I’m no expert on rugby but it seemed pretty obvious to me that England were absolutely dire last night — neither possessing any organisation or any flair or imagination. The right hand literally didn’t seem to know what the left was doing, which isn’t surprising bearing in mind Lancaster’s indecisiveness and chopping and changing selection not just over the tournament but throughout his old tenure.
The current snowy weather has exposed one of the most insidious aspects of how cheapskate companies have exploited the internet in the last decade or so — by outsourcing customer service to the customers themselves.
In normal circumstances, this can be quite empowering — rather than have to phone up a call centre or turn up in person the customer can cut out the intermediary and access information more directly. The classic example is travel — now everyone can access an airline or tour operator’s systems via the web rather than have to go into a high street travel agency. This also demonstrates why the internet isn’t really in itself such a paradigm-shifting technology — all it has really done is connect the devices that people use personally (computers and now phones and other innovations) with the commercial systems that organisations have been using internally to run their businesses since the 1970s or 80s.
In many call centre or customer service situations the person you interact with is really just there as a conduit to access the IT systems — and in the vast majority of cases this can be made user-friendly enough for a customer to do themselves over the web. And customers can now access information that previously wouldn’t have been cost-effective to pay employees to give out — like where exactly your train is meant to be on the line.
Even the likes of Twitter and Facebook aren’t really new — messaging services and bulletin boards have been in existence on private systems for decades.
Online shopping is an odd mixture between new technology and antidiluvian business processes — as Amazon and others have been discovering, parcel delivery is their Achilles heel. I’ve ordered Christmas presents from Amazon that, according to their whizzy, integrated tracking feature, have stayed in the Royal Mail’s distribution centre in Scotland since 9th December (12 days now).
No wonder Amazon tried to grow as big as quickly as it could because its basic business proposition is very unoriginal and easily copied — basically plugging web browsers into wholesalers’ catalogues. There’s little difference between Amazon’s bookshop and the old-style book clubs that offered members 4 books for £1 — just a more interactive catalogue.
Amazon has also set a very bad precedent in trying to handle all its customer service online. Phone numbers disappeared off their site as soon as they got big enough as a company to afford not to care too much about their customers. When they first started off in the UK around 1997, Amazon’s customer service was brilliant — I got several unsolicited free gifts. Try and contact them these days and all you get is some auto-generated reply and if you try and get something more personal you may be lucky and get an e-mail a few days later from someone in India with a very vague understanding of the problem.
In fact, every time I try to contact Amazon they annoy me so much that I don’t know why carry on using them. In fact I do — they’re cheap and their competitors, such as Waterstones, often can’t get their act together. I had a reading list of books to buy for a course and wanted to get them from Waterstones but their website kept being unavailable at the time.
Amazon has plainly gone for cost leadership and size — and if it’s customer service is irritating then it’s usually only some goods that have gone missing.
Plenty of cheap-skate companies inspired by penny-pinching, unimaginative managements have tried to use the internet principally as a means of cutting their own costs — thinking technology is a clever wheeze that would allow them to get the customer to do unpaid work that their own staff used to do. They can get away with this when processes are simple and straightforward but when things go wrong then this cynical attitude to the customer is ruthlessly exposed.
So airlines like BA have been encouraging passengers to use their own labour and materials to check-in and print out boarding passes so they can eliminate check-in desks at the airports and the staff that man them. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Willie Walsh and his band of asset strippers that an airline, unlike Amazon, doesn’t just dispatch packages — it transports people — and these people need information, require food and accommodation when delayed and become very upset when they don’t get either and are piled up in airport lounges like a pile of delayed mail in a sorting office.
Also, pointing people to the web to get information in emergencies is useless because companies, both for reasons of cost and security, only expose the simplest and most straightforward functions of their IT systems via the internet. In a shop or call centre there’s almost always an ability to over-ride the simplest rules on the system — to allow a discount or impose a refund for example — because the company has given someone the authority to act with that discretion. This can’t be done in a self-service way.
So for complex interactions with its systems, a company always needs to have staff — but, because the vast majority of sales can often come online, these staff are seen as a necessary evil as they incur cost rather than generate revenue. Therefore they try and employ as few as possible.
BA asking its customers to rebook online is plainly ridiculous for a customer-facing business — how can customers self-prioritise their needs — for example distinguishing between passengers stuck in transit at Heathrow for four days as opposed to tourists jetting off for a bit of winter sun? Also many IT systems that are aimed at customers don’t get updated quickly enough to reflect exceptional operational circumstances — Chiltern Railways (who are way better at customer services than most train operators) were running an emergency timetable yesterday that bore no relation to that on the National Rail website.
People make the most ridiculous claims about the internet and the web and say how much it has changed everything — in the area of customer service I’d agree that it has had a big transformational effect — for the worse.
In the Aylesbury and Wycombe area we thought we’d suffer a lot more pub closures post-smoking ban and post-credit crunch than we actually did. However, it seems like the bad news may have been postponed. The Rising Sun at Little Hampden closed over the summer — and it was a smart country dining pub in an idyllic Chiltern hamlet. Sadly it had been granted permission for conversion to a private house in 2006 — so the battle had been lost already.
In the summer a pub in Aylesbury, the Duck in Bedgrove, was demolished after being sold to new owners without any change of use permission being sought. (See the local LibDems blog for a good photo.) This was a type of pub that is fast disappearing — an estate community pub. It certainly wasn’t the sort of pub that lured real ale drinkers. However, huge areas of towns like Aylesbury are now without pubs.
In a couple of years the Southcourt and Walton Court estates have lost the Steeplechase (boarded up) and the Skinny Dog (now a Muslim community centre) and the Huntsman is due to disappear in a redevelopment of the local shopping centre. The first pub that’s on the road between Southcourt and Aylesbury town centre, the Old Plough and Harrow, has recently undergone one of the most common conversions for dead pubs (and one that doesn’t need any planning permission) — into an Indian restaurant.
Twenty or thirty years ago these sort of estate community pubs would be packed with drinkers, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. It’s not hard to think of reasons why they’re now in trouble — the smoking ban has hit these pubs harder than most (many customers no doubt went there specifically to smoke as well as drink) and the idiocies of modern marketers have also done their damage — targeting drinks like lager and alcopops at young people with relatively large disposable incomes but also very disposable common sense once they’d had a few wife-beaters down their throats. Pool tables and noisy machines would also target this particular demographic — and many pubs weakened their community links as a result.
But the main factor is surely economic. The typical price of a pint is now fairly close to £3, if not more, and is set to rise a lot further when VAT rises in the New Year as well any beer duty rises in the pipeline. Even using the government’s recommended 21 units of alcohol, this would work out at £31.50 per week (based on a session bitter)…and that would realistically only have a person in for 3 or 4 pints three times a week — far less than the traditional customers of such pubs would tend to do. The likes of Professor David Nutt would no doubt find this cause for celebration, except that the previous customers of community pubs are not likely to have moderated their consumption — they will be down the town centre supermarkets where, on a good day, £31.50 could buy them about 36 cans of Stella (more than four times the units of alcohol) and probably enough to keep most people stocked up with a tin to hand while watching TV for the whole week.
Beer in pubs is too expensive — simple as that. The social act of going down to the pub as an end in itself has been priced out of many people’s reach — and those who can afford it are too busy making more money for themselves or are eating in poncey restaurants or swilling their bonuses away in pubs in the City.
Town centre pubs will still do OK as people go to a destination for a night out. Also some pubs, particularly in the country, will keep their heads above water by concentrating on food — although the example of the Rising Sun shows that even serving up upmarket pub grub is less lucrative than turning the place into a country retreat for the kind of person who’s too posh to go to pubs.
And this also underlines another reason why supermarket beer has become far cheaper than beer in pubs — because pubs, like houses, have had their property values massively inflated and most pubs are now owned by companies who’ve foolishly raised money on the financial markets against these notional values — and the servicing of this debt has been passed on to landlords and customers.
Whereas a generation ago pubs only had to open their doors to get customers coming in, the above factors mean that pubs now have to differentiate themselves to generate custom — and offering interesting and well-kept real ale is a way to do this. The Whip in Lacey Green is an example of a pub that has a bar that’s still packed out most nights — offering five real ales that turn over, on average, every two days. The pub did about 800 different ales last year — that’s well over two a day. And the pub steadily built a reputation on quality — only adding a fourth and fifth beer when demand allowed, unlike the many pubs who offer more real ales than they can turn over before they spoil.
There’s now cause for concern about one pub, which has been a Good Beer Guide stalwart for several years. The Bull in Stoke Mandeville is an old-fashioned, two-bar community local which has bucked the downward economic trend in large part by serving three well-kept real ales. Due to various complicated reasons not entirely unrelated to those above, Stuart, the long-standing landlord has left the pub. His last day was Wednesday this week when I went along to watch the Manchester derby on Sky. It’s a particular shame as the Bull, under Stuart’s management, was a quiet gem of a pub and embodied many of the attributes that many would reel off as intrinsic to the British pub.
One troubling facet of this country is represented by the legions of ABUs (Anything But United) whose motivation seems to be purely pessimistic, destructive and nihilistic. I can understand why supporters of another football club may dislike Manchester United but they seem absolutely the wrong club to be the recipients of blind, unquestioning, hateful negativity — although Alex Ferguson’s defensive truculence could invite dislike on a personal level.
Take the last two Premier League games — both have been described by commentators as classics (at least the second half of the Liverpool game). Against Everton both Fletcher and Berbatov scored goals that, as examples of fast-paced, one-touch football, were beautiful. Berbatov’s second goal against Liverpool was absolutely extraordinary. Most overhead kicks are opportunist attempts when a player can’t connect with the ball any other way but Berbatov’s was absolutely deliberate — he started with a perfect first touch, knocked the ball to the perfect height and dispatched it with incredible accuracy. Reina was rooted to the spot as he didn’t expect any sort of shot from a player with his back turned but the kick was so well placed he wouldn’t have saved it in any case.
I like Berbatov as, like Cantona, he gives the impression he isn’t really that interested in conforming to the expectations placed on footballers. He doesn’t run around like a screaming and putting in obvious displays of headless chicken shirt-kissing loyalty for ‘the fans’ — one pundit said he had invented football as a walking game and you imagine he might have a cigarette in his hand as he plays. As with Scholes, he doesn’t need the artifice — they produce a pieces of skill and vision that are at another level compared with everyone else and they shrug their shoulders and say ‘that’s what I do’.
Berbatov has a way to go before he can compare with Scholes who, sadly after he was scandalously wasted by England, is now becoming acknowledged as the best midfield player this country has produced. Some of the football that comes from the Ginger Prince’s boots is as awe inspiring as a great work of art — the 25 yard bullet against Fulham being one example. And all this is from a quiet, small, red-haired bloke who you’d hardly notice in the local pub.
I suppose the casual way that some United players produce flashes of genius might irritate some but that must be offset against the team’s astonishing capability to self-destruct — losing two farcical goals in injury time at Everton being one example. Almost as bad was gifting Liverpool a penalty and free-kick with two challenges that were almost comical in their clumsiness. United don’t need ABUs to detract from them — they’re very capable of doing it themselves.
Fortunately, against Liverpool United had enough time to show the quality which probably infuriates ABUs the most — their determination to keep going (something that is so ingrained that it’s shocking to watch performances when it has been lacking — such as the Champions League final in 2009 and the capitulation to Bayern Munich last season, although that was a great game). As Steve MacLaren once said, United never lose, they just run out of time.
This may also be a point that grates on the ABUs — an unwaveringly optimistic psychology. Alex Ferguson used to always maintain that United played better after Christmas. It’s beside the point whether this was actually true or not (it often wasn’t) but it maintained the belief that things would get better if you carried on trying.
It’s the kind of advice that’s often given to anyone aspiring to do something difficult — keep trying, perseverance is all. This advice is very difficult to disprove — if someone gives up they won’t achieve anything and a lack of success might be explained by the need to persevere more. For most football teams and people trying to demonstrate talent, an infinite amount of perseverance still probably won’t compensate for an innate lack of ability but it’s easier to attribute a lack of success to a failure of determination. Perhaps this is what’s at the root of ABUism — the frustration and emptiness that comes from a defeated realisation that they — or their team — will never achieve their dreams no matter how hard they try.
It’s like the traditional spot the first cuckoo in spring competition but a lot more irritating — coming across the first ‘Book Early for Christmas’ outside a pub or restaurant.
Driving up to the Bucks County Show on Friday I spotted the first offending banner of the season hung outside the Horse and Jockey in Aylesbury. This was 26th August — fully four months before Boxing Day — that’s what I calculate to be a mere 131 days before the event itself.
I thought it was bad enough that I saw Trick or Treat pieces of junk on sale at John Lewis in Oxford Street on Monday — though that may be worse in some ways as those imported American Hallowe’en ‘customs’ are just a consumerist abomination — what’s wrong with Guy Fawkes night.
If I were a pub or restuarant owner I’d calculate that hanging prominent ‘reminders’ (does anyone need reminding about Christmas) outside the establishment before the August Bank Holiday is out would lose more customer by annoying people rather than generating bookings — surely only those organising large work celebrations book so early and they’d either have done it months beforehand, not in the middle of the school holidays.
Even though the likes of B&Q and Homebase seem to start hawking their Christmas decorations in September (to the extent they’ve usually sold out by December) I prefer to try and banish all thoughts of Christmas until after 5th November — despite being an unashamed enthusiast for all things seasonal.
Mind you, the weather last week, particularly the deluges on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, were more fitting for November (the thermometer outside my house read 12C yesterday afternoon). Perhaps someone at the Horse and Jockey woke up, took a look out of the window and hung the banner out in panic that they’d overslept by three months?
I thought this was quite funny. Often shops pitch tents up in pseudo-idealistic scenes but I was quite surprised to see where they’d put this example in B&Q.
I thought it quite amusing to imagine there was some sort of squatter living on the tops of their shelves. Even without this anarchic interpretation I was quite puzzled as to why they’d pitch the tent there where most customers wouldn’t see it –the photo was taken from the recently-added mezzanine level which has the show bathrooms and kitchens.
Last week the government published its preferred route for the proposed high speed railway line between Euston and Birmingham. It seemed to take almost everyone by surprise by avoiding the two existing high(ish) speed rail routes through the north-west home counties and ploughing a completely new route through the Chilterns, following roughly, in part the old Metropolitan Line to Aylesbury — now the Chiltern Railways commuter stopping service.
There are plenty of maps available on the DfT website. There’s an interesting one of the whole route and there are many detailed sub-maps which show the route in supposed detail. However, I get the feeling that these have been fairly hurriedly drawn up as no provision has been made to preserve public rights of way and only fairly obvious features like roads and flood plains are taken into account by the route (the latter probably being based on the Environment Agency website rather than actual surveying).
The route seems to have made concessions to the environment when it first sets out — even burying itself in a tunnel when near the tranquil M25. Yet when it emerges from the tunnel just west of Amersham then all thought of blending into the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural beauty seems to disappear — odd because these is some of the most scenic parts of the Chilterns. Incredibly, the route is planned to soar on a viaduct when it approaches south of Wendover and then it’s due to squeeze next to the A413 Wendover by-pass — which is less than a hundred yards or so from the start of Wendover high street and many houses.
A slight concession to noise is made by planning to have the railway be buried in a tunnel when it passes under the road towards Butler’s Cross but this will be a cheap ‘cut and cover’ construction so will require the demolition of a row of houses. These are pictured below.
The line will then stretch from Wendover across the relatively flat ground of Aylesbury Vale — see below.
From Wendover the line slices through the edge of Stoke Mandeville, just by the Goat Centre, and then passes very close to the Aylesbury outskirts of Hawkslade Farm, Southcourt, Walton Court and Fairford Leys before heading towards Waddesdon and Quainton — where it will cut across some maize fields that I found difficult to negotiate on the Aylesbury Ring last year. It’s about the only good thing about the route that instead of clearing a metre wide strip from his crops then the farmer will have a 75m wide railway run through them — no doubt farmers will be some of the few who will be reasonably compensated.
Maybe the government would like to have local residents believe that its highly paid consultants have been poring over various route options for the proposed High Speed 2 rail line in painstaking detail, carefully balancing environmental considerations against engineering requirements.
There is an alternative view. Consider that, as the route carves chunks out of the Chiltern chalk and then rises on high viaducts and embankments to dominate Aylesbury Vale, how close its alignment is to an existing disfiguration of the local landscape: the high-voltage electricity lines that stretch from the substation near Amersham, through Wendover, past Aylesbury and through Quainton. The routes align to within a couple of hundred yards for almost all their lengths.
Perhaps the planners took one look at the rows of hundred foot pylons and thought ‘if they can put up with those then maybe we can sneak in a 250mph railway line?’ Wrong. While visually obtrusive the electricity wires do not create the massive environmental disturbance, both permanently by despoiling the countryside and operationally by inflicting massive noise pollution.
Such is the scandalous lack of environmental consideration in the current plans that it’s easy to believe the planners have performed such a casual and perfunctory assessment of the route as to stand on Coombe Hill and play join up the pylons. Here’s a view of how the pylons march through the pass from Missenden into Wendover and perhaps encouraged the railway to follow.
Overall, high speed rail is a good idea and the route has to go somewhere but this seems like the cheapo option that avoids towns like High Wycombe and Watford that would require extensive tunneling to pass — and cheapo means it goes through unspoilt countryside and skirts a large population centre, neither of which currently has any existing mass transit corridor. The lack of consideration of deep tunnelling near Wendover and in the Chilterns and when the line is near Aylesbury is scandalous.
When I received an e-mail with the title ‘Nothing Says “‘I Love You” Like A Pink Drill’ I thought it was a stray mail that should have gone in the spam folder with the blue pill offers and the mails that promise to stretch parts of the male anatomy. Either that or it was an interesting reference to obscure sexual practices.
But no — it was a genuine marketing attempt from Screwfix. You have to admire their chutzpah in trying to get mail order DIY muscling in on the Valentines market but I’m quite dumbfounded by who they think might be the recipient of the drill. And, yes, it is bright pink. It can be seen online here along with their other Valentine’s offers.
I’m not sure that any sort of handyman, however in touch with his feminine side, is really ever going to want a pink drill so I’m inclined to think this advert is aimed at men buying Valentine’s presents for women. Apart from the fact that a drill is an ultimate utility purchase that has little romantic interest as far as I can see, this sort of present suggests that the recipient is expected to make good use of it. Rather than put up a few shelves or picture frames on Valentine’s day I can imagine most female recipients wanting to use the present to inflict violence on whoever bought it for them. Maybe I’m being old-fashioned and sexist but I’m not going to try it.
Just as the BBC starts to show another series of ‘Survivors’, Haitians are having to deal with this sort of apocalypse in real life. When we’ve been worried about temporary failures in our infrastructure due to the snow, these poor people have had theirs wrecked permanently — until it’s rebuilt. The scale of the catastrophe is quite unimaginable. Such are the problems that it’s not going to be easy for relief to be easily distributed but it puts our problems in perspective.
I’m not completely convinced about the efficacy of public donations in these circumstances but I’ve made one anyway and here’s the link to DEC should anyone else want to.
Nice to know the police in Oxfordshire are imaginative when it comes to uses of their riot shields in the snow.
It’s like something off Early Doors.
The Facebook campaign to make ‘Killing in the Name’ by Rage Against the Machine the Christmas number one is another demonstration of the amazingly puerile applications of internet technology and a continuing reminder of the enduring collective idiocy of the human race. (Maybe it’s appropriate that this should be shown in the run up to Christmas — a time when we should reflect and take stock.) It’s also typical of the counterproductive type of demonstration that only serves to re-inforce the importance of what is being protested against. It brings further publicity to the X-Factor and will only make Simon Cowell even more money as all Joe’s fans go out and make sure they buy the record in case he’s in danger of not making number one. (Perhaps Cowell thought up the whole stunt?)
It also makes money for the band themselves. They seem to be stuck in a timewarp where they think swearing on live radio or television is some sort of subversive act. Since Bob Geldof’s famous rant during Live Aid, which surmounted the Sex Pistol’s famous swearing a few years earlier, there have been no barriers left to push — anything else is just gratuitous. Madonna’s swearing during Live 8 was just a cheap and nasty attempt to seem ‘edgy’ and ‘dangerous’ when, in fact, it was just a desperate load of bollocks designed to make a bit of money from doing something incredibly easy.
If people want to be subversive then do something that takes genuine effort and wit — not do something that anyone else capable of speaking in English could do. Also, those who want to demonstrate how radical they are should do something that has a bit of risk attached. Once upon a time perhaps swearing might jeopardise a musician’s career. Now it’s almost expected of them. Rather than swearing they should perhaps have a go at the real sacred cows.
Easy in Brown’s Britain:
- Grovel to the judge like a dog
- Wear a a ‘smart grey suit, pink shirt and a blue-and-red striped military style tie’
- Come from a middle-class town like Macclesfield where mater and pater are likely to be rather rich enough to employ a decent defence lawyer for you
- Most importantly, blame everyone else but yourself especially ‘a culture of drinking too much’
The scumbag who urinated on the war memorial and wreaths could get himself a new career of advising other middle-class oiks from priveleged backgrounds about how easy it is to avoid taking personal responsibility for one’s actions.
He should have been locked up anyway for wearing ridiculously low-waisted jeans with shocking pink underwear protuding underneath — a mark of a complete and utter ‘merchant banker’ in any case. See the picture on the Sky site.
Walk round certain supermarkets at the moment and you’d need a spreadsheet open on your trolley to work out the various multibuy options. The whole point seems to cover the store in bargain and money off and multisave stickers to try and give the impression that prices are being cut. The wine department is especially bad for this — with all the 3 for £10 on certain bottles and very similar shelf labels advertising half-price on wines (that are usually worth nowhere near the full price) — so shoppers probably end up with 2 of the £10 offer wines and one half price. It’s all become so complex than even the supermarkets themselves appear to have got confused. Here’s a shelf sticker spotted today at a well known store. Do the math, as the Americans say.
Only a few days to go to get this one…and it’s Vaseline Shower Gel, not any other of their products.
I must side with my friends the feminists and express outrage, shock and horror at the latest Marks and Spencers TV advertisement. (See it on the Guardian site here.) Let’s recruit Stephen Fry (oh, we can’t as he’s in the advert himself) and organise a mass Tweet of outrage at the sight of a French underwear model appearing in a television advert for a shop that sells, er, 25% of all women’s lingerie in the UK. Or is it the corrosive sight of Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt threatening to lure all men back to Neanderthal 70s sexism — his line ‘That girl prancing around in her underwear’ is incredibly demeaning to women, isn’t it? Ah, but he was at a bar drinking. We’ve already got bans on young people enjoying themselves drinking in adverts — maybe we need to ban washed-up, semi-alcoholic seventies throwbacks from endorsing products too? The funny thing is that companies like M&S spend thousands on focus groups to find out what television actors and celebrities their customers empathise with (‘Our research shows that his on-screen character in Ashes to Ashes is extremely popular with our customers and his lines in the ad are in keeping with that role’). It’s difficult to believe that M&S would pay Glenister’s no doubt large fee without being fairly sure about his popularity with their core customer base, which is principally women.
It’s only 7th November and there have been two consecutive adverts on ITV featuring a Christmas roast turkey. It’s nowhere near Christmas. Global capital is obviously trying to burn a hole in consumers’ pockets and trying to get them out to spend cash they don’t have at the moment on rubbish they don’t need. Maybe there’s a case for buying presents ahead but certainly not turkey. I think advertising those kind of Christmas goods is completely counterproductive and will annoy people intensely.
Chirpy Richard Hammond was doing a Morrison’s advert where he pushed a trolley through a variety of Christmas scenes (ice rink, carol singing, church service). Isn’t this a bit odd. Normally only hooded chavs and students push trolleys down roads away from the supermarket car park and abandoned trolleys are a sure to make middle-class housebuyers run a mile from a neighbourhood. Yet here is the lovable hamster setting a thoroughly bad example (there’s not even any shopping in his trolley). Perhaps he’s taking it to his public school mates on Top Gear to blow up or something? Either way he should be locked up. However, there is something quite authentic in using a shopping trolley as a representation of Christmas present because, as far as most business is concerned, Christmas is just an orgy of consumerism.