Sunday, 27 June 2010

iPhone 4 - The Queue

Thursday, 24 June saw the release of the new iPhone 4 in the UK.  As has come to be expected on the release of new Apple products there was a fervour of interest and most iPhone users (including Gladys and I) were near-desperate to get our hands on one.  We both now use iPhones and have always found them superb.  The appeal of Apple products, for me anyway, is that they always look and feel well-designed and manufactured and have a simple, stylish but solid feel to them supported by advanced technology.  You do, of course have to pay a premium for the kit, but Gladys and I were due for an upgrade under our present O2 contract so it was not going to be too costly.

This is not intended to be a technology review of the iPhone 4 as the internet is now filled with such things and also what is becoming 'Ye Olde iPhone vs. Android Debate' during which people favouring the iPhone or handsets from various manufacturers which run using the Google provided operating system 'Android' argue with each other with an almost religious fervour about the pros and cons of each system.  I do love iPhones but I am a fairly  pragmatic fellow and  think that any form of extremism is BAD, religious or otherwise.

Nevertheless, I too was quite excited about the prospect of getting my hands on the new iPhone.  Gladys is probably more smitten with Apple products than I am, perhaps through seeing the way my iMac performs in comparison with her Windows 7 computer (we share a study) and was near-frothing with enthusiasm at getting them for us, which was great because I was busy at work.

Even though she is suffering from a tummy bug at the moment, she called the main O2 shop in the centre of Sunderland and was told there was a long queue and they were fast running out of phones. In the USA there are always reports of people camping outside Apple shops when new products are released.

There is another O2 shop situated in Seaham which is a small seaside town a few miles from where we live so she took herself there but even there a queue had formed which extended from the shop into the mall and almost to the pavement outside.  It was a pleasant sunny day and there were plenty of people to chat to, so Gladys didn't mind waiting awhile.

It's at that point that things became interesting from a human behavioural point of view. People in the queue, united in common purpose but enjoying the sunshine, started chatting away with each other.  Gladys was standing in line with a couple of local lads pictured here.

Seaham is quite a small, sleepy port town on the North-East Coast of England so doesn't have the hustle and bustle of the big city.

With the collapse of the traditional mining and other heavy industries it is being developed into a pleasant little coastal resort. The harbour is shown here.

As people were strolling along the street, going about their everyday business and doing their shopping, interest began to develop in the queue and one or two people started to join it. Several people joined the queue and waited.

After about twenty minutes, one lady spoke to Gladys and her new compatriots.

"What are we queuing for?"
"The new iPhone 4"
"What's one of those?"
"It's a new mobile phone from Apple"
"Are they giving them out for free, like?"
"No - you have to pay for them"
"Tsk - not interested then. Thought it must be summat for free or a bargain"

This happened repeatedly with people joining the queue, obviously without any idea what the queue was for, just on the basis that if there was a queue, there must be something at the end of it worth queuing for, perhaps a bargain or a free gift. Who knows?

Hours must have been wasted by passers-by that morning this who clearly had nothing more pressing to do. It highlighted the instinct of the herd and the strange British cultural propensity for forming queues, which other cultures don't seem to suffer from in such an extreme form.

It became quite a sport because the two characters pictured above started to gave a range of responses to questions from passers-by about the purpose of the queue.  The one that seemed to stir the most response was:

"We're waiting for tickets to see Peter André"
"Oooh!  Fancy that - I didn't know HE was coming to Seaham!!"

And so Gladys whiled away her morning. When she finally entered the shop and spoke to the O2 shop assistant, they tried to argue that we had to commit to a further two year contract (with much less favourable terms) as part of the conditions of the upgrade.  Gladys argued, quite rightly that a contract is a contract and they can't go adding conditions into it will-nilly.  They argued and argued but they had picked the wrong adversary in Gladys, who is a highly intelligent accountant with a good knowledge of contract law and a dogged insistence not to be out-done.  Neither does she suffer the normal British reserve about haggling.  In her eyes absolutely anything involving the exchange of money for goods or services is negotiable.  (Sometimes I have to walk away because I can feel my toes curling). 

As these discussions took place in the shop, more and more people started joining in.  Eventually, after taking advice from the O2 Head Office on a number of occasions, the beleaguered hapless O2 staff had to admit they were wrong, although we had been given a similar story about having to commit to a new contract, as part of the upgrade, by other O2 shops. Perhaps it was some weedy ruse by O2 to take advantage of customers in breach of their own contracts, or a simple lack of competence and briefing.

I'm sure the same thing has happened up and down the country, with less knowledgable and assertive customers.  They didn't manage to get away with it that particular morning in that particular shop so many there managed to avoid being duped, thereby saving themselves a considerable amount of money.  Some were so delighted that they asked Gladys to lunch but she was unable to take them up on the offer because of the aforementioned tummy bug.

I'm afraid that for me it has tarnished the reputation of O2 and as the iPhone 4 is not tied to a particular provider, I shall look more seriously at other providers as soon as the existing contract expires.

The upshot of all this is that Gladys emerged triumphant clutching a small carrier containing two iPhone 4s (box shown here - photo taken with iPhone)

This was waved at me joyously as soon as I returned from work and I must say that we have not been disappointed.  It is a lovely thing to use and even just hold.  I know it is just a tool but I do think it is crucially important to love and appreciate the essential tools you use in everyday life.

So, a good day for Gladys, me and a few O2 customers last Thursday in Seaham but a bad day for O2's reputation.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Paper, Paper Everywhere-The Fear.

When I returned to work after 7 month's absence I was obviously faced with a backlog of 'things' that had accumulated in my absence.  Most, if not all of the important paperwork such as items in need of signing off had been intercepted and dealt with.  All of the 'bumpf' had been binned so I was left with very little current paperwork to deal with. Similarly most of the important items sent by email had been dealt with and the rest I was able to delete or archive in about half an hour and a few keystrokes.  It was an eye-opener as to how much email is ephemeral as a communication medium and how many emails people send and 'cc' purely for arse-covering purposes.

I had also forgotten how sickening some of the jargon is - "issues around, keep me in the loop, deal with offline" and all that tripe, from people who think it makes them sound clever but actually has the reverse effect  All easily dealt with using the delete key. It was a very pleasurable experience!

At home it was a different matter.  Although I was at home for all those weeks I was feeling sleepy and weary, lacking in enthusiasm and unable to concentrate for any period of time.

As post came in I threw away all the obvious rubbish - circulars, election propaganda etc. but put everything else in a single tray which is helpfully concealed from immediate view on a shelf under my desktop.  I know it contains some basic filing such as bank statements.  It does also contain some important receipts which are guarantees for some purchases. I would roughly estimate it contains 50% rubbish.

It has now grown so large that it has been 'speaking to me'.  Every sortie to find a bit of paper or a letter is becoming a nightmare!

Here it is:

Argh! Even the sight of it fills me with trepidation and horror.  The more I think about it the bigger it seems to get!  I have to go through each item piece by piece.  I KNOW it will only take me a couple of hours and I KNOW I can break it down and do it a bit at a time, so I need no advice on how to tackle the job.  What I have now is what Gladys refers to as 'The Fear' i.e. my feelings about it outweigh the job in hand.  (I'm sure 'The Fear' is responsible for the late submission of many tax returns).

Anyway, I have to overcome it, get the job done and just focus on how much better I'll feel when it's out of the way.

Saturday, 19 June 2010


One of the side-effects of radiotherapy is hair- loss.  Mine started dropping out about 3 weeks into my 6 week course of treatment leaving me with a distinctly egg-headed appearance.  I had one instance of standing in a supermarket queue hearing a child say to its mother "Mam - look at that man!!".  Brat.

Now my hair has recovered somewhat and after a No 1 buzz cut looks like the above photo as opposed to the lower one which was taken just at the point when it had started to grow again.

What isn't so obvious from the rear-view photos is that there were other swathes and patches with shapes clearly defined by the pattern of irradiation.  Those have all but disappeared, leaving me with a fairly consistent texture of hair.  It has grown back a little finer than before, rather like baby hair.

Gladys finds it almost irresistible to touch and fluff it when she passes me.  So did my daughter when I saw her a couple of weeks ago.  I suppose I find it quite pleasurable and relaxing - my daughter reminded me that I used to ask her to stroke my hair when she was little.  This was usually when I was lying on my stomach watching TV with both the kids sitting astride my back.  I was used as a handy bean-bag.

A few more weeks should see my hair completely back to normal apart from it having a finer texture, which I don't mid as it may stop it being so tufty when I get out of bed in the morning.  So, another step towards normality.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Back in the Driving Seat

Well, not literally because I'm not allowed to drive a car at the moment.  But I'm back at work pretty much full time.  I've been trying to keep a low profile initially but you can only do that for so long in a place you've worked for twenty years on and off!

My job over the years has always had fuzzy boundaries and I have tended to get pointed at different issues, areas, people, departments as deemed necessary.  When I had my re-entry interview with the Human Resources Manager I asked what my official job title was now after a mini reorganisation that had taken place while I was off.  She just smiled and said "Well, everyone knows what you do - you're the trouble-shooter!". Mmmm.  So I've given up wondering what my official job title is now.  It has changed a number of times according to what I am involved with.  I guess I'll find out when our annual report is published soon.  I have to say that there is a certain freedom to having such a wide brief and not being too segmented.  I think I have the nous not to tread on toes unnecessarily and as long as my skills continue to be in demand, why should I be concerned?

My work covers a multitude of areas - coming up is 'trouble-shooting' a major move of acute medical services across the City.  This is not a single-handed affair, you understand but it is a question of sorting out, designating responsibilities and maintaining momentum. Dealing with the who, what, when, when, where and why and aligning people to work effectively in teams (which is usually through persuasion and influence but can be through a good old-fashioned bollocking if necessary).

I saw an old Consultant friend of mine this evening who grinned at me and asked "Pleased to be back then?" to which I replied "Of course!".  Wider grin ,"mad fucker!".  Aaah, it's the esprit d'accord I like!

In all seriousness, I am now really getting back into it and starting to enjoy it again.  I do get a bit more tired than I used to so I just have to be a bit more careful about the way I drive myself.  I'm also developing a thicker skin and I try to make a point of not thinking about or discussing any work issues at home.  I think maintaing sharper divisions between the two is something that I should have been doing before but now feel is a 'must'.

So, life goes on, thankfully.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Dolly Daydream

Dolly Daydream

"In entered Hannah Wood playing Elsie Pickering, and she made the play real. She grounded the production and just made it completely believable. Elsie was a genuine best friend to Dolly. A solid 15 year old Yorkshire lass in every respect. Wonderful. She was just loveable."

My daughter. What a proud Dad I am! :-)

Sunday, 6 June 2010

A General Education - The History Boys

You may realize from previous posts that I love the writing of Alan Bennett.  I am particularly fond of his play 'The History Boys' which I saw at The Wyndham Theatre in London during the final week of its run in London.  I also have the DVD.  The Theatre Royal in Newcastle is currently staging a run of Alan Bennett plays, including 'Enjoy', 'The History Boys' and his newest play 'The Habit of Art'.  Gladys and I booked to see all three and saw 'Enjoy" in March, The History Boys a couple of weeks ago and The Habit of Art is coming up in November.

The reasons that I like The History Boys so much is that to some extent it reminds me of my own childhood and education.  One of the main characters, Hector, is assigned to teach the boys General Studies as a subject and the play rests on the tension between the acquisition of a 'general education' as opposed to grooming the boys for the specifically for the entrance examinations to Oxford University to read History.

There is something about Hector that reminds me of my late father (although not the homosexual interests) and in thinking about it, all sorts of memories of him and my childhood have come flooding back, so I am induging myself in sharing some of them.

Both my parents were teachers and although they never taught me directly, I grew up in an educational environment.  It was the norm. My father was Head of English Language and Literature at Oldswinford Hospital School which was not exactly a traditional 'public school' but it was a 'boys only' school and then, as now, had some boarders and and some 'day-boys'.

I think the traditions, culture and curriculum were very similar to a public school (or independent sector as it would be known today).  It was founded in 1667 and was known as a Bluecoat school, one of a number that still remain.

I knew the school quite well and some of the teaching staff there because as a youngster I was left in the staff room from time to time, presumably to wait for my Dad. My recollection is that they were very traditional teachers, not exactly mortar boards but they did wear gowns to take classes.  I'm not sure whether it was compulsory but my Dad said it kept the chalk dust off his clothes and I remember it hanging on the coat hooks in our hallway at home. The teaching staff mostly wore tweed jackets with leather elbow pads, not as a fashionable adornment but to patch the holes that developed in the elbows.  As I remember they were an erudite but sharp and witty crowd and always made me feel welcome.  My own education was at a state Grammar School before the comprehensive system was introduced.  This involved streaming the more academic kids.

Looking back I think he may have been a bit of a rebel.  As Head of English he was responsible for staging the school's theatrical productions.  I think the governors expected at least an annual dose of Shakespeare or Wilde to impress the parents.  He did do some, but I do remember overhearing him chuntering about opposition he was getting to staging Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot'.  He also had a particular fondness for Harold Pinter and staged 'The Caretaker' and 'The Dumb Waiter' (which incidentally forms the basis of the plot for the film 'In Bruges').  Remember this was in the early 1960's and these were relatively new and controversial plays. Pinter was still an enfant terrible and had not been embraced by the establishment.  Later, of course, he would become a CH, CBE and winner of a Nobel Prize for literature.  So now I realize that my father showed great personal courage and integrity in withstanding the personal pressure that seems to have been applied to him.

But the whole ethos there and also in my own Grammar School education was about acquiring a good general education, an inquisitive mind and sound reasoning skills - knowledge for it's own sake, not for a particular purpose.

At home, the front room of our semi (or 'lounge' as it was grandly called) also doubled as a library, with fitted bookshelves in the main alcoves stuffed with a wide range of literature - Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, early editions (first?) of Wainwright's Walks, poets, plays, novels, books about the ascent of Everest, art, reference books The Pear's Cyclopaedia. There were hundreds of them, all neatly shelved.

I was not a bookish kid, but during those petulant adolescent "but I'm bored - I've got nothing to do!" moments I always seemed to drift into that room and pick up books at random and start to idle my way through them.

I had an enquiring mind, the books were there and within their covers I found information, knowledge, fascination and entertainment, all totally unfocussed and not aiming at any targets.  I was just gaining knowledge for its own sake, out if interest and for the personal satisfaction of doing so, by a process of 'osmosis'.

My father was also an amateur musician and played cello, viola, violin and Spanish guitar. It was normal to hear him practising these instruments and he had a group of friends and colleagues who used to meet at each other's houses, including ours to play music for string quartets and quintets.  I used to play the piano and guitar although never to a high standard, but again I just enjoyed the ability to express myself in some creative way and acquired an ear for and love of music.

My father was also fairly perspicacious in music.  In my teens, as with teenagers now, music was a form of rebellion.  Then of course it was Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Genesis and so on.  My father to my utter amazement told me that he liked Jimi Hendrix as he recognized the skill and art in his musicianship - he compared him to Paganini in his devotion to his instrument and obsession with technique. Although having no interest in Eurovision he confidently and accurately predicted that Waterloo by Abba would win on first hearing it.  He was no fool!

I have rambled around The History Boys and my own childhood memories in this post but there are two particular quotations from The History Boys that have a deep resonance with me and link the two things.

They are both from Hector:

"The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought were special to you.  And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out and taken yours"


"Pass the parcel.  That's sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on.  Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day.  Pass it on boys.  That's the game I want you to learn. Pass it on".