Sunday, November 30, 2014

The end of the endless tube upgrade?

Something rather bewildering to report from the commuter front. A poster at the station announced it first and now the calendar of planned engineering works on the TFL website confirms it, at least for the next two months. Barring one weekend there are to be no closures for upgrade work on the Metropolitan.

If this is not your tube line of choice then you may ignore the rest of this column and shrug. But for those for whom this steel road is the transport lifeline that makes living on the edge of London possible, then this is amazing news indeed. We have been living with regular weekend closures for so long it is difficult to grasp that the Met can run all through the week on a regular basis. Fancy that! Come Saturday we can stroll down to the station expecting (oh, joyous word) that normal services will be provided. The dreaded phrase "Darling, the trains aren't running, can you give me a lift to..." will become otiose. Hanging about in the car, in teeming rain, parked on the yellow lines outside a station where the trains are terminating short, with one eye open for traffic wardens and the other on the precious phone app that shows the arrival of the train one hopes is conveying one's loved one, will be one of those quaint memories one dredges up in later life to bore one's great-nephews and nieces when they ask "What was it really like in the bad old days?". They won't believe a word of it, of course. That's the trouble with modern youth. Soft. Given everything on a plate. [We seem to be digressing a bit: Ed].

Anyway, we've had years of it and I'm heartily glad that the current round is completed. Once upon a time the Met trains used to hurtle at speeds of over 60mph on some sections, swaying and jerking sufficient to hurtle luggage off the racks. Well they did away with the racks on the new "S" stock units (sod them) but they have promised a return to faster journey times when the track was improved. I'm looking forward to a bit of adrenaline-pumping action in the new year. [Is this a euphemism?: Ed]

Saturday, November 29, 2014

How was Black Friday for you?

The cultural behemoth of North American practices continues to run amok in Britain. Not content with giving us meaningless cliches like "Out of left field", "touching base" and "ballpark" when "Behind silly mid-off", "making one's ground" and "pitch" are far superior,  and foisting pumpkins and trick-or-treat on us at Halloween when kids should be either doing their homework or slumped in front of the telly but not ringing the bells on their utterly uninterested neighbours' doors [The neighbours are the ones uninterested, their doors are not known to express opinions, right?: Ed] we now have the totally made-up and pretend commercial frenzy known as Black Friday.

We are supposed to believe that on this day, just after Thanksgiving [Whatever that is: Ed] and poised at the start of the Xmas hysteria, the volume of retail sales is such that retailers whose financial years end in December will at last show a net profit for the year to date, hence are now "in the black" as those of us who still use quill pens dipped in different colour inks to record such matters in our ledgers will be well aware. This may or may not be true for some retailers. But this day is now associated with seemingly high discounts and apparent amazing bargains leading to overnight queues, crowded stores, frantic buying, fist-fights over the counters and scenes of weary police hunkered down by their cruisers shaking their heads in despair and radioing in for reinforcements. And that's just at Asda in Wembley (not far from where I used to live).Who knows what is happening in the less refined parts of our country?

It defies belief that at a time when a business is turning a profit it should cut prices and kill its trading margins. Therefore I don't believe it. They simply raise prices during the dead months of the late summer in order then to proclaim fake discounts and sell the stuff at the prices they had planned all along. Indeed, an article in today's Guardian shows exactly this strategy at work at Argos where apparently artificial Xmas trees are at "half-price" compared to the price in August. Who the hell buys a Xmas tree in August? Apart from, obviously, people setting out on expeditions up the Amazon or to the South Pole;  they will have their cabin trunks stuffed full of plum pudding, tins of ginger biscuits, whole wheels of Stilton and bottles of vintage port. And a full range of decorations, crackers, silly hats and board games for we are British, goddammit, and standards must be maintained.  But leaving them aside, which I do with some reluctance, there is surely nobody else who (in August, let me remind you, not the dark days of late November) would flip through the hefty Argos catalogue, stop at the page showing baubles, illuminated angels and tinselly trees and think "Umm, that's nice, just what we need...". If you happen to be one, do let me know and I'll be happy to do a brief interview.

Anyway, Mrs Commuter and I shopped normally yesterday, as we usually do on a Friday, at our local supermarket where all was calm and ordered. A rather sad bin near the door held their "Black Friday" offers - a really cheap and nasty looking radio and some headphones whose sole selling point seemed to be that they distorted the bass. There was no queue. No punch-ups. No pensioners grimly elbowing each other out of the way. We don't do things like that in beautiful Ruislip. Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Those awful advertising slogans - 4. Benetton

Good to know that Benetton (a clothing manufacturer) is keen that violence against women should cease. They proclaim as much in their ads. Because, you know, if they had not printed this unexceptional statement with which no right-minded person could possibly find fault, we might have thought they were in favour of it, and boycotted their goods. Or something.

But the trouble is, I don't know what this corporation collectively thinks about child poverty, people trafficking, the drugs trade, the international markets in coffee, bananas and rice, whale-fishing, free movement of people within the EU, what channels should be on Freeview and whether Salisbury City should have been booted out of the Conference South for going bankrupt, thereby making it a bit easier for the team I follow from time to time to stay up this year after a poor start. Until all these matters are clarified, especially the last one, I shall staunchly refuse to buy any Benetton products. The fact that I have never actually done so before, and therefore by extrapolation and careful application of Bayes' Theorem, that I am unlikely to do so anyway, come what may, is recorded here in the interests of fair play but does not, I submit hopefully, weaken the thrust of my argument.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Those awful advertising slogans - 3. Bang and Olufsen

Apparently, if you choose to believe what admen say,  "Everyone deserves the Bang & Olufsen experience". They have even taken the trouble to create a webpage with the address "" so if you wish you can go there yourself and marvel. Or whatever it is you do when you are confronted with yet another slogan that undermines the meaning of language. Vomit perhaps. The choice is yours.

I mean. Obviously the people at B&O think their stuff is good. They are entitled to flog it to us. But why are they misusing the word "deserved", which means worthy of approval in the eyes of another person? They cannot possibly believe their slogan. If they did they would move heaven and earth to give everyone a free hifi. But they sell the stuff at commercial prices. So what they believe I deserve doesn't really come into it. Come on, B&O. You tell me I deserve a new, rather pricey, tele. Hand one over. Pat me on the back and say "Well done, you deserve this, please take it as a token of our esteem and there's more where that came from".  I'm free to come to your offices, oh, just about any time you care you specify, really. Hopefully there'll be a cup of tea and nice choccy digestive as well, because us deserving types get thirsty as we trawl around town collecting a gong here and a merit there. And dragging all that fancy gear back on the tube is going to be a struggle.

Or maybe the editor should make a suitable correction. Everyone deserves should buy the Bang & Olufsen experience product range. Now we know where we stand.

Monday, November 17, 2014

10 Years of Ramblings – a review by The Editor

This is a landmark day. It is the tenth anniversary of the first post to this blog. Moreover, it is the first time that I, until now merely an editor,  have been requested to write my own post, and I am grateful, and not a little humbled, for this scintilla of recognition from the columnist whom I have served for so long. Our roles have been reversed. Sadly, I assume that various snide comments will be inserted in italics by way of puerile revenge for the many essential and invigorating notes that I myself have been required to make over the years, to correct vague or unsupported assertions, to point out contradictions or to raise, in a diplomatic way, the problem of writing about matters of which the reading public could hardly be expected to be cognisant. [Jeepers - and he complains about my long sentences: AG] Behind the scenes I have fought the long struggle on behalf of English grammar and clarity, doing my best to whittle down many a long and rambling (ha, ha) paragraph into manageable and meaningful sentences. I think my little contributions have been appreciated by the readership. [Dream on, brother: AG]

It has not always been easy. Sometimes references to obscure teams playing association football or to icons of popular culture have passed me by [This says a lot more about you than about me: AG].

I find the derogation of certain, perfectly worthy, commercial enterprises, demeaning and unnecessary. If an advertisement offends by its crassness, untruths and grotesque mental images then surely a quiet word with the persons responsible would be so much more productive than emblazoning the offence here for all to see. [But writing about it here is so much more fun, do y'see?: AG]

When the transport authorities of this great city fail to run a normal service, or issue utterly misleading or unhelpful information when problems arise, there again there are certain channels where a disgruntled commuter might, in a civilised and constructive manner, evince his dissatisfaction. There is no need to embroil the general public in such matters.

 I deplore the misuse of the internet space so kindly and generously donated by Messrs. Google for the venting of the personal vendettas and, yes, spleen of an individual. [You just don’t get this whole interweb business, do you?: AG]

Fortunately, there are moments of delight that outweigh the brutish savagery sometimes displayed. Who can be unmoved by descriptions of the beauty of Ruislip and the glimpses of other parts of our metropolis afforded by vantage points on public transport? Each spring our hearts are in our mouths as we wait for the latest bulletin on the frogs in the pond. And the slow-burning but ever-popular feature on trams of all cities is a cascade of wonder. We are the richer for such musings.[Gosh, thanks. I feel warm all over. Or is that the central heating?: AG]

And what of the future? I am assured that the Ramblings will continue, albeit with considerably less
commuterial content than before. I fear this may presage even more attacks on the foundations of our civilisation than we have hitherto been accustomed to digest. Nonetheless, green eye-shade pulled well down and red pencil to hand, I shall continue to review, to annotate and to correct. I give you my pledge.


 [Well, that’s that for another 10 years. Back to normal with the next despatch, folks. Keep the faith: AG]

** News Alert **

Watch for a very special posting tomorrow, to mark the TENTH anniversary of this blog.

To News editors: This is embargoed until now.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Those awful advertising slogans - 2. Boss Hugo Boss

I am a little mystified by a full page colour ad in the papers. A smartly dressed and fashionably (I assume) unshaven bloke stares at us on the left side. On the right, a picture of a bottle of something that looks like a sample your doctor would turn over musingly in his hands whilst he said “I don’t want to alarm you and I’m fairly sure it’s not too advanced but don’t make any plans for this afternoon”. And some text which fails to make it much clearer. A strapline “Man of Today”. The utterly baffling “Gerard Butler for Boss Bottled”. The words Boss Hugo Boss on the bottle. And at the foot, a hashtag and a repeat of “Man of Today”.

I am hampered here by basic ignorance and a staunch refusal to try to identify who Mr Butler might be. Possibly he is the man in the sharp suit. As there is no little arrow pointing to him I don’t know. Maybe he designed the suit. Or the colour of the stuff in the bottle. Or he was the “creative” from the agency who told the model to go away and come back two days later when his beard would be scruffy enough for the photoshoot.

I am hampered further by the phrase linking Butler to Boss Bottled. Is “Bottled” a verb? Should it read “Gerard Butler for Boss, bottled”? We can imagine Butler perhaps about to take a crucial penalty for struggling Ryman League 2 side Boss. He pulls the shot, they lose and the sports reporter for the local rag has his headline. Or is bottled an adjective? A synonym for drunk? Is that what the stuff does to you? Must be powerful, the bottle looks fairly small.

We shall pass over Boss, Hugo Boss, whose name always reminds of one of Douglas Adams’ best jokes and comes from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where the mysterious Slartibartfast is urging the hapless Arthur Dent to follow him;
S: You must come or you will be late
A: Late? What for?
S: What is your name, Earthman?
A: Dent, Arthur Dent.
S: Late as in the late Dent Arthur Dent. It’s a sort of threat, you see.
And that is why I always think of Boss Hugo Boss as if it were one name.

And finally the tagline “Man of Today”, so important that it merits its very own little hashtag as well, ah, bless. I wonder how many people are using it right now on Twitter and similar sites and what on earth for? If you consume a different product from BHB does that make you a man of yesterday, or the month before last?

So in conclusion, m’lud, it is my contention that I have no idea what is being advertised or why it has anything to do with men or today and, as Lord Sugar would say in another context, that’s why I fired it.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Italian return to sense

The decision, two years ago, to prosecute earthquake scientists for "manslaughter" for failing to warn about the deadly shocks in L'Aquila in 2009 has finally been overturned on appeal, I gather from the BBC. Hopefully somebody will now prosecute the prosecution for stupidity, colossal waste of public funds and making a mockery of Italian justice.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Those awful advertising slogans - 1. Oris

I used to write a series concerning advertising on the tube devoted to deconstructing the underlying meanings behind the jarring slogans and images that faced us at stations or on the trains. Now that I commute hardly at all it seems fitting to put magazine ads under the spotlight, notably those featured in the weekend colour magazine that accompanies my Saturday newspaper.

Today’s subject is a watch. But not any old timekeeper. This is the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter. It is worthy of study because
  • it features an altimeter
  • Anyone can buy one, not just royalty with large heads
  • The slogan is “Real watches for Real People”.
And it will set you back a mere £2,350 or so (Naturally this price is not displayed on the advert but yes, I bothered to check because I know you’d want to know and that’s the level of investigative journalism we go to on Ramblings). Now I can see that some particular users – mountaineers, scientists, balloonists and the like – could find it helpful. You may feel that this is a sensibly priced product suitable for those occasions when you simply must know how high you are (“Darling we’ve been invited to the Harrisons for dinner”. “Oh, no, they live at 200’ and you know that always brings on my nose bleeds”). But I’m not convinced that pilots would have this one on their Christmas letter to Santa. If you fly an aircraft with instruments, which you will if you are a professional pilot and therefore one at whom this watch is ostensibly aimed, then one of them will be an altimeter. It is essential. You don’t, from time to time, remove your arm from the joystick to inspect your wrist so that you can murmur to your co-pilot “We seem to be at 48,000, let’s take her down a bit”. You look at your CAA certified instrument panel.

But you will have guessed that the real target of today’s little packet of invective is the slogan. Naturally, we can examine its meaning by considering how else it might have been phrased.
  • Fake Watches for Fake People: No, I can’t see this as holding any water. If the producers of a film wanted lots of mannequins each sporting a glittering timepiece as the backdrop to a dream sequence where the hero finds himself in a land of frozen time…yup, that’s when the props man says to himself, I need those fake watch people. I shouldn’t think it happens much.
  • Real Watches for Fake People: See above. Why equip your dummies with real watches? Simply a waste of money. Although the cast and crew might want them as souvenirs after the shooting. Could be a useful tax-dodge. Still, this surely remains a highly specialist market and therefore hardly worth building a business around that particular slogan.
  • Fake Watches for Real People: This is the slogan surely used by thousands of Ebay and Car Boot sale entrepreneurs as they offload their wagon-loads of Rulexes and Potek Phillipes.
So what does “Real Watches for Real People” mean? We’ve ruled out the idea of selling fake watches for a legitimate business. We’ve struggled to see how watches might be sold for fake people. It seems that any normal watch business must be selling their legitimate timekeepers to genuine humans. How does Oris’ slogan in any way distinguish it from other manufacturers? And if it doesn’t, why on earth feature it in an ad for a product that hardly anyone reading that magazine is likely to buy?

Or, to put it another way, since I am not going to shell out the price of 4 iphones on a mere watch, I resent with some bitterness being branded, in some sense, as not a real person. Descartes, who didn’t even own a watch [Can we check this please? Researcher?: Ed] stated you were real if you could think, and I think I am thinking, or so it seems anyway. I assert my reality and my non-Oris bearing wrist and thus refute the slogan.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

War, Commemoration and Art

In my last piece, I commented on a visit to see the field of ceramic poppies filling the moat at the Tower of London. This remembrance of the sacrifice of a generation is attracting huge crowds, so much so that yesterday Tower Bridge station was closed to prevent dangerous overcrowding.
The art critic Jonathan Jones has written a piece criticising the installation as inappropriate and as giving a false picture of the terrible cost of war – he prefers realistic depictions of corpses and injured troops. There has been a storm of protest against his views.
There is enormous scope to argue about whether the installation is art (and I explored the concept of what makes good art a long time ago and still stand by those views) and what is the best way to remember the fallen. In this case, although the poppies do constitute what I regard as good art (original, thought-provoking and transcending the medium), this is not the point. They are there to help us focus our thoughts. The blazing field of red is not adorned with flags or banners, photographs weapons or stirring messages. Jones’ dismissal of it as “A UKIP-style message” is wrong. It speaks directly to us of loss. Its message could not be plainer. Whether the dead fell in vain or not, they are remembered.
Jones also deplores the installation on the grounds that “the first world war was not noble”. There is a lazy (but wholly understandable) view that the war was meaningless and achieved nothing. But it did achieve something, although it took the second war to complete the job. It prevented Europe from the domination of absolutist, militaristic states. A war won by Germany would have started the process that Hitler pursued – the subjugation of as much as possible under direct German rule, the uprooting and destruction of any peoples deemed un-Germanic and the glorification of war and monarchy as the ultimate purpose for having a nation state. The writings of the Kaiser, Moltke and others directing the German High Command* during the years before the war make it clear that they despised liberal democracy, popular rule and freedom of expression and believed that history justified the “strong” doing whatever they wished to the “weak”. It was a disaster that these views could not remain confined within Germany and were the driving reason behind Austrian adventurism in the Balkans that in turn provoked the onset of war. But we can be proud that we helped put a stop to it.

*see Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns Of August” and David Fromkin’s “Europe’s Last Summer” if you want some evidence.