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Christopher’s Tree 2020

In previous years, Christopher’s stepfather Peter has made a point of meeting up with me for lunch on his way home from his annual summer holiday with friends in Wales. Like so much else, that looks like it’s just not going to happen this year. Both Peter and his friends are of an age where they are are particularly vulnerable to Covid, so even when lockdown is lifted, I doubt it would be wise to him to stay with them this August.

In previous years, I’ve taken the opportunity over a pub lunch to catch up on the progress of Christopher’s Tree, which Peter had planted in a Woodland Trust site near him. It’s coming up to the tenth anniversary this year, so the tree is getting quite large now. Peter kindly sent me a recent photo, and it certainly looks healthy.

Christopher’s Tree in late Spring 2020

Badly in need of a haircut

Lockdown isn’t going too badly here, on the whole. I’ve not been furloughed and am managing to work from home ok, notwithstanding my lousy “broadband” which keeps dropping out. My freezer and larder are well stocked with food (thanks Hugh for the tips about local places with short queues), and I’m not about to run out of loo roll any time soon. My regular gardener hasn’t been here since lockdown started, even though social distancing would be easy outdoors. However, the window-cleaner is still doing his rounds and was quite happy to mow the lawn as well, so that’s taken care of for now.

Probably my biggest problem is that I’m absolutely desperate for a haircut. I was just working up to my quarterly trim when I had to go into self-isolation, and then lockdown was announced the following week. I don’t think my hair has ever been this long. Every week I look more and more like Prof Mary Beard, the Cambridge Classics don off the telly, just a slightly lighter shade of grey! And even when the hairdressers do reopen, I bet it will be virtually impossible to get an appointment, since everyone is going to be equally desperate. Oh well, I’ll just have to brush up my Classical Greek to sustain the Prof Beard impersonation…..

Not in France

I’ve got nearly a week off work, with leave that was booked well before Covid Lockdown. Today I ought to be having a glass of wine over dinner in Lille, having spent the day exploring WW1 battlefields and some of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in northern France and Belgium. It would have been another of my historical-themed holidays, with a knowledgeable tour leader, but also a good amount of free time to explore independently and find some nice restaurants. Obviously, that’s all been cancelled. Instead I spent all yesterday morning queueing outside Waitrose in Malvern!

Although legally the holiday company is obliged to give me a full cash refund since they cancelled the holiday, they have followed the example set by ABTA and most of the rest of the travel industry, and just offered me a credit note, to be used against a future holiday with them. I can’t be too cross about that – if they had to pay out to everyone they would definitely go bankrupt, whereas this way there is a chance that they might be around next year to run the holiday. The refund is bonded by ABTA, so should be protected, and worst case I paid by credit card so I could get my money back that way.

The holiday company hopes to run the WW1 Battlefield trip again this time next year. But that’s going to be dependent on the UK lifting its ban on foreign travel, France and Belgium being prepared to let foreigners in, travel insurance being available at a reasonable price, and there’s the little matter of Brexit which may (or may not) have happened by then. So many unknowns. There’s little point in worrying about it now.

Instead, I shall make the most of having a few days off work. I’ve been finding working from home very tiring and draining. So although I won’t get a change of scene, I should at least get a bit of a rest.

Another food parcel

After the relative success of the Morrison’s “lucky dip” £35 food parcel the other week, I thought it was worth ordering another one. It is much easier to get a delivery slot for a pre-packed food parcel than it is for a proper shop, and the last one certainly had enough in it to keep me going. This second box had very similar contents to the previous one, but with some significant changes:

  • No sliced ham
  • No cabbage
  • Only one can of soup (chicken this week), not two cans
  • a smaller pack of sausages, just 6 not 10
  • one full sized tin of baked beans, not 3 little tins
  • fusilli pasta rather than penne
  • one roll of kitchen paper, not two – but it was a jumbo roll so probably about the same volume
  • only two rolls of toilet paper, loose in a separate bag, clearly broken out from a larger multi-pack
  • somewhat randomly, three wonky mangoes

So overall, not quite such good value as last time. I expect prices are going up on essentials due to the supply lines being stressed in the current crisis. But still, enough to keep me going, and without having to queue for hours on end outside a supermarket. I shall have to try to think of some more interesting things to do with mince, as otherwise my diet could get a bit monotonous.

I was pleased, though somewhat surprised, to get the mangoes included in the pack. I’ve been doing fine for vegetables over the past few weeks, as I’ve got several packs of greens in the freezer. But I have been really lacking for fresh fruit in my diet, and have been reduced to snacking on the dried fruit in my larder. I wouldn’t say that mango is a favourite of mine, but I quite like it. I don’t think I’ve ever bought one before, though!

Morrisons’ Food Parcel

For several years now I’ve been getting a weekly or fortnightly grocery delivery from Morrisons. It’s been extremely convenient, though I have wondered how on Earth they make it profitable. While I’ve been in Coronavirus quarantine for the past few weeks, the online shopping and delivery has been an absolute lifeline. However, the whole country seems to have woken up to the benefits of online grocery shopping and it’s been getting harder and harder to secure a delivery slot.

Morrisons has realised that it is unable to serve a large percentage of its potential customers, and obviously that is not a comfortable position for any business. But it appears they simply don’t have the staff or capacity at the moment to temporarily expand their online shopping service enough to meet the demand. So they have, very creatively in my opinion, come up with a work around. They offer a box of groceries for £35, delivered by courier on a day of your choice, and claiming to contain enough food to feed a family of two for a week. The disadvantage is that you don’t get to pick the food – you get what you’re given, either a meat-eater’s box or a vegetarian box. You still have to queue online to book one, but the delivery slots are far easier to get than a regular shop. So I thought I’d give it a go.

My first £35 food parcel arrived today, on time, and well packaged in a cardboard box. The cold items were packed in an insulated bag with some still-frozen ice-packs. In my meat-eater’s box there was:

  • 1L longlife milk
  • 10 pork sausages
  • pack of 2 chicken fillets
  • pack of 500g mince
  • 4 slices of ham
  • big block of Cathedral City cheddar
  • pack of back bacon
  • pack of butter
  • bag of new potatoes
  • bag of onions
  • bag of carrots
  • a small cabbage
  • a cucumber
  • a pot of tomato and basil pasta sauce
  • tin of vegetable soup
  • tin of tomato soup
  • 3x small tins of baked beans
  • loaf of sliced white bread
  • pack of pitta breads
  • portion of microwave rice
  • pack of penne pasta
  • pack of 2 kitchen towels
  • last, but definitely not least, a pack of 4 toilet rolls.

There’s enough there to keep me going for a while. It’s not all stuff I would have chosen myself, but there is nothing there that I’m not prepared to eat. I can see the makings of a good few entirely acceptable dinners there, as well as soup or ham&cheese toasties for lunch. And the kitchen paper and loo rolls are very welcome additions.

All in all, I’m very impressed with the quality and variety, and at £35 including delivery, it seems a very good deal. If (when?) this crisis continues I will certainly consider getting another one.

Washing Machine Crisis in Lockdown

My washing machine started making ominous noises last week on the spin cycle. It really sounded quite unwell. But given that the U.K. public is not allowed to have house calls at the moment, I didn’t see how I’d be able to get it fixed. I was just hoping that it would hang on in there until the current Coronavirus restrictions are over when I could get a repairman in to replace the bearings.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. It completely gave up the ghost on Saturday afternoon, inevitably with a full load of sodden towels inside it. Then it was a case of how on earth do I get a replacement during Lockdown. The government might not consider white goods to be “essential shopping”, so all the local retailers are closed, but I really didn’t want to spend the next however many weeks doing my laundry in the bath! I checked online, and I could buy a new washing machine over the internet or by phone from several of the larger outlets, but they had limited delivery slots before Easter, and in general would leave it on my drive so I’d have to plumb it in myself and dispose of the old one.

This morning, more out of hope than anything concrete, I phoned the electrical retailers in Ledbury that I’ve used for the past few years. Their shop was indeed closed to customers, but they were answering the phone. The good news was that warehouse was still working, and they had a limited number of washing machines in stock. Better still, they were able to arrange to deliver one today! Even better, provided that social distancing was observed (i.e. I kept at 2m distance), the driver would be able to install the new one and take away the broken one!

The range of machines they had in stock wasn’t huge, but I was more bothered about getting a replacement quickly. I did a quick search online to confirm that the model they proposed fitted my requirements, and that the price was acceptable, and phoned them straight back with my credit card details. I really can’t fault the service at all. I phoned them at 10:20 this morning, before my first telecon of the day, and by lunchtime I had a new washing machine installed and working. I told the driver that, if it wasn’t for social distancing, I’d give him a hug for getting me sorted out so quickly and efficiently!

Right now, I think it’s more important than ever to try to support local businesses, though that’s admittedly hard under the current conditions. The driver said, from a government-mandated safe distance, that they had been extremely busy just before lockdown with people buying freezers. But since then business has virtually dried up. I do hope that they are able to keep going and come out the other side of the economic turmoil, as I have been very impressed with their service over the past few years.

End of FY in lockdown

Today is the last day of the Financial Year for both my company and our main customers. It’s always an extremely busy time of the year, with project reports to be written, reviewed and delivered. I’ve had three significant reports to review and approve in the last two days, which is about par for the course.

What’s different this year of course is that we are all in lockdown, working from home. It feels very surreal to be reviewing reports and providing performance feedback from the dining room table! Everything takes so much longer, and I’ve already had to spend a good 40 minutes on the phone to my ISP to get them to fix my broadband, which completely died on me just three days in. Not what you need when you are working from home!

I spent the first week just with my laptop, but that’s not good for my eyes, my posture, or my blood-pressure. Since it looks like this will be going on for some time, I’ve made the effort to replicate my setup at work, with a separate screen, keyboard and mouse. That’s much better. But teleconferencing , email and WhatsApp are no substitute for walking past someone’s desk and actually talking to them about what’s going on. It makes it so much harder to manage the projects effectively.

Hopefully things will get easier once the new Financial Year gets under way, and as we all get used to these new working conditions. At least it’s keeping us all from mixing in large open-plan offices, and swapping covid germs.

Bureaucracy in the midst of Covid

My mother died last month. We had been expecting it since around Christmas, and fortunately we were able to hold the funeral well before everything was shut down with the Coronavirus pandemic. Now it’s a case of sorting out the paperwork. My sister and I were both named as executors of her Will, but in practice I’m leading on sorting things out – as the family told me “You’ve got experience doing it”….

Mostly, in fact, I’ve found it much easier this time around than when I was dealing with Christopher’s Will ten years ago. The government’s Tell Us Once service is much more mature, and their computer systems seem significantly better joined up. It only took one, admittedly rather tortuous, website to tell a whole load of government departments, which saved lots of individual phone calls.

Most of the other organisations I’ve had to deal with have also been straightforward and helpful. Banks, Premium Bonds, car insurance, even the Inland Revenue have all been efficient, sympathetic, and paid up promptly. Her pension took a little bit more effort to sort out, but even that was done with only a couple of extra phone calls.

There had to be one organisation though that spoiled things. And this year, the hands down winner of the IcyJumbo Award for Atrocious Customer Service goes to Hargreaves Lansdown.

My mother had a small ISA account with them. I informed them of her death within a week of it happening, and sent off the Death certificate that afternoon. A week later, I got a reply, returning the certificate, and saying that they would send me the Estate Closure Forms within 30 days. Then nothing.

When the 30 days were up I phoned them, sat on hold for 30 minutes, and asked where the Estates Pack was. They said they’d send me one within another seven days. This is now in the midst of the covid epidemic, the stock market is in free fall, and her small savings had lost a month’s worth of value already due to them sitting on the forms. But they said, when I asked, that there was no way they would back date my instructions to the date I informed them of her death.

Five days later, the estates pack arrived in the post. Followed the next day by a second one sent to my father’s address. One of those was presumably the one they should have sent out a month earlier, but didn’t.

The good news is that the sum of money involved is small enough that I don’t need probate. The bad news is that they require a certified copy of the Will, certified by a professional such as a lawyer, doctor, teacher etc.

I phoned them up again on Friday and asked them how the hell they expected me to get a certified copy of the Will at the moment. I have been in contact with someone with covid-19, so although I am currently healthy I am self-isolating in accordance with government instructions. And even if I were free to leave my house, which I’m not, the entire country is also in lockdown. All the doctors are busy saving lives, and all the teachers, lawyers etc are working from home. There is simply no one available to witness a document.

The unfortunate man on the phone line saw my problem, but kept repeating like a mantra “our processes require a certified copy of the Will”. Which isn’t going to happen until I’m released from quarantine, and I can find a suitably qualified professional to witness a photocopy of the Will. I am particularly cross because, if Hargreaves Lansdown had done their job promptly, as every other organisation I dealt with did, I would have been able to settle the entire estate before we went into lockdown.

As it is, it could be weeks before things get back to enough semblance of normality, and in the meantime the stock market is extremely volatile and the value of the investments is plummeting by the hour. All due to the incompetence of Hargreaves Lansdown and their intransigence over their processes, even in a time of National Emergency. I am Not Impressed At All.

Pandemic

I went to an industry dinner about twelve years or more ago, where the after-dinner speaker was a Government Chief Scientific Advisor. He was a very interesting man, a professor of epidemiology at I think Imperial College. He gave the most terrifying after dinner speech I have ever heard. It was all about the next global virus pandemic, and what would happen when it happened. I remember clearly him talking about the need to close schools, leisure facilities etc to slow/limit the spread. His key message was that it was very much a case of “when” not “if”. The only upside to the truly dreadful scenario he painted was that there was clearly someone in government whose job it was to think about such things. We all went away from the dinner thoroughly depressed.

Well, those prophecies all seem to be coming true now. And even that ray of hope seems doubtful, given all the dithering, U-turns and just plain appalling communications coming out of Whitehall in the past few weeks. One gets the very strong feeling that the emergency planning didn’t go far enough and that the Government is making it up as they go along, which is hardly reassuring.

Worcester Flood

We’ve had a lot of rain lately. An awful lot of rain, particularly in the Welsh mountains that feed the local rivers, which then flood several days later. The river Severn has been particularly badly affected, and the flood defences have been tested to the extreme. Malvern is too high to be directly affected, but we have effectively been an island as all the main routes across the Severn, Wye and Teme have been flooded.

Worcester in flood – view towards the Cathedral

I was on the train back from London on Saturday, and this was the view from the railway viaduct, as we crossed the Severn. The view to the south, towards the Cathedral, was pretty flooded (above).

Worcester in flood – view across the racecourse

However, the view on the other side was much worse – it’s hard to tell where the racecourse ends and the river starts! And this was several days after the peak of the floods – it was even worse the previous week.