Monthly Archives: November 2017

That’s it, then

So – that’s it. Another National Blog Post Month complete. 30 consecutive posts throughout November. I’ve really enjoyed it this time, and I hope that you’ve found at least some of the posts interesting, amusing, or otherwise worthwhile.

But if you’ve found it all a bit of a chore (or, god forbid, even a bore) then perhaps this T shirt is the one for you.

Thanks for reading. I promise not to clog up your notifications quite so regularly for at least another eleven months!

My top three Christmas Films

love actuallyThe internet has been getting its knickers in a twist over what constitutes a “Christmas Film“. Does a film need something more than simply being set over the Christmas period to be a Christmas film? The particular focus of the controversy in the article is Die Hard. Set on Christmas Eve it is a classic, all-action, shoot-em-up with a shoeless, bare-chested Bruce Willis single-handedly outwitting the evil gang led by Alan Rickman and saving the hapless hostages, including his wife. Declaration of interest : I love Die Hard and I have no doubt whatsoever that it qualifies as a Christmas film. However, it doesn’t make it into my top three favourites.

For me, number 1 must be Love Actually, the Richard Curtis rom-com that includes practically every half-famous British actor of the past 25 years (including the much-missed Rickman). Tracking the intertwined lives and loves of a group of London residents in the month leading up to the festive season, it always makes me laugh and cry. And its got Keira Knightley in it, so, you know.


Just behind Love Actually, my second favourite Christmas film is It’s a Wonderful Life. This classic, starring James Stewart and produced and directed by Frank Capra, is everything that a Christmas film should be. It recounts the tale of a trainee angel sent to earth on a mission to show a local building society owner facing ruin as a result of the accidental loss of depositors’ money, that his worth is greater than any bank balance. It’s the ultimate feel-good movie and generates all the same feelings of warmth and faith in human nature that must surely be essential prerequisites for a Christmas film.


Finally, my number 3 on the list. It can only be The Muppets Christmas Carol, with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge, the wizened money-lender who completely reviews his priorities following visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmases yet to come, one fateful Christmas Eve. And all told through the uniquely, Muppet-focused eyes of Gonzo, assisted by Rizzo the Rat. When a cold wind blows, it chills you, chills you to the bone, but there’s nothing in nature that makes you feel better than a Muppet re-telling of a Christmas classic.

So – there’s my top three. Do you agree? What films would you have on your list? I look forward to hearing from you!die hard

God save the Queen, but not as we know it!

Manchester University Wind Orchestra’s (MUWO) latest concert was held on Saturday 25th November 2017 in the wonderful Cosmo Rodewald hall in the university’s Music School. MUWO is one of a number of ensembles managed under the banner of the University’s Music Society. Musicians, conductors, orchestra managers and front of house staff are all drawn from the student body and learn a whole set of transferable skills from their involvement. Players gain performance experience under a range of different conductors and conducting styles; conductors have the chance to hone their skills with ensembles that may be new to the music being performed; and ensemble managers and front of house staff pick up all sorts of organization and management skills that are highly transferable into almost any workplace post-graduation.

The concert on Saturday featured three American composers, and one Englishman whose inspiration came from the east coast of the US, whose works spanned the whole of the 20th century. The opening piece “Watchman, Tell us of the Night” by Mark Camphouse is a tribute to the survivors of child abuse, and fluctuates between the frailty and discordance of the survivors stories, and the soaring, harmonious themes of hope and future possibilities.

Nigel Hess took the geography and people of the US east coast as the inspiration for his East Coast Pictures. On Saturday, MUWO performed the Pictures beautifully, effortlessly capturing the coastal solitude of Shelter Island, the grandeur of the soaring Catskills Mountains, and the vibrant energy of Manhattan.

Charles Ives “Variations on America” was a tour de force. Written in 1891 and based on the then popular American tune “My country, tis of thee”, it is more popularly known in the UK as the melody for the UK national anthem, “God Save the Queen”. There was something almost prophetic in the way that the melody was set to some deep south, New Orleans-style orchestration that conjured an image of a jazz funeral procession. Somehow, the image of the UK’s funeral being played out in a US jazz style seemed entirely appropriate in these days of Brexit and Trump! Have a listen to a version of the piece here and see what you think.

Eric Whitacre’s piece Cloudburst was originally written for voices, but was later transposed for performance by wind orchestra. It charts the development and climax of a mid-western storm, including audience participation involving random finger clicking in the final movement to replicate the sound of the falling rain.

The concert finished (as all wind orchestra concerts focusing on American and America-themed music must) with a piece by Bernstein. This series of excerpts from On the Town gave each section of the orchestra the chance to show their virtuosity, and they didn’t disappoint. The little girl sat just in front of us, who danced all the way through, was the litmus test to how enjoyable this piece (and indeed the whole concert) was.

Well done to everybody involved. I can only hope that you enjoyed being part of it as much as I enjoyed listening.



A day of firsts for this blog

This is my first blog post written entirely on my iPhone and also my first post written mainly from the waiting room of a busy Accident & Emergency Department of an NHS hospital.

I’m here because my sore knee (have I mentioned that before?) has become very swollen and painful. We arrived at 9am and it’s 11.28 am as I type this. I’ve seen two nurse practitioners, had X-rays and bloods taken, and I’m now back waiting for results.

The waiting room in A&E is a fascinating place to spend time. As I look around now, there are people aged 7 to 80 plus. A number have very obvious injuries and quite dramatic appearances (facial injuries and bloodied clothing); others are in obvious pain and distress; and some (including me) seem fine until they get called into a treatment room and hobble off awkwardly.

There is a kind of resigned acceptance that we are grist to the mill of a system that operates at its own speed and according to rhythms and processes that are both mysterious and unknowable. For the most part, people are patient and understanding of the pressures that staff are working under. What is amazing is that at this time on a sunny Sunday there are upwards of 50 people in the waiting room, and probably at least that number again in various treatment rooms and diagnostic services around the Department.

This truly is the sharp end of the National Health Service. We are so incredibly lucky to have it. We may complain about waits; about the uncomfortable metal chairs; about being passed from practitioner to practitioner; but ultimately, we should be incredibly proud that we live in a country where world-class healthcare is available when we need it.

A bit of inconvenience is a fantastically small price to pay for that.

It’s clearly a matter of common sense

Air travel is statistically very safe. The chances of death on a commercial flight run by a European or North American airline are incredibly remote – somewhere in excess of 1 in 7 million. That’s very reassuring and is a tribute to years of research and advances in engineering, training and safety procedures at airline manufacturers, airports and air traffic control centres. Admittedly, very large aircraft still look as though the last place they should possibly be is 35,000 feet up in the air, but that’s just our feeble, emotional, irrational anxieties overcoming our logical, scientific, reasoning intellect.

And then a story like this one hits the news. To summarise, US fighter jets based at UK airbases were involved in 19 near misses with non-military planes in the past 5 years, and the main recommendation for ensuring future safety is……

…… to keep the glass in the aircraft cockpit clean!


Now, I don’t know about you, but I get really twitchy if the windscreen on my car gets a bit smeary. I hate it if I allow the washer reservoir to run dry and I can’t clean the windscreen as I drive along. In fairness, though, it’s rare for that to ever get to the point where my vision is so compromised that I can’t see everything around in perfect clarity. And my car doesn’t travel at 500 miles per hour 1200 feet off the ground.

I get that these fighter jets are equipped with all sorts of digitally enhanced displays and that radar and other devices keep the pilot aware of her/his position at all times. But I’ve got sensors on the back of my car that tell me if I’m getting too close when parking. It doesn’t mean that I don’t also look where I’m going!

I guess the serious point is that no matter how good the technology is, sometimes there is no substitute for human reactions and the application of common sense. Maybe something that we will need to bear in mind as we spend the Chancellor’s £500m developing driverless cars as well.

It’s not all equally bad news

It’s been too easy recently to assume that we are all going to hell in a hand-basket. Austerity and its impact on the poorest members of our society; Brexit and the feral, anti-immigrant sentiment that it stirred up; abuses of position and sexual harassment in the corridors of political power – all suggest that we are becoming less tolerant, less social, less equal as a society.

Its good to be able to reflect on two pieces of very positive news today. The first details a change in maternity and paternity leave policy by the UK’s largest insurance company, Aviva. In future, both parents will be able to claim up to 26 weeks leave at standard basic pay in the first year following the arrival of a new child or completion of an adoption. Where both parents work for Aviva, this could allow a full year of child care to be provided by the parents without any reduction in basic pay. This is not only great for the child, but has the potential to significantly reduce the negative impact on the woman’s career of taking time out of the workplace after childbirth. What’s particularly encouraging about the Aviva initiative is the recognition that changing the policy alone won’t achieve the sort of cultural shift that they are seeking to achieve. “Aviva [will] use male role models to show it is acceptable to take up the offer of parental leave, to encourage a change in perceptions and foster a cultural change. Otherwise, male employees may still be reticent about taking time off, even if paid.” I genuinely hope that this is the start of a wider review of maternity and paternity leave policies across the private and public sectors. It’s in everybody’s best interests to support women and men equally as parents and employees.


The second ‘good news’ story this Friday comes from an unusual source. Swansea City FC and AFC Bournemouth have become the first Premier League football clubs in the country to formally recognize transgender and non-binary supporters in the way that they are addressed. In future, supporters will have the option to choose to be addressed as “Mx” as an alternative to the more ususal Mr, Miss, Mrs etc.. Explaining the change in policy, Swansea City’s equality and diversity manager said : “We’re continually looking at ways to make our services more inclusive. Language plays a really important part in delivering this and ensuring that everyone feels welcome – regardless of age, gender or gender identity, sexuality or ethnicity.” Too often, football and football clubs are associated with a laddish culture in which minorities and ‘difference’ are seen as fair game for ridicule or humiliation rather than celebration. It’s great to see some clubs now taking a much more enlightened attitude to these issues. This weekend also sees the launch of the Rainbow Laces campaign, promoted by Stonewall, and designed to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes in sport more generally. Of course, as with the challenges of cultural change at Aviva, adding Mx to a list of prefixes won’t suddenly lead to premiership football becoming a safe space for transgender and non-binary fans, but it may encourage those have been reluctant to attend football matches for fear of how they would be received, to go along. And that’s good for the fans and the clubs.

Have a good, equality-filled weekend!


Intimations of mortality

My knee is really painful. It started about two weeks’ ago when I’d been crammed on a Cross Country train from Birmingham New Street to Bristol Temple Meads for two and a half hours. I’m quite tall, and public transport isn’t designed with me in mind. I thought that I was fine, until I cam to stand up and found that whilst most of my body had reverted to standing shape, my right knee was still at 90 degrees and seemed reluctant to revert to straight without an encouraging shove. Initially, I assumed that it was just a reaction to having been stuck in the same position for too long. Now though, I am fearful that I have done something more serious. A trip to the doctor’s is required (a bit of a challenge when I’m in Bristol Monday to Friday and my doctor is in Cardiff). On ringing the surgery, I am non-plussed at the suggestion that the next bookable appointment is available on 12th December (do we have to predict when we are going to need medical intervention three weeks in advance now?). On further questioning, it transpires that if I need to see somebody before then (YES I DO – did I mention that my knee hurts?) then I can report to the surgery at 8.30am any morning and I will be allocated an appointment for some time that morning. Thank goodness I have an understanding boss. So, I will be dragging my sore knee (it really hurts, you know) to the doctor’s surgery next week and sitting with all the sick people waiting for one of that day’s appointments. There’s a good chance that in 10 days’ time, my blog will be about the chest infection I contracted while sitting for 2 hours in a waiting room next to somebody with borderline tuberculosis.

In the meantime, here’s a poem from John Whitworth on the theme of growing old, and dedicated to Alan Bennett, who – let’s face it – was born old.


ps I aspire to “dismal b*st*rd” status, and I’m moving very nicely along the pathway to achieving it!

When English seems like a foreign language


A ‘friendly’ football match between Rhyl FC and a Leeds United XI was abandoned last evening following a mass brawl between the two sets of players. The concept of ‘friendly’ fixtures in any sport conjures the idea of gentle matches in which participation is valued over the ‘win at all costs’ mentality that pervades formally competitive fixtures. In fact, the opposite is often the case. In August this year, a ‘friendly’ match between Premier League Burnley FC and German side Hannover was abandoned at half time when a section of the German team’s supporters attempted to attack fans of the home team. Nor is the phenomenon limited to professional teams. An over 50s walking-football match had to be abandoned after just 2 minutes when a brawl broke out following a crunching tackle.

So if ‘friendly’ fixtures can be anything but, what other oxymoronic phrases do we have in the English language? I’ve always been intrigued by ‘public schools’ that are almost invariably open only to those juvenile members of the ‘public’ with parents able to pay the often eye-watering annual tuition fees. Or what about the ‘World Series’ of baseball – a competition that purports to crown the world champions but which is only open to North American teams.


One of my favourite work-related incongruous descriptions is the ‘informal disciplinary investigation’. I always picture a kind of bohemian figure reclining on a velvet chaise-longue and asking the poor employee : “So, just relax, chill out, and give me the low down on how you came to punch your supervisor in the kisser?” The reality, of course, is much more prosaic. There’s no such thing as an ‘informal’ HR process, regardless of what the organizational procedure may suggest.

Perhaps more controversially, the Faculty of Homeopathy is an organization that challenges the normal definition of Faculty as the members of a learned profession. Homeopathy has been extensively and consistently debunked in a series of recent scientific studies, and whilst there may be a moderate positive effect where homeopathic treatments are used for some patients, this rarely exceeds known placebo effects. A Faculty of Homeopathy is no more scientifically and intellectually cogent than a Faculty of Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden.

And don’t even get me started on ‘Soft Brexit’, or ‘Jobs First Brexit’. They’re not oxymorons. They’re b*ll*cks!



Thoughts from my virtual notice board

improve the silence

It’s been two days of back-to-back meetings. Most of them have been productive and interesting, but not all. Some decisions have been taken, lots of information has been shared. Data has been pored over and questions raised. Projects have progressed – not always to the extent hoped, but they’ve moved on a little. I’m not one for talking a lot in meetings unless I have something worthwhile to contribute to the subject under discussion. In general, if I have nothing to add, I’m very happy to add nothing. It’s a function of my introverted thinking style and preference – I don’t need to think out loud and generally I’m not comfortable externalizing my thought processes. The Borges quote sits very comfortably with me, although I acknowledge that it infuriates those extroverts who work (and live!) with me. I do try to adapt my style sometimes, but I’m very happy with the silence.

achieve great thingsThe university that I work for is in the midst of a lot of change. Having spent much of the last two years working out where we want to be in the next five years, the pressure is now on to do the things that will get us there. There are some very large projects under way. A £300m plus new campus in the city centre; a £90m new library and learning commons building in the existing Clifton Campus; and new information systems to better manage student and financial data across the institution. Beneath these, there is a host of smaller initiatives running : new teaching programmes; small-scale improvements to existing buildings and facilities; process improvements to improve the service to students and academic staff.

All of this generates a significant additional workload for many of us alongside the ‘business as usual’ day job (which has to be done in addition to the sexy, project stuff). There are often days and weeks where there are simply not enough hours to get it all done, and this is where the Italian proverb comes in handy. It’s always worth remembering that a good plan well executed is always more effective than a perfect plan that never gets off the shelf. Implementation done well enough is always preferable to perfect intentions.

dalai lamaAnd finally, there’s this quote from the Dalai Lama. It’s a timely and necessary reminder that however busy things get, you must always make the time to live. When busy-ness gets in the way of life, then it’s time to review what really matters and to re-focus on what’s important.