Monthly Archives: November 2017

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.



The light in the window

office view

This grainy image is the view from my office window as I sit wondering what I should write for this evening’s post. The camera on my iPhone (other mobile communications devices are available) has lightened the shot considerably, but it’s still possible to appreciate the atmospheric lighting effect on the first floor window sill. The highlighted ledgers standing somewhat drunkenly in the window appear almost Dickensian. And this allusion is reinforced by the fact that the building was originally a 19th century almshouse.

I have no idea who occupies the space now, but I like to think that there’s an old walnut desk under the window, where an ageing writer, probably wearing fingerless gloves, is bashing out histories and tragedies on an old typewriter – manuscripts that will be sent off to a publisher before being returned with a kind but ultimately final letter of rejection. Occasionally, a short story or fact-based piece will be accepted by a periodical journal, and the resulting cheque will allow my imaginary writer to supplement her meagre civil service pension and buy a bottle of port and some stilton. A fleeting moment of congratulation in an otherwise unappreciated writing career.

The ledgers on the window sill are the completed manuscripts of novels that have been read only by my writer; lovingly crafted accounts of the lives of a family that exists only in her head – and which she long-ago gave up any hope of meeting in reality. But occasionally, she takes them down and reads them through, thinking about what could have been. She is alone, but she is not lonely; and while her writing is a solitary pursuit, she still meets up with colleagues from the office. They reminisce about what was, and what might have been, and (sometimes) about what should never have been.

When she finally dies, a distant great-niece will come to the apartment to sort out the belongings and settle the estate. She will take down the ledgers and read the meticulously presented manuscripts (my writer never lost the skills gained in the 1980s typing pool), and she will reflect that there was much more to her aunt than ever met the eye. And my writer will look down and smile, and relish the fact that her memory will live on in the crisp pages of the window sill ledgers.

Correlation, causation and chocolate labradors

I have been subject to an unrelenting and highly targeted form of lobbying in recent years. To give you a sense of the intensity of the campaign, those responsible could teach Russian social media bots a thing or two about psychological manipulation. Normally, I would be immune to this sort of thing. Being a contrarian by nature, my usual reaction is to assume that any attempt to sway my opinion one way or the other is really just a smokescreen to mask the weakness of the case being promoted. Unfortunately, my natural defences are not enough on their own to protect me when the people running the campaign are my wife and daughter.


Their aim is to persuade me that what we really need in our lives is a non-contributing, utterly dependent, mess generating, allergy-inducing, four legged friend. Others call such things a dog, apparently. I have been implacably opposed to agreeing to this proposition for as long as C. and I have been married (which is a long time now). However, recently, and possibly as a sign of my own weakening mental capacity, I may have given a non-time-bound commitment to allowing a chocolate labrador into our lives in the future.

There are lots of reasons for my historic hostility to the idea of allowing a dog into our house. I do have a minor fur allergy (although admittedly this seems to be triggered more by cats than dogs); and it strikes me that dogs (unlike children) remain dependent on you for ever, never opening up the hope that eventually they’ll grow up and start drinking all the milk and ice cream in their own homes. To be honest, there’s also a part of me that doesn’t want to open myself up to the distress that results from injury, illness or (worst of all) the death of a ‘surrogate child’.

My objections are not helped though, by news reports of research that seems to show that owning a dog is actually good for you. The most recent such report was covered by the BBC news website earlier this week. Summarising a study from the University of Uppsala in Sweden, the article claims that : “Dog owners have a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease or other causes”. This is an astonishing claim – owning a dog apparently means that your chances of contracting heart disease are reduced and you will live longer.

The reality of course, is much more complex than the headline writers would have us believe. In the first case, it’s far from clear whether it’s dog ownership that makes people healthy, or if healthy people tend to own dogs. The correlation between dog ownership and improved cardiovascular health is greatest among owners of hunting breeds – the very people who are more likely to live active lives in the first place. It’s a good example of the maxim that correlation does not imply causation – that just because two data sets may have a statistical relationship, it does not mean that one causes the other.

In contrast, there is a causative relationship between the incessant pressure applied by wife and daughter and my diminishing resolve in holding out against a dog. And chocolate Labradors are really good looking dogs – but not just yet.

choc lab

Greggs misadventure, or genius advertising?

There are times when the only response to a news story is a dumbfounded : “What were they thinking?!” That was my response to the news that Greggs, the high street bakery and convenience food chain, had this week released promotional material for their branded advent calendar with a picture of a sausage roll replacing Jesus in the manger. I know that you may find this hard to believe too – so I’ve included the marketing image here.


Aside from the obvious crassness of placing a pork-based food product at the scene of a Jewish birth (thus achieving the double-whammy of offending both Jews and Christians), it’s not even a particularly attractive image. (Let’s be honest, Greggs sausage rolls are ok, but they’re not a patch on the chicken bakes!)

Wholly predictably, the campaign launch prompted outrage amongst Christian groups. An Evangelical Alliance spokesperson accused the company of deliberately courting controversy, generating “processed outrage to sell processed food”; while the Chief Executive of the Freedom Association called for a boycott of Greggs products “to protest against its sick anti-Christian advent calendar”. (As an aside, is it just me who sees the irony in a representative of an organization of the Freedom Association calling for a boycott of anything? Oxymoronic much?)

A spokesperson for Greggs issued a standard response in cases of this type : “”We’re really sorry to have caused any offence, this was never our intention”. In truth, though, it’s hard to see how anybody with even half a brain cell could have thought that substituting the baby Jesus with a sausage roll was eve going to be anything but offensive to those who believe that this was a divine event. How did the marketing strategy meeting go? “Um – guys. Are we sure about this whole sausage roll instead of Jesus thing?” “Yeah, man – why not? It can’t be offensive. Look if you write ‘Lord Jesus’ backwards – Susejd rol – why, it almost even spells sausage roll.” “Oh hey – that’s so cool – no-one’s going to mind about it now.”

Some Christians sought to see the funny side of the whole thing, arguing that religions and their adherents need to be able to laugh at themselves as part of a mature understanding of their place in the world. Writing in a letter to the Guardian, the Very Rev Richard Giles stated that : “When a faith tradition loses the capacity to laugh at itself, it is on the slippery slope to the hardline fundamentalism which brooks no comment or criticism.”

Others turned their ire on the Christian organisations whose outrage had served to propel the story into the mainstream media in the first place. One such piece was written by Peter Ormerod. In a really well argued piece he states that “anyone who claims to take Jesus seriously should really be finding literally hundreds of other things to get outraged about instead. There’s child poverty; there’s the rise in food bank use; there’s environmental degradation; there’s the surge in hate crime; there’s profound inequality; there’s warmongering; there’s slavery”. And his conclusion is surely the only sensible one : “At the heart of Christianity is a critique of religion itself. It tells us that God is not who, what or where any of us ever believed God to be. We’ve long buried this radicalism under layer after layer of cloying sentimentality and deadening pomposity, to the point that it’s taken a sausage roll to remind us of its significance. And for that, if not for the steak bakes, thanks be to Greggs.” I have to say, I can’t agree with him about the steak bakes, but for the rest, I’d suggest he’s spot on.

So where does that leave Greggs? I somewhat spitefully suggested earlier that their marketing team may not have been the sharpest tools in the box when coming up with this campaign. But if you stop and think about it for a moment, the coverage that they’ve achieved has been astonishing. I can only assume that as the story was picked up by the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Independent, and a whole host of other media outlets, so sales of sausage rolls, pasties and cream-filled Belgian buns were sky-rocketing.

belgian bun

A cream-filled Greggs Belgian Bun can’t be beaten!

In the final analysis, then, this particular manufactured outrage wasn’t so much mis-advent-ure as genius marketing.



(With thanks to J. for the inspiration for today’s post)

The grizzly world of teddy bear deaths

teddy bear“More people are killed by teddy bears than by grizzly bears.” That was the Tweet that was first on my timeline when I woke at 2am this morning. I know that checking social media in the graveyard hours is a bad idea, but I’ll admit that I was shaken by this bald statement, put out by the folks @qikipedia with no further context. I was left with a vision of killer bears sitting around all furry and cuddly and like butter wouldn’t melt, before turning into frenzied murderers during the wee small hours in the first phase of the moon. (I had eaten quite a lot of cheese before bed, which may have contributed to this fevered interpretation).


Of course, on further investigation, the truth is much less fantastical. ‘Teddy bears’ in this context is used as a short hand for toys in general; and the deaths (which are not at all common) are usually the result of choking on the glass eyes or other plastic components that are sometimes used in their manufacture, or a consequence of trips and falls over toys left strewn on living room floors. Just for the record, 82 Americans have been killed by real bears in the last 89 years; and there are 22 deaths a year linked to toys in the US (most of these, children).

In researching this blog post, I came across a blog dedicated to recording unusual deaths from around the world. The accounts are helpfully organized by country. They are gruesome but fascinating reading. There is the death of a man from Croydon who consumed a litre of carrot juice a day for 10 days, poisoning his body with excess vitamin A, and destroying his liver. Another account that caught my eye was titled : The London Beer Flood of 1814 – caused when several large vats of beer broke simultaneously sending 600,000 litres of fermenting brew into the nearby streets, knocking down walls and destroying several houses and (ironically) a pub. Five people attending a wake at the pub were killed in the debris of the collapsed building. One that appealed to my particularly dark sense of humour relates the tale of a 67 year old woman in the north east of England who decided to feed her flock of sheep by tying a bale of hay to the back of her electric bike and riding around the field allowing the bale to unravel behind her. The sheep – presumably ravenous – rushed the bike as a flock, forcing both it and the woman over the edge of a cliff that formed the boundary of the field. Remarkably, the woman appears to have survived the fall, but was killed when the bike landed on top of her. I’m sure I’m not alone in recalling this classic scene from Naked Gun when reading this one.

Of course, each of these deaths was an individual tragedy for the people involved, But sometimes, it’s hard to respond with anything other than a shrug and the question : “What were they thinking?!”. This is where the Darwin Awards come in. The awards “honour those individuals who improve the species by their departure. RULES: (1) adults, who remove (2) themselves, from (3) the gene pool, in a (4) spectacularly clueless manner, that is (5) true.” There are some spectacular accounts of truly innovative and monumentally stupid ways of fatally injuring yourself on the website. Among recent entries are the two Mexican women killed by a landing aircraft when attempting to get a selfie of themselves on the runway; and the Colorado man who climbed a tower crane, attached a length of rope to create a massive swing, before leaping off, and arcing out, across the neigbouring street and smack into the equally tall building on the other side. If the impact didn’t kill him, the resulting fall to the pavement certainly did.

All of which serves as a salutary warning. Take care out there everybody – and watch out for those teddy bears!