Sunday, August 31, 2008


I never cease to be amazed by the quality of some of the web-sites around. The sharper ones among you may possibly have noticed my interest in Things Photographic, and there are half a dozen sites where some seriously intelligent and incisive thoughts appear about it, on a very regular basis. You can find one such at Usually, the content here is quite meaty, but this evening I saw a lovely little throwaway comment there.

Over in the USA, they have a car called a Ford Expedition SUV. It’s quite a large beast, and for those with a fetish about the size of your car’s Carbon Footprint, you need to think “Yeti” here. The smallest version has a fuel tank which takes some 28 gallons.


What’s this got to do with the finer points of taking pictures in this Digital age, I hear you ask. Well, someone, who owned a very large calculator worked out how much it would cost to fill the tank with average priced Ink-Jet Printer Ink.

The answer, apparently, was $386,070!

So much for the $4 gallon of Petrol we hear so much about.



Saturday, August 30, 2008


I took Grandson 2 to Birmingham yesterday for a bit of inter-generational bonding. Birmingham is the second largest city in the UK, with 2 million inhabitants, and I find it a really good place to be. Of all the cities I’ve lived in or near, the Birmingham people come across as the most friendly. It will never win you over with its architecture (although even that’s changing), or even its restaurants or its top end culture. We even had an “Eye”, one of those huge Ferris Wheels which transport you slowly round to look down on the city from about 300 feet. It came from Paris, and was set up in the Square outside Symphony Hall. The bright sparks who set it up left the previous commentary on it, so, when it all started, and the visitors climbed slowly above the Birmingham sky-line, they were treated to the history of the Champs Elysee, the Eiffel Tower and the Place de la Concorde. Excellent!





In this country, it has always had a reputation as a bit of a dump, a bit second rate. Quite unjustifiably, and possibly with a tinge of jealousy, people from the south think that speaking with a Brummie accent, and being intelligent are mutually exclusive. Thirty years ago, I could perhaps understand that. Twenty years ago, one older comedian used to say that the best thing about the city was its new road system – you could get through the city without stopping. But it’s changed dramatically for the better over the 35 years I’ve known it.

Masses of intelligent regeneration, a world class concert hall with the best acoustics I’ve ever heard, a huge ethnicity which brings both plusses and minuses, more canals than Venice (don’t joke, it’s true), and a heritage which over the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries literally transformed the face of the Industrial world.

If you don’t believe that last one, look up the names Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s Grandfather), Matthew Boulton, James Watt and Josiah Priestley. Look up Abraham Darby at Ironbridge in Shropshire – there are good reasons why it’s a World Heritage Site. Search out a book called “The Lunar Men” (Jenny Uglow) for more information – she brings it all to life tremendously. These men, in 50 years put the world on a new course to Industrialisation, at the same time as the Americans were simultaneously throwing the toys out of their pram and the Tea into Boston harbour. So yes, Birmingham has real character, and so many cities today don’t. I like it.

Where did we go? We’ve been before to the Museums there, so, with a grandson besotted with creatures piscatorial, we ended up in the Fish Market. Now Birmingham is as close as any city gets to being in the geometrical Centre of England. You have to drive about 100 miles, either east or West, if you want to paddle in the sea. Not you’d have thought the best place to set up such a venture.

But the Birmingham markets are quite something, again the result of a bit of history. And given the range of cultures which live in the city, we expected to find a bit more that a couple of boxes of Cod.

Which we did – see below. All the guys serving there were good fun – they joined in and talked to us about the fish. We stroked 2 foot long squids, Conger eels (headless!), found out how to determine the sex of a crab, and got photographed “Godfather like” with a Pig’s head. I’d promised my Grandson some fish to take home and barbeque, so we spent a while scurrying around the stalls there making the final selection (think women and shoes here!). The final selection was a rather effeminate looking Strawberry Grouper, which filleted down to something the size of a couple of Sea bass fillets. Reports from home late last night were that the fish got 10 out of 10.

Mind you, what with the travel, the breakfasts, the doughnuts, and everything else we bought, it turned out these two miniscule 6 inch long fillets cost around £25 each. Who said education was free?

On Monday, it’s the turn of Grandson 1, and we’re off up North to Manchester to the Imperial War Museum there, so if the blog suddenly stops you will know that one of the extremely Realistic exhibits in the Museum has claimed its first Friendly Fire Victim.











Thursday, August 28, 2008


I have reached that “certain age”. The age where you finally realise that there are more years behind you than there are in front of you. That is, unless I live to be 125.

So, you or at least I) have to face the fact that some things in life are probably never going to happen. The likelihood of my selection (at least, without a wild-card) for the European Ryder Cup team is now probably zero. I suspect I will now never run a Marathon, basically because I can’t be bothered to try. And the hopes of finding myself in a situation where Juliette Binoche, or Helen Mirren offer themselves unreservedly to me, even one at a time, are fading fast. Note here I didn’t say they were zero. You have to retain some self belief.

So where is this maudlin little piece going? I spoke to someone my age the other day (actually a little younger), who said that he’d bought his last pair of slippers. “They’ll see me out” were his last words. Not His Last Words, just the last sentence in the conversation we were having.

Bloody Hell, I thought, you can’t think like that. You should always be on the look-out for something new. I moan in this Blog a lot about the way the world is going, but you’ve got to Think Positive. My Father-in-Law flew over from his home in the Isle of Man and spent a day in London looking to buy his 3rd Grand Piano at the ripe old age of 87 – now that’s what I mean. He’d got two already, but he thought he’d get another. Excellent.

Some years ago, I set myself a small personal target. I would try to do something new, or learn something new each year. It didn’t really matter what it was, but it had to be something I’d never done before. One year, it was Aerobics - 48 years old, sweating away in skin tight Pink Lycra cycling shorts. Another, it was to try to start writing in a way people would want to read. The next year on from that, the Blog started. Another, was to master Digital Photography – that’s still very much Work in Progress. Another was to read “The Lord of the Rings” – 922 pages, and I was bored to hell – I still am the only man in the UK who hasn’t seen the films.

Last year, I set my mind to learn to play the Piano. Now, this didn’t completely qualify as a brand new venture, because I’d been learning it under parental duress up until the age of 7, at which point I walked off in a complete huff during an exam, declaring that my pianistic days were over. And for 54 years, that was the case. This undoubtedly brought unspoken grief to my mother, for whom playing the piano was literally her life. She earned her living by playing - in Dance Bands, Ballet Schools and for Dance Teachers. She even played for a time with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, when they were stationed during the Second World War in Bedford, England, where I was born.


I have to say, I have not found it an easy task. I don’t know if it’s the creaking finger joints, or the equally creaking mind, but the digits simply will not do as they are told. It’s a really frustrating feeling, being put in the position of a total beginner, and not being able to do what sometimes seems like the simplest thing. Talk about a lesson in Humility, or is it actually a course in Adult Anger Management?

Of course, the more frustrated one gets, the worse one’s playing (for want of a better word) becomes. So, you have to come to terms with the fact that progress is sometimes One Step forward, and Two Back. You hear about the precocious Teeny Bopper picking it all up from the teacher in an instant, and then your attempt to emulate them ends up with you feeling a complete buffoon. Character Building is a good way of explaining away this failure, except I thought that I’d already got a character.

I liken some bits of it to climbing Everest. Probably a bit of an exaggeration, but the thought of getting both of my hands to do something different from each other, at the same time, and repeatably, was beginning to scare me a bit. I simply didn’t think I’d ever get there. I’m only scrabbling around at Base Camp as we speak, but there is a modicum of discernable progress, although a flurry today with my teacher to climb towards First Base resulted in me hanging off the pianistic mountain on rather a long rope.

But it’s definitely “Once more unto the breach, dear Friends”, “Onwards on Upwards”, “Per Ardua ad Astra”, “Practice makes Perfect”, “If at first, you don’t succeed ….. .”, “The longest journey starts with a single step”, or even “If the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”.

So Practice the Scales first, then off to the Internet to buy a new Printer.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I’ve got a new car. After 6½ years, the trusty Golf has trickled down the family and is now being driven by my Son-in-Law. A new Audi sits in our driveway, and a very good car it is too – comfortable, economical, fast, smooth, good to look at, and after 7,000 miles faultless, apart from a CD player that refuses to relinquish the first disc I ever put in it. For the last three months, I’ve been listening to Martha Argerich playing Chopin – marvellous stuff, but whoever said “Variety is the spice of life” may have had a point.

Six years in a car’s lifetime is about a generation, and the Audi, although built by the same VW group, has moved on. Mostly for the good, but there has been a transformation in the way some of the controls are laid out in the car which seem to me to be heading backwards at a rate of knots.

Try something simple, like changing the radio station. In the Golf, you decided you wanted a change, so you stick out a pinky, poke a button with Radio 3 numbered on it, and Lo and Behold, you get Radio 3. Simple. And effective.

In the new car, some bright spark in Audi has replaced all this with what they call the Multi Media Interface (MMI), which consists of buttons and dials, twisty-turny things and, in my case, two LCD readouts. All very Hi-tech, and if you want to feel like Captain Kirk on the Enterprise, this one’s right up your street.

Except of course, it doesn’t work. Well no, it does work, but Simply and Effectively – No, No, No.

I measure these things by the length of time I’m looking at the dials rather than the road, and, unless I’m getting a bit slow in picking things up these days, I can now travel huge distances, in total blindness, changing the radio station, or getting the AirCon fan to go a bit faster.

So far, I haven’t hit anything.

But look at the process. You take your eyes off the road and fumble your way to the first button which selects either Radio, CD, Set-up or Car. They are conveniently set quite close together so you can’t do it by feel, and they’re set really low so you’ve got to stare into your navel to see them – but they do look very nice. A menu then pops up on one or both screens. You look at it, you decide you want to move the Radio Station, or the Aircon Setting three notches, and you twiddle the knob. It’s very sensitive, and easily over-cooked, so you have to look at the screen either while you’re doing it, or afterwards to check that what you’ve done is correct. Then, when you’ve convinced yourself that Aircon7 or Radio 3 is highlighted, and you’re about to do what you set out to do, you press the central knob to reach your destination. Oh, and if you want something buried a little deeper in the menus, there are another seven little buttons, all nestling together right down near your thigh to make you spend even more time not looking where you’re going.

You can see the mind of a rather repressed Academic Engineer or a nerdy Software geek in the way it has been thought through. I am sure it sounded really good in the guy’s bedroom late in the night he first lashed it up, but a dose of reality wouldn’t have come amiss. Someone should have taken the car away for a week and used it – in the dark, when it’s raining, in traffic, with a child and/or a Mother-in-Law screeching in the back, or when you're just in a rotten mood after a row with the boss. Real Life in fact - he might then have realised that he’d gone one step forward, and several backwards.

BMW led the way with this trend – they called it the iDrive, and apparently it is even more unintuitive than the Audi version, so goodness knows how I’d get on with one of those. It sounds like doing Sudoku on the move.

Predictably, the Car magazines like Autocar think these fancy new interfaces are the Best thing since Sliced Bread, but the men who write for them always work on the basis that New is Better, and are a bit slow in thinking these things through. The result is that the car companies, who hang on every word the journalists write, rather than listen to the poor sods who buy the cars, get sunshine blown up their exhaust pipe, and think they’ve created a miracle. So guess what their next development will be like – even more complicated, and in my simple view, even more potentially dangerous. The Marketing people will sort it out for them though – they’ll sell it as a Safety Feature. That always works.


Now, rewind the Tape of Life about 15 years ago to show that nothing in life is new. A friend at work lent me a new Company car he’d just taken delivery of. It was (pause for laughter) an MG Maestro. This was the vehicular equivalent of a “Fur Coat and No Knickers” car – a staid family hold-all, dressed up with a few fancy, eye catching goodies, snazzy paint, and wide wheels, to raise the marketing profile. A new Safety Feature on this car operated as a warning system by talking to you rather than using little lights to warn you of impending doom. So, instead of a little red light coming on when your engine oil was getting a bit low, a man’s voice appeared and calmly told you that actually, the last drop of your oil had now just gone, and that you’d just scrapped your engine.


The only problem was that my friend omitted to mention this feature to me. So I’m driving off home, through the North London Suburbs, and looking forward to the bit where the Motorway starts, and I can have a bit of a blast. It’s dark, I’m on my own, it’s not my car, and there’s no-one else on the roads. So piling onto the slip road to join the Motorway, I’m flat out in third gear, doing about 80 mph round the swooping approach road. I’m concentrating quite hard as I stare into the darkness, hold the car on the curve and hit the main carriageway.

All of a sudden, in the dark, a disembodied voice booms out.


"What the ......!!!!" All I can say about this brand new safety feature, developed at the cost of many, many thousands of pounds, is it was a very good thing that the road I’d just joined had three carriageways, because in the next couple of seconds, I used all three – and not just once.

Oh, and it was also very helpful that my friend had chosen Brown for the colour of the upholstery.

So safety features – usually Yes, occasionally No.



Friday, August 22, 2008


Today England play South Africa in the first of five One Day Internationals. Oh No, I hear you say, he’s off on his cricket theme again. But no, keep going, dear reader.

At the same time, I’m also reading a book by a guy (Paul Gogarty) who ambles his way around the coast of England and writes his thoughts on the journey. he writes in the style of Bill Bryson, except this guy’s got his knickers a bit twisted on the Global Warming thing, which irritates me a bit. If I want the end of the world rammed down my throat, I'll look at Al Gore's video, thank you. He’s reached the North East Coast of England, and having had something approaching a messianic vision on Lindisfarne, he heads Earthwards and reaches the village of Ashington in Northumberland, where he stops for a cup of tea and a bun.

Now Ashington pushes the definition of a village a bit – it has around 28,000 inhabitants - but technically, it’s a village. One which has suffered deprivation and hardship like most Brits simply wouldn’t understand. The Colliery which was the village's life blood has gone, unemployment is almost the status quo, and the main entertainment today, he sees, is playing Bingo.

And yet, Ashington has hidden depths. If you’re into Painting, read up about the Ashington Group, a band of mid Twentieth Century artists who pictured the lives of the locals in the community. This is a real Division One school of Painting – Princess Anne opened the £16 million gallery housing their Art a while back.

The place Mr Gogarty, our intrepid Author writes, is also the home of the Leek Growing World Championships - don’t ask, this is England. He mentions a contestant who is photographed playing the violin to his veggies - apparently it encourages them to grow.

But if you are into sport, try this for size. If Football (soccer) is your bag, it would be a Once in a Lifetime event if the hugely prestigious Footballer of the Year competition was won by someone from your town or village. Surprisingly, Ashington has been in the illustrious and small group of places where an inhabitant has achieved this, which is not bad for a village.

Except, it has happened on four separate occasions. Jackie Milburn (known in the local Geordie dialect as “Oor Jackie”) in 1958, Jimmy Adamson in 1962, (Sir) Bobby Charlton in 1966, and Jackie Charlton in 1967, all came from Ashington. Ooh-er.

So back to the cricket. It starts on TV in five minutes, so I’d better get typing quickly. Who’s back in the England team today, with a brief to blast the South Africans out of the game? Someone who returned into the England Test team a few days ago, and gave the South Africans a real roughing up in the last match. None other than Steve Harmison – one of the very few/only (you choose) really fast bowlers in this country today.

And, just to close the circle of this piece of scribbling before the game starts, just hazard a guess where he comes from?

You got it! There must be something in the water.


Thursday, August 21, 2008


In the Mid Seventies, I worked as a small Accounting/Engineering Cog in one of the wheels of the largest Car plant in Britain, situated in the southern suburbs of Birmingham. One evening a group of us went out into the City for a meal, and ended up in a Pizza Hut. We certainly knew how to live in those days.

Midway through the meal, one of us turned round and pointed out two girls and two guys at the next table. One of the girls was a good looking blonde, one a rather enigmatic looking red-head, and the two men with them had beards and looked as if they had just finished a hard day filming a Division 2 Porn Movie.

Abba had been appearing at the Birmingham Hippodrome that evening in front of 2,000 people, and there they were, chomping their way through a Marguarita with extra Anchovies and Olives less than ten feet away. Being true Englishmen, we completely ignored them, so I don’t even have an autograph to show for the encounter. I haven’t thought about that little incident for about 20 years, until the other day.

A week ago, (see attached link), a guy in the “Telegraph” called Neil McCormick - - decided to write something like 1000 words explaining to us all his opinion of Abba. For reasons best known to himself, he assumes we all want to know how much he hates them and really vents his spleen explaining himself to us. I suspect it must have been the Meryl Streep film of “Mamma Mia” which set off his vitriol, but, to mix the metaphor, we had both barrels, and from very close range. Abba were the Devil Incarnate, Mediocrity personified, and a disgrace to the Human Race. Their songs were worthless, their song-writing a waste of time, and their singing was simply awful. Oh, and their clothes were beyond a joke.

Now to be honest, you can’t avoid agreeing with the last sentiment, but ONLY that one. Really though, what is the point of fulminating in such a picky, snobby, small minded way about something which gives a mass of people such a huge amount of pleasure. It says a lot more about the writer, who it seems is a failed U2 member, than what is written. To me it comes across as a sneering and rather arrogant attempt at Holier Than Thou – I know more about this than you, and I’ll show you why. I’ve only read this one piece by him so perhaps I shouldn’t judge, but he seems like the sort of person who is perfectly balanced - a chip on both shoulders.

Pop Music is many things to many people. Little 3 minute chunks of sound which become integral parts of people’s lives. For some people, they can almost be the Chapter headings in the story of how they have passed their time on earth. The songs themselves are not necessarily meant to be profound, although some of them are. They’re not meant to tear your soul apart, although some of them do. But, the effect they have on you – well that’s something different, and that’s why taking a cheap pop like McCormick did is a bit unpleasant.

As far as Abba are concerned, are they the greatest Pop Group ever? I don’t think so, but they’ve got to be up there somewhere. In Pop Music, you can’t argue with 270 million records sold.

Go to any wedding or social gathering, and watch the disc jockey struggling manfully to get more than one couple onto the dance floor at the same time. It’s like herding cats – get one up there and the ones you had a minute ago disappear. Everyone sits around the floor listening as the DJ’s play us his favourites and the floor stays totally bare. Until…..

If you want all the men up there, just play the first five notes of the intro to the Stones’ “Satisfaction”Da-Da, Da-Da-Da….. (that’s as much as you need) and instantly, you’ve got a dance-floor full of lip-pouting, swivel hipped males mincing across the floor in unison, flicking their hair back and clapping like a seal. Those of us who lived through and saw the Stones live in the Sixties have just had their life-tape rewound forty years, and we’re 18 again. Unfortunately, all the females are still examining the contents of their handbags, chatting to each other or fiddling with their nails.

But if you want everyone, male and female, old and young, drunk and sober, fit and infirm, on the floor, just put on “Dancing Queen” and it is as if you’ve wired everyone into the electric socket. They all jump up and start singing as one - “You can dance, you can ji-hive, having the time of your life….”, and the evening BEGINS.

Pop music doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful, mournful and miserable, or loud and brash. Try putting Leonard Cohen on at your party, and really you wouldn’t want to dance with anyone who got up onto the dance floor. This McCormick guy seems to think that being No.1 in the enjoyment generating stakes, as you could argue Abba are, is worthy of scorn and derision. Rather sad, really.

But why do people love to disparage them? There’s no doubt they could write some horribly addictive melodies, the sort which drill themselves into your mind and won’t let go. And if you read the lyrics of some of their later songs, the subjects are unusual, individual, quite dark and very non Pop Music – you can almost see the effects of two divorces in the group rippling through the sentiments in their songs.

Try “The Visitors”, a record I will come out here and now and say I think is an 8 out of 10er (that’s a good score from me). The songs range far and wide. The title song starts with an intruder walking up to your front door and approaching it with a malevolent force coming to do Who Knows what – you feel a Russian Spy connection here. Another looks back rather poignantly about an ageing couple where the future seems to be slipping downhill. One’s a commentary about the real threat facing the soldier in war when the gloss of joining up has gone, another tells about the sadness of a couple gradually disentangling and becoming two separate people, another is about the mother watching her child grow up with time “slipping through my fingers”, one alludes to passing love remembered “like an angel passing through my room”, with a clock ticking time, and perhaps life, away like a metronome. Oh, and given that we’re still in Sweden, there’s one about a gentleman who swept railway station platforms answering an advert with the promise of physically enjoying both a daughter and her mother, but not necessarily in that order – the original Buy One, Get One Free.

Not one of these is a simple, joyous, uninhibited Pop Song – they address some of the darker sides of life, and, to my ears at least, are really worth listening to. But they’ve all still got that insane addictiveness that gets you singing the tunes as you go about your life.

So, Pop music is about the individual – you either like it or you don’t. There are no Musts in it, although the Emperor’s Suit of Clothes in the form of The Dedicated Follower of Fashion often seems to be more visible (or not) than perhaps it should. You like what you like, and it’s almost as simple as that. I don’t own a Beatles record, but I do own three by Gerry Rafferty. As far as I know, that’s not yet a crime. You might think me an idiot, but what the hell! I just like some more than others. I could write as much as you like about why it’s like that, but for me to pour out a diatribe on why the Beatles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin or Eminem don’t get into my Top Ten is pointless.

I might however, tell you about the ones which do make it, and why they do – that seems much more positive. But really, even that only means anything to someone else if they feel something similar. The “Yeah, Man” moment. When was the last time you read an article about a singer you didn’t like, with the result that it changed your mind? Exactly. Arguing whether The Sex Pistols are better than The Osmonds is a bit of a meaningless exercise. These things flow from the heart, not the head.

So, having metaphorically stuck the Man McCormick’s head onto a skewer, to feed a point of Principle, I’ve just got “The Visitors” out, and off we go - “I hear the door-bell ring and suddenly the panic takes me, The sound so ominously tearing through the silence……”

Now tell me you really don’t like that, Neil.



Saturday, August 16, 2008


Back in the days when I was a Finance Director, we used to deal with a then relatively unknown, but very large Far Eastern company which made among other things, motor vehicles. We ended up arranging a big shareholder deal with them in Poland, which was where they ended up having their Headquarters. As part of the seemingly unending negotiations before the contracts were signed, I went over to Poland for a few days to sort out a few final contractual odds and ends. One of the guys who worked for me (let’s call him John) came with me, and we were put up in the Far Eastern company owned "Hotel", which was less like a Hotel and more like a cross between an Open Prison and a rather strictly run 2nd Division British Public School Boarding House.

Come the last evening before we left, the Management there put on a formal dinner for us. So around 7pm, we dutifully trooped down for the meal.

The Far Eastern/Polish composite meal itself seemed to be a means by which the maximum amount of alcoholic spirit could be introduced into the body as quickly as possible. It started with shots of alcohol, which were topped up ceaselessly and relentlessly throughout each course (one of which I remember seemed to be Vodka on a bed of Cold Cabbage - mmmm, Yummy!) including dessert. They came with the coffee, and then, after the meal, they got onto the real purpose of the evening, which was to drink more alcohol. For each top-up, there was an increasingly rambling sort of speech from one of the twenty or so people gathered around the table. Given the need to maintain my svelte like profile, I gave up at the umpteenth round of drinks. I am sure by that time, which was around the dessert, I was already telling everyone around me who would listen, that I really, really loved them, and that I was their friend.

“John” however was made from sterner stuff, and had been training for this day for most of his life. If it was going to be a drinking competition, then he was up for it. He took them on, and it soon turned personal. The host was a Far Eastern gentleman who was Second in Command of the Company there, and was in charge because the Boss Man was away on business, and was expected back later that evening. He and John swopped drinks and speeches until the Host ceremonially upturned his glass onto the table indicating that the English (who was actually Welsh) had won. I suspect that this gave our side an immense number of International Brownie points, and that John, from that time forward, was deified or canonized in the strangely different mind of the Far Eastern Business executive.

The meal finished (from my viewpoint, at least) in a beautiful soft-focus haze, and we moved into a large room sparsely littered with easy chairs, and what looked like a television cabinet in the corner. I expected that what was to follow was a gentle half hour of inter-company male bonding before bed. Oh how naïve can a poor Finance Director be?

When the host ceremoniously opened the doors to the "television" cabinet in the room, what appeared inside was not a TV, but what looked suspiciously like a juke box. Clearly they were going to play us some music – how thoughtful.

Hang on a minute! The host is approaching me with what looks very much like a restaurant menu, and, bloody hell, a microphone. My mind suddenly added all the parts up, and got the total to somewhere near Four. It was going to be a karaoke evening!

It did not take very long to realise that, as the most senior British person there, I was to be accorded the great honour of starting the cabaret off for the 30 or so people who had now gathered to witness what was to follow. He handed me the mike and the "menu", which was now, only too clearly, the list of songs available on the very high tech machine behind me.

I will remember for a very long time the real feeling that what was required NOW from me was either a dead feint or a small localised earthquake just under my feet. But then I thought of John. If he had stuffed them on the drinking front, the Dunkirk spirit, or more likely the Vodka spirit, made me decide to go for the best out of three on the singing front.

Without being immodest, I have a reasonable singing voice - after all, I am half Welsh. I am most definitely not Tone deaf, and I have some awareness of the need for light and shade, phrasing and timing in Pop songs, although the shower head in our bathroom is the only object in my life that has really heard me giving it a real go.

All of which was great until upon opening the book, which had some 30 pages in it. What I saw was all in some Far Eastern script, which looked for all the world like a row of toe-nail clippings. So I'm standing there, turning the pages over with an increasing level of panic, and willing the possibility of the small earthquake to return. On the very last page, and I swear I saw the glint of a smile on the host's face when I turned it over, was a list in ENGLISH.

I looked down the list, and Glory Be, there it was – “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Not only did I like the song, I could hear it in my mind, as well as a lot of other things. So that was it. I roughed up my hair to make it look like an explosion in a mattress factory, and went for it. "Tonight, Mathew, I'm going to be Art Garfunkel”.

To be scrupulously honest, I had probably imbibed an amount of alcohol exactly on the cusp of perfection, and it had been circulating in my body for the absolutely optimum amount of time, to create that Nirvanah-like state of grace where I probably thought I was Art Garfunkel.

Actually, I really quite enjoyed it. They all stood up and clapped/cheered, and I had the inkling of the feeling that many stage performers say they get when the audience's adulation becomes a drug – but only for a second or two.

Onto the next performer, who was Korean, who duly sang, and was duly applauded. After a few rounds of this, it became clear that this was their form of Team Building at work, as everyone who sang, however good, or however unbelievably bad, was treated to an ovation. John had a go, proving quite conclusively that not all Welshmen can sing. Then right at the end, and it must have been the last effects of the evening's drink on me, I decided that he and I would perform a duet. Ye Gods!

Can you imagine, he and I up in front of thirty or so totally bemused foreigners listening to a spherical Welshman with a beard, and a gangly, rather handsome Finance Director performing Sonny and Cher's "I've got you Babe".

I thank my lucky stars that there was no-one in that room who had a camera or video recorder with them – it was un-live-downable. For the record, John was Sonny – well he had to be with the beard, and I was Cher, and we gave it a real go. I am sure John had no idea of what was happening, as the alcohol was most definitely getting/had got the better of him, but this sticks clearly in my mind as the absolute zenith of my international singing career.

Then, having finally passed the microphone round everyone in the room, everything subsided and you wondered – What next?

The answer was not long coming. The background music started up, but the mike had disappeared. This time, the host walked, rather too purposefully for my liking, towards me. If I didn't know any better, I would have said he was going to ask me to dance. Bloody Hell, he was! He indicated that he and I would take to the floor. I couldn’t believe it.

What do you do? – this is the male equivalent of lying back and thinking of England? Thank God for the drink. He held his arms out, and I gave in. In for a penny……

I do remember thinking – Who's going to lead and take the man's role in this bizarre pairing? I only knew how to do the male bit, and if his thoughts were the same, then immediately the thing started, the first parts of our anatomy which would touch, with some force, would be something which was well hidden in my trousers - the only problem was that his wasn't.

You know the way sometimes, you have to decide where the line in the sand is. I decided if there was the most minimal iota of contact in the naughty part region, even the slightest, tenderest brush, I'm going for my Pocket Leatherman knife, and it will be “Bobbit-Time”, International Team Building notwithstanding.

But they all got up and joined in, looking for all the world like a Series 2 version of Strictly Come Dancing (slightly inappropriate title in this case!), so my acute embarrassment was hidden among thirty blokes waltzing rather drunkenly around the room.

Time for Bed, said Zebedee, and I admit to a slight lack of recall at the process of disengagement. The things we do in the interests of International Commerce.

What I really would have liked would have been to see my then Boss there as Guest of Honour, and his having to face the possibility of singing and dancing for his supper. He would have absolutely hated it. Sometimes, when I’m feeling a bit pissed off – all I have to do is bring that thought to the front of my mind, and I’m smiling again.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


I don’t know the Arabic equivalent of “Schadenfreude”, but after seeing this, they sure need one. You need to know that no-one was apparently seriously hurt, so - Read this, look at the pictures, and come to your own conclusions.

A friend sent it to me, almost disbelievingly. Apparently, it happened last November, but I hadn’t seen it before now, and it rather took by breath away. A couple of other friends “in the know” broadly confirmed what had happened and added a couple of other comments about it.

The report below (in blue) has come from one of the library things that report Industry goings on. You may wonder why it hasn’t all been splashed around the newspapers, but I suspect that neither the makers, nor the airline, and especially not the aircrew, can see any PR Brownie Points at all in showing it to the rest of the world. There are a couple of anodyne Press releases on Airbus’s Website, but you wouldn’t imagine from them the scale of what happened.

The brand spanking new Airbus A340-600, the largest passenger airplane ever built (Author’s note – it’s not!), sat in its hangar in Toulouse, France without a single hour of airtime.

Enter the Arab flight crew of Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies (ADAT) to conduct pre-delivery tests on the ground, such as engine runups, prior to delivery to Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi. The ADAT crew taxied the A340-600 to the run-up area. Then they took all four engines to takeoff power with a virtually empty aircraft. Not having read the run-up manuals, they had no clue just how light an empty A340-600 really is.

The takeoff warning horn was blaring away in the cockpit because they had all 4 engines at full power. The aircraft computers thought they were trying to takeoff but it had not been configured properly (flaps/slats etc). Then one of the ADAT crew decided to pull the circuit breaker on the Ground Proximity Sensor to silence the alarm.

This fools the aircraft into thinking it is in the air.

The computers automatically released all the brakes and set the aircraft rocketing forward. The ADAT crew had no idea that this is a safety feature so that pilots can't land with the brakes on.

Not one member of the seven-man Arab crew was smart enough to throttle back the engines from their max power setting, so the $200 million brand-new aircraft crashed into a blast barrier, totalling it.

Just when you think it couldn’t get worse, a friend reports that The test crew came out the emergency exits in the cockpit without turning the power off. (Actually, looking at the photos, I’m not sure they’d have been able to find the switches!) At least one engine kept going for hours and no one was brave enough to go back inside. They contacted Rolls Royce and there were suggestions that water should be pumped in the engine and even quick setting cement (!) but in the end they left it well alone to run out of fuel.”

Can you imagine it a few minutes later –

Scene: The Pilot’s Manager’s Office
Pilot: “Excuse me Boss….”
Boss: “Yes.”
Pilot: “Have you got a couple of minutes, there’s something I think you ought to know.”
Boss: “OK, fire away.”

There is a pause.

Pilot: “I think you should sit down first.”

Can you begin to imagine how much care was going to go into the writing of the Insurance Claim?


Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Many posts ago, I wrote a piece about car safety. In Europe and the USA, there are “independent” organisations (NCAP, in the case of Europe) which test most new cars using a standard test procedure. They then issue the results in the form of a points and a star (up to 5 – this being the best) rating. In these safety-philic times, every manufacturer puts a lot of effort into achieving the maximum Star rating. The marketeers each company employs to push the company’s image down our throats would not have it any other way.

Some companies, notably Renault in Europe, base a large part of their corporate market placement and positioning on making the company appear to the punters to be the “safest” in the marketplace. They don’t say it quite as baldly as that, but they’ve clearly decided that the safety moral high ground is where they want to be, or at least be seen to be.

But it’s not as simple as that. In Europe, when each of the new cars which major manufacturers produce are launched, they submit one to NCAP who put it through its safety paces, and then issues its safety rating. But all cars are not the same. NCAP categorise them into 9 classes ranging from the Supermini (ie little ones) to Large Off-Road 4x4s (those big buggers we all love to hate). And here’s the problem. Someone decided that rather than compare car safety absolutely ie all cars being considered against all the others, they would measure cars only within their own class. So you get a 5* Supermini and you also get a 5* Large Off-Road 4x4. You’d think 5* would be the same everywhere but, just like Animal Farm, some cars are more equal than others.

Two things happened to me this week, which set me off thinking about all this.

Firstly, I got into discussion with a colleague who maintained vehemently that his “5 Star” Supermini was just as safe as the “5 Star” 4x4 which I’d just parked outside the factory – simply because they both had 5 Stars.

Secondly, and a day later, I came across a picture in a Car magazine (Autocar) which showed a picture of a semi controlled crash between an Audi Q7 (the big one) and a Fiat 500 (the supermini). It had been organised by ADAC, a German Motoring organisation, and if you ever want a demonstration that “a picture speaks a thousand words” this is it. Both cars are granted 5 Stars by NCAP, but, well, which car would you rather have been in?


I don’t know if it was Autocar’s rather childish sense of humour, or a simple report of what actually happened, but their caption said that the damage to the Q7 was limited to “a spilt mocha and a skipping CD”. The remains of the little 500 shows the passenger test dummy seeming to be making an unplanned and rather inelegant exit through the car’s side window.

The point here is simple. Basic Physics says that if a big thing hits a small thing, the big thing comes off best. But the way the safety people present their data to the world leads quite intelligent people up the wrong path, and by the time they find out they’re wrong, they could be in a hospital, or even worse.

Government clearly have conflicting issues here. They want to be seen as “Safety conscious”, so, very laudably, they want to load our cars with airbags, progressive crumple zones and other gubbins and gizmos which makes the cars heavier and heavier, and safer. Today’s Mark 5 VW Golf, for instance, weighs twice as much as a Mark 1 Golf from 30 years ago. But they also want to get the country thinking their way about carbon emissions and global warming, which means the smaller the better. So they have a dilemma. Waste and global warming seems to be hitting No.1 as the largest issue facing mankind, or at least the UK Government, with the result that big cars are now becoming the work of the devil.

So, the message that a big car is much safer than a small one now gives Those In Charge a real problem. You do wonder if they are therefore setting out to suppress this unpalatable piece of information, that, though they may emit twice as much Carbon Monoxide as their smaller brethren, they are actually a lot, lot, safer. Knowing a bit about the way Governments think, it's not surprising to find that when trying to find any data showing how safe a big car is in collision with a small one, you have to spend a good deal of time looking. I found a decent, reliable report a while ago, and, in the real world, ie one where big cars hit little ones, you could see its inevitable conclusion jumping out at you.

If you want the safest car you can buy, get a big one. You are up to some 30 times (no, that’s not a misprint) less likely to be killed or seriously injured having a crash in a large 4x4 than you are in some small cars. Some people may think that’s unfair (big cars are more expensive than small ones, and they do emit more undesirables than a small one), but you can’t get away from the fact that they are a LOT safer.

If we live in a market driven economy, why should that sort of information not be made available to us when we buy our next vehicle? If money is a problem for a buyer (and whenever isn’t it?), then they might choose to buy a low mileage one year old version of a larger car rather than a new small one, if safety was top of the list of their priorities. But only if they realise that increasing size tends to lead to increasing safety. Today, they probably think they’re buying the best and the safest they can, when they go for a 5 Star Supermini, and very simply they’re not.

If you look at NCAP’s website, and do a bit of delving in it, you can actually find a couple of rather coy comments about all this. To my simple eye, since the differences between the car classes are so large, you’d have thought they’d have warranted a lot more prominence – but it’s rather well hidden away in the FAQ section. This is what NCAP says –

Are large cars safer than small cars?

In frontal impacts between cars, the occupants of the heavier car or the one with higher structures tend to fare better than those travelling in lighter lower cars. As these effects are currently impossible to overcome, Euro NCAP only makes comparisons within size categories. The rating of a car within its size category is a function of the quality of its safety design.

Can results be compared between groups?

No. Results should only be compared within the same group. The frontal testing method mirrors a crash between two similar sized cars. A heavier car or one with a higher structure will tend to have an advantage if it impacts a smaller car. The Euro NCAP results cannot be used to predict the outcome of such crashes.

Does this strike you as a balanced way of telling the public that one class of car is up to 30 times safer than another? No, I don’t think so either. What you see there are the inevitable “weasel” words which get written when something has to be said, but the writers really wish they could avoid saying anything at all.

Yes, I know that if we all drove large cars, much of the difference would be eliminated. It’s like if you drive a large 4x4 into a 44 tonne lorry, you’ll likely get squished. But since most cars on the road are smaller than your 4x4, then the chances are that you’ll come off best in any random crash you may have. Only if you buy the smallest car are the dice permanently loaded against you – unless of course, if you hit a motorbike.

Is it politics, or is it someone trying to push low emissions at the expense of safety? I don’t know because no-one is saying, but I think the safety variations in the various car classes should be much more visible.