Monday, 4 June 2018

Durham

It was Durham today. It was rather a disappointment, and I don't think I will be back for a second look.

I had half-expected it to be a bit 'ordinary' - even though, before coming to County Durham on my present holiday, I had regarded Durham itself as rather special - certainly worth a visit. I'd earmarked a whole day for it. But a chat with one of the ladies serving in Fat Face in Barnard Castle yesterday had put me on the alert that Durham might not be as impressive as I hoped. She had mentioned moving away from Durham for a better quality of life, especially for her children. Hmm. That suggested it wasn't an especially pleasant place. And yet there was the river, and the incredible Cathedral, and the famous University...how could it be a place you'd want to leave? Perhaps it was expensive to live in, because of its perceived cachet?

Well, having already decided that I would go and see it, I'd follow the plan through and see what I thought at the end of the visit. The sun might or might not come out, but it was at least going to be a dry day. I intended to have an extensive walk around the ancient city centre, and blitz the place - especially the renowned Cathedral - with the camera on my phone.

The day's outing didn't begin all that well. First off, I decided to take a quick look at Raby Castle. I had been negative in my last post about the Raby Estates' ruthless car parking policy at High Force. I'd decided to let them redeem themselves at the Castle itself, if they would. A second chance. Well, the car park in the grounds was free: a good sign. But they still blew it. They wanted £11 to see the Castle, or £6 just to stroll in the park and garden - and that was with an age concession. For goodness sake. I sensed another cash-grabbing rip-off. Admittedly, the Castle looked good at a distance, but £11 for a closer acquaintance! I got back into Fiona and went on my way.

Next stop was an ancient Saxon church at Escomb. The church itself almost deserves a post of its own: it was 'different', and made a very pretty picture, in the middle of the leafy, oval churchyard. But it was surrounded by unexciting modern housing, which broke the spell.

It dawned on me that it was a mistake to leave the dales and venture into more urban areas to the east. I'd quickly become accustomed to the high bare fells, the lush, deep river valleys, and all the pretty stone-built villages. My heart lay there. Now I was entering a subdued landscape full of nondescript housing, and mundane out-of-town retail parks, with not much sign of an interesting industrial heritage. It all seemed a bit of a comedown. But surely the centre of Durham would be different?

Arriving at Durham, the first priority was a place to park for up to four hours. What about the station car park? The map said the station was perched on a hill on the west side of the town centre. Well, I knew this was going to be a mistake as soon as I drove up the snaky approach road. There was no one big car park to cater for casual visitors and commuters alike. There was hardly any short-term parking at all. There were two long-term car parks with horrendous charges imposed by Virgin Trains East Coast. A 'choice' of three flat-rate charges: £2.50 for one hour, or £10 for seven hours, or £13.50 for longer, up to twenty-four hours. Talk about milking the rail traveller who needed to park! And surely people did pay up. The train service from Durham station was excellent, an obvious draw. But I only wanted somewhere to park Fiona, and I wasn't going to pay such exorbitant prices.

I backed up, turned around, and drove instead downhill towards the river bridge. There I got stuck for ten minutes. Parts of the riverside were undergoing major redevelopment, and traffic was gridlocked while a lorry delivered materials - concrete, steel girders, who knows. I almost aborted my mission.


Then the traffic began to move again, and I next found myself in a pedestrianised area and had to do a U-turn to escape. Uphill a bit, into a street called Crossgate. Here the gods stopped messing me about, and presented me with a fine parking space. I took it. It wouldn't be cheap to park just there, but it was close to both the river and the Cathedral. It was £3.20 for two hours - a bit over the odds - and two hours might not be sufficient. But it would have to do. At least I could pay in style with Google Pay. An irritating kid watching me from the car next to mine stared goggle-eyed at what I did, as if I had landed from another planet. His behaviour was rude enough to merit a finger in both sockets. But I walked on, like a superior alien who cared nothing for dimwit earthlings. The Romans must have done the same when mixing it with the indigenous British.

The next thing was some lunch. I crossed the river, appreciating the 'classic' view, with the Cathedral peeping over the treetops high up on the left side.


Beaming gods on high directed me into an alleyway and the Riverview Kitchen. This had a decent menu, and was clearly very popular with both discerning tourists and the better-off Uni students.

Packed it may have been, but the friendly staff soon had me seated. I had a goats-cheese ciabatta with salad leaves and a large Americano.


Considering how busy they were, service was pretty good. I saw two or three cooks in the kitchen, working as a team. It was an efficient operation, and the guy who took my £9.10 via Google Pay was brisk but very pleasant. We even had a few words about having a multi-purpose under-skin wrist chip installed, so that one could pay (and do other things too) merely by touching something, or waving one's hand near it. The drawback being, of course, that They (and any hacker) would know your location at all times...though possibly not a bad thing on balance, if you were an older single woman who liked to get about on her own, and investigate lots of out-of-the-way places where strange folk might lurk.

Nicely fed and watered, I now followed university students up a steepish but leafy path to the green in front of the Cathedral, getting glimpses of the River Wear through the trees on the way.


Well, the Cathredral looked very imposing! A pity that the main tower was sheathed in plastic - repair work to the masonry? Or was it stone-cleaning? Still, it was large, and old, and clearly Very Important. It was the main thing I'd come to see. Purple-cloaked staff were saying things to people wanting to enter. There was a service just starting (bad timing on my part!) and a need to be quiet and discreet. Well, naturally. I stepped inside, said wow, and took a good shot of a very tall, elaborate contruction standing guard over a graceful font.


I looked forward to shooting plenty of other things like that. But I was approached by one of the staff, who informed me in a friendly but firm manner that no photography whatever was allowed inside the Cathedral. It was OK in the cloisters, but not here. Ah, sorry...

Oh dear, that was awkward. What was the point of coming here, if the inside of the Cathedral - clearly a very fine one - couldn't be photographed? I certainly wasn't here to worship. I was here to inspect a fine building, a cultural icon, and bring away my own selection of well-composed souvenir pictures. Subject to not being irreverent or intrusive, where was the harm in that? They were asking me not to do what I loved doing most.

They had roped off the main part of the interior while the service was in progress. Keenly disappointed, I hadn't the heart to wait for the conclusion and then look around. Not if unable to take a single shot. I was tempted to try a sneaky photo of the service against the vast backdrop of the high interior. But sensibly I resisted, and went straight out into the cloisters. I made the most of what I could take pictures of, but it was all a bit half-hearted.


There was, in one corner, a way up to where the Treasures were on display. These included, apparently, some relics of St Cuthbert (his coffin. pectoral cross, comb and embroidered vestments); the head of St Oswald; and the remains of the Venerable Bede. Diamond local geezers all. Plus illuminated manuscripts and other things that I would enjoy seeing. But not at a cost of £7.50. And, once again, no photography! I managed one protest shot, from the stairs up, then departed annoyed.

After that, I wandered off towards the market place in the town centre, before getting back to Fiona with just three minutes to spare. It would be the last straw, to get a parking ticket, and I half-expected to find a slavering parking attendant hovering close by, ready to pounce. But I was wrong.

Goodbye, Durham. Goodbye, and not au revoir or auf wiedersehen. I doubt if I will be back. In 1969 there was a song in the charts by Roger Whittaker about his leaving Durham Town and regretting the departure. Moi, je ne regrette rien.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

The Waterfall of The Damned

I'm not usually one to be too concerned over what things cost - if, that is, it's something that I really want, and paying for it won't break the bank. And certain things have indeed set me back financially, with knock-on effects that have meant postponing much else. It's all a question of judgement about their true value, and the beneficial effect they will have on my life. Into this category come, for example, holidays. I'll take a view: if the trip will be life-enhancing in some way - or even just restorative - then I'll find the money. I'm not mean with myself.

What I don't like doing is frittering money away on things that mean nothing to me. So you will never find me spending cash on things like betting, however playfully that might be dressed up. The phrase 'having a flutter on the Grand National' makes a waste of money sound fun, but at the end of the day a lot of cash has gone, and not a lot of genuine fun has been had. In fact, I've better things to do with my time than watch horses and jockeys (or dogs) going round and round while flashily-dressed spectators get drunk on expensive booze. This is not just a personal distaste for being irrational, and throwing away good money on chance events. After all, you can't consistently beat the bookies - I should know: I handled more than one bookmaker when I worked for the Inland Revenue. No, there's more. I don't like the contrived glamour of these events, nor the snobbery sometimes involved, both of which demand ritual spending on a grand scale to no purpose, apart from keeping up appearances.

Clearly - despite my tendency to self-indulgence - I can be rather sniffy about conspicuously spending money without something good to show for it.

I'm very much alive to being ripped off. But there are many, many ways in which one can be casually overcharged on a daily basis. You know the sort of thing I mean: travel tickets, especially rail tickets; admission fees; and parking charges. Entertainment events too. I'm appalled at what can be spent in cinemas, and for seeing live performances in every kind of sphere. What about some of the big names on the Ticketmaster website? Taylor Swift? Ed Sheeran? Gary Barlow? Tyson Fury? Who? What for, really? It's not as if you'll get a chance to chat with them, as you might at the Appledore Book Festival. All you get - assuming your ticket is valid - is a distant view, shared with thousands of annoying people.

No child thrust into my unwilling care can expect me to splash out on a day in Legoland. Not even an ice cream. I am no besotted aunt with an unlimited capacity for keeping infants happy. They should take note.

I even look twice at the entrance fees at museums and galleries, which are far more my own cup of tea. Barnard Castle has the Bowes Museum, a fabulous-looking chateau set in parkland, full of interesting objects and exhibitions of all kinds - the very Ashmolean Museum of Co Durham. But even with an age concession, they want £12 for admission, which is out of my comfort zone. I probably will go and see, but I will expect a lot for that £12. I am used to free entry at National Trust properties, being a Life Member. I admit buying that involved a big one-off payment of £625 in 1996 - the equivalent of nearly £1,200 in 2018 - but I've paid nothing more for the last twenty-two years and I reckon it's been excellent value for money, especially as the NT's most popular properties now seem to expect as much as £14 for admisson. Prices at that level would ordinarily put me off, but my Life Membership card is a magic wand that gets me in for nothing.

I suppose I should have a sense of proportion in these matters. If £14 is the going rate in 2018 for the better NT properties, then I shouldn't be blaming private owners of castles and country houses and gardens and natural attractions for charging something similar. They can probably make out a good case for a hefty entrance fee. Property maintenance and staff wages have to be covered, and they do want to make money from the visitors.

I acknowledge that. But sometimes I feel that they are being greedy. As if the cash they want isn't based on the merits of the thing you have come to visit, but is primarily to subsidise something else that you might not care about, or might even object to. In those cases, you can usually drive on before committing any money, and not bother with their over-expensive offering. A matter of free choice.

But then you occasionally encounter a situation where they rob you without the option. In other words, unless you are quick, you will end up paying something, very much against your will. I came across an example yesterday. It soured my afternoon a little, and the memory of it still rankles this morning.

It was up Teesdale in the North Pennines. It had been raining, and there were still showers on and off, but it was a good afternoon for getting out and seeing waterfalls in full spate. And there were two in particular that I wanted to see: Low Force and High Force. Both featured the River Tees tumbling over outcrops of Whin Sill, the super-hard rock that resists water erosion, so that the river tends to wear away the surrounding rock at a much faster rate. The results include cataracts, constrictions where the Whin Sill has been breached but enforces passage through a narrow gap or spout, and abrupt steps where impressive waterfalls thunder. And they were likely to be very impressive after a day of rain.

It was clear that High Force was the major attraction, the 'High' in the name suggesting that these falls were the more spectacular, and not merely located higher up the river valley. The road signs never mentioned Low Force. Here's one I saw on my way up Teesdale, High Force getting star billing.


Hmm. 'High Force 10'. If you didn't know that meant a waterfall, you might think a great storm lay ahead!

Even close to it, it was difficult to see where Low Force was. But there was a modest amount of roadside parking in lay-byes, all free, and once parked I could connect the access footpaths to my map. I had a look, and thought the waterfalls at Low Force marvellous to see. A subject for another post, in fact! And it cost me nothing. A perfect tourist attraction, then.

High Force was a couple of miles up the road. I thought this would be better-signposted, and possess a proper car park. In fact there was a hotel, a shop, a refreshment kiosk, and a large car park and picnic area that snaked around so that you could easily spend five minutes selecting a place to park, and be more than a minute or two from the ticket machine. (And as you will see, those minutes spent parking might matter) Prominent notices told you that there was a ticket machine, and that it was essential to buy a ticket to park. But I couldn't at first see where it was. The set-up reminded me immediately of those motorway service areas, where equally-prominent notices tell you that you can park free for two hours, then you MUST buy an expensive ticket - and that failure to do so will involve a draconian penalty charge. It was all vaguely unfriendly. I smelled a trap for the unwary.

I followed the winding route all around the car park, and placed Fiona near the exit, to be closer to the falls. Now where was the ticket machine? Really I couldn't see it. Then I had a cynical thought. Ah, I was right. There it was, tucked in next to the entrance, where an arriving driver couldn't see it, and a long way from where a lot of visitors might be inclined to park. Naughty!


So how much for a quick visit? My goodness. A £3 minimum charge! And on top of that, there was an unspecified fee for actually seeing the falls - tickets at the shop. And some other information I didn't read at this point. I had already decided that I wasn't going to pay £3 to park for half and hour, but I was curious to know what the additional ticket to see the falls might have been. I asked at the kiosk. £1.50 per head. When the Low Force had been free. No, thank you. That would have bumped the cost of my half-hour visit to £4.50. Just to see some tumbling water very similar to what I'd already seen at Low Force. And on a dull rainy day at that.

The girl in the kiosk was a good sort, and brought an urgent point to my attention. If I hadn't already bought a car parking ticket - and I hadn't - then I'd better see to it fast. The rule was that car parking tickets had to be purchased within ten minutes of arrival to avoid a colossal penalty of £100 - and a nasty letter in the post which I probably wouldn't be able to respond to in time, being still away on holiday. I realised now that there must be cameras somewhere, to photograph car number plates, and that there was no escape from that outrageous £100 charge unless I got out of the car park pronto!

I did. I parked Fiona in the wide exit lane (it was so wide that other cars could easily get past) and right under the gaze of the cameras. I could now see them, up on a discreet post. Hah. Let them record that Fiona was - within the ten minute time limit - no longer parked in their unwelcoming car park. I also took various photos of my own, just before shifting Fiona, and just after, in case the car parking management company chose to try it on nevertheless with a penalty notice - I wanted evidence to defend myself with. Then I sped away, feeling that I'd been got at, and had very nearly been scammed.


Did I feel regret at not viewing High Force, apparently one of the highest waterfalls in England? Some. But not only was the total asking price too much, the intimidating menace of that £100 penalty charge (with a rottweiler company to enforce it) had completely put me off. They can whistle for my coming back. Another thing. The landowners were the Raby Estates. On this evidence, I can't possibly like their way of going about things, their ethos. A visit to Raby Castle? No way. I won't pander to them. They are now damned.

And it's not just Raby Castle that's off my list. This blatant overcharging has coloured my attitude to all North Pennine tourist spots. I went next to the Killhope Lead Mining Centre, and although I would probably have hesitated anyway over the £6 requested for an age-concession admission, I was definitely now inclined to look askance at it. Instead I went into their rather pleasant (and free to use) Café, and enjoyed some reviving tea and cake.

It cost me £3. Now that's what I call 'value for money'. And I was able to use their nice loo, too. Magic.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Even without an Internet connection on the phone

Now here's an interesting thing. I thought that it would be essential to have an Internet connection on the phone when paying for something with it, specifically using Google Pay. It seems not so.

Three hours ago I paid for afternoon tea and cake way up Weardale, in the High Pennines, where - believe me - the Vodafone machete has not yet slashed a way through. I was at the Killhope Lead Mining Museum Café. The location was south-east of Alston, on the A689, deep in the upper Wear valley. Although the museum and its outdoor and underground exhibits might well have been fascinating, I wasn't there to look at them (why not is for another post): I was there simply for refreshment.

The pot of tea and slice of cake I asked for came to £3.00. That was pretty reasonable, bearing in mind what one might easily pay elsewhere; and in the old days I would have paid for it in cash without a thought. But now I make a point to pay cashlessly (and contactlessly) whenever I can.

Although it was such a small amount, the girl didn't seem to mind. She set up the payment terminal for a contactless payment, and it was at this point I noticed that my phone had no Internet connection at all. Still, I decided to go ahead, and see what might happen. If the process failed, then I had a fiver ready.

To my great surprise, the phone went DING! - meaning that the Google Pay app had done its stuff. And the girl confirmed that an authorised payment had gone through. I was amazed. How could that be possible, if my phone wasn't connected to the internet?

I mulled it over. The Café's payment terminal would have a wired Internet connection with the outside world - down the Museum's landline. That must be half the answer. I supposed that activating the NFC between terminal and phone informed Visa that a contactless payment via Google Pay was going to be made, and a rapid sequence of electronic checks had then been carried out, leading to a successful transaction. The Google Pay app on my phone would then go DING! The arrival of my electronic receipt needed an Internet connection to the phone, which wasn't immediately available. But it did come once I had driven into an area where there was a signal. And I had my receipt by the time I got back to the caravan.

So this must all mean that provided the retailer (or service provider) has a working Internet connection of their own, it doesn't matter that my phone is without one.

That's something learned. Presumably Google Pay will work with a contactless terminal on a train, underground, in the air, or on a ship, provided that the terminal is online in some form or other. NFC works anywhere, of course.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Abortion

The vote in the Republic of Ireland for abortion if you want it - at least during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy - will come as a profound relief for many. The marvel is that it took until 2018 for that country to put the matter to the test in a referendum. I can only imagine that the forces of religious conservatism were so strong and entrenched that no politician could face this issue without visions of career suicide (or even, deep down, divine wrath) getting in the way. But no longer.

Where do I stand? Well, I'm a lifelong pro-abortionist. I was never outspoken on the matter, but in 1982 I found it in my heart to play a key role in getting a young woman to, and from, a well-known London abortion clinic. She was an unmarried Catholic girl, and feared her parents' reaction if the pregnancy progressed. It was a friend of a friend, and I did not know the girl all that well. Her boyfriend, by the way, hadn't stepped in. Somebody else had to get her secretly to the clinic, and then back home again. I was asked, and I agreed. I put her up overnight, and drove her to the clinic early next day, then picked her up later on.

I have no idea what the fallout was for her personally - I never saw her again. I'd expect her to feel immediate relief at a crisis averted; but on the other hand, mixed feelings in the time ahead. Partly because her body had been geared up for a birth, but now had to go into reverse, with many physical and emotional consequences. Partly because her boyfriend had helped to 'make' the baby, and yet had played no role that I knew of in extracting her from that situation. And partly because she had deceived her parents, and might never be able to tell them what had happened: big lies must have been told, and a dark secret would have to be hidden for a long time to come, perhaps forever.

I had thought about these things before I actually helped her. I thought about them afterwards too. It seemed to me best that a young woman should be rescued from a situation that she wasn't yet ready for. I thought she and her boyfriend might well have been silly and reckless, and I hated all the dishonesty and deceit, but those were small things compared to the badness of an unwanted child being born. Yes, it could have been adopted; but then that meant this young girl would have to go full-term, and then see her baby taken away - another bad thing to happen.

In 1982 I was thirty, and although still not yet a parent, I was quite old enough to stand back and take a reasonable view of the situation, and imagine the most obvious consequences of helping - or not.

I helped. She could have a baby another time, when she had grown up a bit more. A child she really wanted to bring into the world, and care for, and bring up with all the tribulations that involved, and then see through a lifetime of ups and downs. The human race was in no danger of extinction if she delayed all that until ready for it, or indeed never conceived again. For me at least, the only 'rules' broken here were those relating to being open and honest.

I admit my contribution to that unborn child's death was important and inescapable. But I have lived with it, and would do the same again if a similar situation arose, although in these more accepting times I would push for more openness and less subterfuge. But help should never be denied simply because somebody else's feelings might be hurt, or because helping might involve keeping a secret, or because a cherished belief or principle might be offended. I have no sympathy with hard-line 'Right to Life' believers, whether their objections are philosophical, religious, or based on other ideas.

In any case, I don't think there can be an absolute 'right to life'. Nature itself doesn't respect or support that notion. Nature casually kills all living things in its way, whether by wind, wave, fire, flood, solar radiation, meteor strike, or hungry animal. Human society sets up rules here and there to protect the vulnerable, and that is a good and civilised thing to do. But those rules are no more than statements of intent. No law can prevent anyone's death in a natural disaster. That's what I mean by there being no absolute right to a life. Rights have to be enforceable to mean anything, and nothing can be enforced against the chance onslaught of nature.

Rights can be enforced only between people. And there are man-made laws against various types of killing. These vary between different societies and different eras. They reflect contemporary local attitudes. There have been - still are - examples of 'rights' depending on accidents of status. In Anglo-Saxon times you could kill somebody without being charged with murder, provided you paid the wer-gild, the man-gold: what it cost to kill that class of person. Obviously, not much for a slave or bondman, and a great deal for a lord. It was one kind of system to enforce law and order in a world without policemen. Clearly in those times there was no such thing as 'the sanctity of human life'. It merely had a value, small or large.

Is abortion child murder? I can't quite see it. It seems more akin to the cancellation of a very important event. The foetus, though definitely alive and a potential human being - possibly with a name and planned future awaiting it - hasn't yet entered the world, hasn't yet expressed itself as a distinct personality, and isn't yet a person anyone can truly relate to, murder included. Stopping its further development can perhaps be compared to calling off a wedding, or an important international meeting between heads of state. Whatever might have resulted from the baby being born, or the lifelong joining of two lives, or the happy reconciliation of two hostile countries, won't now happen. But another, similar, event can still take place in the future, when circumstances are right. The way is still clear for it, which might not be true if the unwanted child is left to develop.

I may seem to be suggesting that one embryo is as good as another. If not this one, then the next will be just as good. The point is a deep one, but I am content to think it is true.

I cannot now ask my Mum if she had any miscarriages before I was born (she died in 2009). I suspect that she did. Six years went by between Mum and Dad getting married in 1946 and my arrival in 1952. I can't believe they didn't try for a child before me, with at least one non-viable embryo as the result.

Setting aside Mum's anguish at any of these events, how do I feel about the possible historic loss of an elder brother or sister? (Gosh, the sister I never had!) And how do I feel about possibly being the outcome of the second, third or even fourth shake of the dice - and not the first?

And if these hypothetical brothers and sisters had been snatched away through abortions, and not just ordinary miscarriages? What then? What about the additional awful point that an abortion in the 1940s and 1950s had to be a desperate, secret backstreet affair because it was illegal - criminally so? Was my Mum a criminal, so that I should be ashamed of her?

To be honest, I can't ache for someone who never was, whom I never knew. My emotion is all for the younger brother I did know, and who was suddenly not there any more after that road accident in 1995.

And I would hate to find out that Mum was forced to have me, against her will, or that in any sense I was unwanted and unplanned. Or that my birth affected Mum's health and wellbeing for the worse.

If Mum ever did have an illegal abortion, then I think her brave and admirable for it, given the dire consequences of it being found out or the procedure going wrong. It would have been entirely consistent with her forthright character to seek one, if that was the best course: she saw things clearly, and would act and not dither. Nor flinch from what needed to be done. I certainly adopted that way of thinking, and must have displayed a little of her staunch character in my own life decisions, which some others have characterised as ruthless and selfish.

I certainly don't feel - whether it may have happened through natural miscarriage, or through abortion - that an essential elder sibling was snatched away, leaving me bereft and with grounds for lifelong complaint. And if the genetic mix would have been the same, so that a person like me (whom I would presently recognise as 'myself') could have been born earlier and not in 1952? Again, I don't care.

It does however matter hugely to me that when I was born, Mum was ready for me, was proud to have me, and was geared up to look after me properly.

The mother has to carry the growing child, and then give birth to it, and face all the physical risks of that. She will inevitably be the most hands-on parent. It is she whose life will be permanently changed by the experience - she who will most likely shoulder the ongoing hard work and responsibilty. Given all that, she should have all the say. As simple as that. What she is happy with must trump whatever the man wants, or the doctors want, or what anyone else thinks is right. If she is unwilling and wants an abortion, then she should get one. And I'm with her all the way on that.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Cheques

What a nuisance cheques are. I've presently got two cheque books for the same bank: one that I've spent a very long time using up, and haven't got to the end of yet; and another the bank sent me a while back, that is still untouched, and may never come into use at all.

And yet these things, if found by a housebreaker, will tell that person who my bank is, and what my account number is. I can't leave them behind when I go away on holiday - where indoors could I hide them safely from an experienced thief? - and so they have to come along with me. To and fro, every trip. Just extra to pack.

And a useless extra at that. I simply don't use cheques nowadays. I looked at my Money Diary spreadsheets, to find out when I last did. It was early last year. Three cheques in January 2017. Two of them were birthday cheques to my nephew and niece - they still get a token birthday present from me. The other was a donation at a funeral.

Since then I've decided to send birthday money in the form of a suitable banknote tucked inside the card - surely a much more sensible option, as the worst that can happen is that somebody steals the banknote; a cheque would give away my key banking details, and what my signature looks like. And it saves the birthday girl or boy all the humdrum hassle of taking it to a bank.

As for donations, that can easily be done online.

With tradespeople coming to my house, it's mainly been cash all along, and not cheques. Cash is (rightly) associated with tax-evasion - something I should know a lot about, considering what I used to do for a living! - but tradespeople may genuinely need a lot of cash for out-of-pocket expenses, lunches included, and it's getting harder for them to get to a bank or cashpoint to draw some more. So I'm happy to help them out by having banknotes ready when we settle up. At least for smaller amounts. I'd expect a £500 bill to be settled in regular fashion - which nowadays means an electronic transfer of some kind. But not a cheque: that embroils them in handling charges, and it's an unfriendly way of making payment. Putting it another way, if the job were done well enough, but I didn't quite like their attitude or manner, then I'd 'punish' them with a cheque. Message: I won't be using you again.

The poor cheque! It's been in decline for decades now. But when I started work in 1970, payment by cheque was the usual thing, even for quite small amounts. You wouldn't pay for a lunchtime sandwich with a cheque, but you might well use one for most other things of any value. A crisp cheque glistening with ink, freshly written in your own fair hand. That's what fountain pens were invented for, surely! It was vulgar to reel off banknotes from a thick wad, like a flash tycoon or a used-car salesman. Cheques were the genteel way. Indeed, to have a cheque book at all meant you were a salaried person with a regular job, someone with a bank account, in an era when hoity-toity banks were still picky about whom they accepted as their customers - and precisely what services they would extend to them. To be trusted with a cheque book said something powerful about your creditworthiness. So to flourish one was the equivalent of showing off a solid credit rating - a glowing Experian report - in contemporary times.

And in the early 1970s, cheques became colourful, artistic and pretty. I was with NatWest then, and they had a beautiful line in cheque designs - flowers, birds, pastoral scenes too I think. That's chiefly why I chose them for my current account, rather than the Midland, or Barclays, or Lloyds, who stuck with the traditional, no-nonsense, staid designs in their house colours: yellow for Midland, blue for Barclays, green for Lloyds. Given a choice, I'd have had a prestigious Bank of England account, but by 1970 it had become impossible for an everyday customer to open a new personal account there, unless you were an employee (a girl friend was). So I settled for NatWest and their beautiful cheques.

But soon the advent of direct debits and heavily-promoted credit cards reduced the need to write a cheque at all, and their long decline set in. Ever one to adopt modern methods, I was using a Barclaycard from 1973, and an Access card (my 'Flexible Friend') from 1974, and those two cards became my new, trendy way of paying for things in boutiques and department stores. I still liked using cheques where or when it was expected, or if the trader wasn't geared up to accepting a credit card; but those occasions became fewer and fewer, until I used a cheque only for solicitors, my dentist, and at birthday-times. A point came when retailers were no longer keen to accept cheques. The first real sign of their impending death. The withdrawal of  the 'cheque guarantee card' was another mortal blow.

It used to be well-known advice that if you ever attended one of those evening talks in plush hotels where an 'expert' would lead you through 'property investment' or 'retirement planning' or 'luxury holiday opportunities', then always leave your cheque book at home. Well, that's advice that needs updating - maybe to credit card. I say 'maybe' because the era of plastic cards may itself be drawing to a close, as electronic methods take over. There is already a perfected electronic solution to almost any payment situation where handing over notes and coin would be impractical. Solutions that don't include the handling of paper cheques with pen-squiggles on them. 

For the present, cheques remain an option despite their half-proposed abolition. Traditionalists have howled in anguish, and have had their way, so far. Just as they have, for now, preserved our equally-useless low-denomination copper coinage. Who are those people? Why hang onto something that ought to go the way of the postal order and the telegram? Cheques are a relics from a past era, an anachronism. I'd prefer to see them get a well-deserved and honourable retirement. 

You know, I've convinced myself.

I was thinking that, in the end, I would tear my cheque books up, and not think of using them any more as a means of paying somebody. It sounds drastic! But I've just done it.


And no regrets - just relief. In a stroke, this fixes a worrying hole in my financial security - having cheque books lying around at home that give away my banking details. Perfect pickups for a thief in a hurry, searching my cupboards and hoping to find something good.

And doing without a cheque book won't inconvenience me in any way. I suppose that if it became absolutely necessary to give somebody a cheque, I could go to my nearest bank branch (with ID and debit card at the ready) and get them to specially write out a cheque to that person, drawn on my bank account. But I can't easily envisage the circumstances in which that would have to be done, not in these days of instant electronic money transfers for any amount.

Not when buying a car. Not when buying a house. Not for a round-the-world cruise.

Well! That's another item I won't need to take on holiday with me any more, simply to keep it safe and sound and beyond the reach of any burglars waiting for my next departure for sunny Northern climes. Those gentlemen need to take note! There's nothing left in my home now that's worth all the effort of breaking in. I've taken it all with me. Unless you want my vast collection of old Ordnance Survey maps.


Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Fiona's eventual replacement?

A week ago I was loaned a late-2017/early-2018 version of Fiona, my cherished Volvo XC60. The loan car still smelled new, so I'm going to call it a 2018 car, eight years younger than Fiona.

Here are shots of the car that the Volvo dealer let me play with for two days, while my own car was having her annual service and MOT - which included new rear springs and front brake pads that couldn't all be fitted in one day.


This new-model XC60 went launched in the UK only a few months ago, replacing the original XC60 that had been boosting Volvo's popularity and sales since 2008. An impressive-looking car inside and out. The body shape contains fewer curves, and more straight lines, than the old model. The back end is not much altered, but the front end has become a thought more assertive. One could almost say aggressive. All done to emphasise more strongly that this is a worthy alternative to the offerings of BMW and Audi. 

Here are a few shots of Fiona, to show how the old model looked (at Breamore, Banff, Newport, somewhere deep in the Aberdeenshire countryside, and in the Black Mountains of South Wales). 


I like both versions. 

Inside, the 2018 car is a complete redesign, with more flat surfaces (Fiona's curvier interior lacks these) and entirely digital instrumentation, with a huge screen on the centre console. 


Fiona's interior is decidedly Old School, with unfashionable pale-cream leather seats, and pine wood in her own centre console:


That said, Fiona's interior is, to my own mind, psychologically lighter and airier, and much less intimidating. But her 2010 letterbox-shaped SatNav screen doesn't compare, even if it still does the job:


The 2018 car had done 4,000-odd miles and was available for cash purchase. The asking price was £35,000. Fiona had cost me almost exactly £40,000 in May 2010, less £1,000 from the government's scrappage scheme, and £5,000 from Volvo in part-exchange for my previous car - a net £34,000. Clearly Fiona was, and still is, the higher-specification car. And indeed a glance at the summary purchase details in the 2018 car's rear footwell confirms that it had only the entry-level specification. Many would however still consider this more than adequate:


My Fiona was ordered from the factory with the best specification available in early 2010, plus most of the options. For instance, all of the then-current electronic safety features (along with the sensors and software to go with them). She also had a rear-view camera, so handy for caravanning. The 2018 loan car didn't have a camera. Fiona also had various extras built into her interior, for more driver (and passenger) comfort and convenience. As for power, the 2018 car had only a four-cylinder diesel engine (albeit willing and mostly quiet), whereas Fiona's is a five-cylinder affair with more grunt (but more noise). 

I went onto the Volvo website and from all the options put together a 2018 car that was as close as possible to Fiona's particular specification. The price became £46,625. That's what I'd really have to pay, to get a new XC60 that was as well-equipped and capable as Fiona.  

That's an awful lot of money! It makes me inclined to hang onto Fiona for as long as possible, spending money on her year by year to keep her in fine fettle for my everyday and holiday requirements. 

Clearly, if I want a direct replacement, meaning another XC60 with the same capability and features, I will never now be able to afford a new car. It will have to be used, perhaps an ex-PCP model that somebody handed back after three years. (One good thing about PCP schemes: their draconian rules encourage you to drive and maintain the car with obsessive care, so that it stays unblemished and within its strict mileage limit)

Actually. my game plan with personal transport is to wait for the next-generation of hybrids, or (preferably) the next-generation of all-electric cars. So, willy-nilly, Fiona will be my car for some years yet. That will allow time to save up for a very fat deposit on a new or nearly-new car. The problems will be two: keeping my nerve if another big bill crops up on Fiona; and resisting the allure of glitzy new cars like the one loaned to me. 

The PCP way of having a new car is horrendously costly. Look at that purchase summary again. You'd have to put down a deposit of £7,000. Then pay £521.43 for thirty-six months (that's £18,771.48). And finally, if you wanted to buy the car outright, there would be another £15, 675 to pay. (You'd need to save that up - a big extra expense). Making £41,446 altogether - as opposed to a cash price of £35,000. Running costs - fuel, insurance - would mostly be extra. (Tax and servicing are generally part of the PCP deal, and effectively free, but represent only a small part of the outlay) 

So that's £41,446 (with running costs on top) to pay in the space of three years. And by the way, that's with an annual mileage limit of 10,000 and not a mile more. I do 15,000 miles a year, and to add those extra 5,000 miles would mean paying even more in a PCP deal.

In contrast, my all-in cash expenditure on Fiona, including running costs and the present bank loan repayments, will work out at no more than £8,250 in 2018. That's the equivalent of £25,000 or so over three years. (It will actually be only about £18,000 for three years, once the loan repayments end in 2019). 

Thus hanging onto Fiona is a far more sensible proposition than having a swish new motor!

Still, it looks as if Fiona will remain the only car I will ever have owned from new. The only one never in someone else's uncaring hands before mine. That makes her very special to me, of course.