Saturday, 30 March 2019

Leaving home without my bag

How could I have done it? Leaving my house to go out, and without my bag? For which read: without my life-support system - it's as vital as that. It contains all the essentials: my phone; various other ways to pay for things; ID; lipstick, comb, little mirror, pen. How could I think to go anywhere without my bag slung over my shoulder - containing all these items without which life cannot go on, without which I might as well be a homeless down-and-out?

And yet it happened this morning. I was about to drive off to Waitrose, to get my last bit of shopping before my departure for Scotland. Then Jackie next door wanted to ask me something. Then I thought of something else that I needed to do before leaving home, and I went indoors, putting my bag down. Then I got into my car and drove away. I reached Burgess Hill, parked, paid for an hour's parking from the small stock of coins in the car, and looked for my bag, which ought to have been on the passenger seat, with the strap looped over the headrest (to stop it lurching off the seat, if I had to brake suddenly).

No bag.

For a heartbeat I was terrified, imagining my bag lying in the road somewhere, or in a thief's hands, its contents being rifled without respect. Then I realised that it must still be at home. But even this didn't bring relief. I felt totally naked without my phone, without ID, without money. And horribly doubtful of myself, that I could have done this. Was it a sign of dementia?

Very, very carefully I got into Fiona and drove all the way home again. Almost all the way I felt incredibly exposed to mishaps and accidental misfortunes. It was only when turning into my road that I felt better. And only when I saw my bag where I'd put it down did I recover my poise and stop feeling full of fear.

Just think how it might have been if, when well on my way north, and already far from home, I discovered that I'd left my bag behind? I'd have to return home - all that way, caravan in tow - and start again. I would be so tired by the time I'd finally arrive at Stamford, my first stop. A dreadful start to my holiday. And all the time, I'd be wondering what such a mistake indicated, whether it was a brain-weakness that would soon manifest itself in other ways more dangerous to myself (and who knows, to others too).

I shouldn't think that I will make any such mistake again, or at least not for a long time, a sharp lesson having been learned.

But I'm finding it really hard to understand. This is the bag in question. It's the teal-coloured one in luxury leather that I bought from Pittards' factory shop in Yeovil almost a year ago:

I loved it from the start, and it has superseded every other bag that I still have. And why shouldn't it? It's small but handy, high-quality, and the colour and style go with most of my clothes and most occasions I'm likely to find myself in. Readers will have noticed it often in my pictures, whether those in my blog posts, or those on my Flickr pages.

So often it's me, my car, and my bag - all I need. As in that shot above of myself at New Radnor last October. Always, if I go out at all, even for a walk around the village to get some exercise, then I take this bag - and therefore its vital contents as well.

And then this morning. A distraction, followed by a sudden notion to do something before driving away, and I forgot all about my bag and what was in it. Worrying!

Do you ever do this? And react the same way? Is there something about modern life that has made me (and perhaps you too) prone to immediate panic if suddenly bereft of money, ways to prove who I am, and my do-it-all communication device? Why the fear?

Thank goodness I didn't go out without my keys! Then I would have been truly lost.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Time up for BT?

I've had my Broadband from BT for many years now. They weren't very efficient in the distant past, but after an even worse time with Talk Talk, I tried BT again and have stuck with them ever since. I would now rate BT as pretty decent - except for one thing: they are very expensive. And there comes a point when you know you should be looking for a cheaper service.

Presently, after a series of gradual upgrades over the years, I enjoy BT Superfast Fibre Unlimited, which gives me an unlimited amount of Broadband (occasionally very handy, though useless when I'm on holiday of course, and I take a lot of holidays) and free weekend landline calls (which is no bonus, because I don't use my landline for telephone calls). The term 'Superfast' for the Broadband merely means that I can usually - though not always - watch a catch-up TV programme all the way through without it stopping at intervals to 'buffer'. So I'm happy with it. But I'm certainly not paying for anything 'faster', and will wait until the very best Broadband available just now has become old hat, and is offered at no extra charge.

What do I pay at the moment for my package? £26 per month. But that's net of a special £5 discount that BT gave me when I signed up for another eighteen months. So from August, the month after the current contract expires, I'll be paying £5 more.

The £26 per month is also net of BT's Line Rental Saver. Under that scheme one pays eleven months' line rental in advance, rather than twelve months' line rental spread through the year. This year the upfront cost of eleven months' line rental at £19.99 per month is £219.84. I've been wondering whether I should pay that - just as I always have in past years - or let it lapse, and have £19.99 added to my monthly direct debit instead.

Not paying £219.84 up front means that from May my monthly payments to BT would increase from £26 to £45.99. And then to £50.99 per month from August. Gosh, that does seem an awful lot, even for unlimited Broadband.

On the other hand, I can keep an extra £219.84 in my savings account. It so happens that most of my big bills fall in the first half of the calendar year, and that means my savings get very depleted by the end of May. It will be a most welcome thing, to have an extra £200-odd in the old treasure-chest. I will have to pay an extra £19.99 overall in the year ahead; but if spread out that would be £1.66 every month. Only a pinprick.

There's something else though. What is the point of giving BT so much money now, when I might kiss goodbye fairly soon?

For I do think I'll make the switch. Vodafone, for instance, are offering a near-identical Broadband deal for only £25 per month, compared to the £50.99 I'd be paying BT by August. The chief difference is that Vodafone aren't charging for line rental.

If there's a catch, it isn't obvious. So if this £25 per month deal is still around in July, I'll be checking the small print - and if it still stands up, I'll be going for it.

Mind you, I'll have a conversation with BT first, inviting them to price-match. The time for feeling reticent about doing this is long past. The market expects people to act like price tarts. So: can BT accommodate me? Do they still want my custom, or not? If not, then Vodafone await. (And, to add force to my bargaining, I'll point out that Vodafone already give me my mobile phone service, and seem eager to give me the Full Monty)

So, it's time up for BT, unless they bend to my will. I never knew I could be so tough!

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Put it to the People?

Today's mass demonstration in London for a second Brexit referendum might well herald the end of all referendums in this country. Governments can't afford to rouse passions on this scale. It went off peacefully this time, but the next thing could be a series of French Yellow-Vest style outrages, to force the abandonment of Brexit on any basis whatever. Mob rule dictating what shall be done. Not to mention MPs coming under physical attack - murder not ruled out.

I think the way the last referendum has divided the nation, and paralysed proceedings in the House of Commons, will make future governments avoid holding them. Which will leave ordinary voting at General Elections and By-Elections as the only ways in which you and I can express our political points of view.

I don't say that's a wholly bad thing. A referendum is just a mass snapshot of public opinion. If decisive, it ought to be heeded, and acted upon urgently. That's the problem with the 2016 Brexit referendum result. It was a narrow but clear result - let's get out. If that decision had been put into effect by the end of 2016, the consequences would have been dealt with by now.

But time has passed - nearly three years. Things have move on somewhat. We have got better information. We appreciate the issues a little more clearly. We have watched the people who campaigned for and against in 2016 exposed for what they are.

None of this additional information will necessarily change anyone's mind about leaving the EU, if in 2016 they had thought the thing through for themselves and had come to a well-considered conclusion on how to vote. But the force of the 2016 referendum has been dissipated, and it's harder to say that it's still valid in 2019.

Harder, yes; but it's still a result that, if argued away, will let down the majority in 2016 who thought it best to get out of the EU. Most of them will feel very annoyed. Some of them might put up a legal challenge, on the basis that the 2016 vote was binding, and that a fresh vote flouts democracy as previously understood. 

I imagine that most convinced Brexiteers would still vote 'out' if consulted again. And that being so, the outcome of another Brexit referendum would be another narrow victory for 'get out'. With the same problems of implementation.

In truth, nobody can say how another vote would go. Some people wouldn't bother voting this time, disgusted with a system that allows serial referendums on the same issue. Some that didn't vote first time (through inertia, or not being old enough) would vote now, but with an incalculable result. If the outcome were the reverse of the 2016 result - a narrow victory for those voting 'stay in' - it would resolve nothing. There would be just the same grumblings and arguments and divisions. The nation would not 'pull together'. It would polarise all the more. It's so very hard to imagine a really decisive result, say 70:30 in favour of either 'in' or 'out'. This is truly Grand National stuff: quite impossible to predict who might 'win'. Advocates of 'letting the people decide' should bear that in mind.

And what would the question be, anyway? In 2016 the public was asked this:

It was: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

One's X to be put against either

Remain a member of the European Union


Leave the European Union

Perfectly clear to any voter with a reasonable command of English, and sufficient intelligence, education and knowledge of current affairs to understand the question. But arguably not the simplest language for anyone not in that category, and yet still a voter.

Would it have made a difference if the question had been put like this?

Do you want Britain to get out of Europe?

But even simplified like this, the 2016 referendum still didn't ask how 'get out' was to be accomplished. A gross flaw. And yet, how could the 'how' ever be boiled down to a straightforward yes/no question?

Which just goes to show what blunt instruments referendums are. You can't ask complicated questions with them. And that's another good reason why there shouldn't be a further 'People's Vote'. The answer might constitute an up-to-date snapshot, but it wouldn't make the practical way forward any clearer. You'd just be wasting more time.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Trapped sparrows

Singleton is a village north of Chichester in West Sussex, about an hour from where I live. It's best known for the Weald and Downland Living Museum, which covers a big area full of medieval vernacular buildings painstakingly transported from their original sites and re-erected, with all the proper furnishings. Cottages, barns, mills, the lot. It's often seen on TV, whenever an authentic backdrop is needed for an historical programme or drama - something humbler than a castle, palace or lord's hall. 

I imagine that most people go straight to the Museum, and never have a look around the village itself. They should. There is, for instance, an ancient church, which I had a look at yesterday. Here it is, tucked away where you'd never see it, if merely driving through.

To the casual eye, country churches all look much the same inside and out. But it's not true. They are all individual, each a time capsule of local social history going back centuries, as well as a place where religious services take place. Almost always, there will be something to intrigue the architectural or artistic imagination, and excite the photographer. There's also the atmosphere, which is nearly always a calming and contemplative one. 

I generally view these places when nobody else is there, when I can look it over properly, and peer into corners, without feeling that I'm being watched and ought not to be doing what I do. I don't think the church minds; I think it's glad to have an appreciative visitor. And it doesn't matter that I'm devoid of any faith, and profess no beliefs. I walk around quietly and with respect, and never feel that taking photographs of anything beautiful or remarkable is being profane. 

It never seems a lonely business, even if it's late afternoon and the interior is dim. I've never yet explored a church that made me feel uncomfortable or uneasy, although that's bound to happen one day. I can imagine a curious combination of shadows, or malevolent-looking gargoyles, or odd background noises, that will give me a fright and make me beat a hasty retreat, never to return. 

Yes, there are noises sometimes. Usually nothing you can pin down. Perhaps a low hum or murmuring that must somehow be caused by the wind outside - or at least I suppose so. Death Watch beetles are supposed to make odd tapping noises, but I've never heard them. Nor any creaks: churches are solidly-built places, and despite all the wooden pews and other wooden furniture, they do not as a rule flex and creak like old-time sailing ships. A creak has always meant that somebody else is opening the heavy entrance door - another visitor, or a churchwarden - and I no longer have the place to myself. I might even have to explain why I'm there. Not that there's anything reprehensible about liking old country churches, and wanting to visit them.

Singleton church was noisy as soon as I stepped inside. There was a rustling, some crashing about somewhere in a far corner out of sight. Nothing disturbing about the sound, but it was a distraction. Was somebody doing some cleaning? But it didn't seem the right kind of noise for that. It seemed to move about; and be high up, not at floor level. And then I saw it: a bird. A sparrow. Or more likely a starling, as it was quite dark in colour and rather larger than the usual sparrow. It didn't like me being there. My presence was upsetting it, stressing it out. I noticed that it was blundering about, bumping into things, as if getting tired and clumsy, and perhaps working itself up into a panic. When it got caught up in the organ pipes, there was the dickens of a flapping. A bird that was cool and collected and in possession of its wits wouldn't do that. That kind of behaviour attracts cats, and is dangerous. 

Poor thing. I wondered how it had got in, and what would happen to it. Would it just fly to and fro, getting ever more exhausted until it dropped? How did one in fact rescue a bird that was trapped in a church and couldn't get out? It must occur regularly. Was there a standard technique? Did churchwardens get out a big net, for instance? 

The bird's noises disturbed the serenity I'd hoped to find, and I didn't linger. But I left a note about the bird in the visitor's book, which the person locking up later on was bound to see. 

Perhaps by now something has been done to release the poor thing from its plight. But it's equally likely that it has brained itself, and is lying dead in one of the pews, to be discovered stiff and cold a few days from now. Sigh.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

What's in a name

Long-time readers will know that my surname at birth was Dommett, a gift from my father, and that Melford is a name I acquired later.

I do - most certainly - proudly count myself as a Dommett, but it is of course a surname bestowed on me by accident of birth; whereas Melford came from something I did. I took matters into my own hands, I made an adult choice, and became Lucy Melford.

I remember wondering what it would be like, with my name changed from Dommett to Melford. I imagined myself introducing myself to people and saying 'Hello, I'm Lucy Melford.' It would seem strange at first, unnatural. I might not say it quite right. I've always had trouble with my Ms and my Ns, the two sounding very similar, the way I speak. Would people perhaps hear 'Nelford'? Or would they assume I'd said 'Milford' or 'Nilford'? I was tired of spelling my name - as I'd always had to do with 'Dommett' (a name whose precise spelling is unguessable). I hoped that with 'Melford' my spelling days might be over. But on reflection, probably not.

I pictured myself writing 'Lucy Melford' on official forms and registers, and on cheques. I practiced my new signature, so that writing my name wouldn't look stilted and awkward.

And I'd start being addressed as 'Lucy Melford' - would that seem odd? Would I turn my head and react when somebody called out my new name? Waiting for an appointment at the doctor's, for instance. Would I realise that they meant me? How embarrassing if I didn't. And would I remember to call myself 'Lucy Melford' ? There would be confusion and funny looks if I messed up. I would look so daft.

All that was years ago. 'Melford' fitted perfectly over 'Dommett' like a second skin, and became a natural part of me. That's how it feels.

Would I ever consider reverting to 'Dommett'? I'm entitled to. I'm divorced, I call myself 'Miss'. Why not go back to 'Dommett'? It would match my birth certificate, after all.

But everything's in the name of 'Lucy Melford'. My financial stuff. my house deeds, my passport, my pensions. All of it, on and on. It would be a horrendous slog to change it all to 'Lucy Dommett'.

Yes, I could demonstrate to the world a clear family relationship to my nephew, his wife, and their child, all of them Dommetts. But there are no other living Dommetts around. My niece has married, and has a different surname now. Nobody else in my family is still called 'Dommett'. Really, changing would be very hard work for very little gain.

Besides, I really like 'Melford'. I always did. It has a soft sound that reminds me of lush meadows and country lanes. And 'Lucy Melford' flows off the tongue so much more easily than the harder sound of 'Lucy Dommett'.

Lately - well, for some time now - I've grown eager to find other Melfords. Which is ridiculous, as it's not my birth name. But there must be some psychological process under way, where I so completely identify as a Melford that I need to see the name commemorated. But it's not a common name at all. When I visit country churches, I look at gravestones in vain. No dead Melfords, ever. Nor are any on the Roll of Honour inside the church. I should be looking instead for dead Dommetts - I did promise Mum and Dad that I would take the family genealogical researches a lot further. But no, I'm on the lookout for Melfords.

What if I ever ran into a 'proper' Melford? And he or she was delighted and intrigued, and wanted to work out what relation I might be? I'd hate to disappoint them, but I couldn't fib. I'd have to explain my name of birth, and that I adopted Melford later on. Still, I'd hope that they would think me a worthy example of a Melford, all the same.

Twist after twist

Ha. Another twist in the Brexit saga: Mrs May's cap-in-hand request to defer Brexit for three more months to 30th June is possible according to the EU Council President Donald Tusk, but conditional on Parliament approving her unpopular Deal next week. Like many, I can't see that happening, even if the House of Commons Speaker Mr John Bercow lets her put the Deal up for a third vote.

Mr Tusk is calling time. And he can. I think this truly reveals that it doesn't matter what Mrs May tries to do, nor what Parliament might try to do (were it allowed a series of free votes, in order to discover what course of action would command a majority in the House). If the EU doesn't want to go along with any of it, then that's that. The EU has the whip hand on this and all matters, so long as we are still members of the European Club.

I don't say that the EU is a heartless dictatorship. Far from it; it's essentially a federation of states with a common, co-operative purpose; high ideals; and a central enabling bureaucracy that has serious teeth. But it puts the interests of its compliant members, and its own political cohesion, well before the concerns of a discontented, dispute-ridden, departing UK. Its patience has run out. For many a long year - too long - we have been a voice of dissension, ever out of step, ever wanting a better deal. We have become too much trouble. We take up too much time. It isn't surprising that the EU might like to see us gone for good.

Who knows what the coming days will bring. It's quite fascinating to see events unfold. And I expect plenty to happen from now on, very rapidly, with frantic manoeuvrings going on, right up to the last moment.

And then we'll simply run out of time, and the show will stop. That'll be late in the evening on Friday 29th March. Whatever plates and balls are being juggled, they will crash to the ground. And by midnight on the 29th, a series of emergency exit plans will be put into effect. (I hope)

I don't imagine there will be much change apparent on the 30th March. But some effects should be visible by the time I make it to the far north of Scotland during the following week. And many more in the weeks ahead. No doubt there'll be an emergency budget, if there is a Chancellor in place to work one out. Perhaps Mrs May will have to resign. Perhaps a General Election will be called.

Extraordinary times to live in.

Sequel (a couple of days later)
No longer the 29th March! It's the 12th April now. Or, if a real deal can be struck after all, the 22nd May. I still don't care much. I'm numb. Let's just go, the sooner the better, and get on with all the adjustments that will follow.

And if the public are 'consulted'? A new referendum? Same vote as before; nothing has changed my mind; out, out, out, out.

A protracted exit, involving European Parliament elections? I'm not voting; it'll be my personal protest against governmental indecision and appeasement, parliamentary posturing, quibbling and obstructionism, and the bland we-pull-all-the-strings smugness of the EU.

A general election? I will punish any constituency candidate who wants to stand, but dragged his or her heels over Brexit. Whatever their 'principles'. They won't further their careers on the back of my vote. Somebody else, however loony, will get my vote instead. At last, a chance for the Chocolate For All Party! Or, who knows, the revived I'm Backing Britain Party.

Ah, Screaming Lord Sutch! Come back, all is forgiven.

It rumbles on

No, not two remaining PPI claims with Santander and Royal Bank of Scotland.

I've lately had 'definitive replies' on the two 'personal' claims I made - personal in the sense that I wasn't claiming as executrix for my Dad, but in my own capacity, in connection with unwanted and unnecessary PPI that I had been obliged to pay for in past years. Those claims went in at the end of January. In a week or so, the eight week time limit for a proper response will be up, and after that I will have the option of taking my claims to the Financial Ombudsman for a decision.

And it looks as if I will have to, because I couldn't accept the so-called 'definitive replies'. The banks concerned already had sufficient information - photos of original loan documents and bank statements as proof of premiums paid - to verify that there had indeed been PPI. What was their problem? Why couldn't they admit liability and send me a cheque?

I suspected it was simply that (a) they were reluctant on principle to pay up on PPI sold not by themselves, but by other financial institutions that came under their wing; and (b) each claim was getting only a limited amount of attention beyond a standardised response, leading in many cases to a brush-off, if minimal examination failed to reveal an inescapable case for compensation. Both my claims were connected with loan events in the 1980s (1983 and 1989), and - from the banks' point of view - were too time-consuming to investigate properly. At least, not without pressure from myself.

Reluctant they might be to take responsibility for the misdeeds of banks taken over in the distant past, it was still their duty to investigate and pay up; and a big workload wasn't an excuse for dismissing valid claims backed up by documentation.

So in both cases, I have written back, saying that more work needs to be done. And restating the facts originally presented to them in a clearer fashion (with an eye to that eventual submission to the Ombudsman). But I don't think that Santander nor RBS will take a closer look and respond positively before that eight-week deadline is up.

So, hello Mr Ombudsman. Though not before I enjoy my month in Scotland. I'll keep my submissions for when I return home.

As a footnote, what did I think of Resolver, the complaint service linked to the Money Saving Expert website? Well, it was a reasonably straightforward way of launching my PPI claims in the first place. But in hindsight I think I could have coped with the banks' own claim forms. Resolver hasn't enabled me to apply any extra pressure on Santander and RBS. I have made all the running. And it has still felt like playing a game against giants, with a predictable outcome (one not in my favour). So although the MSE website itself is a goldmine of good information and encouragement, I wouldn't automatically turn to Resolver again.

I do see that big institutions will instinctively defend their corner, and try to slide out of liabilities: of course they will. And that my historic claims are 'awkward' in more than one way. Even though in both cases, you can see who the lender was (with the loan reference), who was the PPI insurer, what premiums were paid, and for how long. There is surely no difficulty in computing the refund due, and the interest to be added to it. All this said, I feel cynical about my chances of success.

I reckon the claims companies must have a harder time than they make out. They keep saying that billions are still waiting to be claimed, but I wouldn't be surprised if the banks manage to fob off a large proportion of the claims in progress, or yet to be made. And that come the end of August, when time is up on any new claims, most of the money set aside for potential PPI payouts is instead gifted to the banks' patient shareholders. You can see it coming.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Where are we going?

Brexit...sigh. I do wish we had simply cast off back in 2016, waved a genial goodbye to continental Europe, and floated out into the Atlantic.

Now look at the pickle we are in. I'm well past blaming anybody, or trying to imagine how better it might have been done. It's very easy to criticise the present government for negotiating a poor deal that nobody likes, and which can't get passed in parliament. Who could have done any better? Really?

The fact was that the EU, as a political matter, would never have let the UK depart on terms we could have felt happy with. The UK could only be offered a punishing deal. The remaining members of the EU had to see that opting out of the EU was no easy option. Either pay a huge ransom, or live with ongoing control from Brussels. Or both. And this implacable approach has been consistently applied, so that all the other countries can see that hell awaits them if they do a Brexit themselves. Even if the policy of punishment means a souring in British-EU relations and ongoing costs for both sides. The European political principle overrides everything, trading convenience included. The EU can ignore Britain if it has to. Just as the US is effortlessly able to. That's how it is.

I just want to be done with it. 'No deal'? I don't say 'Bring it on' but I don't care too much. I clearly understand that it could mean a period of inconvenience, possibly shortages, and definitely higher prices for some things. But not necessarily chaos. Everyone would adapt. Everyone always does.

I want a definite outcome, for better or worse, and proceed from that. The endless arguments in parliament seem to get us nowhere, and there are many other pressing things needing attention.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of all this will be a massive realignment of British politics, with fresh groupings that may coalesce into proper parties for ordinary people to weigh up and vote for. I think the old-style Conservative and Labour parties are finished. Both fatally riven by warring factions. Neither offering anything fresh. One (the Conservatives) led by a lady of impeccable devotion to public duty, but otherwise an inflexible and frustrating figure. The other (Labour) led by an uninspiring last-century man with tainted last-century views - another inflexible and frustrating figure. Both are tired, makeshift leaders thrust into roles they were never fitted for. They need to make way for younger people with different ideas. ASAP.

Although a natural Conservative voter, just as my father was, I often remind myself that in 1997 I actually voted Labour - because then New Labour looked modern, in touch, full of energy, and Tony Blair was such an attractive break from the past roll-call of idealists and dull union men. But it all came to nothing.

My disappointing New Labour Experiment will never be repeated. But I would consider voting for an alternative right-of-centre party - Conservatives take note! - if it contains common-sense people of clear ability, good judgement, reasonable integrity, political stamina, and a genuine willingness to take public opinion and modern realities into account. I've no time for a party that is concerned chiefly with its internal rules and its own immutable holy dogma.

Would I like to see the break-up of the UK? Certainly one country in Ireland. And if the people of Scotland want to become independent again, so be it. After all, new technology will make borders seamless and drive-through. You know: self-declaration online, mobile phone tracking, and clearance messages. It'll work, won't it?...of course it will...

Today's vote on whether to have, after all, a 'No-deal' Brexit will be a free vote, MPs voting with their individual conscience. I hope that their choice also takes into account the will of their constituents and the general feeling in the country. Which begs the question, do any of them really knew what people like me think?

Using cash in Scotland

My Scottish holiday is getting much closer. I'm away for a whole month. How much cash should I take with me?

Scotland may still be part of the UK, but really it's a different country, and it uses its own banknotes, issued by Scottish banks and not the Bank of England. I happen to like the Scottish banknotes very much, at least from the point of view of design and attractiveness. And of course, while in Scotland, using them is the most natural thing in the world. But once back in England, they are very difficult to spend without a great deal of argee-bargee. You can insist they are 'legal tender' as much as you like, but local shopkeepers in sunny Sussex will quibble. I suppose they don't demur too much in English towns close to the Border, but south of that it's a fact of life that nobody wants to accept those pretty Scottish banknotes.

'Just take them to your own bank, and exchange them for English banknotes,' you might say. Except that nowadays all my banking is online, and in any case I am not a customer of Barclays, Lloyds, NatWest, Santander, TSB, or any bank like that. I'm sure I would get the brush-off if I popped into one of those banks, flourished £50-worth of Scottish banknotes, and requested an exchange. 'Not on your nelly, madam,' would be the predictable reply. I hate being snubbed.

If I spend cash, I will inevitably end up with a collection of brave and proud Scottish banknotes, so the strategy must be to minimise my cash expenditure while in Scotland, and if possible blow whatever I have accumulated in North-of-Border currency on some kind of parting souvenir or event. Chipping in on a farewell meal with friends in Fife might be the best way.

But will I need to spend any cash? I hardly do at home in Sussex. Ancient I may be, a secret black and midnight hag, the queen of old crones, but I have embraced modern, electronic ways of paying, and have all but stopped handling notes and coin. A supply of pound coins for the Waitrose car park in Burgess Hill is really all I need. That and the occasional fiver for a hair salon tip.

Almost everything else goes on my credit card, usually via Google Pay on my phone. Out and about, I pay for parking with RingGo or PayByPhone, two of the big national parking apps. Even in pubs, I'll buy coffee and a sandwich using the phone. And I pay Nancy - the lady who does the weekly pilates class - by phone also, using another electronic method called PayM.

Is it too much to expect that that in Scotland I can be similarly cashless? I'm anticipating that in most populated areas, certainly in towns of any significance, I will be able to pay by phone. And if so, I won't need to use cash.

Inverness will be fine, as good as any city further south. Possibly Dingwall, Ullapool, Tain, Dornoch, Brora, Helmsdale, Wick and Thurso will be OK. Elsewhere - say Lairg, Lochinver, Scourie, Durness, Tongue, Bettyhill and John o'Groats - well, I'm not so sure. And in the remotest parts of the far north, I will almost certainly have to fall back on using real plastic - maybe even paper and metal. So if I turn up at Achiltibuie, Inchnadamph, Kylesku or Crask for lunch or afternoon tea, I will need my tucked-away Emergency Payment Kit.

What lovely, romantic names...and what stunning scenery awaits! Here's a selection from my last foray into the far north-west in 2010:

These shots were taken on the road between Gairloch and Poolewe; at Kinlochbervie; at Rhiconich; by the Kyle of Durness; in Smoo Cave; and by Loch Eriboll. I intend to see some of these locations again.

The caravan's deeper-than-usual spring clean is almost complete. I'll be preparing my long list of Things To Pack in the next day or so. 

I wonder if I have any Scottish banknotes left over from my last trip to Scotland in 2017? I'd better look. Who knows, perhaps English currency (if I have to spend it) won't be so welcome  North of the Border...?

Saturday, 9 March 2019

One down, two left running

I refer of course to my three PPI claims that I set in motion at the end of January.

The one that has failed was the least likely of any success. I was pursuing it as executrix for my late father. He died ten years ago, in 2009, and the claim was about unnecessary PPI he might well have been saddled with when taking out a small mortgage on a house in Hampshire in 1980. The only definite things I knew (from Dad's meticulous handwritten accounts book, in which he listed out his monthly bills in columns, spreadsheet-style) were that (a) there were mortgage payments in 1984, which continued to 1996 when the mortgage must have been paid off; and (b) Dad would have got that mortgage from Girobank, who were insisting on PPI without the option in the early 1980s (it happened to me, with my own Girobank mortgage in 1983); (c) Girobank was taken over by Alliance & Leicester. But I had no mortgage reference, no PPI policy number, and no old bank statements that showed premiums being paid during the 1980s and 1990s.

It was however still worth a shot.

But today I got a letter from Santander (who eventually absorbed Alliance & Leicester, and are now responsible for any PPI claims) telling me that they can't trace any PPI in Dad's name, and that they won't do more research without some documentation to identify the policy and/or the linked loan. Which I lack.

Although I felt justified in asking Santander to look into the question of PPI, Dad's accounts book is not enough on its own, especially as he never mentions PPI in it. It's only my own supposition that PPI was included in his monthly mortgage repayments. I think it's pointless taking the claim further - to the Ombudsman perhaps - without a scrap of original documentation to show that there definitely was a PPI policy in force. So I'm letting this particular claim go.

I still have my two personal claims to pursue, and these are much more promising. I have some original documents; mortgage and policy references to quote; and a complete run of old bank statements to prove in each case that premiums of a definite amount were actually paid for several years. Surely sufficient to trace whatever there may be in the cobwebby vaults of Alliance & Leicester and NatWest Bank. But failing that, enough for the banks handling the claims (Santander and Royal Bank of Scotland) to agree there was PPI, and to get on with computing what I should get back.

This evolving saga is demonstrating what I thought at the outset - that claiming PPI might well be hard work. And with no certain chance of success, despite all the stories of big yields. I believe my two remaining claims should succeed, but I'm not counting on it. I should know something definite about them before the end of this month, because there's a two-month time limit on giving me a proper reply. Beyond that, I can take matters to the Ombudsman. And I think I will probably have to.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019


A post on bungs for my water containers? Well, I think you'll grant that it's got to be more interesting than a post on Brexit.

My Bung Quest was short-lived. I enquired at Burgess Hill, hoping that the hardware store there would have a range of rubber stoppers for canisters and jars which would also fit a water container used in a caravan. But no. The guys looked, but they had nothing like that. They recommended a brewing-equipment supplier. I decided that would be for another day. Meanwhile I'd drive into Brighton, and see what Dockerills in the North Laine could do for me.

No rubber bungs for canisters or jars there either. But it was time to think laterally. What else might do the trick? It had to be like the cork in a bottle, only wider, and made of rubber or something similar. Could a rubber door stop be pressed into service, for instance? No, not really wide or deep enough. Then I saw the rubber ferrules for walking sticks. Aha!

I had one of the water containers with me, and we (that was the young chap serving me, and myself) experimented with different types of rubber ferrule. The young chap found the right one first. It wasn't a tight fit in the spout of the container, but it wasn't likely to drop out either. I bought two for £3.20, one for each container.

Back home, I made a more considered assessment. Yes, this really could work well. The new 'bungs' would replace screw-on taps that had never been much good, since the thread wasn't watertight.

And now, after nine years' use, the threads were crumbling.

The containers themselves were stout and in excellent condition, and although presently a bit grimy on the outside, would scrub up as good as new.

This is how the new bungs would pop in.

It seemed to be a pretty good solution. The rubber ferrules had a bit of weight, and wouldn't get dislodged in any likely circumstance. Those water-heavy containers had never once fallen over on their side, neither in the caravan nor when carried in the boot of my car.

Naturally I sterilised the new bungs in boiling water. And scrubbed the containers clean. Soon I had two rejuvenated water containers all ready to go.

It was worth doing. You can't buy quite this kind of 10-litre container any more in caravan or camping accessory shops. The nearest equivalent has a different, squatter, shape with an uncomfortable handle, an unnecessary tap, and costs £17.99. Say £36 to have two of them. But by reusing my old ones with an improvised bung, I reckon I've saved myself around £33.

The only possible snag that I can see is that these rubber ferrules have a metal disc inside which might rust. But I suppose I could coat the metal with nail varnish, or glue, to stop any rust developing. (And I did: using clear UHU glue to seal the metal in)

Keeping the doors shut

Now that I've invested so much money on a major repair job - it was £2,477 in the end, to fix damp damage, cure damp ingress, and firm up a sagging floor - I'm giving the caravan its best spring clean for years. It deserves it.

Not that it was looking scruffy: I'm not a cleanliness-obsessive, but I'd still regularly dusted, swept, washed and wiped the interior; and the exterior had been comprehensively washed twice a year, with sundry wipings-down in between.

The interior fabrics had been particularly well looked after, and were surely in remarkably good condition for twelve years of use - thirteen, by the end of the year. Indeed, not a single blemish. No red wine spills in my caravan! In fact, no red wine.

But now I've washed all the curtains and cushion covers, and shampooed the carpet, and although there won't be much visual difference to see, it'll all be genuinely fresher and brighter. The big side-bunk mattresses are covered up most of the time, which has not only protected them from wear and sunlight-fading, but kept them clean.

Once everything is put back, the caravan interior will seem very much as it was when new in late 2006. Next year, in 2020, I want to install a new fridge-freezer. And then there'll be regular upgrades, inside and out, in the years after that.

I might as well stick with what I've got. My caravan is so pleasant and practical, both for touring and for storage at home. I can in fact imagine the caravan outlasting Fiona, ending up hitched behind the all-electric car I plan to buy seven years from now, when Fiona will have reached her sixteenth birthday. That'll look unusual, to say the least! A swish, aerodynamic, futuristic car coupled to a (by then) semi-vintage caravan. It'll turn heads.

I may sound in love with my caravan, but I do recognise its faults. And one annoying fault had gone unfixed for twelve long years.

The cupboard doors under each side-bunk have magnetic catches to keep them shut. Unfortunately, these catches aren't up to the job. The magnets are too weak, and if there is any strong side-to-side movement when towing, any of these cupboard doors may flop open, spilling out whatever is stored inside. One door in particular will open at the slightest provocation, and I've grown accustomed to finding the carpet strewn with kitchen rolls, or potatoes, or a banana, whenever I take a break from driving and hop aboard for a toilet stop, or a bite to eat and drink. No harm is done, but it's a pain, and I do wonder why I've never before devised a way of securing these doors properly.

But now I have. It's a low-tech solution, but I dreamed it up myself, and I think the execution isn't too disgraceful.

So, the first photo, which shows the nearside cupboard doors immediately after my fix.

I had to do the splits in order lean back far enough, and place my feet far enough apart, to get both doors in the shot! Yes, it's curtain wire under tension, stretched and fixed simply into position by means of hooks at each end, and threaded through a central eyelet.

That's how the doors will look when travelling. Pitched on site, the curtain wire will be disengaged from the door handles, and left to lie horizontally above the doors, where it will be unobtrusive.

I've now done both sides. Henceforth no bumpy road or track will be able to make those doors open. Here's what the doors now look like, when ready for a journey.

I do enjoy inventing very simple ways to make or fix things, rather than devising anything elaborate. Especially if the result has a certain symmetry to it. It doesn't matter if the method is unsophisticated, so long as it's neat, will do the trick, and will continue to function for the indefinite future without constant adjustment or renewal.

Incidentally, the caravan floor isn't normally bare like that in the front half. A cream-coloured fitted carpet goes down. And on top of that, a luxurious sheepskin rug that friends Jean and Geoff gave me last autumn, which feels wonderful beneath my bare feet.

There's another problem waiting attention. Not part of the caravan this time.

I use two 10-litre water containers, bought back in 2010, and their plastic screw caps (always their weakest part) are now starting to crack and disintegrate. New containers of similar shape (and with carrying-handles just as comfortable) appear to be unavailable. So I intend to keep using the containers I've got, but with new caps fitted. Or stoppers of some kind - maybe rubber bungs, if you can still get those. So tomorrow I'm off to the nearest hardware store, to see what they have. There are two within a few miles, and a really good one down in Brighton. I'm not sure there'll be enough in this Bung Quest for a post, but you never know. You can discover many a strange thing when tracking down something as dull as a rubber bung!

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The midges will be so disappointed

A couple of days ago, I went over to see my cousin Rosemary in Kent, and, as we normally do, I drove us both to Canterbury for lunch, and a stroll around the excellent shops. On the way I told her how I had nearly cancelled my month in Scotland, so that I could afford those caravan repairs. But of course, I was able to add that all is now well, and the trip is back on.

This led on to a discussion of midges, the scourge of  the damp Western Highlands. I explained that one of the chief reasons for seeing Scotland in April was to avoid the first hatching of zillions of midges, because even if they don't bite, they will form a cloud around one's head and this can be more than just annoying: it can be positively distressing.

Well, we were in Mountain Warehouse, one of the shops we always visit on our post-lunch round, and while I was in the changing room trying something on, Rosemary enquired about those insect nets you put over your head, and she bought me one as a little present. It came in a handy little pouch, and weighed almost nothing, so you could carry it about all the time on a 'just in case' basis, while in Midge Country.

Back home next morning, I gave it a proper try-out.

The pouch was very neat. I could keep it handy in Fiona all year round, and transfer it to my handbag as required. It had a belt strap, but I don't wear belts.

So what does it look like when worn? Here's the starting position, without any net protection. Any midge seeing me in this state would begin to slaver uncontrollably.

Lucy: Come and get it, if you dare!
Midge (slobbering): You are dead meat. 

But then, I deftly don my anti-midge head net.

Lucy: Having trouble, midge?
Midge: Curses, foiled again.

The head net was very comfortable indeed, and despite being shaped like a sack with a drawstring and toggle at the open end, it didn't feel confining and I'm sure I would be able to wear it for hours on end. And if they couldn't get near my eyes, ears, mouth and nostrils, any local midges would surely buzz off somewhere else, and not waste their time on me. In which case I could stroll about looking insanely joyous.

Some idiots might assert that I look like a daft old biddy wearing a net bag - but they would be so wrong. This is practical outdoor equipment, and any knowledgeable eye can see at once that it's the business, and awesomely cool and capable from any angle. 

But of course gestures can be made in the direction of style and elegance. One obvious way is to wear a hat, which immediately adds extra fascination and allure.

I do see risks, of course. The net resembles a veil, and I might be mistaken for a modest blushing bride, or a deeply mourning widow. Either would be embarrassing. And although it's not terribly effective as a disguise, I couldn't really go into a bank wearing this anti-midge head net, in case I were mistaken for a robber. 

All that said, I now feel super-easy and brave about going where midges lurk - typically around lochs and streams. Indeed, the only disappointment on the horizon is that in Scotland, in April, there aren't going to be any midges to test this snazzy head net on. 

Tsk. Just my luck.