Saturday, March 05, 2022

When you think it's all over, it's only begun...

 


The dreadful COVID epidemic finally seems to be over. 

Last week the final restrictions were lifted. We no longer have to wear masks anywhere and public gatherings are back to normal, like football matches, nightclubs, restaurants and so on. 

But the next crisis is already upon us. Vladimir Putin, the thug in charge of Russia, seems to have lost his mind and invaded Ukraine. That deserves a separate blog post all of it's own. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Resigned

On Tuesday September the 13th 2005, I resigned from the worst job of my life. 

20 days later I started a new job as a contract technical writer at a British fintech company called Worldpay. I'd never worked in the sector before, but I could certainly write user guides, and at 40 was still just about young enough to learn.

Worldpay were an outstanding company to work for in an office of brilliant people and a friendly supportive atmosphere. This isn't just rose-tinted nostalgia either. Look at this blog post from the 15th of March 2007:

It's time to acknowledge the kindness of the team opposite.

Despite my having (officially) nothing to do with them, they constantly invite me to their lunches out, evenings out, and even their corporate fun day (today) which includes a river trip this afternoon.

I declined to join them but they still managed to sneak me into their free lunch just now.

Believe me, not everywhere is like that. 

That contact was initially for three months, and was extended several times. When it finally came to an end on Friday the 28th May 2007 I was unusually upset. I'd asked the manager at least twice if I could join the company as permanent employee, but for whatever reason(s) the answer was no. 

Fast forward to February 2013 - I'd just finished another rather unsatisfactory contract, but in January an agent had contacted me about a permanent job at an outfit based in Cambridge called Worldpay. Would I be interested...? Two tough interviews followed - tough because they were quite demanding, and also tough because I really wanted them. A very nice manager somehow remembered me from six or seven years previously and somehow I got lucky enough to get taken on again. 

The start date was Monday 4th March 2013 and amazingly, but given the culture of the company not that amazingly, I recognised several people still working there after all those years. My new boss was wonderful - a complete natural - the best boss I have ever had. The team of writers were excellent, both as colleagues and as friends. 

I stayed with the company from then until yesterday afternoon. That's nearly nine years. Nine years that included the:

  • The best manager I ever had - see above - and later, and the 2nd worst
  • Best training course I ever took, and by far the worst
  • Best ‘out-of-office’ meeting ever. The taxi driver thought we might be drunk at 9am on the way there and the mood continued all day
  • Best business trip I ever had, which featured semi-automatic pistols and a bunch of friends I’d not seen for 18 years
  • Saddest day at work, when the team took the day off to attend a friend and colleague's funeral in Liverpool
  • Best annual review I ever had
  • Two of the most barking barking barking mad colleagues I ever worked with – they were both fired years ago, but not together
  • Not one but two takeovers, which occurred less than two years apart. Those are two of several good reasons I had to leave...

The new job starts on March 1st. Let's hope the 'resting time' in between is as pleasant as the last time.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Get Back - The Beatles film


 The Guardian asked for reactions to the 'new' Beatles film, so here's mine:

A fascinating film, full of insights and revelations. 

Big surprises? Here are just a few:

History hasn't been kind to Beatles manager Brian Epstein - said to be a man out of his depth and responsible for some lousy business decisions and contracts. Yet the Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, miss the man and speak fondly of him. He had their respect and was someone they listened to - not so easy perhaps, in an outfit that featured one John Winston Ono Lennon. 

Yoko Ono is definitely a listener, in fact the surprise is that she rarely seems to talk at all. Far from being "the fifth Beatle" as John Lennon once described her, she's more of a permanent audience, often looking a bit bored, sometimes writing, sometimes knitting, but ever present. With the best will in the world, it's hard to respond to her occasional artistic performative "singing" as anything other than ludicrous. 

But in the film at least, the closest relationship is between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Between them they seem to get 80% of the dialogue and maybe 90% of the screen time. But it's easy to see why - that word 'chemistry' is inadequate to describe how well they get on - both personally and musically. This runs against the received wisdom, which has them growing inexorably further apart during this period. 

George Harrison is the most sympathetic of the four. Initially he seems a man who feels excluded from the creative process, and who lacks the confidence to assert himself. Then he goes snaps and walks out on the band, who respond with a musical version of a nervous breakdown that afternoon. Then Harrison returns and as the month of rehearsing and recording goes on, he seems happier and more confident. The negative comparisons to people like Eric Clapton disappear. A day or two before the rooftop concert, he's the one who's helping Ringo expand the idea for Octopus's Garden into a song.

George Martin looks and sounds like the leading man from some 1940s British romantic film. Like the colours of those films, he wears white shirts with black and grey suits that always feature immaculate pocket squares. He's so out of place, of such a different class and generation to the Beatles and almost everyone else hanging around. But the relationship is so much closer and friendly than you'd assume. He's also got great musical gifts and a willingness to help with anything - at one point he's lugging some big create around like any roadie. None the less it's surprise how much the much younger  Glynn Johns does in the studio control room compared to George Martin.

And so the film goes - surprising, fascinating, and occasionally frustrating - do the Beatles really have to degenerate into parody and mockery so often when they try and play a song from start to finish? Or are we getting highly selective edits because they're funny and the normal recording/rehearsal process is a bit boring? We're seeing arguably the four most famous men in the world in January 1969, and yet they're so grounded, and even at times (sorry Ringo Starr) quite ordinary. 

There's so much to discuss - I haven't even mentioned the effortless happy genius of Billy Preston, who revives the entire crew when sits at the keyboard and does his stuff, completely unrehearsed. There's also the happy accident that the Beatles of 1969 are currently looking more fashionable and contemporary than they have for 50 years or so. Equally contemporary is the misery of Britain's relationship with immigrants - perhaps the saddest and most shocking theme of the film. 

But it's wrong to finish on a bum note - the Beatles never would. This is life-affirming look at the best band in history towards the end of their amazing run. Yes, perhaps the second part of the three is a little too long. But we should thank Michael Lindsay-Hogg's team in 1969, and of course Peter Jackson today for viewing and re-editing all the footage. This is a priceless film of the best music group of the 20th century at work. From now on it will be appreciated and enjoyed by anyone who likes music.

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Saturday, September 11, 2021

Remembering 9/11

 One of the reasons I persist with the blog is it's a painless way of keeping a loose diary. With that in mind, here are my memories of 9/11 written here in 2004:

Unlike many people in the Western World, let alone the USA, I was spared much of the horror of Sept 11th 2001. The reason was down to voltage.

Background:

The previous day, Sept 10th I was busy finalising my move back from Lowell Mass., where I'd lived since March 1999, to London, England. One of the many differences between Britain, the USA and the rest of the world is domestic voltage. In Britain, we have an insane system whereby a lethal 240 Volts gets pumped into every socket. The USA, sensibly, makes do with a merely jolting 110. I'd always known my time in God's own country would be relatively short, so I deliberately avoided buying expensive electrical goods - my TV came from Wal-Mart as did my boom-box and the phone. I'd always regarded them as eminently disposable items, to be used, enjoyed, and then discarded with all the regret of chucking a disposable razor in the bin. No point in taking them back to Britain where they wouldn't even serve as paperweights... Which is a roundabout way to explain why I'd given my TV to my neighbour the previous night. The removal company was due on the morning of Sept 12th - I could survive 24 hours without television, especially the American kind...

Recollections

It really was a lovely morning - a deep blue sky, no wind, no cloud - the weather had been good for several days. It wasn't really unusual as the most enjoyable part of the summer in Mass is the Indian phase that often lasts well into September. The days are still warm, the humidity is down, and the air has that surreal crystal-clear quality that destroys distance. I was in an enjoyable limbo; unemployed but with concrete plans and keen to enjoy my last few days in America. My flat was lovely - half the first floor and two balconies of a rambling old colonial style house, a small mansion really constructed in about 1890, and the flat had that Zen-like starkness places have just before you move out of them. At about 9:00am I was lay on the polished wooden floor of the sitting room listening to WBUR. I can't remember the program; it followed the morning show - "The Connection" perhaps? Or possibly even the BBC, the reason I'd started listening to WBUR in the first place. The first hint of trouble came at about 9:25AM. A brief report stated a plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York.

Common sense told me it must be a small private aircraft, a Cessna perhaps, since I couldn't imagine any circumstances where a large commercial jet would crash into Manhattan. The navigation and automatic pilot and even the brave human pilot would prevent such a thing. Life went on as normal for another precious few minutes. Then perhaps 15 or 20 minutes later, the program was interrupted again to say a second aircraft had crashed into the other tower. I remember clearly trying to calculate the odds of such a thing happening, before deciding it must be a suicide attack. Once again I assumed, I'm not sure why, that it must be a light aircraft. The assumption I made was small private planes, stolen and then perhaps packed with explosives.

About 10 or 20 minutes after that, things got very serious. WBUR abandoned its schedule and went into continuous reporting mode. Somewhere about this time reports started coming in of a plane crash on the Pentagon, and "America is under attack." I began to get very worried then, a child of the Cold War, thoughts began to turn to Pearl Harbour, and the chance that another country was trying to knock out America's defences prior to some nuclear attack. Stupid of course, but events started to move very fast, and the journalists fact checking started to desert them - there were reports of a bomb outside the Capital, and an attack on the White House.

Next came the unimaginable news that one of the towers had collapsed. This was baffling. A few weeks earlier I'd been to visit friends in Manhattan and I'd taken the odd glance or two at the World Trade Centre - it was hard to miss but didn't really interest me, the triumphal art deco of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State held more aesthetic and historic appeal. None the less, the one thing the WTC did look was solid. The towers had that slightly brutal concrete stump sort of architecture, so common in the 1960s and not really abandoned until the late 70s. I tried to remember when the WTC had been built, then wondered if the shock waves had set up some kind of horrible sympathetic vibration within the structure.

The phone calls started. Todd called from work to say everyone was watching the Internet. Then Jason called. We'd planned to spend a couple of weeks playing poker as my sort grand finale, and Jase was miserable and shocked, we started to discuss driving the 2500 miles or so from Mass to Nevada. Then Nat called from Britain, shocked and keen to share her thoughts. Mine were still brutal and uninformed, it seemed as if the USA had spent the previous decade bombing and intimidating all sorts of small countries, and this was just inevitable pay-back. I noted cynically that the whereabouts of President Bush were unknown - he'd last been seen hurriedly leaving Florida.

Then came the news the second tower had collapsed (why, how? I kept wondering), my neighbour popped around to say she couldn't get her ariel to work and she was off to somewhere to watch. Then Maurice, my ex-boss called to cancel our lunch - he'd been watching on TV and told me of some of the scenes he'd witnessed.

The rest of the day passed in a sort of shocked blur, but I remember clearly walking down to Burger King for lunch, and seeing the skies above, normally bisected by vapour-trails were completely empty - very spooky, perhaps the first time they'd been completely empty for 80 or 90 years. Later that day the first guesstimates came in on the number of casualties, ten to twelve thousand seemed likely, perhaps as many as twenty thousand.

It's very hard to describe the vague, unknowing tension and fear that seemed to grip the country the rest of that day.

There was one report, unconfirmed now I think, that a couple had jumped off one of the towers holding hands. It was unforgettable. I fervently hope that I'm never in a situation where the best option is holding hands with a friend and jumping hundreds of feet to your death. I only hope the people who did jump half believed they were in a nightmare, it wasn't real, and that they would wake up to a beautiful morning, warm and still, with a clear blue sky.


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

It was one year today...

 Today is a grim milestone,

One year since the country locked down because of the COVID 19 pandemic.

Since then we've had around 120,000+ additional deaths, compared to normal, and a wrecked economy. Thankfully the vaccination program has been one of the best organised and most efficient in the world, with almost half the population having received one dose. 

Hopefully this time next year, the pandemic will be nothing more than a series of surreal memories. 

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Eight years and... no bonus

Today was a memorable day at work for two reasons.

Firstly, it marked eight years at my current employer, the longest I've ever worked anywhere. 

Secondly, for the first time I've been with the company, there will be no end of year bonus for the employees this year. The reason of course is the COVID crisis that affected the entire world from about this time in 2020 and is still ongoing. 

None the less, it's very disappointing news, especially as the company still found the money to pay a dividend to the shareholders at the end of December last year. The senior managers own a lot of shares. The ordinary employees, not so many...

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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

1st COVID Vaccination


Today I walked just over a mile from my house to a medical centre, which isn't the one where I'm registered.

No matter, it was easy to find, and a well spaced out queue of people outside the rear entrance made it pretty obvious where to go. After 10 minutes or so the queue advanced enough for me to do the self registry on the terminal in the porch. 

Another few minutes wait and a friendly young lady with a clipboard invited me to step inside and see the receptionist. The receptionist took my name and date of birth and looked me up on some kind of screen. After a 'oh yes' she directed me to stand at the corner of the red lines. There were red lines taped to the floor, and the lady behind me in the queue was directed to follow the yellow lines. Clever.

I followed the red lines down a short corridor and then stood on the threshold with a couple of little curtained off areas to the right and an office to the left. A man and a woman occupied the curtained areas, while a young lady flitted between the office and the booths. The lady (a nurse or a doctor) asked her for some more doses - she disappeared but I didn't see her come back with any.

That's because a man stood up and walked out rolling his sleeve down, and a nice looking man with grey hair invited me to come over. He introduced himself as Nick, one of the doctors in the practice. He asked me a few routine questions about my state of health and tapped in the answers on device on his desk. Then he asked me which arm I wanted it in (left), I took off my sweater and rolled up my sleeve. There was a moment of discomfort (pain is too strong a word) and that was that. 

He handed me a card that proved I'd had the jab, and an information leaflet. Then I walked home in the blustery wind and sunshine feeling a mixture of relief and happiness. There is talk of having more or less the whole country vaccinated by June. Judging from the informal efficiency of the procedure I've described above, that might well be achieved. Things may be back to normal in the country by August/September. What a wonderful prospect!

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