Friday, 18 April 2014

Should we be afraid

I remember Johannesburg in late 1976 – the riots, which started in Soweto in June of that year, had spread to other townships including Alexandra, a few miles from where we lived. The atmosphere was tense and uneasy. We knew that the press was censored so you never knew what was rumour or fact – no Internet nor overseas media.

We had returned to Johannesburg from London in 1970 to be closer to family but had not really settled.  While on the surface life was comfortable we began to realise that if we were not part of the solution we were part of the problem and by this point had decided to return to London.

My husband had two members of staff, an black African woman and a white Swedish woman. The black woman went out at lunchtime one day and was handed a leaflet which she was told to give to her white employer and which she did. She shrugged when she handed it to my husband and was fairly dismissive. It was badly reproduced, lots of typos and poor grammar but the message was clear – a certain day was declared “kill a white baby day” and domestic staff were urged to rise up and do that. Who produced the leaflet we never knew – a group, a couple of extremists, a political party – we never knew. The day passed like every other day.

I was concerned enough to go to the nursery school nearby where our children were and speak to the principal.  She showed me how the school had been designed so that it could be closed off – all windows faced into the courtyard - and there was a secret exit further down the road.  I was reassured, but convinced that I didn’t was to live my life like this.  (She was an amazing woman – Dr Unez Smuts (a great-niece of former Prime Minister General Jan Smuts) the first female minister in the Congregational Church of Southern Africa. She was a truly wise woman and I used to listen to her on the “Epilogue” SABC’s equivalent of Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”. She retired some years ago and in googling her I see that the property is on the market – read about Dr Smuts and St Stephen's School

Why am I writing about this now? Last night we saw a press conference with John Kerry speaking about the talks that had concluded in Geneva about the Ukraine.  I have no idea who are the good guys and the bad guys, who is right and who is wrong but one comment he made which struck me was about a leaflet distributed in Donetsk to Jews leaving the synagogue after the Passover service. It called for all Jews over 16 years old to register as Jews and supply a detailed list of all the property they own, or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated.

It would now appear that these are not official (whatever that means in this context) and that they are a few individuals trying to provoke unrest.  To some extent they have succeeded as this news has reverberated amongst the Jewish communities in many countries.  This is an unsettling time of the year – Passover marks the flight of the Jews from slavery in Egypt – emotions are nearer the surface than usual perhaps.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

How to turn that frown upside down

I always read the complaints section of “Which” and the Sunday papers.  Most of the time they obtain a positive result from the travel company /bank/insurance company/electricity supplier/ etc that has failed to rectify a problem. No doubt the threat of publicity sometimes does the trick but at least the publicity warns the unwary or the less dogged when it comes to complaining. 

Sometimes you don’t really need to do very much and that is when the frown becomes a smile.

I wrote earlier about our recent trip on the Hurtigruten ferry along the Norwegian coast into the Arctic Circle.  Despite just a brief glimpse of the Northern Lights we had a fabulous trip.  But it didn’t start so well.......

Number One Husband and I are notorious for being exceptionally early for everything. Miss a plane or train – doesn’t happen to us.

We arrived at Gatwick Airport for our flight to Bergen long before we needed to – lots of time to have a leisurely breakfast – and as we walk to the empty check-in desk I am composing an amusing text to our children about being so early that no one else was there.  We were somewhat stunned to find that the flight had just closed – at 8.15.  Our paperwork said 10.40.  We were shown to an information desk where we found another couple with the same problem.  Over the course of the next hour sixteen of us assembled (known from then on as the Gatwick Sixteen). They contacted Hurtigruten who agreed that they had given us the wrong paperwork.  These were their actions:

-        Immediately £20 in cash each to get some breakfast
-        return at 1100 to be transferred by coach to Heathrow
-        rebooked on a flight at 2000 (OK not my most fun day)
-        coach waiting to take us to the ship (we were promised they would not   sail without us)
-        dining room kept open so we could have a meal
-        a bottle of wine in the cabin (value about £36)
-        a letter of explanation and apology with a cheque for £100 each this week (not just a credit for a future trip which some travel companies do).

Apart from a hassle at the start and although it was not how we were planning to spend the first afternoon of our holiday it was dealt with efficiently, politely and blame accepted right from the start.

I recommend them.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Are you Charged?

The grammar isn’t wonderful and the meaning a bit obtuse but that was the cry that went up several times a day during a very happy Christmas holiday with our Swiss family several years ago.  There were eleven of us – nine with cell phones, tablets and computers – all needing charging regularly. The house was built many decades ago when having two power points in a room was considered generous.  So as each gadget was charged, another was plugged in and so the cry went up – are you charged? Can I charge?

Matters can only get worse but the main point of this blog is why can’t the manufacturers agree on one type of connector?  At one point having an iphone, ipod and ipad meant that you could use the same charging cable but the new ipad now has a different one.  So when we pack to go away we need cables for our phones (two), tablets (two) ipods (whew only one) and computer – oh yes not to forget the Kindle – only one. Soon my carry on bag will consist only of cables and plugs......

Have been a bit dilatory with the blog – just back from a wonderful trip on the Hurtigruten ferry up and down the Norwegian coast – breathtaking scenery, fascinating history, interesting people, delicious fish, learned a lot about Norway but sadly only a glimpse of the Northern Lights.  I believe, had we been in Essex we would have had a great view......

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey

There I was, sitting in the dock of Number 1 Court, facing the judges - not just me but eleven others and we were not only facing the judges but the music and poetry as well. I sincerely hope that this is the only time I will be sitting in the dock but it was a most enjoyable evening.

To backtrack a little: last night was the first of two evenings to raise money for the Sheriffs’ and Recorder’s Fund.  I have written about this excellent charity before when I attended the AGM of the Fund during my year as Master of the Needlemakers Company and which I wrote about here

The Charity was founded in 1808 by the Sheriffs of the City of London to help ex-offenders released from prison and their dependents and merged in 1931 with the Recorder’s fund which helped prisoners released on probation. I have written before about how valuable relatively small amounts of money, given wisely, can be.  The sums that are distributed through the probation service are not huge but can buy essential clothing, tools of trade, training, household equipment, etc.  These grants can make all the difference. There is more information about the charity here.

The evening was titled “Trial and Error” and charted 400 years from Newgate Prison to the Old Bailey. Words and music came from Dickens to Defoe, Judge Jeffreys and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Moll Flanders to Mack the Knife.  It was only through careful study of the programme you were able to identify the dignified judges, learned barristers and clerks and separate them from the few professional entertainers.

The Needlemakers and our Master, Sue Kent, sponsored the enactment of part of the trial of Dr Bodkin Adams – as a boy Sue’s husband, David, was a patient of Dr Adams in Eastbourne. Happily as David was neither female, nor rich nor old he survived the doctor’s ministrations – see more here!

If you ever thought that barristers really wanted to be actors – the evidence was irrefutable.  The performance was to be repeated tonight and between the two evenings £10,000 was raised.  

Monday, 17 February 2014

The lucky baby-boomers and the unlucky unemployed

We had lunch with friends yesterday and the conversation touched on the baby boomers.  I remembered writing this blog last year but didn’t post it.  Perhaps I felt it was a rant and should probably rest for a while.  Having read it again – I think it is well-rested now, still a bit ranty, but here it is....

If anyone else tells me that the baby boomers were so lucky I will scream and scream until I am sick! I can tell you some of the things we didn’t have:

We didn’t take gap years – we went straight from school to further education or to work.  We got “jobs” – you went into work in the morning and came home at the end of the day and got paid. Sometimes you didn’t get paid very much, especially if you were being trained.  Sometimes the jobs were really, really boring – making tea, running errands and doing the drudge work that someone higher up the pecking order didn’t want to do - and sometimes there were no promotion prospects let alone a career path.

But you still plodded on. There was no safety net so if you wanted to eat, pay the rent, let alone get married and have children (ah so old-fashioned), you did what you needed to do, tried to get as much experience as possible so that when something better came along you could grab it. And sometimes you couldn’t take those opportunities.  I was a PA in a leading advertising agency, my boss told me that they had made a decision to hire their first female trainee account executive (Oh yes, those were the days) and suggested I apply for the job. I was very excited until I realized that it would mean halving my salary – and as my husband was studying that was out of the question – a missed opportunity but you did what you had to do.

Unemployed, unemployable?

There was an article in the Evening Standard last year about a school leaver who applied for 3,000 jobs over 15 months and failed to get a job. She had neither skills, nor qualifications nor could I find any kind of experience. Why should anyone look at her once, let alone twice?

This means that this young woman sent off on average 10 applications a day five days a week.  How targeted is that? I have had those sorts of applications, not only from school leavers but graduates and people with experience and they start “To whom it may concern....”, the name of the organisation was often wrong and sometimes they mentioned another organisation altogether.  Why should I, or anyone, read through to the end?  The internet is available – do the research.  If this is what young people are being encouraged to do they are being failed miserably.

By the time my Number One Daughter went to university she had done a number of things that would have interested me as an employer.  She and two school friends took on two paper rounds between them.  Two of the three did both rounds together and the third had a lie-in – each of them therefore had a lie-in every third day. (Ingenuity Commitment will turn up on time ✓); she had a Saturday job in a shop (reliable✓ customer service ).  While at university she worked at times as a domestic cleaner, washing up in a Mexican restaurant (never ate refried beans again) and sold books off a market stall.

She is now highly educated with a senior job – but all along the way the mindless jobs without a future have ticked a number of boxes that would have counted with or without a university education and speak volumes to a prospective employer.

She is not alone – many of my friends and former colleagues did seasonal work in factories, in shops, on building sites, in hospitals and on farms – those same jobs that are now being done by people coming here from other EU countries.  

Doing things that “look good on a CV” are not just for graduates.  An employer faced with a number of unskilled, unqualified applicants is desperate to find something that will indicate whether this person will stay the course, turn up on time, do a day’s work (and that means a day’s work not hours here and there in between texting and checking facebook) and pitch up again tomorrow and the next day.

My early involvement with people seeking work experience to complete their qualifications was interesting.  Our first candidate worked hard, never said no to anything and we offered him a trainee position when he qualified (fancy word for gofer.....) and is now Head of IT (and still sings a mean karaoke). The second had nails that were so long they curved around under her fingers.  It did not seem to impede her using her mobile phone which she did a lot but did hamper her typing and other tasks. We pointed this out to her but she said that she wasn’t prepared to cut them and we never saw her again.

As a post-script: I know that the current climate is different; the job market is difficult and that there are many talented and qualified young people who are unable to find work but sometimes you have to do the grunt work before you can follow your dream.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Competition is part of life, but it isn’t always good

I am writing this while the Winter Olympics is on – taking part is good and if you have absolutely no chance of winning or even getting close, (the Jamaican bobsleigh team is an example) it is everything.  Otherwise winning is all-important.

My theme for today is actually around charities: charities are very competitive organisations and they fund competitive people.  In medical research, as much as all the research is being done for the greater good, there is competition but there is also huge collaboration.

Charities compete for funding – no one can support every charity and donors/supporters make decisions on which causes to support every day. There is nothing new about that but I have been very troubled by a series of advertisements that have been running this week. The strapline – next to a photograph says, “I wish I had breast cancer”.  The message in the smaller print is that pancreatic cancer has very poor rates of early diagnosis and the survival rates are poor as well.  Breast cancer has a high rate of detection with better survival rates.

There is a saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity and there is no doubt that the negative reaction to this advertisement from a number of breast cancer and other charities has given the charity much higher media coverage than they would have attracted otherwise. I am not sure how positive I would feel about this had I just been diagnosed with breast cancer.  I remember someone who had been treated for breast cancer saying to me – “they tell me I am lucky that it isn’t a very aggressive cancer, lucky would be not to have cancer!”

Once I got over my initial shock at what is quite a crass approach I was disappointed that it has come to this.  When I became involved with Breast Cancer Campaign in the early 1990s HIV/AIDS was top of the news agenda.  Breast cancer was still spoken about softly and not at all by many women. There were people who were keen that we were more vociferous about the amount of money spent on HIV/AIDS research and care compared to breast cancer, especially as they felt that HIV/AIDS was avoidable in the majority of cases and breast cancer wasn’t.

Whether that was true or not wasn’t the point – how could we be so arrogant to say that one disease is more worthy than another, that dying from breast cancer was some how more noble than succumbing to AIDS. You could even argue that screening for HIV was more important to the general community because others can be infected than screening for breast cancer. So we didn’t.

Breast cancer led the way for other cancers and other diseases with wonderful advocates who spoke out about their disease and campaigned for better diagnosis and treatment, greater awareness and a screening programme. All of which we have but it is still the second biggest cause of death from cancer in women.

I have lost friends and family members to pancreatic cancer – there are massive challenges, especially around diagnosis where, like ovarian cancer, the symptoms can be varied and time is wasted while they are attributed to something else. I am aware of the size of the challenge.

I would be interested to know the results of this advertising campaign – for a charity with last reported income of £172,000 was this a good use of resources, did it raise more money, were they flooded with requests for information and was it worth it?

Note:  while you are very welcome to comment on this blog and I will read your comment, I don’t publish them as I don’t wish to have to monitor it on a daily basis. You can always contact me through LinkedIn.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou......

I am not about to start home brewing but I decided to have a go at baking bread. I bake lots of bread but it is usually whole-wheat and the kind that is mixed and baked without kneading (or with a bread machine which gives a great result but is curiously unsatisfying).  I have tried various yeast-based things in the past – without success: the doughnuts looked more like gingernuts.

Having invested in “fast-action yeast” all the recipes seemed to use instant yeast (where you find fresh yeast in London goodness knows). However, I found this recipe online Handbaked traditional white bread and set to work.
The first thing to hit me was the smell. I was instantly transported back to the kitchen of my childhood where our cook (who came from what was then Portuguese East Africa and is now Maputo) used to make white bread, rolls and sometimes bagels several times a week. The recipe was the same and, although I never realised it, it was the recipe for challah – the only difference being that it was plaited in the traditional way for Friday night.

Who knows what the recipe was – he never used a written recipe but cooked by touch and taste. I did learn how to make the thinnest crepes by watching him and certainly licked the bowl when chocolate cake was being made but never thought of writing anything down, and how would you calculate the measures as he measured by handfuls.

What is also quite curious – I have never kneaded bread before but I seemed to know how – some sort of folk memory or just watching chefs on TV! Yes, it was very soothing and the smell of the fermenting yeast, the dough and the baking bread was déjà vu all over again!

I still think I prefer the whole-wheat kind and can only aspire to the giant challah my sister makes for her Friday night dinner but it was a satisfying day and the result was OK as well.