My History of Fire Alarms and Health and Safety

In this world of stringent health and safety laws, it is easy to forget the fun and games that happened as such things developed. It is also a tale of how people such as the British have become more tolerant of rubbish systems.

This history starts in the heady days of the 1980s. I was at high school. My school, largely consisted of aging portacabins with holes in the walls and floors and pre-fabricated rooms built for housing soldiers in the second world war, designed to last ten years, but still in use fifty years later as classrooms. We did occasionally have fire drills, which consisted of the school secretary walking around the school ringing the fire bell. We were lucky after the sitting MP died, as this triggered a by-election.

We were also lucky to live in at the time, a three-way marginal constituency, which could be won by either Labour or the Conservatives (the seat had been held by both these parties historically) and the Liberal/SDP Alliance were popular. The issue of our school played a major role in the campaign, with all three parties committing to building a new school for the town. The Alliance candidate won.

So, a new school was built! During the first week in the new school the fire alarm went off between every lesson. The builders had been silly and placed a fire alarm button at the point where the door handle at the top of a flight of stars was, so if the door was opened with force (which happened a lot, this was a school!) it hit the fire alarm button. This button was quickly moved!  I was growing up with the idea that fire alarms were fairly silly and generally ineffectual.

When I went to university, i spent the first year in a newly built hall of residence, which had new fangled smoke detectors. It was miserable, the alarms would go off on average about three times a day, sometimes six or seven times. We didn’t have to evacuate the building back then. So the residents set up a rota, by which when the alarms went off, someone was allocated to use the key at the alarm machine to reset the system. So, generally we ignored the alarms! It was frequently discussed and the residents decided that in the event of an actual fire someone would bang on the doors of flats shouting ‘fire’. Rendering the alarm system utterly pointless. It was a new system and part of the problem was that smoke detectors had been installed in the kitchens rather than heat sensors, no-one does this now, as obviously cooking creates smoke! Residents got into the habit of unscrewing the detectors whilst cooking and then obediently putting them back in after cooking. By the spring, people started socialising outside, to a backdrop of alarms going off in the various blocks of flats.

So, one day the university noticed that the security staff weren’t being notified about the alarms going off, people had stopped bothering to inform them after the first week of term! The accommodation staff decided to take the keys away from the alarm machines and left a note to say to contact security whenever the alarms went off and security would reset the machines. The students complained that this would mean these very loud alarms would go off for five to ten minutes several times a day and during the night. So the students decided to unscrew all the smoke detectors from the building until the university resolved the situation, in any case exams were coming up and people wanted to sleep relatively undisturbed. The next day, the keys came back, as replacing the whole system at short notice would perhaps be too expensive.

People still generally ignore fire alarms or grudgingly vacate buildings. I was at a conference recently. The fire alarm went off. people got up ready to leave, then the alarm system gave out a message, everyone stopped to listen, could this be a false alarm? The message was ‘This is not a test, there may be a fire in the building, please vacate the building’, then people vacated the building!

Sometimes visitors to the UK, express surprise at the casual attitude British people have to fire alarms and how we tolerate bad systems. The technology has developed, false alarms are a lot less frequent these days, to the point where when one goes off I’ve noticed that I start to think there may actually be a fire, whereas I used to expect a false alarm.

It’s a crazy world. Often I think younger people forget that civilisation survived for centuries without fire alarms, mobile technology or health and safety laws. I was brought up to be personally responsible, in a way that doesn’t seem to happen to such an extent anymore; to think about potential consequences and to not do anything stupid as I shouldn’t expect safety systems to be there. It is an interesting question, do health and safety systems breed a reliance on  these systems? These days the advice is to ensure you have a mobile device charged up whilst driving in case of emergencies. Whereas, people are less likely to carry a sleeping bag, water supply and a torch in their cars these days. There seems to be a reliance on technology and support systems rather than reliance on the self.

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London is Ugly and Annoying, Wales is Barren and Beautiful

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Ugly London, but some cool theatres

London is an amazing wonderful city, however, it is annoying and inefficient for people who live in the rest of the UK. I lived in London for four years, both loving and hating it at different times, it’s a great place to visit,, but generally rubbish and expensive (and increasingly so) to live in it and I shall tell you why.

London has an amazing amount of wonderful theatre and music. There is an abundance of hugely talented artists, performing in London, giving audiences access to great wonders, so much so that there is almost too much choice, It’s what makes living in London worthwhile.

Take last night for example. I had planned to move my stuff back to Wales, but the van hire company messed up and didn’t have a van for me when I turned to collect the van yesterday morning, so an unexpected free day to fill. So, I decided to see what was on in London last night and I found another gem.

I love live theatre and I love opera. A company ‘Opera Up Close‘, puts on slimmed down operas in intimate theatre venues, with the result that you get opera and proper theatre [ It’s not a new idea, as Mid-Wales Opera often do this sort of thing, but I’m not usually so close to the stage]. By proper theatre I mean proper stage acting, where you can clearly see every expression of the performers body, every facial expression and the glory of neck pulsations for the vibrato, the cast were involved in the plot, everyone on stage interacting and reacting to the unfolding drama. This acting is coupled with operatic singing in true ‘surround sound’. By surround sound i mean rather than seeming to come from a fixed point. When I go to big flamboyant operas, I’m usually in the cheap seats, far away from the stage, it’s still wondrous though! It really was having two of my favourite things blended together and accompanied by a talented 4 piece chamber orchestra.On balance a couple of the cast weren’t great theatre actors, and behaved as if they were in a typical opera on a bigger less intimate stage, but if it had been perfect I might well have just died of joy! The show was Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, performed at the Soho theatre, which is incidentally a really nice friendly venue.

Yet, London is really irritating. Here was a great show, with a strong cast on a Saturday night in a small venue and it was only two thirds full, although running for a month, which is quite a long run (well for non-musicals anyway!). Annoying because If this show was put on in a theatre in Wales  the audience would have been much bigger, thus it could have reached a bigger audience. In Wales everyone interested in this sort of thing would have gone to see it, rather than a portion of the London audience, which has this vast choice of other things to attend. This begs the question, Why don’t musicians and theatre companies tour the UK away from London a lot more than they do?

The answer is simple, cost. A touring company has to pay to provide accommodation for all the performers and stage management, which is really expensive, not counting the time required to travel. So ,what happens is that people in Wales (like me when i live in Wales), save up and travel down to London to see the shows, and pay for a nights accommodation in London, I usually slum it in a hostel as the only way of making the trip affordable. So the audience travel to the venue, rather than the venue come to the audience. Maybe this is a fair way of doing things, but London keeps getting more expensive. I suppose shows such as the one I went to last night can tour, because there are fewer people and less set, so if the company read this, come to Wales and beyond!

The other question is why don’t places like Wales produce more ‘home grown’ music and theatre? Well in Wales, I would suggest there is a higher proportion of people involved in local amateur productions, people enjoy art by being participants, rather than observers, in many ways this is superior.

The other issue is that young people who seek careers in the arts move away to London to hone their craft, because it is a centre for arts minded people. Artists are readily available for performance as they live a tube rides away, no need for companies to provide accommodation.

It’s not just the arts that are London-centric. It’s the British media too, the government and the economy. It’s just really inefficient having everything in the same place ion one giant world city, making that place a really rubbish place to live. Now I’m moving,  back to Wales i will really miss the chance to pop into London on the spur of the moment to catch something brilliant. I won’t miss, the faff, the smell, the crowds and the expense of it all. I know where I’d rather be! I will soon be, so I’ll probably stop ranting about how great Wales is.

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Near where I grew up, my idea of Home.

Is there a good chippy around here?

I love fish and chips. So, when visiting a new town I would ask a local ‘Is there a good chippy around here?’. You generally used to get an answer, these days it seems the question is greeted with bafflement.

Well sometimes, you didn’t. I remember visiting a village in Norfolk, which had two chippies and discovered that the village was bitterly divided between the two chip shops! Sometimes, particularly recently, people seem to neglect the ‘good’ word in the question and just direct to a chip shop. It used to be wonderful when you’d ask and be told such things as ‘Yes, but it only opens from 7-9pm, don’t bother with the other one’. Or even , ‘sorry, not in this town, hasn’t been a good one for years now’, giving me the exact local knowledge I needed.

I think that visitors to the UK and people who didn’t grew up with a chip shop culture (urban types mainly) don’t realise, or care that there are vast differences in quality when it comes to chip shops. The town I grew up in had an excellent chip shop, until a new chip shop opened on the high street, which wasn’t nearly as good. Surely,’market forces’ would prevail and the good chippy survive and the poor one fail. But no, I grew up in a somewhat tourist town in Wales and the good chippy was hidden away on a back street, so didn’t pick up the tourist trade. Why didn’t the tourists just ask ‘Is there a ‘good’ chippy around here? The good chippy closed, and left me with a lifelong distrust of ‘market forces’.

There are just too many bad chippies, who didn’t seem to care about the quality of their product and bad consumers, who just wanted the convenience of location even if what they were eating was vile. Bad fish and chips truly are disgusting.

What annoys me, is that there is an art to making fish and chips, but the basics are fairly simple: The oil needs to be hot , the oil needs to be fresh, select potatoes that are good varieties for chips, fish should be fresh, not frozen and ruddy cook fish to order, fish kept warm for more than a few minutes rapidly loses it’s taste and consistency. Oh and be good, only source fish from sustainable fisheries such as MSC certified (Marine Stewardship Council). This isn’t that difficult surely when it’s your livelihood? Locals do notice, and learn such things as not to go for chips on a Thursday as they know the oil will be gone by then and produce horrid pale chips.

When I first discovered that you could put your own pages on the internet, I tried to set up the ‘Good chippy guide’, whereby people could submit reviews of chip shops and establish a database of good chippies throughout Britain. No-one found it or contributed and i’m surprised that no such service exists to this day. There is a good beer guide for pubs though. There should be an app for this? I’m left with my local knowledge of places, near the main roads, where I know good chippies are. For example, if visiting Wales, use the old bridge (M48), pop into Chepstow town and go to Weeks chip shop, they are excellent!

Before anyone comments with such gibberish as ‘Yorkshire chippies are the best’. Obviously, Welsh chip shops are the best! I am something of a purist, generally preferring salt and vinegar as my condiments, though occasionally I have brown sauce. A good chippy should have all possible condiments and not charge extra for them. i do like curry sauce too and even gravy (though as I’m mostly vegetarian I tend to avoid these unless I know they’re really veggie). I can see the point of ketchup and mayonnaise although they only work well, I find, with pub chips as opposed to chippy chips.

So, my advice is ask the question, help the businesses that care about and put the effort into their product thrive. engage with the locals in places you visit, and not just hop to go somewhere convenient. Engage with places, don’t just pass through, this and good chippies make life worth living.

Time for TTIP?

People in the EU, US and the rest of the world are becoming increasingly concerned about the proposed trade treaty (TTIP) between the EU and the US.

Potentially, further increasing free and fair trade between two large trading blocs can provide economic benefits, but there will be costs as well. As with all agreements there should be a net benefit to both sides and all concerned parties.

The negotiations are currently being conducted in secret and after public pressure the negotiating positions have been released. This has led to lots of speculation as to what will be contained in the final draft. Of particular concern are the ISDS mechanism which has the potential, if implemented poorly, to inhibit the actions of democratic bodies, which is a massive concern. The history of outcomes by such international tribunals should serve as a warning for caution in setting up new ISDS arrangements that don’t address past problems.  There are also possible changes to regulatory structures which cause concern because they concern the very basics of life, food standards, which are becoming an area of increasing concern generally.

What is very strange, is that the main political parties in the UK say they are in favour of the agreement, whilst pressure groups generally say they are not. What? How can anyone possibly say they are in favour or against something which the contents of are yet unknown? Especially when the net benefit can only be ascertained by looking at the detail and seeing how it applies to the economies. It’s like there is something in a box and people say it’s a good or a bad thing, before someone opens the box and has a look at what it is.

So, a wait and see approach seems the sensible thing. Except it isn’t, which is what concerns me the most. The democratic accountability for decisions about this treaty are incredibly weak. The UK parliament will be given a minimum of just 21 days to scrutinise a long complex document, hold public debates, seek legal advice and come to a decision, 21 days? The EU parliament will be faced with the same question. Also this is not a negotiation or an oppurtunity to improve upon or remove controversial elements, it’s a yes or no, for a complex agreement which will a contain a mixture of good and bad things. This from the US and the countries of Europe who fought long and hard for democracy in the first place.

So, there seems only one logical position, to reject TTIP. Use the precautionary principle of not accepting something until it has proven itself and won the argument. A ‘no’ then allows for the contents of of the agreement to be properly analysed, and where there is broad agreement , a new treaty can be signed after a full public consultation, maybe even a referendum (I know), beneficial cooperation between the US and the EU can be increased and democracy can triumph. If it is a good agreement that benefits everyone then people will support it and it will be implemented. Yet the political establishment don’t want this, which makes people like me, concerned about what they are hiding?

Crying at the Movies

People often bring up films they’ve seen in conversation, they often express surprise that I haven’t seen the film. So, I get the feeling that I’m missing out on a lot of great films. I do enjoy watching films, but maybe not as much as most people? Why is this?

I love live theatre and going to music concerts, much more than I like going to the cinema. When at home I prefer listening to music and reading books more that watching films. So, what is the difference, how am I different?

People often ask why I’m not terribly keen on going to the cinema. I usually respond by saying that i am tall and thin, so after about an hour i find sitting with restricted leg room gets increasingly uncomfortable. So, when I do go the cinema, I usually leave it until the last minute before taking a seat, to reduce the length of the discomfort. however at a classical music concert or the theatre, I have the same issue, but I am usually more tolerant of my personal discomfort. Incidentally,this is why I love the Proms or The Globe theatre in London, because you can stand throughout the performance.

When I was young i was involved in a youth theatre group. and we put on shows. The director once said, also a tall thin chap, that he judged the audiences by how much fidgeting there was. His argument was that the more an audience is involved with the performance, the less they fidget, I agree with this.

So, perhaps because I have a preference for theatre and music over cinema, I am more involved. By more involved I mean that I am more interested and engaged by the art on offer. However I think it’s more than just that, I am emotionally involved, I connect with the performance, I am spirited away from the real world and live with the performance and I simply don’t do that usually when watching a film.

It’s not simply the presence of live performers as I do sometimes burst into tears whilst reading a book, it is that generally I don’t connect emotionally with films.

Last night, I did connect with a film, I was in floods of tears at several times during the film. There may have been qualities of this film that other modern films lack, that the makers of the film are more part of the theatre tradition, rather than the entertainment tradition.

Perhaps it’s that many modern films to me seem to focus on entertainment, they are fast paced, filled with special effects and attempt to thrill us with their complexity, thus lacking this emotional engagement.

Whereas traditional theatre and opera, do the opposite, they simplify, they distil the complexity of the world, into a more basic narrative. Characters are not multi-faceted and complex, but simple and more one-dimensional. It is this simplification, a connection to  rawer motives, that I think enables the audience, or me anyway, to connect. It is the exposition of a simple facet, rather than an overloading of the senses with complexity that appeals to me.

The film was ‘My Name is Khan’. The film concerns how a man with Asperger’s syndrome (played by the wonderful Shah Rukh Khan) tackles the prejudice towards Muslims in a post 911 USA. The story is that the protagonist, faithfully follows his dead mothers advice that: There are only two types of people in the world, good people and bad people. His mother also requests that Khan seek happiness. So, Khan, goes to America and finds a beautiful wife (well Bollywood actresses are often stunningly beautiful anyway) and a happy life. Disaster strikes with the murder of his stepson and Khan continues to struggle to understand the world of prejudices, between Hindus, Muslims and Christians and how people respond to these prejudices with violence and become bad people.

It is simply a great film, because for all it’s fantasy and sensationalism, it is true; that we all have this continual struggle with prejudice. Connection with a truth, identified though religious practice, a play, a book, a piece of music, or whatever, somehow makes us, as humans, feel good to be alive. I seem to have found this in Bollywood films, and Western films seem to lack this quality in modern times.

Nice Cup of Tea

A nice cup of tea is actually tea, a selection of cakes and a good old chat, it is something that I often look forward to. The culture within my family is one of inviting people around for such a social gathering. Indeed, as a family we regard it important to always have cake in the house because ‘you never know who might drop by’ (which i thought as a child meant the Queen!). My family love cake, hate ‘bought cake’ made by machines and we have a tradition of being avid home bakers and it can get competitive. We used to have family teas, where the children were encouraged in cake eating competitions! I digress.

Perhaps this desire for a nice cup of tea is what decides UK general elections. If it is assumed that UK general elections under the FPTP electoral system are decided by floating voters. So, what are floating voters? Incidentally, I met a genuine floating voter at the last election, which was fascinating. she had decided on UKIP this time, because although she regarded Nigel Farage as a bit of a fool, but she liked him and understood him.

I am a decided voter, I am someone who has spent time thinking about and forming my own political philosophy. So, there then seems to be a political party that most closely reflects my own philosophy, which I then generally support.

Floating voters are possibly defined as being those that vote for different parties at each election. There are lots of different types of floating voter, though perhaps there are two major groupings: Firstly there are the decided centre-right people. Because their political position is in-between the two major groupings, party politics invests a lot of effort in appealing to these people, who are trying to ascertain which party is most likely to bring about a centre-right government. Hence such people’s vote will change at subsequent elections. The second grouping are those who haven’t developed there own ideological positions, perhaps such people value pragmatism much more strongly than ideology or simply that they are more interested in things other than politics. I would argue that perhaps such people  seek a strong, trustworthy, coherent leader who has a narrative for the problems in the UK economy and clear solutions to those problems, essentially straight talking yet polite with it. It just happens that these qualities are also very appealing as a potential tea guest. This all leads to the argument that appeal as a tea guest, is influential over who ‘wins’ UK elections.

Actually, reflecting back to the 1992 election this kind of makes sense. Personally, I would love to have tea and a pleasant, polite conversation with Neil Kinnock, the then Labour leader, however, I am a fellow Welshman. Commentators at the time made the point that Kinnock lacked appeal to many in England by being ‘too Welsh’. Upon reflection, I can see that John Major (the then Conservative leader) may have been more appealing as a tea guest to a wider proportion of the electorate and hence won the 1992 election for the Tories for this very reason?

Before Blair became branded as Bliar and a warmonger, he may well have been regarded as a suitable tea guest, or at least more so than William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howeird (not really A1+ grade tea guest types in my book). In 2010, even the spineless wonder, Nick Clegg, would have been very appealing guest for a nice cup of tea with back then. Perhaps Gordon Brown was seen as a bit gruff and you would perhaps fear his stinging criticism of your coffee sponge. Actually David Cameron for all his faults, does still come across as someone you could have a pleasant cuppa with. Personally, the leader I would most have liked tea with at the last election was Nicola Sturgeon, I think that this appeal resonated throughout the British electorate too.

The  criteria, I stated above: strong, trustworthy, coherent, ability to answer questions and decency, often don’t associate well with our perceptions of political leaders. whilst I don’t think Cameron gives the impression of these qualities, neither did Ed Miliband and Cameron won on the better tea companion front.

So, the Labour party are currently deciding which of four candidates, they think the floating voter would most like to have around for tea and perhaps a few drop-scones. It seems to be boiling down to a choice between Corbyn or one of the other three. Labour are suffering from what i call the ‘ghost of Blair’ effect. Blair pulled off a political stunt in Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, by repositioning ‘New’ Labour as an innovative centre-right party, thus widely appealing to the floating voters and could count on the support of those of the left and the centre desperate to end 18 years of Tory government.

The ‘ghost of Blair’ problem is that you can’t pull this same trick twice, because the centre and left seek a genuine re-balancing of the UK economy, and are reluctant/uninspired to support the compromise of ‘not being as bad as the Tories’ to win electoral success. Miliband lost credibility as he tried to appeal to both the ‘left and centre’ determined voters and the floating voters, so came across as incoherent (he would probably break the saucer, spill his tea, get crumbs everywhere, and he didn’t even offer to help clear up the mess or answer a simple question, I certainly didn’t make a fresh pot for him).

The ‘other three’ (Cooper, Burnham & Kendall) are not appealing as I believe most people want more in a tea guest than someone whose appeal is based on being not as bad as the monster that lurks in the woods, it’s just not an inspiring offer, even if it is the best solution for Britain in the short term. Which leaves, Jeremy Corbyn, who may not be everyone’s cup of tea, though perhaps he appeals to potential voters, so I feel he can win and be the next British Prime Minister. He appeals to the determined centre and left voter anyway, he can make a coherent case for re-balancing the economy which should appeal to  enough of the centre right people. He can also appeal to the floating voters; he isn’t the slickest public speaker, or the snazziest dresser, he may not even be a great leader, but I would certainly be very happy to have him around for tea and I’m sure many other people would too. I may even consider voting Labour for the first time!