Monthly Archives: November 2018

What is it about Christmas adverts?

This time last year it was a Greggs advert that was getting everybody hot under the collar. The high street baker’s use of sausage rolls in its baked goods nativity scene was causing an unholy rumpus. There was a degree of silliness about that story, alongside a sense that Greggs had achieved exactly what they set out to : viral coverage of their campaign that went far beyond what would have been achieved by a less controversial approach.

This year, it’s the frozen foods specialist Iceland that has found itself the centre of a spat with Clearcast, the organisation responsible for vetting adverts for broadcast on British TV. The retailer has made a big play in recent months of removing palm oil from all of its own brand products. This is in response to the deforestation of large parts of Borneo, Malaysia and other parts of the world, with a devastating impact on orang-utan populations. Iceland had partnered with Greenpeace and were intending to use a Greenpeace animated film as their Christmas advert. You can see the film here. However, their plans have been scuppered by a Clearcast ruling that the advert is too political. The irony that advertising palm oil products is legal, but highlighting the habitat destruction that allows palm oil to be produced is not, has not been lost on many of the commentators who have so far written about the story.

But as with the Greggs furore last year, the reality is that more people are now aware of the Iceland campaign than would probably have noticed it has the TV advert simply been cleared for broadcast. The fact that the YouTube version has been linked to from virtually every UK newspaper site, as well as countless Facebook and Twitter accounts, has established a reach for the content that far exceeds that which would normally be expected from TV advertising alone.

In this case, it’s a good thing that the important message behind the advert is getting through.

The implications of this episode for the stifling rules governing TV adverts in an age of YouTube and other social media platforms, remains to be seen.

Rest, recuperation and daytime TV

It’s been a restful day of recuperation today. A little bit of work, a little bit of sleep, and rather too much daytime television. The scheduling of television during a typical weekday is fascinating, apparently working on the assumption that viewers fall into one of two main camps : those needing to be warned of the perils of insurance or benefits fraud (as victims or perpetrators is left ambiguous); and those seeking to make money from buying cheap (houses, antiques, or salvaged items from the municipal dump) and selling on at a profit. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I spend too much time in spaces occupied by students, but I must admit to having something of a soft spot for Homes Under the Hammer.

Each programme is like the unfolding of a creative writing exercise where each participant is given the same opening line and is then free to take the story in their own direction. “You are at an auction and you’ve just made the winning bid on a run-down property in a commuter belt just south of [insert major city] – what happens next?” Today’s instalments included a family who bought a three bedroom house for £90,000 that they spent £40,000 renovating to an incredibly high standard, and which was valued at the end of the works at £165,000. The twist in the tail was the question posed by the presenter to the husband and wife : “So are tempted to sell and move on?” The awkward pause hinted at some serious tension between the two on this very question – she was keen; he most definitely was not. His initial statement that they were going to sit tight for now, being countered by her assertion that they wanted to buy some land and design their own new home from scratch in the next two to three years. He smiled but not in his eyes!

The next property was a terraced house somewhere near Nottingham (I think – I must admit, terraced houses on Homes Under the Hammer all end us looking pretty much identical). This was bought by Tony, the owner of a local restaurant, who was purchasing his tenth property. Tony admitted to having paid slightly over the odds for the house, which was in a pretty poor state even by HUtH standards. Tony was clear what his aims were : get it tidied up for as little as possible and onto the rental market. “Clean, bright and neutral” was his brief to his builder. Tony’s role was strictly financial – not for him sleeping on a mattress in the back room while stripping paper and replacing electrics. Two months to do the work and then start getting the rent in. Damp? Not a problem – it’s just a small leak from the bathroom. £10k all in and the job’s a good ‘un. Well – not quite. That damp was coming up not down, and required a new damp proof course to be installed – something that wasn’t finally decided until the place had been completely redecorated. Budget blown – £22k in total spent and even then the finished produce was described as clean but basic. Rental income of £375 a month was right on the money for Tony though. He was delighted and was off to buy his next property.

Finally, a two bedroom maisonette in Balham, South London that was on at a guide price of £130,000. It was this cheap because, and I mean this literally, the place was being held up by gaffer tape. In fact, gaffer tape was all that was stopping the glass from the bedroom window from falling onto the pavement below! The guy who bought this one also paid a little over the odds for it, but he was a seasoned buyer and seller on, and he knew his market. The transformation was spectacular and the £180,000 purchase price was supplemented by a further £50,000 investment in top-quality internal finished, new windows, new doors and landscaping to the garden. The work was all done in 6 months and the property was valued at £300,000 by two agents at the end of the programme.

Three properties, three outcomes, three satisfied buyers (slightly disappointingly – there’s something strangely satisfying about seeing the ones that go pear-shaped occasionally!) and three new homes salvaged from the stock of abandoned or decrepit housing that is so common across the country.

I guess it’s a triumph for the free market that operates in the property sector, and it’s good that homes like this can be brought back into practical use; but it still seems odd to me that with money to be made like this, there isn’t a more structured, government-led approach to the whole thing. With so many people desperate for housing, it would seem to be a no-brainer.

Counting my lucky stars

I know it’s not the first time it’s been said, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last, but my goodness, we are so lucky in this country to be able to call on the National Health Service when we need it.

Today, I have seen the Service at its very best. From the receptionist who greeted us with a smile and friendly efficiency at 7am; through the nursing staff on the day unit; to the anaesthetist and surgeon who took the time to explain everything meticulously and answer my questions; the ODPs who prepped me for surgery; the recovery nurse who gently brought me back around; to the physiotherapists who managed not to smile at my total lack of co-ordination when learning to manage the stairs on crutches. Every single person was a credit to their profession, to the hospital at Llandough, and to the National Health Service that is truly the first among equals in the provision of comprehensive healthcare that is free at the point of delivery.

I’m home again now following my operation. My knee is bandaged but effectively pain-free and I am benefitting from equally wonderful care in the community courtesy of C. and J. (to whom, enormous thanks and love).

I have my exercises to complete over the next few weeks as rehabilitation kicks in, and I’m really looking forward to getting back to something like normal again very soon.

In the meantime, I am counting my lucky stars – every single member of the team at Cardiff & Vale Orthopaedic Centre – and I’m incredibly grateful to them all.

Knee-ly there!

It’s pretty much a year to the day since I noticed a pain in my knee following a packed train journey from Birmingham to Bristol. Having initially ignored it, then forlornly hoped that it would fix itself, I was finally forced to seek medical advice when the pain became unbearable. Two visits to clinic, the removal of what seemed like a gallon of fluid from the knee joint, and an MRI later, I was added to the list of patients waiting for key-hole surgery to tidy up the cartilage. Yesterday morning, I got the call to say that a last minute slot had become available for tomorrow morning and could I be at the hospital for 7am. I didn’t need asking twice.

The fact that this has happened during the blogging marathon that is November is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it will provide material for posts today and tomorrow (at least), and possible one or two more as the month progresses and I complete the post-operative rehabilitation (my plan is to be back completing parkrun before Christmas!). However, it does mean that I’ll be posting tomorrow still under effects of the general anaesthetic that I will have received in the morning.

It seems only right therefore, to apologise in advance for whatever inane drivel emerges from my drug-addled brain tomorrow evening. Those of a nervous disposition may want to give the blog a swerve for the next 48 hours!

Have we reached peak news?

Last week, the Electoral Commission referred Arron Banks and the Leave.EU organisation that he fronted, to the National Crime Agency for alleged breaches of the financial rules governing the funding of political campaigns in the UK. Almost before the ink was dry on the press release from the Commission, the BBC announced that Banks would be interviewed live on its flagship weekend politics show on Sunday 4th November. The decision to interview a person of interest during an on-going investigation before even the investigators had spoken to him, was subject to extensive scrutiny in the 48 hours leading up to the broadcast. There were fiercely argued points both for and against his appearance on the Andrew Marr programme. Broadly, those in favour of proceeding with the interview saw it as a vindication of the role of a free press in a democratic society. To supporters of the decision to proceed, this was a case of interest to the public, and it was in the public interest to expose Banks to public scrutiny in front of the widest possible audience. To opponents of the BBC’s decision to allow Banks access to a nationwide television audience whilst under criminal investigation, this was an ill-advised ratings-chasing exercise, that seriously risked prejudicing both the investigation and any subsequent trial. The arguments were long and loud and continue even now. On balance, my sympathies lie with those who believe that the potential damage to the effective rule of law in this case did not justify the editorial decision to proceed with the broadcast, but that’s not my main point for this post.

More broadly, it raises for me the question of whether we have now gone past what I’ll describe as ‘peak news’. What I mean by this is that the capacity for instant broadcast of news and current affairs has now so far exceeded the supply of genuinely newsworthy material, that the quality of the news offering (whether through broadcast media, print publications or on-line) has suffered immeasurably in the pursuit of something – anything – to fill the available space. The signs have been there for a while. Simon McCoy has gained cult status for his less than enthusiastic coverage of various royal births in recent years; and on-line editions of newspapers (most notably – but by no means exclusively – the Mail Online) have come under regular scrutiny for plagiarising content from other sources simply to have something new to add to their webpages. In similar vein, there has been a noticeable growth in the number of ‘news’ stories that are little more than compilations of Tweets, Facebook or Instagram posts. This coverage of the death of Aretha Franklin is a case in point.

Why is this important? For two reasons, I’d suggest. Firstly, and most importantly, because the need for large quantities of news significantly reduces the quality of what is produced. Paradoxically, as the demand for more and more material builds inexorably, so the number of journalists employed in the UK has remained the same or reduced. In parallel, the number of people working in corporate and public relations roles has significantly increased. The result is that there is much less analysis and scrutiny of material that is pushed out by public bodies, corporate organisations and political and lobbying groups. One of the objections to Marr’s interview with Banks was that the presenter was not sufficiently versed in the complexity of the allegations against Banks to be able to properly hold his feet to the fire. Following the interview, there was a general consensus that Marr’s lack of familiarity with the brief had allowed Banks to obfuscate and bluster his way out of difficult questions in a way that a seasoned investigative reporter fully familiar with the story would not have allowed. Of course, the counter is that Banks would never have allowed an interview with such a reporter. It is telling that the main impetus for first the Electoral Commission and now the National Crime Agency looking into the Banks case has come from features writer Carole Cadwalladr, who has been given nothing like the air time of Banks himself to explain the conclusions of her investigation.

Secondly, this matters because the value of real news has been seriously diminished in the clamour for things to fill the available space. To coin a phrase, if everything is now deemed as news, then nothing really is. This contributes to the regular complaints to programmes like the BBC’s Newswatch, about the coverage afforded in news bulletins to things like the identity of the latest actor to play the role of Doctor Who, or stories of celebrity break-ups. But there is almost a sense that news itself is now a commodity item that needs to be ‘sold’ to consumers in a market-place where supply outstrips demand and news organisations are competing for viewers. It is this that leads to the clickbait stories and ‘celebrity’ interviews that frequently accompany more serious news stories, both reducing the space available for proper coverage of serious news, and trivialising the news offering as a whole. It seems to me that this serves neither the person watching or reading the news in search of analysis and information, nor the news organisation that increasingly sees its role as filling space rather than editing in the traditional sense of that word. The upshot of all this is a less well informed public, become cynical about ‘news’ that is often little more than reformatted press releases and increasingly bemused about what is fact, what is hyperbole, and what is bare-faced lies.

It would be good to see a return to a less is more mentality in newsrooms and commissioning editors’ meetings – a focus on quality coverage of news and events by journalists committed to understanding and reporting the details of the story; and the demise of the celebrity interview masquerading as journalism.

 

A funny thing happened when writing this blog

The good thing about blogging is the almost instant feedback that comes in following each post. I included a couple of jokes in blog posts over the weekend. The reaction from readers was mixed : some asked me very politely to think carefully before including any more; while others threatened me with direct physical violence if I didn’t stop it immediately. It turns out that my readership is the very definition of a tough crowd!

As it happens, the whole issue of when it is appropriate or sensible to attempt humour in a professional context has been a hot topic in recent weeks. First there was the ‘outing’ of Sir Philip Green as the businessman at the centre of a controversy around the use of so-called gagging orders to prevent the public disclosure of allegations of harassment by former staff members. And then came the resignation of William Sitwell from the editorship of Waitrose Food following an email sent to a freelance journalist that included allegedly jokey references to vegans.

Green is reported to have dismissed the allegations as misconstrued office banter. And supporters of Sitwell have been quick to suggest that whilst what he wrote may have been ill-judged, it hardly warrants the loss of his job. In both cases, the context within which these events took place seems to have been afforded less significance than it probably deserves. Green and Sitwell were in positions of power and influence over the people who were on the receiving end of the banter or attempted humour. As CEO and editor respectively of their company or magazine, they are also the human embodiment of the organisation. What they do reflects on the organisations they represent almost as much as it does on themselves. This is particularly the case for Sitwell, where the magazine that he edited is commissioned by an upmarket supermarket chain that has invested heavily in its vegetarian and vegan product range.

Both cases illustrate the change in attitudes towards banter and workplace humour in recent years, as employees and employers have begun to understand the damaging effects that inappropriate humour, teasing, joshing (call it what you like) can have on individuals and wider team morale. There is a fine but increasingly clear divide between the sort of informal interactions that help a team to bond and perform well, and the inappropriate words and actions that make life miserable for individuals or minorities in the workplace.

It seems that the tide is turning too in other arenas where banter is a major part of the overall experience. As a football supporter, I love the knockabout humour, often coarse but spontaneous and often very funny, that typifies the atmosphere at most grounds on any given Saturday. I have previously written on this blog about my trip to Bordeaux following Wales in the European Championships. Hal Robson Kanu was in the Wales squad for that tournament. Having previously played at age-group level for England, his Welsh qualification came from his grandmother. The affectionate chant of Wales supporters on the way to the opening fixture went along the lines of : “Hal Robson Kanu, Hal Robson Kanu, as Welsh as a zebra, but he’ll [expletive deleted] do”. And I’ll never forget the chant of Cardiff City fans towards the Chelsea left back during an FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge (I think it was Yuri Zhirkov) : “You’re just a big score in Scrabble”.

However, not all football banter is as humorous and victimless as this. There still remains an undercurrent of racism and sexism around football that occasionally rears its ugly head. Organisations like Kick It Out and many clubs across England and Wales have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to tackle this. And it seems that their efforts are starting to bear fruit. The Red Wall of Wales football supporters has received positive feedback for their behaviour from countries throughout Europe in recent years. At a recent match in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland, however, there were disturbing reports of racist abuse and sexism by some of those following the national team. What is interesting though, is that it is other supporters who have taken the initiative in calling out this behaviour and committing to ensure that there is no repetition in future.

For my own part, finely attuned as I am to your feedback, dear Reader, I’ll keep the jokes and banter to a minimum for now!

No matter how old they are, they’re still your children…

From time to time, the RSPCA in the UK runs a seasonal advertising campaign reminding parents considering buying a new puppy that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. The warning is clear that the new life that you are considering bringing into the home will still need to be cared for and loved long after the novelty of new-puppy ownership has worn off. I’m coming to the conclusion that similar warnings should be an integral part of new parent classes!

By rights, the calls on my time from my kids should be few and far between by now. They’re both holding down responsible jobs, interacting with members of the public going through often stressful or traumatic experiences, and using their initiative to find solutions to complex problems. By all accounts, they’re both good at what they do, and are progressing well in their roles. I’m incredibly proud of them.

And yet, still, despite all evidence to the contrary, there are times when each behaves as though they are as independent as the puppy in the RSPCA advert. And so it was last night, at 10pm, I found myself picking my way through the human wreckage that is Cardiff City Centre on the evening after an international rugby match, to pick up my tired and emotional child and an equally tired and emotional friend, and deliver them to their respective homes. The declarations of eternal gratitude and appreciation were no less heartfelt for the knowledge that they would be totally forgotten by this morning!

On the plus side, I did get some McDonalds chicken nuggets and fries for my trouble, when having purchased them, my child promptly fell fast asleep on getting inside the house.

And of course, I was really happy that both the kids still feel able to call when they need a hand. I hope that that never changes!

An underground movement

Our garden is under assault. The attackers are cunning – coming in under the cover of darkness and staying out of sight. Tunnelling beneath the garden fence and making a mockery of the carefully manicured lawn that was laid in the summer. We’ve got a mole problem.

This is a new one for me. I have had previous experience of dealing with a family of hedgehogs under the shed; and field mice using the garage as a temporary shelter during the winter months. But I have no frame of reference for managing a mole problem. To be honest, I’d be happy to let them do their thing if it wasn’t for the fact that each time they call, they leave a sizeable and unsightly mound of clay piled up in the middle of the grass. To be fair, they seem to be using the same point to come to the surface each time, but even so, it makes a bit of a mockery of my attempt to maintain a lush, green, weed-free and flat sward of grass.

Wikipedia (my go-to source of instant expertise on all matters) informs me that moles are generally solitary creatures, only using coming together for purposes of procreation, between February and May each year. Apparently, mole tunnels are effectively killing fields of the earthworms that form the main part of their diet. The mole senses when a worm falls into the tunnel, and runs along it to capture the juicy morsel. Rather gruesomely, the mole’s saliva contains a substance that paralyses the worm, making it easier to eat.

Having researched ways of dealing with the problem, it seems that there are two main options. The high-tech solution involves placing a battery-operating probe in the lawn that sends out vibrations into the earth that make life so uncomfortable for the mole that s/he decides to move to a different area. The lower tech option is the spread the lawn with pellets impregnated with olive oil. The worms eat the pellets and that in turn makes them disagreeable to the mole, who moves off to find less oily morsels elsewhere. I confess, there’s something of the old woman who swallowed a fly about this! I can just imagine the product development meeting where it was first suggested that mole control could be best achieved by unleashing an army of olive oil laced earthworms.

I’m not sure which of these solutions I’m going to try first. There does seem something more natural about the pellets, but it does raise ethical questions about the sacrifice of earthworms to protect my lawn. I may resort to the Mars bar option. This involves the purchase of 6 Mars bars and a wooden mallet, and rids the garden of the mole in seven days. Each day from day 1 to day 6, you leave a Mars bar on the soil heap each evening before going to bed. On the seventh day, you lie in wait near the soil heap with the mallet, and when the mole sticks its head up to see where the Mars bar is, you knock it out and drive it twenty miles away before releasing it safely in the countryside.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Book Review : Mythos by Stephen Fry

I’ve been reading a lot recently. This is mainly because being back on the Cardiff to Bristol daily commute invariably means being in bed by 10pm, with reading as a means of relaxation before sleep. I’m not sure what ‘normal’ is in terms of reading habits, but I usually have two or three books on the go at any point in time. I find that this stops me from getting bored, but it does mean that my bedside table is rarely kept as neatly ordered as it is apparently meant to be. Up until Thursday of this week, my reading material comprised the memoirs of a former Dean of Harvard University, David Willett’s seminal work on the history of the university in the UK, and Stephen Fry’s typically irreverent take on Greek mythology. I’ll be honest, I started Fry’s book quite a long time after the other two, and I have finished it in very short order. However, I’ve read it quickly not just because it’s a lot more fun than the other two, but mainly because it’s just so good.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that Greek mythology has been something of a closed book to me for my entire 52 and a half years on the planet. While this has mostly been a nuisance rather than socially or professionally disabling (I reckon it costs me about two questions a week on University Challenge, and leaves me a little exposed to the jibes of colleagues with a solid grounding in the Classics), there is no doubt that my lack of familiarity with the stories and characters has limited my appreciation of a lot of other writing over the years.

Mythos deliberately sets out to avoid any detailed analysis of or commentary on the Greek myths and to let the stories speak for themselves. Fry’s gentle humour and reflections on some of the characters and events is largely restricted to the footnotes, many of which are laugh-out-loud funny and fascinatingly informative in equal measure. Fry draws on a number of Classical source texts in compiling his anthology of stories, and makes a very good fist of creating a narrative thread that leads through the various orders of the gods and describes the gradual elevation of humankind from the dumb playthings of their creators, to our current status as first among equals of all mortal beings.

If like me, you haven’t previously spent time reading Apollodorus of Athens, Hesiod, Sophocles and Euripedes, (and maybe even if you have) then I highly recommend Mythos as a primer leading to a greater understanding of the stories of gods and nymphs, of the world below the earth’s crust and the events that played out on the highest mountain tops, and the enduring impact of the Greek myths on so much of our language and imagery today. You won’t regret it.

To finish today’s post, a relevant joke : an ancient Greek walks into a tailor’s shop carrying a pair of torn trousers. The old tailor walks out from the back of the shop and says : “Euripides?”. “Yes”, replies the customer. “Eumenides?”

I’m here all month!

And so it begins…

I’ll be honest – I very nearly fell at the first hurdle of this year’s National Blog Post Month. It’s been a busy but interesting day and it’s only now that I have time to sit down and commit some thoughts to the virtual page.

This morning, I was delighted to be part of a presentation to new staff at work, welcoming them to the organisation and explaining a little bit about how we do things. When I got back to the office, there was an e-mail advising that we had received 15 applications for a senior role that we are currently recruiting to, and that the documentation was now available to review. The e-mail didn’t prepare me for the fact that the 15 applicants had collectively submitted 640 pages of information in support of their applications! It took a while to go through it all, but I managed to skim through them and send some initial observations on next steps to the chair of the selection committee. It will be interesting to see how the process unfolds from now on.

It was then time for a meeting to discuss how we would go about developing the policies and procedures for the new office space that we have been in for the past couple of months. A brand new space and flexible working arrangements (including hot-desking and the provision of only 70% of desks to headcount) provides a great opportunity to re-think the health, safety and operational processes that we will need to ensure that staff and visitors are safe, and we can use the space efficiently and effectively.

To end the day, I prepared for a focus group that I am a member of in the morning, as part of the selection process for a senior manager in the organisation. Focus groups will meet the candidates separately to the main interview panel, and they are more interesting in many ways, being less formal and more of a conversation than the more rigidly structured interview. It promises to be an interesting morning tomorrow. It’s always fascinating to see whether candidates who you have only read about through their written applications, turn out to be anything like you’ve imagined!

Now though, it’s time for a glass of plonk and half an hour in front of the television.