My life in a map

You may have noticed I haven't been moaning much recently. Well I certainly have reason to - about my bloomin' Epson R2400 printer which has finally gone to the menders, and the fact that the Brighton recycling lorry came a day early, despite the council sending out a calendar of dates, followed by a revised calendar cos the first one had a wrong date on it - but I haven't been blogging them! Instead I've been messing around with Google Maps and managed to put every place I've ever lived onto a map. I've lived in 23 different houses, bedsits, rooms and flats, some for as little as three weeks. This morning I added all the places I've ever worked. So my whole life to date is on one map. Some places have been demolished; others are approximately located as it's sometimes difficult to read house numbers on Street View, and my memory isn't that good. My Maps is great - I could imagine using it as some kind of immersive narrative device, for eStories. Maybe I'll think about that. If that 'View ... in a larger map' link below doesn't work, try this link.

View Larger Map


Daily Moan #16: noisy and uncomfortable cafes and bars

I was amused by the review in the Independent of Bill's new Produce Store in London's Covent Garden. The former fruit and veg market sounds like an appropriate place for a pretend farm shop, but apparently it's been faked up inside a new development. Now, I confess I haven't been there, but I have been to the original one in Lewes, and the more recent Brighton branch, housed in a former garage. And I just don't get it. Maybe a few years ago the Lewes branch was a pleasant place to eat, but not any more. Not only do you have to queue for a table, but it's cramped, uncomfortable and very very noisy. The same goes for the Brighton cafe. The food is nice enough, but it's not a place you feel you can linger, what with the eyes of the queuing punters drilling holes in the back of your neck.

I remember when The Volunteer, by the Corn Exchange, was an old geezers' pub. Usually empty, except after a performance in the Dome complex, it had plush velvet seating, real ale pumps, and a sticky carpet. It was quiet. Then Zel took it over, stripped it back to wood and brick, put in old domestic furniture, replaced the beer with foreign-sounding lager at twice the price - and the youngsters flooded into The Mash Tun, as it was renamed. Their original inn sign is on display in the Waggon and Horses opposite, where you can still get a nice pint of Harvey's. This was before seating was allowed outside, and there was always a halo of customers round the door jostling to get in. What was going on? The formula was repeated around town. Bars with hard acoustically reflective wooden floors and walls naked of absorbent flock wallpaper assaulted the eardrums - even without the throbbing disco beats. The Tin Drum at Seven Dials, where a dear friend always insists we go for his birthday drink, is extremely noisy, even without muzak. I don't think anywhere has gone the whole hog like in some Northern towns yet however, where they have even removed the seating, but there again I haven't been down West Street lately!

The craze for discomfort has now spread to cafes, as in Bill's mentioned above. Nia in the North Laine was one of the first to introduce a mish-mash of mismatched junk shop chairs and tiny tables made from old school desks. At the brand new Carluccio's, seating is on long wooden benches and the noise level is at the road-drill level of decibels. Call me old-fashioned, but I like quiet comfortable cafes where I can chat without getting a sore throat, and pubs with comfy seats and proper beer - is that too much to ask?


Daily Moan #15: fewer not less

I was going to have a good old Moan about inkjet printer cartridges (especially Epson ones) today: the price of them and how they only put a few drops of ink in each - and how the chips in them make you buy more of the damn things before they've even run out. But I won't. Instead, it's back to grammar and something that when I hear it makes me want to shout at the TV. It's when people use 'less' when they should be using 'fewer'. It happened this morning on 'Wanted Down Under' - yes, I know it's a crappy daytime programme, but I got lured in. I think she was talking about 'less opportunities' or something, but it made me shout out: 'FEWER!'

According to my dictionary, less is used when talking about relative amounts or quantities and fractions thereof, eg 'eat less jam' or 'the government cuts will mean less money in your pocket' or 'he has less hair than he used to'. Whereas fewer is used for things measured by discrete number and usually deals with plurals, eg 'government cuts will mean fewer policemen on the beat'. Confusingly, however, less can used with numbers when they are on their own, eg 'Their marriage lasted less than four years'.

Supermarket checkouts with signs saying '10 items or less' are wrong. It should be '10 items or fewer' but try telling that to Mr Sainsbury. 'Less graduates will get jobs this year' is wrong. It should be fewer graduates. The Plain English Campaign, according to the BBC article about Tesco linked to earlier has a simple rule of thumb: less means 'not as much', whereas fewer means 'not as many'.


Daily Moan #14: Virgin Media

This a real genuine bona fide Moan and it makes me tired just thinking about it! Have you ever felt you were in a Franz Kafka novel? When something goes wrong in your life and you haven't a clue why? And you seem to lose control? And nobody seems to know why? Then you'll sympathise with my sorry tale. It does have a happy ending, of sorts, so there's no need to be alarmed. [Old Arnold Brown joke: 'This door is alarmed'. How does it think I feel?]

Back in November, Virgin Media sent me a letter saying I was 'guaranteed pre-approved' to get a Blackberry for £10 a month. My pay-as-you-go Samsung clamshell phone was fine for me, and to get an iPhone would mean upgrading my OS - and they're very expensive. And I already have an iPod Touch, and plan to get a 2nd gen iPad. Nick has a Blackberry and says it changed his life... So, I made the call.

I spoke to someone at the Virgin call centre, gave them all my bank details (I have been with Virgin Media for landline and broadband from the beginning - NYnex, Cable & Wireless, NTL and then Virgin) and received a confirmation email. Then nothing.

A week or so later I rang the number again. My niece had applied for one after me and was already enjoying it. I spoke to Alvin in Manila and he took all my details again. I received an email. But still no phone.

Two weeks later I called again and spoke to Sheryl. She said there was something wrong with my credit check (I was 'pre-approved' remember?). She said she'd call me back within 48 hours. She didn't. So a few days later I spoke to Lucy who said there was a problem with my credit rating (I was 'guaranteed pre-approved' remember?).

A week later I spoke to Anna who said I should re-apply in 31 days. Computer said no. I was getting annoyed by now, so I sent off two letters of complaint to two different complaints addresses, and copied in Paul Gosling from the Independent. I hate having to play the 'press card' but it had worked in the past.

I was worried about this credit thing. Anna told me they used Equifax, so I took out their free 30-day trial - and I paid an extra £5.95 to get my credit score. It was 508, in the 'excellent' band. The only slight blemish was a late payment to a credit card made ages ago. What was going on?

On 28 December (two months after my initial call to Virgin) I got a call from a Virgin press person. She said she'd expedite things. I sent her scans of the original letter. On 8 January, a Saturday, I got called by someone from sales who took all my details yet again, but this time I received lots of emails. I also received a follow-up call from the PR person. The final insult was a text at 3am (my Samsung kept ringing every few minutes until answered) on Monday morning saying it was on its way. UPS would deliver between 8am and 6pm. So guess when they came? Well it was choir in the afternoon and I returned home to find a UPS card on my doormat. My heart sank - but phew he'd left the parcel next door. I now have a Blackberry! I still haven't had a proper explanation or apology. Apparently too many orders going through Virgin's system caused a lock-down on my account - but is that my fault?

So there we have it - off my chest. I've had problems with Virgin before, almost always caused by their internal lack of communication, and phoning call centres is a dismal experience. If you need to get things going, bring in Watchdog or some other consumer programme, or newspaper 'agony aunt' as early as possible. And don't rely on verbal assurances. Get it in writing!

I am thinking of sending the Blackberry back and getting an iPhone. What should I do?


the # character: more an explanation than a moan

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed I've been using the # symbol in my Daily Moan blog items, instead of the perfectly good English No. - especially with my going on about Americanisms yesterday. In the olden days, this usage used to mystify me when I saw it in US comics. Nowadays, with Twitter 'hashtags' we are more used to it and can find it on the keyboard. Wikipedia has a good explanation of the number sign, also called the Pound sign in North America. On my keyboard it is coincidentally hidden behind the £ and 3 key, although the pound the Americans mean is the weight unit lb. Apparently on phones it's also sometimes called the octothorp. In copy editing and proofreading a # in the margin usually followed by a caret ^ (with a caret in the text indicating where) means add some space.


Daily Moan #13: Americanisms

Today's Moan is short and sweet: it's the word 'envision' used as a verb. It really annoys me, I don't know why. Simon Price used it in today's Independent in his review of British Sea Power's latest LP Valhalla Dancehall. He writes: "We are Sound" - possibly a pun on the Mancunian use of the title's final word as an adjective of approval, possibly not - attempts to engage with someone who "can barely string two words together", while "Georgie Ray" envisions, with a shudder, a time when "the language gets perfected to a solitary grunt". Envision isn't in my Oxford dictionary; 'envisage' is. You could say 'envision' scans better in that sentence, but why use a North American term when we have a perfectly good English one? A quick Google brought up this argument. And surely the word 'sound' meaning great is Scouse slang, not Manc!


Daily Moan #12: poncy food

Heston Blumenthal has a lot to answer for. I quite like the idea of Heston Blumenthal, but I'm not sure I'd enjoy his food. Too fiddly - I like honest ingredients that haven't been mucked about with too much. I blame his wannabe followers, however, for all the poncy food around these days. It's all a tower of this, drizzled with that, nestling in a bed of the other, with a liquid nitrogen cooled foam jus reduction of something you've never heard of. Terre a Terre's menu used to be famous for it, tho I suspected much of it was tongue-in-cheek. The new menus appear to be far more understandable. One place that doesn't even bother with menus is Viajante in Bethnal Green town hall, London - take a look at their gallery - are those supposed to be meals or canapes? This place was drawn to my attention by someone on a UK TV newsgroup (yes, they still exist) linking to an hilarious Grauniad review. Puts you in mind of the Harry Enfield 'I saw you coming' antique dealer selling tat to people with more money than sense who actually believe the emperor is wearing his new clothes. What amuses your bouche? I'll stick with hearty pub grub at the George.


Daily Moan #11: food adulterated by animal products

I'm not a strict vegetarian - I sometimes eat fish - but I don't eat meat, and that includes gelatine, chorizo, chicken stock and wild boar. I love scallops and quite fancy going to the Rye Bay Scallop Week in February (unfortunately there don't appear to be any clog dancers or sea shanty singers taking part) - but looking at the menus on offer it seems that most of the dishes have been spoilt by the addition of bacon, black pudding and foreign dried pig-based sausages. Why do so many chefs hate vegetarians and pescatarians so much that they feel they have to sabotage their food with strong-tasting meat products? One gets the impression that should you ask for the dish without the chorizo or parma ham, then the chef will surely gob on it before it leaves the kitchen!

Eating abroad is a minefield: in Italy, an innocent pasta with tomato sauce might have a bit of wild boar added to spice it up; in Barcelona, a Catalan dish of broad beans will have little chunks of butifarra in it. In France they are perfectly capable of cooking exquisite vegetables, so long as they accompany meat or fish. Ask for a selection of them without the meat and you'll end up with an omelette! In Germany and further east the only vegetables not pickled to death you'll see in restaurants are potatoes. Japanese noodles may have been made using chicken stock - and beware of jelly anywhere - it's almost certain to be gelatine made from boiled up animal bones. I suppose we are spoilt here in Brighton for good veggie food available almost everywhere, and most big cities will have decent Asian places to eat with plenty of meat-free choices. And one day maybe eating meals without meat will no longer be seen as something weird and not to be tolerated.


Kibbutz Ga'ash

Fred in Israel
Originally uploaded by fred pipes
Talking to an Israeli dancer last night at Foz? and Max's party I was reminded of the time I spent in Israel - April-June 1970. I can't find any diary entries for it (there's a gap in my journals from 1970-72!) so this is from memory. My adventurous girlfriend at the time Maddy said she was going and did I want to come? Err, yes, I replied. I was working in a dead-end job, in the dark mostly at Taylor's photo lab in Rodboro Buildings, Guildford, and sharing a room with Gus at 7 Mill Lane, so I thought why not. The plan was to fly to Tel Aviv on a one-way ticket, stay for an indeterminate time, then somehow hitch home via Greece!

The flight cost about 34 quid. We stopped to refuel at Istanbul and arrived at Tel Aviv early in the morning. After much traipsing round the suburbs we found an agency and were sent to Kibbutz Ga'ash, near Netaniya, on the coast. We were put into the wooden huts previously occupied by the settlers, who'd moved on to brick-built bungalows. It was all very informal - our jobs for the day were posted up outside the post office and we ate with the other volunteers in the communal dining room. Contact with the kibbutzniks was minimal. My main job was in a small factory making sheet metal fluorescent light fittings; Mad mainly looked after the chickens. Every so often we had to join in the harvest, potato picking for example, which was relentless back-breaking work - you had to gather the tractor-exposed spuds in buckets before they were covered over by the next furrow! The factory was more cushy, with regular coffee breaks! We were paid at the Post Office - a few Israeli pounds, 100 Nadiv untipped cigarettes a week (with tobacco so dry that if you tapped a ciggy it would all fall out), a small tin of coffee, and toothpaste if we needed it. We could take what clothes we needed from the laundry. Every blue moon there'd be a film show in the dining room, or the next kibbutz and if you were lucky you'd get a lift in a tractor.

We were close to a lovely unspoilt beach, under cliffs, and as it got too hot in the afternoons to work, we spent some time there. There were barbecues that involved killing chickens! We also went on several excursions - the Kibbutz was very relaxed about us going off on jaunts, mainly I think because the settlers were from South America with a mañana attitude. Hitching was easy and common, although any soldiers waiting in lay-bys got priority lifts. We went to Jerusalem (making a point of visiting the Garden of Gethsemane on the advice of an Al Stewart song), Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Hebron (a lift in an army half-track), north to Caesaria (where the beach was littered with Roman tesserae), Haifa, Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, south across the Negev desert to the hell-hole (then) of Eilat, the hottest place I've ever experienced. We slept on the beach, where mad locals would drive their jeeps all night. The coolest place to be was in the Red Sea. We couldn't get out of there because it was a long national holiday! We stayed mainly in segregated youth hostels or cheap hotels. The only place we didn't get to see was the Dead Sea.

It was at Ga'ash that I heard (from the man in the post office) that the Beatles had split up and that Johnny Hodges had died. It was a great place to hide away - in fact I'm sure one of the volunteers was an international criminal cat burgler - a big black car would arrive and whisk him off to Tel Aviv night spots. The food was good, although there was not much in the way of booze. The Shabbat wine was weak, sweet and full of flies - we used tea strainers to filter them out. But there were always plenty of oranges. After a while we wanted to get home, but had no money. We needed dollars to buy air tickets. I wrote to Gus for him to send some cash in an envelope but he did something through a bank and that came to nothing. Maddy rather foolishly sold some blood! We'd gone off the hitching through Europe idea. In the end, a new volunteer from the USA kindly cashed our Israeli money into hard currency and we got home. Back at Gatwick we were surprised to be able to change our remaining Israeli cash into proper money, and got the train back to Guildford.

On leaving the kibbutz we were each given a book (by the man at the post office) with a sweet inscription, as shown below.



New Year's resolutions?

So, what to do about New Year's Resolutions? Refuse to make any? Promise to cut down on the moaning? Dan Thompson said on Twitter this morning: 'So, resolutions; work a bit harder, travel a bit further, go to more live music and theatre, be more impulsive, longer cycle rides, draw' - I could do that! But could I be arsed? I mean, I know I should draw and get out more (and practise my uke more), but if I really wanted to, I'd be doing those things already. No need for resolutions.

The Grauniad has some reassuring news for Resolution makers in this article on seven steps to good health. I like the bit about eating more greens and not peeling things (and learning a musical instrument), but the alcohol thing is a bit disappointing. As a comedian once asked (I wish I could remember who): is a Unit a bucket full of vodka? No, it's half a pint of weak beer. So, three units a day isn't much fun is it? Though I suppose with fewer things to worry about, there should be less reason for self-medication. (A quick moan: why are the wines on special offer in supermarkets always so strong - 14%, 15%?). Maybe I should try drugs? The bloke who discovered Ecstasy once said he was trying to invent a calorie-free Martini. I'd buy that! So, resolutions? I think I'll sleep on it for now...

BTW: a point to ponder - at subbing school we were always told not to end a headline with a question mark.