Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Merry Christmas...from British Rail

Went in to the client's today.

To celebrate, South West Trains decided to make the journey from Salisbury to London take three hours. "Circumstances beyond their control", they said, "overrunning engineering work". The trouble with the fragmentation driven by privatisation is that it is always someone else's fault.

Still, SWT will still get their revenue in full, which is the main thing I suppose. They may even get compensated by Network Rail for the inconvenience their passengers have suffered. The fact that I didn't get to take a lunch break, plus felt obliged to take an hour's reading for the train just to make inroads into the things on my to-do list, is surely inconsequential.

Useless Bastards.

Monday, 25 December 2006

Christmas Spirit

Ah, Christmas is done for another year.

We've just finished lunch, which was a great success and has left everybody stuffed. A traditional turkey dinner (delicious, ordered from one of the farms from the Farmers' Market, and picked up yesterday) complete with all the trimmings.

To start lunch, of course the obligatory crackers were pulled - I bought some Fortnum and Mason Liqueur crackers, and Alice was pleasantly surprised to receive, along with her joke and hat, a minature of a 12-year-old single malt! In previous years these crackers have also contained a delicious after-dinner mint each, but strangely they appear to have discontinued this practise. A shame, although the house is swimming in chocolate at the moment so I can't complain.

Alice, of course, is deleriously happy, Father Christmas having delivered Pixel Chix galore to the house. In fairness to her, she was very good since she woke up with a tummy ache in the middle of the night, after Father Christmas had been, but was content just to snuggle up to a teddy bear poking out of the top of her sack, and a hot water bottle. She then slept through uptil around 7:30am. I know that when I was her age, had I woken in the middle of the night, I would have spent the next couple of hours unwrapping presents!
It is slightly ironic that, for all the presents she received, she has got the most fun so far out of a joke present I bought for Jacqueline - a radio-controlled dalek! (Very useful for warning the cat off the baubles as it happens!) Jacqueline's other present was a Bose docking station for her iPod, which I have to admit gives out a truly superb sound (though it should for the price).

For me, I was given a couple of books, plus a Dvd of the second Pirates of the Carribean - doubtless a good yarn for this evening, some smallies and, from my mother, the obligatory socks. Bless her, she tries so hard!
Christmas being a Monday this year, we've had plenty of time to prepare. Though we nominally did the Christmas shop last weekend, there was still time to visit the shops once again this week. For me, I worked the full week last week, though obviously the client's was very quiet. Even more, I've decided to go in between Christmas and New Year - there's just so much I need to get on top of at the moment.

My car survived its service with a clean bill of health, though unfortunately I managed to scrape the loan car, so I will need to pay the insurance excess on top of the service bill. Idiot! Just as well I'm working this week!

Friday, 15 December 2006

Goal

Well, I survived my football match. Quite a good experience as a one-off, although the quality of the football left something to be desired and even the pundits the next day were saying how awful Chelsea played.
Having had a spot to eat we arrived in our seats with just minutes to spare before kick-off. The seats themselves were up in the main stand, and were sufficiently high that we were level with the rooves of the other stands. Also, we couldn't see either scoreboard. On the plus side, however we had a good, unobstructed view of the pitch (even if it did seem a long way away!)

Mourinho had obviously tried to rest some of his players, and the eleven out there (which still included many "big names") looked in the first half as though they'd never played together before. Even though Newcastle didn't do anything particularly constructive, you could still see the possibility of them scoring on the break.

The guy I went with - a Chelsea fan - had told me how bad Shaun Wright-Phillips was and having seen how good he was at Man City, I must admit I found it hard to believe - until Wednesday. Carvalho, too, seemed to be a complete donkey. Both, fortunately, were substituted at half-time. For the rest, Terry, Ballack, Lampard, Essien and co looked very ordinary. Their goalkeeper, Hilario, looked very temperamental but to be fair to him, his biggest problem seemed to be keeping warm!

At half-time Mourinho brought Drogba on and the difference was marked, with Chelsea starting to work some good moves together right from the off. He certainly introduced a touch of class into the game. Also, Ballack started to show his strength and class, and even Lampard started threading some good balls through. It was still quite frustrating, however, because they seemed to be playing everything through the middle, while they had wingers standing out on either touchline who weren't seeing anything of the ball.

The goal when it came was a scrappy affair. It looked like Shevchenko (who only played the last half-hour but who is obviously having trouble finding his feet) took a shot, but got absolutely no power on it. Fortunately for Chelsea, Drogba was able to latch onto the shot and just rifled it past the keeper at his near post. I felt the relief all around me.

As it happened I left ten minutes before the end, in order to catch my train. Unfortunately, allowing myself 50 minutes to get from Chelsea to Waterloo was hopelessly optimistic, and I ended up missing the train by around fifteen minutes and having to wait almost an hour for the next train, the last of the night, which didn't depart until 11:30pm.

It was amazing to see Waterloo at a time of day that I never normally see it. To my surprise it seemed every bit as busy as when I use it at 6 o'clock. There were people, obviously having had nights out, dressed in all kinds of garb. There was even a chap dressed as Horatio Hornblower running for his train!

Still, we arrived back in Salisbury for just after 1am and I was in bed for 1:30am. All-in-all, a long night. And it didn't help that the alarm went off at 5:45am, as normal, the next day.

Suffice to say, yesterday was a struggle!

Last night when we got home we had an interesting task, that was to manouver our suite out of the house. A fair bit of thinking required because whilst the suite would quite happily jam if we just applied brute force, by thinking about the problem we were able to position the sofas correctly and just to slide them through the doors. Hopefully the chaps bringing the new suite today will find it just as easy!

Obviously, with changing suites, there is currently a fair amount of upheaval in the lounge. A victim of this appears to have been my laptop, which started exhibiting the same problems I first spotted during this year's holiday. After the holiday, the laptop's problems just seemed to go away, although in truth I think they were just disguised by the fact that at home, the laptop just generally sits on the sofa armrest and doesn't move around a lot.

Upshot is I'm going to need to get the thing repaired. Fortunately there is a place in central London which can probably do the job (and relatively cheaply probably), but it is touch and go how long this will all take, what with Christmas coming up shortly.

Fun, fun, fun.

Monday, 11 December 2006

Stormy Times

Its been a while since I wrote a blog in detail, and this I'm afraid is for one reason only - motivitis!

We've just spent a lethargic weekend watching not a great deal on the tv, and watching the rain fall on the garden. Alice could not get hold of her friend Jack, so even she was moping around the house. It is still stormy now, and this is the forecast for the rest of the week. Still, I suppose we are spared from the cold - for the moment at least.

First things first, I have paid off the Inland Revenue. In truth, it probably turned out no different to it would have done had I filed the return at the last possible moment, it is just the hassle of having to discuss it with them. So, for a month or two at least, I'm working for myself and not for Gordon. That having been said, the car is having its service next week so I probably shouldn't speak too soon.

Of course we are gearing up for christmas. Over the last week or so I've bought most of the presents I intend buying. Basically everyone has ended up furnishing me with their requirements in advance, all I've really done is to be the errand boy. Of course there will be a couple of surprises - I can't wait to see Jacqueline's face when she opens her radio-controlled dalek, for example!

One of the things we did do at the weekend was to sort out the tree - as usual obtained from the garden centre at Wilton. It seems incredibly early, but in reality there was only this weekend and next. Anyways, said tree is now standing on the driveway in a bucket of water! I got the decorations out of the loft yesterday, so they can bring it in and decorate it at their leisure.

Anyway, now that christmas is pretty much sorted, I can go back to being miserable!

What else? I'm going to a football match this week, for the first time in eleven years. Going to see Chelsea play Newcastle with a chap from the clients. The tickets cost £65 apiece! That's twice as much as I used to pay for my Season Ticket (that was 21 games!!) at Everton.

On the subject of the clients, again I can feel myself getting into a rut. For the first time since we renewed the contract I updated my cv. I registered with Monster for the first time and was literally peppered with calls from agents during the course of the week. Unfortunately the same old story - from all the phone calls there wasn't a single role I thought suitable. Still, here's hoping - January generally brings a flurry of activity so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Friday, 8 December 2006

San Quentin

I am just watching a documentary on National Geographic about San Quentin prison.

Does anybody else find it ironic that a prison has lots of "Exit" signs everywhere?

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Catch Up

Becoming very lazy, it must be the dark days (and even darker nights) we've been having. Went to the Farmers' market last Sunday and got soaked - Jacqueline had the sense to stay in bed. I did, however, order the christmas turkey.

Alice proved herself to be something of a dark horse - after the usual moaning about doing homework when she finally got to do it not only did she do it quickly but she also did it proficiently. I've always thought her quite weak at math but she was able to do her times tables with very few problems. The work was set from this Education City website, so assuming the questions were typical for her age, she did very well indeed. She only got 9/10 first time around, so being the hard taskmaster that I am I got her to do it once again, whereupon she got full marks.

Been upgrading computers again. Upgraded Alice's hard disk, plus the hard disk in my laptop. For the desktop machines, whenever I've upgraded the disks I've always upgraded them to Maxtor disks, and Maxtor have published a (freeware) utility which allows disk cloning - but only where one of the disks is a Maxtor disk. When upgrading the laptop, though, I had to find an alternative. The laptop is a development machine and so I run Windows 2003 Server on it. I contacted one company who told me that because it was a "server" operating system, I would have to buy their whizz-bang server product for $699 (the new hard disk just cost £75), however I found another vendor - Acronis - who push a product called MigrateEasy. It is very slick, very painless, very easy to use, and did not whine about my "server" system. It is also very cheap ($40 to buy, $0 for a fifteen day trial). It was so good that I set it going as I went to bed last night, and this morning I was greeted by a simple message telling me that everything was finished, I swapped the new disk for the old one, and simply started the computer up. Wonderful. So good, in fact, that I have no further need for the software so won't be going beyond the trial version. However I've made a note of their name, so if ever I need (or am asked to recommend) a backup solution...

Apart from that....have just paid the Revenue off so am now quits with them; on the other hand, my car is due for its service/mot; have finally got Alice to write down a list of all the presents she'd like for christmas, and I think I'm just going to give her the money. Oh, and I've booked for us to come up to the west end over christmas to see The Snowman. In lieu of panto this year, I think.

Monday, 20 November 2006

Leaves on the Line

Today's train journeys took 2 1/4 hours this morning and 2 hours this evening. The scheduled journey time is about 1h20.

I wonder whether "leaves on the line" was ever an excuse before privatisation?

Monday, 13 November 2006

Hallelujah

Looks like the anemometer is working normally once again. Praise the lord for inventing the sycamore tree.

Sunday, 12 November 2006

Windy Miller

I've been a bit worried about my weather station lately. The weather here has been calm for a few weeks now, but even so I was a little concerned that in all that time, the wind speed indicator has not moved above zero.

Now, its not overly unsual for the wind speed to be zero for a day or so, but for about the last three weeks? The wind direction indicator is obviously working, since that has been showing realistic values throughout. Unsurprisingly the wind speed and direction are measured from the same instrument, so at least if the direction were working it would be unlikely to be either the connection or the base unit (which has been measuring temprtature etc. quite happily).

I'd resigned myself to having to buy a new piece of kit - apparently these things only last so long in any case - but today (in near dark and after around 4 hours tidying the garden, I might add) I summoned the courage to climb onto the roof to take a look just in case.

Lo and behold the little propeller seemed to have been jammed by, of all things, a sycamore seed.

Only thing is, it is very still once again right now, so I haven't been able to see whether I've fixed the problem yet. Otherwise I guess I'll just end up dipping into my pocket once again - plus of course another trip onto the roof.

Friday, 10 November 2006

Quality

I noticed last night that the Evening Standard now runs with the banner "London's Quality Newspaper". Presumably this is in the wake of the start up of the two free evening papers in London.

True, from what I have seen they both appear to be rubbish. But equating the Standard with quality? That's stretching my imagination a bit too far...

Thursday, 2 November 2006

I smell winter

Last weekend the clocks went back, so my journeys home are now immersed in darkness. Then over the last two days there has been an overnight frost on my car. We have gone during the course of just three days from a low of around 8° Tuesday, 3.5° yesterday, with a light dusting of frost, down to zero today, and a somewhat thicker frost.

For all of that, because of it I suppose, the weather is bright and as I drove into Salisbury this morning the cathedral appeared at its finest.

I have been lazy with my blogging this week, having felt under the weather since around Sunday. However colds are only to be expected at this time of year, and most everyone is sniffing at the moment. In essense, therefore, not a great deal has happened.

I interviewed some people on the client's behalf earlier on in the week - my first time interviewing in around four years, and my first time at all on behalf of this client. Great fun doing it and almost having lost my voice!

I put the Yorkshire photos in the web site last Sunday, some quite good ones in there, must try and put one into the blog at some point. I was so struck by the Dales that I have since been onto eBay and bought a couple of "landscape" books of the area - Jacqueline would say they're a waste of money, which is why she doesn't know!

Thursday, 26 October 2006

The Solution

found whilst searching for some hyperlinks...

The "original" White Bear pub once stood on the area of open ground to the right of the garage. On the 16th April 1941 a parachute mine was dropped by an enemy plane and landed on the pub killing four local people and two soldiers – the pub was rebuilt further back from the road.

Full article (a walk around Masham) here. Thanks to Mark Reid, whoever you are.

Homeward Bound

Where was I?

Ah, yes, Monk Fryston Hall. Sumptuous, relaxing three course dinner (the only "big" meal of our stay) followed by a very restful (and spookless) night's sleep. I'm not too sure whether we'll ever come back to this part of the world, but this hotel would be a great base if we do. Dinner was so huge that even at breakfast we could only face egg on toast, prior to the journey westward across the Pennines.

Traffic was quite heavy but I managed a steady 70mph and we arrived at our first destination, Ikea, just about an hour after we set off. Quick shop (got a new, smaller computer desk for Alice's room) then lunch (meatballs, what else?) and we were back on the motorway for the short journey to my mum's. By this time the heavens had opened, and it was raining quite heavily.

We got to Grandma's by 2 o'clock and both of them seemed happy to see us. I gathered that nerves had been a bit fraught over the last couple of days. Yesterday, apparently, Alice had been so excited waiting for us to arrive that anything my mum did to occupy her came to nothing. Still, once we arrived everyone was happy.

Because of the rain we stayed at my mum's until as late as we dared, but it was to no avail. I ended up getting soaked loading stuff into the car, and as we drove off the rain was still heavy. For some reason we hit traffic within five minutes of leaving my mum's, and unfortunately this was to be the story of our journey home. I drove down to Warwick, where it took just on 4 hours to cover the 125 miles. After a distinctly unhealthy supper Jacqueline took the wheel. Both traffic and rain were now lighter and she was able to maintain a decent speed. In the end, we got home at around 9:30pm.

Terrible journey.

Alice went straight to bed, although I needed to stay up a while in order to chill. And now it is the morning after, I am sitting on the London-bound train. There was a derailment at Waterloo a couple of days ago, and I will need to change at Basingstoke. Down to earth with a bump!
Highlights of Yorkshire were:
  • seeing the Dales once again.
  • visiting the charming towns of Hawes, Leyburn, Masham and Thirsk
  • the excellent quality of the food. Despite us checking out of the King's Head early, the roast lamb we had on Sunday night was, in my opinion, second only to lamb I once had at the Tour d'Argent in Paris. It simply melted in the mouth. And the gammon from the Bolton Arms in Leyburn wasn't far behind, although the portions were far too large for us. I think over the next few days I need to detox!
  • Wensleydale cheese
  • last but not least, getting to spend some time with Jacqueline, sans enfant. These times really do remind you of why you got together in the first place.

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Haunted

Mixed day.

We had a wonderful breakfast up in Leyburn, and if guest houses are your thing, Clyde House was excellent. Breakfast was served during a half-hour window, the result being that we were ready quite early.
After visiting a couple of shops in Leyburn we motored on, down to Masham once more. This time Theakstons Brewery (or was it Black Sheep?) was well in evidence, the town smelling of hops. (Reminded me of my university days, and Brains brewery in the centre of Cardiff.) At Masham we visited a couple of shops we'd earmarked, one in particular a deli with some wonderful food, the other a wonderful glass workshop where we picked up something nice for Grandma.

On from Masham, through Ripon and across to York. It had been recommended to us to use the Park and Ride (a sound piece of advice), and although we managed to park quite quickly we still had one problem - no room booked for tonight. Fortunately, the Red guide came into its own and right now we are sitting in Monk Fryston Hall, a reputedly-haunted house dating from the sixteenth century. Wonderful - the bar area is full of panelled walls and it was difficult to resist the temptation of knocking on them.

York itself was slightly disappointing. Very crowded, which didn't help.The last time I was here was as a teenager, the last time Jacqueline had been there was around 10 years ago. We went around the Treasury House (NT, so free) by the minster, but to be honest I wasn't in the mood. The guy behind the house may have been visionary in terms of the furniture he collected, but from what I could gather he was basically a rich kid. Went down all the little streets, the Shambles etc. but as I said the volume of people made it awkward. Contemplated going to Betty's Tea Rooms (famous apparently) for afternoon tea, but did not like the idea of queuing. Instead we found a charming little tea shop on the first floor of a lovely shop, where we were able to look down on the throngs below.

By the time the rain started we were pretty much tired out. We didn't find the Viking museum, and this would probably be the only reason for visiting York once again.

Homeward bound tomorrow. By the sounds of things Alice has had her moments, and in fact even left a message on my phone saying how Grandma was being horrible to her. Trouble is, whenever one of us asks Alice to do something she doesn't want to do (for example tidying up a mess she's made), we're being horrible to her. So this language is very subjective. I guess the key markers will be (i) how willing is she to come home tomorrow, and (ii) how will she respond to the suggestion that she visits Grandma once again.

Time will tell...

Quiet Night

Last night's entry was interrupted in the end not by the phone giving out (it is happily sitting here with two bars on the battery indicator), but by the desire to get a good, home-cooked meal inside us, and the Bolton Arms did us proud.

Leyburn is such a pretty village, and even despite there being a distinct nip in the air as we walked back to the b&b, the stroll was lovely.

I have just woken from a (wonderfully quiet) night's slumbers, and can hear Jacqueline breathing deeply beside me. Being up here has been so relaxing - normally at this time I would be London-bound. Today - our last day here - we will visit York and will take a hotel down there this evening. I have to say that even though the place we're staying at (Clyde House) is very well equipped and very quiet, we both feel less comfortable staying in b&bs than we would staying in a hotel. Basically the fact that you're staying in someone else's house is just that little bit too personal for us. Strange? Probably...

Monday, 23 October 2006

Change of Plans

This entry might have to be brief since the battery on my phone is low.

First job of the day was to check out of the hotel. We were due to spend another two nights there but on both Saturday and yesterday we had to go downstairs and ask that they turned some music off - our room was almost over the restaurant and even though the restaurant was empty the music was still blaring out. Too much.

So, all checked out we headed to Thirsk, which was a lovely way to spend the morning. Also, though we'd had rain overnight, we had lovely sunshine today. A visit to Thirsk would be incomplete without visiting the Herriot museum, where the house is kept almost as it was from forty or fifty years ago. I read all of the Herriot books as a teenager, and not long ago read Alf Wight's biography, and so for me the visit was totally in context. Jac had never read his books, but I think her appetite has now been whetted.

On from Thirsk up to Richmond. Nice enough, but Richmond seemed subtly less affluent than the other places we'd visited. The market square was pretty, and the view from the castle superb, but we both felt as if it were time to leave after a couple of hours.

Back into Wensleydale to Leyburn, where we've booked into a small Bed and Breakfast for the night. We got here about 4:30, time enough to explore the Market Square and to sample one of the local tea shops. To Jacqueline's thinking, a cream tea is justified each day by the amount of walking we've been doing, although I'm not so sure...

Sunday, 22 October 2006

Exploration

We've just returned from a lovely day exploring the Dales.

We started the day with a lovely cooked breakfast here at the hotel, with the weather alternating between bright and overcast.

Up to Leyburn, a beautiful village, and through Redmire (the village we stayed in during my childhood holidays - I didn't recognise anywhere) to Castle Bolton, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned for a time. After a somewhat windswept tour (the weather still holding) we drove on to Aysgarth Falls, which were spectacular. I don't know whether the photos will show it but the water, which was in full flow, had a red/brown tinge. We lunched at Aysgarth - a cheese roll, delicious Wensleydale of course - and then motored further along Wensleydale to Hawes, a charming little town.

At this point our luck with the weather ran out, and our anoraks were aired. By this time we felt in the mood for afternoon tea, so stopped at the Wensleydale Creamery (which, we found strange for a creamery, did not serve proper cream). The weather by now having totally greyed over, we set off once again, southward over the fells and down into Wharfdale. The sheep grazing freely beside the fast-running river reminded me a little of north Wales, although what really makes this area stand out are the dry stone walls. Absolutely lovely, and though I hate to say it, we are so chilled out without Alice.

Just short of Skipton we turned back east across Nidderdale to Pateley Bridge (again, lovely) and then north-east back up to Masham. All-in-all, a lovely day. A shame we have only two more to go...

Alice has just phoned and had a great time at Chester Zoo. By the sounds of things she has bought at least a couple of cuddly toys. Oh, and I have read some more about the bombing of Masham. Apparently the Germans dropped two parachute mines (the question remains, why?) which destroyed a pub and some houses, and actually killed six. So why only four mentioned on the memorial? Perhaps the other two were atheists? Or maybe servicemen? The plot thickens...

Saturday, 21 October 2006

Before I forget

As we were exploring Masham, we had a walk around the graveyard. There was a prominent war memorial there, and two things were memorable.

First, the number of siblings killed was remarkable.

Second, the memorial mentioned two couples who were actually killed in Masham when a German bomber dumped its payload on them. I mean, this is a village surrounded by all things green - is that unlucky or what?

Away Again

Whoopee - we are away for the second weekend in a row, this time much farther afield than Kent and absolutely guaranteed to be less stressful than last week.

Last night we headed north to see Grandma in Liverpool. This journey has had the potential over the years to be a complete nightmare - so much so that in the recent past we've taken to flying - but we were fortunate that, apart from a painful delay at Birmingham, the roads were fine and we sped northward. Still, given that I'd done a full day's work beforehand, it was still half-past-midnight by the time we arrived.

Alice, who had been.looking forward to the visit all week, slept most of the way up, but was very excited when we finally arrived at grandma's. However, this was not to be just another visit to grandma's.
This morning Jacqueline and I abandoned grandma to Alice, and pressed on. The destination? Well, Jacqueline and I have booked into a charming little hotel in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. So, away we headed along the M62, comfortably reaching (the very beautiful) Harrogate in time for lunch and a gentle stroll. Having explored Harrogate, we pushed on further through Ripon, where we didn't stop today, up to the village of Masham, to the King's Head hotel.

We arrived in time to visit a couple of shops before they closed, as we explored the village. We've been very lucky with the weather so far. Being Yorkshire, we've certainly packed our raincoats, but today has been sunny and I have been walking around in a t-shirt. Having said that, now we're comfortably settled in the hotel I can hear a rainstorm outside. Very much sunshine and showers weather, I certainly hope we have at least one nice day since we'd like to explore the Dales a little.

I last visited this part of the world as a boy over thirty years ago, when we came on a couple of family holidays here. My main memory of these holidays was the vast amounts of time spent travelling in the car. Now that I am mobile myself, the distances seem far shorter. As a boy the journey to Yorkshire took all day, whereas today we made it in two hours. I must say I have similar thoughts of our holidays to north Wales - interminable journeys which today are far quicker. I wonder why? Better roads? Faster cars? Poor memory?
Still, we're here now. Alice, by the way, has visited Grandad in his nursing home today. We spoke to her a short while ago and she's still very happy to be at grandma's. I believe they have a day out planned at Chester Zoo tomorrow. Ah....the excitement!

Thursday, 19 October 2006

TV Tastes

For some strange reason, Alice has taken to waking herself up, and getting herself up, shortly after me. She basically decamps to the bathroom, duvet and all, while I am in the shower.

When I get out of the shower, off we head to the lounge, where she puts the tv on.

For some even stranger reason, she seems to have become hooked on a programme called "Bespoked", on Sky Sports apparently every morning, which is basically about trail-biking (on both motorbikes and pushbikes). Quite why grown men riding (and frequently crashing) at speed along muddy trails appeals to my darling seven-year-old "girly" daughter I have yet to fathom.

The surreality is complete when she pipes up, "I want one of those for christmas"!

Web site tip, for anyone out there with kids, www.educationcity.com looks really good. Based closely on the UK National Curriculum, Alice's teacher even set her homework through it last week. We're still at the "free trial" stage but I phoned them up was told that entering the word "school" into the coupon field will reduce the cost of the subscription by a tenner. Good stuff.

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Parents Evening

Had a pleasant surprise last night, I popped into Alice's Parents Evening on the way home.

Her teacher seems really nice and is obviously fond of Alice. Even more importantly Alice is improving such that she is reading and writing at the national average level for her age - it has always been difficult to get her to concentrate and consequently she has always been below average academically, but she's obviously starting to move forward a bit now. She's still near the bottom of her class, though.

The main message from the teacher was that the results of her work are so, so dependent on her level of concentration, as we well know.

All in all, very positive.

Monday, 16 October 2006

Ahhhhhhhh

Well, we got home yesterday with only one further bit of hassle - Jac's mum came over to our table at breakfast, just after I'd finished writing the previous entry, and started berating Jac about her parenting skills.
She was probably joking to a certain extent, although having just got up at 7am to take Alice to hospital, my sense of humour on the "crap parents" line was worn pretty thin. Trying to sound lighthearted about the situation, I told her that any parents willing to do this could not possibly be "bad".

Anyway, we chilled in the room until around midday, and to be honest would have been home for 2pm had we not stopped off at Morrisons on the way. The only hold-up was some roadworks at Basingstoke.

The rest of the day was quiet. The webcam is in the process of being upgraded at the moment, so I did some work on that but need to get hold of a new drill bit before I can complete it. Also, it was sunny so I thought I'd mow the lawn one last time, but the lawn mower flatly refused to start and I got off scott free.

So all in all, a chilled end to a stressful weekend. Ready now to start the week!

Sunday, 15 October 2006

Not over yet

I should probably write an addendum to last night's entry.

One of the reasons that Alice became unbearably tearful last night was that she and I went for a torchlight walk - the grounds of this place were beautiful - and Alice stumbled and tripped. She is normally quite a hardy soul but this time it obviously hurt.

Still, despite complaining all the way to bed she dropped off immediately. I remember back to when I broke my arm, and sleep was impossible, so I thought the omens were good.

However, this morning, she was still complaining, and so we enter the parents' nightmare. Of course she was putting it on somewhat - she reeled in pain even as I tried to put a sock on her *other* foot. But of course you can't ignore her - if she really has broken her foot then the sooner it gets treated the better. And of course the only way to know for sure is to get an x-ray.

So guess where we were at 7:30 this morning? Yep, Maidstone A&E.

A wait, an x-ray and a bandage later, we arrive back at the hotel in time for breakfast.

Alice, hobbling along, has now recovered sufficiently to want to go for a swim. But of course the answer is No - getting us all up at 7 o'clock to rush to A&E is a major thing, and the last thing I am prepared to do is to trivialise it as though nothing has happened. In the worst case, if Alice really was swinging the lead, she needs to know that there are consequences to it. Anything else and, well, she's probably better off not swimming today anyway.

Jacqueline has said some quite negative things about her family this morning. We hadn't discussed it but obviously she's picked up some of the same stuff that I've picked up. We've both felt like outsiders this weekend - not really a problem for me since I've never really considered myself an "insider" - but Jacqueline has always thought she was quite close to her mum and sisters. Families.....it is like the bloody cosa nostra not matter what family you're in.

Saturday, 14 October 2006

Trial by Ordeal

Jeeeeez, thank god for that, we survived the wedding..... So unbelievably stressful.......never again.
It has just ended for us with a taxi ride back to the hotel. Over the last hour Alice has become hysterical, she has basically become overtired.

Remarkable things about the wedding:

Susan has two daughters, yet only one of them was asked to be the bridesmaid. The other daughter simply did a reading. Of course I am totally ignorant of the politics of the situation, but I did find it a little surprising.

The other bridesmaid was Susan's sister Lorraine. Her kids, Lucy and Solomon, were there as a page boy/flower girl. Jacqueline wasn't asked to be a bridesmaid, neither was Alice asked to be a flower girl. I wasn't aware of this until the actual ceremony itself, had I been I'd have stayed home.

The wedding was in a lovely location, and for mid-October the weather was fine and bright. The ceremony was held outdoors.

At the reception, I went without wine. Everybody else's place had a set of glasses, except for mine. So I thought "fuck it". I know - I could have just asked for a glass, but why should I have to?

The bar was apparently open to everybody but me - I was charged for my beer, everyone else got theirs courtesy of the bride and groom, Again, I'm sure none of this was deliberate, but why did it happen when I went to the bar?

So, all told, I am infinitely relieved we had the wedding we had (two witnesses only, no guests), and am resolved not to go to any more of these things. Families are dodgy things.

Back now in the room, the family is asleep and I have caught Four Weddings and a Funeral. Despite the fact that it is a very cheesy film, despite the fact that I am obviously not genetically disposed to weddings in general!, I do like this film....

Friday, 13 October 2006

Not your average journey home

I am travelling out of London, but the surroundings are unfamiliar. The train is different, and the locations have only very distant memories (Clapham, Brixton), are places of which I have only ever heard (Catford), or sometimes even never heard of (Crofton Park anyone?) Catford in particular - the stunning views toward the sheer wealth of Canary Wharf are unceremoniously blotted out by the huge concrete tower blocks, in one place three or four deep.

We pass through Bromley - prime commuterland and though the blocks of flats have disappeared the rows upon rows of terraced houses serve as a stark reminder that we are only twenty minutes out of Victoria.
A field, a wood, the surroundings are gradually starting to be punctuated. A cemetery, with neat rows of white gravestones. More fields....was that a landfill site? But it is beginning to get dark, I'm not too sure just how much more I will see.

It is the Friday getaway, my sister-in-law Susan is taking the plunge for the second time (brave woman!) and we're spending the weekend over by Maidstone. A little over an hour on the train, so I am getting off lightly compared to my normal journey. At this moment, however, poor old Jacqueline is either on the M3, the M25, M26 or M20 - I think I have the better deal somehow.

With any luck I'll get to the hotel sufficiently before them - and before the in-laws notice my arrival, for there will be a full house this weekend - to chill for a little while in the room.

Now it is completely dark. We must be rural-ish since the phone has no signal. Must make sure I stay awake!

Gnasherless

I must report that both of Alice's front (baby) teeth have now dropped out, within barely 24 hours of each other. So the tooth fairly has been busy at our house this week.

I should also add that despite the fact that Alice can be infuriating at times, neither I nor (to my knowledge) anyone else had anything to do with the teeth dropping out! In fact, when you look into her mouth, the adult teeth are pretty much visible and will make an appearance I'm sure before too long.

Carlo is back to his lovely, playful old self. Despite having two fewer bollocks than he did a couple of weeks ago. He's also insured, so if the bugger goes missing again we can go out for a meal to celebrate!

Monday, 9 October 2006

Relief

To our immense relief, the boy cat is home once again, though not without it costing an arm and a leg in the process. We found out on Friday that he'd spent the last week in a vet's in Salisbury.

He'd been knocked down - only a short way from our house by the sounds of things, and someone had spotted him lying by the side of the road and whisked him to the vet. He looked quite bloody and was in a pretty bad way, according to the woman who found him.

Despite the fact that I'd phoned the RSPCA and our local vet in Fordingbridge, we actually found out about his whereabouts from Caroline - who is one of these people who seems to know everyone and everything that's going on. True enough, when Jacqueline phoned the vet, they confirmed the story. So, Friday evening Jac headed over there to pick up a good-as-new Carlo. We literally could not tell that anything had happened to him, although he did manage to lose a couple of teeth.

We got the phone number of the woman who had found him from the vet, and I called her Friday night to say thanks, and popped Alice around there Saturday morning with some flowers. I guess in some ways it must have been bittersweet for her, since she had children of her own and had actually arranged with the vet that she would give Carlo a home, in the event that nobody claimed him.

Strangely enough, as a result of Carlo's visit to the vet's, he's now - officially - no longer a rampant male! It is ironic that, had he not gone missing, we'd have been booking him in for the very same operation. Another thing, which seems remarkably sensible with hindsight, was that the vet chipped him, so if ever he gets lost again...

So, on the agenda this week is to sort out some insurance for Carlo - yes we were caught again! - and to enquire about having Maisie chipped.

Who needs kids with cats around?

The rest of the weekend was spent at shop. Saturday we popped over to West Quay to get some shoes for Alice. The occasion is Susan's forthcoming wedding, and Alice was thrilled to get her first pair of high-heels. Yesterday we headed over to the Farmers' Market in Winchester, although the selection wasn't as good as last time. Good lunch in the Slug and Lettuce - very trendy.

This morning the train is packed - very few seats available even at Salisbury. Britain is obviously taking its security seriously still, as the squaddie sitting opposite me is reading "restricted" staff reports in full view of the rest of the carriage.

Monday, 2 October 2006

Business Update

On a work front, today is seventeen years to the day since I first did a day's work. (Some would say seventeen years since I *last* did a day's work!) And my working life is not yet half over...

Some good news, too. Anyone who has read back-entries through this blog will realise that I operate as a consultant rather than as a permanent employee. This involves running my own company etc. etc.

One of the side-effects of this type of setup is that, instead of being employed "indefinitely", my company is contracted to provide services for a set period of time. With the current client, this contract was due to expire at the end of October.

My feeling, as has been echoed a couple of times in the blog, is that I found working with the client quite menial much of the time. I have had far deeper technical roles in the past, and have been paid far more handsomely for them. The current market conditions forced me to the conclusion that it is now time to move on.

I was surprised, however, at just how much the clients wanted to keep me. I suppose I made it pretty obvious that I was about to walk, they obviously picked up on this and at the end of last week offered a much improved deal, both in terms of the nature of the services and the renumeration. Very surprised.

So now it looks like I will be signing up to provide services to the client for another year...

Concerned for Carlo

We're very anxious at the moment - Carlo has gone missing. The last time he was spotted was Thursday afternoon.

I have done the "walk" up the lane, to make sure he wasn't lying dead by the side of the road, and fortunately the road was clear.

Difficult to know what to make of things - we have to appear positive for Alice's sake, but Jacqueline has said to me that she thinks we've seen the last of him. For all his usual bravado, he is only five months old and is generally to be found not too far from a warm bed at night. Certainly both Barney and Maisie have had spells when they've both disappeared. After a time they reappeared, but they had been injured (Barney in particular) and required visits to the vets. Having said that, I had a cat in Oxford once (Boston) who would happily disappear for up to three weeks' at a time.

Maybe he'd got wind that he was about to have his knackers chopped off?

The one family member who does seem happy with the news is Maisie, she is behaving exactly as she did after Barney's death. We dented her happines somewhat on Saturday, when I took her to the vet's to have her annual jabs (during which time she managed to give me a deep, inch-long scratch on my hand), but even this did not perturb her for long. I think, if Carlo does not return, the lesson we take from this is that Maisie likes the house to herself.

Apart from this, a quiet weekend. I was clearing out the car on Saturday and came across a bag from the farmers' market which had been overlooked. Some of the cheese may be salvageable but clearly the lamb steaks were fit only for the bin!

Yesterday I caught up on paperwork, filling out the dreaded VAT return and processing some receipts etc. O how I detest this stuff nowadays.

Thursday, 28 September 2006

Memories of Paris

I found some photos on the web, of my favourite part of Paris, the Mouffetard area.




Hope I haven't breached any copyrights.

Monday, 25 September 2006

Excursions

When we visited the Romsey Show a few weeks ago, I was particularly struck by the marquee containing the food! No surprise there, you might think, but the way in which the sellers pitched their offerings - greengroceries especially - really highlighted the almost "fake" displays that we see in the supermarkets.

Yesterday, therefore, after some web-based research, we headed over to Winchester, where one of the regular Farmers' Markets was being held. And our first experience of such a market was hugely positive. We were able to buy the week's veggies and probably about two weeks' worth of meat, plus bread, cheese, eggs, cream etc. - all direct from the farms where they had been produced. Cost-wise, each item probably cost the same as in the supermarket. But there were far fewer things to tempt us, and so the weekly shop ended up costing about half that of normal. All told, a big hit. Of course, there are still things one needs the supermarket for, but it feels far more natural to buy our food direct where appropriate. There markets appear to be a regular occurrence, so I'm sure we'll be back...

Coupled with our successful shop, we took advantage of the unseasonally fine weather to spend several hours mooching around. We visited the cathedral, and Alice attended the christening of the baby of some complete strangers! Amazing, she just tagged onto their party and watched the ceremony unfold, with Jacqueline and I sitting at the back of the cathedral, a safe distance away. Of course we then had the inevitable question....."Was I ever christened?"... to which the answer was "no". In fact, I have no objection whatsoever to Alice embracing any religion under the sun, but it has to be her choice, not ours, and I did my best to explain this to her.

In fact we were lucky with the weather on Saturday also. Jacqueline suggested visiting Stourhead House again, which we did via Mere. Our first visit to the house was last summer, when we made a splendid picnic and explored the gardens. This year, we visited the house, followed by a circuit of the gardens once again.

As a sideline, over the last couple of weeks I have been transferring all of our old home video footage onto the computers. It was lovely to see video pictures of Alice as a baby, and slightly disappointing that it had been so long since we had done any filming (I generally much prefer taking still photographs). In any case I made up for this Saturday, when we took the camcorder to Stourhead. When I get around to it, I must try and see if I can create a video small enough that I can put it in a blog for the world to see.

Wednesday, 20 September 2006

Looks being Deceiving

I got onto a crowded tube train this morning, was forced to stand next to this extremely dodgy-looking skinhead character. During the journey he starts playing with his iPod, I look down and see that he has just selected to listen to Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody.

Just goes to show...

Sunday, 17 September 2006

Cobwebs

I woke early this morning. It was misty and there was a heavy dew. Venturing out into the back garden I was greeted with the fruits of several spiders' labours.






Try as I might, I could not find anything written in them.

Friday, 15 September 2006

Days Gone By

I used to hate days like this when I was at school. Grey and raining, at least these days I have the option to lie in and listen to the rain pounding onto the garden, if only to grab an extra half-hour in bed.

I did a silly thing at the client's yesterday. I normally keep the email at the client's for purely client-related business purposes, but yesterday I was taking a break and found a hilarious video on the web, of some guys doing a dance routine on some treadmills. If I can still find the link I'll post it later. Anyway, the people by me were wondering why I was laughing so I sent them the link - except the smart Microsoft email-address filler auto-completed an email address which was wrong. So instead of the guy next to me getting the link, it got sent to his namesake, of whom I've never heard before. Idiot. If it had been work-related, fine, but the fact that it was trivia could be potentially embarrasing. Still...

No plans for the weekend. It would be good to do a little tidying up in the garden, but I don't fancy that in the rain.

But right now I need to stop writing and put my headphones on - the carriage today is full of suited squaddies loudly discussing state secrets with each other, travelling with first-class tickets bought with my taxes. I need to shut them out.

Monday, 11 September 2006

Free time

Life as a consultant can be extremely variable, depending very much on the clients one has.

At one extreme (and I hope this is an extreme) I spend around 13 hours each day either at the client's site, or commuting to the client's site. This is the downside of most of the interesting work being in London.

At the other extreme would be the "no work" scenario. Fortunately in ten years' being a consultant there have only been around 3 months where I had no work. Given that without my income the life of my family would grind pretty much to a halt, long may this trend continue.

I did manage a halfway house once, though, which was great while it lasted. I had a great contract with a prestigious client, advising them at quite a high level about technology. Made a name for myself and found myself working on all kinds of stuff throughout the bank as a kind of evangelist. The client got taken over, and the order came to get rid of people. I suppose I was fortunate to last longer than most, but the writing was on the wall and in truth, by the end of the contract, it was quite an unpleasant place to be. All of the (top quality) programme managers I'd worked with had been replaced in favour of talentless individuals whose only role was to downsize.

Anyway, I ended up in a situation where the client wanted to get rid of me, but couldn't afford to get rid of me. So, we compromised on a three-day week. For me personally, absolutely brilliant. For them, a waste of time - having me out of the office much of the time simply led to my doing less when I was in the office. Still, I wasn't complaining (especially since they were paying me more, then, for three days' work than I earn currently for five days' work!)

Having those extra two days, aside from the weekend, really made things tick at home. There was always time to do things like keeping the garden tidy etc. etc.

I hark back to this situation because, these days, there seems to be so little time for anything.

We had a great weekend just gone. On Saturday we went to the Romsey Show and spent a good six hours or so strolling around, seeing what was there. A typical agricultural show, there were tents full of cattle and sheep. Other animals there included otters, alpacas and birds of prey, giving demonstrations. Alice got to stroke an owl. There was a wonderful food tent with all manner of delicacies - this was so good that we bought our lunch from there and left the picnic in the car. To round the day off, Alice and I went for a ride on a big wheel, part of a small fairground set up there. Excellent day, but tiring and we were all fit to drop by the time we got home.

Sunday, I had the luxury of a lie in until around 11 o'clock (well, I did get up between around 7-8 to watch Match of the Day, with my boyhood heroes, the mighty Everton thrashing local rivals Liverpool 3-0), and then we headed off out. The original plan was to head into Bournemouth to get some breakfast in the Sainsbury's cafe, but we'd left it so late that I suggested going for lunch at the Old Beams in Ibsley instead. So rather than a bacon sandwich I ended up having a roast dinner!

Totally stuffed, we then continued on to Sainsbury's in any case, for the weekly shop. Food shopping when stuffed is a very good idea - we were both so put off by the idea of food at that point that the shop came to only £40 - about half of the normal weekly cost. So, paying to go out for Sunday lunch does have some advantages!

Taking advantage of the Indian summer, instead of going home we headed for the beach at Boscombe. Ironic really, Alice had been a little bugger all day and she got to play in the sand (her idea of heaven) for ninety minutes. But it was nice for Jacqueline and I too, just to sit on the sand for a while.

Lovely. Jacqueline loves it. For me, Bournemouth is a little tame, but it would be great to end up by the sea at some point. If we ever get to the stage where we are financially secure you can bet we'll be heading for Cornwall (or Brittany!) for good.

Monday, 4 September 2006

Juxtaposition

Last week, the train drivers union Aslef went on strike for the day. SWT, to their credit, managed to keep the trains running, albeit at a reduced service. But they were sufficiently switched on to publish a timetable beforehand, and certainly my own experience was that (perhaps because of the reduction of traffic?) the journey was very smooth and punctual.

To compensate for the day's "disruption", I will even get some credit back when I next renew my ticket.

This morning, however, a "normal" day, my train was crowded and ran very late into London, the reason (as always) being the backlog of traffic between Clapham and Waterloo. Will I receive compensation for being half an hour later than usual? Not a chance.

I look forward to the next strike day with anticipation...

Saturday, 2 September 2006

Barbeque

On the bank holiday we went to a barbeque being thrown by one of the GPs in Jacqueline's practise, to celebrate his having been there twenty years. We went to their house - a lovely house in a great area of Salisbury - and I met Jac's workmates for the first time, but the person who was really bowled over was Alice.

These people had a lovely garden, on three levels. The barbeque was being held on the patio, at the top. However on the middle level was a lawn with an apple tree in the centre. On the apple tree was a real home-made swing, which Alice loved.

The bottom level looked like it had been devoted to growing things, but of special interest to Alice were the chickens...

Needless to say I was treated to all of this when Alice insisted on giving me a guided tour.

In fairness Alice is very good at these public occasions - far more at ease than Jacqueline of myself - and ended up endearing herself to all an sundry. The thing that impressed her most, however, was the family dog. Very docile, and it obviously loved Alice's attention since it was following her around. By the time we left we'd secured invites to walk the dog whenever we liked, and the senior partner of the practise (who seemed a nice chap and somebody who liked a joke) was ribbing us about having to get a dog of our own.

The reason for bringing all of this up? Well, its eight o'clock on Saturday morning and Alice has just asked when we're going to take Tosca for a walk.....

Friday, 1 September 2006

Xenophobia

I subscribe to a newsletter called Common Dreams. It is essentially very liberal-minded and contains links to news stories throughout the world, albeit with a heavy American bias. There was a very interesting story in yesterday's newsletter, for which they cite the BBC (but which I have since found on several sites). A link to the BBC's version appears below:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/5297822.stm

Absolutely disgusting, this shows how xenophobic the US has become. Of course I know all Americans are not xenophobes but their administration is, and the fact that 60 million of them voted for it does raise eyebrows.

Of course, this all harps back to Bush's War on Terror. I don't support the use of terror in the slightest, but neither can I support the indiscriminate violence for which my own country, and the USA, are responsible. In fact it is both ironic and hugely concerning that I am just as likely - far morseo in all probability - to be the victim of an act of terror than one of the people who actually sanctioned this "war". We simply cannot justify the killing of thousands of people in Iraq, nor can we stand idly by watching Israel destroy the Lebanon.

Rather than taking sides in the middle east (and let's face it our government is squarely behind Israel in all of this), we need to exploit the fact that Britain is, by and large, a successful multicultural society and to work toward closing the distance between the parties. Plus, I really think our governments shoot themselves in the foot on these issues - if anything, it is likely that any reasonable person would end up empathising with Hezbollah or the Iranians, judging by what they see on tv.

The interesting thing is that Raed Jarrar maintains his own blog, so we can also read the story in his own words. In a perverse way I suppose it does highlight the real value of a "free" society - the fact that however much the state would *want* to oppress him, there is a limit to the extent to which they *can* oppress him (in the grand scheme of things changing a t-shirt is no great hardship, one can imagine societies where he'd probably just have been flung into gaol to rot). But this is exactly the principle which our executives seem to want to erode. I must read more of what Raed has to say when I have time.

But right now what I need to do is order the t-shirt...

On the subject of blogs, at the other extreme I found one yesterday (whose address I shall not divulge, since (a) it was apparently written in all seriousness, and (b) I can't remember it) where the author had put some home video footage of him riding a scooter, with camcorder strapped on his shoulder or something. Hilarious (and ever so slightly weird) - like something out of Jackass. Maybe I should read other peoples' blogs more often to keep my spirits up!

Nostalgia

This morning, on the way to the client's I saw an ice cream van with the words "Sonny Jim" painted onto it. The last time I heard that phrase would have been from my dad, during my childhood.

Then, on Piccadilly, I saw a woman wearing (authentic eighties Flashdance-style) legwarmers.

Hello September!

Tuesday, 29 August 2006

Law of the Jungle

I pad around the bedroom, trying in vain to make as little noise as possible. Mondays are bad enough, but a Tuesday after a long weekend is worse. Plus, there is a train strike today so I need to be extra-early to catch the reduced service.

As I contemplate the autumnal feel from the safety of the toilet, I am joined by the boy-cat, the sweet, angelic boy-cat. He has grown almost beyond recognition since we adopted him, but when he "speaks" he gives himself away, letting out a high-pitched "mew" which could only come from a kitten.

As I head for the shower, he's toying with something in the hallway, but it is too dark (or I am too sleepy) to see what it is. I submerge into the shower, gradually coming off autopilot, the hot water and lime shower gel infusing  their magic. In just one (short) long weekend it is noticeably darker, and the bathroom light is on lest I come a cropper while shaving. As I step out of the shower the boy is there once again. The rest of the house is sleeping, so currently I am the only thing of interest. Deja-vu, we exchange greetings and carresses. Beautiful boy. I open the bathroom door to head back to the bedroom, and as I do so the light from the bathroom illuminates the hallway. I finally see what the boy had been playing with. A still-feathered wing lies at my feet, and in an instant our darling kitten has given away his dark secret.

I think back to the day before. Having pottered about outside for a while, including helping next door's boy put the computer on his bike, I had come inside for a break. After only a few minutes, though, the doorbell rings and I am roused once again by next-door's little girl, "Come quickly, Carlo has caught a bird in your garden". As I venture back outside I am full of disbelief as the front garden comes into view. A mass of down. There, sitting proudly, is Carlo, complete with catch - a wood pigeon around his own size, flapping away. Too late, Alice runs up to Carlo, but the boy deftly heads for the impenetrable hedges at the edge the garden. When he finally emerges, quarry in mouth, the boy has blood around his face and the bird is near-dead. There is nothing to be done, except to let nature take its course and to keep the children away.

I potter some more, but am again alerted by next-door's little girl, who shrieks that Carlo has just taken his catch inside the house. A step too far, I race into the house to find the cat, just settling down in the hallway with his catch. Ignoring the blood already spilt on the carpet, Grabbing some kitchen roll on the way, I snatch the bird from him. Bereft of many of its feathers, its bird is still warm and its heart is beating fast. But it is very much doomed. I remove it to the garden, followed of course by Carlo, anxious not to let his prey go that easily.

An hour later we are all showered and freshened up, headed for a barbeque given by one of the doctors at Jacqueline's practise. As we pull out of the driveway, on the front garden the kitten is enjoying his supper...

Friday, 25 August 2006

Read all about it

Just been looking at the news on the BBC's web site:
No wonder people become anti-Police http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/shropshire/5284962.stm
The real cost of terrorism (or is that counter-terrorism?) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/5285102.stm

Misty Morning

Brrrrr.....

I got up this morning around 6am, the house was covered in a thick blanket of mist and it felt positively cold. Has summer come to an end?

In my car to the station, however, an almost mystical transformation took place, and by the time I got to Salisbury the sun was beating down. So, hopefully not over yet - not for a little while at any rate.

We are rapidly approaching the bank holiday weekend, and I am determined to have at least one lie-in. We must get Alice school some shoes, which must be done on Saturday, but apart from that we have no definite plans.

Last night was a night with a difference. Alice and Jacqueline got themselves invited to a party at a neighbour's house. I got the impression that it was a kids' party but they were still out when I arrived home - late and tired - just after eight. Grateful for the peace and quiet I settled down for a soak in the bath, transforming from somebody who was tired, stressed and short-tempered into something a whole lot more pleasant.

When the pair of them got home, Jacqueline was well-and-truly drunk, could not stop giggling. Fortunately she'd had the sense to leave the car at the neighbour's (though why she drove there in the first place I'm not sure). Alice, apparently, behaved very well and had lots of fun.

For me, after the trouble upgrading that dodgy hard disk, a new drive arrived yesterday, so once out of my bath I set about tinkering. Even that wasn't straightforward, my attempted clone overnight failed. Still, I tried again this morning using a different method, and as I left the house it all appeared to be going ok. Hopefully sorting that out will not take great swathes of my time over the weekend.

Once I'd finished with the computer, I settled down in front of the tv (Alice and Jac had gone pretty much immediately to bed) and was treated to an extremely dated episode of "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet", followed by an even older but still hilarious Tommy Cooper show. The joys of Granada Men and Motors.

Up on the train to London now, looks like the mist is quite widespread, though the sun is steadily burning it off. Beautiful, especially from a warm train!

Thursday, 24 August 2006

Clouds and Cats

Amidst grey clouds and rain showers, Alice went out for the day yesterday - to Bournemouth beach! Apparently, she loved it.

I must say I'd feel a little cheated this year, if I were a child. All that glorious weather during June and July, yet August has been quite awful. I note that nobody has mentioned the word "drought" in a while. And back to school next week...

The positive thing about the inclement weather is that it does appear, eventually, to have brought Maisie back indoors. The last few evenings she has happily accepted food and a fuss, and yesterday both cats could be found napping on the same sofa - albeit at opposite ends. I was also thinking about Carlo the other day, how much he's grown in the ten weeks he's been with us, how loudly he purrs, how gorgeous he is in general. But I'm glad Maisie is coming home once again.

Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Too little, too soon

I realised at about 10:30 yesterday morning that I got far too little sleep at the weekend - yesterday was pretty hard.

This morning it felt quite cold, and although I worked a little late last night it was pretty much dark by the time I got home at 8:30pm. Nooooooo...its far too soon to be thinking about autumn.
It looks like the new hard disk, whose problems I ascribed to a faulty jumper, really is temperamental after all. Whilst the newly-configured computer was running fine on Sunday, Jacqueline noticed at around about lunchtime that it had crashed. She restarted it, it was Ok. However I popped my head in this morning, only to see that it had crashed once again, showing an ominous message "Primary Hard Drive 0 not found", which to the non-computer-literate means something akin to "You're up shit street". Bad News, so I turned the power off.

After my shower I had another quick look. This time the computer booted up just fine. So it looks like the data is "safe" (though I kicked off a backup just to make sure) but the drive is most definitely suspect. Since it is the boot drive its not really acceptable, so I guess I'm going to need to buy a replacement.
Still, this does tend to suggest that there was nothing wrong with the computer I first tried the drive on, so I might have a try at upgrading it once again sometime.

Monday, 21 August 2006

Black and White

A weekend of opposites.

Saturday morning we headed over to Morrisons where I treated myself to a cooked breakfast (bad!). Saturday afternoon we all went out for a swim for an hour (good!).

Sunday lunchtime we (Alice and I) went on a 10km cycle ride (good!) - 5km each way to the pub in the next village, where we met up with Jacqueline (in the support car!) and ate Sunday lunch (bad!).

Alice is thriving on her new bike, and insisted on riding both ways to the pub, despite intermittent rain and even though a lift was on offer for the return journey. She has really got the hang of riding, and this was pretty much the first time she'd been on a road where there was anything more than a slight chance of traffic. As it was, her attention wandered a couple of times - for example when she noticed something at the side of the road, unconsciously letting her bike drift into the middle, and not noticing the car coming the other way - but on the whole she is very good.

The journey highlighted how much we miss when we travel by car, when we passed over the old railway bridge at Breamore. (Until Dr Beeching swung his axe, there was a rail line running from Salisbury down to Bournemouth, which passed through many of the local villages. In fact there was a station in Downton, and our house stands on what was once a coal yard.) Anyway, as we crossed the bridge at Breamore, right by us was the old station house (now somebody's home), complete with an almost-perfectly-preserved platform including the "Breamore" name plate. The platform now forms part of the garden, and despite the paving of the platform itself there was a lot of colour courtesy of a good stock of potted plants. Marvellous - We've been using this bridge quite regularly for seven years or so now, and this was the first time we'd ever noticed what was underneath!

A portion of the weekend was also spent being a computer geek. Remember from last week I had this problematic disk I wanted to install? Well, I finally sorted it. It took a long time to find this out, but incredibly it seemed to be a problem with a dodgy jumper in the end. Anyway, it took  a very long seven hours or so to copy the data from the existing disk to the new disk, but by Sunday morning this was complete and the machine was ready to use. However, the upgrade wasn't finished, since the plan was also to upgrade this particular machine (my main office machine) to Windows XP. After overcoming several obstacles (needed to upgrade bios, floppy drive would not read, had to get bios onto bootable cd, had to repair MS Office, had to completely reinstall ZoneAlarm), the actual upgrade itself went very smoothly and the machine now has a moderately-recent operating system on it. Should be good for another couple of years...

Friday, 18 August 2006

Email

Email was made for me. I love it. Except for my immediate family it has become my preferred way of communicating with people in general, so much easier even than picking up the phone.

My clients have given me an email account on their corporate system, it makes life easier for them when they want to communicate project stuff to me.

However, one thing strikes me as strange. There is a person at the clients who, whenever they send an email, insists on marking it with "High" importance. I must admit in something like 12 years with an email account of one form or another, this is something I have done only once or twice. Is this person the client's MD? Hardly - the opposite in fact.

What kind of person presumes that what they have to say is that much more important than what everyone else has to say? It makes you think...

Tuesday, 15 August 2006

Life on Mars

A month or so ago I got myself a pair of decent travel headphones, freed up some capacity on my phone's memory card put about 125 songs on it. As I spend quite a large proportion of each day on the train, and as every now and again I just need "virtual space" from my clients, I figured it was high time. It is the first time I've been able to use a "walkman", well, since I had a walkman.

The main thing I have found is that I actually listen to the lyrics of songs. On the radio or tv songs are merely background noise, whether they appeal or not. But when I put these headphones on, flicking the switch to turn the ambient-noise-cancelling gadget on is like activating a lens, bringing the music, and in particular the lyrics, into focus.

I've found that this can severely affect the way certain songs are viewed.

Take James Blunt, for example, "You're beautiful". Lovely voice, beautiful sounding song, I'm sure it must have won awards and certainly I bought his album on the strength of it. But when you hear the lyrics it is complete trash (imo)!

Of course there are other songs which fall into the "it was nice to listen to again but now that I've heard it [x] times I now need to delete it in order to stop me going off it altogether" category (where x can be large or small, depending on the song), for example Karen Carpenter's "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft". Karen Carpenter had a beautiful voice but a lot of the songs were downright cheese. And quite why I copied a Bruce Hornsby song onto there for the moment escapes me.

But its not all negative - there are the inevitable songs which make me think "I should listen to this more often", which can be either keys to unlocking some past part of my life, or just good music.

For all of this I have my phone to thank. This wonderful little device will let me send email, surf the web and, of course, play music and videos. I can even tap out blog entries on its minute keyboard. Of course I do wonder at some of its functionality, for example the "random" function in the MP3 software, but on the whole how could I possibly complain? I can even make phone calls from it!

Monday, 14 August 2006

Inflation

I filled my car up with petrol on Friday. £61.39, the most expensive ever.

This was my weekend of freedom - Jacqueline and Alice are over at her mum's and I can be a batchelor/slob once again. So, after the petrol, a visit to the supermarket was required.

They're pretty darned slick over at Waitrose Marketing Department. I was over in the meat section, looking to get some bacon for Saturday breakfast, when I spotted some 'British Beef Grillsteaks', containing beef, onion and seasoning, weighing 340g and costing £1.99. Across the aisle I saw 'Beef Hachés', obviously the superior equivalent for the discerning Francophile. For information, said Beef Hachés contained beef, onion and seasoning, weighed in at 325g, and cost £3.99.

See? it costs to have bilingual pretensions!

Friday night through Sunday, then, was one long orgy of soft sex, casual alcohol and cheap drugs. Or at least, that was the plan...

In reality I needed to be out first thing Saturday in order to pick up some new disks for the computers, one the perils of being home alone meaning that all reputable couriers drop cards through doors rather than leaving goods in porch hopeful that no-one will nick 'em! One computer was relatively straightforward to upgrade, although it took a couple of hours since I was doing this for the first time. The other computer - or rather the other disk - proved somewhat more problematic, and indeed even having spent a couple of hours yesterday trying over again (even trying to install it into a different computer) at 10pm last night I admitted defeat. (But I have a plan for next weekend!)

Grateful for the peace and quiet, on Saturday evening / Sunday morning I immersed myself in a game of Civilization, something Jacqueline likes a lot. Of course I played at a level where I eventually won (about the third level up), although when I looked at the stats at the end of the game I was staggered to see almost 8 hours playing-time. Of course that would have included times when the program was running and I'd left the room, but even so...

Sunday afternoon was spent working on a "project", and I'm hopeful that very shortly I'll be able to upgrade the blog site to make it a little more... interactive... We're almost there, just some test scripts to wade through. The trouble is finding the time - yesterday I managed to put a solid five hours in but I wouldn't be able to do that if the family were around.

In the background on Sunday was the Charity Shield, between Liverpool and Chelsea, meaning that from now until next June there will be six or seven live football matches per week available. I'm not a serious football fan any more but they're interesting veg-out material, and they beat Boomerang!

The family is back tonight. Maybe then they'll be able to tell me where they've hidden the remote control.

Monday, 7 August 2006

Quilted

Over the weekend the field which abuts our garden was a hive of activity. It was harvest time once again. Dreadfully noisy, how farmers can cope with spending hours at a time driving combine harvesters is a mystery to me. Slowly but surely a haze rose into the air, sufficiently thick to affect visibility. This was borne out this morning when I went to my car - which had been sitting on the driveway all weekend - and was greeted with a thin film of dust all around.

This microscopic experience was transformed into a macroscopic experience this evening, as the unusually-quiet train headed through the rolling Hampshire countryside, taking me eventually down into Wiltshire, past a beautiful patchwork of fields, golden and green, some harvested, some not.
For sheer beauty, my train journey is best experienced at two times of the year. One is the summer evening, as I witnessed tonight. The other, the bright winter morning (which I generally do not see, it still being dark when I travel up). The English countryside at its best.

Carlo - a day in the life

Drip, drip, drip. I hear the rhythmic beating of the tap as I stir from my slumbers. Too early, the alarm is yet to burst into life. Try to put it out of my mind.

Drip, drip, drip. How come I didn't hear it last night?

Drip, drip... As if by a miracle it stops. Grateful for silence once again, I turn over.

Drip, drip, drip, it starts again. Semi-conscious now, I am able to discern that the noise is not, in fact, a tap. As I awaken further, the sound is not a "drip", but most definitely a quiet, methodical "crunch". The boy has been out for breakfast...

A good weekend, somewhat productive. Alice has - or rather will have later today - a new bike. She has far outgrown her current bike. I wanted to wait until next spring, when hopefully she would have grown enough for us to buy her a bike which would see her straight through to age 11, but the pair of them badgered me into submission. Still, not a bad idea, given the amount of money she got for her birthday. The major step forward of this bike from the last, apart from size, is the addition of six gears, which Alice is looking forward to trying out. So they pick it up this afternoon and are planning on putting it through its paces in a nearby country park.
This shopping trip aside, the only other excursion was a visit to the supermarket, and indeed we were back home by Saturday lunchtime. Feeling the need for fitness, on Saturday afternoon we cycled, en famille, across to the next village (a massive couple of miles away), where we sat out in the garden of the village pub, and I enjoyed a long, cool pint of beer. Ample reward...

On Saturday evening I completed some "work" - I had been in the process of upgrading the servers in the office, and finished this off. Surprisingly straightforward, with each server just requiring a license key, then pretty much upgrading itself all on its own. So now the servers are running operating systems a mere three years old! I also took time out to run an evaluation copy of some software which will tell me who's been visiting the web sites.

Sunday was the same, only different. More work, this time continuing with an ongoing project. None of us ventured out all day, although the day was so humid that "going and doing" anything did not seem too bright. Even the boy, who spent most of the morning playing with a vole he'd caught at about 7am, spent most of the afternoon in "siesta" mode.

The only planned activity for the day (at least the only activity I had any intention of doing!), a refreshing evening swim, was scuppered when we found that all of the pools hereabouts closed at 5 o'clock on Sundays.
Obviously rapidly developing his hunting skills, Carlo caught some more prey - this time a poor, tiny wren - later yesterday evening. Given his penchant for eating birds (generally whole), he was subsequently banished into the garden. Maisie, meanwhile, made brief appearences throughout, although since I managed to deflea her (obtaining several battle scars in the process) she has been on her guard against me.

And so we fast forward to this morning. No need to put any Iams out for the boy, then!

PS - writing this on the train. Neither air conditioning nor open windows. Feels like an oven. Will, I am sure, be in no fit state to do a day's work when I get to London. Thank you, South West Trains.

Saturday, 5 August 2006

Ode to a Sausage

10 pm, after a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary Friday.

Not for me the daily drudge up to London. Not today, at any rate. It is Alice's big day, the day which will likely define her quote of invites for the next year, the day of her party.

Today's "party" is a small affair, and is a day out rather than a party. Jac and I are chaperoning four seven-year-old girls around Paultons Park. Every year, the pressure is on to do something "different", and of course Alice has just about the last birthday of the year. A little concerned about today having four rather than one, but in truth life is easier if anything - they almost regulate themselves. The only question is what to do next. And this is a big question. There's a world of difference between doing something "next", and "next but one". But it is generally not difficult to reach a consensus.

Funniest (in retrospect) moment was when we arrived at the park with only three girls in tow. Six is an awkward number - too many for one car. I'd headed there in my own car, Jacqueline had taken all the girls in hers. Except for the girl we each thought the other was picking up en route...

During our sumptuous picnic lunch, unfortunately complete with gatecrashing wasps, I realise how reliant the meal is on the humble sausage. Sausage rolls, finger-size pork sausages, and picnic eggs. Even some of the sandwiches had ham in them. But supplemented by some Wotsits, French Fancies and finally a jelly each, everyone is happy.

The girls by now have fallen into two definite camps - the adventurous and the not-so. Fortunately Paultons has rides even for toddlers, so eall the kids seem happy. Of course, for those rides where the kids need an adult supervisor, guess whose services are required? Nice to see that the girls' creative instincts come into play, all of them choosing to go to Paultons' new "craft" section and to fill shapes with coloured sand. A nice souvenir of their day. Gifts with less longevity include ice creams and slushies.

Nice that the girls become more affectionate as the day goes by, a sign that they're obviously relaxed and enjoying themselves.

The day ends at 5 o'clock, with at least two people tired out. Fortunately for me, the girls decide all to travel together, and so I get to come straight home, with Jacqueline providing the taxi service.

Home for 6pm, and I managed to stay awake for another hour before crashing out on the sofa. Memories of the next few hours are distant and vague, the Coronation Street theme tune and having my feet pounced upon by a far-too-alert kitten. Now, I wake up briefly, but don't want to let myself get too awake - it's bed time.

Thursday, 3 August 2006

Music to my ears

By the time I'm on the tube platform the mp3 player is playing Bowie (Ziggy Stardust) and I manage to smile and to put the world's greyness behind me. A vast improvement on a few weeks ago - I finally got my act together and copied 500MB worth of songs onto my phone's memory card. A new pair of headphones (and boy, what superb headphones), and we're away to go.

Of course 500MB is a mere fraction of the 25GB of songs we have ripped from our CD collection - I won't rip songs from the web on principle, but there again I object to the way both iTunes and Windows Media Player work, where you purchase a rights-protected file. So, the likelihood I'll go over to HMV (or Amazon if I'm prepared to wait), buy the CD, and immediately rip it before Alice gets the chance to scratch it.

I talk very little about my music taste, mainly since my taste is so wide. At college, it was quite easy to put myself into a pigeonhole by saying that my favourite music was soul and reggae. Not so at 38, although I do still like these genres in particular. The concept of "Greatest Hits" albums which seems to have prevaled over the last couple of years has been good for me - I have such albums from artists such as e.g. Prefab Sprout, Elvis Presley, Manic Street Preachers, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, REM, Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel....... many of them artists from whom I've never bought any other albums.

Favourite individual track *right now* is the Manics Design for Life.

Favourite all time tracks are (in the order I remember them):
  • Bob Marley - Give Thanks
  • Aswad - African Children Part 2
  • Louis Armstrong - Moon River (I also love Audrey Hepburn's version of this song, but the film I can take or leave)
  • Cyndi Lauper - True Colors
  • Tracy Chapman - Baby can I hold you
  • Buddy Holly - True Love Ways
  • Freddie Mercury - Days of our Lives
  • George Harrison - My Sweet Lord
There may be a couple more, and some of the ones above just shade it, but you probably get the picture...

Shades of...

London looks very grey this morning, I think to myself.

As we pass through Clapham Junction I look over toward the common and recall times gone by, carefree student days, when I spent summers close by.

I'm glad I never came to live here "for real".

Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Another year older

Happy birthday to sprog,
Happy birthday to sprog...

If you hadn't guessed it is Alice's birthday today. Weirdest present of the day was a bright red cape with white trim. At this time of year? I can only hope this is something to do with Red Riding Hood, otherwise I really will start believing what they say about my Gran going senile!

Tuesday, 1 August 2006

Bitten by the Bug(ger)

As I stepped into the shower this morning, I surveyed the damage. No fewer than twelve bites, all except one (considerately located on my face) running down the left side of my body. From shoulder blade to foot, only the forest which is my leg was exempt.

Obviously I had either been sleeping on my side, with half of me lying in an exposed position, or the bastard creature which has enjoyed such a feast at my expense simply did not have the energy between courses to move more than an inch or two.

Time to deflea the cats once again.

Monday, 31 July 2006

Little Angels

Alice looked cherubic this morning, lying asleep on the sofa having (as is her wont) got up from bed very early only to put the tv on in the lounge, climb on the sofa and go back to sleep. Who could possibly guess that this was the same child who caused mayhem yesterday?

On Saturday night she started by leaving a tap on and almost flooding the bathroom. Fortunately there was a plastic bag lying under the sink, so when I heard the distinctive sound of dripping I went to investigate. Luckily there was no serious damage, the bathroom floor being covered in dirty clothes which absorbed most of the water.

On Sunday we had a report that she had been seen pulling Carlo by his tail. Although I am convinced that in her own mind there was no malice involved, obviously if what she is doing is harming the cat then it needs to be stopped. It turns out that she was in a group of children, and had taken Carlo out to play. He'd decided "enough is enough" and run off under a bush. Alice, apparently goaded by her friends, went and pulled him out. By his tail? That part remains unclear, unfortunately - Alice knew she was in trouble and was blubbing away by this time.

So basically Alice has been totally banned from picking Carlo up. The main thing that worries me is that she is so gullible - in a group of kids messing around, I can guarantee that she will be the one to get caught. I fear this is going to be a hard lesson for her to learn.

It wasn't over. Alice later asked if she could phone her grandma. No problem, I even showed her what she had to do to make the call. When speaking to Grandma she decided to go outside, where she starts faffing around. Next thing, we here a "crack" and the phone has been dropped onto the patio. She tearfully brings the phone in - display completely blank and Grandma well and truly cut off. At this point I can cope with things, telling her that she would need to pay for a replacement phone. But when she just muttered insolently that she didn't care, I flipped and lost my temper. How dare she treat other peoples' things with such contempt! As it happens I got the phone working again simply by removing and replacing the batteries, but the attitude that it didn't matter was simply unacceptable.

This is turning into a rant so I will stop now. I only hope this behaviour gets better soon.

On to other things, Alice and I went out on a bike ride yesterday. Only around the village, so I could take some photographs. I had an idea for a new banner for the family web site, and it required getting some shots of the village. I photoshopped it last night and the finished article is exactly what I wanted. It will make it onto the top of the Blog pages in the fullness of time (a comprehensive update to the blog site is planned, but I shan't promise anything just yet for fear that motivitis will set in).

Been reading some more of Petite Anglais's blog, though in parts I felt quite uncomfortable. She has committed such intensely personal, intimate stuff to it that it feels like ...difficult to describe... it feels like what she is saying is something you'd say to your closest friend rather than publishing it for complete strangers to read on the web. Plus there is the added dimension that although it is very real, it is not real time - the entries I read about took place a year ago so so even though she sounds pretty screwed up, her situation is probably completely different today. All in all left me feeling rather melancholic, and reflective on the times (fortunately now long since) when I have felt screwed up. Now I just have an errant child to deal with!

As I awoke this morning I heard the patter of rain outside. Probably just enough to spoil the washing we'd forgotten to bring in last night. Sunny now, though. The guy sitting opposite me on the train has just cleaned his glasses, and ever so meticulously folded the cleaning cloth, very neatly, in half, then quarters, then eighths, then sixteenths. Wonder if he is a surgeon? Ah well, another week toward paying the taxman!

Saturday, 29 July 2006

In the doghouse

Scene - walking past the Guild Hall in Salisbury this afternoon, a wedding just finished:

J: That's a great place to have a wedding, its so lovely in there

P: Yeah, I suppose if you've got to get married it might as well be somewhere lovely

Our House

I'd just like to wax lyrically about Google Earth. Wonderful program, if you haven't yet tried it.

They obviously concentrate on towns rather than the countryside (one field probably looking the same as any other to the untrained satellite), so our current house resembles a splodge of ink, but we could clearly see the place I lived in in New York, my mum's house and Jacqueline's flat.

Not so good France either (apart from central Paris) - both Brittany and La Sologne (where we holidayed recently) are quite poor quality. But this will only get better as time goes by.

Perhaps there is a role for global corporates after all???


Our house from 5000ft (somewhere)

My old apartment in NYC from 5000ft (obliterated by a giant pushpin!) Note the proximity to the WTC site, which I used to walk through every day on the way to the office. 9/11 probably freaked me out more than most...

Centerparcs?

(stumped)

M U G ???

Spoke to my mum yesterday. She's just bought herself a new computer from Dell, one of these less-than-£500, all-in deals. Looked quite good.

Only thing is, they're no longer specc'd with a built-in modem (she connects via ye olde dialup). She didn't notice this (and in fairness she asked me to go over the spec before she bought it and neither did I), so when the computer arrived there was no way of her getting onto the web.

Rather than phoning me (just as well since from my perspective she asks such silly questions, and from her perspective I am very short with her!) she phoned the ISP. All I can say is that I hope when the support people actually worked out that the reason she couldn't log into her email was because there was no phone connected to her computer, they had a good laugh!!

Still, to most people this wouldn't have been a big problem (would it?) - her old computer still had a fully working modem in it (albeit an internal PCI jobbie, so screwdriver required). So when she finally did phone me my advice was simply to swap it out. I seem to remember that it is a fairly recent moden - she got some guy round to fit it when the old one went bang - and of course the PC will be state of the art, so I figured if she could just get it in the slot then plug'n'play should take hold.

Anyway, this advice was received as though I'd told her to build the thing from scratch - raw metal, silicon and solder! Next thing, she'd made an excuse about "needing to go to the shops now" and hung up.

I thought about getting her an external usb modem on eBay... surely they couldn't be too expensive... but I thought I'd wait a day to see if she could pluck up the courage to swap the old modem out.

Anyway, I called her yesterday, ready with my eBay offer, only to find that when she'd finished speaking to me she'd picked up the phone to Dell, who'd politely explained to her that the only way out of her predicament was to get an external modem, and that by the way, madam, they had just the model which would be guaranteed to work with her new computer. And so they managed to fleece another £70 (yes, SEVENTY POUNDS) out of her.

I did look on eBay and could indeed have got one for £15. The final piece of advice I could offer has was to call Dell and cancel the order, but unfortunately the smooth-talking salesman's use of the phrase "guaranteed to work" had won her over, so now she is £70 lighter.

Apart from the fact that I am pissed off that (as is always the case) the kind of knowledge my clients are willing to pay pretty darned handsomly for means diddley-squat to my mother, I can't help wondering what kind of modem one would get for a £70 outlay. 18-carat gold, perhaps?

Thursday, 27 July 2006

The Meeting that Changed my Life

Well, I spent a little more time over lunch yesterday reading some of the archived entries in the blog of La Petite Anglaise. Whilst she doesn't have a spectacular story to tell, there is nevertheless that "something" in her musings which makes it worth going back for more. Plus of course there is the general idyll (at least from a third party's perspective) of somebody who "ups-sticks" from England and goes to live in one of the most wonderful cities in the world.

It is one of those blogs which is so well written that you feel you're getting to know the person - a real "who I am". I suspect my own blog confines itself to "what I did" without going too much into the "who" part, and is probably not as good a read as a result.

One of this woman's entries was about how she'd met her boyfriend, and so it occurred to me that I could talk a little about my history, what I've done in my life and how I ultimately came to meet Jacqueline.
Well, I spent roughly the first half of the nineties in my first job, living in Oxford. I grew to hate the confinements of the job and as a consequence remember it as a pretty unfulfilling time. I had a couple of relationships but none (as far as I was concerned) was serious. Going nowhere.

In 1994 I got my "big break" work-wise, when I managed to find a job in IT for a very prestigious software house. Since I hadn't come from an IT background I was naturally full of trepidation, and initially somewhat concerned as to whether I'd "cut the mustard". To my surprise I found that not only could I do the job, but I could do the job pretty darned well. I got into not just programming but leading projects and doing project management stuff, and this whetted my appetite. My social life completely tailed off, since I was regularly putting in 13-hour working days - I remember I frequently used to fall asleep in the pub on Fridays, people thought I was drunk - but work-wise things were going great.

Trouble was, I'd got a taste for project management but there was limited scope at this software house. First and foremost I was a programmer to them. So eventually I started looking...

The next job was something of a rollercoaster. Lots more money and performing the role I wanted to do, this place was an internet startup in the very early days of the internet (1995, before Microsoft had even released a usable version of Internet Explorer!), peddling a B2B application. Plus I got to go and work in the US on and off for a year. Massive buzz, long hours, but in retrospect it was very stressful and put me off managing projects (or more specifically, managing people) for good, and made me a lot wiser to marketers peddling what was essentially vapourware.

This was literally one of those life-changing jobs. The company started off with venture capitalist backing, but the guys fronting the company were sufficiently good salesmen that they managed to hook Barclaycard, obviously a massive name - this is a good indicator or just how slick these guys were, and what the market conditions were at the time. Now, all we had to do was develop the solution... In came the unrealistic promises/deadlines - all the kind of stuff that 10 years' more experience you'd either walk away from, or at the very least turn around and say "you're not paying me enough for this shit".

Not content with the Barclaycard coup, these guys got themselves contacts at Chase Manhattan, and the push was on to corner the US market also. In fact, it was to drive this push technically that I spent a lot of time over there. We started off, around February '96, working from the offices of the venture capitalists, just outside Washington, DC (close to Dulles). Terrible place, completely put me off the USA. Bleak highways interspersed with housing estates and shopping malls. No kind of hub at all, very much "The 'Burbs".
Then, as things with Chase firmed up, the location got moved down to Tampa, Fl, where Chase had a massive facility (so too did the Yankees!). This was more like it. Wonderful climate, plus a city with a bit of history (I loved it in Ybor). Since it was obvious that these guys would need to recruit for their new US operation (and since it was clear that the US operation would be the main operation), I made it known that I'd be interested, they duly picked up on it, offered me the Head of Development role, and we got the lawyers involved to finalise the visa etc.

It was during this time in Florida that I started going on business trips up to New York City. Now, there was a place I grew to love. My kinda town! Plus I was working (or at least going to meetings) on Wall St itself. We were dealing more and more closely with Chase, and it soon became clear that they had placed quite some importance on the joint venture - they pressured the company to make its base in New York as opposed to Tampa. Of course, this was everyone's route to riches, and nobody was going to say "No" to Chase.

And that's how I ended up in New York. As I said, I loved the place. Chase had just taken over Chemical at the time so we got one of their old offices on Water Street, right on the waterfront at the southern tip of Manhattan. We even got ourselves installed in apartments (I'd grown to hate hotels) in Battery Park City, allowing us to walk to work each morning (ironically right through the World Trade Center complex). A wonderful time.

However, things weren't to last. The time got close when I would cease to be an employee of a UK company travelling over to the USA on business, and would become a genuine US employee. It was just before christmas '96, and all the visas had come through. Everything was clear. However my world shattered when, in a meeting with the chairman of the company, I was given the formal job offer and told that it would be on the same terms as had been talked about in Florida. Now, the cost of living in NYC is about the highest in the USA, and (according to some pretty definitive web sites) was around 3.5 that of Tampa. In real terms, this meant that the beachfront apartment and the Porsche which I'd costed in Florida would actually equate to a shared house/apartment, probably not even in Manhattan. We'd been in New York long enough to become acquainted with the work environment there - basically, anyone who was any good was a contractor, and anybody who wasn't a contractor was literally considered to be technically deficient in some way. And, we knew that a contractor could easily pull $1000 per day. So, that's what I asked for. Three times what was offered to me. I remember the guy (who had been totally pleasant until that moment) glaring at me as I was talking to him. I suppose it didn't help that about four other guys in exactly the same position as me had said exactly the same thing to him - well, of course we'd talked about it.

So that was the meeting that changed my life. The rest, as they say, is history. I flew back to the UK a couple of days before Christmas, a planned visit to say Hi to family etc. and also to move out of the house I'd been sharing in Oxford, and settled back to wait. In the end I spoke with one of the directors, who was the guy who'd originally hired me all that time ago and who was someone with whom I'd gelled quite well. As I'd thought, I'd pissed the chairman off so much that the offer had been rescinded. Still, I needn't worry in the short term because there would still be some handover work, which I could do as a consultant rather than as an employee. The first time it was discussed it was three months, then one month, then one week....

Of course, in the end nothing came of any of it, and my US experience was consigned to my memory banks. Do I ever wonder, "what if?". Well of course I do, but I think life since coming back from the USA has been pretty good to me, so I really can't complain.

The one thing I did have on my side was money, since basically for most of the previous year I had been living on expenses. fortunately this allowed me to bide my time and to set up my own consultancy company, waiting for the contracts to come along. Again, at the back of my mind there was always this fear that I wouldn't make it (plus I had to accept that as I consultant I would have to be far more "hands on" technically than I had been as a manager). However, providence obviously played a part, because within about a month of realising that nothing was going to come of any consultancy work with my former employers, I had secured a six-month contract with IBM (whose strongest selling point was that IBM is a great name to have on a cv!).

Since returning from the USA I had been staying up with my mum in Liverpool (I must chat about my deeper past someday!), but the contract with IBM was just outside Winchester. At that time, I thought it totally inconceivable that I could live anywhere other than in a large city, so a couple of weeks before the contract was to start I checked out a map and headed to the nearest urban area within striking distance of the contract.
And that's how I ended up in my ultimate batchelor pad, a lovely little place in the prestigious waterfront area of Southampton.

But talking about that and my adventures on the south coast will have to wait until another time...