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.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Grandparenting

There are people around who never knew any grandparents, who never brought children into the world and raised them lovingly, and who therefore do not have grandchildren. Although now at an age when they could have been a grandparent themselves, they do not have that role, and never now can. I am such a person.

On Dad's side, the persons who should have been my grandparents lived in rural Devon. My Dad's mother (Eva Annie Broom, who became a Turner and then a Dommett) died in 1922, when he was only two. This is the only picture I have of her, taken around 1920:


His father (William John Dommett) never wanted to look after his son, and farmed poor Dad out - first to aunts and uncles, and then latterly to a rough farming family (the Trumps), who took money for Dad's keep. Dad grew up without knowing any parental love. Here is Dad's father doing manual work in a garden around 1930 (the child on the hobbyhorse isn't Dad):


Again, that's the only picture I have of him. He was born around 1880, so would have been about fifty then, and had clearly not made much of his life. He would have been a man of old country ways, full of narrow-mindedness and daft prejudices.

By the late 1950s, he was approaching eighty and getting infirm. To his credit, Dad had his father stay with us for a while, giving him a room to himself in our house in Barry. I have an idea that Mum wasn't at all happy with this, regarding Dad's father as undeserving of any special kindness and consideration after his shameful behaviour towards Dad as a boy. But Dad must have insisted. He was no fool, and firm with people; but on the other hand kind, and never one to bear grudges.

My little brother and I had to call William Dommett 'Grandpa'. I remember finding that hard to say. I hardly knew him, and found him gruff, and not very likeable. I was rather wary of him. I was a fastidious child, and quite possibly recoiled from his minimum personal hygiene, and whiskers, and tobacco-stained fingers. We did not bond.

His own attitude to me may have been quite different. Perhaps, late in life, he had seen what a poor figure he had cut, and wanted to make amends. I think he might well have made efforts to be pleasant, or at least give no trouble, and try to be a proper grandparent to Wayne and I. But I did not get to know him well at all. To me he remained the old man in the dimly-lit middle room downstairs.

He did give me a thrilling present one day. It was an ancient and battered pair of binoculars, all brass and glass. They didn't magnify much, and the lenses had rainbow aberrations, but I was entranced. Such a well-judged present might have led to something, but soon afterwards 'Grandpa' fell ill, and was taken to Aberdare sanatorium. I never knew why, although in those days people went to sanatoriums most often because of tuberculosis or other chest complaints (Aberdare was in the heart of the South Wales coal-mining area). I remember just one visit to see him, although I have forgotten the details. Soon after, I understood he had died. This was 1960, and I was eight years old. I did not grieve. I had never really known him as a person.

So that was Dad's side of the family.

On Mum's side, I fared no better. Her mother (Eva Johanna Carlson) had married a chap called William Edward Thomas in 1916. It sounded like a wartime wedding, and was probably ill-judged. It did not last. I have no picture of Mum's father, only this information on Mum's 1921 birth certificate:


This says he was a Civil Servant, an Employment Officer in the Ministry of Labour. I expect he dealt with people on the dole and looking for work. There were tensions at home, and Eva left him when Mum and her elder brother Desmond were still quite small. An uneasy truce was set up, William and Eva each having one child. Thomas looked after Mum, and Eva looked after Des. Rather an odd way of sharing the children really. I wonder whose notion it was? According to Mum, her mother had a special affection for her son, less for her. But Eva couldn't bear to be without both of her children for long, and one day, choosing her moment carefully, knocked on William's door, asked to see Mum, then just a little girl of course. When Wiiliam produced her, Eva immediately snatched her and ran for a bus that had been due, leaving an astonished William gaping on his doorstep. Of course there was a stink. It was in the local paper. But things quietened down, and parental access was put on a formal basis that lasted for some years. Naturally the children's own wishes carried no weight. I recall Mum telling me how, in her teens, she was forever wanting to make excuses not to visit her father.

It's difficult to gauge what sort of man William was. Eva clearly disliked him, and Mum said she would never discuss him in later years. Although permanently separated, I don't think they ever divorced.

Eventually he moved to London, still employed in the Ministry of Labour - presumably after promotion. I have thought of trying to trace him, but the chances of tracking down a 'William Thomas' of unknown London address are too small to warrant the attempt. I dare say he may have fathered another family, who would of course be relatives of mine. Well, if they read this, I hope they get in touch and tell me about William Thomas. I don't suppose he ever heard of my arrival in 1952, when he was probably not much more than sixty, and could have been a grandfather to me. But instead he was yet another potential grandparent who was not around when I was young.

That still leaves Eva, Mum's mother. But sadly she died of diabetes in 1948, four years before my birth. Diabetes was a killer back then. My younger brother Wayne had diabetes too, but he had access to insulin, and could live with it. So far it hasn't afflicted me, and I hope never will, as I carefully watch my sugar intake, especially now that I'm older. Fingers crossed, though!

The only series of pictures I have that show Eva were taken immediately after Mum and Dad's wedding in 1947. This one, for instance:


Eva is in the chair. Next to her is Des, who died in 2007, and was the uncle who provided the money for me to buy Fiona in 2010.  On the far left is Peg, the auntie who has just died this year, and whose funeral I will shortly attend. She was, like Mum, only twenty-six then, but had already known Mum some ten years. 

So there it is. For one reason or another, I never had the opportunity to develop a relationship with a grandparent. I don't know what is so special about it, from the child's point of view. It's a defect in my life-experience that can never be remedied. I have come to know a variety of old persons through the years - the parents of friends, for instance - but none of them have ever been my very own grandmother or grandfather, and it's very hard to imagine what it would be like to have such a person in my life. Not knowing, I feel socially handicapped.

Nor does it help never having had children of my own. That was always my own choice; but looking back on it, I do now have mixed feelings. I've missed out on a major human experience; and I will never know what that special bond between parent and child is really like. Again, I feel socially deficient because of it.

Without any children of my own, I cannot be a grandparent myself and enjoy whatever it is that grandparents seem to get out of their role. I haven't the slightest doubt that grandparents genuinely dote on their grandchildren, even if, from my outsider's viewpoint, it seems like hard work and not much else. And yet I've seen grandfathers getting literally misty-eyed over their little charges. And what grandmother hasn't - for years on end - acted as a super-reliable and endlessly patient childminder? No doubt some grandparents are shamelessly taken advantage of, their unrewarded assistance taken for granted. But all grandparents possess magical powers: where exasperated maternal pleading and cajoling has not availed, the sudden appearance of a loved grandparent will cure tears and tantrums instantly. 

A child treats a grandparent with a respect and veneration denied to mere parents. I dare say that fact is occasionally resented by parents who find it hard to cope, but if so the resentment is suppressed and kept secret. A willing grandparent is an asset to be treasured, not put off. And I imagine that savvy grandparents sometimes capitalise on their strong bargaining position -  although (I hope) merely to see more of the children they love. 

I wish I knew what actually goes on, but I can't relate to any of it, have no insight, and can only make guesses. To be honest, my gut feeling is that grandparenting should be left to those who know what it's all about, and have the experience to do it well. And that I shouldn't be wistful on one hand, nor too smug on the other, for not being in line for any grandparental duties.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

My wave ring rebooted with diamonds!

My friend Jo is a star. She's a lady with many friends going way back, and I'm not her best friend by any means. But we get on really well.

Mind you, I can't figure out why! Nor indeed why people in general seem to take me to their hearts, when really I'd say that I'm no more than pleasant, helpful and supportive - perhaps a good listener too. Broadly-speaking, I'd characterise myself as a 'good value' person to spend time with. But then surely most other people strive to be like this, and surely most succeed - as well as, or better, than I do. I'd certainly claim to be inoffensive, and always upbeat and ready to chat in a cheerful way; but otherwise nothing very remarkable, or different from most others. I was certainly not much valued in my past life. Not much going for me then, to be sure.

So, it was a surprise when, late last February, Jo said to me that she wanted to enhance the right on my right hand with a little diamond, as a gift. A gift for what, I wondered. I mean, a diamond. However small, that would cost. I demurred, hoping she'd drop the idea. But she didn't.

Jo reminded me that she had an account with a local jeweller we both knew - Pruden & Smith in Ditchling - and regularly recycled her own jewellery, getting the workshop people there to make new things for her from old pieces. They were holding several little diamonds from old rings. She wanted to put one of these in my silver ring, to add a nice bit of glitter.

So it was to be only a very small diamond then. The fitting-work would cost more than the value of the stone itself. Even so, I was still inclined to say no, not being able to see how a good but not outstanding friendship could merit such signal generosity. Be it a mere speck, a diamond is still very valuable. Or at least very, very special.

But I was not allowed to resist - I got a metaphoric kick-under-the-table from Jackie. I handed over the ring for its upgrade. It seemed to me that those two - Jo and Jackie - had been discussing the gift, and weren't going to let me refuse. OK, I didn't want to thwart Jo's wish!

The hand-over was on 16th March. I departed on holiday. Jo then decided that she'd make it two diamonds, not just one. Two? Crikey! Oh well, I was determined to enjoy her generosity like any normal person would, and not spoil it for her.

So no quibbling! It seemed out of my hands anyway.

Easter was early in 2018, and Pruden & Smith developed a backlog of work to be done. So I went off on holiday again without the ring. I missed it. I'd worn it 24/7 since buying it from Hi Ho Silver in Lyme Regis on 18th September 2009. For only £12.

The next development occurred on 23rd April. Jo texted me with a photo of the ring now fitted with the two little diamonds in her gift:


Presumably she took the picture, and that was Anton Pruden's finger! Jo said this in the text:

Check out your ring. Was thinking that two extra smaller stones either side might work what do you think? Hope u r enjoying your trip away. Lol Jo x

The following rapid exchange then took place (I've excluded any non-ring or non-holiday stuff):

Lucy: Is that a real image of the ring as it now is? Gosh. It looks fabulous! I've been missing my ring, and eagerly look forward to being reunited. You are SO generous. Trip half-over today: I'm now at Cheddar. The fine weather keeps on coming. Luby XX

Jo: Yes its yours for sure. Do envisage smaller diamonds either side of ones there already nearer the middle bit, would that be too much !! might just finish it off what do you think. Happy for you to have them sweetie. It would just be £25 per stone to fit them. The first two already in are on me. Hugs Jo x

Lucy: I took a screenshot of the picture in your first text today about the ring, and have been considering it carefully. In its original state the ring was a beautifully simple piece of design. Now some sophistication has been added, greatly enhancing its appearance (and status) as jewellery. But the design remains clean and uncomplicated. There's a definite risk that the ring could begin to look fussy if more gems were added. That said, I do see what you mean about finishing it off properly! Yes, a small diamond on either side, just inward of the existing larger gemstone, would look very good indeed. Is that £50 I'd have to pay? No problem. Please go ahead. Luby XX

Back from holiday, and with that £50 in Jo's hands, I waited with excitement for news of the ring. Yesterday, after several phone calls in the previous couple of weeks to chivvy them along, Jo got a phone call to say that it was finally ready. So was another ring that she had had remade for herself. After an apr├Ęs-pilates lunch, helping her choose plants from Lidl for planting, and a visit to her Mum, we drove out to Ditchling - and at last I was reunited with my very-much-missed ring.

Gosh, it did look good. Here I am in the shop.


My thanks to Jo were heartfelt. What a nice job they'd made. The ring looked new again! I quickly stepped outside while she paid up - I didn't want to learn what her gift to me had cost her. A lot more than the £12 the ring had originally cost me in 2009, I'm thinking. I took her off to the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft for tea and cake, dropped her off with her plants, and went home.

Back indoors, I could study the ring rebooted.


It was subtly done. The ring's original character and appeal hadn't been compromised, only improved. For the first time in my life I had diamonds to wear! Thanks to Jo.

Reluctantly, I soon decided that the turquoise ring had to be taken off and put away. My diamond-laden ring needed a hand all to itself. It was the right decision. Less is more.     

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Exquisitely turquoise

I must be going through a phase of self-decoration! Why, I know not. Perhaps 2018 is going to be a year of change for me - at least in the clothing, shoe, jewellery and accessories departments.

After all, having lost two and half stones with Slimming World up to early March, I can contemplate wearing styles I'd have previously dismissed as unwearable unless slim. Now I do have sufficient slimness, and can try those clothes out. What fun!

With the toe sorted, I've finally been able to get my right foot into different shoes. In fact I had three pairs - hitherto unworn - ready to step into. And now they fit perfectly. That's so nice. I feel normal again.

All of a sudden, my signature bag is not a big orange one, but much smaller, and blue-green (call it teal if you wish) - not only lighter to carry and more elegant to wear, but (surprisingly) still completely practical. I've adapted to life in a small-bag world. It's satisfying to know that I can still do things differently. And people now notice my clothes - not just a big, dominating orange bag.

As for jewellery, a silver serpent bangle has lately become my all-day companion. It seems much admired. And I am very fond of it. But it isn't the only new item. Two days ago I bought myself another ring.

Here it is. A dainty silver thing, set with a turquoise stone.


It's such a pity that the gnarled and wrinkled Melford hand doesn't show it off to its best advantage! It may indeed be too dainty, too youthful, for the withered claw of an Old Age Pensioner. But who is going to care? 

I wanted it as soon as I saw it in Lewes, at a branch of the Brighton shop Silverado. The perfect thing for the little finger of my right hand. And it had to be little, so that it wouldn't in any way outshine the ring I always wear on the adjacent finger - the silver one curled like a wave. (That 'wave' ring has been away at the jeweller's, for an exciting enhancement: I hope to present a post on that soon) 

This is how the new ring is shown on Silverado's website:


That's right: just £14. Who wouldn't at least consider buying it at such a small price? 

The web picture doesn't reveal how pretty this ring actually is. I love the colour of the stone. And it is a stone, not (as I first thought) just a bit of coloured plastic. Silverado say it's 'synthetic turquoise', which presumably means turquoise mineral dust reconstituted into a hard stone with resin. On the other hand, there is some rust-coloured veining, which you get with natural turquoise when it occurs with limonite. I don't mind which it is - a synthetic blob made in a mould, or a natural chip of turquoise ground to shape. It's all about the delicious colour.

Of course the thing goes well with my new Pittards bag. It also goes well with lots of things around my home. I hadn't realised before now how, in each room of the house, there have been blue-green accents aplenty. Few objects are entirely blue-green - certainly no large ones - but the colour is all around. It's on pots and ornaments, and in paintings, and on tiles, and in my bathroom towels. And if you look inside my wardrobes... 

I must have long had an unconscious bias towards blue-green! Unconscious no longer, though: now, with the purchase of the new bag and this little ring, I need to recognise this preferential liking, and go with it. And with its complementary colours too.

My eyes are a pale blue-green - should this be a clue? (I wish they were in fact not just a washed-out blue-green, but a brilliant turquoise. Oh well) 

QR code woes!

'Uuuuh,' some might say, 'What's a QR code?' Well, you do know. Here's one. In fact it's the subject of this post.


As you can see, it's the QR code on my current National Trust Life Member card. That card was sent to me back in January 2017, but until the last couple of weeks it has remained unused, partly because it didn't have the class of my older Life Member card (which I naturally preferred using), and partly because the staff at NT properties were able to cope with stick-in-the-muds turning up with old cards, scanning instead a generic list of cards, so that they'd know that 'a Life Member' had visited, although they wouldn't be able to record that it had been me in particular.

That clearly matters, electronically counting my presence. The personal QR code on my new-style card can tell the NT what type of visitor I am - my age, sex, home address, how long a member, and so on. But by keeping to my old card, and denying the NT this useful information, I'm excluding myself from the day's Property Visitor Profile. You can readily see how developing such a profile - day after day, member by member - is very valuable in assessing the popularity of each property on different days and at different times, and whether its appeal might be broadened to cover (for example) younger members and their families, rather than just old fogies. Or vice versa. It's a bit like a supermarket scanning customer loyalty cards and discovering what sells, and to whom.

The NT have also decided to use these QR-coded cards to give members free parking, wherever there are ticket machines. I suppose there were complaints that at certain beauty spots non-members were making use of NT car parks, parking for nothing, and occupying so many spaces that paid-up members couldn't park their own cars. It's fair enough: non-members must now buy a ticket. Members, however, must let the ticket machine scan the QR code on their card. This is a new extra step in the visiting process, and not an especially welcome one. It means more hassle, even if scanning one's card provides a free ticket to display. This new procedure replaces the old-but-straightforward showing of a National Trust Member sticker on the front windscreen of the car. I had a little friendly lecture about it from a member of staff last March down at Cotehele in Cornwall. Apparently these annual stickers were too easy to get hold of, or fake up, and many members were forgetting to change their last-year's sticker to the current year's. I think they are being scrapped for 2019 onwards.

So the NT has gone somewhat high-tech, although I do wonder why it's not possible to use a member card with NFC, and just 'tap and go' at the ticket machine or property entrance - as you would with a contactless credit card. Or a phone, for that matter. And it's a bother having to park, then trek to the machine, spend time there getting a free ticket (one might have to queue for a long time), and then trek back to the car to display said ticket. All this faff, before actually beginning the visit! I'd much rather just 'tap and go' on the way to the property entrance. Or have the opportunity to do it all by phone.

Scanning a physical card already seems so last-year in tech terms. And the NT must have spent a small fortune on installing their new ticket machines - and those handsets for staff at property entrances. Money wasted, I fear. It will all be out of date so quickly.

As you might surmise, I have bowed to the NT's notion of technological progress, and started to use my QR-coded card. But not out of love for this unimpressive, unlovely-looking card, which is a dull grey on its business side ('It's not grey, it's platinum - for our special Life members! The ordinary annual members just get a magenta card,' I was told yesterday at Sheffield Park. No, I'm afraid it's a dull grey...). I just want to help the NT's visiting statistics along, in case that genuinely leads to improvements in property presentation and facilities.

It's a cheap-looking plastic card, all the same. But I can get over that. I do insist, though, that the NT's 'new technology' works faultlessly. And - guess what - I've discovered that the QR code on my card doesn't scan! The parking machines won't recognise it. Nor do the hand scanners at property entrances. And it's not just my card. I've come across several people in NT car parks who, like me, find their cards letting them down. Ditto at the property entrance.

It's an especial pain at the car parking machines. A queue forms while quick-witted and intelligent people (not just doddery old duffers) figure out how to scan their card - and get annoyed when nothing happens. We try one after another. I haven't seen anybody succeed yet. We all end up going in high dudgeon to the property entrance and explaining. Some are no doubt fearful that while visiting the property their unticketed car will be clamped, or a fine imposed by some official, all involving time and hassle to sort out. A few paid-up members must tamely pay for parking like a non-member, just to have a ticket. That's disgraceful.

The machine itself is not optimally designed. Here's the one in the NT car park at Ditchling Beacon, up on the South Downs. As I said, it's for the use of both members and non-members - this dual-purpose functionality introduces complication all by itself - with a screen that gives you 'simple' instructions, and with various buttons to press. Also (bottom left) an aperture for scanning cards. The on-screen instructions could have been clear and helpful, but are not. The scanning aperture is much bigger than the membership card. Why? Wouldn't a narrow slot be better? Is one meant to move the card in and out, or left to right, or up and down, in order to achieve a scan? Or do you stand on one leg, singing 'Just One Cornetto' while you waggle the card in a slanting, slicing motion? Nothing tells you. There is a sticker - just a picture, no words - that suggests that the card must be placed on top of it just so, precisely aligned with it, but doing that doesn't get you a successful scan. Possibly the card must be hovered over this sticker...?


Mind you, on the first attempt I didn't press the yellow 'member' button as well as the green 'start' button. No wonder I got no joy. Yellow button now pressed, I persevered for several more attempts. I did get a red light, which flashed a bit. And a couple of times there was a green line that moved fore and aft along the card. 


All the time I was holding the card firmly onto the green sticker. And you had to hold on to it, otherwise it would have tipped up and fallen to the ground. I really don't know how infirm members with shaky hands can manage. Despite having a screen, the machine displayed no tips on how to do the scanning. I can imagine many people thinking that 'scanning' means moving their card in and out, over and over again if necessary, rather as you would move food items across the scanner at a supermarket check-out. There was nothing to say what you should do. It was perplexing. And despite the red and green lights and lines blinking away, no ticket resulted. It was so frustrating to get this on the screen:


No handy member of staff, of course. And who in their right mind is going to leave a Life Membership card on display in their car while they go off somewhere? You could well expect a smashed window, and no card, on your return. In any case, if this were a car park at a property, instead of just a country car park, how would you show a card at the entrance, if you'd left it on display in the car? 

Methinks the NT didn't think this one through well enough. Or at any rate their requirements didn't get through to the people making the ticket machines.

At one point I stood aside so that a younger couple could have a go. They were equally unsuccessful and frustrated.


It winds you up. And yet, on a later attempt, I somehow did get the procedure right, and a free ticket came out. This was at my fifth or sixth attempt, I think. And I couldn't say what I'd done differently. 

This was the ticket.


So what's going on? Is the QR code on my card defective, so that it only works sometimes? Or are the NT's scanners not up to the job? Either way, they had better fix the problem pronto, or else people will start avoiding going to some places. 

On the advice of NT staff, I have now emailed the National Trust, requesting a new card. 

They have officially recognised a scanning issue 'with some cards'. I suspect it's really 'with most cards' and that the NT has egg on its face, but won't own up to making a big blunder. And to wasting money on bad cards and bad equipment. It's the arrogance of an untouchable (and powerful) national institution with lots of members' money in the bank. Mixed in, I suspect, with the tech-ignorance of a snobby policy committee that unwittingly let the tail (the card and machine manufacturers) wag the dog (the NT). 

But hey, whether I'm right or wrong, the QR codes are not working, and a lot of money - member's money! - has gone down the drain. And meanwhile hassle, hassle, hassle, and goodwill lost. NT, don't you care?