Monday, 30 January 2017

Excluded from the Gang

While I was working for a living, I was never 'one of the gang' - meaning the top office casework and management layer of ambitious and aggressive careerists, usually male, who had their own culture. It was a culture completely determined by male tastes and standards. At its most blatant, during the 1970s and 1980s, it included explicit male banter, jokes and swearing, as if the local management team were - despite their smart suits - a bunch of coarse roofers on the lookout for passing talent.

Things definitely got more controlled and 'professional' in the 1990s and 2000s - certainly much less sexual - but animated early-morning arguments about football or fishing remained the thing, and anybody who didn't join in was regarded as an Outsider, and likely to be scorned. I was lucky to have my own indifference to Arsenal's, or Manchester United's, or Cardiff City's previous-evening's performances turned into a tolerant legend, which the even the mandarins at London Regional Office heard about. Hence these words in the official 'Thank You And Farewell' letter from the Board of Inland Revenue that reached me after I retired in 2005:

What a thing to say!

It was always awkward for women managers. Even if high in the local management team - as I became from 1978 - it was a serious handicap if you weren't 'one of the lads'.

Some women tried their utmost to impress with their knowledge of male ways and their understanding of male jokes. But this was all in vain, simply because they weren't men and therefore forever on the outside. They could roll their own, display knowledge of the Chelsea squad, or fly-fishing, or what the specific gravity of Fuller's Best was, to their heart's content. It wouldn't cut any ice. It would be like the average man trying to talk knowingly to a group of women about periods. A valiant attempt, certainly, and possibly an admirable bridge-building effort; but not credible, and doomed to fall flat.

Other women chose instead to break into the male clique by being a sort of Superwoman, hitting the men with an unremitting broadside of female virtues - nice hair, nice clothes, exemplary intelligence and vivacious manner all included. They tended to be highly popular, but not so much for the quality of their minds, but because the men could fantasise about having them on their laps and seducing them. And indeed it happened.

Still other women tried to be loud and assertive. But I thought this was self-destructive, as it was hardly the kind of behaviour calculated to win people over, and it could so easily degenerate into mere petulance and futile posturing. The truth was that men ruled the roost, whether that was official or not. Women were seen as lightweight and out of their proper element.

And furthermore a senior woman not in that close-knit male clique couldn't by default be part of the ordinary office sisterhood. She was 'management'. She was different. She was seen as flying with eagles, even if the eagles ignored her. She certainly wasn't shop-floor. So she was barred from relaxing with the sparrows. The ordinary ladies in the office wouldn't risk fraternising with the enemy.

But the boss's secretary wasn't shop-floor. The boss's secretary had a universally-understood and indispensable liaison role close to the seat of power, a person privy to all office secrets, the discreet one behind the throne. She might well be the only non-male person in the office that a senior woman officer could trust, and get along with woman-to-woman. So when the boss went to the pub, the senior females all sat close to the boss's secretary. And when the boss was away, the senior females temporarily enjoyed some ascendancy, the male clique headless for once. Around 1999 and 2000, whenever I was left in charge of the office (it was at Sutton in South London), it was Christine the secretary who actually kept it going. We worked well together, but it was a level partnership, not deputy boss and minion. I hardly did more than sign things off and present the office's public face.

That was nearly twenty years ago. Has anything changed?

I can't help feeling that nothing much has. While I agree that Mrs May is her own woman - and seems to have tackled her Top Job with the mantle of Mrs Thatcher around her shoulders - look what she is up against. Men on the make. Everywhere she might turn. Ambitious men who drink together in House of Commons bars and make their plans and deals and secret alliances. I personally think she will stand the pace, but if she puts a foot wrong - well - remember the Ides of March! In general, the authority of female front-benchers in the House of Commons looks brittle and entirely within the fickle gift of the Party Leader, whichever side of the House you look at. And in outside business, I suspect that no celebrated female CEO feels secure from hidden plots to oust her. The Gang is always beavering away behind the scenes to place a man where he should rightly be. Huh.

And on the other side of the Atlantic, we now see a man who has not only got elected on a divisive programme, but who is actually carrying out his dire and draconian election pledges. In theory that should be a Good Thing - wow, a politician doing what was promised! Except that he is not a professional politician. He is not carrying out a Republican Party programme. He is carrying out The Donald Trump Personal Programme. It's mostly a business programme, a grand game of profit-protection. And he is doing a lot of crowd-pleasing. Think 'bread and circuses', as in ancient Rome. Well, at any rate, abolition of Obamacare, saving of industrial jobs, and lower taxes all round.

Only a man minded to be an Emperor in the Roman mould could carry this off. If she had got elected, Hillary Clinton could never have been so bold. It wasn't in her. And Mrs May can't take the political risk of openly endorsing any of it. She'll spend her entire premiership trying not to say anything. But Mr Trump isn't afraid to speak his mind very plainly. I would say that Mr Trump is a prime example of how to be high-handed in the traditional male manner. What a nod to the red-necks. What an example to proud, prejudiced and dismissive men everywhere.

Girls, I'm afraid we are going to be excluded from the Gang for another generation at least.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Quality independent living. But I've got it already. So no thanks.

Yesterday a large card addressed to 'Ms Lucy Melford' came through my front door. It had been posted to me, implying a background selection process that knew my age as well as my address. So I had been targeted.

The card was an invitation to consider buying a retirement apartment on the west side of Haywards Heath, Mid-Sussex's largest town. 'Before you see the rest, visit the best!' it said. And 'The biggest apartments for over-60s living in Haywards Heath'. And 'The no.1 location in Haywards Heath - quality independent living for today's over-60s'. The company behind this (Renaissance Retirement) had built '34 one & two bedroom luxury apartments in Haywards Heath, only a ten minute walk from the high street'.

'Rethink your expectations' said the card. 'We offer...' Well, this is what they highlighted, in their own words:

# A choice of one or two bedrooms
# Mezzanine galleries in some apartments
# High specification throughout
# Generous gated car parking
# Owners' Drawing Room with Wi-Fi
# Villeroy & Boch bedroom ceramics
# 24 hour emergency call system
# Lift to all floors
# Concierge to manage the development
# Caesarstone work surfaces & Neff appliances
# Guest Suite
# FREE SmoothMove moving service!
# Fully maintained external areas
# CCTV door entry system connected to living rooms
# Double glazed throughout and highly insulated

And there was room on the card for several alluring photos of one of the larger apartments. Those could be 'up to 1,875 sq ft'.

The current price? 'From £310,000 - £675,000'. And a warning that the development was already '60% sold'.

I was curious enough to take a look at Renaissance Retirement's website. See The development at Haywards Heath was just one of 27 scattered around the South, South East, and South West of England, mainly in Hampshire and Dorset. The locations were indeed highly-regarded ones. Here is a full list:


Bourne End
Wooburn Green



Hartley Wintney



Haywards Heath


The web pages for Haywards Heath were at These contained details of apartment layouts and so forth, and indicated which were still available. It's worth clicking on the link to see what £675,000 would buy you in 2017, if you were in the market for a spacious retirement apartment. Curiously though, no prices were mentioned on the website itself. You couldn't see what any of the 'still available' apartments might cost. You were simply urged to contact the company and discuss your requirements/dreams/financial position with them. Perhaps a certain amount of negotiation was possible - but obviously they wanted an opportunity to hook you in before getting down to any of that.

So I didn't phone, email, nor click for a brochure. I went onto Rightmove instead, to see whether any of the apartments were on offer there. The best one was. Click on any of the following to enlarge it:

If you have waded through all this, you are likely to have formed a favourable impression of what Renaissance Retirement offer. No wonder the still-sprightly owners in the pictures are clinking glasses of champagne. Or is it prosecco?

But of course there are several snags:

# Would one wish to live in a colony of oldies, no matter how sprightly?
# Apartments may have nice communal areas, but nobody has their own private garden.
# All apartments tend to look the same externally. You can't stamp much individuality onto the outside.
# All apartments need some form of management, and that doesn't come cheap.
# It'll be leasehold, with a rising ground rent.
# Life in an apartment tends to lack the neighbour-contact that an ordinary house enjoys. There's no chatting over a garden fence, or as neighbours pass by the front driveway. It's all so very private - too much so.
# Life in an apartment is inward-looking, and can be very lonely and isolating.
# Life in an apartment is sedentary. You don't get much exercise. If it's a faff to go out, you don't. Lifts, stairs, fire doors, long corridors, unhandy entrances, security systems, not having the car parked conveniently - all of these things get in the way of seeing something of the world outside.
# Life in an apartment is unlikely to be completely tranquil. It's amazing how doors bang, keys jingle, and footsteps on stairways echo. Contractors doing cleaning and gardening work will disturb the peace. Older people with hearing difficulties may have their TVs blaring. The Haywards Heath development is in fact very close to the police station, which means sirens at any time of the day or night. (This isn't mentioned)

And there's the price. £675,000 is an awful lot. One of the small apartments might however be a better financial proposition. The Haywards Heath development has a ground floor and three upper floors. Here's the ground floor plan:

Apartment 8 on the south west side is available. It's definitely one of the smaller ones, and presumably is currently being marketed at £310,000. Here's the plan for it:

It looks as if £310,000 buys you a living space with only two windows in it, albeit windows that look out onto a rear courtyard, no doubt well-planted. There is quite convenient access to the car park, without of course having to climb stairs or wait for the lift. The south west side would be sheltered from local main road noise, though not the police sirens. I dare say it's a bijou, attractive modern little living space, beautifully designed; but without much natural light, no view of the countryside, no spare room, and you get in all only 624 square feet to call your own.

My detached freehold bungalow has 940 square feet of living space, plus an attic that offers some 200 square feet of storage, and a single garage outside for yet further storage. It also has front and rear gardens, and a driveway on which I can park my caravan and car. I can't think of any good reason to make a swap, because a small ground-floor apartment can't compare with a detached bungalow. I'll grant that I could sell up for maybe £375,000 and have £65,000 in the bank after my SmoothMove. But the caravan would have to go - or be stored inconveniently and expensively on some farm.

I wouldn't in any case want to detach myself from my local village friends and neighbours. Or if I had to, and were prepared to build a completely new life elsewhere, I'd seriously consider somewhere far away in the South West of England - or even northern Scotland. Why not be radical? £310,000 would buy a marvellous place on Orkney, for example.

Even £310,000 is a shocking price for a small apartment, however luxurious. And as Rightmove point out, it's not easy to get a mortgage on a retirement flat. These developments are for people who own large multi-bedroomed family homes and want to downsize. That's not me.

There is no way that the proceeds from my modest little home would fund a spacious Haywards Heath retirement apartment with its airy open plan and natty mezzanine. Only a small poky one. Which makes me wonder why I was targeted. They ought to have looked up the Council Tax band for my home, as well as my age! They'd have seen then that they were wasting their time. I'm already downsized. And in a retirement-friendly property to boot. I've no need to move, not now nor in the future.

So no thanks. I'm not tempted in the slightest.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017


Many bloggers will have experienced this, especially if your blog has general appeal and a steady readership.

There are people out there who monitor every blog and assess them for their exploitation possibilities within a particular line of business. If (say) your blog is about Fashion, and that is their business, they will find it by searching for the most-used key words the public uses when locating online retailers. If the blog looks in any way suitable for their purposes, and reasonably popular, they will make an approach. They will suggest that you carry a link to them.

The very obvious idea is to catch the eye of your regular readers. But not just them. Anyone searching on the Internet will see your blog high in the list of search results if it is popular enough, and may click on it. Even if they don't stay to read your blog for long, while they have it up on their screen they are captive, and in that short time their attention can be caught and channelled towards another website where they can be parted from their money, legitimately or otherwise.

There's something of a moral issue here: should one 'monetise' a blog, knowing that at least some of one's readership may follow up an advertising link and find themselves wasting money on goods or services they wouldn't otherwise have been aware of? I'd feel very uncomfortable about that. There's also an issue connected with the blogger's creative freedom and control. An advertiser who pays significant money to the blogger will insist on those key words being mentioned, and may want others introduced into the text. They may want posts that steer the reader towards a certain topic or point of view that chimes well with their goods or services. And certainly nothing being posted that would prejudice their use of your blog as an effective advertising mule. Goodbye freedom and creativity.    

There is nothing new about being approached to allow advertising material. But the way it's being done seems to be changing. Am I wrong in feeling that nowadays (a) there is a strong positive assumption that the blogger will agree to carry sundry ads and links as a matter of course, and not try to resist; and (b) there is no intention whatever to pay for the blogger's compliance?

I don't know why cash is not on the table. On the face of it, it seems pointless for a commercial outfit to make a request without offering a kickback. But they are doing it. Has it then become cool for a blogger to show third-party advertisements, whether paid for or not? If so, then I'm clearly ignorant of that development, and I don't understand the kind of mindset that feels it can get free advertising space on application.

Currently I'm being pestered by two online companies, so far only by email. In one case, a certain Cara Benson, who works for Eventbrite ('the largest self-service ticketing platform in the world', according to her) has taken the view that I have my finger on every local happening, and wants me to suggest and recommend things for their listings. She wants to 'talk'. Naturally I checked Eventbrite out. I can't substantiate the 'largest in the world' claim, but they certainly have listings. I looked for events under the categories of Food and Drink, Science and Tech, and Hobbies. Here are screen prints of the results:

As you can see, it looks pukka. Some events require payment, some are free. Not all are strictly local - all the Science and Tech events would require a trip to London.

I can't say I'm bowled over. Eventbrite seems to be a combination of local event lister and ticketing agency. As such, some might find this useful - but not me. I can't even say how comprehensive their listings are. I've no reason to push a link to them onto the kind of people who regularly take an interest in this blog, and I don't see why I should. Not even if Cara had said up front that there was cash in it for me - which she does not say at all. Perhaps she thinks a link to the world's largest would in some way enhance the credibility/seriousness/usefulness of my blog, and that is payment enough. Really?

I should perhaps make it clear that the Lucy Melford blog is not going to be sullied and besmirched with commercial ads and links. I don't need them; I find them irritating when I see them on other blogs, or indeed anywhere on the Internet; and I'm quite certain that they would put off readers and suggest that I had been 'bought' - that my gibberings were not authentically my own.

Another approach has been made by Alonzo V - he withholds his full surname - who works for Artsy. Clearly he did a blog search on 'Damien Hirst' and discovered that I had written two posts featuring Hirst's huge figure Verity at Ilfracombe. He has assumed then that I am an art lover and keen to display the fact by carrying a link from my blog to Artsy. I checked them out too. Here are screen prints of the top and bottom of their big page for Damien Hirst - I've left out the bit in between:

All right, it's a bona fide website that serves the art trade. Nothing wrong with that. But I don't need their services and information, and I don't know anyone else who might. Once again, I am guessing that Alonzo V is banking on my wanting the offered link in order to lend status and educational value to my blog. For he too doesn't mention payment. So he too can take a running jump. And even if he belatedly mentions a purse of gold, I will not stoop to accept.

It's not just these two who are pestering me. An Indian 'online marketing executive' named Kara Dutt wants to 'develop' my blog. Go away.

These are just this month's latest. In the run-up to Christmas I had three pressing emails at weekly intervals from someone in America who wanted me to download and read a clinical report on reconstructive surgery and how to get it. As if I would download anything from an untrusted source! That would break the first rule of security. As for the report, if genuine, I am simply not interested. I ignored him. Yet he persisted. After a short while, I marked his emails as spam, and they no longer appeared in my Inbox. That doesn't mean he won't keep on trying. What a nerve. As if I have nothing to do but dwell on surgical protocols, and be prepared to endorse such stuff.

One more peep out of Cara or Alonzo and they will get marked as spam too. I hope they are reading.


A sight one used to see a lot of in Sussex during the warmer months was a balloon making its way across the sky, as in my picture from 2000 above. It was often at sunset. You could usually hear the balloon's approach from some distance off, the fierce burst of gas flame to replenish the hot air making an unmistakable noise that got you out of the house, camera ready, eagerly hoping for a good shot.

They were a regular sight over the village in the 2000s. But in the last few summers I've seen much less of them. It's almost as if ballooning has faded away as a thing to do. And perhaps it has. I'm thinking that nowadays people are more aware of the potential dangers of being in a fragile open basket full of gas cylinders, with a very hot burner close to them sending a jet of flame into a flammable globe of fabric, all subject to the wind's strength and direction, with no means of steering accurately, and no guarantee of a smooth take-off or landing. I dare say a well-organised commercial outfit, with a skilful and experienced professional team, has got the whole thing down to a fine art. But it still looks risky and full of accident-potential, and I for one wouldn't dare go up in a balloon, no matter how much I yearned to take amazing shots from a thousand feet or more up in the sky. Just as I wouldn't want to be driven (or even drive myself) around Brands Hatch at 200 mph as a 'birthday treat', despite loving driving as a passtime.

I have never been happy contemplating any kind of adrenaline-boosting activity. It was in the back of my mind even in 2007 that I might be cajoled into white-water rafting or bungy-jumping when visiting New Zealand. No way! And yet it might be difficult to get out of anything like this with personal dignity and credibility left intact, if gung-ho locals were minded to insist - presumably on the basis that it was a rite of passage that every visitor must experience. An essential taste of Kiwi culture. Thankfully, it didn't happen. But I was ready to discard all dignity and credibility in order to preserve my life.

When I was very young, and living in Barry, Dad knew a lady called Mrs Jones, who lived in a big house at Calcot, at the time (the early 1960s) one of the posher parts of Barry. I think she was once the landlady of our house, before Dad bought it outright. A friendly connection was kept up. I believe Dad used to assist her with completing her annual tax return. No money passed, but Mrs Jones would try to arrange treats for my younger brother Wayne and myself. She could afford to do so. I suppose there was no Mr Jones to quibble.

She knew people over at Rhoose Airport (now Cardiff Airport), and (perhaps rashly) on hearing this I must have said, 'Oh, how thrilling it would be to go up in an aeroplane!' She seized on the notion, and wouldn't let it go, and thereafter tried hard to arrange a flight for me. I actually recall accompanying her twice out to the Airport in her car, with a flight definitely fixed up. But secretly I was terrified. What if one or her friends was actually able to take me up? Or did she fly these planes herself? A little bit of me knew it would be all right, and that I would have a wonderful time, never to be forgotten; but mostly I hoped that there would be some snag that would prevent it happening.

I hated heights. I would be dizzy, sick, out of my mind with terror, a screaming wreck. I would see nothing, for my eyes would be shut tightly. And I could all so easily envisage plunging to my death in a doomed aeroplane, spinning out of control, the belt-buckles jammed, parachuteless, the hatchway refusing to open. Such are the lurid concerns of an over-imaginative ten-year-old.

Half to my disappointment, and half to my great relief, the treat never came to be. As I said, we were twice thwarted. And then Mum and Dad moved away to Southampton, when Dad got his promotion. I never saw Mrs Jones again. But at least the fear of falling from the sky in flames, trapped in the cockpit, was no longer a possibility.

Ballooning, if it goes wrong, would presumably involve a more controlled descent than a stalled aircraft, but even so it seems obvious that hitting the ground at anything more than walking-speed might involve a very nasty jolt and probable injury. And my old bones would surely break.

And yet the adventure remains. And calls. With the additional allure of taking fantastic shots of the countryside below. Nevertheless, I don't think I will ever be able to make myself buy a place on a balloon flight. But I will remain wistful for the experience and opportunity missed.

It certainly looks worth trying, when you see the preparations and take-offs close up. Back in August 2006, M--- and I were pitched at a West Sussex farm north of Petworth. It was next to an official ballooning field. We witnessed no less than four balloons being made ready and then lifting off. Here are the pictures from my Photo Archive. This was the first taking off:

It was a warm, calm afternoon - pretty well perfect for a serene flight. Here's the second balloon. This one had a big basket underneath, containing a cheerful bunch of ticket-payers. We waved to them.

It rose over the trees at a sedate pace. We wondered how they would ever get home again, for who knows where they would come down. I suppose they crammed into the back of a pursuing Land Rover.

Next, the third and fourth balloons, taking off together:

Well, that seemed to go well. But what about the descent, and the landing? We witnessed one of these when pitched on another farm at Spithurst, to the north of Lewes, back in August 2002. First there was a loud roar, as frantic bursts of hot air were sent into the balloon, which needed to clear some trees:

Phew! Just over. Now in the 'correct' field - or the best one available - the balloon had to make a gentle landing. We watched, fascinated. The sheep were not impressed, though, and scurried round and round in fright. 

But it all went well.

I admit that my pictures do not show a dangerous sequence of events, but well-handled take-offs and at least one successful landing. I should feel comforted. But it's difficult to ignore the possibility of in-flight misjudgement or accident. In this July 2006 shot over the Clayton Windmills, you can see how big the gas flame is:

What if that ever touched the fabric?

Nothing one does is ever completely risk-free, of course, and I dare say that I literally court death and injury every time I drive anywhere. But then, Fiona - being a Volvo - will deploy air bags galore to cushion me from any crash - and other things besides - and I won't be falling out of the sky in a wickerwork basket.

Still, few man-made things are as beautiful to watch - and photograph - than a balloon high in the sky in the late afternoon. I'll end with three shots from 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2009 to illustrate that.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Lake ice an inch thick

It's been devilishly cold in Sussex for a couple of weeks now, with even daytime temperatures barely getting up to 5 degrees celsius, and night-time temperatures dropping below zero. That's not particularly extreme, of course; but Sussex usually has a mild climate, except on the high downs, and this chilly weather is a little exceptional. I understand it's all about the jet stream in the atmosphere meandering more than it normally does, allowing cold Arctic or Siberian air to dominate - shutting out warm, moist air from the Atlantic, or hot dry air up from the Sahara.

One effect is to sap the efficiency of car batteries, if the car is parked out of doors in the night frost and is denied any long daytime runs. Quick outings to local shops are not enough. After a short while it becomes urgent to charge up the car battery with a good run somewhere.

This was Fiona's predicament. I hadn't taken her for a long drive since before Christmas. The furthest I'd been was Eastbourne on Boxing Day. So two days ago I decided to go as far as the south-west corner of Surrey, to a favourite beauty spot - Little Frensham Pond. It's top centre, off the A287, in this map just below:

And here's a better map:

As you can see, there are two Ponds - lakes really - Great and Little. The nicer one is the Little Pond. You can park somewhere near its north edge, and walk all the way around. When I was last here - almost exactly two years before in January 2015 - I did the full circuit, taking in part of Frensham Common as well. This year's visit wasn't so comprehensive, partly because of all the people there - the sense of solitude I had last time was absent - and partly because I arrived too late in the afternoon to stay long, the sun already setting.

In January 2015, the air was crisp but not especially cold, and peace ruled. It was a Saturday morning, and the fishermen there almost outnumbered the other visitors:

I was wrapped up well, but I remember unzipping my jacket halfway round because the sun was making me too warm:

Not so this time, two years on. It was bitterly cold. The setting sun offered no warmth at all. And there was ice all over the surface of the Pond, except where people had tried to break it up at the shoreline. It made the lake look unnaturally serene. This time it was a Sunday afternoon, and half of Surrey was there. Somewhere over the far side children were running amok, shrieking their heads off. It wasn't the occasion for a solitary, contemplative stroll with just the breeze for company. So I walked only a short way down the east side of the Pond, concentrating on getting some nice pictures. And I think I succeeded.

A picture of me first, trying to ignore the hoards of intrusive Surrey folk, then some of the lake from various points:

At one point I was able to pick up a fragment of the lake ice. It was fully an inch thick. It would certainly support the weight of a duck or swan, but probably not a child, and certainly not someone like myself! It was thick enough however to make pummeling a hole difficult without an effective tool. (But I came across an iron bar by the lakeside - clearly the instrument employed) The ice was dirty with sand and vegetable matter, as you'd expect for the edge of a lake, but still remarkably transparent:

I didn't hold the piece of ice for long. It was much too cold for my fingers. I returned to Fiona, whose interior was thankfully still warm, and drove away before the Surrey people decided to leave en masse. Or before any wetness on the roads turned to sheet ice. I was sure my Michelin CrossClimate tyres would cope, but there was no sense in running risks. It would soon be dark anyway.

It was a round trip of about eighty miles. I'm sure it did Fiona's battery a power of good.