Another week bites the dust

Saturday and unbeknownst to me, someone has announced that it’s National Stand in the Fucking Way Day. In at number three we have the couple who came to a sudden halt in the main doorway of Boots. I’ve given them extra points for comic value as from their bickering it was clear that one of them desperately wanted to get in there, whilst one of them desperately didn’t. The opposing forces being equal it was perhaps just physics that caused them to halt where they did. They still should have fucking moved though.

Second place must go to the couple who stood at the bottom of the down escalator, as enraged customers piled into the back of them. Not quite as funny as the other couple, but I’ve given them added danger points. Especially since the immediate danger was not to them but to other people. Up with that sort of thing, it’s what the Tories love.

My favourite, and definite winner, was the young man standing in the gateway that leads from a road (with cars and everything) onto a national cycle route, at the bottom of a steep hill. Meaning that anyone standing on their brakes (that would be me) desperately trying not to hurtle down the hill, and unable to ring their bell because their hands are on the brakes, was liable to slam into him. Well not him precisely but the small child and pushchair he was using to shield himself from imminent danger.

Yes, well done that man. I think Darwin awards are meant to be given out if you kill yourself before you reproduce, not if you kill your own child after you’ve reproduced. There really is no need for that sort of thing. Or perhaps there is. Here, have a biscuit.

The week meandered on. OK, I wish it had meandered. It sped. Before I knew it, it was Wednesday and I was listening to a BBC news report on the dangers of smoking in cars. Is this fear that whilst fumbling around for their lighter, a smoker might hit an innocent bystander? Dear god no. It was worry for the smoking driver, fumbling around, desperate for a nicotine hit. Why worry about what that might do to someone else, when you can worry about the self-inflicted build up of chemicals in your car.

All of this was explained to me by a lovely reporter, who drove along, facing the camera whilst chatting about the dangers of smoking in your car. She failed to mention the dangers of driving whilst not looking where you’re going because you’re talking to a camera.

Seriously, esteemed members of the British Medical Association, if you want to save lives don’t muddle around trying to get laws passed that the police will not have the time, will or ability to enforce. Instead, back road safety campaigns. Get drivers to concentrate on what they are doing, slow down, and stop thinking that driving is part of some kind of grand display of multi-tasking. Or campaign for me to be allowed to shoot bad drivers. Either really, I’m not fussed. But leave smokers to it. We all do stuff that is bad for us as individuals, and that’s our choice. It’s when we do stuff that is dangerous to others that we need a slap.

I switched channels to see if Ch4 was any better. It wasn’t. Now, I still have a soft spot for Vincent Cable. I remember voting for him in the 1997 election. Over a decade later and I enjoyed watching him waltz with Erin. But I really do think he’s deliberately trying my patience these days. There he was, explaining the jobless figures, and John Snow’s report on unemployment. John (lovely John) had been interviewing people in the north east who were, to use a technical term, utterly and irretrievably stuffed. According to Vincent (I don’t love you any more, Vincent) “there has traditionally been higher unemployment in the north east”.

Bloody hell Vincent. It’s not Christmas. It’s not traditional to be unemployed in the north east. It’s not as if it’s something like Morris dancing, haggis, fox hunting, or getting shit faced on a Friday night. Unemployment comes about as a result of socio-economic forces. It’s worse in the north east not because of tradition, but because the industrial base for which that region was famed was stripped bare by Thatcher. Tradition my fucking elbow. I shall now transfer what little respect I had left for Vincent to the lovely Mr Snow. The lovely, lovely Mr Snow. There is a special place in my heart for the cycling silver fox, especially in that advert where he’s stiff as a board on the back of a scooter. But anyway.

Thursday was a bit of an odd day. I found out that you can hang the Union Jack upside down, though my colleagues and I spent a little time trying to work this one out and concluded that you can hang it back to front, but not upside down. Apparently one must do this if one is in trouble, as a signal of danger. It is, however, a very subtle signal and one unlikely to be recognised by anyone other than a boy scout. If you are not in imminent danger, hanging it back to front is just rude, apparently. And if you are in danger, you’ll attract boy scouts.

Once home from work, and as a break from all this flag-induced angst, I decided to unwind by watching Frozen Planet. Big mistake as those bloody killer whales were back again. Oh no, wait, it was a leopard seal. Whatever it was, David was not allowing me to escape from the fact that nature is red in tooth and claw, as the streamlined predator knocked back a baby penguin as if it were an amuse bouche. Though I am fascinated by the penguins and confess that they make me think really shallow things like, “why don’t you just move somewhere warmer? With fewer seals”.

The week ended with a trip to Lidl, palace of delights. Lidl holds endless fascination for me, as I know of nowhere else where I can find a frying pan beneath a pile of wellies. Next to a computer keyboard and to the left of some very unusual cheese. And some waterproof trousers. And this week’s highlight, almost, an electric guitar. The actual highlight for me, however, were some Christmas themed candles. Some of them were in the shape of angels. I am now wondering what it is like to watch an angel slowly burn and dissolve into a puddle of wax. I may have to buy some just to find out, though no doubt it will make me think too much about life, the universe and the symbolism of burning angels.

So onwards to next week, when I shall be mainly getting my haired dyed. Gulp. It’s staying ginger, but going less grey. So long as I don’t look like a flaming angel, I’m sure it will be fine.

Excuses car drivers use, and why they just won’t wash

Last week, as I walked into work, I was almost annihilated by a car driver as he drove straight through a red light. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not daft. Generally I expect the first driver approaching a red light to jump it. It’s just that the van at the front of the queue had actually stopped, so the car driver had to manoeuvre past him to then drive through the red light. That I don’t expect, and yet nobody batted an eyelid. I’m not sure quite how many traffic laws he contravened, but no-one around me seemed to notice or care.

The next morning, at the same junction, as I sat on my bike waiting for the lights to change to green, the driver in front of me got bored waiting and drove off through the red light, even though there was traffic on the junction. Again, no reaction from anyone. And I wonder, how did we get to this stage? Why do we put up with this behaviour from drivers, and in fact why do we barely react? How have we come to see the dominance of cars, and the appalling behaviour of drivers, as so normal that we just don’t register it?

Walk around any town or city and you will be continually stopping so as not to impede the progress of drivers. Attempt to cross a road and you’ll be faced with tons of metal screeching towards you at 35mph. The air stinks. Cities are noisy. And for what? We are expected to drive to out-of-town shopping centres. Our transport infrastructure, everything around us, is designed for the car. We think that 2 miles is a long walk and that it’s dangerous to cycle because of all the traffic and yet we suffer more and more from the problems of obesity. Is it really beyond our wit to realise that there is an alternative? We live hemmed in by fear but don’t think it’s problematic because we assume that the car is king and we must bow down before him.

One evening as I cycled home, a driver overtook me in a space too narrow for cars to pass, let alone wide enough for cars and a bike. There was clearly oncoming traffic and it was clearly unsafe. Yet he overtook anyway, braked as he overtook, forcing me to brake, and only made the manoeuvre without an accident because the oncoming car also braked. The road was narrow there due to the number of parked cars. And his manoeuvre was completely unnecessary for I caught up with him at the next set of traffic lights.

I told him exactly what I thought of him and his driving. Loudly. On this occasion there was no ignoring the situation. The passenger and driver in the car behind him gave me a round of applause, having witnessed his earlier behaviour. In fairness, I didn’t shout that much. In fact it was one of my pithier outbursts, aimed precisely at his lack of driving skills. There may also have been an unflattering comment on his anatomy, or parts thereof. He attempted to ignore me. This became more difficult once the lights changed as myself and a motorcyclist boxed him in, preventing him from overtaking again on the next narrow stretch of road. I said nothing to the biker and he said nothing to me – it was just the unspoken camaraderie of the two-wheeled.

It seems to me that this kind of action may be one of the only ways to make it clear to drivers that enough is enough. You’ve ruined the local environment. You’ve made towns and cities feel at best unpleasant and at worst downright dangerous. It’s time to fight back. But first, here are some of the things that car drivers have said to me, and here’s why I disagree with them.

1. It’s OK to use my mobile phone, because the road is quiet

How would you know? You’re not looking at it. For the record, using a mobile phone, either hand held or hands free, slows your reaction times more than being over the drink drive limit. If you are using your mobile whilst you are driving, you are as dangerous as you are when you are drunk. People who are texting or talking on their mobiles whilst driving are easy to spot. They can’t hold a line and tend to drift over to the kerb, their speed varies oddly. The peering down at the phone rather than watching the road is also something of a giveaway.

I don’t care if the road is quiet, for two reasons. First, conditions change very quickly on the road. It may look quiet, but how do you know someone won’t step out in front of you. And second, the fact that you are on your phone says to other drivers ‘It’s OK to do this’. Essentially you are just exonerating those drivers who will happily do 80 on the motorway whilst using a phone – because you are sending out a loud, clear message that driving is just part of multi-tasking.

See also “but I was pulling over whilst I was talking”. Yes, you pulled over. And you nearly took me out in the process because you didn’t even realise I was there. Just don’t answer the phone whilst you are driving. We did manage to exist for millions of years without the things. In fact it’s only the under 30s who are labouring under the delusion that when you put your mobile down, your ear falls off. You do not need to use your mobile phone whilst you are operating heavy machinery. It really is that simple.

2. What was the pedestrian doing there any way?

This one makes me want to stab people, hard and preferably fatally. The UK has no jay walking rule. This is because the roads are public highways. The clue is in the name. They are for public use. Pedestrians have a right of way on them and drivers should give way to them, what with the fact that they will kill them if they don’t. However, somehow on the UK’s roads might has come to equal right. We think the road belongs to cars because any pedestrian walking on them will get driven at and crushed, it’s not ‘safe’. The fact that it would be if drivers behaved themselves doesn’t occur to us, we hold up our hands in helplessness. We don’t fight the bullies, we move over so that we don’t get mown down.

I was forcibly reminded of this one day when crossing a busy junction at a pedestrian light. It is a long junction and when traffic is moving slowly, drivers do not make it all the way across before the lights change. Instead they sit in the middle of a pedestrian crossing, in a queue of traffic. The pedestrian lights change to green and the pedestrians must weave their way in and out of traffic. This is bad enough but on this particular occasion, as I passed in front of a stationary van, the driver decided that since the car in front had moved he should move too, and he drove at me. I pointed towards the green man, he swore at me. Given the amount of flak that cyclists have aimed at them for going through red lights, I found this gobsmacking. Why do we aim such opprobrium at one group of road users, yet ignore another set when they do exactly the same thing? Why are we so blind to what drivers do wrong?

3. If I‘m looking at my speedo, I can’t watch the road

That’s an admission of incompetence. You should know from the visual clues outside the car what speed you are travelling at. And remember, a 30 speed limit is not a target to be aimed at. You don’t have to drive along peering at your speedo making sure you are doing 29mph. You just have to be doing less than 30 and travelling at a speed appropriate to the conditions, which might be considerably less. If you cannot do this without peering at your dashboard, you are not a competent driver.

4. But I was only doing 39 in a 30 zone

Difficult to know where to start with this one, there are so many things wrong with it. I’ll go for the bit that doesn’t require a basic knowledge of physics. A limit is a limit, not a target. A 30 limit means it is always unsafe to go over that speed. It does not mean you keep brainlessly accelerating to 30 and then think ‘ah fuck it, what’s a 30% increase in speed between friends.’

Which leads me to the next point. It is not just 9mph over the limit. It is 30% over the limit. That’s like doing 80 in a 60 zone, except in some ways worse than that because you are unlikely to encounter pedestrians in a 60 zone and highly likely to encounter them in a 30 zone. That’s why the limit is there.

A pedestrian has an 80% chance of survival if you hit them at 20mph and an 80% chance of death if you hit them at 40mph. It may look like a number on a speed dial – it isn’t. It can be a life or death decision.

Which brings us to the physics of force and motion. The short version is that the impact force on a pedestrian does not increase in simple percentages. Instead, the impact force increases as the square of the impact speed. There is a more detailed explanation here,

Add to that the additional reaction time required at 39mph rather than 30mph. At the lower speed you are covering, by my calculation, 44 feet per second. At the higher speed you are covering 57.2 feet per second. For each second you travel you travel an additional 13 feet. Humans have not evolved to cope with such speeds – our eyes and our reaction times are not good enough. Even if you only take a second to apply the brakes, that second has taken you 13 feet nearer whatever caused you to brake.

5. I didn’t see you

That’s a clear admission of guilt, not a justification for what is, when you think about it, bad driving. I am sick to the back teeth of drivers telling me not to cycle in the rain because they cannot see me or not to ride a horse when the sun is low because the sun blinds them. Well in both those situations I can see the car. I am not impeded. If you cannot see, then why on earth is it OK to drive around blind? Would you actually say it’s ok for the blind to drive so long as everyone else moves out of their way? Would you like to try a Blunkett day, where the blind drive and the rest of us stay indoors? No? Why ever not? And if that is the case, then why do you tell me to stay off the road on the grounds that you cannot see me? I’m not small, it’s not a sparrow you cannot see, it’s a person. Either slow down so that you can brake in the space that you can see, or don’t go on the roads.

6. But lots of drivers speed

Oh dear god, it’s like being back at school. Remember those times when you would do something unutterably stupid and Miss Smith would ask why and you would reply ‘because Johnny said so’ and Miss Smith would ask ‘would you jump in front of a train if Johnny said so?’ At the age of five I was confused by that one. Of course I wouldn’t jump in front of a train if Johnny said so, it would be a stupid thing to do. And then eventually I realised that that was the point. You don’t do things because someone else says so, that’s just a handy excuse. You do something because you decide whether it is stupid or not. Step up and take responsibility for your actions. Don’t just point the finger and say ‘but they’re doing it too’.

Why have we enabled this? Why do we use these excuses? When I compare today’s cars with those I remember from the 1980s, they seem to do everything to convince you that you are not in fact in a car. 1980s car rattled. The seats were not all that comfortable. It was small. If you were lucky there might be a radio or a cassette deck. In the winter it was bloody cold and in the summer it was too bloody hot. You could attempt to moderate these problems by winding your window up or down. You could never deny that you were in the traffic – it was easy to see just beyond your window. There was always that sense and feel of being in a car.

Modern car tries to pretend it’s something else. It cocoons you from sound, its own and those beyond it. Its seats are plush, it’s too large to go through gaps readily or to park it. This gives you more room inside and correspondingly places you further away from the vulnerable road users just outside. It has CD players. TVs. Recharging points for your mobiles. Heck, they might have started singing to you. You certainly have little voices telling you where to go. It has air con and precision temperatures. It has windows that move at the touch of a button. It does everything to isolate you from your surroundings and from the sensation of being on the road. In short, it cuts you off from communicating with those around you and it seems to me to cut people off from caring about other people.

And we take this lying down. We’ve stopped caring about people around us. We just want to be snug in our own little bubble and woe betide anyone who dares to remind us that maybe, just maybe, we’re part of a larger system. Maybe our actions do affect others. Maybe we should concentrate on what we are doing and value those around us. Maybe we should have enough respect for other people to slow down, stop talking on the mobile, stop breaking the rules of the road and actually concentrate on what we are doing. For enough lives have been lost to people who use the thinnest of excuses to cover up what is in essence selfish and dangerous behaviour. 

Report on the sinking of HMS GUT by The Ministry for User Experience Architects (Marine Division)

 Together with the coroner’s report on the death of the hamster

The incident

On 25 February 2011 at 17:30 the good ship GUT sank without warning. The corpse of the hamster, whose efforts on the wheel had kept the ship afloat for more than ten years*, was found amongst the wreckage. It seems that all souls, other than the hamster, survived, although many were shocked and according to the by now somewhat discombobulated coastguard, were ‘a bit sweary’.

* Probably hamsters, plural, although we will use the term ‘hamster’ throughout to denote both the specific hamster now deceased and all the hamsters who were ever on the wheel.

The accusations

The majority of these accusations have been made by survivors. Where they have been made by onlookers and other parties, this is clearly indicated.

Accusation 1: Signage

Survivors have objected to a sign left up by the Guardian for GUTers which they claim read: It is with great regret that, after a period of review, we must announce our decision to leave the work experience boy in charge of the hamster. We may have failed to tell him not to touch the RED BUTTON. Or, we did tell him and he couldn’t resist temptation. We may never know and we’re not going to tell you even if we do find out.

The Ministry finds no evidence that this is actually what the sign said and contends that survivors may have made parts of it up.

Accusation 2: No sirens sounded as the ship went down

It is the contention of GUTers that the Guardian had, over a period of years, allowed the GUT to deteriorate into a state of disrepair. Such was the state of the ship that, apparently, no alarms were sounded before the ship sank. Their concern is that the suddenness of the loss caused great distress and risked life and limb. If GUT had been properly maintained, either the alarms would have worked, or the ship would have stayed afloat.

We find that whilst it is true that there were no alarms, it is the business of the ship’s owners the extent to which, and indeed even if, they maintain their ship. It was made entirely clear that passengers travelled at their own risk. Despite the argument of many that they had problems disembarking even when they wanted to, the Ministry contends that they actually could have left at any time before the sinking.

In line with big society protocols, lifeboats have been provided not by the ship’s owners, but by citizens keen to get involved. The Ministry would like to take this opportunity to thank the owners and those citizens for showing that big society can and indeed does work. It is entirely in keeping with Cameron’s rescue efforts in Libya and therefore an acceptable policy.

Lifeboats are available here, here and here.

Accusation 3: It was MI5

Rumours abound as to the exact cause of death of the hamster. Some people, both survivors and onlookers, appear to be convinced that MI5 were involved and that they may have used a poison-tipped umbrella.

However, we find that this is highly unlikely. It has emerged that many users of the Guardian’s other facilities, principally CiF, had been unaware of the existence of GUT. When asked to join in search and rescue efforts, many were heard to remark ‘Wow – you had another boat out there – how come we didn’t know? Is that its picture – aw, it looks cute’. We therefore believe that British intelligence would be unlikely to have located GUT and still less likely to have found the hamster or its wheel. We may in fact be seeking out exactly what camouflage methods the Guardian used, given that a ship so popular with its passengers managed to avoid radar detection for so long.

Accusation 4: It was Zoe Williams

GUTers contend that “journalist” Zoe Williams, to whom they refer as ‘Woe’ for the state they allege she induces in readers, did wilfully and maliciously strangle the hamster. She was motivated to do so, they claim, after years of abuse from the talkboards’ denizens. GUTers frequently argued that the only possible use for her articles was as an aid to teach students how not to write.

The ministry contends that, to borrow a phrase, Ms Williams has better things to do with her time and was in no way, shape or form involved in any of the incidents discussed here.

Accusation 5: A team of crack managers stabbed the hamster

We find the accusation that outraged managers, unable to crowbar their staff away from GUT, sought out and stabbed the hamster in an effort to increase staff productivity, to be utterly without foundation. We find that all managers are capable of managing their staff properly, motivate them beautifully and at every opportunity, encourage productivity over mind-numbing, pointless and tedious activity. Good managers would, therefore, have no reason to fear the hamster.

Indeed the coroner finds that the hamster died of natural causes** and was not attacked by anybody at any time. Rather, it was protected and nurtured by the Guardian. Indeed, on questioning it was found that at least one staff member knew where its food was kept.

**Well drowning is fairly natural.

Accusation 6: Guardian staff have been patronising and unhelpful

GUTers have in particular objected to the Guardian’s thanks to them for “inventing social networking”. They also expressed somewhat robust views on Monday 28th February on a blog provided for them by the newspaper.

We at the Ministry find that GUTers have no cause to object, since the facilities were provided for free by the Guardian. However we feel that we should warn the GUT’s owners that survivors intend to sue the newspaper. A member of their staff, Meg Pickard, remarked to GUTers ‘thanks for being part of it for so long, and making it what it was: a much-loved community on the world’s best news site’. 316 people are now threatening to sue for damages on the grounds that the notion that the Guardian is somewhere in the world’s top ten news sites is laughable. It appears that most of the damages sought are for the cleaning of keyboards and monitors. Something to do with “coffee and interfacing and not in a good way”.

Accusation 7: Concerning the Guardian’s lack of choice and the way in which it has treated a community

Passengers have repeatedly and vociferously spoken out against the Guardian’s claims that as the ship’s owners they would not wish to treat a community in this way and that they had no choice in the matter. In essence GUTers appear to be arguing that there is always a choice, although sometimes that choice is between risking a beating by standing up for what is right, or standing by whilst somebody else takes the flak instead.

Passengers feel that British society does not know what to do with intelligent, inquiring and outspoken people and prefers to shut them up rather than listen to what they have to say and act on it sensibly. Intelligence is ridiculed, disparaged and discredited when it should be nurtured and admired. Instead we laud a vacuous culture of celebrity that relies on ambition and hides its ruthlessness under a shimmering and spectral visage. They argue that the good ship GUT was a refuge for them and that by allowing it to fall into disrepair and then to sink, the Guardian, the one British newspaper that you might think would provide them with a home, showed its true allegiance and simply followed the money.

The Ministry finds all this to be utterly untrue. Getting beaten up yourself is never a valid choice, it is the kind of Have A Go Heroism that the police are always warning us against. Prolonged research reveals that Edmund Burke never actually said that in order for evil to happen it is only necessary that the good do nothing. We find that the Guardian is proud to allow intelligent free speech on its internet site and points out to survivors that moderators will be happy to see passengers on Comment is Free where they can discuss journalists’ blogs.

Flotsam and Jetsam

Search and rescue have found some curious objects. To wit: a frozen sausage; HER DAD; your mum; your mum again; your mum again, this time in a coke can; a strangely irate hamster, no, hang on, there’s a kiwi fruit there, no wonder it was irate; several rather bedraggled sockpuppets; 10,000 Hitlers with a note saying ‘Dear Alan, you are worse than’; an Alanis Morrisette CD; some spoons; a set of red traffic lights; a few cyclopaths; one washing machine, on fire; one fridge, ditto; someone’s leg which appears to have fallen off, perhaps they should have called their doctor; my mate, deceased; some intense hysterical, sorry historical, discussions; a copy of the King James Bible; enough fish puns for a bunch of shipwrecked survivors to live on for months; an acute dissection of the Middle East crisis; a bunch of trolls and loonies who really should have been dumped at sea with only the fish puns for company but instead have been left locked in a room together chanting IP IP IP; some aeroplane wings, goodness, I wonder where they came from, should we let someone know?

Further along the shore were found: the digested remnants of a blue pill and some rather crusty tissues; a bloody good barrister, only slight wet; a defunct ceiling fan with what appear to be items of lingerie attached; a sign reading ‘beware comfrot level low, for special occasions only’; a twitching pair of jazz hands; a small and bewildered wol; several lemons; Genoa; India; a route map to the Free Republic, though oddly no escape plan; the lyrics to ‘I’m a van banger and I’m OK’; popcorn; deckchairs; an entire McVities factory of biscuits; collections of (()) and //\\ .

There were several books, including The Grammar Nazi’s Guide to Pedantry; Belming into the Void: A Beginner’s Guide; Latin Made More Hideously Complex Than Ever Before; Recipes That Do Not Include Wet Stuff; Advanced Techniques in How to go BAM and Hints and Tips on Finding Babysitters Whilst in Portugal.

Rumours abound of strange animal sightings in the hours immediately after the sinking. In particular it is thought that a monkseal may have attempted to rescue some survivors. We are less sure about reports of kittens riding ashore on the backs of penguins, but then to be frank the world no longer makes sense to us, so perhaps it is true after all.

There were also found: a stab map; a collection of hammers; a handbag that had seen better days and appears to have been mistaken for a latrine; a periodic table of the elements shower curtain; several pots of whitewash, oh no, hang on, those are ours; some oddly-coloured starfish of a type not usually found in these waters; a board game apparently called Clifton Cluedo; a tape measure that may or may not have been near Ian McKellan; several mooncups; mind bleach; and finally some rather oddly assorted and very lost people.

Ode to GUT, or The Death of a Talkboard


On Friday 25 February 2011 at 17:30 the Guardian Unlimited switched off Guardian Unlimited Talk with no warning to its users. This was a talkboard which had been in existence for more than ten years. Real life friendships had formed on the board. Couples had met and married there – there are children who might not exist were it not for GUT so in its own way, it has changed the course of history. It certainly changed my life, as there are many people I would never have met elsewhere, who have become firm friends.

 GU ran the boards as a free service for all those years even though at times it must have felt as if they had created some sort of ungrateful monster child with a hyperactive but utterly misguided intelligence. Few are in any doubt about their right to switch it off and indeed rumours had been going around for about five years that the end was nigh. What is in question is their reason for giving no notice.

There is an email in circulation written on behalf of the Guardian’s editors that explains that they had to turn it off and, even worse, for mysterious reasons, they are not allowed to tell us why. Well golly gosh and crivens, call Enid Blighton, scratch my back and pour me a gin. This is a most excellent reason and one I shall use forthwith whenever I do anything thoughtless, bordering on spiteful, that really pisses people off. I shall call it the God excuse – I move in mysterious ways and cannot tell you why. I shall also, in future, be scheduling all upsetting and life-changing events to occur at 17:30 on the last Friday of the month, so I can ignore the problem and go to the pub. At the moment these things seem to happen at around 09:15 on  a Wednesday leaving me actually having to deal with the issue and pick up the pieces, which seems hopelessly unfair and pointless.

 This is my own personal take on the wonders of GUT. It is not meant to be comprehensive and I will inevitably miss much out, for which I can only apologise.

 So who were GUers? Well they were the only ones likely to understand why I get a Muppets’ earworm every time someone mentions the capital of Bahrain – Manama n man a mannana. They were perhaps more likely than most not to be appalled by this behaviour but there were no guarantees as to which way they might jump. They  could argue for days (or it may have been months, I gave up) about the relative merits of tinned vs dried chickpeas. They could give expert guidance on everything from the structure and formation of PCTs, to the best laptop to buy, via a debate about God and the true meaning of existence, interspersed with a spat about who would win in a fight, a caveman or an astronaut.

 There was nothing so petty or trivial that GUers couldn’t argue about it, often in unexpected ways. When one poster innocently remarked that a mars bar and a packet of crisps were not perhaps the best breakfast one could think of, an almighty battle ensued about the effects that particular breakfasts, and lifestyle choices, might have on the planet. I think, though my memory may be playing tricks on me, that throwing crisp packets away may have been deemed an environmental sin so appalling that it was at least as bad as raping the planet.

Signs that you might have spent a little too much time on GUT.

 You divided your life into ‘here’ and ‘irl’, where ‘irl’ meant ‘in real life’ and had become a place you didn’t frequent all that often. Or at all if you could avoid it by getting Sainsbury’s to deliver.

On the occasions when you did venture out you found yourself telling irl friends about something a ‘friend’ said when in fact you’d never met the person and hadn’t got a clue who they actually were or what their name was. Or whether they were male or female. And in fact since the case of Penny Lane you had ceased to care one way or the other since any character could be operated by anybody.

You found yourself swearing a lot, in very inventive ways, using nouns as verbs, and briefly wondered why real people didn’t seem to find this all that funny.

You had to stop yourself from writing ‘fewer ffs’ on signs at the checkouts.

Everything you ever wrote became a list of increasingly bizarre acronyms understood by only around 300 people but that didn’t matter.

Your still, inner voice referred to you by your GU user name not your real one.

Whatever they might disagree on, almost all GUers were united in their ability to work smarter rather than harder – it’s how they tended to be able to work and post on GUT. Experts in operations management, they knew there was no point in negotiating your way around half a dozen menus when all you actually had to do was right click once. The majority (probably, perhaps, maybe, please don’t shout at me) were never more irritated than when confronted by someone visibly wasting their time and everyone else’s by waiting until they were at the front of the queue for the cashpoint machine before fumbling around in their pockets for their wallet. Many of them were fundamentally bored and underused at work and probably should have been given more to do and a promotion to keep them off the internet. But GU provided a sanctuary of like-minded souls who understood that the rest of the world were a bit weird and frustrating and shouldn’t be doing that like that because it was so hideously inefficient. Whereas being efficient meant there was more time available to do stuff that you might actually want to do.

I started off on the cycling thread, back in the days when there were links with the main online site, and I needed some cyclists to chat to. It was 2004 and I had recently moved from Cambridge to Exeter. Cambridge had been full of cyclists. I would arrive in the office having been carved up by some idiot who had no idea of the possible function of indicator lights and within minutes could find half a dozen people who would know exactly why I was fuming. Exeter had fewer cyclists, though more have taken up Jesus’s own transport since. This meant that if (fair point, ‘when’) I started to fume about a driver, I was met with a blank stare followed by ‘well you don’t stop at traffic lights’. True, this more or less encapsulates the majority of GUT cycling threads, but I had found a spiritual home where I could join in with other cyclists.

Over the years, various of the cyclists have become real life friends. All of them have been a part of my life for better or worse. But the wonderful thing about GUT and where it differed from other cycling forums, was the fact that I could chat to so many different people. Some were MTB specialists. Others road raced. Many would go out with their local CTC and ride 70 miles in a weekend. Some of us just used a bike as transport, others for pleasure. Some of us rode 70 miles in a week, some of us perhaps thought there was no need to go giddy and might have clocked that up in a month. Of Sundays. But we were united by the fact that we all knew a smidsy when we saw one

Then there was Late Flowering Love, started by halfnelson some time back in 1952. (Have we found halfnelson, is he in the life raft? Or has he sunk, like many a soggy sockpuppet?) Basically, halfnelson asked if anyone had any experience of love “flowering” later in life (probably not if you use language that twee).

It was variously pointed out, in some cases several times, that:

32 (Nelson’s alleged age at the time) is not late, ffs; Nelson should move out of his parents’ home; Nelson should stay at home, it’s normal for 32-year old men to live at home. In Italy; Nelson should pay for sex. If nelson does pay for sex, it will entirely scupper any chance he ever has of getting it for free.

Also mentioned: better shoes; amateur dramatics; housework; mortgages; caring for the elderly; a dead boa constrictor; narrow-minded, prejudiced class bias; sex in alleyways; Shirley Bassey; speed dating; seediness; setting up megaduck with halfnelson; buying a Travelodge; weightwatchers; Timothy; sharks and Hitler obsessions; salsa; Australians, Catholics and the Irish; nannies; the best way to do laundry; the sad story of the alley blow job, the man with disabilities and the bastard thugs; eating crisps on public transport; Scandinavian tongue and groove; a man who eats badgers for tea and yet is married; vagina dentata; pheasants and helmets; baboons and bonobos;  

(Some of that may have appeared on GUT before which I think might technically mean GU owns the copyright, but since they switched it off, do the rules apply anymore? No, I think not. I wrote it, it’s mine, cock off if you disagree).

LFL then became, briefly, one of GU’s favourite soap operas as ChampagneRocker met and obsessed over a beautiful Colombian cleaner. Unfortunately he failed to remove his mittens for long enough to get her phone number. Once this act had finally been achieved and she went round to his house for cake (I don’t think that was a euphemism), it turned out that sometimes, the stunningly beautiful are terminally boring and obsessed with busses. A character known as DonkeyDerbyDay may or may not have been dithering about whether or not to ask out a ShyGuy but enough about me, err, that. Someone at this stage remarked that it was like watching pandas mate and the panda label stuck, along with many, many recipes for bamboo.

And who can forget the Silly Question thread, though many of us may have splashed around so much mind bleach that we were in danger of unconsenting interplanetary sex one more time. Leftie asked a seemingly simple, if slightly silly, question: Can I swim with a tampon in? And the slightly more baffling corollary: how do I deal with the pain?

What followed might have been innocuous (if you don’t mind discussing ladybits, and GUT never minded a good discussion of ladybits. Or, now I think of it, any discussion of ladybits). The thread could have ended round about post 10, after it had been explained that yes, you can swim with a tampon in, though if you’re not used to using them it might help to practise putting them in beforehand and that no, they don’t hurt. You can feel them if you don’t put them in far enough but there are very few nerve endings in there so you can’t feel them so long as you push them up far enough.

There also followed some handy extra hints to these basics:

Cut your fingernails; The merits of applicator versus non-applicator; Widthways expansion (strangely not as fun and exciting as it sounds, especially on the way out); Rollerskating, horseriding and surfing (white jeans obligatory for the first). And that really should have been that, although there was a presage of things to come round about post 3 when someone <cough, Blueshadow, cough> commented that:

They soak up all the water and expand to the size of a small cushion, you will need a doctor’s latex-gloved hand or a sink plunger to get the bugger out.

And this as much as anything set the tone for what was to follow. There was talk of belts and towels: mooncups; towels vs tampons; ecology and wings; the European Sanitary Towel Mountain (sadly, no more details were developed, despite vague thoughts about what the mountaineers might look like); the hazards of unintended Brazilians; what to do with that little piece of string (pee on it, mainly). At some point around here the conversation turned to a comparison of various sexual practices (GUers were blunter than I have just been) versus using a finger to insert a tampon, a conversation which the majority of the cast and onlookers thought they would never have.

Then there was a discussion about the length of time you can leave a cotton mouse up your chuff and the practicalities of posting after dieing of Toxic Shock. We had sleeping in your knickers; whether or not you can smell someone who uses towels; the pain of vaginismus; comic sans on mooncups; medium size eggs and whether you can fit them up your toots; washable towels; diva cups and women’s football teams. And Lazlo’s favourite saucepan. Who can forget the favourite Polish saucepan in which his ex used to boil her mooncup. I think it was enamel and had a royal crest – the saucepan, not the mooncup. Or the ex. Please somebody tell me that Lazlo is on one of the life rafts and not adrift on the ethernet somewhere with only the ghost of a saucepan for company. This is GUT, we do not leave people behind (well we probably do leave some of them, but not Lazlo).

Talk was a village. It was my internet home. And the Guardian moderators erased it with the flick of a switch. You only find out the true character of your lover when they split up with you. So here’s hoping that, like someone who dumps his girlfriend by phone and then asks ‘can we still be friends’, the moderators realise that the coward’s way out is not always the easy path it first appeared to be.

The depressing effects of train travel, part 2

So, having finally got my tickets, including my one-hundred-and-five-pound travel anytime return, I set off for Exeter station on a rather chilly Friday lunchtime. The train was due in at 13:25 and it was more or less on time. It was already quite busy and I was glad I had a booked seat. Except when I got to my booked seat there was someone sitting on it. Someone I recognised as having got on the train at Exeter. Now I know people don’t always use their reservations but if that is the case then at least give them a chance to get on the train before nicking their place. Don’t wedge yourself into their seat and then barricade yourself in with your suitcase on the also-reserved seat next to you. It’s a busy train so there’s no reason your suitcase should get a seat all to itself unless you’ve paid for it. Also, I’m the kind of out and out meanie who just asks people to move.

So I get to sit down. This is good. The train is on time and I have a seat, booked all the way to Darlington. Yay. The person with the reserved seat next to mine gets on. It turns out she has a rather charming dog with her, and I like dogs. It’s a Jack Russell Terrier crossed with an Italian greyhound. I have no idea who thought of crossing those two breeds, but the result looks like a rather middle-class lurcher.

I have a nice chat with the dog owner and the journey seems to be going fine, though the train is crowded and some people have given up even trying to find a seat. Usually that’s me, standing in the aisles and I’m glad that for once I was organised and booked in advance, even if it did mean a lot of shouting at the Trainline. Then something odd happens. We’re not far out of Bristol Temple Meads when the intercom is switched on and we hear someone counting ‘one, two, three …. [you can guess this bit, he seemed to be able to count OK] twenty-nine, thirty’. The counting was quite amusing, the emergency stop at the end of it less so. Yep, in my bid to get to Darlington from Exeter I had made it all the way to the far outskirts of Bristol before the train hit the buffers, almost literally.

The train manager made an announcement. Apparently the train doors were faulty. Rumours went down the train faster than you can say ‘Twitter’ that they had in fact been opening whilst we had been moving, which is I suppose one way to make the train a bit less crowded. We were instructed to STAY AWAY FROM THE DOORS AWAY FROM THEM ON PAIN OF PAINFUL THINGS NOT NEAR THE DOORS THE DOORS THE DOORS OF DOOM. The train manager didn’t sound terribly happy in all honesty, plus she seemed to be hampered by a lack of staff intercom and had to make announcements to staff by the main intercom, so we heard all the various and mixed instructions to staff to STAY ON THE TRAIN, STAY, NO OFF, NO STAY. NO, NOT THE DOORS THE DOORS THE DOORS OF DOOM (I may have exaggerated a little but she really didn’t sound very happy).

We limped into Bristol Parkway with desperate instructions about the DOORS THE DOORS NOT THE oh you’ve heard it already, you get the idea. But to be honest, on my epic voyage from the south west of England across this great and good land all the way to the soggy wastes of the north east, I had been hoping to get a little further than Somerset before encountering my first major problem. Still, they managed to get us safely out of THE DOORS at the station and then took the abandoned and disgraced train off to the naughty step (possibly, I was past caring). Passengers continuing up the west coast were told to get on the 15:10 train, those of us heading north east were told to get on the 15:40 train, meaning I was going to be at least an hour late. Other trains were being cancelled and 2 of the 4 trains due in whilst I was waiting were substantially delayed. It seemed the railways were not having a good day. I managed to get hold of a customer service person, who was brave enough to be out on the platform although he ran away shortly after talking to me (and I didn’t even shout). I just asked nicely if the 15:40 stopped at Darlington, which it did. Of course where else it was going to stop, what THE DOORS THE DOORS would be up to and whether or not it would have to perform any emergency stops en route were a mystery to both of us.

The 15:40 turned up more or less on time, and was packed. It seemed pointless even trying to get a seat so I stood in the vestibule which is a posh word for the bit between the carriages that smells of toilet. I was suspiciously near THE DOORS which made me distinctly nervous, so I clung on to the hand rail. Because if THE DOORS had spontaneously opened at 100 mph that would have been really helpful and would have stopped me from being sucked out of the vestibule. (It’s possible I watch too many disaster movies involving aeroplanes and people running around in string vests, or maybe it’s Dr Who). At Gloucester I more or less gave up all hope of finding a seat (I’m tempted to start calling it A SEAT, I’m not as young as I used to be and was getting a bit desperate). Also, I was carrying three bottles of wine with me and was wondering if anybody nearby had a bottle opener. I was wondering how many of the bottles would make it to the party in Darlington virgo intacta. In fact I was wondering if they would become valuable emergency supplies whilst stuck in a tunnel somewhere with ravening hordes and strict instructions not to go near THE DOORS or THE SEATS. I may have been catastrophising at this point but frankly it felt all too real.

At Cheltenham Spa I and the lady with the middle-class lurcher made a bid for seats, like two pensioners at a jumble sale, in the nanosecond between the old crowds getting off and the new crowds getting on, we dove towards our intended targets. Miraculously we both got seats, although I ended up sitting next to perhaps the quietest young man I have ever encountered. I contemplated talking to him as it would clearly have scared the pants off him but I wasn’t quite feeling mean, or drunk, enough. Even the train manager was fed up and announced over the intercom ‘Welcome to the sardine express’. He had a point. Friday is busy anyway, but a Friday train with an extra 50% of passengers is just smelly hell on wheels, and not just in the vestibules. By this point I was wondering if it was possible to open a bottle of wine using only a metal nail file.

The train stayed busy until Leeds. It was also becoming slightly delayed since it was picking up all those people waiting for it and the people waiting for the previous failed DOORS train. Now I tend to get hungry when not fed frequently. It’s important to feed me little and often or I get very grumpy. Expecting to get into Darlington around 7, so a little before I normally have dinner, I had taken with me a satsuma, an apple, a Tunnock’s tea cake and a bar of galaxy. It seemed that these were not going to be sufficient for my journey to the north. In fact most of them had been scoffed well before Sheffield leaving me with only an ever decreasing bar of galaxy and the wine. Unfortunately by this stage I had remembered that at least one bottle was screw top, meaning that the threat level to the wine had risen to Defcon 5. Somehow I desisted but I’m not quite sure how. Eventually, an hour and five minutes after I expected to, I made it into Darlington.

The return some 36 hours later proved almost as odd. The train from Darlington to Manchester left on time and almost arrived on time, and was somewhat uneventful. The Manchester to Birmingham New Street train was packed, but I had a reserved seat and the train ran on time so there weren’t any real issues.

Then I got to Birmingham and found out that the connecting train was delayed. It was supposed to be the 18:12 to Plymouth but it’s newly expected time was 18:30. I needed a pee and decided that given the delay there was plenty of time for a toilet break. Except that the toilets were 30p which was a bit of a shock. I was hoping that for 30p I would get a clean toilet and a reasonably pleasant environment but no, apparently that costs a lot more. Now I don’t know about you but when I see a sign saying what price something costs, I move away from the entrance and find the money and then go back to the entrance, thus avoiding blocking the entrance whilst fumbling for money. So I go back to the turnstyles in front of the loos, 30 pieces of silver in hand, and by this point I really need to pee. So someone walks in front of me, sees the sign, stops in front of the turnstyles thereby completely blocking the entrance, shuffles around in her bag, eventually drags out a purse and then starts shuffling around in the purse. Frankly this is introducing a rate-limiting factor into the equation that anyone needing a pee really doesn’t need. I suspect this woman is a relative of those people who get on a bus and look surprised when asked for a fair, and then start shuffling around in their bags. Or people at supermarket tills who haven’t quite grasped that yes, food costs money and that you kind of speed things up if you are prepared for this fact. In order not to wet myself I just barge past, shove my pre-prepared change into the turnstyle slot and sail on through. That, love, is how you do it. She looked shocked by my rudeness but to be honest I think it’s rude to stand in someone’s way, so what can you do about it.

The toilets weren’t worth 30p but I do at least feel better. The Plymouth train is supposed to leave from platform 11. I don’t know how designers have managed it but Birmingham New Street is without doubt the most murky and subterranean station I have ever used. It always feels somehow deeply wrong, like something out of an H.G Wells novel it gives me that sensation of being in some kind of parallel dream state that’s just off to one side of reality. It’s doing this right now, because the 18:12, due to leave platform 11 at 18:30, was apparently going to occupy the same space-time continuum as the 18:30 to Cardiff, also leaving platform 11. So rather than go down the steps to the platform I loiter around on the bridge, staring at the little screen with all the information, because I strongly suspect that a platform change is in order and I cannot be arsed to go down the stairs only to have to run back up them. True I am divested of wine-carrying duties but I still can’t be arsed with all this unnecessary movement especially since I’m feeling the after effects of carrying quite a lot of the wine internally. Plus it’s possible that I am being haunted by a peach vodka concoction that I’d rather not think about but I’m sure my body has quite enough to do without hauling itself down a load of unnecessary steps and then back up them in pursuit of a mystery train.

Whilst I wait, I can’t help but notice the number of warnings. At Bristol Parkway someone had scribbled ‘STAFF use only’ on the platform telephones in black marker pen, as if ravening hordes of hungry passengers, thwarted in their attempts to go north, had taken to using the phones to order pizza. Then there are the repeated warnings about NOT smoking you horrible lot, no never smoke. NEVER on pain of THE DOORS deactivating. There’s a load of stuff about not leaving your luggage unattended. I’m in Birmingham for fuck’s sake. My luggage is jammed between my legs and it’s staying there. I treat any big city as if at any moment any of your possessions are liable to evolve legs of their own and run away. I’m frequently reminded that I am on CCTV for my own SAFETY IT’S FOR YOUR OWN GOOD IT’S ONLY BECAUSE WE LOVE YOU REALLY THAT WE DON’T TRUST YOU AND ARE CONTINUALLY FILMING YOU YOU SHIFTY LITTLE OIK. Then someone announces that I must not (this might not have been a personal announcement, it’s just by this stage it felt like it) rollerblade or cycle or skateboard on the station. Why? Why would I do this? Now you’re just putting ideas in my head. It would be cool to see if my bike, the 18:12 to Plymouth and the 18:30 to Cardiff could all occupy the same point on platform 11. And finally I’m told I must not assault station staff. This is unlikely. If I’m going to assault anyone, trust me it will be a senior manager, since they’re more likely to be the nasty little pissweasel who is responsible for the ills of this world. In fact there’s a lot more I would do to senior managers but won’t say, in case the police have a twitteresque moment and decide I’m the next Paul Chambers. Suffice it to say it would involve the DOORS OF DOOM, a 100mph train and no handrail.

Anyway. It seems that most of the other passengers have also worked out that two trains cannot occupy the same platform at the same time, no matter what the little screens say so we’re all loitering on the bridge. Now I become suspicious. What if we’re not all loitering for the same train? What if it’s all a plan and the 18:12 left on time from another platform, leaving me up here staring at the little screen which is telling me massive pork pies and every other passenger somehow got the right information and is now winging their way towards Plymouth? Admittedly this is a little unlikely, but it is just possible. Then I start to wonder about myself. Is this paranoia? Is it another odd form of catastrophising? Is it a healthy sign of an active imagination? Or just good old-fashioned going bonkers?

I ask a fellow loiterer if she is waiting for the Plymouth train. She is and she even seems to regard me as more or less sane, which is a good sign especially since I’m still not quite sure if I’m in a parallel universe and wherever I actually am, I still doubt it’s the kind of universe that can accommodate two trains in the same space-time spot. Also, by this point it is 18:32, the 18:12 is due in at 18:32 although the platform information has now been removed, and the Cardiff train is pulling out of the station. Then the platform information comes back. We are going from platform 11, the train is on it’s way, we’re off!

I’m glad to see the back of Birmingham New Street as it has always left me with that unsettled feeling that I have wandered into a future dystopia or perhaps an episode of Dark Angel. We eventually make it as far as Cheltenham Spa where officially we are the 18:52 although it is 19:34 and we are still here. Apparently the train in front has “technical difficulties”. Nobody mentions THE DOORS THE DOORS THE DOORS OF DOOM but there’s still enough paranoia in my system to make me think they let the train off the naughty step too early and it’s sitting somewhere between Gloucester and Cheltenham, a great big malign influence, flapping its doors in the dark and by this time I have no Galaxy, no wine, and only a hazy memory of something peach-flavoured which is small comfort when you’re lost in a parallel universe and are having problems with time travel. And travel. The ordinary travel seems to be an issue.

Still, I eventually make it into Exeter, some 40 minutes later than I expected. So far I’ve nearly lost a ticket; shouted a lot; shouted a bit more; got a really expensive ticket for free for no good reason other than that the Trainline’s systems are frankly rather pants; encountered THE BELLOWING DOORS OF DOOM DOOM I TELL YOU WE’RE ALL DOOMED DOOMED TO EXIT BY THE DOORS THE DOORS ‘ladies and gentlemen we will shortly be arriving at Birmingham New Street please be sure to take all your personal possessions and belongings with you’ (why, what else would I do with them? throw them on the tracks? stuff them up the silent young man’s nose? What, what do you think I will do with my possessions, eh, eh?); lost almost two hours of my life to the railway system’s delays; paid ten pence per minute to be told it’s not my problem (it is your problem and I will shout until you acknowledge this fact); paid 30p for a pee (how can one pee cost 30 pee, that’s just wrong); experienced paranoid delusions but heck it’s Birmingham, it’s about as exciting as it gets in Birmingham; met a middle-class lurcher and eaten too much chocolate. Still, as far as I can remember through a sort of fuzzy peach-induced haze (seriously it was the peach more than the vodka, I swear fruit’s not good for you) it was a good party, and in the end that’s what counts.

The depressing effects of train travel

Last weekend I took part in a challenging adventure. My mission was to get from Exeter to Darlington and back again via Manchester, by train, three journeys, without asking Bill Gates to loan me the requisite cash.

I cheated and started back in November, during the first snowy period of the winter. No, it’s not that I thought the answer would be to walk up there and decided I had better start there and then, although hacking the horse up there might have been a good alternative. That’s how far in advance I had to book to get cheaper tickets. I tried buying via National Rail but their system wasn’t working for some reason – probably all those people logging on trying to get information about cancellations due to the weather. When I emailed them to ask what their problem was they replied that they had no problem, it’s just that shit happens (I have paraphrased that). So I turned to the I got nice cheap tickets from them but because the post was running as successfully as the trains they advised me to collect the tickets from a machine rather than have them posted to me. This seemed like a good idea so I arranged it so that I could pick all the tickets up from my nearest station, well before I was actually travelling, just in case anything went wrong. Although, what could possibly go wrong?

So two weeks beforehand I trundled down to my local station, a 20 minute walk away, with my debit card and booking references. I put the card in the ticket machine. It spat it back it back out and asked for the booking reference which I duly tapped in. The machine spat out several bits of paper – a seat reservation, a ticket, and a receipt. I put the card back in the machine, it spat it back out. I tapped in the booking reference. The machine spat out a seat reservation, a ticket and a receipt. Round three, the trip from Manchester to Exeter, was the last ticket. I put my debit card in the machine, it spat it back out. It spat out several bits of paper. It had not asked for a booking reference but I had the three bits of card I needed and by then there were impatient people breathing down my neck waiting to use the machine.

When I got home I checked all the bits of paper. It seemed unnecessary but since I have had depression I have catastrophised i.e. in any given situation I assume the worst will happen. So it seemed like a good idea to check all the tickets. When I looked at the last set I realised that I had the receipt, two seat reservations (Manchester to Birmingham and then Birmingham to Exeter) but no actual ticket. I tried to tell myself not to catastrophise and talked myself into thinking it would all be alright. The problem must have been the lack of booking reference, I would go back, tap in the booking reference and all would be right, I would get the ticket I had paid for. And, fortunately, I was sorting all this out now and hadn’t actually got on a train without a valid ticket.

So I trotted back down the train station, another 45 minute round trip. I went to the machine, I put in my debit card, it spat it back out and asked for a reference. I typed in the reference for the Manchester- Exeter leg. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing again. I looked around. I had paid The Trainline for the ticket, but who was responsible in this case? Because of course there was no-one from The Trainline at the station. But I approached someone there anyway and explained the problem to him. He checked my debit card and reference number but couldn’t get it to give him any tickets. He checked to see if any tickets had been handed in. They hadn’t. He shrugged. He couldn’t really do anything because my contract was not with his company but with a supplier.

So I went home and found The Trainline’s phone number. I obediently pressed options 1, 4 and whatever it was for ‘You bastarding bastards haven’t given me my bastard ticket. Bastards’. Eventually I got through to an actual live person. An actual person but one with a very strong Indian accent and English was obviously not his first language. At this point I realised that I was uncomfortably close to the limits of my own liberalism. I do not know where The Trainline’s call centres are located. I do not know where this person lives. I have no problem with anyone of any nationality whatsoever having any job, anywhere. I do have a problem with not being able to understand call centre staff and with them not being able to understand me since it should be a prerequisite of the job.

I talked him through the problem. He seemed concerned. He checked my booking number. So far, so good. Then we hit a wall. ‘The tickets have been issued’ he said. ‘They haven’t’ I said, what with me not having got them in my sticky paws, what with the machine not having given them to me. ‘I will talk to my manager’ he said and disappeared for several minutes, at 10p a minute on my phone bill. I considered asking him to phone me back. He returned and said he was trying to sort things out. At this point I made the mistake of saying that I had asked someone at the station for help and they had checked for the tickets but they weren’t there. ‘This is VERY important’ the call op said, ‘what was his name?’ I was stumped by this. It wasn’t that bloody important and I don’t check people’s names. I know that current research blah blah blah indicates that customers prefer to blah blah blah be given a name but frankly I prefer to have good service and a ticket. I only notice someone’s name if the service is bad. I gave the call op details of the time and date of this encounter and told him the place the member of station staff had been sitting. Given that he would have had to be logged on to a computer system, this information made him identifiable to anyone who wanted to find him.

Except according to Mr Call Op it didn’t and it was really important that I remember this person’s name and he told me I must try to think harder and remember it. Except I couldn’t remember it for the simple reason that I didn’t have a bloody clue what it was in the first place. He might as well have told me to think harder about Fermat’s theorem. I don’t know what it is, beyond the fact that it just might be ‘John’ and no amount of thinking harder, at 10p per minute on my fucking phone bill, is going to make me remember it. I’m not big on being patronised, especially at my own expense. We went round and round like this for a while with Mr Call Op periodically disappearing to talk to his manager and returning to admonish me for not knowing the name of station staff and saying that, since the ticket had been issued, it wasn’t his problem. After some shouting that it was his problem since I had a contract with The Trainline for a ticket and no ticket, I put the phone down.

The problem with depression is that you tend to think that in any given situation the worst thing will happen. This behaviour was just confirming it. As far as The Trainline were concerned they had issued the ticket and were not going to do anything about it, end of story. This left me with the choice of either not travelling at all or of paying another 100 pounds for a ticket. I don’t have one hundred pounds.

I took a deep breath and phoned again, this time pushing slightly different buttons in the hope of getting someone less patronising about my ability to remember names. I got through to someone whose first language was English, which seemed like a step in the right direction. He explained that there was often a problem with the ticket machines – they would issue tickets but the tickets would jam in the machine rather than be given out. The machines were the responsibility of station staff who should, if a ticket were not issued, help the traveller. Once this was explained Mr Call Op #1’s behaviour became more understandable although why he had been unable to explain the situation is beyond me. People tend to respond better if you explain things to them rather than patronise them and think they don’t need an explanation but should take your word for it.

But then we went back to square one ‘The tickets have been issued so there’s nothing I can do’ said Mr Call Op #2. So I shouted. This may be a bit of a theme. I shouted quite a lot. I shouted about the fact that I had paid for a ticket and had no ticket and needed a ticket. I shouted about never using The Trainline and never recommending them to anyone. I considered shouting about privatisation and the fact that at least when it was British Rail you didn’t have to go all round the houses blaming different companies. Instead I shouted about the fact that I didn’t care whose responsibility the machines were, it was The Trainline’s responsibility to get me my ticket. I managed the whole shouting malarkey without swearing, except once, under my breath, which is quite impressive by my standards.

Mr Call Op #2 went to talk to his manager (or possibly just to have a lie down and a break from the shouting) at 10p per minute at my expense. He came back. He signed me up as a business customer and ordered me another ticket at the Trainline’s expense for £105. I thanked him for sorting this out. I went down to the station AGAIN. Third trip but this time I got the ticket.

But the whole thing is farcical and redolent of all the things that are wrong with private enterprise. With a fractured system, there will always be someone else to blame. In this case the ticket supplier blames the station staff and the station staff blame the supplier leaving the customer wondering what to do. Which is when the shouting started.

So I have some suggestions for the Trainline and how they might make their systems run more smoothly, starting with the least technical solution first.

1. Stick a sign on the machines explaining that they are the responsibility of station staff and that tickets often jam in them. Explain that if tickets do not appear, it is the responsibility of station staff to find the tickets.

2. When customers are asked to choose how to receive their tickets, have a pop-up that explains the above.

3. Alter your system so that tickets can be reissued. Those fixed tickets are issued with a seat reservation and neither ticket nor reservation can be used without the other. I can understand not wanting to just give out tickets to any customer who claims not to have received a ticket your systems show has been issued, since they could just be blagging a free ticket. So reissue the same ticket, registered to the same seat. It costs you next to nothing and it means that they can’t blag a freebie. It also means they don’t have to shout, repeatedly, at 10p per minute just to get a ticket. Make sure this doesn’t mean you can sell the same ticket twice, just that in the event of customer complaint an identical ticket can be released again. We can fly to the moon and back. This can’t be impossible.

In the meantime I won’t be booking through The Trainline again. Sure they sorted the problem out but it shouldn’t have been a problem, I shouldn’t have had to shout, and I would rather the simple process of booking a ticket didn’t confirm the worst of my depressive beliefs.

Next week, the fun continues as I make it all the way to Bristol before the train breaks down…

The politics of identity: Gender, TV and the internet

This week in my time machine I have been mostly travelling to 1973. Oh no, hang on, that’s just Sky Sports. Phew, because in 1973 I looked like this:

If I have to turn back the clock, I’d rather go back to 1998 and start again from there.

 Anyway, the mystery that is Andy Gray. Frankly it’s a mystery why a man with so few talents that are so well hidden; who has seen better days and was pug ugly even back then, and who has all the personally redeeming features of a UKIP member, feels qualified to comment on the looks and abilities of an attractive, intelligent young woman who was doing a damn fine job and who understands the off-side rule to boot. Any more sackings like that and who knows I might regain my faith in human nature. OK, let’s not go that far, but don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out, Andy, love. Normally I would be kinder to someone standing up to the Murdoch empire but I have no time for someone whose first thought about a new team member isn’t ‘Can she do the job?’ but ‘Is she eye candy?’ Oh, and if you really want someone to attach a microphone to your dick, I recommend that they use a bulldog clip.

 It’s been a week when I have pondered things about identity and sex difference. I can create an entire identity on here and put pictures of myself up but for all any of you know I might be a 58 year-old male software engineer living in Crawley who’s never been near a horse or a bike but who has a talent for trawling the internet and making shit up. Actually that’s not quite true, excuse me whilst I wave to my mum <Waves>. On the internet I can be whoever I want to be, or at least whoever I can convince other internet users that I am. Real life is trickier. My primary identity, the feature of which I’m most aware in my daily life is that I am a woman, closely followed by the fact that I’m a redhead. Obviously I’m not thinking about these things all the time, but when builders start singing O Solé Mio to me and calling me a spicy meatball, I tend to be acutely aware of the genders of everyone involved in the interaction.

 Channel 4 has a new show, a sort of spoof current affairs programme, called 10 O’ Clock Live. It features 3 men and a lady. Charlie Brooker—funny writer, TV presenter. David Mitchell—comic actor, does panel shows. Jimmy Carr—does stand up, irritates me to the point of violence. And Lauren Laverne. Token blonde woman. Why this uneven mix of the genders? This has been discussed on Christina Martin’s blog and I can understand the choice of Laverne who is intelligent and funny. But why not a female comic in the place of Carr? Well actually you could replace Carr with a pot plant and not reduce the comic effect but that wouldn’t realign the gender imbalance very effectively. This line up seems to bring home one point—men are funny, women are blonde. So are men funnier than women?

 Well no, obviously. Both genders are quite capable of being funny, just as they are both capable of being so dull that I start trying to see if I’ve got split ends in my hair and wonder if I can sort of hack them out one by one, using only nail scissors. But what of the accusation that men make jokes about life in general, whilst female comedians can only joke about being women. It’s all makeup and periods and how your first boyfriend had, oh hi mum, didn’t see you there.

Personally, if I realise that the line up for HIGNFY is an all male one I no longer bother watching. I get tired of the back-slapping, self-satisfied, 30-minute smugfest that is the  general result. I see the humour as male but I think we’ve become so used to seeing life in general from a male perspective that we no longer realise that it is a male perspective. The problem is that the baseline from which we judge humour is gendered, but that gender has become invisible because it is so predominant we see it as normal. We see men on TV, men are funny, so we reason that that’s what it is to be funny. So when a woman makes a joke we see it as different from this norm and different in a way that is gendered. Female humour is often, though not always, rather more self-deprecating. We move through the world in a slightly different way. Female humour is often about not feeling cocksure, what with not actually having a cock.

To give you a more detailed example—Rhod Gilbert trying to buy a duvet.  I find this quite funny, up to a point. The delivery makes it funny, even if he is using that peculiar comedy genre known as ‘Perhaps if I just shout a lot they’ll laugh’. But the content is more dubious. Essentially he’s just being rude to a female shop assistant who is trying to do her job, including seeming to think it’s funny to punch someone. Yes, I know he made it up and it’s funny, right. Not really, no. It’s just violent. Second, it’s only really funny if you are so spectacularly stupid that you can’t work out that a duvet needs to be thicker in winter than in summer what with it being a bit colder at that time of year. Frankly I don’t think you need to be a domestic goddess or lacking in Y chromosomes to work that one out. But make no doubt about it, that Gilbert sketch is about a man being unable to cope within what is traditionally a female sphere. It’s comedy about being a bloke and is as male as any of Jo Brand’s 1980s comedy was female.

I think men probably do not realise the extent to which as a woman, you are almost always aware of your gender, and how often you have to disguise your looks. Of course I’m generalising here—this disguise is something women tend to do more often than men, but it’s not an absolute rule. But how many men can say that they have deliberately dressed to make themselves less attractive because they know that they will be judged on their attractiveness rather than their ability? I know that I have done this—big baggy jumpers, loose trousers, flat shoes, make sure people cannot see what you look like as a woman because then they might judge you as a person rather than as a female. I know that many other women of my acquaintance have done this. And how many men find themselves thinking, on a warm spring day as they unzip a jacket, ‘I’ll just wait a minute until I’m past this building site, don’t want to set them off’.

Of course on the internet, I do not have this problem. I can go into chatrooms and log on as the amorphous Captain Codswallop or the Brigadier Ballsache and either not state my sex, or claim that I am male. A female friend of mine does this although she had to stop going in one chat room because a heterosexual woman fell in love with her and started stalking her. On the internet you can only really judge me on my words. I can put forward opinions that are not my own, under an assumed name, and if they don’t work out, I just never go in that chat room again. I can be Ballsache one day and Codswallop the next. Heck, if I were a little more clever with my browser I could log on as both and have a conversation with myself. I can be what and who I want.

 I’m intrigued, when I post under a gender-neutral name, how often it is assumed that I am male. I don’t think this is sexism—I’ve known men who post on the internet be mistaken for being female. But when I take those tests to see if your thought patterns are more in line with typical female brains or with typical male brains I get told that I have a male brain. (I’ve often wondered whose it is and if perhaps I should give it back). Not only is it male, it’s extreme male. It’s so male that ‘normal’ men and women have more in common with each other than either of them have with me, apparently, which might explain quite a lot. Or nothing at all.

And yet in real life I get decidedly ratty if someone mistakes me for a man. Generally this only happens when I’m on my bike and travelling at speed since anyone actually looking and not in need of an optician wouldn’t make that mistake. I find it disheartening to say the least that anyone slim, fit and going fast on a bike is assumed to male plus the fact that, sorry guys, I find it rather insulting to be viewed as male in appearance. In this respect the athlete Caster Semenya is far more level-headed than I am, as she recently spoke out on Newsnight about the row over her gender, declaring that it didn’t really bother her. In July 2009 Semenya knocked more than seven seconds off her 800m personal best at the African Junior Championships setting a national record and the fastest time for women’s 800m that year. Accusations followed that she wasn’t quite female because of course a woman who’s good at something must be partly male.

My own sport—horse riding—is one of the few in which men and women compete on equal terms. Of course when I use this as an example of a sport in which women can beat men I get told it’s not really a sport. This is somewhat confusing. OK, it’s not confusing, it’s a clear example of how people will twist pretty much anything if it means they get to retain their prejudice. It is annoying though. For the record, that most pretty of equine sports, dressage, which looks like a lot of running around in circles, is military in origin, so it’s about as stereotypically male as you can get. You need an obedient horse if you are going into battle. It helps if you have one obedient enough to leap on command and scatter foot soldiers, or who will rear up and give your blows the force of a horse’s weight as well as your own. Eventing is also military in origin. The cross-country phase of advanced eventing is so dangerous it could be ranked as an extreme sport.

Perhaps one of the things that made me fall in love with horse riding so much is that when I am on a horse, I don’t have to worry that I will be judged for how I look or whether the jumper I am wearing is suitably baggy. I can’t be intimidated by what anyone says when I’m on the back of a 500kg animal. The Andy Grays of this world, who can make workplaces in particular and life in general so unpleasant and intimidating, melt into nothing when I am around horses. It’s one of the reasons they make the world seem right, when there’s often so much evidence that it is wrong.

A Devonian take on the health reforms

An NHS business manager once told me, quite seriously, that the NHS should be run strictly along business lines. Given that this was slap bang in the middle of the 2008 banking crisis it seemed to me that she had not thought through this statement thoroughly. I briefly considered asking her which business model she had in mind, did she, for example, admire the way the Lehman brothers had managed their trade? What did she think of Taylorism? Fordism? A cottage industry model? How did she feel about the Peter Principle? What did she mean by ‘business model’? Was she linking this with capitalism? What did she think of Adam Smith’s theories on the division of labour? Thinking more widely, did she follow Herbert Spencer’s idea of the survival of the fittest and if so how did that fit in with the ideals of the NHS? However, at the time I was temping for £6.50 an hour whilst she was probably on about £35k per annum so it seemed more sensible to keep quiet and keep data inputting, even though looking at the data I was inputting I could think of at least 6 ways to save the NHS money, starting by sacking whoever had designed the inept survey from which the data had been drawn.

Let’s think for a moment about a type of business with which we are all familiar – supermarkets. Leave aside for now the vexed question of the ways in which many of them treat their suppliers. Since MPs of various hues often say that they want the NHS to be patient-centred, if we are going to use a business analogy, let’s examine this from the customer’s viewpoint. Towards the end of the month when my salary goes into my bank account, I might take a trip into Marks & Spencer’s or Waitrose. Feeling a bit flush, I’ll probably opt for something in the Finest/ Bestest/ Poshest/ Middle-class pretentious range. Give it a couple of days and I will have calmed down enough to head for Sainsbury’s. I’ll probably shop in there for most of the month, although whereas I’ll start with the Posh range I’ll end up grubbing around on the supermarket floor trying to wrench the last packet of 35 pence basics shortcakes from the back of the lowest shelf, because that’s the kind of woman I am. In the days just before the next pay packet I’ll be in the Co-op at around 7:45 pm, in the 15 minute gap between them bringing out the knockdown-price yellow stickers, and hungry hordes of underemployed, pissed off bargain hunters running away with all the reduced price bread rolls. In the midst of all of this there might be a trip or two to a large German discount supermarket to stock up on olive oil; loo roll; tins of tomatoes; cheap pasta and whatever cleaning products I suddenly think I need, whilst I try to avoid the middle section with all the shiny trinkets; illuminated house numbers; saucepan sets; lava lamps; gardening gloves; bird food; diving equipment and dehumidifiers because I don’t need that stuff and buying it will defeat the object of going into a cheap store in the first place.

Is this the business model I want for the NHS? No. In so many, many ways, no. Businesses which are badly run and which fail are allowed to go to the wall and I do not want parts of the NHS going to the wall. Neither do I want this kind of choice. I just want good quality treatment. I don’t want to think that somebody else is getting much better quality because they can afford it, whilst another person is getting an inferior product because that is all they can afford. Neither do I want more popular parts being given more funding for R&D whilst those less under the pressure of consumer demand are allowed to wither on the vine. So is there a way of reconciling a business model which depends on offering choice and variation, with the NHS which was built on the idea that it should be free at the point of access and equally available to all?

In announcing the reforms to the NHS this week, Cameron went to great pains to point out that he was not driven by ideology but instead was concerned only with saving lives. In essence the Tories (or perhaps the coalition, who can tell anymore?) want to streamline the NHS and give power back to the clinicians but I’m not sure that they have thought this through any more than my business manager had thought through her remark. Looking at this from the perspective of someone who has worked in a non-clinical capacity in primary care and is trained in the history of medicine, I would say that those who are unaware of their history are doomed to repeat it. And the Tories seem deliberately unaware of the NHS’s history. They plan to abolish the Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities, placing the majority of decisions in the hands of GPs. But I think if you are going to do this you need to ask yourself where did the PCTs come from and what is it really like dealing with the NHS on a day-to-day basis?

The 1997 paper The New NHS set out the aims for Primary Care Groups. These were to bring ‘together GPs and community nurses in each area to work together to improve the health of local people’ and they would ‘be subject to clear accountability arrangements and performance standards’. They were to commission services and monitor performance. One paragraph is worth quoting in full:

5.18 For the first time in the history of the NHS all the primary care professionals, who do the majority of prescribing, treating and referring, will have control over how resources are best used to benefit patients. By cutting through the artificial barriers that have been erected between drug budgets, hospital referral budgets and emergency admission budgets the Government will give real choices about how GPs and community nurses deploy their cash. In this way Primary Care Groups will extend to all patients the benefits, but not the disadvantages, of fundholding. By virtue of their size and financial leverage, they will have far greater ability to shape local services around patients’ needs.

 PCGs became PCTs as attempts were made to place power back in the hands of the clinicians. So how did they end up growing so rapidly and why did they employ so many non-clinical staff, including business managers? There are many reasons and this would repay a full study, comparing the different PCTs with each other, analysing their growth, asking why smaller PCTs merged into larger groups. If we can understand this fully, then we can begin to understand why the NHS is in the shape that it is and the challenges which the proposed GP consortia will face.

So what about the 2010 paper? What does it promise that is different from PCTs? I, like many others, suspect the new GP consortia will start to look very like the old PCTs, and in fact will include many of the same staff, simply because this government has not taken the time to understand why those PCTs evolved or how the NHS works. I am not convinced that revolutions produce either permanent change or change for the better – in fact history is littered with examples of revolutions that have produced the new boss, same as the old boss.

According to Equity and Excellence: Liberating the NHS,  patients will ‘have more choice and control, helped by easy access to the information they need about the best GPs and hospitals. Patients will be in charge of making decisions about their care’. Why? I mean I like being in charge of deciding whether today is an Aldi day or if I would prefer Sainsburys. I like choosing digestives rather than shortbreads. But I don’t want to choose which hospital is best. I want them all to be good. And if they are not good, rather than being given the option to go elsewhere, I want the poorer hospitals to be improved. Otherwise what happens to those hospitals which patients do not choose? Are they branded as failing? Are they bought out by Tescos? Is this really the best use of funding? I don’t want to be in charge of making decisions about my care. I want to be involved, in the way that I was involved in making a choice about taking anti-depressants or not (not, in my case, my horse is fortunately the best anti-depressant I can find and my GP is wise enough to know this). But I don’t want to be in charge. In the back of an ambulance after an accident I don’t want a league table of hospitals presented to me followed by a surreal conversation in which paramedics say ‘well it looks like your leg will fall off, would you like to go to Derriford, they’re good with legs. Oh no, hang about, there’s a problem with your arm, would you like to go to the RD&E instead love?’

Apparently in the new NHS, sorry the New New NHS, there will be a focus on clinical outcomes. Health professionals will be empowered. ‘Doctors and nurses must be able to use their professional judgement about what is right for patients’. Well yes, that’s not exactly contentious. Just hold on a minute whilst I set my time machine for 1997, I’m sure I heard something similar before. The 2010 paper goes on ‘Healthcare will be run from the bottom up, with ownership and decision-making in the hands of professionals and patients’. Pardon. For starters my inner copy editor is annoyed by superfluous hyphens. Adjectives are hyphenated so ‘decision-making what’? Or just ‘decision making’. And anyway, what does this mean? Have you ever been in a hospital? What do you mean by saying that healthcare will be run from the bottom up and then saying it will be run by professionals? Why do you think professionals are at the bottom? And do you not realise that those professionals currently have their own hierarchies and trust me, you disturb them at your peril.

Go further and we have 4. c ‘patients will have choice of any provider’. Really? If I require out of hours care and I’m in Devon, can I really decide that actually I prefer OOH care in Dorset and demand that I get that? This is the problem with offering choice, in reality it may well be a choice of A. or, if you push for it and are really lucky, errm, how about A? There are some services that simply were not meant to be subject to market forces because their very nature and structure does not allow for this. We don’t really have choice with the railways either, since you cannot run two competing services on the same tracks and having two tracks in the same location makes no economic sense. The same is true of healthcare. If you want it to be equally available to all, then ensure that all of it is equally good.

According to 4d I can also, as a patient, rate the services I am getting. Now this worries me. It really, really worries me. Have you ever read online reviews of services? I have. People will review a CD and trash it because basically, it is not to their taste. They will review clothing and say they don’t like it because it was designed for someone tall and they are not tall. If you work in a complaints department within a healthcare organisation you will quickly realise why people complain. The complaints are diverse and whilst many are well thought out and reasonable, some are not. Try explaining to someone that a visit will be carried out according to clinical need, not their transport availability, and they will mark you down. Try explaining that disease is a process and no doctor would have been able to make an exact diagnosis of their very unusual condition early on and they will mark you down. As valuable as patient feedback can be, patients are not always best placed to decide what constitutes good care.

Moving on to 5. j. ‘Quality standards, developed by NICE will inform the commissioning of all NHS care and payment systems. Inspection will be against essential quality standards’. Now that sounds good, on first glance. However, I have a couple of issues. First, how do you really know that your provider is telling you the truth? Because in my experience you can set the standards and providers will give you a report telling you they meet those standards. Personally I would be inclined to check very carefully that that is indeed the case.

This ties into the second and more fundamental problem. Let’s say that a patient is seen by their GP. Their GP refers them into a hospital to see a specialist. The patient decides that the GP should have seen and diagnosed them earlier, that the wait in the hospital was unacceptable and that the specialist they saw in the hospital was uncaring. They decide they will complain about this to the NHS, because to them it is all just the NHS and if they make a complaint it should be to one body. Except that even now, it is not. Their GP is governed to some degree by the PCT, so a complaint about a GP needs to be addressed by them. The complaint about the waiting area and its lack of comfort needs to go to the hospital. Whereas the specialist is provided by a third organisation and a complaint against them needs to go to a social enterprise company. As far as I can work out, this government’s proposals will make this whole scenario worse, not better. The NHS will be more fractured, more diverse, and more confusing to any patient trying to negotiate it if the coalition persist in the idea that multiple providers are the answer.

I could go on. And on. I could spend all week going through this and explaining why I think it won’t work. But what it boils down to is this: If you really want to give power back to the clinicians, how about you ask them what kind of reforms they want? Or have you just realised that if you do that, they will turn you down, given the concerns already expressed by members of the British Medical Association? Why not draw breath and take a long, careful look at the NHS. Work in it for a while, or at the very least spend time talking to those people who do. If you must waffle on about using clinical evidence, then why not actually examine that properly before you just yell ‘Oh look, our rates for cancer survival are a bit pants, let’s have a revolution’. It may not mean that the whole NHS needs reform, again. It might just be that you need to work better with oncology services, or work out why cancers are not spotted earlier. Reforms in themselves do not bring about efficiency – indeed they often delay it.

In my experience the NHS is a behemoth but it is far from monolithic. It is a huge beast that has, like most large organisations, acquired a sort of institutional inertia where change is concerned. If we could turn the clock back 65 years we could relaunch the NHS but we have over 60 years of history as its structures have evolved, put down roots, taken on an almost organic form. Cameron’s changes appear to me to be far more about ideology than anything else, since they have only a very shaky evidential basis. The NHS needs consideration, some careful pruning. Reforms need to be based on evidence and undertaken with a greater understanding of how the various parts of the NHS work and how and why they have grown, otherwise in another 15 years time another government will disband the by then bloated consortia and again announce that clinicians need more power.

A Devonian take on the news

I have disobeyed police orders. Orders which were given expressly for my own safety. And how have I achieved this? Why by venturing out on my own after dark. Admittedly it was 5pm and I was going to Sainsbury’s, but as far as I can gather from advice given by Avon and Somerset police, it is standard for women to stay in after dark rather than go out on their own. The fact that this has put every woman in the northern hemisphere on a 14 hour a day curfew for around 6 months of the year does not seem to bother them.

 Joanna Yeates’ murder has not dominated the news to quite such an extent this week though there is still plenty of feverish speculation about what happened. I am mindful of the fact that at the heart of this is the tragic story of a young life cut brutally short. It’s just unfortunate that on the periphery, and at times vying for centre stage, is a missing ski sock, a pizza and a comic turn from the boys in blue the like of which I haven’t witnessed since I saw Much Ado About Nothing in the open air theatre at Regents Park and they made the 3 policeman all wear the same cape so that in effect one be-caped beast had 3 heads and 6 legs, and all 3 heads were made to sing in unison.

 Now don’t get me wrong. I know the police have to give out advice and I appreciate it. If it’s sensible advice that helps I particularly appreciate it. Since I’m the sort of person who carries a handbag with nothing in it as a foil to muggers whilst stuffing ten pound notes in my bra and doing irreparable damage to my credit card by carrying it around in my shoe I probably don’t need someone to tell me to be careful when opening the front door, but I applaud the effort. However, Avon and Somerset really did surpass themselves. To be clear, they said that lone women should avoid going out after dark on their own. There’s more here: (Yes, I know it’s the Mirror. I like to read it from time to time to remind myself why I don’t read it more often). It just isn’t practical advice, not to anybody holding down a 9-5 job in winter. Actually not to anyone since insisting that women stay in after 4pm in the winter is basically idiotic.

 It’s not that I have a problem with advice to women in general, I have a problem with this piece of advice and I have a problem with the fact  that whilst men are more likely to be the victim of crimes, police do not seem to think they need to be given similar advice. Somewhere in here is a good topic for a masters student, if it hasn’t been done already. After a man is killed, do the police routinely say that men should not go out alone after dark? How do they tailor this advice? If they think there is a racial motivation, do they caution everyone of a particular race to stay in? No, not generally, and imagine the outcry if they did. My guess, and yes at the moment it is just a guess, is that we are so used to infantilising women, in a way that we do not infantilise other groups, that often we don’t even know we are doing it. The only group that I can think of that receive similar advice is the elderly and again I think the motivation is similar – taking care of a group whom we consider to be slightly less than capable of taking care of themselves.

There was much else besides in the news – much of it concerning floods in various parts of the world though let’s face it none of it was funny. (Well OK, I found the idea of a shark in the streets of Brisbane wryly amusing whilst realising that it was anything but for the more usual denizens of the city. Come to think of it, I don’t suppose the shark was having that much fun either). Thinking of toothy grins, Palin tripped herself up again, perhaps even more spectacularly than when she couldn’t work out which Korea was which. I sometimes find myself wondering if Palin isn’t actually a plant by the Democrats, in much the same way that I idly wonder if Widdecombe is actually Labour’s secret weapon.

 But to end the week back where we started on nonsense advice to women, I have to give a special mention to Kenneth Tong. For those of you who haven’t heard of him Tong is known (I can’t bring myself to write ‘famous’) for being wealthy, stupid, and on Big Brother, though I appreciate that might not narrow the field down too much for you. For those of you who haven’t come across it yet, Tong had a remarkable interview with Johann Hari which is available here: 

Now Tong did some rather ill-advised tweeting in which he put forward the idea of ‘managed anorexia’ and argued that women should be a size zero and that being plus size made women ‘sub par’. I’m not really sure I should give the obnoxious little man any more attention than he has already had so I’ll keep this fairly brief. He said some frankly bizarre things about how it’s good to starve. He has been rounded on because much of what he said was downright dangerous. In amongst all his ranting gibberish he seemed to think that women should be a size zero to be successful and attract men.

By ‘size zero’ I’m assuming that Tong is referring to American sizing, although it is entirely possible that Tong himself doesn’t know to what he is referring. A US size zero is a UK size 4. I’m a UK size 8 so in order to get down to a UK size 4, I would have to lose 4” (10cm) off my hips and bust. Given that I’m already very slim, the only way I can think of to do this is just to cut my bum off. I’m not going to do this. Mainly because it would be very detrimental to my health but also because it’s my bum and I find it quite useful. These are my main reasons for having no desire whatsoever to change my shape. Trailing away in a very distant third place is the fact that I seriously doubt that I would become more attractive to the opposite sex were I to get rid of my arse.

 Frankly, I think women should completely ignore anything Tong might ever say. I know that even stopped clocks are right twice a day but I doubt he would ever manage those giddy heights of exactitude. By and large I wouldn’t take too much notice of Avon and Somerset police either although in fairness the advice they offer here

makes a lot more sense than the things quoted more generally in the media. I suppose one could follow Tong’s advice and get down to a size zero, thereby enabling one to travel safely in the dark because, should anyone appear and look murderous, you could simply turn sideways and disappear. No, scratch that. I’m off to strike a blow for feminism by going out in the dark to get more food. I would hope that by 2011 we would have got further along than this, but sadly it seems not.