on immortality

Someone commenting on my upcoming 70th birthday got us into talking about life coming to an end sooner rather than later. This has been on my mind recently anyway; the Berkshire Belle and I took out funeral plans last year. My demise certainly is not too far off in relative terms for reaching the three score years and ten that was, when I was a lad, reckoned to be one’s expectancy as a man.

I long ago came to terms with death, probably some time in my forties and have no problem with shuffling off. I have loved experiencing life and death will be the last experience I get. I would prefer not to linger or suffer too much pain in my demise, but accept that it is coming.

As an atheist I do not believe in any afterlife. Once my heart stops I will be gone and that’s it. Quite honestly the thought that there might be more appalls me regardless of whether it is upstairs or down (and I have no doubt that I would be going down). Life is hard enough without having to go on forever. This line of thought caused some distress to one of my religious friends who thought that it was a bleak outlook, but I don’t think so. It gives me comfort to know that it will, one day, all be over.

I have enjoyed most of my life so far. There are times that I try to forget and there are things that I have done that I would, with hindsight, prefer not to have done, but all of the steps that I took along the way led me to the Berkshire Belle and the love of my life. There is nothing to regret about prior relationships because they all taught me things that helped when it came to the big one. Likewise I do not regret my first marriage because it produced two children of whom I am proud. I regret the pain that comes when relationships end, but such things are all part of life.

None of us ask to be born, but we turn up, planned or not. What we do with the hand that we are dealt is largely up to us. There are always external factors that we can;’t control, but we can choose how we react to the slings and arrows and that will shape us. I have had a good life, even if I was, at times, bad. I am still reasonably fit, most of me still works pretty well albeit that some bits are well past there prime. I am still working as my eighth decade approaches and am making do with what I have.

Whatever talents I have do not include any that might make me immortal. I can’t paint or make music that will stand after I have gone. I write, but none of that is likely to live on too long after I go and I have not invented anything that might advance to race. I will not care once I am gone whether or not I am remembered and I am happy with that.

I have spent more than half of my adult life, almost half of my life for far, with the woman of my dreams and I am content. Immortality? You can keep it; I don’t want it.

on HM Queen Elizabeth II

I was going to write another humorous post for today. Her Majesty was well known for having a good sense of humour and I felt that a funny story on the day of her funeral would be appropriate. However, the connection between my mind and my fingers has failed to come up with anything that I am happy with and so instead I thought that I would share my only experience of being in her presence.

Belfast is one of those wonderful maritime cities around the UK and I fell in love with the place back in the mid-1980s even though it was tough place to love back then with The Troubles at the height. I was flying back and forth, staying there a few days at a time at most, other times in and out on the same day and, because of security concerns, not seeing much more than the airport at Aldergrove and our offices in Queen Street and Tomb Street. Two of my colleagues were murdered in separate incidents at that time.

Over the tears things got better and I was able to move around the city on my own in perfect safety. By the early 2000s I was again a regular visitor and on one sunny day I had been to a couple of morning meetings, had lunch and was walking out from the city centre to call in at one of the sites that I managed down at Clarendon Dock.

I was enjoying the architecture when I turned a corner and encountered a crowd. Barriers lined the street to keep the crowds on the pavement and there was a heavy police presence. As I squeezed along between the back of the crowd and the railings I became aware that many of the crowd were expecting something to happen at any moment and I paused as a motorcade pulled up outside a building opposite.

A huge cheer went up as the doors of the building were opened and The Queen and Prince Philip emerged, p[asuing on the steps to wave to us all long the street. Then they were into the car and away. It had been a magical moment and completely, for me, out of the blue. It is the only time that I saw my monarch in person and the twenty feet that separated us the closest that I would come. It remains a very special moment for I am an unashamed royalist and have the utmost respect for the way that HM The Queen ruled. I was born between her ascension to the throne and her coronation, so I have lived my live so far as an Elizabethan.

I have said my own goodbye in private and today is for others. I am not that good with funerals (I won’t be going to mine), so today I might look in on some of the event on TV for we British do this stuff so well. Other than that I will be having a quiet day with the Berkshire Belle, the queen of my heart.

Hoping that your day passes well too. Stay safe.

on words

Yesterday, during the tidying up of my blogs, I read something that I had written mentioning Dan Ruth an American columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner who I first encountered when he wrote for the Tampa Tribune. His politics differ from mine perhaps, but he has a way with words that drew me to his column whenever we were over in FLA.

I learned to read early in life, partly because I was a sickly child and was confined to bed fairly frequently. We were a poor family, but working for larger country estates all of which had library rooms and a willingness to lend books to the children of their servants. Armed with a cheap atlas and a Webster’s dictionary, both bought cheaply at jumble sales, I taught myself to read and to work out where in the world the action that I was reading about was; even fictional works have some factual basis for their locations.

And so began a love of words and language. I have never been much of a linguist, although I used to have sufficient command of French to have negotiated commercial contracts en Francais, and could get by with some factory German when I used to be over there on business, but there is a beauty in some languages that I could appreciate even if I could not understand it. I used to frequent Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park as a teenager just to listen to those on the soapbox for some of them were very good indeed.

Words, written or spoken well, are a joy and it was one of the lessons I learned when the time came for me to get up in front of people and talk. The performance is one element, and an important one, but the choice and order of the words that you use is crucial to get across your message. My experience goes back way beyond PowerPoint and similar packages to the days of flip charts and overhead slides and I was lucky enough to have some professional training to help me. I am not sure that I would have had the confidence to talk for 30-40 minutes without note otherwise.

As I began to write for business the skills of crafting a letter came to me through experience and the support of a long lost business resource, the typing pool: Word processor packages were both boon and curse. The I began to get paid for writing, and the discipline of banging out 1600-1800 words per month for a feature article taught me more about using words to best effect as did the influence of a good editor and the way that the judicious change of a word or two here and there could turn a respectable piece into a good one was a skill that I admired, even if I have not, as yet, grasped it myself.

Another big learning curve was when I began to speak and have my words simultaneously translated. I had already come to understand that I needed to prune out the fillers and padding that permeate our normal speech for people whose first language was not English, but working with translators took that to another level. I used to wear a headset so that I could listen to them, not to check their work, but to pace my speech so that we could match each other’s delivery.

It is a great sadness to me these days to see so many people completely disinterested in their language. Communication is a great social skill. We brag that it is what separates us from the animals and yet it is a skill in decline. Political correctness has robbed us of the great orators. I was so disappointed when I heard Obama give a speech once at a military base. I was watching on television with considerable anticipation because I had heard that he was good, but he went on, and on, and on, and on. His delivery was awful too; speak a few words looking right, pause, look left and say a bit more, pause, look right and speak again. I know that the right, left stuff was to read off the two autocues, but it was too long, way too long. And he was just boring.

The power of spoken words to inspire is perhaps best illustrated by the bad examples; the rabble rousers. I can’t understand most of what Hitler was banging on about, but 5 minutes of listening to one of his speeches and the urge to pack up and head for Poland becomes strong. Bad guys who can talk well will always inspire a following, so why have we allowed the PC brigade to neuter the good guys and gals?

I am not one of the grammar police (if you’ve read this far it should be self evident), I just like to see the language used well and I find myself reading older books more often than recent stuff because they are better written. I prefer older films because the dialogue is better written and delivered.

Yes, I am an old git and will not be around much longer, but I do care about the future for those that I will leave behind and the ability to communicate is as important to us as any of the other crises the planet faces. It is a cornerstone of civilisation, so nurture and protect it as much as any other part of our environment. All words matter.

life log #8

The loss of my Queen last week was a shock. It had to come one day soon, but it all seemed so sudden when the news came that her family had been sudden followed a few hours later by the inevitable announcement.

I am a Royalist and have been for as long as I can remember having thought about it. I would have been a Royalist in an earlier life too, even if it meant being, for a while, on the loading side. Let’s face it the Puritans were a joyless bunch were they not? The monarchy were thankfully restored and Cromwell’s remains were desecrated so I feel that I am on the right side here.

Whilst the Queen would have expected the due process of State to be carried out according to her wishes I doubt that she would have wanted the country to shut down during the process of mourning. She cared about her country too much and, at a time like this, she would have wanted it working towards better times, not moping about.

The Hastings Hottie and I are both very saddened by the loss of the Monarch who had been my only and hers since childhood, but we both have worked in sectors where there will be much to do in the changeover from E to C. We both miss the chance to be involved in making those changes happen as we would have done once. QCs have already become KCs (sans Sunshine Band of course) and stamps, coins and banknotes will all change. Much of this work will already have been planned for some time, but it would be fascinating to be in on making some of it happen.

So what else is going on chez nous? We have gone from trying to salvage as much as we can from the garden to it becoming lush and seeing some things coming back from the dead. Some things that we thought that we had lost from the fencing works have come back too, much to our delight. A good few annuals have not survived and some of the perennials have gone from scorched to Autumn mode. Tale season pruning will be interesting as we try to work out what is dormant and what is dying.

We put off our US holiday again, but have agreed that something in the Spring of 2023 is essential for our sanity as well as because there are thing that we need to do over there to tidy up the last remnants of our property adventures Stateside.

For us this is the season of two birthdays and various anniversaries and so dietary considerations are taking a back seat. Not that we are going made, but we are not going mad either, just relaxing the strict regime a little.

We have been trying to minimise our energy consumption for some years now, so are finding it hard to find any more areas that we can cut back on. All we can do now is to sit tight and wait to see how things work out. Hopefully this Winter will not be too hard so that those worse off than us can have a better chance of maintaining a reasonable quality of life.

As I write this the two foxes that live next door are lurking around in our garden. We see them daily and, thankfully, this year they are causing too much havoc our side of the fence. We have most of our small birds back too, including a wren, and their antics give much joy. The other bit of wildlife news is that the little water feature that I created has an amphibian. Whilst cleaning the filter on the pump something crossed the back of my hand and vanished into the depths; whether it was a frog or one of the toads that we have around the garden I can’t say for sure, but it was another pleasant surprise.

Stay safe, wherever you are.

on blogging

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I began blogging. This was my first blog and it was in tended to work around my business identity as ThatConsultantBloke and so it kept to topics that were relevant to the sort of people that I wanted to work with. There were other things that I wanted to talk about though, mostly on topics that I was interested in and so other blogs appeared.

Then I got to another junction in the road where one of my other blogs became an arm of another business venture that I had and so there was another split so that I could balance work and pleasure there too. This blog refined into something of a weekly ritual for me and it has been the one that gets more of my attention, but it was, at one point, one of eleven blogs that I was writing on. And most of those blogs had their own Twitter and Facebook feeds too.

Towards the end of the last decade I slimmed my operations down and closed several of the blogs, but this one and the other business blog still needed upkeep, but my capacity to keep the blogging levels up still fell short of the resource I had available and so content suffered. Then lockdown came and I started doing something different with this blog, but that too has tailed off this year as times move on.

I am going to be 70 very soon now and I think that I need to look at my remaining blogs. The last big revision saw me merge my personal websites into these blogs and it strikes me now that keeping them all going is simply an act of vanity. I have run down both of my businesses and have no need for promotion of them anymore so what to do next?

A lot of the content of the blogs has some value and so I don’t want to let it go so the likelihood is that I will merge this blog with The Voice of the Bloke at the Back and merge my two motoring and transport related blogs into one. That will leave me with three blogs (there is a music related one too). I need to read up on how I do that and also to understand the consequences of doing it so I have some research to do.

So you may see some changes in the coming weeks. The days are drawing in and I will be spending less time in the garden so I can focus a bit on sorting these blogs out. That will probably see a significant change to the way that they look, but it all good stuff for keeping the brain cells active.

Thanks for stopping by.

PS: I have just realised that a large number of posts have vanished from my blogs. It appears that when I thinned things out earlier in the year, and gave up one of the author identities that I was using, anything that I had written under that ID is lost. C’est la vie.

on humour

I wrote a few months back about personal preferences and touched on humour. I got a bit carried away with my thoughts and wrote so much that I decided to cut it out and give it a post to itself, so here we go.

Humour is very personal and I recognised the generation changes as a teenager. With my parents I had enjoyed radio shows like Hancock’s Half Hour, The Navy Lark, Round the Horne and Beyond My Ken. But then shows like I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again (ISIRTA) came along that I loved, but just bewildered my Mum and Dad. Perhaps that Is why I find very little funny in contemporary humour.

Personal preferences are here again though, and the Wokingham Wonder and I have different tastes.Fortunately we also have a large overlap and, for me, one of the joys in our relationship is that she is tuned into my tendency to go off at tangents from conversations. I have a love of aural humour, possibly from having had so much exposure to radio comedy (we did not have a TV at home on a regular basis until the second half of the Sixties).

That is also probably why I was so disappointed with Monty Python and The Goodies where my heroes from ISIRTA moved on to form part of the former and all of the latter. Visually the humour just did not work for me. I do enjoy visual humour though and two of my favourite films are comedies, (although I did not know that when I went into the cinema to see them). I went to see Blazing Saddles because the lady I was with at the time loved Westerns and I loved it (she didn’t). Mostly it is visual humour, but the dialogue is superb and there are plenty of aural gags in there too. Some years later the lady that I was first married to loved disaster movies and so we went to see Airplane!, me reluctant, her keen and, once again I loved it and she hated it. Airplane! has aural and visual gags aplenty and I was still finding new ones as late as the fifth or sixth time of seeing it.

I love words and playing with them. Spoonerisms and malapropisms litter my conversations at home. English is full of opportunities with things like words ending in ough; plough, cough and so on. Fortunately the Berkshire Belle is sharp enough, and knows me well enough, to pick up on my playing with words and she rarely misses a beat. Often when I go off on one tangent she will pick it up and change direction again.

Written humour I enjoy too, but again some of the modern humour misses for me. Oddly I got into Douglas Adams from the TV adaptation of Hitchhikers Guide and then read the books, enjoying the ingongruity and juxtaposition of ideas. A fello enthusiast for these books amongst my colleagues suggested the Discworld books of Terry Pratchett and lent me several, but these let me down somewhat. There would begin a thread that I thought was going to be brilliant, but they all petered out. It was like watching football or rugby from high in the stand as what could be a great play develops from the back. Just as you get excited with where things are going the wrong pass is made and all is lost. Load of people love the book though and good luck to them.

I enjoy humour with style and wit and much of that seems to be lacking nowadays where crudity and personal attacks seem so often to be what gets the laughs. If that floats your boat then so be it; I am all for people enjoying themselves and having a laugh is a daily necessity for me. If I find different things funny to you then so what? After all, it’s a funny old world.

life log #7

It was inevitable that we would see a resurgence of Covid here in the UK given the large gatherings to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee followed by the other Summer gatherings; Glastonbury, Wimbledon, Silverstone and the myriad of public events. At the supermarket last Saturday mask wearing was about 50:50 with non-mask whereas in recent weeks the mask wearers have been in the minority. I have not resumed wearing a mask whilst out and about as yet, but am seriously considering it.

I am at one of those times when my weight has come off the plateau and staring going up again and I am not sure what to do about reversing the trend. I am eating more fruit and burning off extra calories in the garden every day, but it is not giving me the right results. As yet I am not back on the scales, but there is a bulge around the middle that is giving me the indication that things are not going well.

Somewhere in my mind is that mental switch and once I can find it I can, maybe, start making a difference again. I am allowing myself a few indulgences to keep me cheerful, for example once or twice a week after a heaving afternoon in the garden I allow myself a can or bottle of beer. Those will have to stop. As much as I enjoy them, as a treat, a reward and for the pleasure of a cold drink, they are empty calories. There are always tough choices to be made and I really should be thinking of my health in the long term rather than a little instant gratification.

I am grateful for still being fit and healthy enough to do what I do. The other afternoon I got the big ladder out and spent a couple of hours working across the front of the house at bedroom window level. I don’t know how many times I was up and down that ladder, but my legs knew all about it a couple of days later reminding me that I am almost seventy and not still in my twenties. I did it though and, despite the balance problems that I have from the mouth cancer operations back around 2008-10 (scar tissue has almost closed the tubes to my left ear) I was quite comfortable working at height and very pleased that I can still do all this stuff.

Mental attitude plays a lot in how you feel and what you believe that you can do. I try not to over think about some of these things because it is very easy to convince myself that something is going to be too hard. Equally there are times when I launch into something without thinking through the consequences such as the afternoon that I shifted just over a hundredweight of gravel in the full sun. I need to balance optimism and pessimism a little better perhaps.

The garden has yielded a couple of portions of mixed berries so far, we have tomatoes forming and the bean, carrot and dwarf cucumber plants are looking healthy. This is another bad year in the herb garden though as my parsley has not done well at all and the two sage plants, that had been coming along well, have both died. The only herbs that is thriving are the chives, several of which have been planted as companion plants to the roses as they are supposed to help ward off black spot and the rosemary hedge by the front door that is rampant again after a savage prune over the Winter.

Gardening is very much like life: You have to work at it and, even then, not everything will work out. Bad things happen and it is how you deal with them that counts.

Enough for now. Stay safe out there wherever you are. 

on inventory counts

At work we have just had one of our periodic stock counts and this triggered a memory from just over thirty years ago. It was the beginning of April and I had just taken over my first significant operational command; three warehouses on one site plus part of the office block alongside. I had just over 350 people working for me and, just to add some spice, the computerisation of the operation went live on the morning that I took over.

It was not a great start because the computer system had been poorly specified and it ground to a halt halfway through the first morning, partly because the results of the stock count over the weekend were still being input. By the afternoon we had the first results back from the data input and whilst two of the three product categories we about right the third was showing us a little more than £30M over the expected figure.

One of the problems when you count stock is that the unit that you are counting may not be obvious. For example take a item that comes in boxes of 200 and where 56 such boxes constitute a full pallet. What does that full pallet get recoded as? 1, 56 or 11,200? My own team would have known the answer, but the annual stock count was always done by a professional team of valuers to ensure probity and so errors were always possible. The discrepancy of £30M was going to be down to either an error in the count unit, how that had been interpreted for data input or just an input error.

We set up a report to run on overnight processing (that’s how it worked in those days) and called it a day. The next morning we found that our friends in IT had not checked the paper level on the computer room printer and it had run out about 20% of the way through the report (these were the days of the piano lined paper reports). My colleague the Finance Director had assigned his Chief Accountant to assist and my head of the product category was leading from our side as we searched for the discrepancy, but with so little of the stock report available they were a little hampered.

After lunch things improved when we found one error and got the discrepancy down to £22M. The IT team told us that processing the report that we had asked for and printing it would take 10 hours and so we shut the computer system down again and set it running the report in mid-afternoon, this time with a new box of paper. Then I got the call to go and see the MD…

My colleague the Finance Director, I’ll call him Dick, had decided to duck any blame and dump it on my team, so when I walked into the office there he was looking smug and there were a few of the other senior managers around the table to watch the new boy get shafted. The MD was apoplectic and wanted someone fired. He was a bully, but iike many such people he was also a coward and he was frightened that, if this was a genuine overstock, his neck was on the block. I was the new kid in town, but I needed to fight my team’s corner and to show that whilst I was a new arrival, I hadn’t just come in on the turnip cart.

Looking around the assembled faces I could have suggested that the Purchasing Director might like to see which of his team had bought all of the excess stock, if it did exist, but there was no point in starting a new fight as they all knew who had convened the meeting and why and so I decided that as “Dick” had tried to drop my team in the smelly stuff I would have to take him on.

Smiling, I asked if Dick was happy that the previous year’s count had been accurate. He was so I proposed that, if we did have all of the extra stock, the additional purchases must have been made since then. He agreed again, but slightly hesitantly. I asked if had he not noticed any unusually large invoices, for his team would have been invoice matching against deliveries before paying the bills and the sort of value we were talking about must have stood out, surely? After all, such invoices would have been at his level of authority to sign off. Was it not also the case that we would have gone over budget and would he not have picked up on that at the time? Perhaps if he could remember any such event it would help us to narrow down where the problem was. Blood drained from Dick’s face as the MD switched his ire from me to him.

All of a sudden Dick was backing away from blaming my people and agreeing that the problem was either a stock unit error or one of data input after all. I could have gone on to suggest that, in the latter case, that was his fault too as the data input had been done by his team, but the initial crisis was over and it was agreed that we would review the situation the next afternoon. I had made my point.

The next morning we had the full report that we needed and found the main error in minutes. By the end of the day we had found a few more and were within 0.02% of where we expected to be, and all of the errors were due to data input bar one where the wrong stock unit had been used. No-one got fired and I went on to enjoy three good years in that job.

We got the computer system working too, I later married the lady that the MD was threatening to fire and, all these years later, we are still together.

I like happy endings.

musings on performance reporting (again)

My loathing of KPIs is well documented amongst previous scribbling here, but recently I felt the bile rising again when I was asked to provide some comments on the Crown Commercial Service framework for Facilities Management.

I know well the old adage that if you can’t measure then you can’t manage, but almost everyone that I have heard trotting that line out couldn’t manage anyway, at least by my book. Of course you need some metrics to manage by, but which ones? The best data is that which comes when recorded from the act of performing the work because it is free. In many situations you can look at almost any aspect of your operation and see what you are doing, where, when and how often. This is great as long as you don’t spend too much time looking at it.

But all too often there is a contractual requirement to report on things that you need to collate and compile information of and doing that takes time, and therefore money. Now I don’t mind spending money if I am investing it wisely, but I don’t like wasting it and all too often I have had to throw cash away on producing KPIs that have been little more than an excuse to waste more time talking about.

In the brief on the new CCS framework there is a reference to holding monthly meeting to report on, amongst other things, a raft of Social Justice activities. In other words people are going to be asked to demonstrate that they are obeying the law and other regulations. This is a principle that I first remember coming across in the bribery and corruption regulations a few years back and basically this requires you to prove that you are innocent. That is wrong on every level, but it seems that our civil servants don’t think so.

It is a fundamental part of due diligence during the vetting of contractors during the tender phase to ensure that they have appropriate compliance processes in place and, once the contract is placed there is no reason why the client should not seek to check these processes. But to have the contractor report on how they are applying them monthly is just ludicrous.

We should be cutting red tape, not adding to it and I think that this sort of thing is a national scandal. This year I reach my three score years and ten. So far the Grim Reaper has had his hands around my throat three or four times and yet I have wriggled free each time. If the above is the way that the world genuinely wants things then if the bloke with the scythe was to knock on the door now I would rush out screaming “Take me, Take me now.”

life log #6

Wow! Three months since I last wrote one of these. I am not sure why it has been so long, but it may just be that I have been too involved in other things.

I write best when I am quiet. Music is about the only sound that does not put me off, but sometimes it does distract me as well. My most prolific writing times were when I was working from home and the Berkshire Belle was still at work. She would go off to the office about a quarter to eight every morning and then it would be just me and the cats. I had about eight blogs on the go as well as writing for magazines and other projects. I could knock out twenty to thirty thousand words most days and, whilst I have never made a fortune from my scribblings, I didn’t do too b badly at earning a few bob either.

Things change though and I haven’t written for publication for six or seven years now other than a few things as an industry pundit, but they don’t pay or really count as writing. I seem to have too many other things that occupy my time and have not felt the need to inflict my thoughts on the world at large. These life logs started out as lockdown logs and seem to have developed a following as pretty much every day there is some feedback on them so I apologise to anyone who has wondered where I had got to.

Most of my time since March has been taken up in my back garden. The fencing contractors came in May and that was the catalyst for a lot of things to get started. I still have a lot to do and there is the daily maintenance of what I have done to take care of so I can easily spend an hour a day just on the latter. I now have a back garden that is habitable and have been able to just sit out there and read a couple of times. Maybe I can sit out there and write too.

The Double B and I have stopped wearing masks when out shopping and I no longer wear one at work. Neither of us is that comfortable with the decision, but we felt that we wanted to try and move a bit more back towards the way that things were. She has had her second booster and it seems that I will get mine in the Autumn. We are still carrying masks with us in the car though in case we decide that we want to use them. One possible side effect is that I have have had almost no sinus pain over the Covid period where I have been wearing a mask for between 3 and 4 hours a day, but within days of stopping masking up I am having problems again. Was recycling that humid breath beneficial? Who knows.

We are still undecided about a holiday this year, but will have to make a decision soon. We are both desperate to have a break, but can’t face the hassle that seems to prevail at the moment. Our type of vacation always involves scheduled flights on mainstream airlines and between primary hubs, so things might not be too bad, but 2 or 3 hours queuing for immigration or security is not too much fun, especially for the Berkshire Belle.

Anyway, that’s it for now and I will try not to take so long before the next one.

Stay safe out there wherever you are.