Thursday, 31 July 2008

What's the French for "Ouch"?

Yes. That is my car.

Yes. That's what the inside of a French garage looks like.

No. It wasn't drivable afterwards. Quite apart from bent suspension, all the airbags had gone off. FYI - they can be quite loud. It's not something you want to hear a second time.

Yes. We're both fine, thank you.

It all happened on the 19th, a few days after we arrived. As far as I know, the car is either still there or at this moment it's on a transporter somewhere in Northern France. Thanks to Europe-wide cover with the AA we were able to resume our holiday pretty soon afterwards. Although the driving was thereafter accompanied with the odd attack of nerves.

I'm going to leave this post here, if you don't mind. Normal service will be resumed pretty soon.


I'd just like to thank everyone for their comments, phone calls and incredulous Facebook messages. Really, we're fine. And while I'm being a committed thanker, I must mention four sincerely great people - Lynne & Brian and Stuart & Linette - who acted as hospital taxi/translators/consultants on the French legal process/links to sanity whilst we were experiencing our petite probleme. You are all officially ace.

Merci beaucoup.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Brittany Fears

This last few days Katie and I have been busier than, well, two very busy people. Preparation, lists, all sorts of unfamiliar concepts have been raising their heads in chez Fatboyfat.

Do concepts have heads? Never mind.

On Tuesday morning we'll be loading up the car again. We're driving down to Portsmouth and in the early evening will drive onto a boat. Quite a big boat, actually. Ten hours later we'll be disgorged in St Malo. And after several hours of driving (remembering the whole 'anti-clockwise round the roundabouts' thing) we'll fetch up at our home for the next two weeks. Officially in the middle of nowhere.

There will be none of these internets. In fact, electricity will be a bit touch-and-go at times. Great. At night, the sky will be black. Not that off-grey we get in cities. Crypt black, with a smattering of silver stars. And silent. No underhum of distant traffic. Real pindrop quiet.

For the next two weeks, this is what I'll be using instead of a laptop:

No power cable, no overheating lap, no bashing my head against the wall at the idiocy that is Mr Gates' finest.

It's somewhat ironic that the preparations for a holiday are such that you actually need a holiday to get over them. The last couple of weeks has been a whirl of officialdom. Passports, travel insurance, ferry bookings, stopover hotels.

The act of driving over there is complicated, and not just the left-hand kerb-hugging aspect. I've needed to get various bits of paper that prove I'm allowed to drive the car over there (it's a company car so not registered in my name), insurance certificate, breakdown cover, registration documents. Then such items as a warning triangle, GB plates, headlight converters, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, spare bulb kit and hi-vis jacket. Apparently the Gendarmerie like to pull over British motorists just to check they've got all this stuff. Maybe they've got shares in Halfords.

Add in a heady mix of packing, together with attempting to clear stuff at work so nothing serious blows up in the meantime. And I have a screenplay to write, too. And a second blog. And another website, related to the screenplay thingy. No wonder I'm seriously knackered.

Still, Katie thinks I need new trainers. "Save them for your holidays," she says.

We're going to be in the middle of rural Brittany, surrounded my horny-handed sons of the soil called Yves and Henri. Quite frankly, box-fresh trainers aren't going to impress.

Anyway. As a result you're going to have to look after yourselves for a fortnight or so. Don't forget to come back, won't you?

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Don't get mad, get discounts

It's a regular comment - often from people much older than me - that customer service isn't what it used to be. Often you don't really notice this phenomenon until something goes very wrong - then you start seeing examples everywhere. Or perhaps you get to see how it should be done and do the whole 'compare and contrast' thing in your mind.

Last night brought a stark reminder of this when it took a local Indian restaurant two hours to deliver food for four people. Let me repeat that for you. Two. Hours.

It's still not fashionable - certainly in this country - to complain. Don't make a fuss, don't cause a scene. The most we'll do is to be a bit sniffy with the staff, which more often than not goes way over their heads in any case. We might afterwards proclaim that the establishment in question is not getting our custom again. But they've still benefited financially from the last transaction and there are plenty of other willing victims.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Certainly from my travels in other countries I've seen how it should be done. Customer service is seen as an honourable career, not something done by an uninterested 17-year-old as a Saturday job. In the restaurants we've used in New York, for instance, the waiters were all in their forties and probably pulling down serious numbers from well-earned tips. And, as a customer, you want for nothing as a result.

So we've decided to get damnably un-British about things. If the customer service isn't up to scratch, it's going to cost the company in question. Think of it as a 'reverse tip'.

An example would be the local KFC to us here. We don't frequent it that often, but on occasion there's an itch that only Colonel Sanders can scratch. The problem is that I've seen fingernails grow at a faster pace than the queue moves. Katie once spent 20 minutes at the counter while they got one particular menu item ready. In the past she would have muttered under her breath and, on receiving the item, paid up. Not any more. She waited until they'd produced the meal, then fixed the staff member with a steely gaze before telling them she wasn't going to bother after all, turning on her heel and leaving. Net result; KFC have wasted their time and money. (Yes, Katie's wasted her time and we have no food, but you get my point).

And the feckless Indian restaurant last night? After Mike had called them three times to chase up the delivery (and been lied to several times -"He's just left...") the food finally showed up at about 10pm. After handing us the food the driver gave us a bill for £42.

"Actually, I don't think I want to pay this much," I said.
A shocked pause. "But that's how much it comes to," he said, "Look, I'm sorry, I know you're regular customers."
"Nice use of the present tense. Anyway, we've waited two hours for it. I tell you what, here's £30. That's what I'd like to pay."
"If you've got a problem you need to take it up with my manager at the restaurant."
"No. You go back to him and tell him that he's just made £12 worth of apology."

At that point he realised two things:
  1. He'd already handed over the food, somewhat limiting his negotiating powers.
  2. He'd angered a hungry fat bloke.
They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. Of course, that concept doesn't apply to Murgh Masala.

Monday, 7 July 2008

If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding

It comes to something when you wake up to find that the Prime Minister has somehow transformed into your mother overnight. But he has been. And it's quite a worrying development.

OK, he might still look like the hulking, brooding Scot we've all come to know and, er, know over the last twelve months. He still doesn't do the idiot savant grin of the previous one. But, according the most sources, he is now channelling my mother.

When you get to my age you expect certain things from your Government. Develop and maintain some sensible fiscal policy, work towards better social integration. Uphold the law. Promote the country's interests overseas. All reasonable things, I guess.

Being told by Her Majesty's Government that I should avoid wastage by planning meals in advance and storing food properly was, perhaps, a little unexpected. But bless them for their concern. Clearly we can all look forward to the next Government campaign, "Make Sure You Wrap Up Warm" from the Department of Not Getting a Chill on Your Kidneys.

They'll be recruiting official inspectors next who'll go from door to door on a Friday night, solemnly intoning the immortal words, "You're not leaving the house dressed like that.."

Oh, hang on a minute. Phone call.....

Well, bugger me. It was Gordon Brown, asking me why he's not a grandmother yet.

(With thanks to Philip at The Curmudgeon for reminding me of The Wall and giving me a perfect headline)

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Corrosive influence

"Irony, schmirony," spat Skelton, before draining the last of his protein drink. For a man who typically keeps his emotions close to his 50-inch chest, this was to be the beginning of quite an outpouring of rage.

Simon Skelton is a man who feels wronged by the world. And he's just about had all he can take.

We'd agreed to meet at his gym, the Buns o' Steel in downtown Redditch. An unassuming exterior hides a veritable powerhouse of activity. Entering through its portals, I was struck by the almost academic, monastic air of its inhabitants, committed as they were to a lifetime of self-improvement.

And there was Skelton, bench-pressing 100k in rep sets of 25 at a time.

For many years Skelton has been a mysterious, mythical figure. The subject of many a pub-quiz question - "Who first played Mr Muscle in the TV adverts for the oven-cleaner of the same name?" - for ten years he's been out of the public gaze. Perhaps the time has come for his story to be told.

"It all started when the advertising agency put out a casting call for a typical nine-stone weakling," starts Skelton, after vigorously towelling himself dry. "They thought it would be fun for a product named 'Mr Muscle' to be fronted by some puny guy. I was the typical facial recipient for kicked beach sand at that time, so I fitted straight in."

The early years were a whirlwind of ad shoots and public appearances. "I'm not proud of everything that happened," he admits. "But there was a pretence to be kept up. We had to make sure I couldn't bulk up, so I took to hanging around with jockeys and supermodels for diet tips. And let me tell you, when you've spent a weekend locked in a Travel Lodge hotel room with only Andrex toilet paper to eat, you've reached the bottom."

Skelton tried to convince the powers-that-be to take the character in another direction. "I told them, oven cleaner purchasers don't need irony, but they wouldn't listen. So I decided to do something about it myself."

Before too long Skelton was arranging clandestine meetings with shady suppliers. "It was at that time I was mainlining Met-RX, slipping away from my minders whenever I could to work a few routines with dumbbells."

But his operators were getting suspicious. The break point had to come. But even Skelton was unprepared for the viciousness that followed. "The midnight raid is etched on my memory. Masked goons from the ad company broke into my place and confiscated all my stuff. The Mens Health back issues first. Then the Bullworker." His eyes brim with tears at the memory. "Have you ever tried unblocking your sink after it's had whey protein poured down it? I ask you."

By now he was persona-non-grata. The word went round that they were going to recast the role. In desperation, he crashed the audition, determined to show that his new, buff, body was just what they needed. "But they'd bottled it, and given the part to some weedy bloke straight from Central Casting."

He tried suing: "I was willing to go all the way to the House of Lords - this was flagrant discrimination. But my lawyers told me no-one with 20-inch biceps and rippling abs was going to get sympathy in the courtroom."

So now Simon Skelton cuts a lonely, if somewhat large, figure. In a world where there's a place for everyone, this gentle giant just wants acceptance.

"I had my 20 minutes," he concludes. "But then they wiped me off with a lint-free cloth afterwards."

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Stop Press: Journalist Doesn't Like Something

Writing in the Times, Adam Springsteen clearly has it in for Facebook, or at least its users:
Facebook is a goldmine of tosh – a monument to mediocrity. Once the preserve of institutions of higher learning, Facebook now caters to the untutored masses – anyone with time on their hands and a keyboard beneath them.
If I had a penny for every article like this I've read - whether about Facebook or some other form of social phenomenon - I'd have, ooh, about 27p by now. OK, that's not the best approach. What was my point again? Oh yes, my point is that this sort of thing is such an easy target for the lazy journalist.

A relatively recent development? Good, we can use words like 'craze' and 'hype'.
Something with a lean towards technology? Great, that's the 'nerd' box ticked, then.
Appears to be worth - on paper at least - a whole bucketload of cash for someone? I can let my bitterness at not having thought of it first shine through.

I bet when Gutenberg was perfecting movable type, bringing the printed word to the people, there was someone weaselly scribing away that this sort of thing was really not on at all. About how it would mean the great unwashed were going to be wasting their time reading stuff - when they could have been spending their time more effectively by fighting in feudal wars or contracting botulism.

I will declare an interest here. Allow me to stand up to the room and say, "My name is blahblahblah and I am a Facebook user." In Springsteen's world, that clearly makes me some sort of saddo with limited social skills and quite probably questionable personal hygiene.

But the truth is that in the main, the people I have as friends on Facebook are, well, my friends. They are people in whom I'm genuinely interested. If I'm in the pub with them I'll ask them how they are. The better mannered ones will respond in kind. We will converse on the important matters of the day. As the night progresses we'll put the world to rights.

Of course, I can't do that every night. For one thing, most of the pubs around here are borderline ropey. So we use other methods to keep in touch. And generally it works well, because I'm quite choosy about the people who get onto my friends list.

Springsteen does make some good points. About the mind-blowing awfulness of the status updates some people write, for instance. "Bernard is watching 'Deal Or No Deal'". Wowsers. "Bernard is going to the toilet." I shall alert the media at once. But the people I know - OK, we're not a latter day Bloomsbury Group - but we're all generally quite witty, so when a status is updated, it's normally a 20-word missive of some weight.

And I will concede that there can be a whole bunch of crap on Facebook, if you allow it. I know of some people whose Facebook profile page looks like the fight deck of Concorde, it has so many buttons and widgets. I've lost count of the number of times I've been invited to throw my goat at a zombie, or something. But it's really very easy to ignore it all.

So I use Facebook as I prefer. As a communications tool. I can easily get hold of the people I want to reach, often instantly. The other night Mike and I had a twenty minute instant conversation about a website we're building for our film production efforts. As we were both online we could do things there and then where a phone call wouldn't have worked. Brother no.2 could be anywhere in the world at any given time, but as he briefly checks his page most nights we can keep up to date with (most of) his exploits.

So I'm going to stick up for Facebook. It's a tool, nothing more, nothing less. The kids who mess around on it would only have been doing essentially the same thing down the park with a litre of cider five years ago.

And anyway, according to someone in my network, I'm the fifth sexiest person they know.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Independent thought

For some reason I've never quite understood, a number of people who use words like "elevator" and "sidewalk" - whilst being quite tickled at my use of "whilst" - seem to read this blog on a semi-frequent basis. Which is wonderful, if a little surprising.

And I have to admit, jolly nice chaps they all are, too. (Sorry, I appear to be channelling Hugh Grant for some reason.) But no, really, they're generally quite smashing. (I'm doing it again, aren't I?) No-one's chanted "USA! USA!", or told me I have a purdy mouth, and they've all corresponded in a controlled, measured way. They've been witty and had a fine sense of irony.

Look folks, if you're going to destroy national stereotypes so easily, I'm going to have to take off my bowler hat to you. Google Analytics tells me there's a Make Lard band stretching across the States. Look:

The darker the green, the more visitors from that state in the last month. Alabama, Montana, Texas and California appear to be doing most of the heavy lifting. Bless you all. There are, however, some areas that are still Lard-free zones.

I'm looking at you, Wyoming.

This saddens my heart. Surely there are avid blog readers in these states that have an unrealised desire to read up on some bloke banging on about his ironing board? On second thoughts, maybe not.

Anyway, happy July 4th. And to those of you who aren't currently living between sea and shining sea, happy Friday. Yes, I realise this is shameless pandering. I'll be sure to write something that requires me to spell aluminium the correct way soon.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

This is what passes for excitement

A Saturday, early afternoon. We're driving back home from somewhere. We pass a row of shops. Katie turns to me:

Katie: "Do you remember that ironing board we once had?"
Me: "What?"
Katie: "That ironing board. You know. I think you picked it up from from Argos."
Me: "The Greek God of Queuing? I suppose it's possible. Can't say I recall it, though."
Katie: "Yes you do. It was too small, remember? You could just about get a sleeve on at a time. We had to go straight out and get another one."
Me: "I suspect I've cast this tragedy from my mind, but if you say it happened, it happened I guess."
Katie: "Well, it did."
Me: "OK, if you say so."
Katie: "It did."
Me: "What brought that recollection on anyway?"
Katie: "We'd just driven past a hardware shop. It had ironing boards outside."
Me: "Like the bonsai one I apparently purchased in a moment of retail madness?"
Katie (looking at me like I'm an idiot): "No."
Me (suitably chastened): "I see."
Katie: "I was just reminded. That's all."
Me: "Tell me this. Is it at all possible we've just passed the Banality Event Horizon?"

Silence ensues.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Just when things were slowing down

Some people are doing the whole NaBloPomo 'write a new blog post every single day for a month' thing this month. Last November I managed to do this and found it seriously difficult. Not just the inspiration thing - although that's hard enough - but even making sure I set aside a little time each day to sit down and write something (anything!) was a trial.

In any case, from the 15th we're away in France until the end of the month, so there's no way I could have joined in the fun. We're going to be in the middle of rural Brittany, nowhere near Messrs Wi and Fi. And you think Katie's letting me take the laptop away with me? Well. You'd be wrong. I'm allowed a notebook (and I'm from the generation where the word 'notebook' doesn't mean 'very small laptop computer') and that's it.

And just when I'm appearing to be having difficulty with one blog, I've picked up another. It's a long story, but I've been asked to document something quite mad and scary. Someone said, "You do this blogging malarkey, don't you? Fancy doing one for us?" You're quite welcome to go and have a look, but bear in mind it's at its very early stages right now. Play nice.


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