Self Service Tills

Friday 31st January

I hate them.  They have removed the whole concept of service.  Supermarkets and Banks are rapidly becoming soulless places devoid of staff but filled with rows and rows of shiny machines.  It is I am afraid progress, though progress of a kind I would rather not see.  Automation has been going on for years, in Agriculture and Manufacturing there are far fewer employed, so what is my big problem.

Simply this, if all companies prefer to have machines working for them rather than people, and keep shedding staff it must come to a point where we have a split society.  A portion, probably about 50% will be employed in safe jobs, where they enjoy a high standard of living, security and a degree of personal wealth.  Then there will be another quarter of the population who exist from one short-term job to another zero-hours contract, constantly moving from cheap rooms to another bedsit, always short of money, no real credit history, desperate to get onto the wealth ladder.   The remaining quarter will exist in some sort of grey or black market economy where petty and large crime rub alongside each other, prostitution and violence are rife and these people know no other life and simply survive.

Some would say we are well on the way to this society anyway.  But continuing automation will only make it worse.  So, why pick on self-service tills.  Firstly because half the time they don’t work; almost every time I use one I have to call for assistance.  And secondly, at least a flesh and bones assistant has a smile and is helpful.  Exchanging a few pleasantries with a shop-server can lift your day.  And then, if I hear that stupid comment “unexpected item in bagging area” one more time I think I will scream.  The item is not unexpected – I just scanned the bloody thing and it has shown up on the screen.

I know I am fighting a losing battle, but soon there will be no high street banks at all, just machines and the internet and a 24hr helpline, where they never can actually help you.  And slowly we are all being turned into machines to service industry.  Our most important function as humans is now being consumers.  I write about this more in my new book, coming soon – 2066, a personal memoir.

Times Remembered – Butlins

Thursday 30th January

Butlins was new, Butlins was exciting and Butlins was what the working classes aspired to.  We went to Butlins twice as children in the fifties.  To Margate if I remember correctly.  I was only 8 or 9, definitely under ten and it was anticipated for months before we eventually loaded up the car and set off.  It took hours as we made our way from Suffolk down to and through London and on to the Kent coast.  There were no Motorways and no Sat-Nav either; it was down to map reading and hopping from town to town, trying desperately to read the signposts.

We were all in one chalet, which was little more than a beach-hut.  Judith and I were in bunk beds and mum and dad had a double bed just next to us; I think there were two rooms and a toilet and sink but no bath or shower.  Well, it was next to the sea and there was the swimming pool too, outdoors and of course unheated.  Everything was free; I can remember that, the tennis courts, the crazy golf, the pool and the amusement park and rides.    And there were Redcoats everywhere to help and show you how to do things.  And there were meals in huge halls, long polished formica tables and lots of food.

There was entertainment, competitions, glamorous grannies, swimming and running races.  I had such a fabulous time as a child but all too soon the two weeks were over and we packed the car and headed back to boring Suffolk.

Then in the sixties I tended to camp with the Scouts, and then it was package holidays abroad and Butlins fell into a slow decline.  Now they feature sixties music revival weekends, still surviving somehow.  But never again will they be filled with smiling young children and adults at last affording that wonderful long awaited holiday by the sea.

Times Remembered – Fruit Picking

Wednesday 29th January

I was born and brought up in Suffolk.  Suffolk was all we knew; we imagined that the whole world was like Suffolk, and even though we had been taught that Africans lived in mud houses and wore plates in their lips and had long triangular breasts that hung down like flaps someone had forgotten to tuck in, we really couldn’t believe that the whole world could be any different from Suffolk.

Suffolk was agricultural, fields and fields and little hedges and spinneys dotted here and there.  And even if you didn’t work on the land you were connected in a way people just are n’t today.  When I was about 7 or maybe 8 my mother took me fruit picking.  She did it for at least two or three years.  She would be saving for something or other, a holiday maybe or some new furniture and fruit picking was one of the ways to earn extra money.  The lorry, a flat bed with maybe a part covering with canvas would pick us up early in the morning, and we would scramble aboard, a few lucky women found purchase on the wooden bench near the driver’s cabin, the rest of us bumped along as the lorry wended its weary way up mud lanes to the fields.

My mum was a great picker, and whether it was beans or peas or strawberries she worked all day long and filled her baskets and sacks faster than anyone else.  For a while I would work alongside her.  If it was strawberries I would have my own little Tupperware tub filled with sugar which I would dip every fifth or sixth strawberry in and eat, the juice running down my chin.  But sooner or later, usually after our sandwich lunch me and the other kids would play, running in and out of the ditches or chasing the girls round the pig sties.

The sun always seemed to be shining and before we knew it we were back in the lorry and delivered home.  We didn’t know it then but these days were the free-est and happiest times we would ever know.  Now it is Polish and Lithuanians who pick the fruit; English people are too lazy, or maybe the money just isn’t good enough.

The Lie That Will Not Die

Tuesday 28th January

The Tories are clever, very clever.  And the trouble with a lie is that the more it is repeated the less it becomes a lie and the more it becomes accepted as the truth.

In late 2008 the financial institutions across the world suddenly became unstable.  The whole system relied on debt and confidence.  The confidence was that somehow this ever-increasing mountain of debt could or would be repaid.  No-one up to this point had begun to question the sense in simply lending more and more money to companies and individuals.  Don’t be stupid.  They were all earning far too much money.  But suddenly the bubble burst.  It happened in America and spread like wildfire to Britain and Europe.  Lehman Brothers, one of the largest financial institutions in America crashed.  But many others including over here RBS and Lloyds were saved by huge loans and share purchases by the Bank of England.

Labour were in power at the time, but they didn’t cause the recession, or the deficit which followed.  But the Tories trot out the lie at every opportunity that they had to go in and clear up the mess which Labour caused.  True, public spending was probably too high – but George Osborne had promised to match Labour’s spending pound for pound.  That was of course before the crash.  People tend to have selective memories, and yet for almost twelve of the thirteen years while Labour were in power we saw big rises in the standard of living.  The vast majority of people were better off even after the crash than ten years before it.  And yet the lie is believed.  Labour were financially reckless and caused the recession; the deficit was caused by Labour over-spending.

But sometimes people can see through the lie, and just as it is universally recognized that Gordon Brown was a disaster as PM, people still do trust the motives of the Labour party.  And remarkably the polls are still showing a steady 5 or 6 point lead for Labour, despite the lie that will not die.

Let me just explain this one more time

Monday 27th January

The tax system is unfair.  Got that.  It is unfair for one very simple reason.  The vast majority of us taxpayers pay our tax at source; through PAYE or if it is bank interest it is deducted before we receive any paltry interest.  Those at the top end of the scale, by and large are either self-employed, or can decide how and more crucially when to pay themselves.  They also almost all self-declare their tax.

We have no choice, and therefore no chance to fiddle our tax.  And thank goodness we don’t or there would be precious little tax collected at all.  Why do you think that the local plumber will quote you a lower price for cash than if you are paying by cheque?  Why do you think that most top-business people have company credit cards?  The answer is simple – so that they can avoid paying tax, even if it is just VAT.

Now take the self-employed high earner who invoices for his salary rather than is paid and taxed through PAYE.  What would you do if you suddenly realised that you would have to pay 50%, that is half of your earnings (over 150,000 I hasten to add) but for many on very high earnings that is still a lot of dosh.  Then the kindly chancellor tells you that in one year’s time you will only have to pay 45% tax on that money.  That is £7500 less.  Now if you could decide how and when you paid yourself wouldn’t it make  sense to defer you large bonus, or to simply pay yourself drawings or repay a loan rather than treat this as income and have to pay the higher figure.  In any case you could always pay yourself a dividend and only pay 22% on that income instead.

The law on taxes is ridiculous.  If you are self-employed there are loads of tax ‘dodges’ you can use which the poor salaried employee has no access to.  The whole system needs a radical overhaul, not tinkering at the edges, nor layer upon layer of complexity ( and chances for loopholes) as successive chancellors have done.

How about no Allowances at all.  And simple 5p progressive rate increases according to income received whether they be as drawings, dividends or salary or bonuses.  And while we are at it let’s combine tax and National insurance into one single rate and one deduction, and again no allowances, no special schemes, and base it on a cumulatively increasing figure.  Or would that as the Tories are now bleating drive away talent and crash the recovery completely?  I doubt it.  The truth is that nobody likes paying tax, but most of us have no choice.

A Day in the Garden

Sunday 26th January

It has been so wet, and for weeks too that the garden is like a quagmire.  It is really muddy so we donned our rubber overshoes and with shears and loppers tackled the overgrown jungle that we used to call a garden.  Even the path of flagstones was lost under bushes and trees that hadn’t been tackled in over  a year.  First I had to try and locate and collect the dog-pooh, which was as soggy as the mud.  My job, you might have guessed was to pick up and pack in garden sacks the branches and foliage which my wife was frenziedly chopping down.  We managed to fill ten big bags with the stuff.  We could have filled another ten I am sure, but it was hard work and after about two hours we needed to stop.

The garden does look a million times better, almost sparse in places, and you can see daylight where there was just a tangle of leaves and vines.  One side of the garden has been taken over by ivy, which winds its tendrils around every tree and bush and has commandeered the entire fence.  In places the main stem is a couple of inches thick but we managed to hack it back to just about a foot above the almost entirely obscured fence panels.

We have promised ourselves another session in a week or two’s time.  Weather permitting because tomorrow is promising another downpour.   At least we aren’t living in the Somerset levels or any other flooded area.  Just imagine what their gardens must be like.

Lies, Lies and Damned Statistics

Saturday 25th January

Ed Milliband has been good at setting the Agenda and the Tories are once again on the back foot.  This time about the cost of living.  And they have just published figures that ‘show’ that all but the top 10% of earners are better off comparing take-home pay to a year ago.  One wonders quite how these numbers have been compiled.  There have been cuts to child benefit kicking in, and then the tax-cut to those earning over 100,000.  Plus of course the pay-freeze in the public sector, now in its fourth year.

Then we dig a little deeper, and they are comparing the year-ending April 2013 with the previous year. And of course the child benefit cuts did not come in until  this tax-year.  Also the 5% tax cut for top-earners came in only in this tax year too.   And yes, some people on low incomes had their tax threshold increased so this meant a lot are paying less tax.  Very commendable that is too, and a lesson I hope that Labour learns for the future.

But actually whichever way you present the figures the truth is that the Government has taken a lot of Public Spending out of the economy, so overall there is less money being spent than a few years ago.  And the rate of inflation is a bit of a red herring too.  When poor people spend the vast majority of their money on rent, food and heating and travel – all of which have risen far higher than inflation.  Wealthier people have effectively had a freeze put on their mortgages with many paying considerably less than a few years ago, and a lower proportion of their money is spent on essentials.

The truth is that people feel far poorer than they did a few years ago.  And no matter how many statistics you throw at them, until they begin to feel better they won’t believe them.

T is for Tanita Tikaram

Friday 24th January

It was the late eighties and music was dull, no really new light on the horizon.  Pop had fizzled out and Dance Music was still an underground minority craze.   Madonna ruled, synthesizers were everywhere.  Real acoustic music seemed lost with no direction at all.  Into this toxic mix was suddenly dropped the pure deep voice of Tanita Tikaram.  She was born of Malaysian and Fijian parents and raised in Germany but had spent her teens in Basingstoke.  A strange exotic mixture she was also English as tuppence.  And her first album Ancient Heart was full of songs that sounded timeless ‘Twist in my Sobriety’ and ‘Cathedral Song’ could have been written twenty years ago.  The production was fairly sparse and included mandolin and concertina, allowing her cool mature voice to rise to the fore.  I fell for her straightaway, and for a few years she didn’t disappoint at all.

But as inevitably seems to happen, especially with girl singers, after a few years the fashions changed and Tanita was struggling for a record contract.  She releases albums very sporadically these days and that youthful enthusiasm seems to have paled too.  Her songs now lack that naivety, that light-heartedness, that ‘joie de vivre’ that those first few records had.

There was a time when I sought out all sorts of 10 and 12 inch singles and picture CD singles of Tanita, I just loved her; both her voice and those exotic looks.  I will still buy her records but don’t expect anything remarkable these days.

Her brother incidentally came to fame at about the same time appearing and bewitching us in ‘This Life.’

All Wars are Civil Wars; All Men are Brothers

Thursday 23rd January

So sang the Sutherland Brothers forty years ago.  A fine sentiment but is it really borne out by facts?  In fact Civil Wars are far worse than Wars between nations. Wars between Nations are usually fought by opposing soldiers, Civil wars are fought by civilians, by ordinary people.  And the brutality meted out in Civil Wars is truly awful.  During the English Civil War a greater percentage of the population were slaughtered than the proportion of young Englishmen who died in the First World War, and possibly even more brutally.  Commentators were appalled by the violence and lack of mercy shown by both side in the American Civil War.  The atrocities inflicted by Stalin and Mao in their respective ‘Civil’ wars where all internal opposition was to be wiped out have hardly ever been equaled.  Hitler’s treatment of the Jews was in a way a civil war, many of the Jews were German citizens.

And recently we have had civil wars raging in Timor and Africa where brutality, torture and maiming have been commonplace.  The genocide in Rwanda and neighbouring countries was not a war between nations but one between differing factions of the same basic people.  And these wars were not for territory but for the annihilation of the other side.  Such hatred, such anger against people only slightly different from themselves; and it is still going on.

And now we have Syria, and maybe soon Egypt.  It is all very well for commentators to try to lay the blame on one side or the other, or to explain it as a geo-political struggle for dominance in the middle east, but millions have been displaced, hundreds of thousands killed, tortured and maimed in the most awful of reprisals.  And there seems truly to be no solution, none at least which will satisfy both sides.  The conflict is spreading to Lebanon and Iraq too, so it is far from over.  And we in the West wring our hands and ask why people cannot just live peaceably together, forgetting our own history, our own Civil and Religious wars.  All wars are Civil wars, all men are brothers, after all.

The Lord Rennard Scandal

Wednesday 22nd January

This has been one of the longest running, slowest boiling and yet most toxic of problems for the Lib-Dems.  And we still do not know exactly what the randy old Lord is supposed to have done.  Was it just inappropriate language, demeaning, maybe bullying or something worse?  Was there touching involved, just brushing up against, hand on a knee or just above it?  No-one has suggested that he touched a bum or squeezed a tit (which incidentally is what most of the allegations against ageing celebs seem to consist of).   But the way it has been handled, (not the way Rennard may have handled things…hahaha) by Nick Clegg is causing quite some embarrassment.

And really it should have been something and nothing.  When the original complaints were made someone should have had a quiet word in his ear and told him that (whatever it was) it was inappropriate, that “Girls don’t like that sort of thing, old boy…changing times and all that, just say you are sorry and keep your hands to yourself in future.”  And that might have been an end to it all.

I suspect however that politics, internal politics were at play, and whoever wanted to do Rennard down has almost succeeded.  The poor man has had his name and face all over the media, and everyone speculating if he really is a letch, or just a bit old-fashioned and deluded.  And still Nick Clegg squirms on his hook, trying to be fair and above the fray, when he should have known that nothing short of an abject apology, groveling and castigation would do at this stage.  Strange how the world has changed.  At one time it was real affairs that brought people down, (Parkinsons love child for instance) now it is using or not using the word “Pleb” and inappropriate behaviour, maybe a hand carelessly left on a shoulder or maybe worse (trouble is we can only speculate) are the things that hit the headlines.  Politics is a funny old game really.