Give Yourself the Clap

Have you noticed how in the last few years it has become normal for people on television to applaud themselves? I don’t know how or where this habit started but you are now looked upon as odd if, during a quiz show, you do not applaud wildly when you are introduced, when you get a question right, when you hear the answer to a question you got wrong, and even when you are told your time on the programme is at an end. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a round of applause for the person who is now clapping more enthusiastically than any of you at the marvellous contribution they made to the programme.

I remember it started with the youngsters but soon all the ‘woke’ elders looked at this behaviour and thought ‘ooh, is this a thing? I had better start applauding myself too’. In TV team games it is a bit easier to disguise the self-appreciative element, as when you are one of a team of three being introduced, you can ‘point’ your claps at your two teammates as though you would not dream of pretending that you were in any way garnering admiration for yourself. See ‘Mock The Week’ as an example. Many astute panel show contestants or chat show contributors have now adapted this such that when the host encourages the audience to thank them for their time on the programme, they hold their clapping hands out in front of them and sweep left and right, to indicate that they are thanking the audience for thanking them. Why?? Why not just sit there and look pleased, like you always used to do? What is the point of what you just so awkwardly did?

To me it just seems a slightly witless habit, particularly when you are applauding your own answers. Just watch Pointless and see if you can spot anyone who does not spontaneously applaud when told their answer scored, well, anything. Yaaaay! Well done me! Even if I got it wrong, the correct answer deserves applause, because it is…. er…. correct. Do they therefore applaud every time they read something on Wikipedia? Fortunately there are still some programmes (eg Mastermind) where self-clapping every question answered would look stupid, but in a way doesn’t that prove my point? You wouldn’t do it there, so why do it at all?

It won’t be long before those who don’t applaud themselves will start to be ‘called out’ and shamed on social media for not being inclusive or something (sorry, I always struggle to understand and explain what makes Twitterers angry). Then we will find schoolchildren clapping themselves when they answer a question correctly in class (perhaps they already do). Then when on the BBC news Huw Edwards thanks a correspondent for the report they have just delivered, rather than standing there with a rictus grin waiting for the camera to leave them, they will excitedly applaud themselves. No, actually, the more you think about it, the sillier it is. So everyone, how about we stop doing it?

Rental Listings

Being a gentlemen of ripening years, and having spent a lot of time travelling around recently – mainly in Spain – I have had occasion to make extensive use of apartment rental websites. It can be a frustrating but also an amusing experience. Unlike in the UK where estate agents and owners normally go to some effort to ‘big up’ the properties they are promoting, in Spain very often no such niceties are engaged, and the prospective tenant is expected to want to rent a property in spite of, not because of, the listing.

Firstly, the photographs. Now call me old-fashioned, but when searching through a list of possible places to live, two dark blurry photos of a brown sofa with closed blinds behind it and a mop next to it are not going to have me reaching for my wallet. Open the blinds, put the mop somewhere else, stand back and get the whole room in. Maybe show some other rooms too. Surely that isn’t too hard?

Also if you are going to the trouble of taking more than two photographs, please, do not make them all ‘artful’ close-ups of a red rose in a vase, or a couple of sparkling glasses nestled against a bottle of red wine. Worse still, a tap, or a curtain, or a teddy bear, or a saucepan. All of these things are of absolutely NO interest to me. I am looking to rent somewhere to live, not draw still lifes. All that an expensively photographed study of a jug of orange juice glistening in the sun on a table tells me is ‘pretentious or bandwagon-jumping owner, deflecting attention away from the flat itself.’ And if you are showing 20 photos, don’t make 14 of them the local streets and sights. Given that I am looking at your listing, and am doing so on the basis that I have worked out where it is and want to stay there, it is highly likely that I will already know what the location offers and will also have seen most those photos before, seeing as you just pasted most of them off the internet.

 Even though it is said that a picture speaks a thousand words, I still regularly come across a description waxing lyrical about the terrace with wonderful views only to find there are no photos of it. Why would you do that? As a result, I move on and look for something that does have a photo. Then I find that the owner has not discovered the joys of a wide-angle lens, so ‘the bedroom’ is just a picture of a large wardrobe with the edge of a bed in front of it. I know most Spaniards try to keep out the heat of the sun, but keeping the shutters down when you take the photos just makes it look dark, foreboding and miserable. Get some sunlight in! You can always close the blinds straight afterwards. So that’s photos.

Now I turn my attention to the descriptions which have accompanied them.

I will say right up front that some of these are just translation errors where the owner has made a valiant attempt at English, and for that I salute them. It is just that the results are often amusing, particularly where it is really hard to understand what they were even translating from, as in “the apartment is located in a building, two floors, accessible by elevator, without stairs to reach the elevator.” You don’t really know where you stand with that one. Or they could just be a subtlety of language, for example “The apartment consists of an entry; on the right a kitchen equipped delicately” which brings to mind the owner placing the cutlery in the drawer with little finger extended. I also liked the flat which proudly pointed out ‘no car needed’ but the next bullet point highlight was ‘underground parking’. On a similar theme: ‘Perfect for holidays, not need the car for nothing.’  And I dread to think what was meant by ‘if a special disposal is desired in the beds, it must be indicated at the time of booking.’

Typos can of course be amusing, as in this one I saw: ‘The complex has a communal poo which is heated in the winter.’ It’s bad enough to admit to having one but to heat it as well?

How about the enigmatic ‘you can also enjoy the night, where we find different places both in the center and on the beach’ – I won’t even begin to unpick that one. Although I was not taken by one listing that described itself as ‘fine apartment located in a puddle’, I was more intrigued by the one that introduced itself as ‘flirty apartment for rent’ and another that offered a ‘lovly housse with lovly lovers’. As this last one also stated that it had 10 beds but only 1 bedroom, perhaps they were just being upfront and honest. Talking of honesty, another one stated “You have the ceiling half-fallen”, but at least the floor was solid, whereas you can’t be too sure with this one: “Kitchen furnished with appliances and soil of parquet.” Some will even boast about features you would think would come as standard: “Upstairs HAVE ROOF, laundry ROOF, AND A ROOM.” Yaaay! Always wanted one of those.

I’ll wrap up with a few other selected favourites: “Historic house filled with wonderful corners, with many possibilities. It would be perfect for a rural settlement.” “The views overlook the typical street, through which we can delve into the city center.” “Direct access to the terrace, but separated by a great closure of glass.” So I may end up sifting through far more property details than I need to, but at least it is good entertainment!

Judgement

Who is to blame? It is a question asked every day by lots of people about lots of things that do not necessarily concern them, and, as long as the finger of suspicion cannot be pointed at them, they often harbour a guilty (or sadistic) delight in doing so. For serious cases where criminal charges can be brought or lessons learned, finding out who did the bad thing seems a sensible thing to do. But in other cases, a desire for answers can turn into a witch hunt if you are not too careful, and the nuanced complexities of a case where there are usually two sides to a story are buried beneath an avalanche of ill-informed public opinion. You do not need to be Einstein to work out that social media now provides the bandwagons that anyone can jump onto.

After blame has been established, and very often before, comes judgement. Some people just cannot help themselves, gleefully pouring a basket of their opinions over the head of some poor unfortunate target whose guilt is yet to be categorically proved. A clue that a judgemental pronouncement is about to be made is that they often start with the phrase “well, if you ask me…”, a sure sign that no-one has.

Now for the controversial bit. I shall dip my toe in the waters of potential vitriol, at great personal risk to myself. Ok here goes. I think the urge to judge other people is more prevalent in women. There, I’ve said it. May I rest in peace.

It is just that you don’t generally see groups of men discussing their neighbours or acquaintances and what they have done to their garden or how they are dressed, or what activities they might have got up to. Men don’t seem to worry about that stuff. My wife will sometimes point out that some friend of hers has just changed her carpet even though there was nothing wrong with the old one, or put new windows in, and wasn’t this a waste of money, and I will somewhat harshly respond “why do I need to know this? I don’t care”, whereas she plainly does. As far as I am concerned, Mrs Miggins can do what she wants with her carpets and windows, it is nothing to do with me. The male net of judgement seems to cast itself in a much closer proximity to their person, unless you are talking about football in which case they are happy to heap often abusive judgement on everyone from the ref to the reserve goalkeeper.

To me though, 98% of the blame and judgement that pollutes our lives is ill-informed and therefore slightly pointless, other than as oil for a conversation. Drawing conclusions without both sides of the story is a fool’s game and we all do it, but perhaps the world would be happier if we all reined in the blame and judgement until all the facts are known. As if that will happen!

Being Slow

Get out of my way! This is a phrase that quite often flits guiltily through my thoughts, and the reason for this is that I am a self-confessed fast walker. I just naturally bound along at a fair old pace, getting to wherever I am going as quickly as my legs will realistically take me, short of breaking into a trot. I can’t help it – I just can’t walk slowly. And I don’t want to either. Walking quickly keeps you fitter and saves you time. It’s a win-win, surely?

However, as I negotiate the people hazards around me, it is clear that I am in a minority. Most people seem to be happy to amble. This is even more accentuated if you live in a tourist town – which of course many readers no doubt do – as the last thing you associate with a tourist is a zippy mover. Tourism is all about dawdling, looking round you, wandering about (often aimlessly), and just breathing in the atmosphere of a different culture. That’s fair enough, I can excuse that. I’ve occasionally been known to do it myself. But what annoys me is people going about their daily routines who have no business shuffling along like a sloth dragging an anchor, particularly if walking three abreast on a narrow pavement.

I was once leaving my office at work and I spotted a chap I knew from another department heading through the door ahead of me. He laboured under the misfortune of being a remarkably dull man, and conversations with him were invariably tedious, so I thought I would hang back and give him time to disappear into the distance. I studied my phone for a few minutes, and after judging that sufficient time had passed, I strode through the front door, turned left, and there, no more than 150 yards ahead of me, was Mr Dull, mournfully dragging one foot in front of the other at a pace that I would have described as pedestrian, were it not for the fact that all the other pedestrians were quicker than him.

I had no option but to begin walking behind him, hoping he would reach the station before I did, but it was soon obvious that this would not happen. However slowly I tried to walk, I was rapidly gaining on him. It was almost magical how he appeared to be moving his legs yet not advancing any further along. In the end I nipped down a side street, went round the block, and still got to the station well before him.

This got me thinking about ‘slow people’. If they walk slowly, do they think slowly, eat slowly, take longer to do their jobs? Do fast legs translate into fast brains? Should prospective employers do tests for this? Or are fast people likely to rush things and be less careful? All questions which are probably unacceptable in today’s world, so let me immediately apologise for ‘slow-shaming’. Right, must dash!

Car Hire Charges

I hired a car the other day, using one of the Malaga airport car hire firms. That last sentence alone is probably enough to have many of you sagely nodding your heads, knowing what is about to come, based on the safe assumption that if nothing untoward had happened then I wouldn’t be writing about it.

I have hired cars from almost all the airport car hire firms over the years, and despite always going for the cheapest option and therefore painting a target on my back for the Nefarious Practices department of each firm so that they can get their money out of me, I have emerged by and large unscathed. Until now.

I will not name the firm as to be fair it could have been almost any of the budget car hire companies. And to be honest, having managed, thanks to a rental search site,  to pay under £20 for two days’ hire of a nifty little VW Polo, I was on my guard for ways in which the firm might try to get a bit more money from me. First of course was the five minutes hard sell of their insurance, which would have cost me more than three times the cost of hiring the car. I already had insurance, so stood my ground as, seeing as how I was too dim to immediately accept,  the heavenly benefits of their policy were explained for a 4th time.

Eventually I got the car, and drove it extremely carefully. I was more than happy when I had returned it that it was in the same condition as when I picked it up. Then came the dreaded words of the clip-board wielding employee: “this is new!”  There was a hint of triumph in his voice. Shocked, I went to look at what he was pointing at. On the front left bumper, a small series of scuff marks. I had absolutely no idea how they had got there. They exceeded the allowed diameter of ‘damage’ by a couple of centimetres. I wet my finger to see I could rub them off but he cried ‘No!’ and physically tried to prevent me doing this, fearful that they might disappear, which I am sure with a bit of light scrubbing they would. But already he was on his feet and tapping into his PDA that I would now be fined 225 euros.

Of course he knew as well as I did that the marks would not be repaired. If light damage ever was repaired, you would never be handed a sheet with a diagram of the car and black crosses marking all the damage on it, would you. Every car you picked up would be good as new, fresh back from the repair shop. So it is partially fraud, as far as I am concerned – taking money under false pretences. Yet despite plenty of people wringing their hands, the practice continues.  Serves me right for finding a basement bargain? You decide.

Mental Health

I wasn’t sure whether or not I should write this. I will be treading on some sizeable eggshells in order to try to make an argument that many people will not want to hear. Oh well, here goes.

I think we are in danger of letting the phrase ‘mental health’ become devalued. There, I’ve said it. I know that every politician is cheered to the rafters when they mention mental health, and as a result most of them now regularly do, whether they previously had any interest in it or not. Interview any person on the street and ask them what the biggest issues facing the country might be and they will feel obliged to include mental health, because that is what they have heard everyone else say. Not a day goes by without learning that a celebrity had a ‘mental health issue’ and as a result you hear of every man and his dog now excusing bad things they have done by explaining that they had mental health issues, knowing that this will turn annoyance into  immediate sympathy or a reduced jail sentence.

I think we are in danger of losing the focus on the importance of genuine mental health concerns by throwing the net over basic emotions. For example, say I did really badly in my exams (it is not hard to imagine). In the old days I would get very depressed, annoyed, and maybe angry. Then I would pick myself up and maybe try to retake them. People would put their arm round my shoulder, give me words of encouragement, and help me over the bad times. Nowadays, I would be able to wallow in the fact that my bad exam results had given me a ‘mental health issue’. If you think that sounds far-fetched, I heard a young girl on the radio recounting that exact scenario. By using a medical term like this, it trivialises people who are genuinely suffering from mental health problems and cannot live without medication. We have to draw a line between an illness, and an emotion. They are two different things. I appreciate this is not always easy to do. If you are feeling a bit depressed, and are prescribed anti-depressants which help, have you suffered a mental health issue, or was that just a over-stimulated emotion caused by a bad thing, or combination of bad things, happening to you?

I do think there is a lot of bandwagon-jumping going on at the moment, not helped by having so many famous people ‘coming out’ and thereby encouraging the general public to think that admitting they have a mental health issue is a great thing to do, whether they have one or not.

I know I am no expert, but then nor are most people who self-diagnose and then publicise their condition. Let’s just remember that we all have emotions that make us happy and sad, and having a genuine mental health issue is a level above that. Aaahh, shoot, I’ve got egg yolk all over my soles…..

Feisty Audiences

You won’t need me to tell you that over the last few years the UK has had its fair share of TV debates, brought upon by all the various elections and referendums we insist on having. A constant thread through all of them has been programmes like Question Time, where a panel of worthies answer questions from the audience on political matters.

I have noticed a bit of a worrisome trend emerging over that period, which involves audience participation. It started with Brexit, as so many things have. This subject seemed to generate more heat and fury from the outset than all debates before it, and as a result the audiences in TV debates started becoming less and less able to listen in respectful silence to what the panellists had to say. It started with the odd young person whooping as soon as someone said something they agreed with. Others then joined in, and also began booing when they disagreed. The ‘other side’, not to be outdone, followed suit. As an example, it became ‘a thing’ during the Brexit debates that every time a panellist uttered the magic words ‘second referendum’ or ‘people’s vote’ it became obligatory for a proportion of the audience to whoop and cheer, as though this was the first time they had heard such a proposition. To my ears it seemed to mainly be coming from the younger generation, but that could just be because I am regrettably no longer able to class myself in that category. But it would explain why most of the noise appeared to emanate from the left-leaning side of the argument both for Brexit and also the general election.

So what purpose does it serve? Well, it presumably helps the panellist’s confidence to know that they have some support, but then they probably knew that anyway. I am struggling, however, to come up with anything else positive. For me, having to listen to other people make childish whooping noises in what is a very serious debate is just annoying. So you, a single audience member, agree with something the panellist has said. So what? What is so special about your view? By whooping as though you have got ten A*s in your exams, do you think that is going to persuade me to agree with you? Why can’t you just wait until they have finished talking and clap at the end like everyone else?

It was noticeable that in the last two Leader’s Debates of the general election, the audience had obviously been told to keep their reactive noises to themselves, and as a result there was a far more civilised debate, with less playing to the gallery and more time to hear the arguments. So much better.

So before we turn into America, can TV companies please read the riot act to these excitable look-at-me audience members and tell them to behave properly if they want to participate in an adult debate. Or stay at home, whoop at the TV, and just annoy your neighbours.

Annoying Websites

There are well over a billion websites in existence, although it is thought that a majority of those are not actively maintained. For those that are, and more particularly for new launches, they way they look has been changing.

It seems that the preference these days is for a much more arty, image based, uncluttered interface. This means less text, larger fonts, lots of white space, perhaps an auto-playing video, and big photos of happy smiling people who have nothing to do with anything often pointlessly taking up most of the introductory page. Older websites tended to pack in a lot more information, links and data with images that, if they appeared at all, were much smaller so that anything that the reader was looking for could be immediately accessed from that first view. Now, endless scrolling is required.

This is in part because, for most companies, there are now few limits to creativity if they wish to make online ‘statements’ or are new start-ups promoting their out-of-the-box thinking, and their desire for flair often takes precedence over an understanding of what the poor visitor to their site is actually trying to do. 

The first thing that many website designers forget is that not everyone has superfast broadband, and even if they do, we all know they don’t always get the advertised speeds. Many of us also don’t buy a new PC or laptop every year so may not have a machine that will run an auto-play video as though you have just switched on your TV. I have found some websites, and the national newspaper sites are good examples, that are virtually unusable because the one little bit of news you want to read is lost amongst the loading adverts, pop-ups and preview videos that then take minutes to load, constantly refresh the screen, and generally drive you mad until you just give up and head back to Google to look for the news in a more simple format somewhere else. Particularly frustrating is where you have scrolled down, finally found the paragraph you are interested in, and have just read the first line when an advert at the top of the page suddenly loads and re-sizes the page so you are now viewing something else.

The second thing software designers forget is that not everyone has a huge desktop monitor like they do. Some of us are using a netbook or small laptop, which cuts off half the opening page. You get the useless photos to look at but no buttons to click unless you scroll down every time. Yet there is white space everywhere – why not use it? It screams inefficiency, as though the developers had decided not to put any thought into making good use of the space available, instead designating the customer to do the work required to navigate downwards and try to find what they are looking for through discontented scrolling and clicking.

So website designers, a plea: more information, less artwork please! Thank you.

Attention To Detail

I bought a wi-fi printer recently. Setting it up, with all the network connectivity required, was quite complex, yet the process worked flawlessly and the instructions were clear and well written. At the end of the exercise, with my printer fully operational, I found myself being really surprised that nothing had gone wrong and I had not been required at any stage to utter an expletive. But why was I surprised?

Business has always been a dichotomy between creating a ‘thing’ that will be wanted by lots of people and will get a return (and hopefully profit) on your investment as quickly as possible, and making sure that you take enough time in its creation and testing to ensure that it works and will not result in customers complaining or returning the ‘thing’. Speed to market vs robust design and manufacture, with the sword of cost hanging over the whole equation.  All pretty obvious and probably didn’t need me to write it down.

But what can get missed is that this applies not just to the original product, but subsequent tweaks and ‘improvements’ after it has been launched. How many times do you see a well-loved phone app ruined by an upgrade with thousands of dismayed customer reviews asking ‘why did you do this? It was perfect before and now you have made it unusable!’ (actual quote). Often the company feels it knows better than its customers and whatever functionality changes they now come up with will be received with rapturous delight because they are on a roll. Big mistake! Or maybe they had a too-small budget for testing and a misplaced confidence in the expertise of their developers because nothing major went wrong last time, or perhaps a ‘set in stone’ delivery date to meet a manager’s bonus target which took no account of the work involved. All these things are not unusual.

So what little mantra could remind everyone of how to be successful in business? As we all love (ok, hate) acronyms how about ATD – Attention To Detail. It’s obvious, yes, but so often sacrificed on the altar of ‘agility’ and delivery. I have lost count of the number of times I have logged on to a website or used a piece of software that has such basic errors – telling you to proceed to a page that doesn’t exist, or presenting you with a confirmation button that doesn’t work, for example – that you have to wonder if they even did so much as one testing run-through before rushing to market with dollar signs in their eyes.

ATD requires three things: good routines and processes, people who are good at it and want to do it, and time. I suspect that some companies think that if their processes are good, they are covered. But  no – they need to attend to all three. So if all companies focused on ATD, everything in the world, like my printer, would work first time! Now there’s a target to aim for…..

Long Hours

You can do anything with statistics but surveys have shown that the UK and Spain end up being fairly similar when it comes to the average number of hours worked per week:  36.55 and 36.52 respectively. But hidden in those figures are people who work much longer hours than that.

In a large office environment – where I spent most of my working life – it was always the same people who clung resolutely to their desks as everyone else went home, and were often still there many hours later. I know this because I was one of them. Why did we do it? We certainly didn’t get paid for it. No, the reward was satisfying ourselves that we were doing a good job and going the extra mile, even when not under any particular pressure to do so. Yet despite this apparent dedication to the company, senior management tended to view us very negatively. Why was this?

It was because they deduced that if someone is still in the office at 9:00pm every night when they should have gone home at 5:30pm, then they are clearly unable to manage their time and workload efficiently and therefore by definition are inefficient. They must be struggling to get through their work during the day so need the evening hours to catch up, and must be unable to delegate.  Often a poor annual review was the result, and you can imagine what this did for loyalty and morale.

The key consideration most often ignored is that perhaps, just perhaps, the long-hours worker is just an extremely loyal, conscientious and hard-working employee who just wants to get every detail right and without whose efforts significantly more projects and initiatives would fail. This isn’t noticed because it is only when failures occur that the spotlight is shone on the reasons, and if no failures occur and everything just works fine senior managers can assume that it is because what goes on underneath them is easy as opposed to someone working incredibly hard to keep it all on track.

E-mail management is a good example. Many colleagues would leave hundreds of mails unread and expect people to chase them if it is urgent, but the long-hours worker is often spending those quieter late hours wading through the pages of new e-mails and clearing their inbasket.  Ironically the very managers castigating their underlings for their inefficiencies are usually themselves working through the evening catching up on their e-mails, but doing it from the train and then at home. They would argue that they have no choice because of their large remit and workload, yet if the underling proffers the same excuse they are told to delegate or work more efficiently. The only difference is that the office-dweller probably prefers to keep work and home life separate.

Maybe the only way for hard working long hours workers to get their life back and be recognised rather than castigated for their efforts is to find a dull job and start clock-watching instead.

Urinals

If a man walks into a gents public convenience, and there are three urinals, and all are free, urinal etiquette dictates that he will generally choose the one on the left or the one on the right. This allows the next man who enters to go to the opposite end of the row because if he went to the one in the middle this would cause the first chap to become slightly concerned and silently angry at this blatant disregard for the sanctity of his personal space. However, the next man in is faced with a dilemma. Yes, there is a urinal free in the middle. But there are men either side of it, possibly both with larger appendages than him. What to do?

In many countries, including most Spanish shopping centres, airports etc, this is not a problem, as almost all urinals are designed with curved edges, or have privacy dividers, that will allow you to feel secure as you perform your necessities.

However, for some reason in the UK it is usually different. Almost all men’s urinals in public and workplace toilets do not have dividers and are designed to offer no privacy whatsoever. This means that when the 3rd chap enters and sees only the middle urinal free, my observations are that at least 80% of the time, he will chicken out and head for a sit-down cubicle.

So how big a problem is this? Well, it is an environmental scandal and I’m surprised Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion aren’t all over it. Every time a cubicle is used instead of a urinal, 3 to 5 litres of water is used for the flush. Urinals tend to flush half a litre at intervals. A calculated estimate would of course be guesswork but I would still suggest millions of litres of water are being unnecessarily wasted every year in the UK by men using cubicles in order to avoid that middle urinal. There is also the destabilising effect this has on the general well-being of the male population, many of whom always feel nervous when embarking on a trip to the loo in case they are faced with the middle-urinal dilemma.

Why do urinal manufacturers and installers in the UK not understand any of this? Do none of them stop to think about how their product is used or do any customer surveys? (although to be fair British men are unlikely to admit to any of the behaviours I have outlined above). Or is it, as is often the case in the UK, all down to budgets and cost-cutting (the answer is ‘probably’).  But it wouldn’t cost a huge amount more and just on water usage alone it would surely pay for itself in the end. There needs to be a set of rules or industry guidelines that must be followed for all urinal installations so that either dividers or more sensitively designed urinals become mandatory.

I’ve even thought of a slogan: “Wee demand urinal privacy”.  Lobby your MP!

Till Dividers

I know that cashiers in supermarkets across Europe have a lot to think about and are dealing with customers who are usually wishing they were somewhere else. However, in my view this does not excuse them from being able to understand how the ‘Next Customer’ divider batons should work.

Firstly, in some supermarket chains it is quite common to find only one – perhaps two if you are lucky – dividers assigned to a till. This means that the customers further down the queue are denied the use of a divider just when they need it, so are reluctant to put their shopping on the belt in case it gets mixed up with the person in front. Before they know it they are half way down the checkout belt with basket still in hand and people behind them in the queue blocking their route back to the empty basket stack. Confusion ensues. To address this some decide instead to hang back, leaving a big gap on the belt to the shopping in front and causing the queue to extend back further into the aisles.

Finally the one divider – by now the focus of all in the queue – reaches the front of the belt as the first customer’s shopping is scanned through. Does the cashier immediately pick up the baton and sloosh it down the runner so a waiting customer can use it? No, they wait until they have taken the first customer’s money and are ready to start scanning the goods for the next one. Only then will they pick up the divider. However, further disappointment for the expectant queuers awaits as the cashier then either places it right at the beginning of the track, or makes a half-hearted attempt to push it along a little bit, which results in it moving approx 5 inches. The onus is now on you as the next customer, with the eyes of the queue behind boring into you, to retrieve the baton. This can only be achieved by awkwardly stretching over someone else’s food purchases, leaning across with coat sleeves brushing into their chicken thighs, and triumphantly grabbing it. Note that the customer in front of you, despite having just gone through the same procedure, rarely feels any obligation to help out at this point despite being closer to the baton than you are.

You now have your goods on the belt and safely segregated from the person in front. You can relax. The problem is now handed – much like a baton in a relay race, ironically – to the person behind you.

Even though the cashier must have noticed customers having to perform this manoeuvre over and over again, they seem unable to deduce that there is an issue, let alone that they could easily sort it out themselves. So it causes tension and frustration at exactly the point where supermarkets should be wanting customers to leave their stores with a good impression. It is a small yet easily remedied problem, is it not?

Man At Bar

A man walks into a bar. He’s a travelling salesman. He looks like George Clooney, which is no coincidence because that is who he is. It’s a film, you see.  He sits at the bar and orders a scotch and soda. He notices an attractive single lady sitting on her own further along the bar. She is pretending not to notice him whilst deliberately ignoring all of the other far less handsome men in the bar who have certainly noticed her. He waits a moment, then calls over the bartender. “A drink for the lady” he says, nodding his head in her direction. The bartender glances over. “Shall I say who it’s from?” “Sure”, he replies suavely. Another glass of white wine is quietly placed in front of the attractive lady. She flicks her hair and looks over at the salesman. She smiles and raises her glass a little. He raises his in reply, a silent but knowing toast. Before he knows it she has sashayed across and is sitting next to him. “Hi” she says. An hour later they are in his hotel bedroom and she doesn’t leave until the next morning.

If the above scenario seems familiar, it is probably because you have seen it, or variants of it, numerous times in films, and not always (although probably quite often) with George Clooney. Any Hollywood leading man will do. Yet films are supposed to reflect reality (except when they deliberately don’t), so allow me to re-write my little screenplay excerpt to reflect what really happens in real life.

A man walks into a bar. He looks like a travelling salesman, which is no coincidence because that is who he is. It’s not a film, you see.  He sits at the bar and orders a beer. He scans the room and is not surprised to see that there are no attractive single ladies sitting on their own further along the bar, or anywhere else for that matter.  Just groups of people chatting and a few other single men like him. He does spot a couple of plain middle-aged ladies in a corner but immediately pretends not to have noticed them. He downs his pint. He waits a moment, then calls over the bartender. “Another beer please” he says, nodding his head at the empty glass in front of him. Another pint of beer is quietly placed in front of him. He looks around again. Alcohol seems to have made the middle-aged ladies seem more attractive now, but they are ignoring him anyway, which is no surprise. An hour later he is in his hotel room on his own watching TV. He doesn’t leave the room until the next morning.

I will concede that the real life version wouldn’t make a great film. In the first scenario, I have also skipped past the hour of sparkling and witty conversation where amusing verbal jousting from both sides is unrelentingly smart. The protagonists can do this because scriptwriters have laboured for weeks over every word. But for many of us, real life being like that is about as likely as finding an attractive single woman at a bar who thinks you look like George Clooney.

Stupid

The world is full of stupid people doing stupid things. All around me, all the time, a level of ineptitude that can only be explained by the fact that a large percentage of the population must surely be clinically daft. And stupidity comes in many guises: politics, religion, administration and business are always a gold mine of nincompoopery, but there are examples everywhere, as evidenced by this completely random top-of-my-head selection:

Town planners who signpost your selected destination for the first three roundabouts, but not the last two.  People who still text or phone while driving, which even they must know is statistically as dangerous as drunk driving. Footballers who regularly commit pointless and unnecessary fouls in dangerous positions that frequently lead directly to the opponents scoring. People who create instructions for putting flat-pack furniture together that don’t make sense because there is no hole G into which you are supposed to insert dowel B. A group of siblings who spend £1m on lawyer’s fees in the courts arguing over what was a £1m inheritance. Creationists who deny the existence of dinosaurs despite overwhelming evidence because they would rather take literally what is in a two thousand year old book. Experienced athletes who ease up at the line at an Olympics semi-final to ‘save energy’ and get pipped at the post. People renting their apartments online who think they will entice prospective tenants with just two dingy blurred photos, both of a sofa. The Flat Earth Society. Reckless tombstoning (google it). The list is endless.

But how do we define stupidity? Often it is un-arguable, but it can also be subjective. Most people would agree that you should judge it against a benchmark of common sense. But who defines common sense? We all think we have it, and presumably we all consider that the judgements we make are founded on it. But one man’s common sense can be another man’s nonsense.

Of course I myself could in no way be considered stupid; it is the buffoons around me who are the problem.  But wait…. who was it who spent time and money fixing a brass sign saying ‘please shut the gate’ to the inside of my gate, so it was not visible when the gate was open and could only be seen when the gate was already shut? Who spent 50 minutes on the phone waiting for a call centre to answer, then as soon as it did, managed to press the ‘terminate call’ button instead of the speakerphone button? Who walked 4 miles to a cheap supermarket yesterday to get some bread, bought some other things while I was there, and got home to find the one thing I had forgotten to buy was the bread? Yes, alright, alright, it was me.

We all do stupid things occasionally, yet funnily enough we judge other people’s stupidity much more harshly than our own. They are prize idiots, we just made an uncharacteristic mistake. Well at least that’s one thing we can all agree on.

Bank Life

Within a three hundred yard radius of where I live here in Spain there are 12 bank branches. If anyone living in the UK today was to claim this they would be told to go and lie down and come back when they feel better. From over 20,000 branches in 1988, the UK is now rapidly approaching 7,000 with more closures being announced every year. But although Spanish banks are also implementing branch closures now, Spain still has four times as many branches per head of the population as the UK. In my town we used to have two Santander branches within 50 yards of each other but rather than close one they just moved it further up the road!

The other day I was in the rare situation of needing to pay some money into my bank account rather than taking it out.  Blowing the dust off my bank details, I undertook the challenging 2 minute walk to my local branch and walked straight into the back of a long queue. There were four staff in the cashier office, but three of them were joking with the one attendant manning a window while the queuing customers stared impatiently in the vain hope that fierce looks would encourage them to speed up a bit or perhaps even open another window.  As I stood there watching the slow, leisurely pace of life within that bank, I was reminded of how banking felt in England back in the old days –  those golden, olden times when we used to have branches in every town and online banking wasn’t even a gleam in anybody’s eye. Yet back then a visit to your bank to withdraw £10 did mean standing in a queue behind someone applying for a mortgage, everything required bits of paper and the staff always looked very busy attending to business but rarely attended to customers. Although banking in Spain is not exactly like this today, it still feels a little bit as though it is, and they do certainly like their bits of paper. If there is a word for nostalgia that doesn’t evoke lovely memories – and I propose ‘nastalgia’ – then I felt a slight whiff of it standing there.

Obviously banks here have online banking too, and this is my first choice unless I have no option, as I really don’t like standing aimlessly in a stuffy bank for 25 minutes. Those in the know predict that as online usage grows, then much like Britain, bank closures in Spain will accelerate. As banks try to stem losses, mergers are also on the cards so again that could contribute to local branch decline. I expect then, that in 10 years’ time when I look back at the opening sentence of this article having just driven 5 miles to get to the nearest bank, I will feel much like many people in the UK do now as they see the last bank in town close its doors – nostalgia rather than nastalgia.

Down Below

I used to live on the 8th floor of a Spanish apartment block, overlooking the main avenue in the town. I would quite often take a quick glance down to the street below and find myself still there 10 minutes later, gawping thoughtlessly at all the people and vehicles below as they went about their daily business, unaware that they were being watched.

And people watching from above works very well as it is extremely unlikely that anyone will look up and see you, so you can stare away without having to avert your gaze in a way that would probably earn you a smack in the face if conducted at street level.

The disadvantage of having such a view is that, much like everyone turning to look at what is causing the siren noise even though it is almost always just yet another police car or ambulance,  you hear things that cause you to rush to the window on the basis that it could be something worth seeing.

Car horns generally are a bit of a dilemma as human nature dictates that when you hear a loud ‘parp!’, you are intrigued to see what might be going on, so more often than not I expectantly rushed to the window only to be rewarded by the sight of a driver who has spotted someone they know on the pavement, or the gas bottle lorry arriving at the petrol station opposite and announcing his arrival with a series of unnecessarily lengthy toots. Neither event sets the heart racing with excitement.

 I heard a short toot and a bang once, but the bangs are usually someone closing a communal bin lid right underneath so I usually ignored them. It was only when some shouting was heard a bit later that I glanced down and saw a long queue of cars stuck behind an Audi sporting a smashed-in bonnet and a detached bumper. In front of it, the owner of a little work van with a crumpled backside (the car, not the owner) was gesturing unhappily at the Audi owner, who was shrugging his shoulders as though it was nothing to do with him. The entertainment then came in watching all the cars behind trying to reverse back up the road and re-route via the side lane. Further hilarity ensued when the crumpled van owner (punch line not required this time) and the Audi owner decided to push their cars across a pedestrian crossing onto the side road, thereby blocking the last few re-routed cars who had just spent ages reversing up the main road, requiring them to then re-reverse back onto the main road again. I’ll bet they weren’t laughing as much as I was.

So sea views and mountain views are old hat, what you want is a street view! However, should anyone selling an upper floor apartment over a busy road attempt to use that line in the hope that it will clinch a sale, please keep your expectations low.  

Nuisance music

A while back, I took a bus to the next town. Well, the driver did, I was just a passenger. As we moved off a young man sat next to me and decided to forcefully entertain all the passengers, but me in particular, by blaring some tinny drum beat ‘music’ out of the woeful speakers on his phone. My plans for a dreamy stare out of the window were put on hold as this awful noise assaulted my ears.  This scenario has since repeated itself on a number of occasions, although of course sometimes it is just a conversation, where a witless numpty who has decided it is too much effort to lift a phone to their ear, puts their mobile on speakerphone and shouts at it for the entire duration of the journey.

With regard to that young phone DJ, it got me thinking what it is about human beings and their selfish need to impose their musical tastes on others. Hardly a day goes by when you don’t see a teenager loping along with music blasting out of their hand (via a phone), and in Spain I regret to say I have seen quite a few old gents doing this too now as they shuffle their tunes as well as their legs in an effort to keep fit. It is not as though they benefit from superior sound quality through this approach, indeed quite the opposite, so why do none of these people use headphones? It can only be the same primal urge that persuades young men in their first cars to open their windows and pump up the volume to prove that…. well, what does it prove? In the 1980s, you might want to show off a big sub-woofer you had just spent the weekend attaching to your parcel shelf. These days, almost all cars have decent speakers as standard so rocking the street in your standard issue Seat Ibiza isn’t going to impress anybody. But here’s the thing – when people look at you in your car because you are banging out what you think is a top tune nobody is impressed anyway. They are looking at you because they are thinking ‘prat’, not ‘legend’. So perhaps it is all about dominance. I’m a top dog, you lot are going to listen to my sounds whether you want to or not (that still doesn’t stop us all thinking you’re an idiot, mate).

At least with buskers, they are making their own sounds and a degree of skill is involved. Also, they tend to play more pleasant tunes as opposed to, say, drum and bass or heavy metal, because they want people to give them money, not poke them in the eye.

But people walking along the pavement wasting their batteries blaring out music because they are too lazy to put headphones on may as well be holding a big sign which says ‘I am a nuisance and a fool’ to complete the effect. On second thoughts, maybe you don’t need the sign.

Consideration

I was in England, walking a little distance behind a large young woman with a pushchair. Her hair was slicked back into a fiercely tight ponytail; her leggings struggled to contain her wobbling limbs. I could see her rummaging in a plastic bag hanging from the handle, and before you could say ‘chav alert’ she had pulled out an empty beer can, and without looking around to check who might be watching, tossed it casually onto the grass verge next to the path. Not content with that, she then extracted a plastic bottle and flicked it into the hedge before waddling on. Her demeanour gave the impression that this was normal behaviour for her, and who gives a brass monkey if anyone doesn’t like it.

I was too far back to rush up and confront her, and in any case she was approximately twice my size so I didn’t fancy my chances. But I did tut loudly, which is the British thing to do in these situations, and not in any way diminished by her being out of earshot.

My anger at the idiocy and inconsiderate nature of this woman later prompted me to wonder about why some people are inherently selfish and have no consideration at all for others.  For example, I have had neighbours in an apartment block who were once leaving for a holiday very early on a Sunday morning. Most people would have tip-toed around trying not to make too much noise, but these people were shouting to each other, slamming doors and making no effort at all to be quiet even though it was 5:00am and all their neighbours would quite obviously be asleep. These people were either a) so stupid that they had no idea that their actions were waking everybody up or b) they just didn’t care. There can be no other options and yet whichever one you choose the noisy neighbours are painting themselves as self-centred idiots and stoking up the anger of people they ought to be wanting to get along with. Do they not realise that? On reflection, it is quite possible that they are stupid AND selfish – the two often go together.

After a few moments’ thought I quickly realised that it would take more than a few moments’ thought to solve this. There are so many reasons for selfish behaviour that if you are looking for swift answers and easily solved root causes you have about as much chance as if you were trying to get every politician to harmoniously agree on Brexit. So I will sum it up in a sentence that just trips off the tongue (and lands in a heap on the floor): all things considered, I do think that people should give considerable consideration to being more considerate.  Thank you.

Sirens

I was driving along through town the other day, and as I approached some traffic lights, the lady in the car in front of me appeared to look down at her handbrake area and pick something up, then she suddenly braked and stopped. I assumed she was pulling over to answer her phone. Seeing that it would not be easy to get past her, I sat there waiting for her to move on again, but when she didn’t I checked my side mirror, gave her a beep and managed to manoeuvre past, raising my hand at her to indicate my displeasure at her failure to indicate. To my surprise her face was contorted with anger and she gestured back with equal force. What was her problem?

It was only when again checking my rear view mirror after getting past her that I noticed an ambulance – blue lights only, no sirens – gradually bearing down on us from some distance behind. So before it reached me I pulled to the side and let it past. Meanwhile, the lady I had squeezed past, fury still etched on her face, raced to catch up and started giving me V signs and mouthing obscenities at me from behind. I held up my hand to apologise but that did not placate her. She tailgated me then when I finally turned left she roared past in a red mist as though trying to catch Lewis Hamilton.

Let’s rewind: the over-angry lady had clearly glanced in her rear view mirror and noticed the distant flicker of blue lights about half a mile behind her. Rather than carrying on until the ambulance was a bit closer, she had suddenly pulled up way before she needed to, even though the road was wider a few hundred yards further on. Presumably her simultaneous rummage around as though looking for a phone was just coincidental. What was I supposed to do? I had heard no siren to alert me and so my attention was focused on her behaviour in front of me as I had been forced to brake suddenly. She did not seem to comprehend that I may not at that instant have also noticed the distant ambulance behind me.

It led me to wonder what the correct etiquette is in these circumstances. How soon do you pull over when you notice an emergency vehicle coming up behind you? Does the lack of any audible warning when approaching traffic mean that the ambulance is not in quite such a hurry? You do see a lot of drivers who develop ‘rabbit in headlights’ syndrome when an emergency services vehicle is bearing down on them and manage to get in the way rather than out of it.  For most drivers, though, common sense comes into play and you pull over in the most appropriate place, at the appropriate time. It is just a shame that you can’t always teach common sense.

MisSpoken

I have a relative (anonymity requested) who regularly creates sentences that sound fine in her head but when they emerge from her mouth contain unintended or mixed-up words that can either render the sentence meaningless or amusing, or both.

Here are some examples. She once finished an argument with what she triumphantly thought was the decisive question “How would you like it if the foot was on the other shoe?” which had the unintended consequence of causing the object of her anger (me) to collapse in fits of laughter. After complaining of a pain in her wrist, she announced “I think I’ve got repetitive arm syndrome.” She wanted to listen to her radio so asked “Do you mind if I put my headstones on?” We were watching some football. Bored, she asked “is it half-term yet?” Yes, she meant half-time.  Recounting a debt collection documentary she had watched, she announced “In the end they had to send the bayleaves round.”  She once saw an expensive house and commented “ooh look at that house, it has a lovely conservative at the back.”

TV programmes do not escape her verbal mangling. Keen to catch a comedy TV show, she said “I need to get home so I can watch Have I Been Framed For You.”  Then there was the time I was trying to end a phone call to her so I could watch World’s Strongest Man. She guessed this and said “I suppose you want to watch The World’s Biggest Man now?”, which would be a very short programme as all you would need are some scales and a tape measure. Driving past an army range on the moors once, she asked ‘”isn’t this land owned by the Mystery of Defence?” Another time there was noise on the line as I phoned her and she explained this by saying “yes, there are some workman out there digging up the road with their dramatic drills.” Her latest mis-speak was to bemoan an ache in her arm by declaring “I think I’ve got that Tennyson Elbow.”

Of course the most famous exponent of word-mangling was the Rev Spooner, who lent his name to the practice of swapping the first syllables of two adjacent words. When toasting Queen Victoria he was rumoured to have come up with “three cheers for our queer old dean!”  and, upon dropping his hat, once upped his mangling factor by asking “will nobody pat my hiccup?”. He once ended a wedding he was conducting by advising “it is now kisstomary to cuss the bride.” Another good example, from the late 1940s, was when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps, was introduced by a radio announcer as ‘Sir Stifford Crapps’.

Why is it that some people’s brains work like this and don’t seem to learn from their mistakes? Indeed my relative feels that the more mistakes she makes, the worse she gets, as she starts getting flustered before she speaks. As she herself says “It’s a vicious circus.”

Translating

Living abroad when you don’t speak the language very well presents plenty of challenges. When I first arrived in Spain I assumed that when they taught you to say ‘hablo poco espanol’ to indicate you have a poor grasp of Spanish, it meant ‘I have very little Spanish’. So without checking I took ‘hablo’ to mean ‘I have’ rather than ‘I speak’, because it sounds more like ‘have’ doesn’t it? So into the shops I went, confidently asking the first shop keeper if she spoke cheddar cheese. I got a funny look but she worked out what I wanted so emboldened by my success I continued in this vein for a week or so, no doubt making a complete fool of myself every time, until I checked my translator and the awful truth dawned.

But spare a thought for the Spanish, trying to cater for Brits like me and so helpfully translating some of their services into English despite on occasions having a similar lack of linguistic education. Their efforts are very welcome but often equally amusing and not always helpful when the result of their attempts serves only to confuse.

Restaurant menus have offered me ‘Toasts of Smoked’, ‘Spaghetti Sailor’s Blouse’ and ‘Fried Spawns’, and, in case that wasn’t tempting enough, also suggested ‘withered sausage’, ‘wind of squids’, ‘in a mess of shrimp’ or ‘weak rice’.  One of my favourites was ‘mousse of the housse’ which I always imagined being spoken by John Laurie of Dad’s Army.  It does surprise me a little that some really quite swanky eateries go to great expense to design and print large embellished and laminated menu posters in another language without asking anyone to proof-read them.

I went to a Spanish zoo once which advised ‘Do Not Feed Fingers to the Animals’ with a picture of a stick man about to be devoured by a huge crocodile head. Underneath it warned ‘Forbidden Get the Body Over The Fence!’. This crocodile sign was attached to an enclosure full of flamingos, but this was because they had used the same signs all over the zoo, giving the impression that the place was full of crocodiles and the other animals just had to take their chances.

On our sea front the authorities have erected very impressive wooden framed information boards, packed with detail. Summarised translations are offered for some sections. Of particular interest is the proud boast that ‘this is an FEE accredited Blue Flan beach’.  There are then some little pictures showing all the facilities, such as the ‘Public Bath for Men and Woman’ (I wonder who the lucky lady is), the ‘Sumpling Point’ whatever that is, and my favourite, the chair on stilts where the lifeguards sit, described as a ‘Tower of Vigilance’ as though it has been borrowed from the Lord of The Rings.

I considered offering English proof-reading services for a small fee but then thought, no. These mis-translations and grammatical faux-pas offer amusement and entertainment. Let’s keep them as they are!

Getting Older

For many young energetic people across the world the tribulations of the older generation are of little interest until time reels them in and they suddenly realise they are approaching the decrepitude they thought would never come.  It’s happening to me. I find myself rapidly heading towards 60, which is kind of old, but not to someone who is 80.

Age is a strange thing, isn’t it? It is nice to grow older and wiser, but not so good to grow slower and creakier. You can weigh up the benefits and disadvantages, but then you realise they all pale into insignificance beside the fact that at any age from 45 onwards, chances are you are closer to death than to your birth. What a happy thought.

In some countries like Spain the family unit tends to be more appreciative of older relatives and less likely to leave them lonely and uncared for when they most need support. The climate also helps elderly people get out more so that they can stay active. In cooler months the old men in Spain all seem venture out in brown trousers and a dark red pullover, topped off by a cloth cap. On formal occasions the same trousers can be teamed with a light beige jacket and a pork pie hat. Older Spanish ladies, meanwhile, wear what they want but reach a certain age at which it becomes mandatory to have their hair cut short, permed, and turned copper red. I saw a group of five elderly ladies chewing the fat on the promenade and they looked like unlikely sisters because they all had this same hairstyle. I wonder if when the time comes they go into the hairdresser and ask for ‘old lady hair, please’.

Having said that, I just passed a slow moving man in the street who cannot have been less than 85, and he was sporting a wavy reddish brunette hairpiece that appeared to be made of nylon. It would have looked better on a lady but ‘better’ is a relative term here. I have never seen a more obvious syrup in my life. And for any confused readers, syrup is slang for a wig. To check this just approach any rough Londoner sporting what looks like a hairpiece and ask him ‘is that a syrup, my good man?’ He will be delighted to tell you.

In Spain I have had old ladies sit down next to me on a park bench and persist in telling me their life story even though it was clear that my language skills weren’t up to the job of letting me understand a word they were saying. For them it was just good to have someone to talk to (or ‘at’), which was nice yet sad at the same time.

Most of us try to avoid getting older then wake up one day to find an old person looking back at them in the mirror.  Now, time for a walk – where’s my beige jacket ?

Familiarity Fatigue

I have lost track of how many times I have watched Johnny Depp pointlessly drive into the desert, get a shovel out of the boot, and bury a piece of jewellery while his voice-over emotes in a language only understood by perfume advertisement copywriters. That ad has been running for years now and regretfully shows no signs of stopping. And yet despite being forced to watch it so many times, I have no recollection of which particular smell in a bottle he was trying to make me buy, and even if I did, I wouldn’t buy it because of the pretentiousness of the ad. Also, it is bound to be expensive to pay for all that advertising. So why do advertisers think it is effective to throw good money after bad and keep showing the same advert over and over again? Has anyone ever seen an advert for the 451st time and suddenly thought ‘hang on, I see it now – that piece of oak furniture is just what we need after all. Deidre, start the car’.

Some programmes are particularly prone to advert repetition. I always watch the Tour de France highlights on ITV4 every year, and you can guarantee that they will show you the same medley of adverts in almost every break, day after day, for three weeks. Do the advertisers think their audience are so dim that a form of Chinese water torture is the only way to hammer home the message? Has it not occurred to them that by forcing the poor viewer to repeatedly watch two sets of dishes being washed, one with a ‘leading competitor’ and one with new Gnomey Fluid, that it will not be long before we’ll be sick of the sight of their product? It is pretty obvious that the same audience will be tuning in every day.

The TV companies themselves are not much better. The BBC inserts trails for upcoming programmes with gay abandon, seemingly unable to comprehend that most people do not just watch once a week. So in the many weeks before RuPaul’s Drag Race, for example, the same trailer was played over and over and over again, at every available opportunity. Look at us, being so diverse and inclusive! Shout it from the rooftops! Then, they finally broadcast it. Hurray! No more trailers! Wrong. Now the programme is available on catchup, so what a great idea to resume playing the same trailer over and over and over again, but add a bit about catchup on at the end. It might be a great programme, but I refused to watch it on principle.

I do wonder whether the executives involved, when determining how to schedule adverts and trails whether on TV, radio or online (Grammarly on YouTube, anyone?) consider not just the ‘packages’, audience reach, demographics etc, but also put themselves in the viewers  and listeners’ shoes now and again and consider ‘saturation’ and ‘familiarity fatigue’. Me, I usually consider myself saturated after one viewing, especially if it is a perfume commercial.

Learning English

How does anyone manage to learn English if it is not their first language? Not only is it generally accepted to have more words than any other language, but the idioms and unusual ways in which we use those words continually changes and new words appear so quickly that even native speakers find it hard to keep up with it all sometimes.

If someone told you to ‘get cracking’, why does that indicate that you should get a move on? Shouldn’t you be trying to crack? And why get a ‘move on’, that sounds like an instruction to dance; why not just ‘get moving?’  I suspect that even English people are already scratching their heads.

You wouldn’t say to someone “stop blithering, John”, yet every time we refer to an idiot the word blithering is often attached. What is a blither and why do only idiots do it? Someone who reads the news is a news anchor. Are they dragging everyone to a halt, as an anchor does to its ship? Are they a bit rusty and occasionally having to scrape off a barnacle? It seems to now mean a central hub, someone fixed to a point while others move around them, but they could just as well be a news tether or a news eye-of-a-storm, it makes about as much sense.

“I’m just going to stretch my legs” sounds as though you want to torture yourself rather than get some exercise. If a doctor says “pop your clothes off” a foreigner can be assured that absolutely no popping will be involved. I might accuse you of being ‘daft as a coot’, although to my knowledge the poor coots have done nothing to indicate that they are less sensible than any other bird. Why do we say these things?

At work I used to have a Frenchman in my team. His English was excellent yet every day he would have to ask us to clarify something we had just said. “Hey, Pierre, you must have shed-loads of work at the moment!” “Shed loads??” “Ah, yes, that means ‘lots’”. “So why do you not just say lots, what have sheds got to do with it?” “Good point, I have no idea, it is just something we say. Anyway, good news, one of the projects on your to-do list has officially been declared dead in the water”. “Why is it in the water?” And so on ad infinitum. Poor old Pierre. I felt somehow superior and yet inferior at the same time. I knew all these strange English inflections and meanings, yet he also knew another language ie his own. How he would ever get the hang of and then keep track of all the daft things we English speakers say was beyond me, and possibly beyond him too.

Wherever we look there are odd words and sayings that pepper our everyday sentences. Hang on, pepper? Why not salt our sentences instead? I had better stop writing before I confuse myself even further.

Coming Up!

“Coming up….!” These are the two words I dread when watching any TV programme these days. Producers seem to think that every programme, whether it be drama, news, documentaries, car shows, holiday programmes, you name it , has to be prefaced with a summary of what you are about to watch so that you can see what you are going to see before you see it.

This never used to happen. You used to be able to settle down in front of the television secure in the knowledge that you could watch a programme from start to finish and enjoy what was to come without having already been told, against your will,  what was about to unfold. But now TV schedulers are so desperate to hang on to their short-attention, flick-switching, phone-fixated audience that they feel they have to lure them in and sprinkle little snippets of enticement into their eyes before the programme has even started. This ruins the surprise element that forms a major part of the enjoyment of most TV viewing. “Coming up, Jeff and Linda love the third house we show them and put in an offer”.  “Coming up, we talk to Mark and learn how his training helped him win the race we haven’t shown you yet”. “Coming up, will the ambulance crew rescue a man from a bridge?” (accompanied by a clip of the man being rescued). “Coming up, TV viewer smashes set in frustration at being told what is coming up”. You get the picture.

Cliff-hangers at the end of each drama series are also ruined when the programme ends with a ‘next week’ teaser segment which shows the heroine has clearly survived falling under the horse because there she is, right as rain, running after a handsome man.

The BBC News hasn’t helped the situation by giving a 5 minute news summary at the beginning of every 30 minute news bulletin, accompanied by the heartbeat theme tune for dramatic effect. But do you really need to hear lengthy preview extracts from interviews and correspondents that you then find yourself watching again almost immediately? Couldn’t the time be better spent with a more in depth news coverage later on?

My theory as to why this has evolved is that it is borne from greater choice. In those golden olden days when you had just three channels, you stuck with a programme without knowing what was ‘coming up’ because you knew that there was nothing better on the other two channels. Nowadays, if the first minute of something you are watching is not tickling your fancy and you have the attention span of a weevil, you have options. You can channel surf until you drown.  So programme makers feel they have to give you a carrot on a stick. The problem is that they have ended up feeding you most of the carrot almost before you have had time to sit down. 

Now, coming up later in this article there won’t be anything because I’ve finished now.

Faith In Faith

The societies and ways of living that humans have created in different countries all over the world would not function without some form of reasoned thought and logic to underpin them. That statement doesn’t seem too controversial, does it?

Yet many aspects of those societies are influenced, and in some cases driven, by a religious faith or belief. And as soon as you start making decisions based on faith, by definition you are not using reasoned logic. As someone once said “if you could reason with religious people then there would be no religious people.”  So mixing religion and politics is something that many countries have striven to avoid, yet others make religion a fundamental tenet of their constitution. Some countries have leaders who eschew formal religion in order to provide themselves as a substitute god, to be worshipped unquestioningly as you would a deity. North Korea is probably the most notorious example at the moment.

The key word in the paragraph above is ‘unquestioningly’, much in the way that books written thousands of years ago by people we don’t know, about things we have no other knowledge of, are unquestioningly believed. Most religions have ancient scrolls or books that they are based on, all written by men like you or I, yet if we as a society automatically believed everything written in any old book we came across we’d be in an awful mess.

Religions provide comfort and a moral code for millions of people, and that is a good thing, assuming the moral code is benign. The danger is when people then start ‘believing’ the supporting stories that the holy books contain, because there is no way that anyone can prove that they are true. No-one knows whether there is a benevolent god in heaven and any assertion that there is must be weighed against the fact that numerous other people believe in something completely different, so who is right? When someone asks ‘why don’t you believe in my god?’ the answer is ‘for the same reason that you don’t believe in other people’s gods.’ There is no logical argument to counter that, so in a religious world the response would be hidden behind the blanket justification of ‘faith’. By definition, faith is believing in something when there is no evidence, and society would not work if decisions (on justice, for example) were based on a complete lack of evidence.

It can be hard to understand why so many people unquestioningly believe in something because someone told them to rather than because they have been presented with proof, but that is how religion, and indeed cults, are founded. All you need is a charismatic leader and people will follow. It all leaves us in a quagmire of disagreement, frustration and eggshells (to avoid treading on). Life would be so much simpler if the whole human race could retire all their theories about gods, agree on one set of moral guidelines, and live happily ever after. But unfortunately it is too late for that now.

Where Politics Went Wrong

This year’s headline news stories – Brexit and Trump – have stirred up unprecedented political turmoil and debate, and brought into sharp focus the rising sense of frustration that the two sides of the left vs right argument have with each other as they become more diametrically opposed and desperate to impose their version of how the world should be. This, combined with 24 hour news and the social media information explosion, has been leading to a shift in the way that politics works and how the electorate has reacted to it.

The debating landscape has got messier and it has not been helped at all by the protagonists who have led it. On the one hand we have senior politicians telling blatant lies, Donald Trump being the obvious example, and on the other hand we have commentators accusing people of telling lies when all they were doing was expressing an opinion. This happened a lot during Brexit. Most prevalent, and also a constant feature of the Brexit debates, was that old chestnut of politicians and commentators not answering the question they are asked. You may remember from years past Michael Howard and William Hague in TV studios being asked the same question repeatedly and finding ever more convoluted ways of not answering it, but they may have been better off just telling the truth and living with the consequences. Their preferred approach just said to the viewer ‘you cannot trust this man, he won’t answer a direct question’. Yet in today’s time-poor world interviewers have a set of questions to get through so don’t want to dally for too long on one single point, which allows the evasive politician to wriggle off the hook. Both sides of the table seem to play the conversation as though it is just a game. But it isn’t, and I can’t be the only person screaming at the television or radio “why don’t you answer the question!” where it is obvious that they won’t be able to because logic does not allow this, and getting annoyed not only with the slippery answers but also the failure of anyone to cut through their waffle and get them to confront the point they are trying to avoid so that their argument can be tested properly. Here’s a random yet perfect example from a recent episode of BBC Question Time:

A lady in the audience proposed that some of the foreign aid budget be used to fund health and education costs incurred by illegal immigrants in the UK. A Labour MP was asked to respond. Now this put him in a difficult position as this was something he had not prepared for but to a neutral observer could be a proposal at least worth thinking about. However, he could not be seen to be anti-immigrant or in any way attacking foreign aid as these days this opens you to an accusation of racism, which could be career-ending for a Labour politician. Yet if he pooh-poohed the suggestion he could be seen as so stuck in his thinking that he would not entertain new ideas. So he completely ignored the lady and started talking about a different point raised by a panel member. David Dimbleby interrupted and asked him to address the question, which he stumbled over so the questioner was asked to repeat her suggestion, which she did very clearly. The MP listened attentively, then once again completely ignored her point and talked about something else. He knew that if he filibustered for long enough the question would be forgotten and the chairman would move on in the interests of time, which is indeed what happened.

Of course examples abound from both sides of the political divide. This is extremely frustrating for the viewer and is perhaps why it has helped those public figures who use less smoke and mirror subterfuge and just say what they think, to start to gain more popular support over the last few years, even though this approach regularly results in ‘gaffes’ where they have been politically off-message or over-stepped the previously defined social norms of acceptability. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump. Now, Gert Wilders in Holland. Notice anything about this list? Yes, they are all from the right – the left are much more careful to keep on-message. And yet, the groundswell of popular support appears to have moved to these talk-first think-later leaders. Their deficiencies in verbal guile and their tendency to not just step into a man-trap but to personally prepare the trap that they then step into, has not, in the grand scheme of things, significantly dimmed the cause they were fighting for (a case to the contrary could be made for Boris, of course, but Boris is always an exception). Yet when you think about it this is hardly surprising. How many great leaders of history were known for waffling and trying not to give a firm opinion? People warm to someone who says what they think, doesn’t appear to have had much media training, and does not attempt to deceive by avoiding hard questions even if they risk a gaffe. They are more like us!

And here is where we stray into ‘populism’. David Cameron illustrated that he did not really understand what it means by declaring that it caused his downfall and he wants to fight it. The word populism derives from popular, so if you want to fight something that is popular you are likely to become unpopular. Perhaps Mr Cameron has nothing to lose on this front but for a rising politician this could be an unwise strategy.

Populism has come to mean a rising up of the people against the ruling classes, but surely this just means that a lot of people hold a similar view and have expressed it through the methods available to them, most recently Brexit and the USA elections. The signs are that various upcoming elections in Europe may continue this trend. Is this not just democracy, and if so, why is this a bad thing? Was not the SNP victory in Scotland populism? Does David Cameron need to defeat that too? Well yes, actually, maybe he does, or did, but he can’t so he won’t.

Populism in Europe currently favours the right, who are reacting to years of being governed by the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ as they are now known. In Britain a slender majority want to go back to a different set of ‘British values’ that, amongst other things, focus on British residents rather than putting people from other countries at the front of the queue. Meanwhile the movement striving to be populist under Jeremy Corbyn is wanting to go even further back, to the 1970s, a grim world that most of them are not old enough to have experienced and therefore would not understand why that could be a very bad idea indeed.

The far left do have some perfectly laudable aspirations, it is just that many of them are troubled by realities and evidence, and so, in order to divert attention from this, a method of argument utilised quite frequently recently by left-sympathising audience members has been to loudly boo their opponents in TV debates as though the strength of their boo will define the measure of their superiority. UKIP representatives in particular have been subjected to regular audience abuse and cries of ‘shame!’, as though their opinions were scandalous and disgraceful, yet they represented 12.6% of voters at the last election and in most cases are not actually saying anything particularly awful. This more hostile atmosphere was fostered during all those Brexit TV debates where the contenders flung soundbites at each other as a substitute for substantiated facts (because most of the available facts were just interpretations of data that could be read numerous ways depending on your point of view) and the audience felt compelled to act out the part of the baying mob in a Roman amphitheatre. This has encouraged political debate to become livelier and angrier, a dangerous mix because the two sides are drawing further apart. Left or Right, Remain or Leave, all parties are entrenched and just do not see the point of the other.

Now after the Brexit vote, we have the introduction of the ‘moral high ground’ tactic, currently being utilised by Remainers who tell us that the 52% who voted to leave the EU were ‘lied to’ and therefore didn’t understand what they were voting for because they lacked the mental agility of the Remainers to assess the pros and cons and work out the best option for themselves. None of the Leave voters apparently realised we could have to leave the single market if we wanted to curb free movement of labour, despite it being on record that every major politician (Cameron, Osbourne, Gove, Johnson, Leadsom etc etc) on both sides spelled this out whenever they were asked during the referendum debate. Faced with this evidence a few weeks ago, Nick Clegg dismissed it as ‘a few selected clips’, which says it all. Thankfully the Liberal Democrats and the Nicky Morgans and Anna Soubrys of this world are here on behalf of the Remainers to put this right and fight for a solution that keeps us in the single market and does not destroy jobs and lives, because clearly the government will be doing all they can to engineer a solution that destroys jobs and lives, won’t they?

The Brexit debate also saw UKIP being regularly tarred with the ‘racist’ brush because short of accusing someone of being a paedophile or murderer this appears to now be the most horrifying label you can apply to someone. The word racist has been bandied about so much now it is in danger of becoming devalued. We all know that the left were using it to shut down every discussion about immigrants until people summoned up the courage to point this out publicly as a tactic. But the risk of being accused remains, and I can’t be alone in thinking that this is partly what has led to the populist backlash because people were fed up with being told what they can and can’t say about immigration.  It has even got to the point now where if a white British person does an Australian or a French accent, or an American attempts a British accent, no one bats an eyelid but if they attempt an Indian or Jamaican accent it is racist. Does that not say more about the accuser than the imitator where only one of those people is making skin colour an issue? Imitating people, irrespective of where they come from, is not racist and never has been otherwise no-one would attempt a regional accent and a lot of impressionists would be out of a job. For this argument to have any authority it has to be consistent, which it clearly isn’t. So let’s please stop trying to be offended by this.

This leads me to one significant feature of modern political debate, which I’m surprised is not called out more often. It is the practice that I will call ‘miscusing’ (derived from ‘mis-accusing’ and meaning ‘to accuse someone whilst knowing full well that the accusation is false’), where a debater will preface what they think will come across as a killer argument with a sentence on what their opponent believes. This happens constantly, and you will see it whenever there is a debate on immigration. “Nigel Farage says he want to put a stop to immigration”, begins one politician, “well, I find that abhorrent. In my view…. etc etc”. That’s miscusing – Nigel Farage has never said he wants to put a stop to immigration, he just wanted to have some control over the numbers. But it fits your argument to claim that he has, so you can take some unjustly earned moral high ground.

All through the Brexit debate we heard over and over again about how immigrants are the foundation of the NHS, pay their taxes, come here to work, bring diversity and prosperity to the country, and so on. The Remainers stated this ad nauseum as though it was a winning argument, all on the premise that the Brexiters were planning to stop immigration. But this was clear miscusing. No-one from the Leave side had ever stated that immigration would be stopped or limits put on NHS recruitment so it was a pointless argument. Yet it got whoops and cheers from the Remain supporters so they carried on with it, as well as the constant accusations that Leave campaigners hated immigrants, again not evidenced by anything that anyone on the Leave side had said or done. From the Leave perspective, it was all about the numbers, plain and simple, but to acknowledge this made a trickier argument, so who could lavish the most praise on immigrants became the default approach and both side wasted many hours of TV debate time in doing so. I watched a lot of those Brexit debates and if I had a penny for every time I heard a panel or audience member launch into an emotional speech about how the NHS would collapse without immigrants I would be a lot wealthier. But not once did I hear anyone, from any side, ever say they wanted to take immigrants out of the NHS and stop them working here. There just wasn’t an argument to have.

Nick Clegg was a practised miscuser. He is so in love with all things EU that he regularly made up statements about what the other side stood for in order to demolish the position they hadn’t taken. For example “The Brexiters said that 80 million Turks might come here soon unless we left the EU” which of course was a complete miscusation; the argument was that 80 million Turks could be entitled to move to the UK – that’s a huge difference and no-one from the Leave side ever suggested that the whole of Turkey would emigrate to Britain because it is patently nonsense. But Clegg followers would leap on statements like this and clap furiously as though it completely justified their cause.

Miscusing, though, is common to all sides and parties and is to my mind no better than lying. Claiming your opponent is planning to put a tax on chimneys then triumphantly denouncing them for this dreadful imposition is not so impressive when it’s not true. So is this part of the new ‘post-truth’ world, where opponents in debates lie about each other in order to further their cause?

I am just an ordinary member of the public with no political affiliations and no campaigning background who thinks his views and opinions are founded on common sense (doesn’t everyone), although you can tell I lean further to the right than the left. But I also strongly believe in policies like limiting senior executives’ pay and not privatising everything – there is nothing wrong in cherry-picking the things you believe in, indeed to do otherwise would be to blindly follow because someone told you to (see ‘religious belief’). Whichever standpoint you take, you will find people who consider you an idiot for taking it and will be highly unlikely to change their minds based on the force of your argument. You in turn will be unlikely to listen to them and immediately revise your own views to align with theirs if you think they are talking nonsense.

So politicians have their work cut out to convince us. Unfortunately, I am not sure that they are always doing this in a way that will benefit us all both now and in the fast-changing world that is our future.