Archive for January, 2013

coinsGot a utility or home and car insurance bill recently? Don’t just pay it, query it. It’s expected of you!

Finances in the Graeme household have been coming under scrutiny recently. I’m constantly being told by TV pundits and politicians that the financial crisis will involve lots of “difficult” decisions, and that  we’re all in it together, which I interpret as meaning the state we’re in is is as much my fault as those artfully dodgy bankers and other financial types, for being so wasteful and spending above my means. I’ve therefore been looking at my bank statements ans scrutinising my monetary inflows and outflows, so to speak – dull, I know – but in the process I think I’ve discovered something rather shocking.

The reason my coffers have been dwindling  isn’t my profligate ways at all!  In fact, I’ve discovered to my relief I’m rather frugal. No, the reason my finances are so stretched at the minute is – well, I can hardly bring myself to say it.  While I’ve been busy with  my nose to the grindstone, my coffers have been raided by a sophisticated kind of  – well,…


It’s complex, widespread and totally bamboozling, and it’s hiding under this smokescreen of austerity – that times are hard and it’s only right and proper that we should all be feeling the pinch.

Let me explain:

I  took out a house insurance policy in 2000 and have never queried it, just kept paying the premiums year on year. And those premiums have been creeping up at a rate way above that of inflation. The last four years in particular I thought I was probably paying far too much, but I let it go because I was busy with other things. I queried it this year because I thought £1400 was definitely a mistake, that my suburban bungalow had somehow been misclassified as a country mansion.

But it turns out it wasn’t a mistake at all, just that my “product” was rather old, “sir”. However, the telephone salesperson hastened to reassure  me there was  another “product” that gave me the same insurance cover for £600, saving me £800 a year.

Just like that!

It was a hassle sorting all of this out – expensive phone calls on the mobile in my lunch hour at work, but it was obviously worth it. And this was not achieved by threatening to change insurer, or by losing my temper, or projecting any other emotion that attracted negative energy back at me. I simply queried it. Precisely how and when my insurance “product” became “obsolete” eludes me, also the reason why it should have become incrementally so much more expensive over time. I can only conclude this is the modern reality and we have to get used to it.

Fraud a bit too strong a word perhaps? Well, I’ve been searching for a less pejorative noun, but I can’t find one, and fraud is still the closest fit to the facts as I see them. Taking money for a service, and not telling me I was paying way over the odds for it, relying on my ignorance or reticence for change to query it? I think that’s fraudulent, or at the very least dishonourable – the kind of sharp practice you’d expect from a street hustler or a payday-loan shyster, not a respectable stock market listed company staffed by graduates with degrees in Business Studies.

Sometimes I think I’m the most gullible and trusting person on the planet, but even my easily won trust has been broken, and when ordinary citizens like me lose trust in those institutions that are supposedly the bedrock of our existence – for a family man cannot live without house insurance, any more than he can live without food or water –  then what of society at large?

Gas and electricity bills are another area where this sharp practice is rife of course. Again, it’s an area I’ve been reluctant to meddle in because it’s so complicated and I don’t want to end up getting my energy supply cut off because of a clerical error. My gas provider has eight different tarifs, none of which I understand. They’re also constantly on at me about providing my electricity as well, just as the electricity lot want to provide my gas – but that’s equally complicated, so I’ve never bothered.

You think about doing it every time you get the bill, but then something else comes along competing for your attention, so you set it aside. But my gas and electricity bills have been creeping up to around £2000 a year, so something really had to be done this time, because I’m heating and powering a suburban bungalow, remember, not a mansion or a factory.

I finally got to grips with this over the Christmas period and switched to a company who buys gas and electricity from the utility companies who actually generate and pump this stuff, yet by some weird financial trick this third party company who generates and pumps nothing can sell it to me cheaper. I’ll save £350 a year if it all works out as planned. I don’t understand how this works, and my instincts tell me only a fool would sign up for something he doesn’t understand, but £350 will cover the next service on my car (I hope).

And speaking of cars, vehicle insurance has yielded similar significant savings  –  50% on my own vehicle. Simply by switching insurer every year, there’s always been a cheaper deal to be found. But the irrational nature of this business was brought home to me when my good lady’s car insurance became due for renewal. I’m a named driver on her policy and since I had the misfortune to pick up three penalty points on my licence for speeding, I reminded her to inform her insurer that she had a bad ass husband who was obviously a risk to life and limb. Common sense told me it would probably increase her premiums, and that if it made a big difference, then she should take my name off her policy, that it wasn’t worth it for the number of times I drove her car.

It did make a big difference – it made it cheaper.

Clearly there’s is no real logic to any of this, other than the fact that if you don’t constantly query what you’re paying you’re rendering yourself vulnerable to this systematic fraud – one where you do not get what you think you’re paying for, and one in which you pay incrementally more, way above the rate of inflation, for exactly the same thing you’ve always had, unless you say: “Hang on a minute!”.

Whether we have the nous or the energy required to plunge into this impenetrable jungle of financial double-speak is another matter, but it’s expected of us now – it’s built into the system. Refuse to join in, or can’t be bothered and you’re like a lone cowboy out in the desert with the indians circling. And as citizens of a free-market and totally de-regulated economy, we are unprotected from this kind of merciless predation. There is no government cavalry coming to your rescue. Indeed in many ways, these financial predators are the new government, setting the agenda for the way the world works, and how we all fit into it.

None of this is personal of course. It’s just business.

What could possibly go wrong?

The troubling thing is, these are not luxuries. They are things we either cannot do without, or they are legally required of us, yet I’d say by far the greater proportion of us lack the awareness or even the basic confidence to challenge the system.  I was lazy. It took me a while to wake up and do something about it – and I groan at the prospect of having to constantly keep doing something about it every time a bill appears in my inbox. I’d rather be out walking, or writing, or contemplating my navel. I can do it, if pushed – and I’ve definitely been pushed in recent years – but for many this game is simply too complicated, and they’re vulnerable.

It takes time keeping one step ahead of this game, and I think most of us would rather be doing other things. It will be a sad day when the only satisfaction any of us get is bragging about how much we managed to save on our utility bills. Really, life’s too short. But it’s precisely this attitude the direct debit leeches seek to exploit, bleeding our bank accounts, growing fatter and fatter on our indolence.

So wake up!

It seems altogether the wrong vision for society. Utilities and basic financial services are the bedrock upon which we build our lives and strive for greater things – they should not be so conspicuous in our lives that dealing with them becomes our raison d’etre. In the long ago, the providers of these things were few and trusted (rightly or wrongly), but anyway costs weren’t so great they caused us to tear our hair out in frustration. At eighteen I could easily afford to insure my own car, but my own eighteen year old son cannot. At eighteen my mother’s house was warm enough on bags of coal to keep its heat until late into the night. Now my own modern home is so expensive to heat, we knock the heating off at nine and creep to bed when the January chill seeps into our bones. So this free market free for all, this culture of endless consumer choice, and cut-throat competition, isn’t providing the efficient and all-enabling service to society it so often claims to be, but is in fact slowly crippling it.

Surfing the tempestuous waves of this shark infested free market ocean always leaves me feeling soiled. It seems to insist I declare war upon it, or be eaten. But I am not a soldier, and I still dream of Shangri-la.

Graeme out.

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An Enigma?

Just testing – forgive me:


asxct wfrty kloit sdfty nmgjr

wpaok jslle fhtue rtuap hfkty

idsop rthyt sdjuy kajsh lopqw

hjdkt jklel utkld kflrl utioe

ipgfp tueie tklam opqhe lopsn


Cipherclarks please do beware, don’t waste your time, there’s nothing there.


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Sunset Lancashire Oct 28th 2009Picture if you can a man, middle fifties, riding a motorcycle across a lonely moorland road, the kind of road that’s barely wide enough for two cars to pass and has a grass strip running up the middle of it. It’s a Sunday evening, late summer, the sun about an hour from setting. He parks the bike at the wayside and sets out across the moor to the ruins of a farm – now just an outline of low gritstone walls, all overgrown, in the corner of a fertile pasture. The pasture has lain fallow for a long time – I mean, we’re talking a hundred years here – but it’s still lush green against the pale straw of the acidic, unsustaining moorland all around. He sits down on a stone, settles himself in. The evening is warm, the midges not too aggressive, the sun sinking lower now, sending long shadows out across the land.

He’s thinking about the his life.

He’s been here before, many times, but more specifically, he’s thinking of an occasion forty years ago, when he was a lad of seventeen, on his little motorcycle, a Gilera 50 tourer, at the end of the last long summer of his life, the summer he left school, and on the very evening before he took up a career as an engineering apprentice at a local manufacturing plant. He’d had the sense back then of a long road unwinding ahead of him, and though he couldn’t see the end of it, it had seemed as good a road as any, and he was happy to follow it.

It led him first of all to a reasonably well paid job as an engineer. He’d never be a millionaire, and he’d never drive a new car, but it was steady work, technically interesting, and so long as he was sensible, he would never be hard up for cash. Then he met a woman, several women in fact, married one of them in his later twenties and had a couple of kids by her – kids who were now grown and flown.

His memory of them is of summer vacations by the sea, of bedtime stories, of coaxing them through life’s occasional downer, and finally of college, graduation, of that awkward first moment, meeting their future spouses – then of losing them to the world and their own winding paths into the future.

He’d also lost his woman by now. She’d not been there for a while, emotionally anyway, not since the kids had grown, but recently she’d gone for good. Moved back in with her ageing parents, taken half their roomy house, and he was back to living in a middle terrace, exactly like the one he’d grown up in. It was fair enough, he thought. He wasn’t the most dynamic of characters and she’d grown bored with his mediocre ambitions – wanted to do something else with her life before she grew too old.

Then, after forty years, the managers at the engineering plant were looking to downsize and wanted volunteers for redundancy. If you were over fifty five it was a good package, and you could even go with an enhanced pension, not have to wait until sixty seven to draw it. You could have it now. So he took it. It had seemed the right thing to do at the time, sort of natural, what with everything else changing, coming to an end or transitioning away from him.

It had been a worry at first, wondering if he could get by, but he’d made some economies – like getting rid of the car
and going back to a small motorcycle. There’d be no more holidays in nice hotels in far flung places, but he’d never really enjoyed that kind of thing anyway,…

He’d be okay.

So now it’s Sunday night. And he’s contemplating the end of his working life, next week in fact, just as forty summers ago he’d sat in this same place, contemplating the beginning of it. And the question he’s asking, after all of that is what the fuck was it all for?

I mean, he’s not dead yet. He’s fifty seven, still reasonably fit, can still handle a bike, can still run five miles, and box the ears of younger men sparring at the Kung Fu club – and the Kung Fu’s keeping him flexible – no sense of himself growing stiff and brittle with age yet. Were it not for ample evidence to the contrary in the mirror every morning, he’d still say he was seventeen – well maybe not seventeen, but certainly no older than thirty five.

The kids rarely called on him now. There’s was no bad feeling between them, it’s just that they had their own lives to live, and they’d always been closer to their mother. He didn’t suppose he could expect them to make much of a fuss over him, and he didn’t expect them to, but at least while the kids were around he’d always had a very practical answer to the nagging question regarding his purpose in life – it was to help bring up the kids. everything else had been secondary.

But what now?

Well, there was always the writing – the stories, the novels. He’d been writing even when he was seventeen, laying out the first chapters of that very first novel, but it had never led to anything, and now forty years and twenty novels later, he didn’t think for a minute it ever would. It remained his number one pleasure in life, to sit down at his desk and tap out a fresh story, play around with some fictional characters, but the purpose of his life?

It was a strange business. At least he had readers now, thanks to the internet and the march of technology making it possible for everyone to have a book of his in their pocket – a thing that had been inconceivable when he’d started out – thinking he’d need to get himself a publisher – but they were always deeply puzzling to him, publishers, demanding the world of him before they’d even run their eyes over his manuscripts, and then offering nothing in return and for no explanation. They never did seem to like his work – at least not enough to pay him for it. Still, people wrote to him now and then, and said they’d read this or that story, people all over the world, people with their own lives, their own views on life.

That was something, and it kept him going.

Forty years!

The sun was slipping out of a pocket in the clouds now, sinking into the bronze crucible of the sea, and he was thinking he’d better get back before the midges started biting for real. But the house was empty and though he had financial security now without the need to get up every morning, he couldn’t help thinking he had no more in his life now than when he’d set out that Sunday evening at seventeen. At seventeen he had forty years of work ahead of him, forty years of life. But now all he could see was twenty years or so into which he could decompress before old age and infirmity took him.

Was that still a kind of living?

He fired the bike up and gave the throttle a twist. The engine sent out a throaty roar and he felt the vibration of it in his bones, but the silence of the moor was unperturbed – just swallowed it up. As he rode away, he took in the beauty of the hills like he always did when he came up here. They were russet now, the crown of the hills lit with gold splashes, against a deepening sky. They’d looked pretty much the same on that first occasion, forty years ago, as he supposed they would a thousand years from now.

That was the thing, being human, he thought. We tended to make such a lot of fuss over what amounted to not very much in the end. But on the upside, there’d be lots of long summers ahead, and the stories too.

He’d enjoy them while he could.

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adrienneAllow me to introduce you. This is Adrienne Divine. She’s thirty five, British, and a former university lecturer now working as an estate agent in Carnforth, Lancs. Two years ago she had a serious car accident which left her in a coma. When she came round some weeks later, she discovered her husband – whom she’d not been getting along with for a while – had decamped to his native America, taking their two children with him.

In the movies, she would have flown over there straight away, engaged a ruggedly handsome lawyer and, after a dramatic legal battle, plus a threadbare sub-plot involving lots of guns, drug dealers and high speed car chases, she would have taken her husband to the cleaners, had her sweet revenge on him, rescued her children and brought them safely back to Blighty. She would also probably have fallen in lust with the lawyer enabling the inclusion of a  fairly tame boobs and butt love-scene – her stretchmarks and his bald-spot being expertly fuzzed out by CGI of course.

But this isn’t the movies, and Adrienne’s broke. She’s currently moving from one low paid job to another, barely able to cover the rent, let alone jet off to the States for an uspecified period of time and pay a lawyer thousands of dollars by the hour in order to untangle a messy affair, none of which is her fault. So she does what most ordinary people would do – they absorb the devastating hurt, and just get on, day to day, as best they can while hoping for a miracle.

Then Adrienne meets Phil, who’s not exactly the miracle she was hoping for, but it’s just possible he could be the next best thing. He’s a prospective buyer for a house her agency is trying hard to flog, but it’s a flat market and there’s something about the house that makes it even harder to sell. It’s remote, stuck out on a tidal island where it gets cut off by the sea for twelve hours out of twenty four. No one in their right mind, other than a hermit or a recluse, would ever consider buying it.

Phil is an oil and gas-industry geologist, struggling to adjust to a mainly desk-bound job in Manchester. A decade ago, he was involved in an accident flying out to a rig in the Atlantic which left six of his colleagues dead. Still suffering from PTSD, discontented by his bureucratic post, and perhaps even a little menopausal by now, he’s looking to buy somewhere really cheap, then quit the job and live frugally off his savings until the company pension kicks in. He doesn’t care what he does, so long as it’s different and he doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone while he’s doing it.

Phil and Adrienne meet when he turns up at the office and she’s delegated, against her will, to drive him out to the house. He falls in love with her at once – well, who wouldn’t? But he also finds her cold, prickly and remote. She thinks he’s a boring, faceless corporate drone who talks too much. Plus he’s ten years older than she and her life’s complicated enough as it is without getting involved with another man.
They aren’t the most likely of lovers then.

The house doesn’t really suit him. It’s too close to the sea for a start which has a habit of irritating his neuroses, and he’s decided too much solitude wouldn’t be good for him anyway, that living out on a tidal island would be like casting himself adrift. But he goes along with Adreinne to view the place because he doesn’t want to come across as a prat and a time-waster. There something listless about him – he’s ambivalent about the house, confused, and looking like a man becalmed, waiting for a stiff wind to fill his sails.

As unlikely as it seems, these two will become lovers at some point – indeed their unfolding story seems contrived by fate in such a way as to make it almost inevitable; while they’re out on the island, the tide comes in earlier than predicted, on account of a  storm surge, trapping them there overnight. They’ve no choice then but to find a way  of getting along and after a shaky start, by morning both have got more than they bargained for. Less inevitable however, is the degree to which Phil and Adrienne discover in each other the catalyst for triggering a shift in mental perspective, enabling them to suddenly transcend their personal demons, and kindle fresh meaning for their lives.

Adrienne once wrote poetry, lectured in English Lit, also Psychology and Philosophy. As a girl she also dabbled in bedroom witchcraft, a practice through which she finds increasing comfort now as means of self empowerment in a world that appears to have otherwise stripped her of everything else. And Phil’s not the corporate drone he appears in his plain grey suit and plain grey rep-mobile of a car. He sees things, hears things, imagines things that inform his intuition in a way that goes beyond the rational.

He also draws pictures like the one he did of Adrienne, and posts them on Flickr,…

Having grown up in a society that frowns on the “irrational”, the emotional, and the intuitive, they’re both embarrassed  to admit this side of themselves in public, yet both begin to see their salvation depends not only on admitting their true inner natures, but embracing them – that only when envisoned through the lens of a romantic, mystical and even a magical perspective, can the world begin to mean anything again.


I’m writing this down in precis form because I want to get at the essence of what their story is about, and sometimes you need to get outside of it to do that, just like you can’t always see where you’re going for the lay of the land. And it’s beginning to make sense, what Phil and Adrienne have been telling me.

I’ve been trying to solve the puzzle of their story for about a year now, since they first came to see me with their unlikely opening scenario and persuaded me it would be worthwhile running with it. Sure, there’ll be several more drafts to go before I’ve wrung every last drop of meaning out of it, but the majority of the work is done. I can sit back and enjoy the ride now, without the worry of not knowing where we’re going any more.

Just because I talk to ghosts, it doesn’t make me insane, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it. They dictate my stories for me, and I learn a lot from them. And Adrienne, a very particular ghost on this occasion, is telling me there’s no such thing as a small life, that we’re all heroes because to paraphrase the song, our skins are so soft and even supposedly ordinary lives can sometimes be very, very hard.

Thanks for listening.


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androidThis is my new Smartphone. It’s a cheap one I bought direct from China, saving me a fortune on the price of an equivalent device with a more familiar western brand name. Dual sim, it takes both my Orange and my Vodaphone PAYG cards that I’ve had for years in other phones. It runs the Android ICS operating system, has accelerometers and a GPS built in. It can be a satnav, wordprocessor, ebook reader, spreadsheet, diary, planner, address book, a reasonable camera,… even a seismometers and an inclinometer if you should ever find yourself in need of one, plus a long list of other stuff that may or may not be useful to you. Oh,… it also makes calls and sends texts. It is the Swiss Army knife of mobile computer technology. It’s not perfect, but it’s well built and I’ve used it every day for the last couple of months, and I do like it,… really.


If you forget to plug this ravenous beast in overnight, and I mean every night, it’s useless. Battery life is worse than those old brick ‘phones we had in the nineties. At first I thought it was because I’d been a skinflint and gone for a cheap knockoff ‘phone with a poor battery, but reading reviews of more well known brands of similar size and spec, this pitifully short operational life is typical, so I know my device is no worse than any other. It’s simply the price you pay for having all that functionality in your pocket.

By comparison I was told the tale of an ordinary “dumb” text and call type ‘phone that was lost on a camping trip two years ago. It was found recently on another camping trip when the tent was unrolled and the phone discovered lurking in a fold of the groundsheet. And yes, it was still working!

I’ve not thrown my old ‘phone away, thank goodness. I haven’t touched it for several months, and I note the battery still has 50% charge. That’s it with those old “dumb” phones – it had got to the point when you were almost surprised they needed charging at all. By contrast I unplugged my smartphone at 8:00 am this morning, and now (10:00 pm) it’s down to 15% and has already nagged me to plug it back in again. And no, I’ve not been playing games on it. I’ve sent two texts and the rest of the time it’s been on standby.

I feel like a slave to it, like to one of those little Tamagotchi pets – conscious all the time of this thing in my pocket that’s dying hour by hour unless I do something to sustain it. I think once the novelty has worn off, I’ll be going back to my old ‘phone. Until battery life catches up with all that power hungry functionality, Smartphones look like a pretty dumb idea to me – a little ahead of their time.

The best gadgets are those you use every day, yet remain an inconspicuous part of your life, providing a useful function without adding even more nags to you list of things to do.

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hawkers and scrapersThere’s nothing like spotting a public spelling blooper like this one for making you smile. Maybe you’re even tempted to tut tut at the decline in educational standards. To be fair this sign was out in the wilds, and the polite thank-you certainly dampens one’s squib, but if you spot the blooper among the advertising blurb on the shelves of a leading supermarket, you feel less inclined to forgive it because, well, they should know better shouldn’t they? At least if they want us to take them seriously?

Of course I’m setting myself up for a fall here because we all have our spelling blind-spots. For a long time, in those dim and distant pre-spellchecker days, I used to spell as minute as minuit. I still pause over friends and freinds, received and recieved, and my fingers absolutely refuse to get “because” at the first go, preferring the slightly more dyslexic “becasue”. So I’m sure any detailed perusal of my hundreds of thousands of words online will reveal  embarrassingly elusive bloopers of my own. Be warned then, it’s dangerous to be smug about one’s own spelling prowess! But I mean well, and I do try to get it right.

Until recently I was one of those who even sent texts with pedantic care and attention to apostrophes, commas and full stops, as well as formal spelling of course. But then I realised you could only say half of what you wanted to say with your meagre character limit and that, actually, txt spk was worth getting a handle on because of its much higher band-width, and that saves me money – expressing in one text what I used to express in three.

So is it really important these days – I mean knuckle wrapping stern headmaster kind of important – that we get our spellings right? Well, as usual it’s yes and no, and it depends on your target audience. The informal texting phenomenon has encouraged us to be imaginative in breaking the rules. Here irreverent spelling and the mad mix of numbers and letters is positively encouraged, the result being a new, dynamic language that can be breathtaking in its ingenuity, expressing in a handful of characters what it normally takes me all day to say. There’s a clear reason for it though, working around an essentially technical restriction, and that’s fine.

However, you still need that formal bedrock of certainty, from which to deviate when you’re feeling cheeky, or safe among your friends. But if you want to be taken seriously among educated strangers, you’d really  better get it right or you’ll have to work much harder to convince anyone of your intellectual credibility later on. It depends how seriously you want to be taken, I suppose. There’s really nothing clever about a culture of dumbing down. Spelling really is important.

Confucius wrote about an internal and an external order,  that if you have a thing of value, it’s not a sin to adorn it with some kind of formal exterior decoration, because this outward form can help the inner quality to shine through and be recognised. Put simply, a decent poem, well spoken, will be received favourably by more ears than the same poem mumbled incoherently through clenched teeth. In the same way an otherwise well argued essay can appear shot full of holes by careless spelling. Of course this also means any old pap can be dressed up in faultless spelling, spoken with eloquence and passed off as literature, and it will take a wise man to tell the difference. It’s important therefore to recognise it’s not the spelling itself that’s  the issue – that’s just rules after all –  but more the credibility it lends to the subject matter, and the person presenting it.

The message is, if you’re writing to an audience of strangers online in your blogs and your ebooks and on your websites, you do need to spell things correctly. It’s pointless being an adult, waxing lyrical on existential matters if your spelling makes you look like a Wattpad pre-teen who spends more time blowing bubblegum at the back of the class than paying attention to his teacher.

Finally, if you’re the author of that sign in my opening illustration – I knew what you meant. I also meant no offence in snapping it and presenting it here.

I trust you’re not disturbed too often by hawkers or scrapers.

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