Archive for the ‘The Monday Musings Column’ Category

on computers and me, part four

In 1987 I bought my first PC, an Amstrad purchased from Dixons and with it a dot matrix printer. My children were ten and six and I wanted to, at least, get them used to a PC. I quickly found that we did not have enough memory and so a Western Digital hard drive was fitted and so began a decade or more of upgrading computers. It also got me back into programming because the proprietary software always had so much overhead and writing a BASIC routine that did just what I wanted and no more was far more economical on working memory. It also got me back into hands-on computing.

At work the following year I was interviewed for the job my old boss had vacated and was appointed. My appointment start date would be April 1st 1989. I should have realised the significance of that, especially knowing well who it was that I would be replacing. I had shared with my old boss my old user software testing plan to help him with the system that I would now be inheriting, but it turned out that he had ignored it. We went live on the Monday morning at eight and by ten we had ground to a halt.

Things were compounded by the stock take that had gone on over the previous weekend and the initial valuation, after inputting the figures, showed us to be £M22 overstocked. With my boss in hiding and the MD on the warpath I had the Berkshire Belle hunting the cock-up whilst I tried to get us working again.

The computer problem was a simple one: There had been no soak test of the system with all types of user running on it at once. Instead, each module had been tested in isolation and each worked fine. The trouble was that as soon as someone accessed an item’s record the system locked that item. If a buyer opened the record for item 4567889 Goggle Sprocket, left-handed, no other part of the system could use that record, so if someone ‘phoned in to order one, the person who took the call could not process the order. If One of the warehouse teams wanted to print a picking list that had that item on it, they couldn’t, and nor could they confirm that they had picked it for another order. Any activity regarding that item was barred across the entire system until the buyer closed the record, and they had probably gone off to make a cup of tea. It didn’t matter who was on the system or what record they were looking up, no-one else could use it.

It was an idiotic piece of programming, based on a requirement that should never have been allowed to be written into the spec, but there it was. Faced with a system that we could not use, my IT friends, and I use the expression with a shovelful of irony, told us that we had agreed that there would be no system upgrades for three months. I told them that if there was no sign of an upgrade for me to test by close of play the following day, I would re-write the thing myself. For the immediate problem I took away access to the system for everyone except a select few and, by mid-afternoon, we were trying to catch up by entering all of the transactions that we had had to log manually. It had all been a bit too macho, with all the testosterone flowing, but I was really pissed that my new team had been misled and let down so badly by people who should have done better: I felt entitled to a rant and enjoyed it so much that I began to incorporate it into my repertoire. Just for special occasions your understand.

The solution took a week to re-programme after I had taken a day to re-design the way it needed to work and issue a specification accordingly. It was a baptism of fire, but there is a great deal of pleasure in firefighting. It is now way to run a business, but, boy, is it fun. The adrenalin rush is a serious high and I was loving being back in a hands-on environment again. Oh, and we found the £M22 too, thanks to the Berkshire Belle and her pal in Finance.

Out of nowhere I had found new motivation, and, despite a horrid home life, I had found a reason to carry on. Any thoughts of ending it all dissipated through that Summer of 1989, but I needed to end my marriage and took legal advice on the subject. The Berkshire Belle and I had become friends as well as colleagues as we got to know each other better and were spending a lot of time together at work as well as travelling on business together. Things were purely platonic though.

The computer system was running, but it suffered from the problem that I talked about a couple of episodes ago in that it had been nearly five years from feasibility study to go-live. A lot had changed along the way and the initial scope had been too limited. We stocked around 26,000 products on a regular basis, but the system would only give us a stock total for each line. With three warehouses to spread our stock around we were still using manual records so that we knew where everything was. For example, we might have 56 pallets of one line, but they could not all be in the same place. We needed to know where each on was and be able to track stock as moved around the site.

We also had a clapped-out fleet of fork lift trucks and a lot of redundant conveyor systems, and so I put together a five year plan with an outline of how it would be financed. That all got through the corporate capital planning round in the August and we were good to go to start doing something better for the troops.

More to come next week.

on computers and me, part three

My journey into the world of computing back in 1982 had also seen the crumbling of my marriage. That first, high-profile, prohad seen me working away from home for weeks on end. Often, I would get home on Saturday evening and be on my way back to site on Sunday morning. My son Peter was born in June 1982 and the oft stated “I didn’t see him awake until he was eighteen months old”, whilst said in jest, and obviously untrue, is not that far off the mark. I was earning a small fortune and getting immense professional satisfaction, but my personal life was descending into the toilet. Leaving IT for the Swindon job was about trying to save my marriage as much as anything else by getting a job where I had about a 30-minute commute each way. I could see the children before I went to work, and they would be still up and about when I got home from the office.

Last week we had arrived in the back end of 1987, and I had been saved from the corporate scrapheap because of a chain of events. The computerisation of the Swindon operation had gone live in a very restricted form, but the full computerisation was still outstanding and one of the problems was that the key player on the user side had not done anything that they were supposed to have done. They got found out and had some form of breakdown that required them to be replaced at short notice. I was the natural choice, but I did not have the rank. My boss did and he was shunted across whilst I was stuffed into what was left of his old job, given some extra things to do and, pleasingly for me, I got temporarily promoted to his rank.

It was barely five years since I had first got involved in computing and now I was sitting on various steering committees deciding on the strategic direction of one of the country’s major public corporations. I should not have been there in terms of rank, but such things were boring to those who should have been there, and they hadn’t got a clue as to what was being discussed, nor decided on. I did, and so I got to go. I got by because I knew what was being discussed and I had enough credibility because of the projects that I had been involved with. Yes, the meeting were often boring, but being there meant that I had influence and that was a drug that I quickly became hooked on.

The Berkshire Belle and I had got to know each other a little better and, whilst I still fancied her, I was on about Plan K of trying to make something of my marriage. I loathed what I was doing at work and that threw my disastrous home life into sharp relief. I decided that one last throw of the dice was worth taking and then, if that didn’t work, I would kill myself. If I could last a year on my temporary promotion, then it would enhance the death in service benefits due and my wife and children would be financially secure. I would be gone and so did not give a shit.

The last roll of the dice was to move house again, this time to a village just outside of Swindon where I could still commute by ‘bus. We made that move in the September, but it changed nothing. My end, I decided, was nigh. But you’re still here, writing all this crap thirty or more years later, I hear you exclaim, and you are right. Did I bottle it? Not exactly. As usual, things are complicated.

I was, by then, a regular traveller along the old Fosse Way as I had to go to our offices outside of Rugby a lot. Usually, I would be driving back late in the evening having been speaking after dinner there and I had found on the long, dead straight, stretches of that old Roma highway, two large trees embedded in the bank beside the road. “Looks like he fell asleep at the wheel, he’d done a day’s work in Swindon, then driven to Rugby and was on his way home about 11. Must have been knackered.” They would have said. Hitting one of those trees at 90 mph would have been my lot, and who would thought that I had done it on purpose?

So that was my plan, but then two things happened in a single day. I had gone to London on the train and, on the way back from Paddington, was held up for an hour between Reading and Didcot because of a Woolly (Wolly Jumper; person committing suicide by walking into a moving train). A quick aside: Why do the media always say, “Person hit by train” and thus imply that the train has left the tracks and hunted their victim down? Anyway, I was somewhat pissed off by this selfishness (OK, I’m coming to that), and thinking about that fact that I was on one of a squadron of HSTs, each carrying about 600 people by that point, all of whom were being inconvenienced, plus the effects on the train crew and emergency services. Erm, yes, so what about my plan? OK, I wasn’t going to walk in front of a train, but I was going to close a cross country highway for several hours and, whilst I had planned on a late-night accident, I knew full well from experience that the road would probably still have been closed for the next morning’s commute. Bad plan. Scrap it and thing of another way out.

I got home and trotted into work the next morning to find that the General Manager at work was moving on and that his operational subordinate, my old boss, was to replace him. That left a vacancy and, as I was only in a temporary position, and one that had not guarantee of continuing, I was told to apply. I did, not least because one of the key aspects of the job was that the computer system was going to go live on the day that I would, if successful, start work. I would have a new computer project: Well new to me anyway. It also meant that I would be working with the Berkshire Belle. 

To be continued, part four next week.

on computers and me, part two

Last week saw me landing in Swindon, having escaped from IT and become, to a degree, poacher turned gamekeeper. Towards the end of the first week in that new job, back in the Autumn of 1984, two things happened; firstly, I met the lady who I would, at the end of that decade, set up home with (I’ll come back to her later, but, for regular readers, this was the Berkshire Belle), and secondly, I was presented with an IBM PC: I had not seen one before, but my new lords and masters had assumed, me being ex-IT, that I would know all about. Fortunately it had arrived late in the afternoon and so I took advantage of the wonders of flexi-time and buggered off home on the ‘bus with the PC’s manual, and the MS-DOS and MS-BASIC manuals, in my briefcase.

By the time that Thamesdown Transport’s Outer Circle service had dropped me back at the office the next day I had three programmes written in MS-BASIC; one nonsense routine to amuse, or annoy, colleagues, another to calculate expense claims and the third a new version of an American Football game that a pall and I had written in COBOL back in London. I settled at the computer desk, powered up the IBM for the first time and got to work. Sure enough, an audience arrived. Someone asked what I was doing, and I told them I was checking that it was working. How did I do that? I moved aside and asked a colleague to type in “Are you working OK?” They did, and, after a short pause, the word “Yes” appeared on the VDU. Some seemed impressed, others less so; “Is that it?” asked one. I suggested to the colleague who had taken my seat and typed the first question that they should ask if it was sure. They typed that in and, after a shorter pause; “I’ve told you once. Either ask me to do something or piss off and leave me to think in peace.” Scrolled across the screen. Exit audience, and it was about half an hour later than one of them sidled back to ask if that hat been a wind up. I told them no, that the IBM was sulking because I wasn’t wearing blue socks. (Quick lesson: In jokes only work with people who are in).

For a short while I was back as a programmer, writing odd little routines for the trio of IBMs that we had acquired and one of the simplest of these was another routine to blind with science. One of the stock controllers was getting regularly whipped at the weekly management meetings because his figures were manually generated rather than coming off the new computer system that had just been introduced. No-one would believe his numbers and so I wrote him a little routine so that he could type in his figures and print them off on piano lined paper. He did this and handed the report around at the next management meeting: Ho got no comments. Just seeing his figures as apparently off the system was all it took. Smoke and mirrors.

The project that I had been drawn down to Swindon for involved computerising purchasing and stock control at local and regional offices around the UK. This project would be linked to a parallel one in Swindon from where central stocks and purchasing were undertaken. I was back in my business analyst role, but with responsibility for field testing the new systems and rolling them out. This project ran on IBM System 36/38 minicomputers, standard business machines of the time and, again, the size of a large washing machine. The software was in a language called 4GL and I learned enough of this to write routines to run the sort of reports that we needed, it being quicker to do that than to go through the formal process of asking for them to be written by the IT people. They never spotted what had been done behind their backs.

The Berkshire Belle enters the story again here because her job changed and she became the key user contact for the Swindon based project and used to sweep into our office clutching her packet of Marlboros and her lighter to engage in heated debate with my boss squared. I developed something of a crush on her at this time. And she terrified me too.

Computer projects are a hard slog. They involve change and that is something that many people instinctively resist. They also mean that what people are actually doing, as opposed to what they are supposed to be doing, get exposed and that is a threat. They encroach on fiefdoms and, often, sweep them away. They also impose deadlines that few like to have imposed on them, but worst of all, they take control of things. On arriving at most sites and introducing myself, the words; “I’ve come to computerise your stores” often appear to be heard as; “I’ve come to rape your wife and daughters.” One is usually as welcome as a dose of piles.

But the weight of the corporate machine meets the wealth of corporate anarchy head on and usually the result is some form of score draw. I was unusual in that I was a generalist in a specialist role. I was well travelled around the business, knew how the system worked and had mentors in high places. I didn’t have to invoke the latter, but knowing the system meant that I could often break deadlocks and my reputation as a hustler grew through the mid-eighties.

One of the major problems with big computer systems is that they are big. The bigger the project the more people get consulted and involved and by the time that you get a specification signed off as what is needed that requirement is probably out of date. When you finally get around to implementing the thing, a year or more downstream, it is definitely not what is needed, even if it is what everyone wanted. Look at any of the major governmental computerisation projects and they all fall down this hole. Too much time is pend on getting the spec tight, when the better option is to go with something more flexible that can adapt to the world that it enters.

A lot of time is wasted on computerising what is done now rather than producing a system that will work with what is possible. I battled away, but the project that on was working on was shut down almost overnight when the organisation decided to split into four divisions: three operating businesses and an overall HQ. There was wholesale scrapping of computer projects, not just mine, and thus a large surplus of computer project people. I dived for cover into a strategic role: The ivory tower was not my natural habitat, but any port in a storm (I come from two generations of Royal Navy stokers, nautical expressions come naturally).

To be continued: Part three next week.

on computers and me, part one

My first interaction with computers, at least that I am aware of, came in 1972 when, in my job as a stock controller working in the regional depot of a national wholesale chain, I received print outs on the piano paper that we used back then. I also had to start using product codes rather than descriptions when ordering stock. Neither activity made much difference to my life either way, for I did not have any direct involvement with the magic box in far off Swindon, I just filled in forms.

A couple of years later I went to work in the TV rental business. Yes, a lot of people rented their televisions back then and every High Street in every town would have around half a dozen TV rental chains fighting for your business. There we again had no direct contact with the computers, but all the documentation that we filled in on multi-part pads had to be done in little grids, one letter or number per space, and letters had to be capitals. That, by the way, caused me to lose the ability to do joined up writing after nearly three years working there, but I digress. The computers at head office in Watford churned out all sorts of things for us to do. The machines were taking over my life.

I moved on, as we did in the Seventies, and machine-readable forms were all around. They had become omni-present in the world of commerce, and as I moved around the corporate monolith that I had joined computers lurked somewhere around, heard perhaps, but never seen. We used a service called Comshare (I don’t know how it was spelt) and every afternoon the call would go up from the team working opposite me that the bar had been lifted and they would all start to key in data, racing against the moment when our slot ended. I made sure that none of that nonsense sullied my working day.

By then I had a daughter and we had bought one of those tennis games that you plugged into your TV, my own first contact with the beast. That was soon followed by a games console, an Atari if I remember correctly, for which we bought various game cartridges, including the inevitable Space Invaders.

But it was around then, late 1981, that jobs as computer programmes were advertised at work. The business was recruiting computer professionals from outside but wanted to enlist some of their own people. I applied, went through a series of tests, passed them, and went on for interviews and aptitude tests before being told that I had one of the jobs. A colleague in the engineering team lent me a Sinclair ZX device (plus manual), but that left me somewhat confused, and apprehensive. What had I got myself into?

Reporting for work I found that I was to train as a programmer using a computer language called COBOL. I passed my City and Guilds of London exams and came back to work. In those three months I did not see a single computer. The nearest that I got was when I had my coding done and was allowed to book time on a terminal to input my work and then wait for the, inevitable, error report.

Back in the office we had all sorts of midi-computers lying around: Manufacturers were lending us kit to try and persuade us to buy their wares. I was no problem to find one to play with and we were encouraged to try our hand. One early project was to set up a programme to collate and report on a pub darts league. For this we were using a machine about the size of a large domestic fridge-freezer. No-one batted an eyelid.

I had been allocated to a project that had not yet started and my role was to be more of a business analyst with the software being supplied by an outside agency. With the spec in hand, I wrote one part of the intended system using COBOL on the same NCR machine that I had done the darts programme. There was something of a thrill to work out what you had to tell the machine to do in order for it to produce the desired results but, having demonstrated that I could do it to an acceptable standard, the business had found that I had other skills within the IT sphere. My programming days were not over, but I was destined for other things.

By now I was working with minicomputers, but these were the size of the sort of washing machine that you would find in a launderette. Home computers were around, the BBC, Commodore and such, but we treated these with some contempt, they were just toys as far as we were concerned, and we dealt with the real thing. 

Perceptions amongst our peers were odd though. We had a demonstration room where we could show colleagues, customers and other worthies (and more than a few unworthies) what we were up to. I had been drafted as lead demonstrator and, on my first rehearsal, the PR people (the floppy hanky brigade as we called them) decided that all of the backroom kit was boring. I drafted in a couple of old tape drive units, the sort that would just about block a doorway, and wrote a few lines of codes to make them whir and spin their tapes every few seconds, even throwing in some flashing lights for good measure. The floppy hankies were thrilled…

My project lasted just under two years and then I was lost in the pool of programmers and analysts waiting for The Next Big Thing. I would have settled for anything and did, getting involved in evaluating ATMs and voice recognition software. The latter was a hoot, and we had a press day to show off our prowess in such things. The morning session went very well with not a beat missed and so we retired to the wine bar for a quick lunch before a second demo in the afternoon. None of us realised how much effect alcohol had on one’s vocal functions and the bloody software had to be retrained before we could proceed and, of course, drinking water while we did it started to bring our voices back, so we were in a state of flux. That project was quietly forgotten.

I decided that I did not want to be a decent sized fish in an ocean and headed to Swindon where, for those of you paying attention, my first computing encounter had been driven from. Here I joined a team who were, in management speak, the Informed Client. That meant that we sat between the IT team (the one that I had just left, or, at least, the local branch thereof, and the various departments at that outpost of headquarters. It would take me a couple of years, but I was to become a decent sized fish in a modest pond, and to spend some of my happiest years at work there.

If you’re still here, thanks for hanging in there and I’ll be part with part two next Monday.

on changing tastes

This is not just about food and drink, although I might as well start there. As you age your taste buds change as does your sense of smell and both affect how food and drink tastes. What we like or dislike can change as a result, but some of that is clouded by the way regulation has impacted on the food industry.

Recipes have changed to meet new regulations on things like preservatives and additives, and there have been other changes in the interests of profit. The way some foods are grown has also brought about change. In the same way that some cut flowers are grown for looks and have no scent, fruit and veg are grown in ways that make them look good, but have little or no taste.

A combination of these factors mean that when I revisit something that I used to enjoy twenty, thirty or more years ago it does not taste anything like I remember it, or at least I don’t get the same sense of enjoyment as I remember.

The same applies in other areas, and it was literature that got me started on this train of thought. The Berkshire Belle and I are avid readers. We can both get through a book in a day if we have nothing else to do, but she will get through around 5 a week and I am on about 3 at the moment. I tend to read bigger, non-fiction books more so we are probably about even in terms of words read a day.

Recently, having got used to an e-reader, I have been going back to some of the authors that I used to enjoy, but there have been some disappointments along the way. Back in the Seventies I found Neville Shute books in my local library and became hooked. I read all of them and enjoyed most, but re-visiting them has not been a success. I’ve picked on him as an example, but there are others. Stories that I found riveting half a lifetime ago I now find contrived and implausible. Alistair MacLean is another prime example.: His books kept me amused on many a road trip a while back, but leave me cold now (and not just Ice Station Zebra).

Not all tastes have changed though, because I have tried some authors that I could not get on with and still find them wanting. Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway still have no appeal to me at all and I cannot understand why they are so lauded. Another popular author, more recent, that I have also tried again is Terry Pratchett, but his work still seems to just not quite get there for me, it seems to go off in the direction of genius, and then lets me down.

I suppose that experience has something to do with it. I have lived through a lot since I first started to read sixty five years ago, and the callow teenager, whilst not far below the surface in many ways, has turned into an old man who have seen and experienced a lot. My judgement has been influenced by all of it along the way. But is seems odd that whilst I have lost my taste for some of what used to give me pleasure, I have not learned to get on with some of the others.

One constant for me has been music and I still love stuff from my younger days every bit as much as I used to. Within my playlists there is classical music through blues, jazz, pop, rock, soul, country, reggae and other genres through to about the mid-1980s. You won’t find much created since then because I don’t like most of it. In fact after a purple patch from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies things do tail off somewhat, but I still go back to all that and love it as much as I ever did. I am also still finding things from those times that I missed out on, but have now discovered and love just as much.

So have I got into anything new, things that I didn’t like, but now do? Well curry would be one. My first experiences of curry houses on the High Street back in the early seventies was not good and I loathed the stuff in terms of look, smell and taste, but the Hastings Hottie got me into curries gently, serving me up “spicy prawns” as she called them (a prawn curry to anyone else) and we’ve gone from there. The best meal that I have eaten was an Indian one, albeit at a Michelin starred restaurant, and working in North Africa, Thailand and China where I have eaten the authentic curries from those regions has helped me come to enjoy the stuff. I now cook it at home almost weekly.

I also had no taste for whisky until the late 1990s. I had only tried grain and blends by then and was not a fan, but ensconced in a Midlands hotel for a week at a time working on a project one of my colleagues introduced me to single malts in the bar one evening. I tried a few and whilst I could not get on with the heavily peated whiskies of Islay, I have grown to like most of the other regions and have enjoyed Japanese whisky too ( a 24 year old Yamazaki). I am a Speyside fan especially, but in my decanter at present is an Orkney.

A couple of examples there of things that I could not abide, but now enjoy, so I do have the capacity to add some new things to my life. At least I am still enjoying it.

the movies

The Berkshire Belle and I have been together for just over 33 years now, and we have done many things together over that time. We’ve holidayed in four countries, crossed the Atlantic more than 100 times, owned property abroad, eaten in some of the finest restaurants, been to the theatre and to some big gigs, but we have, as yet, not been to the pictures together.

We have come close a couple of times, both in the USA. Once, at a Gulf Coast shopping mall that included a cinema complex, we misread the posters as we walked in from the car park and the film that we fancied wasn’t on until the following week. The other time was down Fort Lauderdale way where we were passing a drive in movie theatre on a daily basis. One night they were due to show Grease and we thought that it would be a bit of fun, but a thunderstorm cancelled the showing. C’est la vie.

And so we haven’t been as yet, and I doubt that we will now having heard from friends and family the sort of behaviour that seems to prevail in such places now. The other likely deterrent is the sort of films that are on release: There is little that appeals to us.

We have seen a number of films that have been released since we got together, but only on TV. Mostly these have been romantic comedies; the Bridgit Jones films, Four Weddings and a Bus Garage (or whatever it was) and so on, plus all of the Harry Potter series as a few examples. But mostly our film watching involves films from before we got together and often from our respective teenage years through the fifties and sixties.

Some that is nostalgia, but more of it is about style and wit. These days it seems that if there is no violence or sex every couple of minutes the audience can’t cope. There is little sign of witty dialogue nor that other quality of silence where the images are allowed to tell the story. We will take a British 1950s B movie over pretty much any contemporary film. But that’s OK, we understand that we are not the audience that movie makers are targeting these days.

That is how the world works. Time passes and things change. When I talk to the youngsters at work their idea of entertainment is so different in the same way that my parents could not understand, or enjoy, the things that I liked in my teens. I would not have wanted them to: It was the kiss of death if my Mother said that she quite liked a song that was one of my favourites. The perennial generation gap is one of the things that moves the world along.

I have lived through several phases of the generation gap from childhood to being a great-grandparent(I might even have great-great-grandchildren – I’m not in touch with some of my offspring). The world is theirs now and they are welcome to it. I am fortunate enough to have the love of a good woman and can enjoy what time we have left. Will we ever get to a movie theatre together? Probably not, but we are, in some ways, still behaving like teenagers in love and maybe on one of our US trips we might just get to do a drive-in movie. Like they used to in the movies. That could be fun.

on joining things

I have been a member of all sorts of clubs, associations, trade unions, professional bodies and the like. I have also been a member of many teams, both professional and sporting. I have been an officer of several of these bodies, usually elected by the membership, or a sub-set of it. I general though, I do not like being a member of anything and am very much of the Groucho Marx viewpoint: I don’t want to be a member of any sort of club that would have me as a member.

It may be due to my solitary childhood where I had to make my own amusement has left me with a preference for my own company and a reluctance to share. I am a private person to a degree, but can be very sociable when I have to. I have spent almost the whole of my working life having to be sociable; barman, salesman, boss. All of these require feeling comfortable with others as a key skill. Perhaps it is because I have had to do it to earn a crust that makes me happy when I can switch off the charm.

Over my working life after I got into management one of the things that I loathed was sycophancy. I know that I held up my own advancement my nor just refusing to play that game, but by actively going against that flow. I was not a Yes Man and didn’t want that sort on my teams either; I much preferred to work with people who would challenge my thinking. The thought of joining a club of like minded people somehow fills me with dread.

Something else that I loathed in my professional career were those p[eople who put themselves before the organisation that we worked for and I have found that unions, membership organisations, charities and clubs are full of that sort of person in their committees. It is why I have never lasted very long as an officer of such organisations. I want to be there to further the interests of the membership, not to have to deal with vanities and egos.

Being part of a team in a working environment is one thing and I still have that. It’s one of the reasons why I am still working at my age and, somehow, I doubt that I will ever fully retire. I started work nearly 60 years ago just before my 11th birthday in a Saturday job and have worked consistently since. It is a drug I can’t give up it seems. But being part of a working team is one thing, to join a club, or whatever, is another. The older I get the more solitary I get and, apart from the Berkshire Belle, I do not seek the company of others.

I am still interested in other people, and am happy to talk to them when I encounter them, But I don’t seek out that sort of contact. I am aware that I don’t have too many years left now and every minute becomes more precious. I do not want to waste any of them on things that are not going to bring pleasure and that precludes being part of some group, club or whatever. There is a constant stream of suggestions as you get older about groups to join. I walk for exercise and often encounter groups of folk approximately my age. “Walk with us” they suggest, but I can’t think of anything worse. Others have enticed about U3A and how I could get into that, but, having had a look, no thanks. The Men’s Shed concept almost appealed, but not enough to make me want to join in.

I would rather play with my toys on my own; To quote another Hollywood luminary, “Include me out”.

on writing and story telling

Like most people I started writing at school where essays were regularly required on a range of topics according to the subject being taught. Although we were usually given a target number of words, 500 being common, we were rarely kept to this, 10% under or over would normally be OK and, of course, you had to have addressed the subject.

The only time that I can remember being given a specific target was as a punishment when I was found with a Free Nelson Mandela badge on my duffle bag, such adornments being forbidden, and was told to write two essays, one in support of his release and the other in support of his continued confinement and both of which were to e exactly 500 words. I had a week, and delivered both. I’m not sure if they were read, they were not commented on, but the words were certainly counted.

After I had left school my first couple of jobs involved me writing about properties for sale and here an economy of words was required to attract people rather than bore them. After those jobs I moved into areas where the only writing that I did was to fill in forms and, this being the early days of computer input, such forms were filled in using capital letters set into pre-printed boxes. My handwriting skills faded along with any ability that I might have had to write.

In the late 1970s I moved into a job where I wrote invitations to tender for major engineering and construction projects. I had to re-learn handwriting to a standard good enough for the typing pool to interpret and how to tell stories in a way that would produce responses that would do the jobs that were were asking for. It was another opportunity to be economical with language in order to be very specific.

Then I got into computing and wrote programs using the very structured language of business machines (BOBOL was my genre, for want of a better word). It was story telling of a sort, in that you told the computer what to do to make things happen. It was an intellectual challenge to apply the specific syntax required, but was almost like learning to write in a foreign language. It was called pseudo code and was a staging post between English and the machine code that would be generated from it.

Business report writing followed that and here I was back in the world of writing in my native tongue, or at least sort of. It was story telling in that you had to write words that would lead to a conclusion and the tale that you had to tell did not always lead conclusively to the end that was required. There was a skill in biasing the facts so that the reader would follow your path to where you wanted them to go. Paths that might have led to other conclusions needed to be there, but written of in such a way that the reader would not choose to follow them. This allowed for the situation where the chosen solution proved to be the wrong one, but you could show that the right option had been there, but was not selected. The technical term for this is arse covering.

Until the advent of desktop computers and word processing in the mid-1980s the typing pool ruled business correspondence and the typing supervisor’s word was law. The house style ruled and no matter what you wrote it would be tidied before it was allowed out (unless you had upset them; I recall a colleague who misspelled warehouse with an h after the w and did not make the next letter clearly an a. The result was a proposal for an whorehouse). One could learn a lot about writing well if one courted that typing pool supervisor.

I became reasonably good at writing business correspondence in all forms and it was some help in advancing my career until Business Speak, or Management Speak, came to the fore and my penchant for writing plain English went out of fashion. The ability to write, or speak, completely meaningless bollocks became the skill to have. I loathed it.

My first efforts at blogging came after I went freelance as a business consultant. A web presence of some sort was necessary to keep my name out there and I dived in looking for my cyberspace voice. It was in an airport lounge in the US that I found my muse. I was sat with one of those yellow legal pads that are the norm over there scribbling down ideas for blogs. Sat next to me was a rather frail looking lady and we began to chat. She was a journalist who also worked as a freelance editor and was suffering from terminal cancer. She had been making a visit to former colleagues and was heading home to die, but she took one of my business cards and said that she would look at my writing. Her advice was to aim for 600 words each week and to say something at the beginning of each blog that I could bring the story back to in the last paragraph. “Become a columnist” she advised.

I took that on board for some time and if you dig back into these musings you will find that I hit 600 words week after week and a lot of those blogs I am quite proud of when I look back on them (which isn’t often). It was hard work and I admire the people who do that sort of thing for a living. When I began to earn money from writing features three years of banging out 1600 words once a month was hard enough, but to write a daily, or even weekly, column is a talent that I admire immensely.

As may be obvious if you are following me I have begun to write regularly again. I am trying to find my way back into writing more often if not regularly. Part of the issue is having something to say. but there are five part completed novels sitting in my files and to get one of those over the finishing line would be an achievement. I could re-visit some of the other books that I have written and revise them perhaps (they are still selling).

To be able to write for pleasure is a great thing and as long as I can stop it becoming the chore that it did at one time then maybe I can get back to a regular pattern. If you are happy to read what I write then it is nice to have an audience.

on drinking

I am talking here about alcohol, but not just that. It came to mind because the Berkshire Belle was doing a survey on-line and was asked about our family consumption of booze and soft drinks amongst other products and the survey didn’t seem to want to accept an accurate answer.

There was a time, thirty years or more ago when we first were together we used to keep a wine box in the ‘fridge and would have a glass when we got home from the office and top that up when we sat down to eat half an hour or so later. At weekends we would have a bottle of wine on the table on each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings and would often have a gin and tonic on Sunday afternoon. Not a vast intake, but that was how we were.

Now we share a bottle of wine that lasts us for both Friday and Saturday dinners, or possibly Saturday and Sunday if Friday’s meal does not suit wine (a curry for example). On a bank holiday weekend we might splash out and have two bottles, or perhaps a gin and tonic on the day that we don’t have wine. Otherwise through the week we are largely alcohol free.

I do sometimes treat myself to a bottle of beer whilst cooking our meals; cooks privilege, and I do use alcohol in cooking quite often. Our consumption of alcohol has diminished considerably, not that we were boozers to start with.

Neither of us likes to lose control and many of the opportunities that we had for social drinking came through work where we had an almost paranoid desire not to do something that we would regret or, worse still, do something that we did not remember, but that others would. I became a master at making one bottle of beer last all evening to the point that I think more of it evaporated rather than went down my throat. The Berkshire Belle was a mistress of the art of circulating and leaving drinks behind her all around the room having just wet her lips on each.

I first got drunk at a works party when I was about 19. I was told the next day that people had been pouring unwanted spirits into my pint of beer. Hilarious, but on the way home I had lost my beautiful hand made leather wallet. The hangover was something too. The next time that I got drunk was at a do at the Cafe Royale. It was a similar cause, but this time it was the First Lady that I was married to who sabotaged me, swapping her continuously refilled wine glass for my rapidly emptying ones. I should have noticed, but I was in my brief spell as a pompous pratt and was too busy bending the ears of our fellow diners to notice until it was time to go and I had problems standing. A few brain cells had enough function to get my lady and I to a taxi and to our hotel, but I had a stinking headache the next morning.

By that time I was working in London in a very boozy environment. We took it in turns to take one lady director home every afternoon and it was not uncommon to have to put her over your shoulder to carry her in to her home. It was a lunchtime session at that job that put me, if not on the wagon, walking alongside. Our team was breaking up on conclusion of a project and we went off to a wine bar near St Pauls in London a few yards from our office. there were six of us to start with, but all of a sudden there was just Helen and I, both of whom were supposed to be testing software that afternoon. We finished the bottle we had before us and went back to our test room, put the coffee pot on and started work, b both now realising that we had really tied one on that lunchtime. As darkness fell, it was early December, we packed up and, between us, we found enough cash for Helen to get a taxi home to Hackney.

I headed off to Liverpool Street station and a train back to Marks They up in the top right corner of Essex and about an hour away on the train. Asleep before the train left the station the peculiar rhythm of the rails not long before my station awoke me and I got off in the right place for the short walk home. There I found my mother-in-law was visiting and I sat down alone to eat my tea, kept warm in the over. Then I went for a shower, came downstairs and cooked myself another meal. No-one was impressed, and nor was I when I got the credit card bill through as saw what I had spent in the wine bar.

This isn’t just about booze though, because I just like the physical sensation of drinking. I can down a pint of water in one go and frequently do. I like the mouth feel and the sensation of swallowing and a good pull on a glass of something cool is a great pleasure. Fortunately I like the taste of good wines and some spirits. I got into wines fifty years ago whilst working for a wine merchant and can sip a good wine to make it last. I have also developed a taste for single malts, except for the peaty ones and can make a gentleman’s measure last all evening.

On my travels I have always asked to try local brews, alcoholic or otherwise. In Bogota I drank Columbian coffee and Club Columbia beer. In Tripoli I drank coffee Arabic style. Asking for a local drink or dish helps break the ice when travelling and whilst I might not be a great fan of what I get, trying something different always opens the door to finding a new favourite. Working out in China and Thailand I tried various black and green teas all of which I liked to some degree, and it is a mug of tea that I will finish this musing off with.

Many years ago I was a member of the Civil Emergency Corps and on one overnight exercise in the pouring rain we had been searching for casualties. Soaked to the skin and with the night sky beginning to lighten we were told that all casualties had been found and we were standing down. Arriving back at the base we got the news that one casualty was missing after all and in our search area; we had to go back. By the time that we had found our man and returned to base there was no milk left and the tea in the urn was well stewed. Still, it was hot and we were cold. Then one of the team produced a flask of rum and poured a tot into each much. Never have I enjoyed a drink more. It may have been stewed and black and I do not like rum, but it still sticks in my mind some 52 years later.

on ethnicity and nationalism

Perhaps I am straying into dangerous waters here, but it what I am musing on on this morning so here I go. It is on my mind because I have been reading some of the media coverage of the build up to the soccer World Cup competition and the words of one fan have started me off on this topic.

The chap concerned admits that he has concerns about going as a fan because of his sexual leaning, but he feels that he needs to go as an English fan and wants to support his team in the competition, even though homosexuality is against the law where the tournament is being held. Sport does encourage nationalist fervour; it makes money out of it, but it is it worth putting yourself at risk over?

I used to enjoy watching sport and, like music, seeing it live enhances the enjoyment so I can understand, to a degree, a desire to go to a World Cup where the opportunity to afford the time and cost may only come around once in a lifetime. I have seen the England football team play in a World Cup qualifiing game at Wembley and, further back, have watched the England cricket team at Lords in test matches against the West Indies and India, but my interest in these was not so much in support of my country as an opportunity to watch the sport being played at the highest level: I did not care too much who won.

My ethnic background is, for about three generations, English. Beyond that it gets a little murky as I am, like most British people, a bit of a mongrel. My surname is classic Welsh; I am a Son of Owen. However that misleads because many people from Wales moved to Ireland where the surname is also common. Some of my ancestors moved there to get away from invaders, forced West by an influx from mainland Europe, or from Eastern tribes who were also faced with continental immigration: The problems of today are nothing new for, if you think about it, there wasn’t anyone here at the beginning and we are all ancestors of immigrants.

My family background on the ;paternal side can be traced back to Ireland and that trail goes cold with a fire that destroyed parish records back in 16 something or other. So my Welsh ancestors had gone over at some point before that, but here comes a small irony in that one of the biggest moves of that sort came after the Norman conquest when Bill’s mob took Welsh people as serfs (slaves if you prefer) over with them.

Now the ironic thing is that the Norman’s achieved their conquest of the UK with help from, amongst others, mercenaries from the Germanic states, (Germany as we know it did not exist until the latter half of the 1800s). My background on the maternal side can be traced back to those Germanic people so there is a good chance that my Mum’s andcestors either chased my Dad’s lot out of their homes or were part of taking them forcibly to the Emerald Isle.

I do understand the difference between English and British. My passport has me down as a citizen of the United Kingdom and, if asked, will say that I am British. That is an inescapable fact; I was born here. Technically, having be born in Berkshire, I am English and there have been many times when in the company of Scottish, Welsh or Irish (both North and South) people I have allowed my Englishness to come to the fore in banter, but I have never really felt strongly about it. Having a laugh over where I come from is one thing, but I can’t take it seriously.

Something else that I understand is that the European Union and Europe are not the same thing. I am glad that I am no longer a citizen of the former, but have long seen myself as a European. Whilst I have Celtic blood physically I take after my maternal side and am tall, blue eyed and lean towards fair so perhaps there is something in that that colours my judgement. In any case, England is in the United Kingdom and that is, in turn, in the continent of Europe.

I am an ethnic mongrel if you go back down the family tree a bit and that is maybe why I have no strong ethnic feelings nor nationalist ones. I was born here in England, have lived most of my life here and will probably die here. I like my country, but I have liked many of the places that I have visited around the world and would have been quite happy to have moved to some of them. Would I fight for my country? Yes, in the sense of defending it, although I’m not sure what use a seventy yer old would be these days. I suspect that that is just a base instinct about protecting one’s territory.

Perhaps it is that same base instinct that comes to the fore in people like the one that I mentioned early in this musing, that makes you want to support your country’s sporting squads. I can only speak for myself. I came into existence as a result of two people having, I hope, a good time. For me the location happened to be in Southern England and that hangs a label on me. I have some pride left in my country and I am not ashamed to be British, even if I don’t like what has become of the place in many ways. I just cannot get impassioned about my nationality in the way that so many others do.

Nor can I get excited about my ethnic background, although there may be something in my genes that has made me feel so at home in Northern Germany from my first visit to Kiel in the mid-seventies and then working in Hamburg and Hannover in the nineties. It could also have something to do with the way that I have felt so comfortable on the Emerald Isle for it was long after working in these places that I found out about my roots.

I am who I am and I feel no need to get excited about where I came from. It is all in the past and I can’t do anything about it. All I have ever been able to do is to try and work with the cards that I have been dealt. I have spent moire than half of my adult life with the woman of my dreams and am very content in my own little world. Life has been hard at times, but I have been very lucky along the way and am content with my lot. I don’t need to feel that sense of national or ethnic identity that seems so important to others.