Lost in the Supermarket

Hoping for better luck at supermarkets this year. Have avoided them so far.
At the end of last year I’d found myself trying to enforce a personal boycott of the new self-serve checkouts.
No way would I use one of them, I said to myself: somewhere along the line, they would mean the end of someone’s job.
Then, I found myself standing in a long queue at Marks and Spencer with just a sandwich in my hand.
The self-serve option beckoned and I took it. I was in a hurry, I told myself.
But, walking off, I realized I’d failed myself. Somewhere I heard a computer click. Another shopper had chosen self-serve. Another nail knocked into the coffin of the poor old human alternative.
Then, on a visit to Tesco, I went from breaking one of my rules to breaking one of their’s.
Rushing again – honest – I turned a trolley of goods into the wrong checkout.
And I had half unpacked before the checkout lady pointed skywards to a sign telling me I was in the Ten Items Or Less queue.
Oh, the shame!
The till worker took time to etch a look of contempt into the inside of my eyelids.
I left wondering if those self-serve checkouts weren’t so bad after all.
Finally, I returned to Marks. With a few snacks, I hit the queue.
My arm was tugged. “Is that all you have, sir?”
I hesitated, aware of what was coming next.
“Yes,” I said. My fate was sealed.
I was led to the self-serve. There was no way I was putting up a fight and blotting my copy book there as well.
“Have you used one of these before, sir?”
I tried not to sound pompous and undoubtedly failed.
“I try not to because I’m sure in the end they will cost people’s jobs.”
“Good point,” she replied, but was still smiling professionally as I guided the barcode of my BLT across the little screen.

Carefree Arms (2): Kamikaze Drinkers

Carefree Arms. Evening.
Late night discussions. Conversations we’ve had before, are comfortable with.
Same observations made but treated as revelatory as it is in all drinkers’ interest to remain entertained.
Jenks rails against the former kamikaze pilots you see interviewed on the History Channel.
“Can’t understand it, man. How can you be a ‘former’ kamikaze pilot?”
“You’d rather they’d flown into the side of a ship than gone on to be retired bank managers or something?”
“I just think they should be …ashamed!”
I was watching the Niall Ferguson programme where he said the Americans believed the Japanese were animals during the Pacific war and so the Japanese acted like animals.
Each side brutalised the other.
“Act like animals, treated like animals,” Jenks said defiantly, putting his glass to his mouth and spilling large amounts of lager down his chin.

Carefree Arms: An introduction to Mr French

Carefree Arms. Lunchtime yesterday.
I walk in the sunshine to meet my friend Tom (not his real name). I miss him. But Mr French, who Tom once introduced me to, is.
He has a bottle in front of him so I go inside and get a drink.
Mr French – not his real name either – is a fixture. As people pass, one-in-three say ‘hi’ or pass a comment.
I joke with him that it is lunchtime and they are jealous as they are only grasping a few minutes of freedom before heading back into the office.
It’s all friendly, though. None of the passers-by make that pretence at not seeing him, as they might with a busker or beggar.
He tells me a story about a boy and his uncle. The boy had been badly treated by his father as a child and had grown to love his uncle. They would go mountain climbing together; not speak much, but share the joy of views, smells, back-breaking walks, danger, excitement.
It’s a world away from our metal chairs on the street outside Carefree Arms.
“One day, on the mountain,” says Mr French, “the uncle turned to the boy and said, ‘When I die, no matter what anyone says, burn me and bring me up here.’ And when he died, that’s what the boy did. When he told me, I felt it.”
Mr French’s eyes are welling up now.
“You make an agreement with a friend, you stick to it,” I said, sounding like Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch.
Mr French, not talking for a moment, but swallowing his Adam’s apple firmly, nodded.
We are silent. After a while, Mr French said: “My wife hates me, you know. But she hates Tom more.”

Enough popular culture, already – here’s more moaning

Like a miser at a boot sale the Government will always find something else to sell-off.
The latest plan is to privatise the search and rescue (SAR) helicopter service which has saved something like 6,500 people since 1983.
The service operates out of a dozen bases stretched the length of the UK, winching ill and stranded sailors or exhausted and injured climbers and mountain-walkers to safety.
It’s a service with a long history in Wales, where we have as many places to fall off, get stuck down or lost in as any other part of Britain.
The SAR base at RAF Valley in Anglesey is one of the service’s busiest, carrying out 300 missions a year.
Many climbers from Cumbria to Snowdonia, and Irish Sea fishermen, owe their lives to the men and women of the unit.
Until a few years ago, the treacherous western approaches to Wales were covered by helicopters from RAF Brawdy. Since that was closed down – in the face of massive local opposition – the service has been based at Chivenor in Devon.
Anyone who lives on the Welsh coast will be more than familiar with the yellow Sea Kings of the SAR flights.
And the fact that these aircraft are now becoming obsolete is one of the reasons Lord Drayson, Minister for Defence Procurement, has given for turning to the private sector.
Under the new plan the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) would still run the bases but civilian crews from private companies would operate the rescue choppers (and so, one assumes, free up military personnel for Iraq and Afghanistan).
“We recognise that the current UK SAR helicopter providers deliver a first-class service,” Lord Drayson said.
“However, the fact remains that the helicopters will need replacing over the course of the next decade.”
He added: “This (new) high quality service will be as effective as the present one, while delivering better value for money for the taxpayer.”
One can’t help wondering about that last statement.
This Government’s biggest sell-off so far involved the MoD and was great value, yes, but unfortunately not for the tax-payer.
The Government sold off its part of the defence research service, Qinetiq, back in 2002 when the stock market was sluggish, and the US investment firm, Carlyle, happily stepped in with £42m to buy a 31 per cent share.
By the time of Qinetiq’s flotation on the Stock Exchange this February, Carlyle’s share had swollen in worth to about £350m.
Not bad, eh, considering the service had been built up over many years of public investment.
The public servants – engineers and scientists – who had worked so hard at its research centres must have been overjoyed to see the fat cats of Carlyle slip away with all that dosh.
Former prime minister John Major, by the way, enjoyed some of the cut, being a manager at Carlyle. (Older readers may remember he was the PM who privatized the railways and buggered them up, so hats off to John.)
The SAR proposal raises other concerns. How will rescues – often each costing thousands, if not tens of thousands, of pounds – be paid for under a privatized system?
Will a stranded walker with his foot twisted behind him in some freezing mountain pass be made to show the helicopter winchman his Switch card?
The plan has already set alarm bells ringing in Scotland. One national newspaper stated: “Today Britain boasts the best air-sea rescue service in the world, one which in human and financial terms, gives without counting the cost. Will that be the case in future?”
We should be asking the same question here in Wales.
Canadian-based CHC Helicopters and Bristow Helicopters, which is owned by US firm Offshore Logistics, are thought to be favourites to take over the SAR contract, which will run from 2012.
Looking at privatisations like the Qinetiq saga it’s not hard to see what is in it for them.
But you don’t have to be slowly turning blue inside a red kagoule to see that the SAR sell-off may well leave the rest of us up an unpleasantly-smelling creak without a paddle.

‘A service worth saving’ : First published in The Big Issue Cymru, May 22-28, 2006

The truth about me and Big Brother stunner


Popular culture, I know, has been shockingly thin on the ground here at What Is Wales.
Well, now, by a strange quirk of fate, I can change all that. I find myself with a Big Brother story to tell.
The Welsh contestant, the former Miss Wales (not Glyn, the world’s skinniest lifeguard), once got undressed in the back of my car. Honest.
It was a hands-on-the-wheel, eyes-on-the-road moment, though, as Imogen shuffled out of a Welsh football strip.
And I headed west over Hammersmith flyover.
It was all part of a Wales on Sunday prank to upset Sven ahead of a match with England (no, it didn’t work).
Imogen Thomas (favourite footballers David James and Michael Owen) and another model, Ceri Jones – who attempted to do her bit for road accident statistics by undressing at my side – wandered around London in their football kits (with myself and a photographer) being snapped at various tourist spots, the London Eye etc, and then outside FA HQ.
Also on our team was a professional Sven-a-like (real name Spike) who gallantly posed with the girls draped on his arms.
Our saucy antics – as we like to call them – drew a crowd in Soho Square. Van drivers were particularly fascinated.
“Blimey,” one said eloquently.
Another – an Open Mike candidate – was more interested in Spike. “That bloke doesn’t look anything like Bobby Robson,” he shouted out his window.
Anyway, Sven’s adventures in Germany will be far from Imogen’s mind now. She’ll be locked up in the BB house during the World Cup.
Assuming, that is, she doesn’t receive an early eviction.
I don’t mind her not winning.
But if a man, who once held her jacket as she skipped up the Embankment steps in footie shorts, can say one thing, it’s: “Imogen, please don’t do anything embarrassing!”

WHY THE NEWS IS BAD FOR OUR REGIONAL PRESS

Last week, the National Assembly’s culture committee discussed Trinity Mirror’s role as the dominant newspaper group in Wales. It owns Western Mail, North Wales Daily Post, Wales on Sunday, South Wales Echo and the Celtic group of weeklies which serve the valleys.
Regional newspapers make huge profits, but their story is one of redundancies, strike ballots and doom-laden predictions for the future. Here’s an article I wrote before the committee meeting looking at why newspapers are making such bad news. The comments’ section has updates.

WHY THE NEWS IS BAD FOR OUR REGIONAL PRESS

Campaigns have always been a major feature of the regional newspaper.
Helping to keep hospitals, playgrounds, post offices and schools open are key roles for the Press.
Now, though, it is the newspapers’ own places in our communities which are under threat, with analysts predicting a bleak and bitter future for Wales and south-west England.
Despite massive profits, the media companies which dominate the local press are cutting jobs to reduce costs and further increase profit margins.
The changes are not being dictated by reader demand but by shareholder power and boardroom politics, bringing bosses into conflict with unions, politicians and eventually, experts predict, with readers and the communities themselves.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has predicted 2006 will be “a constant fight to defend our members from this onslaught”.
It highlights two newspaper giants, Trinity Mirror (TM) and Northcliffe, as being at the centre of that fight. Both are essential providers of news and information in Wales and the south-west.
TM owns the largest newspaper centre in Wales, Cardiff’s Thomson House, home to Western Mail, South Wales Echo, Wales on Sunday and the Celtic group of weekly newspapers. It also owns the Daily Post, the morning paper covering north Wales.
Northcliffe, the regional newspapers arm of Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), owns the Bristol Evening Post, the Western Daily Press, the South Wales Evening Post in Swansea and the Torquay Herald Express.
The titles continue to make huge profits in spite of competition from the internet.
TM made a profit of £250m last year. Thomson House, alone, had a £55m turnover with a whooping 35.5 per cent profit-margin – putting the Western Mail and Echo Ltd (WME) among the top five profit-makers in Wales.
Northcliffe enjoyed operating profits of £102m in 2005, £1m or 1.5 per cent ahead of the previous year. Advertising grew by two per cent across the group and by 10 per cent in Bristol.
However, despite swelling their coffers, both companies are making cuts and axing jobs.
TM announced it was cutting 44 full-time job equivalents before Christmas. An NUJ campaign backed by senior politicians – including UK Foreign Office minister Kim Howells and Wales Education Minister Jane Davidson – later ensured none of those leaving would be made compulsory redundant and a plan to merge the editor jobs at the Pontypridd Observer and Rhondda Leader was scrapped.
The company narrowly avoided industrial action but the local chapel (NUJ branch) is still balloting its members to “underline the strength of feeling about this issue and also put down a marker for the future”.
“We are not prepared to stand idly by while faceless executives on huge salaries in London destroy jobs in Wales and wreck long established newspapers,” says Martin Shipton, of the chapel committee.
Northcliffe has been put up for sale following extensive cost cutting. In Swansea 67 jobs were lost when the printing press at the Evening Post was closed, while staff at the company’s Bristol centre are involved in a bitter dispute with the company over 36 redundancies.
The company plans to merge business, sport, features, pictures and copy sub-editing departments at (the mainly rural serving) Western Daily Press and (urban) Bristol Evening Post so that the same journalists would produce pages for both papers.
Unions say this will to “tear the heart out of two great papers”.
NUJ rep Derek Brooks says demonstrations outside the Temple Way offices have been attended by more than 100 people. “We have received backing from every section of the local community in our campaign against these senseless and unnecessary cuts,” he adds.
Journalists at Bristol voted in favour of a strike before Christmas but delayed the action as the union attempted to negotiate with the company.
Northcliffe’s Aim Higher project plans to save £30m over the next two years with further job losses expected at Plymouth and at Cornwall and Devon Media, publishers of The Cornishman, The West Briton and The Cornish Guardian.
So why are our regional newspapers in such a mess?
Dr James Thomas, a lecturer at Cardiff School of Journalism, believes part of the reason is because the large media groups enjoy monopolies on newspaper advertising in the areas they serve.
“The circulation of regional newspapers has declined over the last 20 years but, on the other hand, they are very profitable,” he states. “It’s a paradox and one which I suspect the people at Trinity and other newspaper groups have woken up to. Now they effectively want to get rid of the journalists and make money from the advertising, almost turning the papers into free-sheets relying on central news sources which don’t cost them very much.
“Their profits come from advertising and providing they can keep the circulation at a level which won’t scare away the advertisers they are happy.”
However, Dr Thomas adds, low morale combined with the industry’s low wages, is bound to have an impact on the reader.
“How journalists are treated affects newspaper content,” he says. “Effectively if the journalists are badly treated, the readers are badly treated. Readers are already being badly served.”
Regional newspapers will be the focus of much attention over coming months.
At Westminster, more than 70 MPs have signed separate early day motions stating their concerns about events at TM and Northcliffe.
In Wales, where two new dailies – one in Welsh, the other in English – are planned to launch this year, National Assembly member Leighton Andrews, a former head of BBC public affairs, has tabled a statement of opinion urging TM to reconsider its staff-cutting policies and urging Competition Commission to review the South Wales market.
This Thursday (JANUARY 19) the Assembly’s culture committee is due to hold an evidence-taking inquiry into the “role of TM in the media market in Wales”. WME managing director Keith Dye and Western Mail editor Alan Edmunds will be among those appearing.
AMs, according to committee member Lisa Francis, have “grave concerns about the future of the Welsh media”.
Political consensus on the issue was illustrated by a statement issued jointly by Plaid, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems about the TM cuts, describing the policy as one of a “company with both eyes on its profit margins rather than maintaining the excellence of its newspapers”.
The statement added: “These cuts will lead to poorer coverage of local politics and community issues, and will seriously undermine local democracy and accountability.”
However, Dr Thomas called for greater intervention to safeguard the Press. “Unless there is some kind of public intervention to pressurise the dominant commercial interest I would sadly conclude that the only way is down,” he says. “I hope I’m wrong.”

:from The Big Issue Cymru and The Big Issue South West, January 16-22, 2006

Move over, darling

Cherie Booth’s programme on the ‘goldfish bowl’ lives of prime minister’s wives illustrated an important truth: why it is still a blessing that we (just about) have more journalists than celebrities as TV interviewers.
Cherie chatted to Norma Major about the curtains at the Downing Street flat and about John’s breakfast time meetings without once discussing his affair with Edwina Currie.
Mrs Blair’s own mistakes and misjudgements were alluded to by some talking heads but never confronted directly in the main part of the programme itself.
And any conflict with her husband over ideals and policy was only mentioned in a press conference in India when she was asked if she disagreed with her husband’s decisions.
Cherie looked all coy and said something to the effect that all women disagreed with their husbands at some point – unless their husbands were saints.
There would seem to be more to disagree with in her husband’s actions than in many other’s though, wouldn’t there? He hasn’t spent savings on a season ticket or stayed in the pub a pint too long.
Personally, if I were married to a man, which I’m not (but bear with me), and he had played a role in events which had brought about the deaths of some 100,000 people, churned up chaos and misery and destabilised a region of the world, I might mention it.
I might even walk out, no matter good he was with the kids.

A flickering light

TV pictures are showing yesterday’s memorial service to remember victims of the July 7 bombings.
On her way out of St Paul’s Cathedral the Queen was presented with flowers by a seven-year-old girl whose father died in the Aldgate bomb.
One couldn’t help but think that in a properly adjusted society that presentation would have been made the other way around.

When Harold Lawton returned to Rhyl in North Wales he carried on learning his French, eventually getting an honours degree from the University of Wales, Bangor, and a fellowship.
He then went to Paris, read for a doctorate in Latin and French Literature at the Sorbonne, and became a lecturer there.
This was the early 1920s and his story is remarkable because he first came into contact with the French language as a prisoner of the Germans in France during the First World War.
At one stage he was in a prison in Lille which inmates called the Black Hole because so many were dying of disease. The flu epidemic which struck at the end of the war swept through the building.
Harold is now 106 and his story is one of those collected by Max Arthur for Last Post: The Final Words From Our First World War Soldiers.
Another veteran Harry Patch says: “When I first came to the home where I’m living today, the room I had was right opposite a linen cupboard, and if I was half asleep, half awake, directly they switched that light on, it flickered, and it reminded me of the flash of a bomb. I’ve got over it now. It just takes time.” Harry is now 107. It is 88 years since he spent his 19th birthday in the trenches at Passchendaele.
William Roberts, 105, a former corporal in the Royal Flying Corps, states: “I look back nowadays, and I think of the Great War as a lot of political bull. There shouldn’t be wars. That war was a lot of bloody political bull.”
And Alfred Anderson, a 109-year-old former member of the Black Watch, adds: “I’ve been trying to forget war for the past 80 or so years, but wars just keep happening, and it’s ordinary folk who pay the price.”
Last words that are very much worth listening to.

BBC Radio Wales today asked shoppers what they thought about a new survey which showed that two million working days are lost every year to love-sickness (both getting and losing a partner).
One woman told them plainly she’d need a day off if her dog died but she’d be fine if her husband left her.

Friend picks Harvey Nix

Midweek round up from Wales:
Work has started on the St David’s 2 development in Cardiff. For those of you who haven’t been to the city in a while the whole of the centre around The Hayes, currently occupied by a series of shops, is to be replaced – by a series of shops. There are rumours that either Harvey Nichols or Selfridges will come to the city. That is making some very excited.
I misjudged the mood on this the other day when sat with two friends watching the football in the pub.
“More blooming shops!” I grumbled, moaning pompously that I hoped the council made sure they replaced the library which is also being demolished.
“What are you on about?” said my friend, who is in his 50s and goes shopping every Saturday morning with his wife. “It will be great for the city.”
“Yeah,” said another mate, the bright side of 40, a Smiths fan of generally excellent judgement. “What are you, man – some kind of Luddite?”
Meanwhile, Welsh super songstress Katherine Jenkins is taking out a £10m personal insurance policy to cover her forces sweetheart concert in Basra. Fair play, but I’m sure she’ll be safer on her single trip than the average Iraqi is going for a loaf of bread or queuing up for a job paying a few quid a week.
News in brief: Gavin Henson, who apparently used to play rugby, has upset lots of people with his new book…Band of Brothers star Damian Lewis is to make Wales’ first gangster flick, The Baker…The Welsh Breakfast has been revealed – it’s sausages, eggs, bacon, tomato, fried bread, cockles and laverbread cake. It’s a feast which I imagine is enjoyed by 0.0000001 per cent of the population. And he can’t move until teatime.

I grabbed you by the guilded beams, that’s what tradition means

One of the best press releases in a while drops into my inbox. It’s from National Assembly member William Graham and marks Trafalgar Day – it’s 200 years since Nelson’s last battle.
William is happy that the Queen will be toasting the ‘immortal memory’ of the admiral on board HMS Victory.
One of the wines on offer will be a Marsala.
This, I learn, was made popular by old Horatio when, on returning from the Battle of the Nile, he ordered 500 pipes of it for the British fleet.
Five hundred pipes, says the Tory AM, is the equivalent of around 348,000 bottles.
It’s unusual to learn something from a press release. No matter how irrelevant the fact to my everyday life.

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