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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.

Disappointed by the Puddings

In the afternoon, we moved on from the shops of Stratford to the Three Way House Hotel in Mickleton, the home of the Pudding Club. As usual, we started the evening with a bottle of wine, before moving to the lounge for the Main Event. This year we were pleasantly surprised when the expected complementary glass of sparkling elderflower cordial was replaced by a glass of Prosecco. It’s at this point in the evening that the selection of puddings is revealed – and this year our party was sorely disappointed. The selection was:

  • Passionfruit Charlotte
  • Ginger syrup sponge
  • Lord Randall’s pudding (an apricot and marmalade sponge)
  • Bread and Butter Pudding
  • Very Chocolate sponge pudding with chocolate sauce
  • Jam and Coconut sponge
  • Sussex Pond pudding – a steamed suet crust filled with sugar and whole lemons.

Wot no sticky toffee??!! We were outraged! It’s by far our favourite! None of us likes Sussex Pond pudding – who wants to eat a whole lemon? It really is a teeth-curdling as you would think. And Lord Randall’s pudding isn’t much better – the marmalade makes it quite bitter. I personally can’t stand desiccated coconut, so that was another pudding written off. I don’t like the texture of Bread and Butter pudding and this one was very soggy. And the Very Chocolate pudding smelled absolutely delicious, but I know from previous years that it is far too rich for me and I didn’t want to feel sick.

That left just two puddings that I actively liked – the ginger syrup sponge, and a really delicious passionfruit Charlotte. I also tried helpings of Lord Randall’s pudding and the Bread and Butter pudding, but didn’t particularly enjoy them. It turned out that the hotel hadn’t chosen the selection of puddings for the group this year. Instead, the organiser had asked the longest-standing members, who had been at least ten times each, for their favourites and had chosen from those. Though I find it hard to believe that Sussex Pond pudding was really the first choice of more people than Sticky Toffee and Date. I do hope that next year the organiser reverts to letting the hotel choose what to serve – after all, they host Pudding Clubs over 50 times per year, so must have a good idea of what makes a good combination.

Annual Retail Therapy

I’ve been so busy lately, that it had pretty much slipped my mind that it was time for the annual Pudding Club outing, and its associated retail extravaganza. Fortunately my ex-colleague who organises our participation in the event sent me an email saying I’d be picked up from home at 09:15 last Saturday. It was a smaller party than previously this year – just five of us travelling from Malvern, and meeting up with a sixth for lunch in Stratford. We had coffee in our usual cafe on the waterfront, and then hit the shops.

Last year, my bank registered the extremely unusual activity on my credit card and blocked it. This year, I got away with it – partly I suspect because there really wasn’t that much that tempted me. The shop that sells very expensive hand creme had shut down, so that saved me £50. I always find that Lakeland has stuff I didn’t realise I needed, but this year I managed to escape from there at the relatively trifling cost of a set of wooden spoons and an insulated jacket for my outside tap. I did however succumb to buying my annual cashmere jumper from the closing down sale at the Edinburgh Woollen Mill. The same closing down sale, in fact, that they had on this time last year. Apparently, they are still in lease negotiations with their landlord, and waiting to see who blinks first. I imagine at this rate I’ll be buying a sweater from them in the closing down sale next year too….

We all met up for lunch at our usual pub. We’ve all learned from experience the importance of having the right amount of lunch before the Pudding Club. Too much, and we’re too full to do it justice. However, too little lunch is also bad, as it leaves you so hungry by the evening that you fill up on vegetables and potatoes with the main course, to the detriment of the puddings. I decided on a Croque Monsieur with a side order of chips to keep me going until dinner time. I think that the waiter seemed disappointed that his table of six all just ate from the “light bites” menu, and couldn’t be tempted to have any profit-enhancing main meals or desserts!

After lunch, the others all went off to do some more shopping, but I was pretty much All Shopped Out by then. Instead, I decided I’d have a look around the Shakespeare Birthplace museum in the centre of Stratford. I’ve not been there for many decades – I remember visiting all the Shakespeare museums in Stratford with my father the summer before I left home. That was about 35 years ago. Since then, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has got extremely commercial and is clearly setting its prices to rip off as many foreign visitors as they possibly can. It was £18 just to visit the Birthplace – though when I looked as if I was about to baulk at that, the chap in the ticket office assured me that the ticket would be valid for a whole year. That is possibly just about of some use to me – next year’s pudding club will be in a year’s time, and may or may not fall on the right side of the ticket validity cut-off. But it’s no use to a foreign tourist on a once-in-a-lifetime visit to Merrie England.

The museum was quite interesting. Not £18-worth interesting, but nevertheless quite interesting. If my ticket does turn out to still be valid on the date of next years Pudding Club, I’d certainly make use of it and think I’d got adequate value for money. But I won’t be shelling out for a new ticket for probably another 35 years!

Shakespeare’s Birthplace

More holidays in Bickenhill

I’ve been travelling a lot for work over the past two weeks. Nowhere glamorous though – an overnight in Salisbury, followed by a week in Portsmouth, then a trip to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

It is technically possible to do the Glasgow trip in one day, flying from Birmingham, but it’s a very long day indeed and absolutely exhausting. And I was already tired from all the other travelling. So I was very pleased that the university arranged to put me up in a hotel opposite the physics department, meaning I could fly up to Glasgow the previous evening rather than getting the 07:00 morning flight.

But then there was the issue of getting home again. It was an all-day meeting, meaning I had to get the evening flight home. Which got into Birmingham airport so late that I would have to catch the very last train to Malvern and wouldn’t get home until around 23:30. I couldn’t face that, even if the trains were guaranteed to run. And going by my experience before Christmas, I wasn’t prepared to run the risk of getting stranded again. I couldn’t really charge a second overnight stay to the project, so I booked a cheap room at the Ibis Budget hotel at Birmingham airport on booking.com and paid for it myself.

I probably shouldn’t have been quite so stingy. I’d stayed the previous week at the Ibis Hotel in Portsmouth, and had found that cramped and pretty basic – though well located for the Historic Dockyard and the restaurants of the Gunwharf Quays quarter. But the Ibis Budget range really was basic. The shower and sink were in the corner of the bedroom, there was a bunk bed above the main bed, and there wasn’t even a kettle provided to make a cup of tea. But it was only £31 and for the price it was totally adequate.

However, the algorithms at booking.com have clearly noticed that I have stayed several times now at Birmingham Airport. Except they’re not clever enough to realise that it’s the airport itself that is the only reason for me being there. Instead, they think I have a strong wish to holiday in Bickenhill, the postcode district for the airport. They keep sending me suggestions for more things to add on to my holiday – trips to Stratford, the Cotswolds, and the delights of the City of Birmingham. No thank you!

Still Slightly Deafened

About a year ago, I went to a performance at Malvern Theatres of The Classic Rock Show – a group of musicians who performed a set covering literally an A to Z of rock from AC/DC to ZZ Top. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, so when I saw that they were back at Malvern this week I thought I’d go to see them again.

I was a bit concerned that it would be a direct repeat of last year’s show, but it was in fact virtually a whole new set. Out of the nearly two and a half hours, I only remember hearing three or four repetitions from last year – including an absolutely stupendous and note-for-note rendition of the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic, Free Bird. Everything else was new, including one of the lead guitarists. It turned out that the Malvern gig was the very first outing for this year’s brand new show, and they are going to spend the next two months touring all round the UK.

I lost count of how many different guitars the two leads used, in order to sound just like everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton via Brian May and a load of others I couldn’t even name. The vocalists weren’t quite as flexible – it took three of the musicians between them to cover the likes of Freddie Mercury, Stevie Nicks, Meat Loaf, Roger Daltrey and all the rest. But they did it very well indeed. If you shut your eyes, it was very hard indeed to spot any differences from the originals. It was like having my iPod on shuffle, except that it was louder. Much louder. So loud that you could feel the vibrations in your chest, and I had ringing in my ears at the interval!

Seventies rock god long hair was the order of the day, and not just for the band. Several members of the audience who were old enough to know better were guilty of what can only be described as hair crimes! They tended to be the ones wearing original 1970s and 1980s rock tour T-shirts that only just fitted them these days!

All in all, it was a very loud but enjoyable evening. The musicians really were excellent. I will keep a look out for them visiting Malvern again next year – but I’ll make sure I continue to get the cheap seats right towards the back of the auditorium. I’m really not sure my ears would cope if I sat in the front rows of seats!

Little Women

About forty years ago, I went to stay with my grandparents on my own for a week. There wasn’t a great deal to do there in the evenings, but I found a shelf of children’s books in the dining room which I think must originally have belonged to my aunt. I was a voracious reader, so that was enough to keep my busy. I started with The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley and absolutely hated it. Even at the age of eleven or so, I thought it was a pile of sanctimonious tripe.

Fortunately, also on that shelf was a hardback copy of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It was written only a few years later than The Water Babies, but I found it much more engaging and enjoyable. I remember being captivated enough by the story to get the sequels out of the local library when I got back home, but then I don’t think I’ve given it a thought in the next four decades.

There is however a major new film adaptation of the book which has just been released and is getting some pretty good reviews. It’s been on at Malvern Theatres this week, and I’m still off work for my Christmas/New Year break, so I took myself off to the matinée showing this afternoon. My recollection of the book is a bit hazy, to say the least, after all this time, though I did recall that it’s about four sisters growing up in genteel poverty in New England. I remembered that one married the stinking rich boy next door, one married a penniless professor, and one died tragically young, but that was about the sum of it.

The film didn’t tell the story chronologically, but kept leaping backwards and forwards between the girls as teenagers and as young women. So I found it a bit confusing at first, especially as the same actresses played both the younger and older versions of the characters, which sometimes made it hard to tell which time period each scene was set in. However, it was a very clever way of showing how the characters developed, with their past foreshadowing their future. I also found it interesting that the director, Greta Gerwig, has put a strong feminist spin on the story, which is just fine by me.

Overall, I thought it worked well, and was an interesting and enjoyable way of spending the afternoon. I’ve just looked online, and it appears that there is actually a film adaptation of The Water Babies, starring Bernard Cribbins. Based on my memory of the two books I certainly wouldn’t give up an afternoon to watch that one!

Stranded

I’ve been doing quite a lot of work with Birmingham University over the last few years, and yesterday I was invited to a conference & workshop held at a hotel that’s part of the university, to launch the next phase of the big project they’re working on. The meeting was very interesting, with several excellent presentations and some good opportunities to network. Even the lunch was very tasty, though I turned down the opportunity to stay on for the conference dinner as I wanted to get home at a reasonable time.

The first time I visited the university, I went by car but found the drive and the car parking so stressful, that subsequently I’ve always gone by train. It’s normally quite a straightforward trip – just one hour from Malvern, with no change of train. But yesterday was not a good day.

I left the conference just before the final talk to make sure I got to the station in time for the 17:26 to Malvern, only to find that it was first showing as delayed and then cancelled. The same thing happened to the 17:56. The excuse they gave was that there were signalling problems between Longbridge and Bromsgrove. They did manage to run the 18:26, but it was only three carriages long. As it was already carrying three full train loads of commuters from Birmingham New Street, it was packed worse than a can of sardines, and there was literally no space to get on. I was left standing on the station platform, seething along with a number of other would-be passengers.

I checked the online timetable on my phone, and saw that the next two trains were also marked as cancelled. In fact, the only one that was scheduled to run for the rest of the evening was the 21:06, and you could bet that too would be only three carriages long and totally overcrowded, and there would be no guarantee I’d be able to physically get on board it.

I was concerned that if I waited to try to catch that last remaining train I would be running out of options if it was cancelled or I couldn’t get on board. So I decided to cut my losses, and try the hotel which had been hosting the conference. Reservations were closed as it was after-hours, but the chap I got put through to was very helpful and assured me they’d be able to find me a room. He couldn’t put me through to Reception for some reason, but took my number and promised faithfully that he would get them to phone me back to sort me out a room. Which they did within just a few minutes, albeit at a price that is probably above what work is happy to accept. Nevertheless, I decided that was my best remaining option – at least I would be safe, warm and dry, and I’ll argue with the expenses system in the New Year.

So I had an unexpected and unwanted overnight stay in Birmingham, though I must say that the Edgbaston Park Hotel made me very comfortable in the circumstances. I ordered a sandwich and badly-needed glass of wine in my room, and the room service waitress was so horrified at my tale of woe that she spoke to Housekeeping and got them to provide me with a complementary toothbrush and toothpaste. That was very helpful. Thankfully, I had a comb and an emergency clean pair of underpants in my work bag, along with my usual medication, so I was adequately sorted for the night. I’m going to think seriously about putting a folding toothbrush in my work bag too. It’s not often I get stranded unexpectedly overnight – I think this is only the third time in the last fifteen years. But I’m doing a lot of train travel at the moment, and it is getting more and more unreliable., so I think I’d rather be better prepared should it happen again!