Saturday, 28 February 2009

To read this post, press one...

I've had things too easy for too long. Every now and then I might need to cancel a direct debit, set up a new one, or pop into a bank to order a new cheque book. All fairly small transactions, I'm sure you'll agree. But I wasn't prepared for the amount of treacle (or molasses, if you prefer!) I would have to wade through as a result of Moving From One House To Another. The capitals are deliberate, by the way. Having read through this post a couple of times, I feared that it might be the worst kind of post; A Rant. But please don't dismiss me as a miserable old git. I think most, if not all of you will have encountered something similar in the recent past.

I like to think that I'm fairly well organised, and I thought I could approach the Moving House thing in a systematic way. You don't spend thirty years in law enforcement without at least learning how to run a tea club (a very difficult task) or talk a robbery suspect down from a four storey building, (a rather easier task than running a tea club), so I thought the old move would be simple by comparison with such things. I made a list of all our bank accounts, direct debits, account numbers; you name it. Then, I determined to approach each one systematically. Dear bloggy friend, they didn't make it easy for me. One organisation was insistent upon a letter with both old and new addresses; another would only allow me to give the information by phone; still another, only via its (unnecessarily complex) website. The phone ones were fun. They would demand (for security purposes) the first line of my old address, the first line of my new address, my new post (zip) code and my name. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't they just asking for the information I would be about to give them if they hadn't interrupted me with these 'security' questions in the first place? Some demanded a password that I had apparently agreed with them at some time in the distant past. If I wasn't sure what it was, they'd try to prompt me. Doesn't that defeat the object of a password in the first place?

Another telephone encounter left me bemused. After the usual crop of 'security' question, they added a whole new layer of bureaucracy. 'If you have to phone us again, you'll need to answer these questions: (i) the name of the hospital where you were born; and (ii) the place where you took your first holiday as a child.' Dear friend, I will not be calling them again.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. It's almost impossible for an average person to open a bank account these days. The banks place so many obstacles in the way of the ordinary Joe or Joanne to prevent money laundering. So poor Mrs. Miggins can't open an account because she can't produce three recent direct debit statements in her own name. Meanwhile, wealthy ne'er-do-wells who know how to circumvent the rules are gaily engaged in laundering vast amounts of cash under the bankers' noses! Whilst standing in a bank queue this morning, I heard a Respectable Middle-Aged Lady fulminating at the fact that, in trying to pay money into her account, the bank wanted both her signature and her date of birth. No, said R.M.A.L, I'll not sign anything, and I'm certainly not giving you my date of birth. You can just give me the cash straight back. So that's what they had to do. Oh, by the way. A collective noun for bankers; a Wunch. And the definition of a banker: someone who lends you an umbrella when it's sunny and takes it way when it's raining.

Internet banking. Now there's a whole new topic. What a marvellous idea; to be able to pay bills, move cash around, set up direct debits, and all on line! But, of course, every banking house has a different login procedure. Some ask you to input a twelve digit number sent to you by post, then your mother's maiden name, and then a four digit PIN you've decided upon yourself. Others want to know your debit card number and whether you prefer fish to chicken (true, I swear!). Still others send you a little plastic keypad that you need to use when carrying out online transactions. Now, what's the result of having all these accounts with different login numbers, PINs, favourite relatives, foods or pets? You have to do the unthinkable. You have to start writing them all down somewhere. Which is something, dear friend, that banks have been telling us not to do.

The post arrives early where I live. Among the letters that plopped onto the mat this morning was from one of my building societies, telling me not to lose my ISA allowance for this year. Now, this building society was one of the first to be notified of our change of address. And guess what? The letter had been redirected by the Royal Mail from my old address.

To return to the top of this post, press two. To leave a comment, press three. To speak to a genuine human being, press four...

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

God's Waiting Room

We took a trip into Eastbourne yesterday. Now, for those of you who don't know it, Eastbourne is a busy seaside resort at the eastern end of the South Downs. It is often referred to as God's Waiting Room because of the large number of elderly people who have chosen it as their last dwelling place upon this earth. I must admit to having seen a number of folk who would make Methusaleh feel like a young whipper-snapper, and you do have to watch that you don't get run over by those little motorised trollies or injured by badly-handled zimmer frames. These things aside, Eastbourne is a fairly pleasant place; a bit like Brighton but without the vibrant gay and artistic communities. Many of its hotels have seen better days, and now have a kind of faded grandeur. One can imagine them staffed by aged waiters and chambermaids called Arthur and Tilly, who have probably been serving Brown Windsor and turning down beds since Charles Dickens came to stay.

One curious fact that came to light was that more elderly people than youngsters in Eastbourne have been served with Anti Social Behaviour Orders. It seems that they get involved in late night DIY to the annoyance of their neighbours and all manner of other cantankerous encounters. One man, a self-employed gardener, was issued with an ASBO for trying to drum up custom for his business in an aggressive manner. I wonder what was said...Come on! You know you want your roses pruned! It'd be a shame if those garden gnomes fell down the stairs, now wouldn't it?
Eastbourne is close to the dizzy heights of Beachy Head, a 535 foot chalk cliff with a lighthouse at its foot. Apparently the Head has been a popular venue for suicides since the 1600s (I wonder where they went in the 1500s...or were there other preferred methods of suicide before the 17th century?) with around twenty people a year choosing to step off the edge of the cliff and into oblivion. 'A six hundred foot drop can be deadly', says the BBC's Inside Out website in a curious case of stating the rather obvious. Some years ago a telephone box was placed close to the edge of the cliff with telephone numbers for the Samaritans plastered all over it, so one would hope this would reduce the incidence of suicides. One chap threw himself off, only to land on a ledge two hundred feet down the side of the cliff. Having been spoken to by a local policeman and clearly having got something out of his system, he then calmly lit a cigarette and waited for the helicopter to arrive!

Our trip was not troubled with anything so disturbing as a two hundred foot cliff tumble, no; it was merely to purchase some curtains and enjoy a leisurely lunch. And so, surrounded by the octogenarians of what is supposed to be the sunniest resort on the South Coast, we ate, we drank, we curtained. If, of course, you will permit me to use curtain as a verb.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Blowing my own small trumpet

Alright. I know that, in the greater scheme of things, it's not War and Peace. Nor is it the start of a great literary career. But it gives me a small degree of satisfaction nevertheless.

I have always loved the Victorian ghost story; particularly those of M.R. James. They always seem to pop up on UK television around Christmas, and it was a good few years ago that I decided to pen my own nod to the genre. And what did I do with it? I put it in a box and forgot about it.

Then, last year, at my stepson's wedding in Cyprus, I got chatting to the editor of an 'Ex-Pat' magazine. She was looking for something suitable for Christmas; I mentioned the ghost story; and the rest is history.

I've had odds and ends published in the past, but this is my first short story in print. And I've got to say it's given me a little satisfaction. So I'm sure you'll excuse me, just this once, for blowing my own little trumpet.

Oh, and you can read it here, by the way!

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Building a family

I must confess to being something of a house and home programme buff. It's probably something to do with being so focussed on house buying and selling over the last year or so. But I'm beginning to wonder whether there are two kinds of people who buy houses; me on one side and everyone else on the other. Because the people who appear in the (mainly Channel 4) lifestyle programmes appear to inhabit a different universe to my humble self. Take Relocation, relocation on Channel 4 tonight. It featured a thirty-something couple who had £1.4 million to spend on a house and wedding venue. This was followed by Grand Designs, where a cutting-edge architect and his wife decided to build a 'passive' eco house, using a system of exterior tiling more usually encountered in medieval Spain. So, I I going wrong somewhere? Are my aspirations to sand down the banisters and give the hall a coat of Farrow and Ball's House White simply not ambitious enough? Should I be sourcing my window blinds from a sustainable hardwood forest in Estonia rather than B and Q? And would it help if I shaved off my (now) shoulder length hair to make me look more like a participant in one of the above-mentioned programmes?

One curious aspect of all these programs is the incidence of pregnancy. The couple buy a tumbledown house on a desirable plot, then proceed to knock it down and resign themselves to living on site in a draughty caravan for a year and a half whilst the new house goes up. And what happens? Three months into the project, they announce to the presenter that a baby is on the way. The poor child is eventually born in said caravan and lives its first few months in an unheated box, surrounded by camping equipment and primus stoves. What's happening here? Is the act of building/purchase an aphrodisiac in itself? Or is it just a case of poor planning by folk who otherwise appear to be able to plan a house build down to the last nail? Let's face it, these programmes invariably feature a planning officer somewhere along the way. Perhaps that individual could draw up a list of 'to dos' that includes the advice 'attempt to avoid getting pregnant if you are likely to be involved in bricklaying, humping RSJs or digging drains for the next few months.' I'm beginning to wonder whether the pregnancy thing is written into the programme contract, thus giving the presenter a chance to re-visit the finally finished house and meet little Poppy or Oscar. But perhaps this is going too far, even for television. Or is it?

Monday, 16 February 2009

Cuckmere Carpenters, Seaford Shags

Now, before you, I didn't take this picture, but I wish I had! Doesn't it look like something from the lid of a chocolate box, or some Beautiful Britain calendar? It's a view of a series of sea cliffs called 'The Seven Sisters' from Seaford Head, just a short distance from my new home. The houses you can see are former coastguard cottages at Cuckmere Haven, one of which was featured at the end of the film Atonement, and is presently inhabited by a carpenter called Cassian Garbett, who makes extraordinarily expensive pieces of furniture from driftwood collected on the beach.

Seaford, my new home town, is only about 60 miles from London, but it's a world away. It has a proper, old-fashioned high street with a butcher's shop, a greengrocer's, a fish shop (we had some brilliant fresh squid for lunch the other day), and an old hardware store where you can buy anything from a single nail to a bag of nutty slack (erm...coal, I mean!) It also has something that I have always wanted; a number of decent pubs where you can have a sit down meal, or just relax with a pint of beer for as long as you want.

At present, we are so preoccupied with the business of sorting out the house that we haven't had time for a leisurely stroll on the beach. But spring and summer are around the corner, and once the boxes have been cleared away and the last ornament has been carefully dusted and placed upon the shelf, there will be plenty of time for such things! And, best of all, the sun, the sea and the beach are all free.

Apparently, in the 1500s, the good people of Seaford were in the habit of lighting fires to lure ships into Seaford Bay. The ships ran aground, were wrecked, and were then looted by the local populace, who were colloquially known as shags or cormorants. What's the difference between a shag and a cormorant, I hear you ask. I am certainly not going to get involved in any such vulgar discussion! At the time of writing, I haven't seen any desperate fellows wandering through the town, carrying casks of rum or baccy. But it's early days yet.

Anyway, it's way past my bedtime. We countryfolk are normally abed at sunset, but tonight I have special dispensation to stay up and chat. But all good things must come to an end. My cup of cocoa awaits, as do my nightcap and hot water bottle. Night night all!

Friday, 13 February 2009

I'm back. And to prove it, I'm here!

Greetings, dear bloggy friends.

After a not altogether untraumatic moving day (which I may tell you about when I feel a little stronger!), and a couple of weeks wrangling with BT (the phone company, to those of you elsewhere in the world who are fortunate never to have encountered this arcane and circumlocutory institution) I am, at last, back on line!

We chose, it appears, the worst time to move. Heavy snow, high winds, driving rain, mountainous seas...we've had the lot. We're still waiting for the locusts and boils, however.

I write this missive from my living room (drawing room would be pretentious, would it not?) with my late father's laptop...erm...on my lap. Do men have laps? Do Lapps (or Sami, as they are correctly termed) have laps? Two weeks away from my keyboard has neither dimmed nor dulled my sense of enquiry with regard to such matters.

To say I have missed our cosy fireside chats (incidentally, I do have a proper fireside now) would be an understatement. I have missed the humour, the banter, the erudition and the giraffes - you all know who you are! As we wade our way through the tide of boxes, my postings may be a little more sparse for a while; but rest assured I shall be reading, and commenting upon, your own commentaries upon life.

Kind regards as always,