Sunday, 31 July 2016

Not upgrading

The two-year contract on my Samsung Galaxy S5 mobile phone - named Demelza - was nearly up: just nine days left. I'd been resisting any urge to upgrade to a new phone. But now I had to do something definite.

A new phone then, from the range currently available? Or should I hang on till next year, meanwhile moving to a SIM-only contract?

I'd been very happy with Demelza. I'd looked after her, and she still looked almost new. Everything worked faultlessly. The battery hadn't yet shown any signs of failing. All the firmware updates had been installed. She was as up-to-date as a 2014 phone could be. And I still liked her 2014 styling. She was good to hold, and easy to use.

I was strongly of the opinion that I hadn't yet had full value for money out of her. Surely a good phone ought to last three years, not just two. It was too soon to retire her.

Besides, I had an issue with the phone I'd currently be upgrading to, the Samsung Galaxy S7. It didn't have enough internal memory: only 32GB. I really wanted 64GB - as well as 200GB more on a microSD card. When your phone is really a pocket computer, you can't have too much storage.

Besides, one of Vodafone's SIM-only deals was very attractive, and would suit my usage very well. Vodafone was offering 10GB of UK data, 500 minutes of UK calls, and unlimited UK texts, for £17 a month. The nearly-expired phone contract had cost me £37 a month, so there would be an immediate saving of £20 every month for the year ahead. And of course I could keep my number.

I went for it. I called Vodafone and had a delightful twenty minutes with a charming man called Konstantinos. He explored my needs, explained my options, and made me laugh. He thought my final choice of SIM-only bundle was very suitable - apart from having only 500 free minutes for voice calling each month. True, I normally made very few phone calls. But what if I met a nice man and fell in love? Ah, in that case, I assured him, I would be calling back and pleading for an upgrade! It was all great fun.

So, after midnight tonight, I move onto this new SIM-only contact, which will last twelve months plus the nine unexpired days from the previous contract. And this time next year, I will get myself another phone - probably the S8. Fingers crossed that it has a lot of storage, looks great, and doesn't cost the earth.


Except that I'm now 'on my own' where my phone is concerned. Demelza is paid for, she's mine; but Vodafone have no interest whatever in her now, and suddenly she seems all alone, orphaned and exposed, and terribly vulnerable to life's knocks and scrapes! Nothing has actually changed, but I now feel she requires better looking-after, even though previously she has had more TLC than most pets. Isn't that funny, how moving to SIM-only has put a distance between my phone and Vodafone that didn't seem to be there before? And it will be the same if I buy a new phone independently of Vodafone next year. Which I probably will. If I can afford it, I prefer to buy up front, and have lower monthly running costs.

What shall I do with my extra £20 a month? Save it, of course. I'm still trying to build up the kind of savings account balance that will cope with any sudden financial emergency. £5,000 will do that. By the end of the year I hope to have £3,000 in place.

I won't stop at £5,000 though - I need to save much more. Ten years from now, I must have enough to buy another car. I think I can do it, but it'll take careful planning. And no falling in love.

Lunch at The Randolph

Towards the end of my recent holiday I had a day out in Oxford. With a birthday lunch at The Randolph Hotel, now officially the Macdonald Randolph Hotel. This hotel was Inspector Morse's favourite in-town place for refreshment, and it featured much in 1980s TV episodes such as The Wolvercote Tongue, where he clinches with a distraught lady whose unfaithful lover has just been murdered. I rather fancy that Morse's creator, the author Colin Dexter, had a soft spot for The Randolph, which remains Oxford's best-known posh hotel. I decided, almost on the spur of the moment, to treat myself to lunch there, even though I did not myself have an unfaithful dead lover on my hands. It was the 4th July - two days in front of my real birthday - but that didn't matter. I abandoned original plans to dine at The Trout at Wolvercote. Someone had told me anyway that the feel of the place had changed: it was now 'very studenty'. I wanted to go where the college masters might go.

You can't really drive into Oxford. You can try; but the place isn't friendly territory where cars are concerned, and parking is difficult. It welcomes only buses and coaches. It expects car-borne visitors to find one of its Park-and-Ride car parks, and travel into the city centre by special bus.

I've used Oxford's Park-and-Ride twice, in 2009 and 2012. On both occasions it worked as advertised, but I thought the journey into the centre slow and tedious, and there was quite a bit of waiting around for the Park-and-Ride bus to come on the way back. I find that there comes a point on any city visit when you suddenly run out of steam, your feet feel tired, and your brain has died; and you want only to head as quickly as possible back to your car, and flee the teeming cit. Standing for a bus in a long queue of equally exhausted people does not achieve that. It can in fact ruin the good impression the city should have left in the mind. I don't really like buses at the best of times, but especially not when I want to get somewhere else fast, and in comfort. Crawling along in a packed bus with misted-up windows is not my notion of a soothing occupation. I'm so glad I didn't opt for a free Bus Pass when I started to get my State Pension! I'd hate having to use it.

Anyway, twice bitten, doubly shy, I was never going to use the city's Park-and-Ride again if I could avoid it. And I had a great alternative. Oxford's railway station is fairly convenient for the city centre, and I could drive from the caravan site (near Woodstock) to Charlbury, and catch the train there. The cost of the return journey, with my Senior Railcard discount, was but £4.10.

Oxford station has undergone something of a transformation in recent years. They have steadily been rebuilding it.

Considering the vast numbers of visitors Oxford gets, not to mention the students at the University colleges, it has desperately needed spacious modern facilities. To some extent, it's now got them; but I thought they could have done more. They are presently reopening a section of commuter line to Islip, which will encourage extra passenger numbers, and I can see the place getting overwhelmed again as soon as that new line opens. Here's the ticket/shopping/refreshments/toilets concourse, at a slack time:

You can just imagine this filling up with a frustrated crowd, if they have to cancel a couple of trains.

Outside the station, there was a big bulky bronze ox - a champion beast. (Ox-ford...that's why)

Pretty good as sculptures go, I'd say. Also outside the station, hundreds of bikes, just as you see at Cambridge:

My prime objective, after lunch, was the Pitt-Rivers Museum. But first lunch. Noon was approaching. I'd more-or-less settled on The Randolph. Only an outrageously expensive or unappealing menu was going to make me think again. The hotel was easy to find. It faced the Ashmolean Museum.

That's the entrance, where the flags were flying. I studied the outside menu.

It seemed just right. In I went. It was solid and old-fashioned and comfortable, in a somewhat baronial sort of way.

To one's left, the famous Morse Bar.

To one's right, the room set aside for afternoon tea.

After asking at Reception, I found the Dining Room. I was almost the first for lunch. The place seemed vast!

A pleasant waitress greeted me. 'I'd like some lunch, please.' I said. I spoke like a baroness. No, I didn't really: I was chirpy and friendly. She showed me to a table by a window, which gave me a view of the Ashmolean Museum opposite.

Chatting a bit, I mentioned that this was to be my Birthday Lunch. I ordered a 500ml carafe of good white wine (500ml wasn't too much for a leisurely meal for one); water besides; and to nibble, a selection of little artisan breads, with butter.

The dark roll was made with rye, and had a distinct liquorice taste. Fennel, of course. Another was a type of onion bread - delicious with the soft butter. A pleasing start.

Next, minestrone soup.

It was hot and satisfying, but not outstandingly special. I thought there would be some twist, but no.

Next, my main course. I had chosen fish, in this case a fillet of halibut on a bed of spinach. It was very pretty, and very nice to consume slowly, savouring the flavours.

For dessert, crème caramel, with sultanas soaked in sauternes. Unfortunately the caramel wasn't perfectly-presented on the plate. But it was only a small defect, and the sultanas were juicy, a lovely treat.

By this time the Dining Room was filling up, but there was no hurry to finish. I looked around. These might be people staying at the hotel, or just people popping in for an expensive lunch. Two young persons, a honeymoon couple perhaps, had been there as I arrived, but by now had paid up and gone. One or two foursomes, both composed of frail elderly parents with their son or daughter, plus spouse, had sat down. Off to my left, a party of seven had arrived and were already engaged in voluble conversation, one woman in particular, who didn't notice that her cardigan had slipped off the back off her seat and onto the floor. I tried to catch her eye, but it was no good. I asked my waitress to tell her. I finished my wine. I'd have coffee or tea later, at the Museum perhaps. Now for the bill.

Yes, that's £68.46 for my lunch. But it included the service charge, and that carafe of fine wine accounted for a whopping £28.00 of it. Still, it was a lot for just a lunch, even for a nice hotel in Oxford. But I'd got what I wanted. A special Birthday Meal in special surroundings.

The Pitt-Rivers Museum was part of the Museum of Natural History. reached via a passageway next to one of the pubs frequented by pipe-smoking J R R Tolkien, the learned author of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and several other works concerned with 'serious fantasy', into which he poured not only invention but his philosophy.

Just like the schoolchildren, I enjoyed the dinosaur skeletons inside the elegant Museum of Natural History.

These two creatures below seemed to be paying close attention to the children, as if considering them for their own lunch! (Which was clearly overdue)

The entrance to the Pitt-Rivers Museum was at the rear of the Natural History museum. Another cavernous space, on three levels.

It was full of ethnic artefacts, from every primitive culture. I like exhibits like this. I find the art of so-called primitives very powerful.

All this seen, I suddenly felt I'd had enough, and headed for the station. The secret with cities is to do or see just one or two things each day you are there, and avoid making yourself tired. Really big places like London always exhaust me, even if I keep to this rule - although I probably will make the effort to go there again for a day this autumn. I haven't been near the centre of London for three years. On the last occasion, I took in the Tate Modern and the Petrie Museum. But any hint of terrorist activity will keep me away.

So what did I do for a fancy meal on my actual birthday on the 6th July? Well, I first had a lunchtime pasty at Banbury, which has its famous cross and a tucked-away example of Banksy wall graffiti (though surely not really his genuine work? Who can say):

Then some National Trust afternoon tea and cake at Canons Ashby:

And in the evening a steak dinner back at the caravan, washed down with water:

To be honest, I enjoyed all this tasty homely fare as much or more than the Randolph Hotel lunch!

Saturday, 30 July 2016

I have killed people

I have been instrumental in the deaths of two persons, directly in one case, indirectly in the other. But this isn't a confession, and the police have never had reason to pursue me. Both deaths were in the course of my duties in the old Inland Revenue, and many years ago. Both victims were men. Both found the strain of the investigations into their affairs too much, and they died - of heart attacks I think.

I may seem to be be mentioning this casually and without remorse. At the time I certainly took the news of both deaths in my stride. The Revenue's culture enabled me to do so. But now I'm unhappy about them, although completely resigned to living with the facts.

Back then I had developed something like a soldier's attitude. All soldiers know that their duties will involve killing not only the opposing armed soldiers. They will inevitably put pressure on the communities they must invade - on the old, the frail, and the vulnerable wherever they go. Such persons will go under when their lives are grossly disrupted by warfare, when they see strangers in their midst, when the familiar and safe anchors in their lives vanish. Then they may crumple and die.

I am bound for the rest of my life by the Official Secrets legislation, so cannot go into identifying details. But I can say something.

The first death happened nearly forty years ago, when I was in my late twenties. I had taken over a long-running investigation into a politically ambitious local government man who had grown unaccountably wealthy. Not much had yet been established. My major contribution was to draw together a big mass of gathered-in information, scattered through the big fat file - something I was always good at doing - and set it all out on the pre-computer equivalent of a spreadsheet, so that the growth of wealth, and the income available to fund it, could be analysed properly. This revealed, conclusively, that the man had returned way too little income and capital gains to account for his present capital. I had now demonstrated a serious income deficiency, with a pattern to it, and there were important questions to ask. It had become a strong case.

So strong that I soon had to send it up to the Revenue's Enquiry Branch, then the elite heavyweight section that dealt with cases that might involve the criminal prosecution and imprisonment of the offender. They were keenly interested. The man was a prominent local politician. I carried on for a short while under their wing, and then they came down to take it over. The handover was at a formal meeting with the man in question, plus his advisor, at my office. I was present as a witness on the Revenue side. He was going to to have the case against him outlined, and then 'Hansard' was going to be read to him. 'Hansard' meant posing a series of brief questions that had been agreed by Parliament many years ago, and ever since used in potential prosecution cases. The questions were put, and the man's answers carefully recorded. It was his very last chance to 'come clean'. If he still denied irregularities, then he would face imprisonment if the Revenue proved their case and 'won', and he would no longer have the option of paying up, through the nose probably, but keeping his liberty. It was a solemn moment. And I was very conscious that my work had brought us all to this point. This grey-faced man was now in the hands of the implacable Enquiry Branch men because of me.

I was not involved in the case after that. But some months later, Enquiry Branch got in touch and said that he had died. They would plunder his estate and leave it at that. It was all said in a detached, impersonal way. They were hard men. I was thanked for all I had done. I had in fact already benefited in another way. Basing the decision mainly on this case, I had been selected for a gruelling internal exam course that would - if I were successful - lead to promotion and a high-level career. My Dad was so proud. But I had brought about a man's death.

The Revenue in the late 1970s was popularly (as it been for decades) a bad music-hall joke. Pin-striped men in bowler hats, with brollies and briefcases, snooping around or being mindlessly officious. But in reality it did very serious work with no messing about, and although it was nothing like the big, increasingly-centralised juggernaut it later became, it could still impact heavily on the lives of its selected victims. But to kill them?

I thought about this man quite a lot, and I still do, just as I remember many of my stand-out cases. He had undoubtedly thought himself above the law, and able to get away with it. He was thoroughly dishonest. And he was a man in an important position in local government, able to influence council contracts, possibly to his own advantage. A bad example of how to misbehave if trusted with power. A financial bullet - with myself pulling the trigger - had been fired at him: that seemed perfectly proper. But it was not proper that he had died.

I could imagine the ordinary worry and strain of the enquiries made. And Revenue enquiries might go on for years, wearing people down. But after I came along it would have become more intense, more focussed. I could picture that moment when he realised he was caught beyond hope. The bitter knowledge that he had sold his soul, but would have to give a lot of it up. The private shame at being found out, of having to explain to his family and friends what he had done. The crushing despair, when thinking about the public humiliations to come.

Dwelling on such things would badly affect the health of anyone. People on trial - most clearly war criminals with many misdeeds to defend - often went into a decline, however well looked-after. This man had suffered just the same, I was sure of it. That didn't make me sorry for him. But neither did I feel pleased about his dying. Adequate punishment doesn't have to be so extreme.

The second death occurred ten years later, when I was in my late thirties. I was somewhere else, in a higher grade, but this time it wasn't anyone important or influential. It was the owner of a used car business. There was no special feature about the man nor his business. It was a case taken on simply to make up numbers in my portfolio of enquiries. Once again patience and method revealed a pattern - cars being bought, but no record of their being sold; bills for repair work being done on cars that did not appear in the books at all; and a very low declared income, yet a nice country property to live in. A clear case to answer. I pressed my questions. The man denied everything. He phoned me up, and said my enquiries were 'beastly' and a slur on his character. Then he died, very suddenly.

I had the news over the phone from his grown-up daughter. His executrix. She wasn't angry, nor full of recrimination. I think she knew that her father had been dishonest, and that she would have to settle up with us. We talked it over. The way forward was agreed. But I moved on to another office before the case was finally wrapped up.

It was an ordinary case in every way, but it cut deeper, because I'd spoken with the man (in his anger) and his daughter (in her sorrow), and I was directly responsible for the pressure that had killed him. Although I had done nothing 'wrong', it was very hard not to feel that I had induced the heart attack that had been his end. I couldn't help thinking about the effect this would have on his family, his wife, his children, and the grandchildren.

You can perhaps point out that only a very guilty person feels so deeply that they die when pressed to explain themselves. Maybe.

Actually, I don't think that's universally true. I think that people who are dishonest do what they do chiefly because their psychology is unusual. I think they can blind themselves to the wrongness of cheating, or theft, or fraud. They see it as something else - possibly as an exercise in cleverness or skill. Or as the rational exploitation of an opportunity presented to them, so that it would be stupid not to help themselves. Or as a reasonable poke at people who can afford to lose some money. Or even as their birthright, to take what they want, whenever they want. Only self-centred people will do such things, only people who lack empathy: people who can take, and keep on taking, and not feel bothered about the damage done.

It must come as a colossal shock to them, if an enforcement agency makes them face up to the real consequences of their actions, holds them to account, and threatens them with shame and punishment.

Occasionally the Revenue would choose the wrong victim. I remember - again it was almost forty years ago, in the late 1970s - being asked to look into a recently-deceased artist. A painter, a man who had died when hardly past middle-age, presumably still active; who had lived at a very nice address, and seemed to have a lot of money, and yet hadn't been making much from his creative work.

Well, there was something odd to be explained, and so I embarked on enquiries. But the case did not feel promising to me. Nor was it.

It turned out that the man was an obsessive. I was given his journal to study, really the only document that could be called his 'books'. This journal revealed his whole life, down to the minutest detail. It contained his receipts and outgoings, business and personal stuff all mixed together. That alone suggested that he had no accountancy skills he might knowledgeably misuse. It was the character of the entries that said the most. When someone records everything - sweets bought; toothpaste bought; packets of contraceptives bought; and every outing in his clearly-cherished car (in this case a Range Rover, known as 'Rangey') - you get a picture of a man who has lost himself in the little things of life. I discovered from this journal that he lived with two elderly aunts. They would all go out together in Rangey and spend very, very little, even though that small amount was still faithfully recorded. He must have also had some kind of love-life (why else regularly buy those condoms?), but there was no evidence that he bought caviar and champagne for his ladylove.

The man was absorbed in minutiae, recording tiny amounts of money spent, all the inconsequential purchases, receipts and refunds that a person without a lot of cash tends to write down, if they have a passion for keeping records and want to know where they stand. Or to simply record and remember everything, to make their life seem full and busy.

I got quite a good feel for his nature. He could be myself now, in 2016. I too have a cherished car, bought with an inheritance (as his may have been), and I too keep meticulous records so that I know exactly what I have.

I don't think I was making a mistake when I closed this investigation down soon afterwards, simply disallowing all the little personal purchases he had claimed as business costs - ice cream and Durex included. But some other Inspectors would have pursued it to the bitter end. They'd have delved until all unexplained points had been dealt with. They wouldn't have let common sense stop them. Nor would they have seen that they were dealing with an eccentric.

The old Inland Revenue - I can't speak for the modern HMRC - never gave its investigating Inspectors any training in psychology, and what went on in the heads of offenders. 'How the mind worked' was a feature only of management training - for example, how to motivate staff, or negotiate a local agreement with a tough union - but it wasn't discussed in relation to enquiry work. I now find this astonishing. But old-school approaches were slow to change. The training was always in-house, and concentrated on technical skills.

It would have been so easy to call in (say) credit agency people from outside, to give a useful talk on How People Think About Money, And About Not Paying What They Know They Owe. There was no coverage of slippery subjects like recognising dishonest or criminal behaviour, and understanding people's reactions when confronted, or put under pressure. Nor what might happen if they were pushed too far.    

Friday, 29 July 2016

Taken for a ride at Wells-next-the-Sea

Wells-next-the-Sea is a town and small port on the north coast of Norfolk. The only port of any size at all for many miles east or west along this windswept and dangerous coastline. And yet, at low tide, its name is misleading - it isn't 'next' to the sea at all, but a whole mile inland from the present shoreline, as this section of the 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map makes clear:

But at high tide - especially spring tides - most of the sandy bits, and nearly all of the salt flats in the north-east part of the map above get covered by the incoming water, making it appear that Wells does indeed have the North Sea right there on its doorstep. The transformation at high tide can be rather surreal.

It's an attractive place. My best shots were in fact taken on two sunny evenings in 2008, so I'll mostly use those, assisted by some of the shots taken just three weeks ago.

Away from the quay, Wells has a mellow, leafy atmosphere:

But its main appeal is the distinctive waterfront: the quay, and especially the tall old warehouse with its upper-storey projection.

Looking out to sea, there is a long straight sea wall on the left hand side, protecting low-lying land. To the right, those salt flats. On the horizon, sand dunes with trees which never get covered by the sea, and an iconic lifeboat station:

Beyond the dunes, a view of vast sands opens up. At low tide these beckon, and people wander far out onto them.

It's easy to reach stretches of sand that will become islands, and then underwater shoals, as the tide stealthily creeps in. Unwary holidaymakers can get trapped. In 2008, M--- and I witnessed a Coastguard rescue:

It was very competently handled. They sent out an inflatable, and the group just discernible on the far shore were loaded up and brought back. We pushed off before the show was over. The rescued family - which included young children - must have splashed across, thinking they could easily splash back. It was difficult not to regard them as idiotic, but it would all have seemed perfectly safe a couple of hours before. 

That was 2008. Eight years later, seemingly a lifetime of change later, and it's 2016. And I'm returning on a bright but cloudy afternoon, fresh from my 'pilgrimage' to Little Walsingham. Wells was seething with people. I was incredibly lucky to get this quayside parking space:

The tide was in - and pretty high!

My first priority was an ice-cream. Then to see the distant sea. A two-mile walk there and back, along the sea wall. Hmm. But there was an alternative to walking there - a miniature railway. The single fare was £1.50. Perfect.

It ran in a straight line parallel to the sea wall, on the landward side of it, by the public road to the beach. So you got a 'view' only of the farmland and nature reserve off to the west. But that wasn't unattractive. The single line was only one kilometre long, less than a mile, and stopped short of the beach. At each end was a small turntable, so that the smart little diesel locomotive could be unhitched, swivelled round, and run along a short section of loop track to the other end of the train, ready for its next journey:

Here's the train arriving at the 'town' end, and then the driver pushing the locomotive around on the little turntable. It looked as if the locomotive was no lightweight!

Some man said 'Huh, it's not steam.' Oh come on, I thought, get a grip. You don't buy steam for only £1.50.

Once the locomotive was hitched up, we were off. We trundled along at no more than running pace really, but it seemed faster. The couple in front of me were quite chatty, and she was inclined to wave cheerfully to walkers on the sea wall above. I joined in. Well, why not?

Happy days and simple pleasures!

Just over half-way. And look, proper level crossing signs!

Arriving at the 'beach' terminus. Clearly the HQ of this short but useful little railway. I lingered to watch the locomotive being uncoupled, turned around, and run to the new 'front' of the train.

Now for the beach! But I soon encountered an unexpected snag. Swarms of sand flies. They didn't bite, but they were a damned nuisance. And something was suddenly making my eyes water badly. The weather had become very humid. Maybe some critical combination of water vapour in the air, heat and pollen had brought forth not only the flies but had triggered hay-fever symptoms.

So actually I spent only five minutes at the beach end, and then began to walk back. Gradually the flies thinned out. But my eyes continued to water, and were becoming quite sore. I had intended to explore the town, but didn't feel like it now. I sank into Fiona, and drove back to Sandringham.

Fortunately I'd brought along hay-fever tablets, eye-drops and nasal spray just in case! The tablets and eye drops soon alleviated my discomfort. I wasn't put off, and I will revisit Wells next year - but on a cooler, fresher day.