Sunday, 17 November 2019


Most women I know, including some of my girl friends, have had children, and are in fact old enough to have grandchildren also.

What an institution grandparenthood seems! How modern society relies on grandparents, most obviously as childcarers, so that their grown-up children can go to work or have a night off. This seems to have become the expected thing. But any element of compulsion is supposed to be mitigated by the grandparents deriving great pleasure from the children placed in their hands. And for many grandparents, that must be true. I well remember a conversation many years back with an elderly North Downs farmer, who got positively misty-eyed as he described his favourite grandson. That child touched his old heart, and made him tender. Many elderly people perk up and get fresh life in the company of young children - indeed, I think it has become a recognised therapy in some residential homes.

That said, I also know that some grandparents are not so keen on the duties expected of them, and may go to some lengths to avoid getting lumbered. I'd say they are in the minority, but they certainly exist. I would think they are broadly of my own generation: the ones who retired early, and were able to savour the delights of ample leisure while they were still reasonably young and active. They might well resent having their freedom encroached upon by the requests - demands - of working sons and daughters. Are the sons and daughters being unreasonable, or the grandparents selfish? Is this tension between the generations a necessary consequence of modern living? Or is there - and always has been - something 'natural' about the older generations stepping in, and nobody of that older generation should ever seek to dodge out of it?

It's hard for me to say. I can easily see why some grandparents would find it frustrating to look after a fractious child for hours on end (and no doubt the family pet also) when they'd rather be on holiday, or seeing their friends, or following their interests, or learning new skills - generally enjoying a rewarding social life, with no commitments except those they choose themselves. I'm all for a rewarding life - I'll be voting for the Holiday Playtime Party in the upcoming General Election - and so I'm not unsympathetic towards grandparents who nimbly sidestep childcare duties.

Well, I have no children, and therefore no grandchildren: I can be a detached observer. Nor am I ever inclined to do the conventional thing, or adopt the conventional attitude. So for me there's no 'of course' when the question of 'grandparental duty' is raised. Indeed, I feel that after many years of hard slog at some humdrum job, all grandparents deserve a life, and are not to be regarded as an automatic source of free childcare, nor convenient dog walkers.

Even so, as I am not myself a grandparent, I recognise that I must be completely blind to the role's satisfactions, and ignorant about the difference a grandparent can make. In short, I don't get it.

I certainly don't know what it's like to be a grandchild. It may well be that if, as a child, I'd had two sets of lovely grandparents, and a wonderful relationship with each, then I might now see much more clearly what is inspiring about grandparents.

Unfortunately both Mum's parents were off the scene before I was born. Her father walked out, moved away, and was never seen again. Rumour hath it that eventually he had another family in London. Mum's mother was a strong-willed woman, and coped with desertion, but died of diabetes. So poor Mum had no parental help and advice when she had me, the first-born.

Dad hardly fared better. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was only two.

His father didn't want to look after him, and paid strangers to do so, visiting his little son for a short while only now and then. The man was never quite off the scene, but he and Dad never become close. Dad's father lived into old age, dying around 1960 when he must have been eighty. Dad stood by his father when he got very old and ill, and insisted that he come to live with us for a short while. According to my late Auntie Peg, Mum acquiesced but was resentful on Dad's behalf, because of all the childhood neglect and indifference Dad had suffered. But apart from a half-sister, Dad's only other family was his father; so perhaps it's natural and understandable that he did his best for him. And so Dad's father became the only grandparent I ever met.

Our acquaintance was brief, a matter of months I think. I never got to know him at all well. I never called him 'Grandad' or thought of him like that. He wasn't sweet, warm and cuddly. He was an old countryman, wizened, with rough habits and shabby clothing - and a bit gruff too. I was a little afraid of him. But he seemed to like me, and he gave me a present - a pair of battered old brass binoculars, which I immediately treasured. Even though they were optically poor, I used them to look at the red lightship out in the Bristol Channel, from the front bedroom window. Those binoculars were my first proper, 'grown-up' possession. My first gadget, you could say.

Dad's father had a chest complaint, and all too soon had to be admitted to Aberdare Sanatorium, up in the Valleys. I can just about remember a visit to Aberdare, by train from Barry, probably in 1959, when I would have been seven. I can't recall anything definite about that visit. I've an idea that Mum and I waited around while Dad went in to speak to his father. I never got to see him myself, so I have no deathbed memory of him. No day-to-day memory at all, really, apart from constant apprehension about encountering him in the gloom of our Barry house. (Afterwards Dad embarked on a programme of redecoration and reconstruction, knocking through the wall that had separated the middle and front downstairs rooms, which made the house much brighter) And that magic moment when, with gleaming eyes, he gave me those binoculars. He can't have been wholly bad. Perhaps, like me, he was simply very aware of his personal limitations, and couldn't cope with parenthood. But he could manage the gift of worn-out binoculars to a timid child he hardly knew.

Effectively, then, there were no grandparents in my young life.

I do, remarkably, have photos of three of them. This was Mum's mother, Eva Johanna Thomas (neé Carlson) in 1946 when fifty-two, at Mum and Dad's wedding:

She died two years later in 1948, four years before I was born.

This was Dad's mother, Eva Annie Dommett (previously Turner through her first marriage - she was a war widow - and born Broom) taken around 1920 when twenty-nine. 

Funny that she was called Eva too. I think I can see something of my own face in hers. She died in 1923, when Dad was still two, and twenty-nine years before I was born.

This was Dad's father William John Dommett in a photo taken around 1930, when he would have been fifty or so. That's somebody else's child with him - Dad would have been ten at the time. 

As I say, he died around 1960, when I was about eight, and we did not know each other for nearly long enough to establish a bond. 

I look at these photos, the only ones I have of these people, and wonder how it would have been if the mothers had survived into my own era. Would I have have had a happy relationship with them? With what ongoing, lifelong effect? I can only speculate.

I do wonder whether it's psychologically bad for you, not to have any grandparents in your life when young. Does it make a crucial difference? Do you lose out in some vital way? I'm pretty sure you never get to understand the special role and status that grandparents have in most families. On the basis of simple observation, it seems to me that grandparents are, in general, fondly loved and appreciated. And that the grandparent/grandchild relationship is special and profoundly important. 

With no personal experience of grandparents, it's just as well that I never became a grandmother. I would have made a poor job of it. Many would say it's a pity, though, missing out on one of life's Great Roles. It's too late now, of course, to worry about that. 

eBay - is it worth the trouble?

A short while back, eBay belatedly sent me an email to tell me that they would be taking £7.99 in fees - their percentage cut of the £80 I got when selling those earbuds one month previously. Now their creature PayPal has told me it's gone.

I'd forgotten that this would be due. It feels like the proverbial sting in the tail!

Of course, it's all there in eBay's T&Cs. There's nothing to complain about. Well, one might object to how much they want, but in principle it's fair enough for them to charge something for enabling one to sell something online, getting national exposure, clear-cut rules of engagement that both seller and buyer must adhere to, and the benefit of their well-established reputation as (more-or-less, at least in conjunction with PayPal) a trusted global financial player.

Even so...

This is how it has actually come out for me.

7th August 2019: I purchase the RHA TrueConnect bluetooth earbuds from John Lewis for £150.
29th September 2019: After some deliberation, I place the earbuds on eBay at a starting price of £25.
6th October 2019: The closing best bid in the eBay auction is £80.
6th October 2019: An immediate fee of £2.62 is deducted from the buyer's payment, held by PayPal.
6th October 2019: PayPal say that eBay have put a hold on the balance of £77.38.
7th October 2019: I post the earbuds (carefully packaged) to the buyer, using Royal Mail Next Day Special Delivery, at a cost of £7.40.
13th October 2019: Tired of waiting for eBay's hold to be lifted, I contact them and they agree to release the £77.38.
14th October 2019: I transfer the £77.38 from PayPal into my bank account.
15th November 2019: Notice given, eBay takes a further fee of £7.99.

So the £80 I got from the buyer has by degrees been whittled down to only £61.99. That's only 77% - three-quarters - of what I sold my earbuds for. And I had to wait a bit to have my money.

Two things here. One: I could have saved £5 or so by not opting for Next Day postage. But it seemed good policy. I was an infrequent user of eBay, with no recent history, and paying for Next Day postage would be a strong indication that I was a serious and reliable seller. Two: if I had been a frequent user of eBay, with a good history and a strong rating, I would have got my money at once and not have to wait for it.

Well, the episode is over and I can weigh it up. Considering the effort involved, and the big bite taken out of the selling price, was it worth the hassle?

I suppose I have to say yes, it was. After all, I am £62 richer, and the earbuds have gone to a better home. And without eBay, how else could I hope to attract a multitude of potential buyers from all over the country? In the old days, it would be a local newspaper ad and hoping for the best. Online is a whole lot better than that.

Ebay is not the only show in town. Apparently, if you have fashion items to sell, then specialised sites like Depop are a very good option. So, for example, if I ever wanted to sell my glitzy black Prada handbag, which cost me £910 in March 2009, and still looks great, then Depop might just be the ticket. Not that I'd ever want to sell that bag: there's an important bit of my personal history bound up in it. It's the most outrageous purchase I ever made - a luxury item I would never buy now - but it was bought for a purpose, to suit a stage in my life, and I know I'd regret parting with it.

Particularly if I had to pay a thumping fee for turning it into cash.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

In prison again

Yes, for a short while last month I was back inside HMP The Verne on the Isle of Portland. My incorrigible recidivistic tendencies got the better of me - I indulged myself and paid the price!

But surely I'm not actually a jailbird?

No, I'm not! But it really was my second visit to The Verne prison. The first was described in my post Portland - and nearly clapped in irons! on 17th May 2015. This time the outcome was benign.

I was on a day trip eastwards from Lyme Regis, and I'd decided that I would sample some prison fare for lunch. Inside the prison is a café that the public can use, called the Jailhouse Café. Subject to the presence of supervisors, it is staffed by trusted prisoners who are learning catering skills as part of their personal rehabilitation process. So the chef - or sous-chef anyway - and the waiters will mostly be actual prisoners. I first heard about the place on the radio a few years ago - I think it was on You and Yours, BBC Radio 4's midday consumer programme - and had promised myself that one day I would give it a go.

Well now I have. And I'd say that it's well worth visiting. It's 'different'. And it sits on the highest point of Portland, with a stunning view over Portland Harbour.

I'd got over the awkward experience I had on my first trip to The Verne. Even so, the entrance gateway to the old fortress - reached by a zig-zag climb up a steep hillside - was as intimidating as the last time.

As you can see, it's controlled by traffic lights. Once through, you drive upwards towards the real entrance to the prison - the secure one, staffed by warders with attitude. This time nobody came out to tell me that I'd contravened prison regulations. I drove on unmolested to a public car park overshadowed by abandoned stone buildings in poor repair. I wondered why they hadn't been knocked down. There were signs of modernity too, but overall the scene wasn't exactly welcoming. The car park was clearly intended for visitors, but it had an odd feel - probably because it was, after all, inside the prison grounds. Perhaps one was being watched by security cameras. Perhaps a squad of specially-trained anti-riot officers were hidden somewhere, ready to pounce if one did something suspicious.

Undaunted, I decided to carry on, and see what the Jailhouse Café was like. It all looked a bit grey and institutional on the outside, as if this was where the prison officers got their no-frills canteen lunch.

You can see where they got the logo from! Compare that sign with my first photo.

The actual entrance was round the corner on the hidden side of the building, and seemed much more inviting.

Inside was a dog-friendly welcome, and a mini-exhibition that told you all about the Café (and its counterpart at Guys Marsh near Shaftesbury) and what the charity behind it was trying to achieve.

This notice struck a cautionary note. 

Presumably they mean that when there is trouble among the prisoners - as there must occasionally be, even in a Category C prison - they are locked in their cells 24/7 and can't do their usual stint in the Café. And obviously, if they have all absconded, the same applies. 

Well, what about the Café? Turning the corner, a large, bright eating area opened out, painted white, with colourful things on the walls, and a display of enticing gifts for sale on one wall. The tables and chairs might have been at home in the average prison canteen, but overall it was very pleasant. One side was all windows. This looked out onto a rear lawn, which I discovered later had that superb view of Portland Harbour.

The routine was that you found a table, studied the menu, then placed your order. A pleasant lady named Andrea explained this to me, and came over to find out what I wanted, which, being hungry, was one of their cooked breakfasts, served up till noon. Unfortunately it was by then just past noon, but my disappointment made her ask the chef if I could have a special made-just-for-me breakfast. The answer was yes, so they are certainly obliging. It may have helped that there weren't too many customers just then - though the place soon filled up. Clearly the Café was quite popular, despite its convoluted approach by road, and its prison surroundings. And so far as I could see, most of the customers looked like tourists, here like me out of curiosity, and not people visiting sons and husbands detained at Her Majesty's pleasure.

A quiet, middle-aged man brought me a plate amply covered with well-cooked items, and I tucked in.

Well, there was nothing extra-special about the ingredients, but my late breakfast was tasty and satisfying, and the tea very good. I'd come back for more on another occasion.

I wondered about the chap who had served me. Was he a prisoner? Very probably. But Andrea herself, taking orders and handling customer payments, must be a civilian employee. Sat on a nearby table were two young men. They were drinking coffee and talking quietly. There was something about them - their slightly furtive manner perhaps, their watchful eyes maybe - that made me think they too were prisoners. Hmm. I'd felt good vibes from the middle-aged man, but not from these two wide boys. I couldn't see them living honest lives on release. 

Meal over, I had a look at the merchandise on display. It was an attractive collection at reasonable prices. I chose three jute bags in bright colours as gifts for my girl friends once home again.

Settling up at the till, I told Andrea that I had enjoyed the meal, and indeed the whole experience, and would doubtless come again when next on Portland. And I meant it. Then I wandered out to the rear lawn, where a loud noise was drawing a small crowd of onlookers. The noise came from two helicopters taking turns at practice-manoeuvres over a ship anchored out in the Harbour. Odd-looking helicopters they were: shaped like a conventional plane, but with a swivelling rotor at each wing tip. 

I understand now that these were V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, chiefly used by the Americans. In the lower picture, one of them is hovering over the ship. You can see how much the sea is churned up by the fierce downdraught - I wouldn't like to be directly under one!

As I drove away, I saw one or two prison officers coming up from the main part of the prison. Were they after a meal - or had those two young men been absent for too long? It must be very trying to be subject to oppressive regulations, never free to do exactly as you please. Liberty is not to be taken for granted. And not just in a prison context.

Monday, 11 November 2019

I'm going to claim my free Bus Pass

It's uncommon for me to use public transport, and if I have to I prefer to go by train. Ever since my State Pension began in 2014, I've chosen a free Senior Railcard each year, rather than a free Bus Pass. My local District Council has offered that choice.

No longer. They have sent me a letter explaining that, because they need to make economies, they intend to withdraw the free Senior Railcard. The free Bus Pass remains available.

Damn. I do actually use that railcard, often when I want to ride into a city where parking is difficult and expensive. I used it recently, for example, to ride into the centre of Exeter, from Topsham. And back in April, if I hadn't changed my plans, I would have taken the train from Huntly or Insch into Aberdeen. More locally, I use it now and then to go into Brighton.

Well, if the Mid Sussex DC won't fund it any more, I'll just have to bite the bullet and pay the normal fee for a twelve-month Senior Railcard, which is £30. That won't break the bank, but it's an unwelcome new expense.

And I'll finally swallow my pride and apply for an Older Persons Bus Pass, and join the merry throng of white-haired old biddies and codgers who ride the buses for something to do. They needn't expect me to drop off at the bingo hall with them.

I suppose I could get a project going, to ride (for instance) every Brighton & Hove bus route from one end to the other - but do it scientifically, to take in every stop. Like people who try to visit every London Underground station. I might as well get something from it, some kind of slow-burning amusement.

Personally, I think rigor mortis will set in after an hour. Buses are so slow. It'll be boring. And there could be a hundred ways in which the behaviour or demeanour of the other passengers will appal me.

There is of course an initial problem. I have to walk a mile to catch a bus that can take me into Brighton in the first place. Why would I do that, when Fiona awaits on my drive, champing at the bit? A big, powerful car is the clear and obvious mode of transport for a country girl. I'm hardly going to forsake my personal chariot for anything else, save a fast train.

So getting a Bus Pass will be a symbolic act only. I will have something that my pensionable age entitles me to. But I'm unlikely to use it. And I won't be claiming solidarity with older geriatrics.

Another PPI claim bites the dust

At one point earlier this year I had three PPI claims in hand: two of my own, and one as executrix for my Dad. I abandoned Dad's quite quickly, because it was clear I could get nowhere with the bank (Santander, in succession to Girobank) without more documentary evidence than I had.

That left my own two PPI claims, one to RBS (for NatWest) and one to Santander (for Girobank). Both were about a protection policy forced on me when getting a mortgage. After several months, I pushed both claims, still unresolved, into the Financial Ombudsman's hands. That was in July.

Now, in the last couple of days, the FO has been in touch about the NatWest claim. It's not good news. Basically I fall foul of a time-limit technicality - not complaining soon enough after first feeling aggrieved - and even if there were exceptional circumstances applying which would let the FO ignore that hurdle, there isn't enough documentary evidence to make a judgement one way or the other. Assertions and unsupported arguments don't count; and they don't give anyone the benefit of the doubt by default.

I have until 18th November - a week from now - to produce new evidence or make fresh representations. But you know what? I think this is the moment when I free myself from this unproductive, dispiriting process and get on with my life. So I'm going to file that claim away and forget I ever made it. The FO's email says I can bow out by merely not responding further. That's what I'll do.

My claim to Santander (for Girobank) remains in contention. But as there is no important difference between this claim and the NatWest one, the FO's view should be the same. In which case I must now expect an email from the FO about the Santander claim, explaining matters in much the same words, and with the same conclusion - that I am tripped up by a technicality, and by lack of evidence. And I shall let that one go too.

Perhaps I should have decided at the very start, back in January, that unless the banks' mis-selling was recent, blatant and well-documented, I wouldn't be able to press my case effectively and secure compensation. Historic misdeeds - as with anything that happened years ago - are notoriously difficult to get redress for. My claims related to the 1980s and 1990s, some thirty years ago.

So all the hours spent on writing letters and emails were a big waste of time. I can't get those hours back. And despite all the effort put in, there is going to be no worthwhile result. No windfall is coming my way. Although I never relied on having a decent payback, the possibility of one was always a nice comforting thought when forced to spend lots of money on the car or the caravan. Well, it's not to be.

Let's be cheerful. I'm no worse off. And I have extra self-respect for trying. And for doing it by myself - thank goodness I scorned using those awful claims management companies. They made it sound like picking up money in the street. As if the banks were not going to fight tooth and nail...

Well, a lesson learned. Next time I will think long and hard before setting anything like this in motion.

Nobody has rung my doorbell yet

Week two of the Election Campaign, and not a sign of any electioneering in my part of the world. My constituency is Arundel and South Downs, a solidly Conservative constituency. The incumbent in recent years has been Nick Herbert, a staunch supporter of the government. I think he is now standing down, but presumably the new Conservative candidate will be equally loyal. And unless he or she is hopelessly unsuitable, I will be giving them my vote.

I am a natural Conservative voter. My father was also a natural Conservative voter, and now, in my later life, I am happy to cast my ballot as he would. I think you must vote not for the specific promises made at each election, nor for any inducements dangled, but for the basic ethos of a party, and how well they are proven to master the very tricky business of responsible and effective government. The Conservative approach sits best with me. It isn't a perfect fit - I am most definitely not a capitalist! Profits do not trump all else in my world. I want (and expect) Conservatism with a Heart - or at least Conservatism with Common Sense, Foresight and Good Judgement. I'm also an optimist.

I lived to rue the one occasion I voted Labour. It was to support Tony Blair in 1997. New Labour looked like a badly-needed new broom after way too much Conservative sleaze. But New Labour squandered their big chance to make a fresh start. They hesitated, did nothing worthwhile, and in retrospect seem incompetent, unwise, and blind to impending disasters.

Some people blame Labour for our involvement in the Iraq war. They have a point. Me, I remember that the 2008 financial crisis - which we are still suffering from - happened on their watch. It led to a general loss of confidence and the ruination of the UK property market. That drop in property values cost me personally £200,000, representing the difference between what I put in to buy the Cottage, and what I eventually recovered when it was sold four years later in a depressed market.

That's one heavy reason in itself why I don't trust Labour's ability to sense coming cold winds, and their ways with money generally. I won't make the same error again, especially as Old Labour is now clearly flexing its muscles. I'm all in favour of fairness, kindness, compassion and equal opportunities, but I don't do dogmatic socialism, however softly expressed.

On odd occasions - certainly in all Local Council elections - I have voted LibDem, but for this General Election their passionate anti-Brexit stance must rule them out. Which is a pity; but on this occasion I really must ignore them entirely.

I have to say, though, that the LibDems are usually pretty assiduous in knocking on doors to introduce their candidate. They are the only party so far who have told me (with a leaflet - presumably they did knock while I was out) who their candidate is, and exactly what she stands for. Having a name and a face is vital. The new Conservative candidate needs to take note! As for Labour, they have done no more than drop a flyer through my front door to 'explain' their position, and what they will do, but without naming their candidate. Perhaps they don't have one yet. Useless.

The Brexit party seems to be invisible locally - so far. But a candidate is probably waiting in the wings, ready to reveal themselves. I have no doubt at all that Mr Farage has backers who will put up the money needed to field candidates in every seat in the country. So there should be a Brexit party candidate for me to vote for on 12th December, if after all I don't like the Conservative candidate.

But there are four things I don't like about the Brexit party.

One: what are their policies apart from getting us 'out of Europe'? They are fixated on one thing, and I have no confidence that they can do anything else well.

Two: Setting Mr Farage aside, who else in that party has any stature or charisma? It seems like a one-man band.

Three: I don't like Mr Farage's palsy-walsy connection with Mr Trump. Surely that's being too close to a maverick (and impeachable) US President? What favours might have to be granted to that awful man?

Four: More fundamentally, I want to see the UK independent of the rest of Europe in a legal and cultural sense, pursuing its own policies, and generally being quite distinct. Brexit should ensure that. But I don't want a belligerent break, which Mr Farage's party seems to look forward to. I most certainly don't want us to become Fortress Britannia, a closed, isolated territory behind an iron curtain. Nor do I want the old post-war scenario fulfilled, of becoming the newest state of the US - a perversion of that Special Relationship. Completely turning away from Europe surely means having Uncle Sam's arm around your shoulders. That might suit Mr Farage, but not me.

I want a cordial and cooperative relationship with Europe, with Europe as our best ally. Not too close; Them and Us, certainly; but in a spirit of bon accord, and vive la difference. How else will climate change be best met in our part of the planet? You have to get on well with your neighbours.

Hmm! Still nobody on my doorstep! You'd think that with the result anything but a forgone conclusion, every party would be out to spread their message to the electorate as a matter of urgency. Perhaps they know somehow that I am not a floating voter, and that my mind is made up, as it was for the Brexit Referendum back in 2016. Perhaps they think everyone uses Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram and Twitter, and they intend to bombard the country with persuasive messages. Well they won't reach me, as I have none of the above social media apps on my phone. Lucky me, I'm thinking.

If the Conservative, Labour, Libdem and Brexit party machines do all send their party leaders to my front door, with a camera crew handy, l'd best have some custard pies ready. I expect all of them to take the slapstick with genial good humour, giving the camera a great sound bite, but I suspect that only one leader will manage it. 

Breaking news
Oho! Nige has announced through gritted teeth that the Brexit party won't contest seats that the Conservatives won in 2017, shrinking his task force to only three hundred. That alters the picture quite a bit. I can see how this development might lead to an overwhelming pro-Brexit faction in the House of Commons. I also see that the Conservatives may be hard-pressed to have a good working majority. They may have to pander to the Brexit party get things other than Brexit done. I wonder what price Mr Farage will extract? (The DUP have already shown the way on how to get leverage, of course)

What will now happen with Labour and the LibDems? Will they now lose badly-needed seats to the Brexit party? It all becomes incalculable, and therefore very interesting. I will definitely be staying up all night on the 12th December to find out what happens. (I got my poll card today)