagonism simply didn't materialise. La Child continued to communicate by growls, of course, and she continued to grow. Her face became longer and her gait more assured, but all that knobbly unpleasant pubescent stuff...? No. She remains flat and childlike, and that's just fine, thank you very much.

Apart from one, minor, totally inconsequential little thing. 

Boys. She likes boys. She likes them so much that she has adopted one as her pet. She has a boyfriend. What, precisely, does this mean? "Well," she explains, "a boyfriend is someone who doesn't mind being kissed, who loves you and who when you're both a bit older will go on a date with you." Right. And what makes this particular boy your boyfriend? "He stopped running and let me kiss him." There you have it lads: exhaustion equals commitment, and don't you ever forget it.

This Valentine's Day she and her boyfriend exchanged gifts. She to him, a soft toy bear carrying a heart, her own homemade Valentines biscuits, a card 'to my boyfriend' in which she expressed her never ending heartfelt love and devotion; undelivered (she couldn't find a box big enough to send them with and he lives a long way away: shame). He to her, several heart shaped biscuits; undelivered (he sent her a photograph of them, and then ate them). One can see that the commitment levels here may not be perfectly in balance.
 
It's all very innocent really. But this weekend, under my roof, something slightly less innocent took place. She had some friends over to stay, including a boy we shall, for convenience, call 'The Boy'. La Child had the bed, The Boy had a mattress on the floor. One evening, amazed at the fact that it had all gone a bit quiet, I went up to check on them. At first, all was quiet, all was dark and all seemed normal. Then, like some startled rabbit in the headlights of a swiftly-approaching, toxic-waste-carrying articulated truck, a head popped up from La Child's bed. But it wasn't La Child's head. Oh no. Oh no, no, no. It was The Boy's head, a look of (entirely appropriate) horror on his face. And it was shortly followed by La Child's head, a look of (entirely inappropriate) resigned frustration on hers.

Yes, dear reader, the two of them had been caught in flagrante. Words were said. Measures were taken. Displeasure was felt. The two of them had been 'snuggling', La Child later explained. Slowly falling asleep, entwined in each other's arms. "And what," asked the 8 year old child, "is wrong with that?" Let me count the ways, Child dearest, whilst installing a perimeter of barbed wire around your bed and installing trenches, wire entanglements and other fortifications.

Oh, I know there was nothing remotely sexual about all this. For years now La Child has been jealous of the fact that Lady Branza and I get to keep each other company in bed every night while she is forced to share her bed with cuddly toys and a library. This is about companionship, comfort, feeling warm and loved, I get that. But it is just one more stepping stone on the increasingly swift passage to Grown Up Land. La Child is on a ballistic trajectory to adulthood and it scares me a little. What with an increasing devotion to boy bands, a seeming need to preface everything with the word 'like' and a wardrobe that out of nowhere suddenly includes crop tops and figure hugging leggings ("I'm sorry, in what parallel universe did you think I was going to let you wear that?") I can physically see her childhood floating away on a passing air current.

Regret and sadness I feel, and yes they're mixed with hope and expectation... and a little pride. Pride that she's so confident and content a person, pride that the result of our angst and confusion as parents is a young lady who is independent, and determined, and capable. But it's mostly regret and sadness. My little girl's growing up, and I'm not sure I like it.

Friday, 21 February 2014

The delight of indecisiveness

So.
 
Yes.
 
Maybe. Not sure. Perhaps, with a positive attitude and a following wind. Maybe, all things being equal and the ducks lining up nicely in a row.
 
I’m trying to decide whether to resurrect an old business endeavour. On the one hand it resulted in a little bit of extra cash (which was of course ploughed immediately back into the business with not a single penny taken out, Scout’s honour, learned gentlemen from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) but on the much larger other hand it took up every spare hour of every day and night and resulted in exhaustion, angst and a resigned disillusionment in the sometimes unpleasant antics of my fellow man.
 
But. But, but, but. I did used to enjoy it, I have to admit, and I don’t much like what I do now, and despite the occasional awfulness of a handful of clients the vast majority of them were quite pleasant to deal with, said the occasional thank you and quite liked what I did.
 
I speak, in case you haven’t yet wandered off bored, of photography. To wit, I used to go to peoples’ houses, take photos of them, and sell them the prints. Some, if asked, might say I was quite good at it (I couldn’t possibly comment), and there was a slight dribble of mild public fuss when I announced I was going to stop, so I suspect I could pick it up again, particularly as I singularly failed to sell any of my equipment after I did stop, much to the fragrant Mrs Branza's frustration. It’s not the ‘will anyone want me to take photographs of them?’ question that vexes me, or ‘will I have the wherewithal to do it?’ but ‘do I really want to be bothered with it all again?’.
 
This all stems, of course, from me wanting to tell The Annoying One where to stick it. But freedom is difficult to come by because I’ve no idea what else to do. There are some things I’d like to do, but either I’m coming to it too late (commercial flying would be lovely, but I’m resigned to the fact that I’m simply too old to go down that route now), or it would be too expensive (I refer you to my previous example), or it simply wouldn’t pay enough (novelist? wonderful; the next JK Rowling? unlikely), or it’s plain pie in the sky (form a band, win the Mercury Prize, fame, fortune, cool dad status assured). So, after months of trying to come up with a suitable single alternative I’m slowly coming around to the idea that perhaps it’s the rural community model that I should be adopting here.
 
A few years ago we went off for a long and drunken weekend to the Whisky Festival on Islay. As communities go, that’s about as rural as it gets. Amongst the drammies, mirror like waters and winding hikes around road hogging sheep to the next distillery, we'd often come across the same people again and again, but in slightly different roles. A chap we first met in the morning as our taxi driver would crop up again as a chef at dinner. We’d say good morning to the lady who ran our hotel and then walk past her later as she led a party of schoolchildren along the road. Being such a small knit community, everyone had to pitch in and often would have at least two jobs, if not more. There was no such thing as a career out there. People would have their little business – say, running boat tours – while at the same time helping out in a shop or a farm or a restaurant.
 
I quite like that idea. I’m chronically indecisive anyway, so the prospect of not having to stick to one thing but rather do several is quite appealing. Take the occasional photograph? OK. Write the odd article or blog? Righto. Write a book? Will do. Do a few hours in the local off licence? Marvellous. All adds up, all stops me getting so bored that I want to murder people with spoons.
 
We’re an odd species. We have this odd view that about the ‘correct’ way to live. To misquote Mr Welsh, choose a job, choose a career, choose a family, choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electric tin openers. We’re conditioned to expect that because everyone else does it a particular way, we should all do it that way. But popularity doesn’t make idiocy any less idiotic; you only have to spend five minutes in front of the X Factor to know that. Just because we generally all expect a career to be the pinnacle of success doesn’t make it so.
 
I came across another Alan Watts gem the other day, a discourse on success. Life, he said, is like music. There is no ‘meaning of life’ or ‘purpose of life’. Life is meant to be enjoyed. Our obsession with school, university, work, the unalterable rise up the greasy pole with the single clear purpose of achieving success is a little like only attending a concert to hear the very last note. It’s not about the climax, it’s about enjoying the entire performance.
 

 
It’s all happening a little slower than I was hoping, but I think I’m still on course to start enjoying the performance. I think I will start taking those photographs again.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

I am vexed

It's nearly Christmas. In 10 days' time, if I haven't murdered my immediate family over a disagreement about how best to cook roast potatoes or beaten my inlaws to death with the remote control, I will enter 2014 full of optimism, ready for a brand new and exciting year.

Maybe. 

In anticipation of leaving 2013 behind, here are some things that continue to vex me:

1. Enough with the class shit already. Middle this, toff that, as if it actually means anything. People are people. Move on.

2. Politics. It is a truth universally acknowledged that those who seek power will, once they have it, seek to retain it, and politics seems to me to have become nothing but the attempt to remain in government for the sake of remaining in government. Say nothing that can be misconstrued, offend no one, avoid promising anything. 

3. Decisions are no longer taken. See (2). Views are canvassed, polls questioned, focus groups formed. Government no longer governs, it follows, but those who it follows have neither the information nor abilities necessary to know how to make an effective decision. Result? Bad decisions by timid politicians taking note of an ignorant public. 

4. The X Factor. Fuck off, Cowell, and take 1 Direction with you.

5. Corporate life. Apparently I work in a "service industry" where my clients expect me to be "available". This, I now understand, requires me to respond instantly to emails received while on holiday. "This request was received at 9.30 this morning," I was told the other day by The Annoying One. "It's now 11.30 and the client has called me to complain about your slow response time." I'm on holiday, I replied, and it's only two hours. "Unacceptable!" Oh, fuck off, do.

6. One trick twitter ponies. Hate animal cruelty? So do I. Dislike the Tories? Hey, join the club, there's lots of us about. Talk incessantly about nothing else? Yes you do. #getafuckinglife

7. Tinsel. I don't care how much it costs, I don't care how carefully you drape it over your expensive mantelpiece, and no, the fact that it's Christmas makes absolutely no difference - it looks shit. 

8. It's "Christmas". Not "xmas". "Christmas". I am not remotely religious, I am not in a fervour of any description. This is a grammar ting. Get it right, you lazy feckers.

9. In a similar vein, 140 characters is plenty. Stop mangling the English language.

10. Lists. 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Wall to Wall

Dear Wall to Wall Productions


Thank you for your letter. La Child is delighted to read of your interest, and is flattered that you would like to talk to her about appearing in the next series of Child Genius on Channel 4. 
 
After some careful consideration, she has asked me to respond thus: 

Fuck. Right. Off.

I appreciate that this may be a slightly disappointing response, almost Lyssan in its directness, so allow me, on her behalf, to explain. Being gifted - a genius, as you would have it; intellectual; clever; of high ability; whatever label you feel might be appropriate to burden her with - is not a character trait to be laughed at, or an ailment to be pitied. Children who are gifted are not freaks to be gathered together in a tent for the amusement of the paying public. Pointing and laughing, as a sport, died out a couple of monarchs ago, along with workhouses and cholera.

I say this in the full knowledge that of course Channel 4's general output might lead you to an altogether different conclusion. Made in Chelsea, Extreme Celebrity Detox, Big Brother, not exactly shows renowned for their in depth view of anything, other than the general nastiness of one's fellow man. As @giftedphoenix put it at the time:
 
 
Now, I know, I know that you've said that the intention is to produce a series that will delve deep into the difficulties of parenting a gifted child. That it's a documentary, not a gameshow. A sensitive look at the issues faced by children who just happen to have been born with an ability to do things that others their age cannot. You've been at pains to point out that children in the past series really enjoyed the experience, that they loved being able to show off what they could do.
 
Such a shame, then, that the last series was so woefully misunderstood by everyone else:
 
 
 
 
 

 
What next? Surely Katie Hopkins wouldn't....?
 
 
You see, as much as we’d like to believe that there might be someone out there with entirely noble intentions, someone with an actual understanding of what it’s like both for the children themselves and for their parents, someone who appreciates the difficulties these children face, someone who wants to produce something that gets those difficulties across to the world at large in a way that will start to turn people away from the tired old stereotypes that the media loves to encourage, I’m afraid it just doesn’t look like that someone is you, Wall to Wall. Sorry.
 
 
Yes, that’s precisely what I want for my daughter...
 
Yours not bleedin' likely
Marcos Branza

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Energy to go

La Child and I are out having lunch. "I wish," I say, "that I had just a bit of your energy." 

"You can," she says.

"Can I?"

"Yes." She looks around furtively. Turns back, satisfied no one is listening. "Yes, you can."

I ask her how. "Well, my friend and her mum told me all about it today. Do you know how to get to Australia?"

Australia? "Erm..."

"I mean, which direction would you go in order to get there?"

"Doesn't really matter," I say, "it's on the other side of the planet. Any direction will do." 

"But I need to know a direction so I can, er, direct you when you get there."

"I see," I say, even though I'm not sure I do. "Just pick one."

"Would you go North?"

"North works," I say, "North will do."

"OK," she says, "so head North, and when you get to Australia find North Lane."

"North Lane?"

"North Lane."

"And where in Australia is North Lane?"

"It's by the coast. Well, no, not by the coast. It's about half a mile, actually EXACTLY half a mile from the coast."

"Right."

"And when you get to North Lane you have to find the house. It looks like an abandoned house, but it's not really."

"Just a moment," I say, "I'd still like to clarify: precisely where in Australia is this North Lane? Australia is a very big place."

She sighs. I'm clearly not very bright. "Look," she says, and pulls a small plate towards her. "If this is Australia..."

"Yes..."

"...then this," she points to a random spot on the plate, about a centimetre in from the edge, "is North Lane."

"I see," I say again, once again not seeing at all, "but..."

She's exasperated. "It's the bit on the coast of Australia that's closest to England," she says. "This bit, see?"

"Ah," I say, "yes, I see. Thank you."

"Good," she says. "Now, when you find the house -"

"At the end of North Lane?"

"Yes, at the end of North Lane. When you find the house, climb up the drainpipe to the first floor and then climb in through the window on your right."

"The drainpipe?"

"The drainpipe."

"Why the drainpipe?"

"Because it's meant to be abandoned! You can't very well go in the front door, can you?"

"Clearly not," I say. "Please go on."

"When you've climbed in through the window, walk down the corridor and then there'll be a door, this time on your left. Go in there."

"Right."

"And he'll be waiting for you."

"Who will?"

"The man who'll give you the energy."

"Oh, right," I say. 

"But wait," she says, "you have to remember to take me." 

"Do I?" I say, " But I'm there now. Do I have to come all the way back? It's very expensive to get to Australia."

"No, silly, you have to remember to take me with you before you go. I have to come with."

"Why's that?" I say.

"Because I have to be there to give you my energy. It's very clever how he does it."

"The man?"

"Yes, the man. He has a machine. Very complicated, very clever. You're not scared of injections, are you?"

"No," I say, "I'm fine with injections."

"Good," she says, "because that's how he does it. By giving you an injection of my energy."

"I thought he used the machine?" I say.

Another sigh. "Yes, but it uses injections."

"What does energy look like?" I ask, suddenly intrigued. I imagine blue electricity fizzing and sparkling like electrons around a Faraday Cage.

"It's green," she says. "Just green."

"Oh," I say, and immediately she senses my disappointment.

"But it also crackles a bit," she says. 

"Tell me about the man," I say, "what does he charge for this?" I rub thumb and forefinger together. "How much mullah?"

"Oh, it's free," she says, "he doesn't make you pay."

"Really," I say, "that's very generous. Why not?"

She looks around again. Glances over my shoulder at the waitress behind. Lowers her voice. "He's a ghost," she says. 

"A ghost?"

"A ghost."

"I see."

"He learned how to give people energy in Ghostland, and now he does it because he's good."

"A good ghost?"

"Yes."

"What," I say, "did he die of? What was it that did the poor fellow in?"

"Just old age, I think," she says, "that's all."

"How old was he?"

"Oh," she says, "80 or 90 or so. Died in the 1800s, I think. No. No, not the 1800s, 1952."

"That's very specific," I say. 

"Yes," she says, "his wife died first. He didn't mind, though. She wasn't very nice. She was nasty. She just went in the ground."

"How unfortunate. What did she do?"

"I don't know. But she didn't go to Ghostland like he did. He was there a while before he came to the house. About thirty years."

"That's a long time," I say.

"Yes," she says, "but it takes a long time to get used to Ghostland."

"Clearly," I say. "What's it like?"

"What?"

"Ghostland."

She fixes me with a stare. I am an idiot. "I don't know, I'm not a ghost." 

I am chastened. Dinner arrives. We eat.