Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Amazon are likely to lose a customer soon

I've complained about Amazon before now on this blog. 

The last time was in connection with buying a new phone online from them last January. They billed me for £800-odd - quite a good price at the time for a Samsung Galaxy S20+ smartphone I wanted. But the thing didn't arrive by the date promised, and in fact never did come. I found out, too late, that their supplier was abroad, and so there was bound to be a long and unpredictable delay because of post-Brexit red tape. It became increasingly clear that the delivery date first quoted was unrealistic and misleading. If Amazon had been frank about the prospects for delivery I would have looked elsewhere, not having the patience of a saint. On top of this, the fiasco was compounded by a tracking breakdown, so that my phone - supposed to be on its way, but in reality stuck somewhere - became 'lost in the system'. Perhaps even stolen in transit. 

Meanwhile I got in touch with Amazon, cancelled the order, and commenced the long-winded refund process. 

I decided to buy the same phone for £999 from John Lewis. Yes, it was more expensive; but it was in my hands very quickly, exactly when promised, and I had it set up and running long before Amazon's procedures ever gave me my money back. 

I've still used Amazon for occasional purchases of small stuff, because little is at stake and I can shrug my shoulders if the purchase doesn't work out. 

But they let me down big-time over that phone, and I won't give them another chance where expensive or important items are concerned. There are alternative places to shop - places I have more confidence in - and I don't mind paying a bit more for getting what I want, exactly when I want it, from a retailer I can trust. 

And now I have two further reasons for not ordering goods from Amazon, and even severing all connection with them. 

One reason is their recent decision not to accept payment from Visa credit card accounts, effective late January. Presumably Amazon have asked Visa to reduce their card service fees, and Visa haven't agreed. Amazon have therefore set a deadline, judging that they are big enough to dispense with Visa if need be. And I think they might well be right - to the inconvenience of people like me, whose only credit card is a Visa card. (It may be of course that Amazon are gearing up to offer their own credit card, no doubt with extra goodies to hook people in. But it will have strings attached, and I won't want one)

The other reason is Amazon's creeping policy of getting customers to subscribe to Amazon Prime for general shopping, and - particularly where mp3 digital music is concerned - to Amazon Music Unlimited. As I make only occasional online purchases, for small amounts, subscription models are not in the least attractive. I don't care about any benefits offered: I would end up paying much more each month in subscriptions than I would actually want to spend. 

It's a good thing that I now have almost all the digital music I'd ever want. I have slowly built up, over the years, a highly-personal music collection of nearly 1,900 tracks, representing all the music that means something to me - the 'soundtrack of my life'. And I could, without regret, stop there. 

It's no good offering me access to millions of songs if I subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited. I don't need them. It won't bother me if I can't have them. So I'm not going to subscribe. 

As it happens, it's still possible - just - to purchase individual mp3 music tracks using the Amazon Music app, but you have to put in quite a bit of work. not just to find what you want, but to persuade the app that you want to buy outright, and not subscribe. My guess is that sometime soon it will no longer be possible to make a one-off track purchase with the Amazon Music app, even a forced purchase. At that point I will probably stop using Amazon altogether. I'll just close my account - with no compunction, no cares, and certainly with no fear of missing out. 

Saturday, 25 December 2021

Stymied by a bad back on Christmas Day

Silly me. I stooped awkwardly, without thinking, to reach for something in my fridge at breakfast time and hurt my back. Ouch! That has put paid to all my driveaway plans for the day. My back muscles need time to warm up first thing, and I shouldn't take that for granted.

Well, after some paracetamol, I stayed on my feet. Sitting down only made me stiffen up. I played music, had a soothing shower, cooked breakfast, then (gently) launched into this winter's session of scanning old prints from the 1990s. I have about a week's worth of places in Sussex to do. Then I get down to all the people shots, presently in a dozen boxes of prints. Even with a bit of weeding, there will be about two thousand of those to deal with, and I'm unlikely to finish scanning them all before spring comes. But I can make a good start. 

I'm rather looking forward to seeing all those people pictures. It will vividly bring back the 'Horsham stage' in my life. Pictures of friends from twenty-five to thirty years back, almost all of them vanished from my life. I expect to resurrect many a memory. And I may be tempted to get in touch, all these years afterwards. Will I? Let's see what the pictures show. And how I feel nowadays about renewing old acquaintances. For years I shied away from looking people up; and not being on Facebook, it was simple to avoid any temptation to try. Indeed, I have wondered what the point of it would be. We must have changed in all that time. Most likely, too much. We'd be strangers to each other.

But I now have some evidence - in the shape of my long-lost but now-found friend Mark - that reconnections can work out well. Both parties older, wiser, and fatter of course; and yet still with a sense of humour and unfulfilled plans to pursue. And the essence of what made them likeable still preserved.  

It's now mid-afternoon, and the back pain is starting to wear off. I ought to get some exercise. But it's damp outside, and beginning to get dark, and I really don't fancy even a quick stroll around local roads. It would however do me good. So I will venture forth, as soon as this quick post is finished. Well, maybe!

As for the long-distance drive I had planned for today, it can await a full recovery. Indeed, for a sunny day. This time last year, I had a long and invigorating Christmas Day walk around Ashdown Forest, which is some half an hour's drive from here. In glorious sunshine, with a fine sunset to see. It would be dull and misty today, and chilly as the light faded. No, a stroll around the village will do. 

'Are you doing nothing Christmassy?' you may ask me. It seems not. I'm not antisocial, but there are historical reasons why I find it difficult to enjoy Christmas time, and I prefer to keep it as a day for doing personal things. Boxing Day is a different proposition, the far side of the mountain. And my mood gets ever more buoyant as the New Year approaches, although the need for solitude and reflection remains. New Year's Day is an entirely new page, and I always proceed from there with a re-energised and optimistic state of mind. 

Yesterday I made the bookings for my Scottish Holiday in 2022. It'll take me to the far north, with a day on Orkney, and I'll be gone thirty-six days. I reckon the cost of caravan site fees, and holiday fuel for my car, will come to about £1,600. I can't afford that kind of outlay in May, when I usually visit Scotland, but I can manage it in September. So this will be a late summer/early autumn jaunt. 

But there will be no special celebrations for my 70th birthday in July: I won't have the money for it. A few meals out with friends, yes, but nothing more. It's of no concern. 


I did get out for my village walk, and clocked up 10,000 steps as I was coming back. I hoped it would ease my back, but it didn't do that. However, I got plenty of fresh air. It was already dark when I set forth, although of course all roads were well lit up by all the Christmas lights and decorations festooned on every home. I saw people inside sitting around dinner tables, or watching giant TVs. I almost had the roads to myself. Two passing men, one old, one young, wished me a Merry Christmas, which I reciprocated. As usual, I felt rather detached from it all, but by no means uncheerful. I tend to regard the passing of Christmas Day as the bursting of an angry boil that has been building up for a month or more. Now the healing can begin. 

Wednesday, 22 December 2021

At last, my Covid-19 booster jab

I'd waited a long time to have it, but I finally got my Covid-19 booster jab yesterday afternoon. It was Astra-Zeneca in February and June; this time, Moderna. 

I was offered a second vaccination in early May, but unfortunately couldn't take it up, as I was departing for a five-week holiday in Scotland and the North of England the day before. I couldn't pursue a second vaccination until I returned home. Six months after that meant a booster in December, but by then demand for boosters was starting to surge, which is why I couldn't get an appointment until just before Christmas. 

So, for my age, I'm pretty late for the booster. But it's done now. 

Many of my local friends have been reporting dire reactions from their own boosters. Well, I had no discernible reaction at all until late yesterday evening, when my upper arm - it was the left arm again - felt slightly sore. But I do mean only slightly: I certainly slept on that arm overnight, when lying on my side. This morning the upper arm muscle is making a louder protest, just as if I'd over-exercised it. It's not aching, and I can't say it's truly sore - I can feel some tenderness if I prod the arm, but it's not bothersome. I can move it about as normal. And I don't feel ill or lethargic. This is how it was with the two previous Covid-19 jabs, and I'm hoping that this third undramatic reaction is now at its mild worst, and that it will gradually fade away by Christmas Day. 

Not that I'm doing anything social at Christmas now, not with the Omicron strain still on the rampage, and the need to give the booster jab a proper amount of time to reinforce my immunity. 

Playing for safety has disappointed some people, who have quite reasonably pointed out that, having now been boosted, I won't suffer much if I get infected. But I don't want to suffer at all. In any case, nobody can, hand on heart, guarantee that I won't have an illness with complications - and I certainly don't want to go anywhere near a hospital over Christmas. 

Beyond that, I've stayed infection-free since the pandemic began, and don't want to spoil that shining personal record simply to share Christmas and New Year cheer with strangers in a pub, however jolly the occasion. True, jostling crowds are rapidly thinning out in hostelries everywhere, with people in general getting wary of unnecessary exposure. But even so, I don't want to be kissed by some not-to-be-deterred, die-hard, anti-vax, tipsy Beer-Breath, stupidly spreading goodwill and Something Extra.  

But I'm not going to stay at home either! As I can use Fiona for the time being, pending her bodywork repair in early January, I envisage at least a couple of long days out to places I haven't visited for years, for a photographic orgy, just Lili and me. Taking a flask and something to snack on, naturally. I may of course be thwarted by icy weather, or even snow, and I won't be silly. But if it's merely cold, then I will answer the siren call of certain distant places.

Monday, 20 December 2021

A hairband called Spiced Orange

I'm watching Jonathan Creek on the Drama channel at the moment, a quirky late-1990s crime series centred on Alan Davies (Jonathan Creek) - playing a professional illusionist - and Caroline Quentin (Maddy Magellan) - playing an investigative crime journalist - whose combined skills are handy for solving baffling but intriguing crime mysteries. Strange to say, I hardly watched Jonathan Creek when it was current on TV. As with many things, I couldn't fit it into my life. Or perhaps it clashed with something else that my partner at the time wanted to see, such as Strictly Come Dancing or I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here (neither of which were my cup of tea, and I've never watched them since: dancing and jungle challenges being of no interest whatever).  

The thing is, I immediately noted that in the first programmes of this 2021 Jonathan Creek re-run - first shown in 1997 - that hairbands were then rather fashionable. Then they went out. I began wearing them in 2009, and immediately adopted them as part of my signature look, but I was always conscious that nobody else was popping them on their head, although it's long been cool to use one's sunglasses as a trendy hairband-substitute. 

It's nice to see that that hairbands for adults were once so popular. And they are definitely on their way back. 

I like hairbands because they frame the face well, hold back strands of hair that would otherwise fall over the face, and otherwise add some easy decoration to one's above-neckline appearance. You can put them on, and take them off, in an instant - anytime, anywhere. A bit like Martini Bianco, if you can recall the TV ads. Remember, I'm not one for make-up, apart from lipstick. I don't have an elaborate, high-maintenance hairstyle. I don't go in for earrings. But I do want something to relieve the Melford plainness. 

In the last couple of years, but particularly during the last year, I've been investing in simple but expensive hairbands that look so much nicer, and will probably stand up to a lot more wear than the cheap bands I used to buy from Boots or Superdrug. They are still simple hoops, but in hand-finished resin, or perhaps fabric, with luxury designs and colours. 

I've turned to Tegen in Brighton again for my latest purchases, which arrived two days ago. Two 20mm-wide resin hairbands made in France. One (called 'White Tokio') is just another example of a band I bought from Tegen earlier in the year, and wear so much that I thought it wise to buy another, to prolong the life of the original. But the other is new. It's called 'Spiced Orange', and not only has a basic random pattern of chopped-up orange peel, there are glints of purple and green in there. Perfect for Christmas-time, but suitable for any time really. 

Here are the two bands. They arrived beautifully-packed in the usual Tegen way, and for ongoing use have their own yellow cotton bags with pink drawstrings:

I think the new Spiced Orange hairband is very attractive, and it has already found its place in the core collection of bands that I turn to most often, and take on holiday with me. There are now four bands in my core collection: three patterned ones from Tegen, and a black one from Roseings of London. 

I won't stop there of course. I'd like Tegen to offer an emerald-green band in the kind of pattern my new Spiced Orange band has. If they do, I'll be snapping that up.

Saturday, 18 December 2021

Alluring but unaffordable offers from Leica

Ever since I registered my ownership of Lili, my Leica X-U camera with Leica back in late August, they have been sending me regular emails, bringing my attention to cameras and lenses they think I might like to buy, articles I might like to read, photo exhibitions I might like to attend, and courses I might like to go on. 

Clearly I'm in. And they want me in deeper! Leica want to immerse me in their world, and make me an habitual buyer of new and used products - somebody who has embraced the Leica way of life and the Leica approach to seeing. I'm not knocking it. Not at all. Leica has a lot to give, and I would take it if I could afford to. But I can't. Buying Lili has to be the limit to my involvement with this alluring world. Any more spending will divert me from other things that matter, and quite possibly lead to my financial ruin.

But it's nice to window-shop!

Lately, in the run-up to Christmas, Leica have been emailing me daily, drawing my attention to this or that. Yesterday it was a series of courses I could attend, organised by the Leica Akademie. Four of them. Not their full range of courses by any means: only those relevant to my known photographic interests. Let's look at them. 

A five-day workshop masterclass in Central London. To take participants 'out of their comfort zone'. Only £1,250. 

A five-session online course on 'documentary photography'. Looks intriguing. Only £600.

A three-session Street Photography workshop and walkabout masterclass in Central London. To learn how to take 'striking' street photographs, and turn them into fine art prints. Only £750.

But this is the one that I'd most like to attend - and not just for the opportunity to discuss and take pictures! 'Join Us In The Highlands' say Leica. A seven-day residential course in a little-known but beautiful glen in northern Scotland, with luxury accommodation in a Victorian mansion. Stunning scenery, leaping salmon, soaring eagles, snarling wildcats. And a wonderful resident chef. Only £2,995 - or a bit more if you want a single room. What's not to like? Look at this:

Alladale Lodge is a remote mansion west of Bonar Bridge in the northern Highlands, well off the usual tourist trail. It's one of several luxury hotels and private houses dotted around the almost-empty Sutherland countryside. You know: drab, waterproof country clothing during the day; cocktail dresses at night. I'd like a slice of this.

The website for Alladale Lodge is at https://alladale.com/accommodation/alladale-lodge/ - take a look if you want to see what's on offer in the way of accommodation and cuisine. Here are some taster screenprints:

Of course, for me, the food is an equal draw.

No prices are mentioned, or at least not unless you commence the booking procedure. I backed off, not wishing to make a booking by mistake! One slip of the finger...

Getting up there involves significant trouble and outlay. Here are a couple of location maps:

The nearest station is Ardgay, near Bonar Bridge. It's no bleak wayside halt. It's a civilised station, albeit unstaffed. I went there in April 2019:

Ignoring the cost of my getting up to London King's Cross from Sussex, and the cost of conveyance from Ardgay to the Lodge, it seems that most off-peak fares - with a Senior Railcard concession - currently mean paying £142.25, just for the return ticket. There would be a seat reservation fee on top of that, and a Caledonian Sleeper supplement too. I don't know: £300 all told? I'd be changing trains at Edinburgh and Inverness. It would take me about a day altogether to get up there. 

Nice though it would be to go on this course, and big adventure it would be, I'm sure I'd be shelling out not much less than £4,000 for the privilege. I'd still be tempted - 2022 being the year of my 70th birthday and all that - if I hadn't had to spend so much on Fiona recently. But as things stand it's utterly impossible to contemplate.

But actually, I can still go to that part of the Highlands - for nothing. The course is in September, and I've decided that although I can't now go to Scotland in May, I will go in September. So, supposing I'm pitched at Brora again, I can get to Alladale, or close to there, on public roads. So I could in theory bump into a group of course attendees, showing off their Leicas. 

Perhaps I could discreetly track them, and get some eagle and wildcat shots of my own. Here, kitty kitty...

Update on Fiona; Christmastime Covid caution

My car has had a temporary front-end fix, to get me through to early January, when the damage will be properly repaired, with Volvo spare parts. 

My poor car looked like this after that encounter with a vicious bollard in the Burgess Hill car park:

An ugly, depressing sight. But three days ago the bodywork shop pushed things back into place, paying especial attention to the misaligned headlamp. Only a temporary fix, of course, but what a difference! Fiona now looks like this:

So far as I can see, the headlamp light pattern, never drastically affected, is now back to normal, and I feel that I can drive around after dark with confidence. 'After dark' at this time of year means 'late afternoon onwards', even in southerly Sussex. Sunset comes at 3.55pm at this time of December, and it would have been seriously limiting if I had to scurry home before then. 

Not that I will be doing any socialising at Christmas. I am still three days away from my Covid booster jab - delayed because of my long Scottish holiday earlier this year - and if I'm honest I won't feel happy meeting up with other people until after Christmas Day, even though I do have much-appreciated invitations for that very day. But the Omicron variant of Covid is becoming seriously prevalent in the south-east, and any close/prolonged contact with others - however casual or accidental - is simply courting an uncomfortable (or nasty) illness at home, if nothing worse. I've escaped infection so far, and don't want to succumb now. Indeed, for all I know, I might be one of the unfortunate minority who would be hospitalised, and I don't want to risk finding out. Not when hospitals are under pressure, and getting timely emergency treatment is a matter of luck on the day. Even if getting ill doesn't mean hospital, I don't fancy a prolonged dose of 'long Covid'. 

So I rather think I will be deliberately self-isolating from the moment I'm boosted, right through to the day after New Years Day. I will of course nip out for food shopping at quiet times. And I will feel free to set forth in Fiona for long and solitary heathland, clifftop and harbour walks. But no lunches in crowded pubs, although the temptation might be hard to resist. 

This cautious behaviour won't be a hardship. I love long drives to lonely places - camera in hand naturally, with the prospect of bringing back a harvest of pictures. It's exactly what I do almost every day on my caravanning holidays. I never tire of it. I'm always fascinated by what I capture. And if the weather is foul, I have a big programme of scanning to do at home, all ready to go. 

With Fiona fully driveable, I can now plan a long day trip to somewhere distant, taking food and a flask. Stonehenge in Wiltshire? The Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire? Or the Kent or Essex coast? Maybe on Christmas Day or Boxing Day morning? Why not, if the weather looks good?

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

And it keeps coming...

What a bad end to the year!

Two major incidents concerning my car - a set of new tyres following a tyre write-off, followed by front end bodywork damage. A total of £3,100-odd to sort all that out.

Now, it's the turn of my elderly gas boiler. When I came home from holiday on 8th November the pilot light was out and the house was cold. Gas consumption while I'd been away had been much as expected, not markedly less, so I assumed this was a mild-weather glitch of very recent occurrence. I relit the pilot light, and had heating and hot water again without further fuss. But the pilot light has gone out six times since then - three of those occasions in the last two days, this morning included. A definite sign that all is not well. 

It's an old-fashioned Potterton boiler from the 1990s. Unsophisticated, outmoded, relatively inefficient by today's standards, but normally reliable. In fact, it has given no trouble of this sort in the last ten years. 

As I understand it, the pilot flame plays against a copper rod called a thermocouple, keeping it up to a certain temperature. If the pilot flame gets weak, as it does when it turns yellow and flickers, the thermocouple doesn't get warmed up enough and the gas flow is then automatically cut off. It then has to be restarted. So far I've had no hassle restarting it. But it looks as if this is now going to be a breakfast-time necessity, and one day soon I may find I can't get it going again.

I have an annual service booked with Stuart, my hard-working local heating engineer, on 21st January. I'm wondering whether my boiler will get worse before then. He knows about my current problem, but has so much on in the way of pressing work that he can't personally do anything about it before taking a well-earned Christmas family holiday break in the Lake District. 

Well, if the worst happens over Christmas and the New Year, I do have electric heaters, an immersion heater for hot water, an electric shower, and plenty of warm clothes, and can - in effect - live a bearable 'caravan life' inside my home until my boiler gets attention. I won't freeze to death - especially if the weather stays mild.  

Once restarted in the morning, the boiler keeps going all day. And the pilot light stays lit with a steady blue flame. Surprisingly, it stays lit through the night when the boiler is off. 

I suppose that normal daytime usage in the cold months warms the boiler up fast and then keeps it hot - and with it the thermocouple, so that it becomes much less likely to shut off the gas flow if the pilot light falters for a few minutes. Therefore the first firing in the morning - when the boiler has cooled down overnight, and not yet at its ordinary operating temperature - is the critical time. 

Wishing to be more economical in my gas consumption, I'd turned the heating down by a degree in recent weeks. I'm thinking now that it might help - pending that service in January - if I turn the heating up again, so that the initial firing in the morning lasts longer, and makes the hotter thermocouple less inclined to react to a weak pilot light. 

And why is the pilot light misbehaving? It's likely to be detritus in the feed pipe, causing a restriction in the gas flow. But of course that's just a guess! I'm no heating engineer.

My gas boiler must be over 25 years old, and (if needed) certain important replacement parts are unlikely to be available. So it would be as well to brace myself for a new boiler. I think that might cost me about £2,500. Hence the extra financial pain this winter. 

It's even worse that this expenditure of £2,500 will be for a type of household heating that I'd rather move away from, wishing to become as all-electric as possible. I want to do my bit to save the planet. But I see no other affordable heating solution at this point. 


Merry Christmas.


Better news. My local hero heating engineer Stuart has come to my rescue. Tweaking the strength of the pilot light flame, and replacing the thermocouple, have markedly improved matters, and - so far (I keep checking) - appears to have cured the problem. 

I hope so. It's bad enough having a twice-wounded car, and a savings balance that is staggering from twenty-six rounds with the meanest heavyweight boxer in the universe. The hassle and purse-ache of having a new boiler on top of all that might have been the last straw!

Sunday, 12 December 2021

Pain, then even more pain

If you read my post Making an old sleeve eye-catching on 5th December, then you will already know that following the write-off of one of my tyres on 29th November, I decided to bring forward the replacement of all four tyres, biting the bullet to the tune of £800-odd. Actually, the cost was a little less in the end: only £779. Planned expenditure, but I didn't expect to incur it so soon. I consoled myself with the thought that my pride and joy would now be well-shod in the tyre department, and that I could face any likely winter weather with confidence. I won't skimp on safety.

But fate decreed that my savings must be clobbered even harder - and very soon afterwards.    

Would you believe it, on 10th December - two days ago - while shopping locally, I pulled off the front end of my car against a car park bollard! I was manoeuvring into a space. The front panel and nearside headlamp were ripped away from their normal positions. This wooden bollard, invisible from the driving seat, was the evil culprit: 

I say 'evil culprit', but of course the blame really lies with me. I knew the thing was there, and yet didn't bother to get out of the car to see exactly how close I was to it. I relied on the bleeps from the front parking sensors. An expensive error to make! 

How I cringed as I heard that rending noise. I felt sick when I surveyed the astonishing extent of the damage done from just a scrape. I hope you can bear to see a few pictures.

Ghastly! The headlamp seating had been broken, and the entire unit was now of course pulled forward and out of alignment. I might get away with using Fiona during daylight, but clearly not after dark. None of the wiring had been affected, so all lights still worked. In fact the only thing not still working was the nearside headlamp washer, as the connecting hose had been pulled away. But urgent action was now needed to get Fiona fixed. 

I did my food shopping at Waitrose, then drove home and consulted Jackie and Kevin next door, who know all the best local traders. They pointed me in the direction of a bodywork specialist they knew, and there I went. Before midday, I'd discussed what could be done, when, and for what kind of price. As promised, I had a written estimate by email by the end of the day. The cost was realistic and acceptable, but I slept on it, then next morning went out there again to clear up one or two points and give the go-ahead. The super-expensive Volvo parts will have to be ordered in, but the first week in January will see my beloved but hard-working car restored to her normal splendour. Meanwhile I can drive Fiona over the Christmas and New Year periods, and while she's in the body shop I'll be given a 'small automatic Mercedes' (an A-Class?) to use. The repair cost will be £2,325 though. Yes, ouch! 

I could have made it an insurance job, and limit my immediate costs to the £300 damage excess on my motor policy. But then everything would be out of my hands, and I'd be left carless while the repair process - possibly not a quick one - droned on. And really I'd rather raid my savings than make a claim on my policy, spoiling an unblemished claims record in recent years, and being dogged by much higher insurance premiums for several years ahead. All considered, it seemed better to fund the repair cost myself, and get all the financial pain out of the way in one go.

So it's £779 for new tyres, and another £2,325 for self-inflicted bodywork and headlamp damage - £3,104 altogether. 

My savings plan has taken a big jolt. I'm now months behind where I planned to be. 

Not only that. My expenditure plans in 2022 will have to be drastically trimmed. The Scottish Tour in the caravan, which I had set my heart on, will probably be a casualty. And I definitely can't indulge myself with a couple of nights away in a posh country hotel, as a 70th birthday treat. Sigh.

It crossed my mind to sell something of value, to recoup a bit of that £3,104. But the only thing of value I could put onto eBay was my latest camera, Lili, my used Leica X-U that cost me £1,749 last August. I might clear £1,000 or a little more from selling her online. But Lili is great to use, gives me excellent results, and has amply proved her worth. We've bonded. I simply don't want to part with her. 

It also crossed my mind that those car park bollards are a hazard, and I might have a legal claim against whoever runs the car park. But then I'd first have to establish who actually owns it  - it isn't Waitrose, and seems not to be the local Council. Then pay for legal advice and assistance, formulate the basis of a claim - would that be so straightforward? - and endure the protracted aggro of going to court. I don't think it would do my blood pressure any good at all, and I doubt whether, after legal costs, much would be left of whatever compensation I'd be awarded. Legal aid? Forget it. 

So it's a bad end to 2021, and a poor outlook for 2022. And mostly down to an unskilful bit of parking. I must do better then this in the future.

Thursday, 9 December 2021

Retrieval by archive

I usually have two or three books on the go. So I need three bookmarkers. I have nice leather ones, all of basically the same design, but souvenirs of different occasions. 

The oldest is pale yellow with gold lettering and other markings, and is a souvenir of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum. So it dates from my London days back in the 1980s - I'm not sure which year, but certainly sometime late in the decade. So it must be over thirty years old. Currently it marks where I've got to in a book by the late Susan Sontag titled On Photography. 

The youngest is from a visit to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh in 2010. This is red with silver lettering. This one marks where I've got to in a book by Robert Twigger titled Real Men Eat Puffer Fish And 93 Other Dangerous Things To Consider - things that one might have to attempt in an emergency, such as taking control of a big aircraft and landing it, driving a tank, handling a snake, surviving in a desert, wielding an axe, doing a stand-up comedy turn, riding a dolphin, assassinating a despotic leader, escaping from a POW camp, and many other fascinating things. It's written for men, but I don't see why a girly can't benefit from knowing such highly useful stuff.  

The third of these leather bookmarkers was purchased while on that Mediterranean cruise with Dad in 2009 on board the Saga Rose. It's blue with a picture of the ship, and lettering, in silver. Here it is:

And this was the Saga Rose in real life, docked at Toulon and Barcelona:

I have very positive memories of that cruise. It has so far been the only cruise I've been on. But one day, post-caravanning, I shall do some more cruising. I will probably be in my 80s by then: just the right age to most enjoy the comforts of a not-too-large cruise ship. 

The Saga Rose cruise had immense significance, as it was the last big thing Dad and I did together. He died twenty days after we returned home. And this blue leather bookmarker is one of the very few tangible momentos I have of our last holiday together. I do have a lot of cruise photographs, of course; but it matters to have also something I can touch.

So I was troubled when I wanted to use this Saga Rose bookmarker, but couldn't find it in the usual place that I would have put it. I rarely mislay anything at home - everything is put away in its accustomed spot, so that I find it again instantly. I concluded at once that it must be tucked between the pages of one of my books. But which? Not any that I was currently reading, or had referred to recently. 

I had taken a selection on holiday back in October, and I was pretty certain that the blue bookmaker had come with me on holiday too. But I couldn't recall which books. And I have way too many on my bookshelves to leaf through all the likely ones, and see whether the missing bookmarker could be inside. 

This is where taking so many photographs can come to the rescue. I can delve into my huge archive and see whether what I'm looking for was caught on camera. I began with pictures taken inside my caravan during my last holiday. Plenty of those, but no joy. Pictures taken once home then, in my lounge. No luck. Then I remembered that I'd taken at least two shots of holiday guides, to see which kind of sharpness setting would best suit Lili (I was still fine-tuning the settings on my latest camera). Well, in my photo archive was a folder for Lili, and within that all the 'test shots' I'd taken and kept. Aha! There was the picture I had in mind. This one.

I'd already checked out the two smaller books, but not the larger one Radnorshire From Above. I knew where it was on my shelves, and opened it, and there was the missing bookmarker, which had slipped down inside and was invisible unless you happened to look carefully between the pages.

So I am reunited with a cherished bookmarker, and once again can say that having a big photo archive, with so much of my daily life recorded in it, has saved the day. 

For this isn't the only occasion when I've looked into my archive to find out something - usually to answer questions such as: 'when did I buy it?' or, if clothing, 'when did I last wear it?' and if I no longer have it, 'what did it look like?'. 

The 'when' questions crop up most. It might be an ornament in my lounge that I gave to Mum as a present long ago, and eventually inherited, so that I now have it back. I'm somewhat forgetful, so it's good to have the means to trace pictures from the 1970s and 1980s that show the object I'm interested in, and therefore confirm just how long it's been in the family, in one place or another. 

Occasionally I see something in these old pictures that tugs at my heart. Perhaps it was something that vanished once my marriage (or my later relationship) failed, and we each took our own possessions away. It's funny how quite ordinary, mundane objects can trigger a wistful reaction so long afterwards. It makes you ponder on what went wrong, how things might have gone differently, what might have been. But the past is gone, and fixed, and can't be amended. Nor relived.

If some object in an old photo does evoke a pang of sorrow, I don't discard that picture. It has to stay. Even if it's brought to mind moments of stress, spitefulness and argument. It's important to face up to what used to be, how things actually were, and learn the lesson. 

Tuesday, 7 December 2021


Christmas time still makes me think of office parties and work-related meetups of various kinds, even sixteen years after I retired in 2005. Isn't that curious? As if I've never let go, and would still like to go back. 

Of course I wouldn't, not now. I was relieved to retire early at age fifty-two, and I did it with no backward glance. I didn't become one of those rather sad people who keep closely in touch, and pop by often, hoping to keep up with office news, and see all the old familiar faces, because they have nothing else in their lives. Nor did I turn up for successive Christmas parties. I followed Dad's advice, which I quoted in an essay I wrote in 2006 called The Job. I published it eventually as a blog post in early 2010. This is what I wrote:

Dad advised me never to go back: to turn down, as he had, dinners, lunches and reunions. Certainly never to visit the office again. I knew he was right. Once gone you were old news and just a ghost from the past. What indeed was there to discuss, cut off from the day-to-day life of the office? Did people really want to know how much I was enjoying unlimited leisure on an ample pension? And would I want to learn that all my cases had been completely forgotten? Or that one or two had embarrassed the department? 

Who would know who I was anyway? I had expected to slip from people's minds within six months. Even if this were not true, and I was long remembered, I was in effect a dead person, and must not return to haunt the living.

Wise words. And I followed them for six years. 

Then in February 2011 the chance came to meet up for lunch in Croydon with three other still-working former colleagues, and nostalgia got the better of me. And it went well! We repeated the experience in April 2012 and November 2014 with the same success. For the latter occasion, my old boss joined us. I remember finding him pre-lunch, perusing a book at Waterstones in Croydon's Whitgift Centre, and I didn't walk away before he saw me but took the initiative in saying hello. He hadn't changed, apart from being dressed casually, instead of in a smart suit. He was affability itself. If he felt like raising his eyebrows at the latter-day me, he didn't show it. (Nine years into retirement, I'd completely shed my old office demeanour, and was chirpy and relaxed, if not actually frivolous) Here we are in the restaurant:

By now he'd retired himself, and was pursuing his interest in canal boats to his heart's content. The joys of the leisured life! Just as I was enjoying ever more adventurous caravan holidays.

Two more meetups in the near future were proposed, and I readily agreed to come. But this turned out to be a mistake. They were my final reunions.

The first of these final events, in December 2014, wasn't an intimate reunion of a few former colleagues. It was a full-blown office Christmas Lunch, involving many people from an entire floor of the high-rise building that I once worked in. Not from the sixth floor though, where the Investigating Inspectors like myself were housed: from a lower floor, for more junior grades - the support teams. My being there was literally a visitation from above, retired though I might be. It might well have seemed to some that I had been foisted onto their celebration. What was I doing there? Who indeed was I? Nine years on from 2005, there weren't many who recalled exactly who I was, and what had been my function, beyond the bare facts that I'd been a long-serving senior officer mainly involved with corporate investigation; and that I'd been one of the lucky few who had managed to get out when the chance came back in 2005. 

I had indeed been lucky. Here's an extract from another essay I wrote in 2006 - clearly I had things to get off my chest about the work I'd done, and the guilt I'd felt for walking away from it so easily. This other essay was called The Pension. I published it as a blog post in February 2010, as a sequel to The Job. Reading it now, I think it describes the circumstances at the time - at least as I saw them - rather well. This was an important episode in my personal history, but I still apologise for the length of the extract. And my inability to get the font right. 

At length an announcement was made in 2004 by Gordon Brown, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the Inland Revenue and HM Customs & Excise would merge in 2005. And that in consequence as many as 12,500 of their staff would be surplus to requirements, and must leave by the end of 2006. The unions were aghast. But, on reflection, how could numbers be reduced? There were to be no redundancies. If you were not going to force people to leave, you’d have to make them an offer so good that they couldn’t refuse. But how paid for? No special funding would be provided. So my opinion was (and colleagues agreed) that there couldn't be another retirement deal. We braced ourselves for less congenial measures to get rid of people, such as a programme of transfers, shifting staff around, making their working lives worse. This would encourage the required ‘natural wastage’ - people getting out to avoid inconvenient daily travel, or an unwanted change of duties.   
But then in early 2005 - completely out of the blue - an early retirement deal was suddenly offered to those over 50. Approved Early Retirement it was called. This included me. As a deal, it wasn’t universally attractive. If you were in a low grade, or had not built up many years of reckonable service, your pension would be small; and there was no lump sum unless you had stayed with the old 1970 pension scheme. I had opted for the new scheme in 2001, which gave me more pension, but no lump sum. Even so, the arithmetic came out well for me, and I immediately applied for early retirement on the basis offered. 

Another colleague, older than me, with a wife in the Revenue who would also be able to go - and both in the old pension scheme - stood to do exceptionally well out of it, and they applied too. But for others the decision was more difficult. Generally the pension would be too small for their needs. Most had family responsibilities, children still at university, or soon to go. Some male colleagues had younger wives who did not want to retire, so that they would be kicking their heels at home, with nothing in particular to do. They feared boredom. And some other people said the scheme was not nearly good enough for them; they thought that another would follow, a better deal altogether, and they preferred to wait for it. This seemed like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But belief in a succession of ever-better schemes was common. It was thought that if the government were serious about reducing staff numbers, they were bound to offer more and more in the way of inducements until they got the numbers they wanted. So it was almost foolish to accept the first deal, which was just to test the water. How wrong this view turned out to be!   

And yet it seemed obvious that any Inspector who applied stood only a slim chance of success. The staff most needed for the new HMRC were the experienced investigators, people like me in fact. Clerical staff were not needed so much, and in some areas would indeed be surplus to requirements. Clearly the cuts would fall first on the junior grades. And they were the lowest-paid, the cheapest to retire. In the light of this, people like myself - Inspectors with experience, on relatively high salaries - seemed unlikely to be released. Inspectors more senior to me especially so. The government wanted droves of clerical people to respond instead. It became known that London Region expected 1,000 applications for its area, and it published a pecking order in case the scheme were over-subscribed. I and my investigating colleagues were depressingly low down on the list. But, undaunted, we made our applications, sometimes in the face of dry comments from senior management that we were wasting our time, as we would never be allowed to go. 

It did not turn out as expected. There were 600 people in my office at Croydon, but only 18 there applied, most of them Inspectors. It was a similar picture elsewhere. The clerical people just could not afford to give up work, or did not want to. 

After a month of anxious waiting we 18 had our applications approved, amid whoops of joy. There was an immediate party atmosphere for not just a day, but for all my remaining time there. A feeling that the strain was off. Even those too young to apply, or who had refrained from applying, seemed full of goodwill and smiles. Amazed senior managers congratulated us on our wonderful luck. Even accountants (if we told them) more often than not offered their best wishes for the future, and regret at the severing of a good working relationship. I thought I detected some dark mutterings on other floors, among lower grade staff who had fallen victim to work restructuring. And I remember one accountant who made sour remarks about my wanting to shut down a case before I went, putting his client under pressure to agree to some settlement proposals. But these grumblings were not typical. On the whole we 18 were the darlings of all who knew us. Even senior managers could find comfort in losing us. Although awkward in some ways, our departure created a perfect opportunity to renegotiate targets reluctantly agreed with London Region. 

It was all a fantastic piece of good luck. Common sense told me to accept it. But I could not help feeling that, for me, the luck was not deserved. I had not been a star investigator, just someone who had stuck it out for thirty-five years, had no family to support, and could afford to apply. I had not ‘earned’ this reward. But I was making a basic mistake. Approval to retire was not a reward at all. It was just incidental to the government’s wish to reduce the staff figures. As long as somebody - anybody - accepted the deal, that wish was on its way to being fulfilled. Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, would have thanked me. But it would be thanks for making the government’s job easier at Question Time, not thanks for the work I did over all those years. My personal past performance, poor or perfection itself, was completely irrelevant.      
I heard in September 2005 that this particular early retirement scheme had turned out to be the only one that senior staff could freely apply for. It had been a unique chance. I didn’t feel smug at the news, just glad that I hadn’t hesitated for a minute. And glad that I hadn’t tried to be clever, or greedy, waiting for a better deal.   

I mentioned dark grumbling in some quarters, from staff who had miscalculated the chances of a better deal, or - unable to apply for early retirement - were disgruntled or fearful concerning their future prospects, and envious of those who could leave and escape the coming departmental merger and the difficulties it was bound to bring. These resentments were soon intensified by a long-lasting department-wide pay freeze imposed soon after I'd gone - while, in galling contrast, my pension was increased annually in line with inflation (and continues to be to this day). Small wonder that a few at that Christmas Lunch must have felt I needed a smack in the face, and had no right to bust in and be merry. 

So I felt slightly unwelcome. An interloper. And most certainly, an unsettling presence. An eagle mixing with pigeons and sparrows. 

Well, undaunted, and wanting to please, I entered into the Christmas spirit as much as I could. Here I am, being genial and having fun in a cowboy hat:

But it was an awkward experience.

And then, in January 2015, just over a month later, I attended the second of these final events - another big lunch. I can't quite remember now, but either someone had got promotion, or they were leaving the big Croydon office for another equally large office elsewhere in London. The preliminary drink in a pub, with my old boss and some former colleagues was a success.

But again, at the lunch itself I knew only a handful of people, and although seeing them was pleasant, I was still rather out of it. And the gang was breaking up. One of our original meetup group back in 2011 hadn't been able to come, and two others were talking about moving away from London. So it looked as if this would, anyway, be the last of our Croydon reunions.

And it was. There have been none since. 

Perhaps just as well. Even in 2011, I'd been shocked and saddened to hear of the death or dire ill-health of colleagues I used to know. It's certain that the roll call of those tragically struck down by ill-health or ill-fortune will have grown longer. Possibly very much longer, for many colleagues had been hard-drinking types - or smokers, or both - during their career, and had undermined their chances of a long life in good health. 

And while I wouldn't be the only retiree who had looked after herself, and kept her fitness intact, I would definitely be one of an ever-diminishing minority. I've aged quite a bit since 2005, but there'd be those who must have drastically changed, becoming a frail grey shadow of their former selves. I wouldn't want to see them in such a state, nor make them feel awful for seeing me in good shape still. 

So it's better for everyone if I heed Dad's advice, and stick to it. No more reunions!

Sunday, 5 December 2021

Making an old sleeve eye-catching

My Samsung Galaxy S20+ phone lives inside an impact-resistant clear plastic case, which leaves the screen uncovered. To protect that screen, I slip phone and case fully inside a black leather sleeve that I made back in 2017 for my Samsung Galaxy S8. The sleeve still fits, even though the S20+ is just a little larger. 

Why a leather sleeve? Well, it offers excellent protection. Leather naturally cushions any accidental impacts. The phone can easily be slid out for use, and the same sleeve can act as a soft, non-slip pad to place the phone on. 

Mind you, I'm clearly in a very small minority. Most people go for some kind of fancy manufactured wallet for their phone, the most popular being the 'book' type, where you open the wallet like a book, revealing the phone on one side and various plastic cards on the other. To my mind, this is a clumsy option. A book shape is not easy to hold, and the weight distribution is lop-sided. And I read somewhere that if a book-shaped case slips from your grasp, and falls onto something hard, tests have shown that it flops wide open, and always exposes the phone's screen to face-down contact with the concrete, or whatever unyielding surface it encounters. With, of course, unwelcome cosmetic consequences. 

But the book type of phone case prevails. I suppose that if you want to carry phone and credit cards in one compact, pocketable package - and maybe dispense with a bag - then it's a good idea. Although personally I would never carry phone and credit cards together in the same case. What if you mislaid the case? Or somebody picked your pocket? Or bag? Or somebody spiked your drink, and took everything while you were woozy or out for the count? (Apparently the latest type of criminal theft this Christmas)

I'm sticking to a leather sleeve. But I've now had to make it eye-catching, not for the sake of fashion, but to stop me putting my phone down on some dark surface and unintentionally leaving it there.

I had a fright three days ago, when I nearly got onto a train, having accidentally left my phone on a seat in the station ticket office. 

I should explain that currently my car Fiona is confined to short shopping trips to the nearest Waitrose. Six days ago, when on a country drive, she impaled a rear wheel on a sliver of flint that must have been shaped like an arrow-head. Indeed, for all I know it was in fact a neolithic arrow-head. Ancient or modern, it cut a big hole in the tyre, writing it off. Even if somehow repairable, I wouldn't feel safe going caravanning with a patched-up tyre. The car and caravan together weigh three tons, and that demands very good tyres that haven't been compromised in any way. 

For the first time in five years, I called out Britannia Rescue, the road-rescue organisation liked with the Civil Service Motoring Association, who nowadays call themselves by the snappier name of Boundless. I have to say, it was the quickest rescue I've ever had. The cavalry arrived in little more than half and hour. I barely had enough time to empty the boot, fetch out the spare wheel, and buy a coffee at the adjacent pub (The Noah's Ark) on the village green I'd reached (the village was Lurgashall). The guy who came was very pleasant. In short order the wounded wheel was off and the spare installed. No paperwork; all done by electronic means. He merely noted my current mileage. He advised me to drive home very carefully, and not exceed 50mph. 

The spare tyre was the space-saving sort - a little smaller than a regular tyre, and much narrower. Not at all substantial. Not a tyre I'd want to stress. Apparently, they have only a thin tread. You have to inflate them to a scary 60psi. I have visions of the thing exploding if the car becomes too heavy. So I haven't been doing any unnecessary motoring. It's been my turn to cadge lifts off my local friends! 

I've ordered four brand-new tyres at the Volvo dealer - I don't trust the local tyre people. They are special tyres (Michelin Cross-Climates) that I need for caravanning, as they give me excellent traction on wet grass. They will cost a lot, but last for ages. The fatally damaged tyre had done 25,000 miles, and would probably have been good for another 10,000 miles at least. I had planned to replace both rear tyres anyway by the end of 2022; they will now be fitted nine or ten months sooner than expected. But still 10,000 miles of use wasted. Tsk. 

I've decided to replace the front tyres also. They were scheduled to be fitted before my next MOT in March. Bringing this forward isn't nearly so annoying.

I'm looking at a total tyre bill of around £800, but it's budgeted for, simply coming sooner than intended. Meanwhile, I'm effectively grounded as regards leisure use of my car, but still able to get to a station and go somewhere. That's why I was buying a return ticket to Crawley, paying by phone. And that's why Prudence (my phone) was out of my bag, and got overlooked when hurriedly repacking my bag on a seat in the waiting room-cum-ticket office.

Fortunately they quickly made a platform announcement, and I discovered to my horror, after checking my bag, that they were talking about me. I scurried back. The ticket office girl was waiting with a smile. I'd flashed my Senior Railcard when paying, and she must have thought 'Poor old dear, so scatter-brained'. I didn't mind what she might be thinking. I was so grateful to be reunited with Prudence so easily. And gutted to think what the loss of my phone would have meant.

The train came along soon after. As I sat in it, I wondered how I could have been so careless. I'm never prone to losing things. It was as if Prudence, snug inside her black leather sleeve, had momentarily become invisible as I stuffed Railcard, tickets and receipt inside my bag. Well, in a sense she had. The sitting surface of the seat was some dark material, and the leather sleeve had blended in with it. If the sleeve had been a colour other than black, I'd have noticed it and not rushed away without my phone.

I promised myself that I would make a new and brighter leather sleeve. I had a red and yellow leather offcuts at home. A priority job, then! ASAP!

Yesterday evening I set to. Cutting a strip of red leather to size was a doddle. I was going to add a yellow patch, to make the sleeve even more stand-out. Think of colourful buoys at harbour mouths. Or traffic signs. The colours had to catch my attention in difficult lighting, or on dark backgrounds.

The second photo was taken in different ambient light, which has made the red leather look rather brown. It's the same strip though. I was going to hand-sew the thing together. I had three proper leather needles. 

It didn't however go to plan. The red leather was quite thick, and I had to push the needle through very firmly indeed. Inevitably, I broke two of them, and had to abandon the job before I broke yet another. Unthwarted, I then decided to reuse the original black leather sleeve from 2017, adding yellow and red patches to it, this time sticking them on with glue. 

It worked.

Now that does catch the eye! I don't think I could overlook the black sleeve now. The yellow and red patches are on the business side of the sleeve, and the red arrow points to the right end for sliding the phone out. So I can do it by touch, and with bleary eyes. Useful for when I wake up in the morning - without my glasses on, of course - and need to extract Prudence to stop the wake-up alarm. And then re-insert her into the sleeve, before she drops from my barely-awake grasp. 

Ah, you might say. What if you put that sleeve face-down on a dark surface? So that the yellow and red patches don't show? Wouldn't this foil your scheme, as you are a scatter-brained old dear?

Well, as it happens, two of my friends said the same thing. So I've now stuck blue and yellow patches on the other side of the sleeve, so that even if I put it down on the 'wrong' side on a dark background, I'll notice it. And of course I can tell from the colours showing which is the side for sliding the phone out screen-up.