Why I went into the Bookies, November 2018

November 1, 2019

Remembrance Sunday is important to me, for personal reasons. I spent my boyhood in Enniskillen.

Betting shop in Station Road.

Betting shop in Station Road. Once a NatWest bank.

So last year, when I’d spent time abroad in the run-up toRemembrance Sunday, I hadn’t much time to equip myself and my wife with poppies. I started in Station Road. I seemed to remember them being on sale in the florists’ (long closed), the drycleaners and the Co-op. So I looked into the shops without success. A helpful check-out lady in the Co-op suggested trying Tescos (a mile away) which seemed a bit of an own goal. But passing the bookies, I notice the sought-after tray and collecting box by at cashier’s window.

I’m not what you’d call a betting man. As a student I was very impressed by a sermon I heard condemning betting; this was not on the grounds that people become addicted but on the moral dangers of winning, perhaps, an excessive amount of money which you haven’t worked for. The minister linked it to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal.’

So I opt out of betting. I’ll take part in raffles for a Good Cause, though I am slightly embarrassed to win. I’ve actually won the London Liberal Democrats monthly draw three times and quickly given my winnings to Havering Liberal Democrats. I have some shares, some of which have done better than expected; I suppose that could be seen as a sort of gambling, but it’s really hard to avoid that in our society.

So I, for the first time ever, went into a betting shop.  I put my tenner in the box for two poppies.

On to 2019; last Sunday, my wife had to go into Marks & Spencer, Upminster to collect a parcel. The people at the relevant counter were very busy, so we had a longish wait. This gave me time to see a tray of poppies at one end of the counter, so I scrabbled in my wallet for a tenner. But where was the collecting box? Eventually, I located at the other end of counter, near the till, firmly strapped to a pillar.

So when the staff were ready for us and gave my wife her parcel, I said I wanted to buy poppies. They looked somewhat nonplussed so I pointed out the tray and the collecting box, and did my transaction. Job done!

Except that one of the poppies fell apart in my buttonhole three days later!

 

‘The worst British foreign policy blunder since the Suez crisis.’

October 30, 2019

Just a few thoughts on Northern Ireland and Brexit.

In 2016, not long after THAT referendum, I met a friend from Ballymena. He’s someone I’ve co-operated with and like but he came up to me, smiling and eager and said ‘What do you think of Brexit then?’

My reply, without a moment’s thought was: ‘It’s the worst British foreign policy blunder since the Suez crisis.’   His face fell and he studiously avoided discussing politics with me for the rest of the weekend. I stand by what I said then.

I remember the Suez crisis. It was precipitated by President Nasser of Egypt suddenly nationalising the Suez Canal, without compensating its French and British shareholders. The British and French mounted an invasion of the Canal Zone, which was later shown to involve collusion with Israel. This fizzled out when it became clear that they were NOT going to get any support from the USA. While the eyes of the world were on Egypt the Soviet Union re-invaded Hungary. This sorry episode marked a full stop to the United Kingdom’s imperial pretensions and the start of a retreat from bases ‘East of Suez’ The new, more pragmatic, Prime Minister Macmillan started moves for the UK to join what we then called the Common Market.

The second sample was a family gathering in Northern Ireland near the Irish border. A late comer to the party was a farmer who was busy with silage. His wife said to us; ‘When he comes, don’t get him started on Brexit.’, but it was to no avail. He made it quite clear that Brexit would be a disaster. He’s a very professional farmer, active in the farmers’ union, who goes on study visits to other countries to see what we can learn from them. He’s at least the third generation in the family farm.

Over the months more detail emerged about the ill-effects of Brexit on his business. He’s a dairy farmer, not a way to get rich. Northern Ireland produces more milk than it uses at home, so has an export trade across the border. Our friend was well aware that his milk went to Co. Monaghan, in the Republic. Consider what happens in case of a Hard Brexit; we revert to WTO rules and milk being imported into the Irish Republic bears a tariff, putting up the price to the customer. The customer won’t want to pay this extra and will ask his supplier to bear part or all of the extra cost. The farmer loses income or market; either way it could de-stabilise his business.

Have a look at the map of where people voted Remain and Leave in Northern Ireland in the referendum.

Northern Ireland in the 2016 Referendum

Northern Ireland in the 2016 Referendum

Remain (yellow) covers all the areas near the border and most of Belfast and its suburbs, where people are more likely to have wider experience. Leave is concentrated in the DUP heartlands. Intransigent Unionism was prevalent in the first 40 years of Northern Ireland, under the fantasy slogan  ‘A Protestant province for a Protestant people’. As mainstream Ulster Unionism became more reasonable in the 1960s, Ian Paisley formed the DUP and drained away the more stubborn unionists. To the DUP stubbornness is seen as strong – a virtue, even when, as in Brexit, it pursues mutually contradictory policies.

By the way, Ballymena is in North Antrim constituency of Ian Paisley  (pere & fils).

The other thing about Northern Ireland is the strange distribution of Westminster seats, with parties with considerable support having no seats at all in 2017. 10 DUP, 7 Sinn Fein and 1 moderate independent unionist. The STV used for ALL other elections in Northern Ireland gives a much better picture of relative support of the FIVE major parties.

A single Station Road ATM starts charging

October 28, 2019

Went round the corner at the weekend to draw some cash from an ATM – there are three in Station Road. The first one I looked at said on its screen ‘99p charge’, so I moved on.

Station Road

Station Road shops – upper half

Once upon time, there were two banks in Station Road – a NatWest and a Lloyds, each in a single shop unit. Then the NatWest expanded, taking over the next door hardware shop. Both had ATMs. However, banks started working out that they could get away with fewer branches – not caring too much that that might inconvenience their customers. So Lloyds Bank shut and a strangely placed window marks where its ATM used to be.

Former Lloyds Bank

Former Lloyds Bank with edge of Post Office ATM peeping through hole in shutter.

It became a Santander ‘Agency’, whatever that means, and later an estate agent. Sometime later NatWest pulled out, but its ATM, by then the only one, got transferred to the wall of the railway station. At certain times of the day, sunlight shone directly on the screen making it illegible. My technique was to raise my shoulders to more effectively block out the sunlight; my pose was reminiscent of a vulture in a horror cartoon.

I’m not quite sure the exact sequence of what follows, but I think the Bank of Ireland ATM in the Post Office came next. There was a snag – the post office frontage is cut off by a roller shutter out of hours. A hole was cut in the shutter – not quite in line with the ATM – which allows ATM use out of hours. If you arrive when the shutter is being wound up or down, the ATM is switched off, so you have to wait a little until it is switched on again. This ATM was joined by Cash Zone one in the Co-op and an NM ATM in the newsagents. Meanwhile, the former NatWest office had become a financial services office – I never found out precisely what they did; after some years they left and the office became a bookies. I’m sure a social historian would love to study this sequence.

During this period, extensive re-modelling of Harold Wood Station for Crossrail started; this included gutting the booking office and removal of the NatWest ATM. The station building has remained an empty shell for years.

My father spent his working life in retail banking; for him respect for the customers and community was a moral code. He would have been appalled by what has happened in recent years. Banks shutting branches, so that rural communities are left without any bank. Which magazine documents how a new wave of closures is in progress. Although ATMs are a partial replacement Which notes that the tendency is close them too, and to impose charges where before they were free to use. What happened in Station Road is a fairly trivial example of this, but if it happens in a village or country town it could be serious. Use and availability of cash is important to some people, even in these days of internet banking and payment cards. The people most likely to be affected are often those already disadvantaged.

When the banks left Station Road, you could still draw cash at the Post Office. A recent row involves one bank, Barclays, proposing to withdraw even this facility. The threat of interrogation by a Select Committee of MPs caused them to back down. Good!

Behind all this is bargaining going one between the banks, the ATM networks and the Post Office about the fees they charge each other.

The other two ATMs in Station Road have ‘Free Cash Withdrawals’ proclaimed on their facades. For them to start charging will not be so easy.

Withdrawal of citizenship must not be political.

September 29, 2019

The conference debated F34 ‘Policy Motion: Deprivation of Citizenship’

Background

Home Secretaries have had the power to revoke citizenship from individuals for some

Brno Plaques

considerable time, but until recently this power was hardly much used. Increasing recent use by Tory Home Secretaries is alarming. The most well-known case is that of Shamima Begum who was groomed by Isis as a vulnerable teenager. The issue of her and her new-born child was, as Nasser Butt said in his summing up, not the sole reason for this motion, but was a catalyst for  a fuller examination of the issues leading to formulation of the motion.

I made a speech in support of the motion; other speakers dealt with the issue of Shamima Begum; I dealt with the more general dangers; the motion was passed.

My speech (Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth about 10 am on Tuesday 17th September):

Good morning, Conference.

For family reasons, I visit the Czech city of Brno about five times a year. There I have noticed, embedded in the pavements of some of the older streets, brass plaques about 9 cm square. Each plaque bears the name and dates of birth and death of a person. The dates of death are in the early 1940s. With the often Jewish forenames and German sounding surnames, one can deduce who these people were. They were Jewish citizens who lived in the adjacent building. For many this is their only physical memorial.

The road to the Holocaust in the German lands that the Nazis ruled started with a paperwork exercise. They declared their Jewish subjects, often very assimilated and indistinguishable from their fellow citizens to be no longer German citizens.

In South Africa too, the group Areas Act of 1970 declared that blacks were no longer South African citizens but citizens of a tribal homeland, which their family may have left generations before. It then became a simple administrative matter to send any black person who lived and worked in a designated white area, but had become inconvenient to some faraway rural backwater. In President Trump’s phrase, they ‘sent them home’.

These examples which occurred in civilised countries with sophisticated legal systems must make us apprehensive about any proposal to deprive someone of their citizenship. More apprehensive still if all that is needed is the signature of a functionary or a politician. That route has been, and is still being, misused by tyrants and racists.

The principle must be, if a person has been born a citizen, or has come by citizenship honestly, the state is stuck with them. They have the rights, privileges and obligations of citizenship. If they committed crimes, that is a matter of law and order for the courts. If they got citizenship through fraud, that is also a matter for the courts so that the individual circumstances are considered.

Of course, what can you expect from a government preparing to remove European citizenship from most of its citizens?

Please support the motion.

Hanging chads in Central Europe

September 5, 2019

The question of how to pay for the costs of motorways – construction and maintenance is solved in different ways in different countries. In Germany and most of the UK it comes

Motorway vignettes

Austrian sticker above; Czech Republic below

out of taxation. The exceptions are such as the M6 toll road and several high cost estuary crossings (Dartford, Humber and Tyne). In France the idea seems to be that long distance motorway travel is a bit of luxury and motorists pay substantial fees directly at toll booths. In return they get a higher maximum speed limit. Motorways around major cities are still free, in order to direct heavy traffic away from urban roads. There is an elaborate system of toll booths and motorists approaching an unfamiliar major toll plaza desperately scan the icons above each of say, fifteen booths, to locate those accepting the way they want to pay.

Some countries in Central Europe, particularly Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria collect the motorway fees by means of paid-for windscreens stickers.

In German these are vignette and in Czech etiketa (why French-based words?). Obviously, most resident motorists buy long-term stickers, probably annual. Visitors arriving at the frontier are catered for by short-term stickers. The approaching visiting motorist anxiously scans for petrol stations, shops or offices offering them for sale. One Bavarian motorway service station on the Autobahn 6 (E50, Via Carolina), nearly 100 km from the Czech frontier had to put up a sign saying that they did NOT sell Czech Vignettes.  As these stickers represent real money, there is a battle to prevent forgery or misuse. The basically plastic sticker incorporates the sort of security features you find on banknotes. Colour and design changes from year to year so that and an old one can be spotted at a glance. Once stuck to a windscreen, they are impossible to remove in one piece.

We usually cross into the Czech Republic at Rozvadov, between Nuremburg and Prague. There is a large complex of buildings and roadways there, many of which are now redundant because of the end of the Iron Curtain and the Czech accession to the EU, and there are several places to buy the stickers.
As our visit was going to be about a fortnight, ten days was too short, so it had to be for a month and the clerk punched the numbers at the top with the day of the month and the numbers at the bottom for the month. Neither of these chads were cleanly punched. It was only after I’d affixed to the windscreen that I realised that the month chad was hardly punched at all. It was down at the bottom of the windscreen, where I couldn’t get to it. I couldn’t take the sticker off, as it would break it. Just hope that no Czech policeman would inspect it and find it wanting; there was a small hope that he could see that it had been punched but without the hole being made. Just hope for the best. In the end, it was never inspected.

A few days later, as we neared the border with Austria, a roadside shop almost on the border advertised Austrian vignettes in both languages. Went in and using Czech, bought the sticker for Austria, asking which currency I should pay in – the answer was either. The chads were still hanging but much better punched. I made sure I removed them completely before fixing the vignette to the windscreen.

Tories sucker punch BBC

June 14, 2019

Even as a schoolboy in the 1950s, I found cinema and TV advertisements a bit naff. The cinema ad that promoted a local restaurant but was obviously shot by Pearl & Dean 500 miles away in south east England was really embarrassing to watch. So my decision to join the BBC was not only because of my interests in photographic and electronic technology but also a conviction that the model that avoided silly ads interrupting programmes and undue government interference in management decisions or content was a Good Thing – it still is. (Of course, government has tried to interfere, starting back in 1926, but their attempts at interference has been resisted as a Bad Thing.)

I worked for the BBC for 29 years, as graduate and later chartered engineer in a department at one time called Planning and Installation. That meant taking part in and sometimes leading dozens of projects. The ones we hated most were ones which involved government money – External Broadcasting (paid for by the Foreign Office, to raise awareness of and goodwill towards the UK) and Open  University. We approached them in our usual way, starting with our best estimate the cost in terms capital, staff effort and future maintenance costs, with an agreed timetable. A bad sign was an attempt from the client to beat the costs down below what we knew to be possible. The next way we could start to get off on the wrong foot was an artificially prolonged approval process, sometimes leading to a further increase in costs, which, of course, government funding which had caused the overrun, wouldn’t pay.

The present hoo-ha is an extension of this government two-facedness with respect to the BBC.  First they came for External Broadcasting; a few years ago they decided that the BBC, in other words the TV licence payer, should pay for this Foreign Office work. Now they come for the pensioners’ free TV licences. If the BBC (the ordinary licence fee payers, of which I am one) pay for this, it represents a 20% cut in the income used to pay for programmes and infrastructure.

This pensioners’ free licence was introduced by the Labour government nearly 20 years ago. I see it as one of many sops given by governments to pensioners who were seeing their income fall further behind that of the general work-force. It is presently available to households with a member over 75. When my wife reached that age I took the deliberate decision that I would continue to pay the licence and did this with no problem at all.

My reasoning was:

  • I could well afford it and I value what it would provide. Also, I was already paying Virgin cable about 6 times the licence fee (Virgin increase their fees EVERY year.) so, if I needed to make economies, Virgin should be where I would start.
  • A major part of my income is a BBC pension. This is supposed to be entirely funded from my own and the employer’s contributions from when I was working there long ago – NOT from current licence fee. Again, it would be a bit strange if I didn’t use a little bit of that income to support today’s BBC which I believe in.

So what have the Tories done?

They announced unilaterally that the BBC would take responsibility for the whole free licence cost. This is equivalent to a 20% cut in licence income to the BBC. To put the BBC back on even keel the simple answer would be to accompany it by an 25% increase in the fee people like me pay. The government controls the BBC’s prices but not its costs.

They left to the BBC the opprobrium on announcing (as was obvious) that this would NOT work for them. The BBC propose a compromise – that the free licence should only continue for those in receipt of certain benefits. This leaves the BBC shouldering some of the costs that government should pay as a Social Service and looks as fair as many benefits are. The drawback is that many of the elderly, through fear of being thought scroungers, do NOT claim all benefits that they are entitled to. That opens up another bigger question: is the way to get everyone the benefits they should have (especially the elderly) to make the benefits universal rather that by application or means tests? A question for another time.

The main point here is:

the government paid a benefit for something it thought needed doing from general taxation;

as a clever wheeze it decided that one firm in an industry should pay it all instead;

this undermines the finances of that firm so they can’t pay it all;

the government tries to shift the blame for what it’s done to the BBC.

Back to Blogging

June 14, 2019

Although a lot has been going on, I haven’t been blogging much in the last couple of months for two reasons – a local by-election, where I was an election agent, and the European election. I obviously had a lot less thinking time on my hands and secondly, if you publish anything that might be construed as promoting your campaign you’re into formalities such as imprints and approval by the agent. Better to concentrate on campaigning and drop the blog and other worthy activities, such as mowing the lawn.

Now, after a small increase in our Liberal Democrat vote at the by-election, compared to when we last fought it and the astonishing result of Liberal Democrats coming second in Havering in the Euro-election and top in London as a whole, back to blogging. I have a store of stories waiting to be written or completed but one ‘Tories sucker punch BBC’ pushed itself to the top of the queue.

Grief for Grieve

March 31, 2019

When Any Questions was broadcast from Campion School, Hornchurch some years ago Mr. Grieve was on the panel. After the broadcast, when the panel descended to the hall, he found himself surrounded by LibDems, When I told him, he was very nice about it, and I have respected him ever since. He has a really difficult job.
Later we went over to talk to Norman Lamb, LibDem MP on the panel.

Jonathan Fryer

Dominic Grieve 4Last night, Beaconsfield Conservative Association passed a vote of no confidence in their MP, Dominic Grieve, former Attorney General and articulate proponent of a new referendum to extract Britain from its Brexit impasse. A video secretly filmed at the meeting and publicised in tomorrow’s Sunday Times shows Mr Grieve patiently explaining why No Deal would be a disaster, as members of the audience heckled him with shouts of “Lies!” and “Traitor!” It transpires that the main architect of this move to remove Dominic Grieve — deselection being a common consequence of such a vote of no confidence — was a former UKIP political opponent of his who has now joined the Conservatives. This sort of thing has reportedly been going on in various parts of the country as Hard Brexiteers have effectively infiltrated ageing and weakened Conservative associations in an attempt to influence their direction, rather as the far left…

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TfL Rapid Charger for electric Taxis

March 25, 2019

A few years ago the 2 miles or so of the A12 Colchester Road linking Junction 28 of the M25 with Gallows Corner got  about 10 days notoriety when it was announced to be the most dangerous road in England.  I say 10 days because that’s how long it took someone to revise the statistics and give that doubtful title to a moorland road, somewhere up north This section of the A12 runs through Harold Park and then between Harold Hill and Harold Wood. It is a Red Route 24/7.

In Greater London it is a rare section of the A12 that still follows the alignment that the Romans laid down – most of the other sections of the Roman road pass through town centres, so have been by-passed. It’s also forms part of the route of William Kempe‘s original “Nine Days Wonder” in 1600; this was an Elizabethan publicity stunt where Kempe danced from London to Norwich. About 30 years ago a troupe of morris men re-enacted it. Their first day took them from London to the Morris Dancer pub in Harold Hill. Early on the Sunday morning, warned by the radio, I came out to the Gubbins Lane traffic lights to watch the morris men dance out of Gooshays Drive and, in single file, eastwards along the A12.

But back to 2019. Living in Harold Wood, we drive up or down that stretch of the A12 quite a lot, and a couple of weeks ago I caught sight of a largish cabinet, not quite as big as a vending machine, just west of the Petersfield Avenue eastbound bus stop. My reaction was ‘Rapid Charger for Electric cars’, but how could I get close to it to see what it was? Firstly I went very late at night and confirmed my first impression. Then I went back in daylight, parking in a nearby suburban street.

Tfl Rapid Charger for Taxis only, Harold Hill

Tfl Rapid Charger for Taxis only, A12 Colchester Road, Romford, near Petersfield Avenue

It is indeed a Rapid charger and has leads for the two 50 kW DC rapid systems (Chademo – a Japanese standard and CCS, a European standard). It does NOT have the AC rapid system – a blank plate suggests that other versions of it could have that fitted. It has lots of ventilation grills.

TfL have arranged it for use by electric taxis ONLY and a notice tied to it directs the users of other electric vehicles to consult Zap-Map to find chargers they can use. The Red Route redline goes around the bay for a taxi to stand while charging, just as they  bypass the adjacent bus stop.

As it is Rapid a full charge should be done in less than an hour, and a quick top-up in much less.

Well done, Transport for London!  Now to look out to see if I can spot a taxi using it.

https://www.zap-map.com/

Hard Border

March 24, 2019

The year 1922 was the year my father left school at the age of 17. My grandfather had three sons and two farms, so he’d always planned that his third son (my father) would get a town job and therefore he was sent to the grammar school.  The obvious course was to follow his uncle into the Belfast Bank, so he passed the exams and went for the medical. The doctor said. “I’m not allowing a country boy to go and work in the town. You’d die of TB.”

Plan B was to apply to another bank, and armed with the endorsement of the local manager of the Provincial Bank of Ireland my father, accompanied by his father to Dublin to sit the Provincial Bank’s exams.

Dublin

Dublin in 1922 was in the throes of the Irish Civil War; a nasty conflict that erupted immediately after the signing of the 1921 Treaty between the UK and the Irish Free State which established the two states in Ireland. The protagonists were the Free State Government and those nationalists who rejected the Treaty and the partition of the Ireland. More people were killed in this war than during the preceding struggles with British. As they spent the nights in their Dublin hotel between exams, their sleep was disturbed by gunfire outside. My father said that they were surprised in the morning how few casualties the morning papers reported. Successful both in the exams and the medical, my father took up his post as the junior in the Provincial Bank in Londonderry.

Derry

Londonderry, the second city of Ulster and Northern Ireland was undergoing its own local depression in 1922. The centre of the city is on the west bank of the River Foyle, whereas the county to which it gives its name lies to the east. To ensure that the whole city is in the same county, border between Counties Derry and Donegal, after following the river upstream of the city, loops on to the Donegal side round the city and then back to the estuary downstream of the city.. This then became the international frontier. For the next half-century, until both joining the Common Market, Irish and UK governments pursued different and often antagonistic, tax and tariff policies.

British Customs at Strabane

Border post on banks of River Foyle between Lifford (County town of Donegal) and Strabane, Co, Tyrone. Probably 1960s

The effect of this on the port and merchants of Londonderry was disastrous. Half or more of their trade was with the countryside and small towns of north Donegal now in the Free State, and this almost ceased. Unemployment increased, probably made worse by the return to the job market of soldiers from World War I.

Into this was added sectarian conflict; Derry city has always had substantial nationalist and unionist communities. Many nationalists felt betrayed by the Treaty and were militant; unionists for whom Londonderry is an icon felt threatened. The previous decade of conflict meant that there were a lot of small arms available. My father lived for a time on a street that linked nationalist and unionist areas; rifle-fire up and down the street during night was common. As there was an 11 pm curfew there was little chance of anyone being hurt, but it made for disturbed nights.