Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gyrating Bananas

Know your internet memes, Canadians
Among all the news stories hitting the headlines this week about young girls heading off to Syria to fight against Islamic State, or potential terrorist attacks thwarted by undercover police stings, one act of cyber-terrorism, or rather, hactivisim, which went almost unnoticed, caught my beady eye.

I guess this was because it happened in Canada, and unless there is something dramatic that involves heroic security guards at the houses of parliament, news from the nice neighbours across the Pond does not make it big over here.

It might also be because the act was itself pretty darn hilarious, so hard news sites have found it difficult to report on without indulging in a little bit of headline hamming or spurious photos.

Basically, since Friday, people wanting to log onto official websites for Canada's Parliament, its Supreme Court, the city of Ottawa and the Ottawa and Toronto police forces have been occasionally greeted by what the New York Times can only describe as a "a gyrating, anthropomorphic banana" or, more frequently but less amusingly, an error message.

According to the reports secreted in the bottom of newspaper columns, the strange banana shake was prompted by a hacker or a small group of hackers supporting the cause of an Ottawa teenager who was charged last spring with making hoax telephone calls throughout North America.

Along with the banana, the group/person called Aerith, who claimed responsibility for the hacking, posted statements denouncing the city’s police and provided personal information about the lead investigator and the city’s police chief.

I do not applaud the dissemination of private information about individuals, who are only doing their jobs as far as the law is concerned, but I do applaud someone who can make a statement so well and so widely, employing a favourite internet meme to put the message across.

Fans of the gyrating banana referred to so obliquely by the NYT will know that this was the famous 'Peanut Butter Jelly Time' banana, a heavily pixellated dancing flash animation from c. 2000-2001, which asked: "What time is it? It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time".

The internet - what a mine of information it is, not all of it useful - also informs me there is an emoticon developed for people who wish to insert a dancing banana into any emails. Thankfully I have not updated Blogspot with this, or I may have been tempted to insert it here.

A more famous parody would be Brian Griffin's attempts to cheer up Peter by performing the PBJT dance.

Family Guy Brian Griffin and Peter Griffin
I did want to see the gyrating banana dancing across official Canadian websites, but so far I have had no luck. But right now, all I want is a big piece of bread, smothered in grape jelly and peanut butter. It is 4:30. So surely, SURELY, it must be peanut butter jelly time - somewhere? Probably in Ontario.

I'm off to Canada.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Flaggin' mansions!

My defence of Ed Miliband last week got a storming response on Facebook, not all of it polite, but it certainly raised quite a few issues.


Since then, I have discovered two things: 
  • Someone has started a petition to remove Myleene Klass as the face of Littlewoods
  • Some Labour MPs (and ex MPs) will fall into the Mansion Tax bracket.
Let's deal with Littlewoods first. Personally, I like Myleene Klass. She was very sweet to my mother at a party we went to (her family are friends of our family) and she spent 20 minutes trying to explain how to use a digital camera to her. Anyone who has enough patience to teach my tech-illiterate mother how to use a camera has to be a good person, in my book. 

However, since her tirade against Ed, which I think was a thoroughly misguided and ill-informed topic for her to tackle, more than 8000 people have signed this petition on Change.org. There has also been a counter-petition for her to not be dropped, which has so far generated 590 supporters. 

I don't think Littlewoods should drop her, but a media-savvy PR at the firm should sit down with their face of the brand and explain to her that the target audience for Littlewoods is not likely to sympathise with people who have to shell out £1.8m for a garage.

Next, Emily Thornberry, a thorn in the side of Ed Miliband. There must be something about the man that means every week, a woman will publicly berate him or cause him embarrassment. Last week it was the turn of this woman in her £2m+ mansion, who tweeted a picture of a house in Rochester, swathed in England flags. In case you have been living in a bubble/not in the UK, here's the tweet:

That Thornberry Tweet Rochester
I can't help feeling a slight twinge of guilt when I read about Emily Thornberry's tweet. Sure, the people living in this house are unlikely to have felt any sympathy for those wealthy people complaining about the mansion tax, so they'd agree with Miliband on that. But they should not have to stomach the upper-classes sneering down their noses at them, publicly, on twitter.

People who have bought Thornberry's lame excuse: "I have never seen so many flags on a house, this is what I meant" are obviously living in cloud Kitten Land, where everything is beautiful and people tell the truth.

The truth is, she was taking the proverbial and - do not deny it - she said what many of us were thinking, especially when we saw TV footage of the man emerge from his house, cap on head, less than 100% fit and covered in tattoos. To be honest, I believe people should be allowed to fly their flags without being branded as anything by anybody, but when I saw him, my first thought was 'this is exactly the person I thought would live there'. Then I realised, guiltily, that someone else lives in a yellow house and flies the flag daily, without censure: 

Buckingham Palace
Who was I to criticise? I was no better than Thornberry. But I am just a person, not someone in public office, let alone a Labour personage living in a lofty house in North London. Her comment and the motive behind it smacked of upper-class snobbery. It smacked of Toryism of the Old School kind, not the kind that is pandering to UKIP. It reeked of Middle England putting the educational boot into the rest of us. And therefore Miliband was right to give her the boot, too. Oh, wait, sorry, yes, "accept her resignation". 

If Labour wants to prove it is for the people, for the masses, then its party members better start looking at their own lifestyle rather than criticise that of others, especially the voting public. Because it won't be too long before someone sets up a Change.org petition against the entire Labour shadow cabinet - and their £2m houses - and then we are left with nothing credible that can stand against the grinding, terrible machine that a Con-UKIP truce would bring.

Post-script
However while I may not be able to pay a tax on something like this BIG WHACKING HOUSE unless I become a former prime minister, I am still convinced that if I did own a £21m house in a prime central London location, I would have more than enough equity and/or free cashflow to be able to pay a tax for the privilege.




Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In defence of Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband, Labour Leader

I can hardly believe I am doing this but I agree with Ed Miliband.

In a week where he has been lambasted by celebrities, the media and politicians of all flavours, it is harder to praise the man than to bury him.

My old debating coach used to tell me it is harder to stand up for an unpopular cause than to decry one, and as I have always relished a challenge, I am unafraid by what might follow.

Ed Miliband is right.

While Myleene Klass may claim that £2m will just about get you a garage in London, and the media may agree, I would like to ask the normal, working people of London and the South East whether they live in a £2m garage.

It is my experience - 15 years as a financial services journalist, not as a celebrity commentator who reads the papers occasionally and listens to BBC Radio 4 - that the majority of people live in homes worth far less.

The average house price in the South East, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics and the Halifax House Price index, is somewhere between the figures these bodies have provided of £485,000 and £355,630 respectively.

That's a far cry for £2m - a figure skewed by the media and celebrity-rich areas of Kensington, Kingston, Chelsea, Putney, the City, Canary Wharf penthouses, Wimbledon Village, Dulwich Village, some parts of Clapham and Islington, and some parts of Golders Green and Finchley.

For the rest of us oiks, who slum it out in Brixton, Streatham, Peckham, Lewisham, Mitcham, Morden, Hackney, Newham, Hammersmith, Walthamstow, Balham, Norwood, Norbury, Thornton Heath, Hackbridge, Camberwell, Elephant & Castle, New Cross Gate, Lewisham, etc etc etc, well house prices just ain't anywhere near £2m.

We'd be grateful for a £2m garage, sure, but we are normal people who like normal houses that we can afford to maintain. If we were so desperate to live in an area that only had £2m garages, then we'd need to be paid seven-figure sums to advertise clothing catalogues.

But we don't. We are nurses, teachers, shop workers, journalists, pencil-pushers, council workers, administrators, bus drivers and the self-employed.

According to data from the Council of Mortgage Lenders, these normal people here in London and the South East have an average loan size of less than £250,000. Here's some statistical data to stick it to the whinging rich who have actually NO idea what real people earn or experience.

"First-time buyers typically borrowed 3.90 times their gross income, more than the 3.83 in the previous quarter and the UK average of 3.46. The typical loan size for first-time buyers was £212,000 in the second quarter, up from £200,000 in the previous quarter. The typical gross income of a first-time buyer household was £55,000 compared to £52,500 in the first quarter.

"Due to higher house prices within London compared to the UK overall, there was a continued shift in the mix of properties bought by first-time buyers in London towards more expensive properties. In the second quarter, 63% of first-time buyers bought properties priced at more than £250k, up from 57% in the first quarter and 51% in the same period last year. This was significantly higher than the UK overall level of 17%."

Yes it is true that house prices are higher in London - but as with all data, this is skewed by the super-rich areas where a dog kennel costs £70,000. This is not the experience of the vast majority of the population, for whom a £2m mansion is far above what any length of inflation and upward pressure on house prices could hope to achieve. 

Even if my own five-bedroomed house were to show house price rises of 600 per cent in the next 50 years, it could not match the £2m mansion tax proposed by Labour.

Now I am not agreeing that it is a good policy. But it may be a way to show that Labour is getting back to its roots - tax the rich and give to the NHS (and yes, if you have a £2m house you are going to be more wealthy than the majority of the UK population. Get out of your cars and go have a look at some of the poorer neighbourhoods around you).

It may also be a way of raising some much-needed revenue to shore up our ever-flagging deficit. 

I've sat through Budgets and Autumn Statements which each year tell me how great the government has been in cutting the deficit and getting us out of a recession, how austerity has helped us get back on our feet. 

And each time the figures get smaller, the achievement gets narrower, the prospect of being a country with no debt gets further away. This is called clever accounting by some, or wishful thinking by others. 

A proposed £2m tax on property - a theory by the way - might be a very convenient political football for a party that is already taxing people in council houses and on the lowest earnings ladder.

These people fall below the £10,000 a year limit for auto-enrolment into a pension. They have no savings. 

They literally live in garages - prefabs and tiny homes run by councils. And if they should dare to have one extra bedroom - maybe a spare room, maybe a room that their family uses, or maybe a grandmother looks after her grandchildren at weekends - they get taxed.

Let's repeat this slowly so that people understand: 

Labour has proposed to explore a £2m mansion tax on the wealthiest sectors of society (sorry upper middle class, yes you are more privileged than you believe you are).

The Conservatives are forcing the poorest people in society, the financially vulnerable, the people relying on food banks, and often the least educated, out of their homes into smaller properties or taxing them for daring to have one more room than they need.

Instead of jumping on a fashionable bandwagon and slating the Labour leader, why not sit back and actually think about these things: 

Fairness
Justice
Social equality
Raising people out of poverty
Helping the excluded.

If you advocate any of these things, you cannot take anything the Tory party says to ridicule Ed Miliband seriously.

This is the Tory party that doesn't know whether or not, or how much, it will have to pay the EU. First it doesn't owe them, then it does, then it managed to halve it, then it managed to not halve it but in fact will repay it "at its own convenience".

So basically it worked out a debt repayment plan, just like many of the poorest people in the UK have to do daily just to get by.

Ed Miliband is right. The Labour Party have their party members' interests at heart. Their policies are getting back to the real everyday struggles of normal people, the people that the Coalition has forgotten. 

Think before you leap and end up alienating we people, the normal people, the average people. 

Because we are the voters, the majority of voters in the UK and we want someone who actually will represent us. 






Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Plump from the Pump(kin)

Let's get some pumpkin pie!
I love this time of the year; golden leaves crisping and curling into brown on the pavement and fine morning mists that send shivers up the spine. Not for nuttin' did Keats praise Autumn as the 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness'.

The other week I was in Norfolk with my mater dearest and the 'stubble plains' of the poet were clear to the eye. As for the mellow fruits - the pumpkins were almost ready, sitting in their fields waiting patiently for the harvest. It was a delight to the eye and tantalising to the tastebuds.

Now as much as I hate Halloween, I love pumpkins. They're such awfully good fun to make things with. But this time I think I bit off more than I could, literally chew.

It is now day six of our pumpkin and it does not appear to be diminishing fast. I have tried to use all sorts of recipes and invent some more just to use it up, but this one large beast we bought for £1.50 from Tesco just doesn't want to give up easily.

The reluctance of the pumpkin to disappear reminds me of one of my favourite fables, about the Little Pot that Wouldn't Stop. The story goes something like this: Once upon a time, a little girl lived alone with her grandmother at the edge of a village. They were very poor, the poorest of the poor, so the little girl promised her grandmother that she would do lots of work to help raise some money for food.

Being a good little girl, she did what she was told and all day from dawn to dusk, she helped to clean, sweep and tidy up a house belonging to another old woman. In return, the old woman gave her a little pot. No coins, but a little pot.

She said: "All you have to do is ask the pot to give you food, and it will give it to you. When you have had enough, say 'Little pot, stop'." The girl brought it back to her grandmother, who clipped her round the ear for being so dumb as to bring back an old, rusted pot instead of much-needed money.

The girl ran outside. While she was there, some people visited the grandmother and wanted food. Deeply embarrassed at having none, she thought she would try to ask the little pot to give her food. It did. Steaming hot broth filled the pot - but kept on filling it.

"No, no" cried the grandmother, as the broth spilled over the top and into the fire.

"Stop it now", she yelled as she and her guests scooped up their dresses and stood on chairs to escape the torrent that was streaming across the floor.

"No more please!", she screamed, as the broth started to flow down towards the village. Hearing the commotion, the little girl waded towards the pot. "little pot, stop" she commanded, and all the broth disappeared magically.

Well it's a little like that in my household, except the pumpkin isn't multiplying magically, for which my insurance provider should be grateful. At least, I think it is not growing magically. We have already had six servings of pumpkin soup and a short, sweet pumpkin fruit loaf. I roasted the seeds with some celery salt and paprika to make a healthy snack.

Then I made pumpkin pudding and a large pumpkin pie, which I have put into the freezer. Then I cut up dozens of chunks to put into the fridge in a container. Still there was about one third left of the pumpkin. I made pumpkin mash alongside our dinner on Monday. Yet the pumpkin hadn't diminished discernibly.

On Tuesday, I made a spiced sausage and pumpkin casserole. Still a large chunk of the pumpkin remains. I made more pumpkin soup last night - when will this orange madness end?

Tonight I will attempt pumpkin rissotto - but that still leaves me with the remainder of the pumpkin AND a pyrex tub full of pieces.

All I can say is that pumpkin was probably the best £1.50 I've ever spent. I hope I don't get sick of pumpkin before we've eaten the pie.

Please little pumpkin (giant enormous bargain pumpkin), STOP.




Monday, November 03, 2014

Caveat Ambulator

Oh no! I've fallen over while using my phone!


Regular readers of the Mermaid's rants will know that one of her pet hates is people who do not look where they are going. Whether it is because they are simply letting their imaginations wander down tangled forest paths or because they are wrapped up in a newspaper, I get frustrated when their meanderings end up with near-collisions.

Recently - over the past few years I should say - my very British tutting, sighing and sometimes foot-tapping has been reserved for the moble phone gazers. People who are spending far too much time attempting to answer a text or finish a message on facebook, and thus spending far too little time paying attention to the road.

I've narrowly avoided an umbrella spike to the upper body unmentionables this week, because a man was engrossed in what looked like a BBC news interview with Jeremy Hunt. Now I have nothing against Jeremy Hunt as a person. But if his ferrety little face prevents someone from paying attention to what they are doing with a steel-point umbrella, then I do take issue with it.

Last week, a woman on the phone, with pushchair afore her and a toddler behind her, didn't notice her child was attempting to get back onto the train, because she was too busy telling "Kaneesha" that "If he thinks that I am going to sit down and take it just because she's my sister, then he's got another think coming."

And not to mention the innumerable times common-sense commuters have been held up at the ticket barrier because people in front have been absorbed by erudite textual conversations, such as "what are we having for dinner tonite" "Pizza" "OMD we had that last night u gtb laffing. U got jokes". Yes I was reading it over his shoulder. No, he didn't get his train pass out in time and we all waited behind him patiently. Sort of patiently. There was a lot of tutting. It was me.

Having ranted on many occasions about this perambulatory phenomenon, I was glad to find my gripes justified by claims statistics this week.

According to a pan-European study from SquareTrade, the majority of phone-damage incidents in the UK and elsewhere have occured because people were Wexting - the word I have coined to refer to "Walking and Texting".

The study also claimed 86 per cent of Britons have tripped, stumbled, walked into a lampost or wall because they were distracted by their mobile devices. As someone who has been often frustrated at every corner by an oblivious walker, I am not surprised by the statistic, but I am somewhat disappointed that I have never witnessed immediate Karma. It would be so good to say "I told you so", even if I hadn't actually told anyone so, unless a sharp London "tchah" and kissing my teeth counts. (It doesn't, apparently).

However for all those who, like me, wish for the good old days when people watched where they were going, and left poor lamposts and walls to mind their business without being walked into, we can take some comfort.

The SquareTrade study has revealed that, in a league table of mobile mishaps (yes, this is a thing and I have seen it), the Mediterranean countries are the worst offenders.

Greece, Italy and Spain have "the clumsiest mobile phone users in Europe".

The UK is only ranked sixth in this Darwinian table. Out of 12 countries, you can probably guess which country came in last - Germany. There's probably a law against using a phone while walking. I know there's a law against wearing a mask in public unless it's specifically on a known holiday. I can't tell you how I know this, but suffice it to say that my career as Spiderwoman didn't go anywhere after a stopover in Munich.

Quoted by SquareTrade were several dumbnuts, I mean, survey respondents, who detailed their mobile-related injuries. My two favourites.... with my commentary

“I have walked into a low-hanging tree branch and almost knocked myself out while tweeting.”
Birds have been tweeting since the dawn of time, and they are surprisingly good at not hitting their heads on branches. There is no excuse for you!

“I walked into a shop window and I’ve also fallen over using my phone”
TWICE? This person is a repeat offender? How far down the IQ spectrum do you have to be to achieve such moronity - twice! Walking into a shop window is stunning enough; wouldn't you be doubly cautious the next time you are texting and walking outside of the safety of one's own padded cell? I guess not.

I can only hope they live in Greece. Because if they live in the UK, I'm going to have to emigrate to Germany. With or without my mask.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Taxman Cometh

Now here's a fun topic we haven't covered much before, partly because it's not fun at all: Tax.

Specifically, what measures some governments are going to in order to scoop more revenue in these austere times.

You probably read about this man.

CREDIT: REUTERS/LASZLO BALOGH

What a handsome chappy! I hear you say. What is this troubled, "je ne sais pas" expression doing on such a silver fox of a man? Well this is not just a man, this is an M&S man. Actually, it's Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, who has just earned the ire of 40 per cent of his electorate. I suspect a few more wrinkles will grace his brow now, than the few that were photographed by Reuters in 2010.

This week, Mr Orban had to backtrack furiously because he had proposed to introduce a tax on using the internet.

Yes, that's right, people would have had to pay tax on how many times they looked at pictures of cats! OUTRAGEOUS. Everyone knows, the internet is made of tubes, and the tubes are filled with cats.

Protestors took to the streets against the threat that they would have to pay the equivalent of 40p per gigabyte. Questions about freedom of information, freedom of expression, the right to browse, etc were lobbied inside and outside of the Hungarian parliament.

But as one of my favourite tax analysts, Andrew Hubbard of Baker Tilly, has said, although this internet tax may be "consigned to the dustbin of history", there is another tax row brewing, this time on the other side of the pond.

There is a tax vote going through San Francisco and Berkley, California, to impose a tax on sugary drinks. It has been mooted in other US cities and it has also been debated in the UK. Can we stop people from being fat by taxing the fun out of sugary drinks and fatty food?


Mr Hubbard said: "There have been other attempts to introduce such as tax but none have been successful because of public opposition to additional taxes and the clout of the powerful soft drinks lobby."

(Side-note: a Soft Drinks Lobby sounds really nice. It sounds like a seated area in a hotel or an office, where gorgeous waiting staff serve you ice-cold cola on a silver platter on a warm day, and hot squash and a blanket on a cool day. I'd like to spend time in that sort of a Soft Drinks Lobby.)

Mr Hubbard adds: "But the tide may be turning".

Yes, the healthcare lobby is desperate to get people to cut their sugar intake. If you've ever seen those Secret Eaters or Super Skinny vs Super Size shows on your tellybox, you will know how bad sugary drinks can be. I like watching those programmes, it really opens your eyes to what we are putting into our bodies. I make a point of watching a few episodes in a row on iPlayer, so that I can get through a whole tub of Ben 'n' Jerries while judging fatter people, silently.

So it may not be too long before this bizarre tax is levvied not just across the US but also in the UK. Teachers will rejoice.

It's not the most bizzare tax, however, in the UK. And certainly it is not the weirdest one in the world.

Here's my list of top five weird and wonderful taxes

1) The window tax. It sounds like a Tory Party policy to hit out at council house people who have not just a spare bedroom (The SIN!) but also have more than one window (coming over here, stealing our natural light). However, this was a real tax just over 350 years ago in the UK - which is why you will see many old buildings with some window cavities that have been bricked up.

2) Soap. Yes, that expensive commodity endured a tax for centuries across Europe, from the late middle ages onwards. It wasn't repealed until 1835, when, coincidentally, people started to realise that hygiene helped them not to get diseases. Some parts of the UK, teenage boys' bedrooms included, may think a tax on soap still exists. It is time to put them straight!

3) Urine the money. Yes, those lovely Romans didn't like people wasting their precious pee, especially as tanners (people who treated the skins of animals) and launderers (not money launderers) used the chemicals in urine to keep themselves in business. So by taxing other people's "business" back in the 1st Century, Vespasian managed to raise a lot of money from people buying urine. But then he had also managed to pee away the majority of his predecessor's large fortune...

4) Bearded Russians? You've heard of bearded Russians? Well, you wouldn't have if you visted in the early 1700s. That doyen of Czars, the Emperor Peter the Great - a man often pictured with a beard - placed a tax on beards so that men would look like the French, who were clean-shaven. For about 100 years, the Russian elite attempted to look, feel and sound French. Until that bald-faced Napoleon tried to invade Russia.

5) Hat Tax. For some weird reason unknown to anyone but the political establishment in 1784, England tried to impose a tax on hats. No man could wear one unless he paid a tax; in desperation at loss of customers, milliners invented new names for things you wear on your heads. The English government decided that wasn't cricket, and they were not about to start playing a Regency game of Taboo with hatmakers, so put a blanket ban on all headgear. This was repealed just before the Battle of Waterloo - so maybe Napoleon did English gentlemen and Russian noblemen a big favour. Hats and beards ahoy!

In fact, I am so happy that people have the right to be hatted and fuzzy-faced that I've decided to come out in favour of them. I don't have a hat in the office, so I hope my tache and beard will suffice.




Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Non Mea Culpa - it's all at your own risk

If you are sent cheques you bear all responsibility 

While scrying the internet on press day for stories that might whet the advisers' appetite, I came across consumer champion Tony Hetherington's latest investigation into Missing Cheques. More accurately, how one man cashed in his savings with Standard Life, and was sent a cheque from Capita to the tune of £928.

The cheque was paid into an account at Lloyds - but not by the intended recipient. He has never received his money after cashing in his savings. The upshot? According to Capita, it's all at the investor's own risk. They claimed to have sent the cheque to the correct address, so even if his mail was intercepted and the cheque was stolen, he will never see his money unless he tries to take the person who cashed his cheque to court.

It is all "at your own risk" if a cheque is sent to you.

Now I've heard the 'caveat emptor' phrase a million times and I have some sympathy for it. You must be able to bear some responsibility for what you buy. If you don't check the terms and conditions, if you don't get someone else to do this for you, if you don't understand what you are buying - then don't buy it! It is basic common sense.

You don't go into a clothes shop and tell the assistant that you like the bag in the window, then get given a mystery box all wrapped up and told to "sign here". You check the box to see what is in it before you pay for it. Or any sensible person would.

This reminds me of a story back from when my late Great Aunt Ivy was a young lady travelling to work in London back in the early 1920s. She bought herself a nightgown - a silk one - from a posh shop in the West End. The lady at the counter took the slip, turned around, wrapped it into a box and delivered it to Ivy without saying a word. When Ivy got home to try on her purchase, it was an old vest. No returns.

Always check in the box is a good simile for 'caveat emptor'.

But when it comes to other parties entrusted with the delivery of your money, what has happened to this man in the Mail's column is pretty shoddy behaviour. Did Lloyds not double-check the names and initials on the cheque? Why has Capita absolved all responsibility? Why has nobody examined the information to see whether Capita did, indeed, put the right address on the envelope?

To say that once you have sent a cheque to someone, it is their responsibility is ludicrous. There should be some duty of care involved - such as requring a signature on delivery of the cheque. This may not be a lot of money in the world of investment managers and consultants, whose salaries are enviable, but to a man whose entire savings with that provider didn't even amount to £1000, this makes a lot of difference.

Why couldn't the money be delivered by BACS?
Why couldn't it be paid directly into his account?
Why wasn't the cheque, if it had to be posted, tracked, marked for signature on receipt?

This smacks of being careless with other people's money and for the victim, this isn't a laughing matter. Although of course, someone was laughing - the person who took this fellow's cheque all the way to the bank.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Dear Yes supporters



I don't want you to leave. I never wanted you to leave. But if you insist on doing so, let me set the record straight on a few things. And, in the words of Aussie 80s heart-throb Jason Donovan, give me one good reason to leave, I'll give you ten good reasons to stay.

1) The pound
You will not get it. You might get something like the Micronesian Dollar. But it will not carry any resonance with the rest of the world. That was a little petulant. Threadneedle reckons you'll get sterlingisation, which is basically 'unilateral adoption' of the pound but with no say in monetary affairs or access to the central bank as lender of last resort.

2) Iceland
Your economy will retract to the size of Iceland's just before its economic meltdown in 2007-2008.

3) Jobs
Without being an EU member on separation, it is likely that your citizens will automatically have to reapply for a working visa to stay and work in the rest of the UK. Moreover, your citizens will no longer be able to have free economic migration into England and the rest of Europe as you will not be ratified as an EU member state for months, if not years.

4) Banks
Your largest banks and financial services companies have already set in place plans to move south of the border should you vote Yes. This will severely limit your capital markets and create poor GDP growth.

5) Debt
You will NOT be bailed out of debt by the rest of the UK or, if you opt for EU membership, the EU for a long time. 

6) Investors
Already you are losing investors. One large investor has already moved £1m out of his scottish bank holdings and into safer assets. American asset managers and custodians such as Multrees Investor Services have moved "hundreds of millions of pounds" out of the country. Japanese Bank Nomura is warning investors to cash in their Scottish holdings. 

7) Pensions
Who will shore up your citizen's pension schemes when your government runs into debt? Where will be your minimum guarantee? It has already been mentioned that Scottish and other UK companies that historically operated defined benefit pension schemes with a large workforce split between Scotland and the rest of the UK may, in the event that an independent Scotland joined the EU, find there are new 'Section 75 Debt' liabilities owing to the cross-border nature of their pension fund membership.This will be very costly for some schemes.

8) National Savings & Investments
If the Yes voters get their way, savers in Scotland could ONLY invest new money if they had a bank account in England, Wales or NI. In order to KEEP your existing income and guaranteed income bond accounts, the Telegraph reports, you will need to have an English bank account. 

9) Taxation 
You will have to go through an entirely new tax regime - and with an independent Scotland likely to face higher drags on GDP and a lack of free cash flow to underpin the economy, taxation is likely to be higher in an independent Scotland than it is in the UK, despite what the politicans may be saying now. Just wait until it happens - and then you will see the politicans singing a different tune.

10) Oil
It is good to hear that Fergus Ewing,  your minister for energy, enterprise and tourisim, say that Scotland’s oil and gas sector is facing a bright future as half of oil reserves remain to be exploited. Citing figures from oil expert Professor Alex Kemp, using detailed financial modelling, it has been preducted that there will be significant discoveries in Scottish oil sector made over the next 30 years. However, who will fund these discoveries? Where will your tax credits for exploration come from? And in the meantime, how will Scotland carry the international clout to be able to import cheap oil from wherever else - especially if other countries do not trust whatever the currency will be?

Conclusion 
You are faced with poorer economic growth, higher taxes, lower GDP, less international clout, higher unemployment, less certain underwriting on individual bank accounts and investments. You face becoming a highly risky, highly leveraged country unable to service its own debt, without borrowing heavily from its economic neighbours.

By all means, yes voters. Vote for something exciting and new. But if you really want it, you really really want it, you can have it - and all the pain that will go with it. If you want it that bad, I'll vote yes with you. It's about time we stopped shoring up a country that has always been a tailwind on our own economic growth.




Friday, August 01, 2014

The Amazonian quest to find a lost ark.

This is the Redacted transcript of a letter I just sent to Amazon's press team, copying in an award-winning consumer champion from the Daily Mail.

Dear Sirs

 I hope you can help me with my query, not just because I am a journalist but also because I have asked my fellow journalist Tony Hetherington to look into this with a view to a story.

He is copied in above, as are my friends XXXX and XXXX XXXXX.

 Please let me preface this with two things: I love the concept of Amazon and, secondly, I must apologise because twice in a row when I have been live chatting with your colleagues, my iPad crashed and cut me off mid-flow. I would not have ended a conversation so abruptly so please pass on my apologies for that to Monica and Kamal.

The issue is this: XXXX and XXXX are in hospital with their baby daughter, who has a serious heart problem. Yet they still were lovely enough to think of me and send me a gift (probably card making craft) for my birthday.

On Wednesday I got home and saw a 'we tried to deliver' card on my doorstep from Amazon. I live in a house, address: (Full Address Given). The card came with a tracking number: (Tracking Number Given). The card said Amazon would try again tomorrow (meaning Thursday). The card explicitly states I can contact you for redelivery.

What it does not say is that only the sender can do this. Now I guessed it was from XXXX and XXXX. It could have been from anyone. How on earth can a recipient of a gift ever get their gift if a tracking number cannot be used by the recipient? System fail...

 That evening I chatted online with Monica, who said she could see the order and said she could help redirect it but I would have to provide XXXX's email and full postal address for security before she could allow me to request a redelivery to my place of work at XXXX. Just as I was sending her their address, the screen crashed and I could not get back into chat.

The next day there was no card from Amazon at home. I thought this was weird so I texted XXXX, even though I did not want to bother her while she was staying at the hospital while her baby is recovering. The husband texted me back: 'Amazon left it with 29a'

There is no 29a (our street name). Only a 27 and a 31. Both neighbours are lovely and would have given me the parcel, if they'd had it. Immediately alarm bells rang as there is a place half a mile or so up the road called 29, The Market, (our street name), with a different postcode of 1R something. This is a Family Choice corner shop run by a nice Indian family.

I immediately went online to chat with your helpdesk and got someone called Kamal, who completely went against everything that Monica had told me. In fact, he said there was no order from XXXX XXXX (which cannot be true), failed to acknowledge that the order had been totally misdelivered and did not apologise at all. He didn't let me finish my explanations and kept asking me questions, the answers to which I had already provided. Just as I was explaining that I had no order number as I was the recipient, the screen crashed again. Very irritating on both counts.

I took to twitter, hoping Amazon Help could arrange some email or phone correspondence that would not have to involve XXXX or XXXX at this time. No dice. They kept referring me to your online form http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=hp_gt_rewms?nodeId=468530

Thing is, I have tried this twice already and got nowhere with this, because I have no order number. I'm being sent round in circles, like a broken drone. (Did a drone deliver the parcel, by the way? Because that might explain a lot!).

Still no apology, by the way, or acknowledgement that your courier delivered my birthday present to the wrong address.

My husband and I did some research today. We went to 29 The Market, (our street name). We had to get a bus to get there. Evidently not at all near our house.

We spoke with Mr Kumar in the shop, who told us where 29a was. He said we would not like it 'as it is full of druggies and always getting raided'. He said 'if your parcel has gone there you will never get it back'. I saw the look in his eyes. It was the look of a man in fear of what lived above him. Evidently he has seen dark, terrible things. Unspeakable things. Things no shop owner should see.

I digress, however.

Well we went round the back, up some rickety stairs covered over with a corrugated iron roof. It looked like a derelict bordela's fire escape. I am glad my husband was with me, it was not safe. It was littered with filth, stank of old drugs and beer and cigarettes and only had half its windows intact.

It even had its door scarcely boarded up after what could either have been a raid or a drunkard deciding to make a cat flap with his foot. Indeed, the only redeeming feature about this place was a freshly minted cat shit on the side of the step.

Nobody answered our repeated knocking.

I enclose some photos of this drug-ridden residential souk to which I was led in my futile quest to find the parcel you lost.

Question one: Why would you come to the correct house on Wednesday but a completely different address on Thursday?

Question two: Why provide a tracking number and tell the recipient they can contact you to redirect, when they cannot do so without an order number?

Now I guessed it was XXXX and XXXX. Other people getting random parcels have no idea who sent it or how to get an order number. I also enclose a photo of the card which suggests I can redeliver by simply calling or contacting. This is apparently only true if you made the order. Not if you happen to have nice friends who send you birthday presents.

So we have reached an impasse.

1) I have no birthday present, because it has gone into an illegal Dusk til Dawn B&B and will never be seen again.
2) I have had to involve XXXX and XXXX on this quest, when really, their priority is their baby, not chasing up a parcel
3) I have had conflicting information from two of your help-desk staff and keep getting sent back to the same form where I will no doubt be told the same thing over and over like a Groundhog Day for the technological age.
4) I have had no acknowledgement or apology.

Therefore, please may I suggest the following is not unreasonable given the circumstances and the fact the error of misdelivery lies with you.
1) Please refund the delivery charge back to XXXX and XXXX for the lost parcel.
2) Please supply XXXX and XXXX with £75 worth of vouchers for themselves in compensation for the hassle and stress they have been put through at such a time. Please would you apologise to them? Thank you.
3) Please package up another exact same copy of that gift order, free of all charges and delivery fee, and deliver it to my place of work at the (Provided). Please deliver to that address w/c Monday 4 August.
4) Please consider how to amend your system to be fairer to the recipient of gifts, especially where the sender may be unknown.

You can verify this with XXXX and XXXX who are copied in. Thank you for your help in this matter. 

Mermaid of Moorgate (Full name and address provided)

Photos: 1) The door. Nosferatu, are you there? Yes but I am still tripping out.
2)Room with a view? Yes, and some poo, some litter, and some other weird stuff.
3) The roof terrace. Not quite the Kensington Roof Gardens.
4) My card delivered on the Wednesday, with tracking number. (Image was provided)

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

A splurge of posts will ping their way

Thank you to those who have emailed and texted and facebooked and commented asking where I am and what I am up to. The answer is nowhere, and up to no good. But seriously, I have been so super busy that I have only been able to start to create posts, and never finished them. I shall endeavour to do better. Watch this space!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

30-year-olds are all doomed, dooooomed I tell you!


The average 30 year old British worker is doomed. Doomed to scrape a meagre living while in their 30s, their so-called 'prime of life', or else doomed to a penurious retirement,  living off Salvation Army means and one lump of coal a day to heat our huts. 

As house prices accelerate 60% faster than the incomes of those who own them, according to Office for National Statistics data, those who are blessed to already be property owners may be thanking their heavenly benefactors that they have at least been able to get on the property ladder, in the hope that this pile of bricks and mortar could provide some income or capital gain in retirement, when the mortgage is paid off. 



That is, assuming that they do not become redundant, or be out of work for longer than their insurance will cover them, or they discover they are exceptionally fertile and do a Dionne Family. Trust a Canadian to name-check something that happened in Montreal in the 1950s. Oh well. 

So assuming the house remains without need of significant or costly repair, those who own their own property still, the rule-of-thumb dictates, have at least six months' salary saved up in case the worst happens. What about Generation Rent? Figures released recently by LSL Property Services cite that the average rental income in London alone is £1120 - higher than a current mortgage on a five-bedroom property in the  'Urbs - and set to rise further.

Even so, the 30 somethings are expected to save at least six months' salary in ready money.

And here is where the doom comes in. I do not see how, given the rising rental prices, the average UK worker in their 30s can, on the gross average UK salary of £26,000, save just over £12,000 (six months' salary gross of any tax). 

Add to this the need to save for their retirement - which could be up to 30 years after the State Retirement Age of 67, given the rising longevity rates - and the doom of this generation is apparent.

Nigel Green, chief executive of the deVere Group, said thirty-somethings should be putting aside £824 a month, if they desire to retire 65 with the recommended level of pension income. 

According to Mr Green, the calculations are based on the average salary UK’s of £26,500, the assumption of retiring at the default retirement age with a pension income of 75 per cent of pre-retirement earnings, no current savings, yearly inflation of 3 per cent, pre-retirement investment returns of 5 per cent, and any returns after retirement of just 3 per cent on their investments.

Now I have always believed in the virtue of saving. Whether it is as simple as me emptying my purse of all small loose change every night into a jar, bagging it and paying it into a savings account, paying into my employer's pension scheme, doing additional freelance work and using the proceeds to boost my small ISA, the value of saving as much as possible is inestimable.

Whether people like me in their 30s can afford to set aside £850 a month for a pension as well as accrue six months' cushion is another matter. If one can try to save 10 per cent of your money each month, in a mixture of employer pensions and Isas, this soon becomes a good savings habit and it will help in the harder times of unemployment, illness, retirement - and quintuplets.

Without any form of saving, no matter how small, it is true that all of us 30-somethings are financially doomed. We need to wake up and smell the coffee, but not expensive coffee-shop beverages. Take a jar to work and make your own and save £3 every day.




Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A day of spurious hatred

Two days ago, on my now-obliterated Facebook page, I reposted an extremely well-argued, thoughtful and balanced blog on the vices and virtues of PRISM and NSA-like activities.

I considered it to present both sides of the story pretty well: the need for scrutiny and to monitor what may be illegal activity, against the rights of the individual to privacy.

It got zero comments.

Not true. It got one comment, from me, stating: "I give you gold, people, and you say nothing. I write about toilet habits and I get 101 comments and 200 likes."

Today, I was late for the train, along with ten other people, who would have easily got on the train before the doors closed, except that some mother was letting her small toddlers dandle down the stairs in front of busy commuters, who could not simply push a child out of the way.

As a result we missed the train by a few seconds. I then posted on my facebook a comment that basically indicated it was unfair for 10 workers to be inconvenienced by a mother. I also said I wasn't interested in hearing whining comments from mothers.

I got whining comments from mothers, some of whom had the utter effrontery to make snide comments about Christianity to me. Pot, Kettle.

1) I can say what I like on my facebook

2) You can argue on facebook, but it is like running the special olympics: you can win, but you're still retarded.

I don't force my life choices on people. Maybe when I am a parent I may have to. But there is no excuse for bringing an enormous pram onto a packed commuter train, while frantic commuters run up and down the platform because they cannot get onto that carriage. This happened at Herne Hill.

That is simply taking advantage of the gift of motherhood and shoving it in people's faces as if because someone has become a mother, therefore they are better and more caring than everyone else.

Right now, let it be clear, I do actually love children. They are great. And I am sure I will become an annoying  mother. But right now I have very little sympathy for mothers who can't get over their own selves but have to resort to calling me "arrogant and entitled" for expressing my opinion that it is not fair that one person should have prevented 10 people from getting to work.

And therefore I realised how all single women, or married women who have chosen not to have children must feel. Second-class. Or that their opinions do not count.

Well here's to those who choose not to have children. I may not agree for my self, but I applaud your decision.

For ten reasons:

1) Being a mother does not give you carte-blanc to think you are better than everyone else. You're the same annoying person you were before giving birth, except now you only have one line of conversation and you think you're right about everything to boot.
2) Your child is not an amazing super-talent or "unlike other children". Balderdash. It poops its pants like every other child.
3) Your two month old did not deliberately elucidate two or three-syllable words, when it can't even say "da"  or "ma" yet. You are simply hallucinating from lack of sleep.
4) When you push your pram onto a packed commuter train and then complain because someone said 'Owch', don't complain. You're forcing your life choices on others, not the other way round.
5) If your precious angel cries or gristles during a service, or a play, or a meeting, yes, this does upset everyone else in the room. Take the thing outside. We didn't force you to have a baby, you chose it and it is your job to deal with its crying, not ours.
6) If you don't want it getting in the way of other people, put reins on it. I had reins and I was always kept safe, rarely had a fall and yes, while I didn't enjoy my 'freedom', the rest of humanity appreciated my parent's consideration.
7) "I can't believe people won't allow children at the wedding." Personally, I agree. I like children at weddings. It's fun. But I can see why some people might want a nice, grown up affair with lovely things that matter if they're broken. Again, they didn't force you to populate the earth, respect their decision.
8) Being single or a non-parent doesn't preclude us from having an opinion. What it does stop us doing is affecting people around us in a negative way. Your child's tantrum in the shop is a pain in the posterior and we will give you dirty looks because it is annoying.
9) Just because some women do not want children does not mean they are not as good as you. Stop being a martyr. You chose motherhood. We didn't choose your motherhood.
10) Don't expect us to do a backflip and clap like a cheerleader when you tell us little Tommy has said his first word or smiled or said no. Big fricking whoop. Wait until he's 20 and then does his first smile or say his first word, then we will rejoice with you. Until then, shut it. You're not interesting. You used to be. You used to have conversation that didn't start with "When you're a mother". When you're no longer a moron, come speak with me again.

I am sure you can think of more. I am sure I'd be DELIGHTED to hear all your comments about how awful, how could she say these things, etc etc. I've got an opinion and I am entitled to it. And to air it on my facebook or twitter or anything without a bunch of self-indulgent holier-than-thou mothers getting all supercilious about it. Half of your children will probably end up throwing you in a cheap retirement home anyway and moving to Australia to get away from you.

Think on that.


Monday, May 20, 2013

The curious case of the cat in the night

Last night my migraine was so bad that I vomited, felt excessively dizzy and hot, and decided to put myself to bed early, 9:30 or thereabouts.


Yesterday being one of the few warm days this year, and my own body temperature reaching that point between 'blood boiling' and 'face exploding', I hesitated before shutting the first-floor kitchen window.

I thought: 'perhaps I shall just put it to; a little cool air may do me some good'.

But then a voice from deeper, further, a voice born of instinct or God, spoke like a wise elder across my thoughts. "Shut the window; something could get in. Could climb on that roof and get in." I was obedient to that voice, shut and secured the window, although in all my nine years living there, nothing has come in, except whatever creature Monty The Cat has deemed acceptable as a half-alive/dead/alive-and-exceptionally-affronted offering. But Monty The Cat was curled up in whiskering contentment on my bed.

We both slept. Until there was a scratching, a tapping at the kitchen window. Because of my migraine, I dozed fitfully, so the noise woke me immediately. It happened again; the cat, too, with his extraordinary sense, looked immediately at the kitchen, bounded noiselessly onto the counter and peered at the garden visible neath the four inches of gap between blind and sill.

Ears forward, tail twitching, he had reached there in a second; my bumbling humanity, tho almost as silently, reached it in four seconds. Nothing was there; the security lights were on downstairs and in the alley to the side, but there was no sign of a fleeing tail or crouching tigger, hidden fox. No sound from outside nor shaking of a tree to indicate the flight of the culprit.

I am sure it was no more than a large bird, or cat or, at an outside chance, a fox - but this is the first time that any animal other than monty has attempted to come in. Mindful of the voice of warning I had heeded, I thought how auspicious it was that I had listened to that voice, even though it had been contrary to my desires.   I glanced at the kitchen clock, which is digitally linked to the correct GMT. It was by then a few seconds after midnight. The scratch, heard by both MTC and myself, happened at midnight exactly. Curious, eh?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Falling into herself: the Mermaid chronicles her descent into a strange mental world


1) A tendency to forgetfulness
This has started to bug me. Every now and then, I am so overheated in my head with thinking about this and that and the other, that something will steam up and I will mislay my keys or forget my phone or someone's name will completely evaporate.

But until recently, these have been few and far between, incidents that were notable for their infrequency, not their frequency. Just three weeks ago, I left my phone at home three times in the space of five days. I regularly forget people's birthdays, things I have to do, where I am going and what I am meant to be doing. I have started emails and forgotten two whom I am writing.

Thing is, I write lists. Copious lists. I have electronic and paper based diaries. I always keep memos of what I need to do and things to remember. But I have been forgetting to look at these.

2) A glaringly long-term memory
Simultaneously, my long-term memory has been sending me flashbacks from the past that have startled me with their glaring intensity. Scenes like a snapshot of my young life have flickered before my waking mind, vivid, suddenly.

I will remember a poem, a line from a book, a sensation of my first taste of olives, a scent of cleaning fluid, the first thing I heard a boy - who later became known to us as 'Big Will' - say at university on the occasion of the first dinner the first night at Tetley Hall ("Flipping hell, look at all the birds"). I will suddenly recall the lyrics to a song long dormant in my neural recesses.

It concerns me that I can remember the distant past and forget the immediate, the just-gone moments.

3) Easy distraction
I will be in the middle of a conversation at work or church or in a professional context and, without realising it, I have somehow gotten the stranger down a complete side road, a leafy avenue of conversation that has nothing to do with corporate bonds or the problems with pensions liberation.

We end up discussing ticks on dogs, the smell of autumn rain, my childhood terror of ceilings that prompted me to cling onto the nearest wall and refuse to let go.

Or I go online to check on someone's job title. I end up on twitter, then flick to a flickr page, then onto a facebook group and so on and so on until I realise I am reading a Daily Mash article about Kim Kardashian's shoes and I have no idea how I got there, or what I was doing at the point of my distraction.

I do not know how I manage to get any stories written or articles produced or the desk managed.

4) Denial and displacement
I know my wedding dress does not quite fit me. I am a little to big for it. I am getting married in 80 days' time. I am ostensibly dieting, I convince myself I am dieting. I am not. I am eating carbs - more and more carbs. I am drinking coffee and getting to bed late and waking up late and drinking coffee and eating carbs and sugar and cakes, all the while knowing that this is not helping but perpetuating the cycle.

But get this - I am still convinced that I am on a diet. I feel that I have hypnotised myself into believing that I am losing weight, that I am on a diet. I cannot believe that my 'little snacks' are anything more than a one-off, any more than I am convinced that my increasing forgetfulness is a series of 'one-offs'.

I am also convinced that when I do eat - it is other people's fault. I am out with them, or being led astray, or coerced into eating what they put in front of me. It is everyone's fault but my own. Except nobody has force-fed me anything. This is all my own doing.

5) The fog
All this above has helped to create a fog. I am walking from day to day in a fog. I am unclear about where I am going, what I am doing - what I am SUPPOSED to be doing, who I am and what did I do with the thingy that I need for the wotsit? You know, the doo-dad that goes in the thing? The who what dowotta now?

Sigh. I am not myself. I am in invisible cotton wool. I have been cocooned in mental bubble wrap, perhaps to protect me against the inevitable pain that will come with the house sale and the house move and the wedding and the honeymoon and the lifechange that is all happening within the next three months.

My fear is that when all this change is done, when all the fog has cleared, will I be the same afterwards? Will I still feel mentally dazed and confused? Has the process of madness commenced already - am I falling into myself? I have met and mentored so many people whose process into a state of duality has started with this dizzying whirl of mental, physical, emotional activity. I am genuinely worried that this will happen to me, and this is why I am writing this blog again, starting once more to collate my thoughts and compose myself. The mermaid is looking for herself and wants to find her.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

50 things people have done that have annoyed me since Sunday




1) Some people have no concept of walking in a straight line. This is exceptionally annoying when they cross in a diagonal right in front of your straight and honest path on a zebra crossing, causing you to stop in your tracks and in the tracks of the waiting cars. Morons. Have you not even started to evolve?
2) Sneezing without covering their faces with their hands.
3) A man coughed on the train, I kid you not, evidently coughed some gloob into his hand, looked at it and licked his palm. LICKED HIS PALM. People are animals.
4) Why do people think it is okay to stop right in front of you in the middle of the pavement?
5) People who do not know how to walk up stairs. Getting the lift to go one floor just to heat their lunch up. They are not ill, disabled or pregnant. I know this because I know them. They are simply lazy.
6) There is a lady (for want of a better word) who works on the 5th floor in the FT building who does not know how to flush the chain. She always takes the biggest cubicle – meant for the disabled, by the way – and proceeds to do a poo. She then leaves all her poo there for other people to flush. This would not be so bad but she only does this when she is on her period. Therefore she leaves poo and blood and smears of bloody-poo stained toilet roll all over the toilet bowl. This woman is an animal and if I find out who it is I will literally drag her back into the cubicle and make her flush the chain. She is a cretin whose parents left her to be dragged up by wolves. She is a disgusting, abominable creature and I will find out who this vile piece of what should be humanity actually is. She will learn to flush, even if it costs me my job.
7) That’s it, actually. Only six things have annoyed me over the past two days.